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We shot sports with the OM System OM-1 – This is what we learned

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M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro @ 120mm | F2.8 | 1/800 | ISO 12,800 (darkened ~1.0EV)
Processed using Adobe Camera Raw (Luminance NR 15)
Photo: Richard Butler

The OM-1 has generated a lot of interest on the site, but I’ve seen a number of comments suggesting it’s a minor update to the last OM-D E-M1 models. To a degree this is understandable, its most prominent features – subject recognition AF, a range of multi-shot computational modes and a (nominally) 20MP sensor – sound familiar. But it’s a camera based on a Stacked CMOS sensor, and one that uses four sub-pixels to deliver X-type phase detection AF across the whole frame.

Stacked CMOS (the next generation of chip design, building from BSI technology) has been central to the performance of the latest pro-grade sports cameras from Sony, Canon and Nikon. And, while the OM-1 doesn’t offer quite such impressive readout speeds (presumably because it’s reading out four photodiodes per pixel: 80 million in all), its rapid burst rates make it the fastest camera we’ve ever tested.

What do you do to get a sense of the capabilities of a camera that can shoot at full resolution, with full autofocus, at up to 50 frames per second? Sports and wildlife shooting are the obvious answer.

So I asked local Major League Rugby club the Seattle Seawolves if I could head down to shoot a game. ‘Sure,’ they said. Which seemed ideal until I realized that the last home match in Seattle for the next three weeks was a Friday night game, meaning shooting a Micro Four Thirds camera under distinctly challenging floodlights.

M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro @ 40mm | F2.8 | 1/800 | ISO 10,000 (darkened ~0.7EV)
Processed using Adobe Camera Raw (Luminance NR 15)
Photo: Richard Butler

Was there even any point? Was I just going to end up wasting my Friday night, get no decent pictures and then get accused of setting the camera up to fail, if I wrote about my experience?

Then I remembered I had some photos taken under the lights at Starfire Stadium, so I could check what exposures I’d needed. Through a process of heretical dark magic/application of geometry and physics, I realized I could shoot the game at F2.8, 1/800th and ISO 6400. Not ideal, but certainly worth a try.

Camera setup

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Based on this sequence, “+1” sensitivity might be a little too reactive: the camera has refocused on the ball as it passes through my selected AF zone.

The challenges of flicker

The OM-1 offers three separate features for when shooting under flickering light. There’s Anti-Flicker mode, which tries to only shoot at the brightest moment in the flicker cycle (for conventional lights cycling at around 50 or 60Hz), then there’s Flicker Scan mode, which gives you preview of your current shutter speed’s effect so that you can try to find a fractional shutter speed that clashes less (for use with fast-flickering LED lighting). Finally, there’s a Live View Anti-Flicker mode, which tries to reduce the flickering effect on the preview you’re seeing.

Flicker Scan was the mode I really needed to minimize banding in e-shutter images. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a fractional shutter speed that didn’t leave slight banding in my images (though I’d like to arrive at the game earlier, next time, to have more time to experiment). The result was that bands in the images I was shooting flashed across the viewfinder at 25 or 50 frames a second when the shutter is held, giving a disconcerting viewfinder flicker, regardless of any of these three anti-flicker functions.

To a great extent, this is the challenge most e-shutter cameras will encounter; one that I suspect the OM-1’s ~1/125th readout rate makes it difficult to minimize.

Despite the new menus, the OM-1’s AF setup is very familiar from the E-M1 models. I remain slightly disappointed that not all the camera’s AF functions can be controlled with the 2-position Fn lever on the back of the camera, but there are some thoughtful (and useful) touches to be found.

Like most pro sports cameras, the OM-1 gives you the option to select different AF area shapes and different AF positions for when the camera’s in a portrait or landscape orientation, which was hugely useful as I found myself rotating the camera constantly throughout the night. By half-time, I wished I’d brought the vertical grip.

Another really clever option is the ability to set face + eye detection priority to one or both of the shutter and AF-On buttons. This meant I could use the shutter button to prioritize faces, if I had a single player running towards me, or ‘back-button’ AF if I wanted to use my chosen AF area to focus on a player’s body (and avoid the risk of the camera being distracted by other faces in the scene). I found it to be an effective way to shoot.

