On Assignment: The Olympus PEN E-PL1 goes to the U.S. Open

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It had been two years since I last attended the U.S. Open as a guest of Olympus when, this September, they generously hosted another outing for a small group of journalists/photographers. Given that tennis is such a fast-moving game, I was hoping that we’d be shooting with a new DSLR, but the E-5 hadn’t yet been announced at the time and the E-3 (which I used to photograph the 2008 U.S. Open) was a little long in the tooth to be of interest.

Images from 2008 U.S. Open captured with Olympus E-3 DSLR:

Olympus E-3 Sample Image Olympus E-3 Sample Image

I thought about bringing the E-30, one of my favorite Olympus DSLRs, but the company had other plans. I was told that we’d be shooting with the E-PL1 along with the small and lightweight Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f/4.0-5.6 and 14-150mm f/4.0-5.6 Micro Four Thirds lenses. This would be quite a contrast to the gorilla lenses and high end DSLRs used by the pros at the Open but, if Olympus felt comfortable giving us these little PEN cameras to shoot with, I was up for the challenge.

Thanks to the E-PL1’s 2x crop factor, the focal range of both the 9-18mm and 14-150mm zoom lenses seemed sufficient to grab most, if not all, of the types of photos we wanted. The 9-18mm lens with its 18-36mm equivalent range was perfect for wide-angle stadium shots while the 14-150mm gave us 28-300mm capabilities. Granted, the latter wasn’t quite as powerful as the 50-200mm I shot with two years ago with its maximum 400mm reach, but still, 300mm telephoto is decent, especially given the compact size and weight of the lens.

The firmware update mentioned earlier was specifically applicable to three lenses, including the two we were shooting with (along with the 17mm pancake), so I was hoping to see an increase in autofocus and tracking performance. There are plenty of opportunities to photograph the players when they’re getting ready to serve or, if the player is particularly emotional, to capture their reactions after they missed a shot or made a particularly good play. Unfortunately, there were no emotional outbursts while I was photographing the games but Venus Williams’ tennis outfits-including this black and white number-always generates interest among fans and the press as well.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

First Steps
After getting equipment and relaxing in Olympus’ suite at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, New York, we were treated to a slideshow and some tips from Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist and Olympus Visionary, Larry C. Price.

A few of the key points included using a fast shutter speed. Tennis balls travel fast-reaching speeds of 120mph (possibly more)-so you’ll want to set your shutter speed at a minimum of 1/500th of a second; 1/1000th of a second works even better when shooting at telephoto. Another tip was to manually pre-focus the camera at mid-court if you want to catch players when they rushed the net. Simplify the background and don’t chimp (other than to check your exposure) while you’re shooting. And, said Price in closing, have fun!

Small and Lightweight: Size Matters
The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is huge, with its multiple courts and dual stadiums. We spent our time in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is enormous as well so it was especially nice to have nothing more to carry than a tiny camera bag, the diminutive E-PL1, two compact lenses and a bottle of water-a far cry from the gear the pros lugged around all day.

Equipped with press passes and a special escort, we took the elevator up to the roof for a birds-eye view. It was the perfect opportunity to use the 9-18mm lens to capture some wide-angle shots of the stadium in color and in grainy black and white using one of the E-PL1’s Art Filters. Blazing sunlight meant that I could drop the ISO to its lowest setting of 200 and shoot at anywhere between 1/250th and 1/320th of a second or higher with f/stops of f/9 and higher for the best depth-of-field.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

The opposite side of the roof gave me a chance to grab shots of some non-stadium courts with the 9-18mm lens zoomed to its maximum. After switching to the 14-150mm lens, I captured some close-ups of the Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair. As you can see, I have a soft spot for the grainy black and white film Art Filter.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image
Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

The next stop was the racket stringing room. These guys are amazing-they’re fast, accurate and work in a very small space, meaning that photographers don’t have much room to move and have to be hyper-aware of staying out of the way. Again, having a small camera with a compact lens was a real benefit. I didn’t have time to change lenses, so I shot with the 14-150mm, which was wide enough to shoot in tight quarters. I was especially glad that the E-PL1 had a pop-up flash since I could keep the ISO at 200, leave white balance on Auto and still have a well-lit scene. Most of these indoor images were shot at 1/60th of a second at about f/4 with center-weighted metering. Depth-of-field was a little shallow but I was happy with most of my shots-they were well-exposed and showed excellent detail.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

Even though they weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, they showed an important behind-the-scenes component of the U.S. Open. Although we saw some players while walking to and from the racket stringing room, we were instructed not to take pictures in the hallways so if you ever get a chance to be credentialed for the U.S. Open, keep that in mind. There are a few rules that must be adhered to and that’s one of them.

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