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

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To the Courts
If you have a press pass, you’re allowed to shoot from the dungeon, which gives you one of the most interesting perspectives from which to shoot a tennis match. Essentially you’re sitting (or standing) in a basement-like structure with a long, rectangular opening in the cement wall that puts your lens at about ground level.

There are some folding chairs and benches at each of the openings and protocol dictates first-come, first-served so you may have to wait for a seat. In 2008, I spent most of one match in the dungeon with another photographer sitting comfortably on a bench and got some good shots of the opposing player and the player closest to the window when he turned was walking back from the net. I also got hit in the shoulder by one of a handful of balls that came flying through the opening-even after bouncing on the court, it still packed quite a punch and it’s really hard to see it coming when you have your eye pressed up against the viewfinder. Fortunately, the other photographer deflected a couple of the balls or I’d have been really bruised or injured more severely. But even after getting hit, you’re not allowed to keep any of the balls.

This year, the dungeon was super crowded and I only managed to get a few shots of the player at the far end of the court by shooting in between the other photographers with the lens zoomed to 150mm (300mm equivalent). Wide-angle shots aren’t bad from this perspective either although, in hindsight, I should have zoomed in more than the 22mm (44mm equivalent) I shot at for the image below.

Of course, all this has to be done in absolute silence so be careful not to drop anything or scrape one of the metal folding chairs while the ball is in play.

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

I have to admit that unlike in 2008, I didn’t take full advantage of my press pass and decided not to shoot from the press pit on the sideline of the court. First, it was blazingly hot (probably mid-90’s) and sunny and once you’re seated on the benches in the press photographer’s area along the side of the court, you’re required to stay there-in complete silence-until there’s a break in the match. Second, I thought it would be more interesting, and more of a challenge for me and the E-PL1, to shoot from the stands. So I returned to the air conditioned suite, relaxed for a few minutes with an ice cold soda and headed out into the stands.

There are two levels of suites located between the first and second sections of seating, so I was relatively close to the court. If you’re up in the nosebleed section, you’re going to need a more powerful lens than a 300mm-equivalent. But from where I was and given the camera’s 2x crop factor, the 14-150mm (28-300mm equivalent) was sufficient. I wasn’t able to get real close-ups as I did with the E-3 and the 50-200mm (100-400mm equivalent lens) from the press pit in 2008 but I was pretty happy with my images.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

When shooting from the stands, I pushed the ISO to 400-even in bright daylight-to get a really fast shutter speed. Since I was handholding the camera and using the LCD to compose instead of the optional electronic viewfinder, I wanted all the shutter speed I could get. When shooting on aperture-priority, I opened the aperture to about f/5.6, which generally gave me a shutter speed of about 1/1600th of a second.

On Auto, I was getting a shutter speed of about 1/800th of a second and an aperture reading of f/8.0-f/10. The shutter speed was, for the most part, fast enough to stop action and I didn’t mind having the extra depth-of-field with the f/8.0-f/10.0 aperture since I was able to get Venus Williams and some of the photographers in the background in focus.

Olympus E-PL1 Sample Image

I often shot wider than I could have (100mm/200mm equivalent) for two reasons. First, I wanted to try to capture images with the player, the racket and the ball in one frame. It didn’t work out as well as I had hoped, probably due to my timing being off or the ball being served out of the frame.

Second, I used continuous shooting for a number of captures and it was next to impossible to accurately frame the shot since the LCD blacked out between captures. If I had been shooting with a digital SLR, I wouldn’t have had that problem but I was pleasantly surprised by the E-PL1’s performance. Even at a mere 3.3 frames per second, about 95% of my shots were keepers. By that I mean: 1) the subject was in the frame; 2) the subject was in focus; 3) the subject was well-exposed.

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

Tighter shots would have been easier to capture with a Digital SLR with its TTL (through-the-lens) viewfinder and faster continuous shooting speed and AF but the E-PL1’s performance exceeded my expectations.

Granted, I have some continuous shots where the player is missing from the frame, but those are few and far between simply because I couldn’t follow the action. Back-focus or camera shake caused a handful of shots to be out of focus but, overall, autofocus (regardless of mode used) was definitely speedier and more accurate than I assumed it would be.

Exposures were impressively spot on, despite the occasional clipped highlights (no surprise there given the harsh sunlight). Faint purple fringing along high contrast edges were only visible when images were enlarged to 100% on screen but certainly didn’t detract from printed photos.

I wish that I could have shot with the new M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 lens but it wasn’t ready during the Open. Having that extra focal length would have made it easier to get those tight shots from up in the stands. Although the lens isn’t terribly fast, there was enough sunlight to keep the shutter speed fast enough to stop the action on the court.

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