Thursday 29 October 2015

Shooting Street Racing with the Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII

Every year, at Labour Weekend here in New Zealand, the town of Greymouth holds a motorcycle street race. It’s one of the few events of its kind in New Zealand, and is a fast, frenetic and fun day out. I love photographing the event because it’s an exciting, challenging and thrilling subject to try and capture. And it takes me back to my ‘roots’ in photography 30 years ago.

I’ve written about this on my blog before, but the short version is this; I was handed my first camera at a Rally Sprint event when I was 18 and I’ve been hooked on photography ever since. I’m no adrenaline junkie, so I didn’t seek out a future as a motor sports photographer. I quickly moved in to more sedate subjects with my photography. But I do enjoy shooting racing whenever the opportunity arises. And fortunately for me, it arises ever year now that I live in Greymouth.

I have also written on this blog about my gear choices for shooting action sports, and how this has facilitated a few changes. Last year I borrowed a Canon 50D and 400mm f5.6L to shoot the street racing, and loved its responsiveness and focus tracking capabilities. Later on in the day I had to switch back to my Pentax DLSR gear and found the experience painful in the extreme. Next to the 5fps and autofocus speed of the Canon, my Pentax at 2fps and slow focusing was glaringly inadequate. So, even though as I said I don’t shoot a lot of action sports, I decided to sell my Pentax gear and move back to Canon. I knew that I would be shooting the street racing every year, and I just couldn’t see myself enjoying it with the Pentax.

A year is a long time for me with a camera system though (as anyone who might have followed this blog for any length of time can attest to). My wife has become used to me buying a selling gear – falling in love (or should that be lust?) with a particular camera or system, only to ditch it for something else 6 months later.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with Olympus 40-150mm f4-5.6
From my perspective, I think that I’ve been searching for a long time for a camera and system that ‘fits’ me (or ‘completes’ me, if we want to get all new-agey about it). For a long time, Canon was my system of choice – especially for ergonomics, although I think that Nikon make ‘better’ cameras (and yes, that is very subjective). I got my dream camera earlier this year; the Canon EOS 1D Mk3. It’s really a professional sports camera. And at 10fps, was going to be perfect for shooting street racing.

Perfect for street racing - yes. Perfect for every day shooting – no. I quickly realised that, as a generalist, what I really needed was a camera that could really do it all. Sports, travel, portraiture and landscapes. Oh and while we’re at it, something not too large so it’s easy to carry around all day. Is that really too much to ask?

Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII - Greymouth Street Races 2015
With the advent of the mirrorless camera systems from Olympus and Panasonic (and then Fuji and Sony), it would appear that no, it’s not really too much to ask for at all. 16 megapixels is enough for me – even for landscapes, although I’m aware that some want bigger and more so full-frame and 50MP is their only solution. With the fast primes for micro four thirds, bokeh (shallow depth of field) is also good enough for me, so I don’t feel let down with lens selection either. The only sticking point for mirrorless, so far, has been the contrast detection autofocus – and more specifically, autofocus tracking for sports. Bummer. Looks like you can’t have everything then?

Knowing the continuous focus speed issues with mirrorless, but weighing up all the other pros for the system, I decided to go ahead and invest in an Olympus O-MD E-M5 MkII about 6 months ago. And for everything I’ve thrown at it since, it’s suited me perfectly. I love it. And I finally, finally think I’ve found what I’ve been looking for in a camera system. Except, maybe, for one last area – fast action sports!?

Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII with 40-150mm f4-5.6. One of my best panning shots of the day.
So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I turned up this year at the street racing, armed only with an Olympus E-M5 MkII and Olympus 40-150mm f4/5.6 lens. I belong to the micro four thirds users forum – a great resource and a fantastic bunch of guys and gals ( On the week leading up to the racing I posted on the forum asking for any tips shooting street racing with the E-M5 MkII. I received lots of helpful advice, but the most helpful came from Denny (thanks mate) who suggested I use the pre-focus technique and shoot in manual. By selecting an area on the track that you know the motorcycles will pass through, and focusing on that area manually, the action will be in-focus without having to track it and you won’t need to rely on the cameras focus tracking.

I must admit, to my shame, that this sounded a bit ‘old school’ to me. It sounded a bit like something the old fellas used to do before we reached the 21st century and got all autofocusy. But I had also received other advice from people in regards to what autofocus configuration I should use, so I decided to try it all.