But I didn’t really end up shooting this way for long. Instead I wanted to see whether the camera’s ProCapture pre-buffering mode (and 50fps shooting) would compensate for my still developing ability to anticipate when important moments were about to happen. I set AF to the back button so that I could mash it down to keep the action under my AF point in focus, then used the shutter button to initiate pre-buffering as soon as I thought something might be about to happen.

It’s a very different way of shooting, compared to hovering on the shutter, trying to preempt the action by a split second when you’re confident something is happening, but I got more used to it as the evening went on. By the end of the night I think it was increasing the number of photos I got of the key moments, rather than of the split seconds following the key moments.

In the long-run, I suspect I’ll switch to the 25 or 50 fps burst mode, once I learn to anticipate the action better, but ProCapture is definitely a handy support tool to have as I get there.

Autofocus impressions

M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro @ 150mm | F2.8 | 1/800 | ISO 5000 (lightened ~0.3EV)
Processed using Adobe Camera Raw (Luminance NR 15)
Photo: Richard Butler

OMDS said it hasn’t done any work on the camera’s C-AF+Tracking mode, and rugby isn’t one of the subject types the camera has been trained to recognize, which left me shooting using a Small or Cross style AF area and trying to manually keep that point over the action. Alongside the OM-1 I was shooting with the Nikon Z9 and ended up using a very similar setup on that camera, too.

And, while it took some getting used to using ProCapture, I ended up being impressed with the OM-1’s hit rate. I bumped C-AF sensitivity up to +1, to cope with the fact that my focus distance would need to quickly change distance as the ball was passed from player to player, but to minimize the risk of the camera jumping to focus on anyone who wandered between my focus point and the action.

M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 Pro @ 150mm | F2.8 | 1/800 | ISO 6400
Processed using Adobe Camera Raw (Luminance NR 15)
Photo: Richard Butler

I’ve not examined every one of the 1608 images I shot over the course of the match, at the pixel level, but my general impression is that the OM-1 did extremely well. 25 fps is more than enough for most situations, though it was fun to be able to occasionally engage the full 50 fps mode (rather frustratingly, there’s no quick way to switch).

This wasn’t intended as a full test of the OM-1, more of a chance to familiarize myself with the camera, but shooting alongside the Nikon, I was impressed how well it did. I think it’s the image banding, that I couldn’t quite eliminate, that ended up giving a rather offputting flickering effect (regardless of LV Anti-Flicker setting), but that’s the main way in which the OM-1 felt less confidence-inspiring than the Nikon (that, by contrast, has one of the best EVFs for sports).

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The AF system isn’t flawless: in this instance, the AF point jumps from the lifted player on the left in Image 3, all the way to the opposite side of the selected AF zone (above the on-rushing NOLA player’s head) on Image 4, and loses focus as it does so, meaning image 6 isn’t really focused on anything.

Its slower electronic shutter readout means it’s probably less well suited the to the flickering lights of Starfire Stadium, but these conditions were always likely to push the OM-1 quite hard. As I say, this isn’t intended as a comprehensive assessment of the camera, but it’s left a very positive first impression.

The combination on the left (Nikon Z9 + 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 S) has a list price of $8200. It offers much higher resolution, a little more reach and a nicer viewfinder experience under the challenging lights at Starfire. It weighs 2695g (5.9 lbs). The combination on the right (OM-1 + 40-150mm F2.8) has a list price of $3800, can shoot at twice the speed and offers comparable image quality, when viewed at the same scale. It weighs 1479g (3.2 lbs). In a perfect world, I’d have remembered to grab the battery grip for the OM-1, but it didn’t feel completely outclassed by its pro-targeted rival.

It’s no Z9, but it’s also not a $5500 camera, and it seems to perform way beyond what the price difference would suggest. Chris and Jordan are planning to test alongside the R3, and I hope to test in better light, in the coming weeks. But from this experience the OM-1 feels more like a smaller, more-attainable alternative to pro sports gear, rather than some incremental evolution of the Olympus-era flagships.


All gallery images processed from Raw in-camera, with lightness adjusted to match ISO 6400 images.


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