Shooting the US Open with an Olympus E-PL1

Technical Editor Philip Ryan demonstrates that you don’t need a pro DSLR to get great tennis shots.

US Open Full
US Open Full
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Philip Ryan

During the first round of the 2010 US Open tennis tournament, Olympus invited a select group of journalists to shoot with their E-PL1 Micro Four Thirds camera. I was there and while I didn't get to grab shots of any fistfights (those didn't happen until a couple of days later), I did manage to capture some shots of the action in Arthur Ashe stadium.

One thing to remember when shooting tennis is to keep your shutter speed fast. Those racquets and balls move extremely fast, so you shouldn't really dip below 1/500 second even if you have to bump up the ISO.

To keep your shutter fast without too much noise, you'll also want to set as wide an aperture as you can. Not only will this isolate your subject from the background, it'll also let more light through the lens to keep those ISO's down. I was shooting mostly with Olympus's new 9-18mm f/4-5.6 and 14-150mm f/4-5.6 Micro Four Thirds lenses, so I ended up with a lot of shots at f/5.6. It's not as large an aperture as one might normally use for tennis, but the constraint was a welcome challenge and a chance to see how these new lenses perform in the field.

The lenses focused surprisingly fast. This is likely partly because of the new internal focusing design they share, having been designed to focus rapidly and silently during video capture. Indeed, there was little to no vibration or sound made when focusing. The E-PL1 wasn't made to keep up with high speed tennis action, even in continuous AF mode, but in single focus situations it was able to lock on and get a lot of shots even when the subject had just run into position to hit the ball. In fact, it was often so fast that I could pre-focus when the player ran into position and then wait for the right moment to trip the shutter so that the ball was in frame when the player was hitting it. This wasn't the case with the 300mm f/2.8 Four Thirds lens mounted on the PL1 with the help of an MMF-2 Four Thirds to Micro Four Thirds adapter. While its autofocus couldn't keep up with the action, it provided a nice clear view, complete with a pleasantly defocused background, in situations where there was ample time for prefocusing, meaning not very often.

Metering can be tricky in tennis, though the court surface itself can often be very near neutral (in terms of its luminance) and at the very least can be a reference point to find a proper exposure by checking it against a histogram. However, Olympus‚s Digital ESP metering, which uses 324 areas of the sensor together to determine the exposure, did a great job of finding the right exposure in this situation. I relied on it most of the time and used exposure compensation to nudge it in one or another direction depending on variances in backgrounds and lighting.

One last thing to remember when shooting tennis is that you should expect to crop your images, sometimes heavily, after you're done. Since the players move around so quickly and unpredictably, it's best to frame wider than you normally would so that you'll catch everything you'd want to within the frame and then fit it to the best possible framing later. If you're tempted to call this cheating, then go ahead and try to shoot a match without any cropping and you'll quickly learn why cropping is such a valuable tool.

See the slideshow of images for more tips and to see what you can get when shooting tennis, from very ideal locations, with the Olympus Pen E-PL1. And note: all the images in that slideshow are JPEGs from the camera (not RAW images) and, other than cropping, have only had minor exposure adjustments made in Adobe Photoshop CS3.

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Shot from the roof of Arthur Ashe stadium, this shot shows that it pays to get up and find a different perspective no matter what you're shooting. The unique shape of the stadium, with angles where the court-level entrances are located, provides an opportunity for an angular composition that lends a sense of action to the shot. ****Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 31mm (62mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/640 second, uncropped.Philip Ryan
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Another shot from the roof of Arthur Ashe, this one captures Simona Halep's serve in her first round match against fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic. Each player serves differently and timing it properly to get a shot of the ball on the racquet can be quite difficult. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/800 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Shot through glass in the indoor viewing area of the roof, this shot shows just how wide you can get with Olympus' native Micro Four Thirds lenses. It also shows that early round matches aren't nearly as crowded as the finals can be. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 9-18mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 9mm (18mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/640 second, uncropped.Philip Ryan
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Stringers from around the world accompany their country's players to the US Open and the Wilson stringing room provides them a place to make sure that the racquets the players use are tuned perfectly to their specifications. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 9-18mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 14mm (28mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/80 second, uncropped.Philip Ryan
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Shot from below court level in a photo pit just like the one seen here behind Serbian player Novak Djokovic, Phil was able to lock focus on Djokovic's head before he ducked down behind the net, which would likely have confused the AF system into focusing on it instead of the player. This underscores the value of pre-focusing, as well as the benefit of using the ESP multi-area metering, which doesn't tie the metering decision to the focusing point. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000 second, cropped modestly.Philip Ryan
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With Djokovic framed between the legs of fellow Serbian Viktor Troicki, who is suspended mid-air having just served the ball, Phil felt compelled to capture the shot even though the main subject isn't even facing the camera. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 42mm (84mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.4, 1/200 second, cropped significantly, a vertical made from a horizontal original.Philip Ryan
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Novak Djokovic has a particularly strange serving motion that takes an inordinately long time from start to finish. It proved very difficult to time correctly, ending up with many shots fired off way too early. This shot proved only a tiny bit early. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1250 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Timed well, the only way this shot could have been better is with a faster shutter speed to stop the motion of the racquet and if the shutter was tripped a nanosecond later so that the ball would be on the strings. The relatively static ball does provide a nice contrast to the moving racquet though. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1000 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Looking almost nonchalant, Djokovic swats a forehand. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/800 second, cropped modestly.Philip Ryan
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Looking more focused, Djokovic leans in for a backhand. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Here we see Djokovic lunging for the ball and though the shot evokes more action than the last one, the slower shutter speed here indicates that he wasn't moving as fast for this ball as he was for the other one. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/250 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Timing the swings of a volley can be just as difficult as a serve. Here, thanks to a faster shutter speed from a bump up in ISO compared to the last few shots, the raquet head isn't nearly as blurred. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Another example of Djokovic's contorted serve. I liked the way the raquet head fits in under his arm. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/2000 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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Thanks again to a fast shutter speed, this could pass for a nice easy volley, but he's really about to crush the ball. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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As the day draws on, you have to contend with shadows. They can be fun if your subject is fully illuminated, but as they cover more of the court, they can mess with your exposures if you're setting exposure manually. Shot details: Olympus Pen E-PL1 with 14-150mm f/4-5.6 lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm full-frame equivalent) at ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/640 second, cropped significantly.Philip Ryan
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