The first few races of the day were practice laps for the competitors, which I was going to use to experiment with all my settings to see what worked before the racing-proper started. I needn’t have bothered. Manually focusing on an area of the track and then waiting for the action to pass though worked amazingly! In fact, it worked so well, I didn’t try anything else. At the start of the day I set myself up on a corner of the track that I knew they would pass through, manually focused on the corner, and waited to push the shutter. I set the camera on Shutter priority, and since it was a beautiful sunny day, I was able to push this up to 2000th of a second – and often a 4000th. I also set the shutter speed to continuous low, which gave me about the same 4.5fps as the Canon 50D gave me last year. I figured that the full 10fps that the E-M5 MkII is capable of was a bit overkill, even for motor racing, and this turned out to be the right call. Since I was shooting at such high shutter speeds, I turned image stabilising off, and also turned face detection focusing off (since it was all manual focus anyway).

I heard the roar of the engines before I saw the bikes, which gave me enough time to prepare and re-check my focusing. Manual focusing with the E-M5 MkII is a breeze. Once you start turning the front focusing ring, the camera automatically zooms to x10 magnification to help you focus, and white focus-peaking outlines appear to help you fine-tune even further. Then just tap on the shutter and you’re back to the full view again in the viewfinder. Fantastic. Exposure was set and confirmed also through the viewfinder before the bikes arrived, so all I had to do was wait for the action to happen at my pre-focused point and push the shutter. A quick tap on the button and bang-bang-bang, three images in quick succession. Bang-bang-bang, three more. Bang-bang-bang and a quick series of images that I could frame either vertically or horizontally, knowing I was still going to be in focus as long as my own position remained fixed. If/when I moved to a new location, I just manually focused on a new area, and waited for the action.

After the first bikes had roared past me, and I had a chance to quickly review the images on the beautiful 3” screen of the E-M5 MkII, I was blown away! They all looked to be sharp and in focus! Practically every image looked sharp on the screen. I was so amazed, so delighted, and so excited! My fear and trepidation that the Olympus E-M5 MkII wasn’t going to be able to deliver decent motor racing images was completely discredited after only a dozen images. And it only got better from then. 

All in all it was the most successful day of shooting I’ve ever had at the event, much to my delight (and amazement if I’m totally honest). I shot over 3500 images during the course of the day, and having gone through the editing process I would say that at least half of them are in focus. Of those, I whittled it down to about 400 ‘keepers’. From my experience shooting this event, I would have been lucky to get 100 keepers in previous years. I consider that to be a very successful outcome.
So can the Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII shoot fast action sports successfully? You bet it can! In spades. Use the pre-focusing technique, combined with the continuous shooting function, and you can take amazing high-speed action photographs.

The pre-focusing technique will, of course, work with a DLSR as well. And maybe by using two different techniques I’m not comparing apples with apples? But this was never about that. This was about using the E-M5 MkII successfully to capture motor racing. Which I did. And which you can. Is the autofocus tracking capabilities on DLSR’s better than those on mirrorless cameras – yes, they are. Are they still the better choice for shooting sports with? Yes, they are – maybe….

One final story from my day at the street racing might help put this Mirrorless v DLSR question for sports into some sort of context. I was shooting at one location when a lady from the local camera club came up and asked me what I was shooting with and how it was going. I showed her the E-M5 MkII and told her it was going amazingly well and I was getting some fantastic images. I even showed her some on the back of the camera, and she was genuinely surprised at what I was getting. She moved a little further down to take some photos with her Canon 7D, and I could see her looking at the back of the camera, fiddling, reviewing, and repeating the whole process as the bikes roared past. Eventually she came back to me and asked what auto focus settings I was using because she wasn’t having much luck keeping up with the bikes. When I told her I was manually focusing you could have almost knocked her over with a feather.

I explained the technique to her – and yes, it is just a technique after all – and she said she would give it a try. I passed her again about half an hour later and she had a huge smile on her face and thanked me for showing her. She was now also getting sharp images and had stopped using the autofocus on her camera.

What’s my point? Well, my point is this – she was no slouch as a photographer, and her camera was no slouch at autofocusing. Yet she – and I suspect many others like her who were there with their DSLR’s – were struggling to take sharp images because they either didn’t understand, or couldn’t properly use, the technology available to them in their cameras.

Camera reviewers will tell you that you can’t use a mirrorless camera to shoot fast action sports. If you want to shoot motor racing, use a DSLR. Well, I’m here to tell you that you absolutely can shoot motor sports with a mirrorless camera. My day spent shooting street racing with the E-M5 MkII was the most lucrative, most successful, and most fun I’ve ever had after several years of capturing the event. I can’t wait for next year.    


  1. Good tips, thanks Wayne.

    I was reminded of this piece on setting up an E-M5 to shoot sports...
    (Some of it may be outdated now, with the MkII.)

    Cheers, Owen

  2. Yes, I did read that before shooting the Street Racing.

    Didn't find it that helpful (as I recall)?

    There's lot's of different things I'd try now that I have one under my belt. Will definitely play around with the shutter speeds a bit more next time.

    You live and learn :-)


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