Shooting Experience

Photographing NCAA basketball with the Panasonic Lumix DC-G9

by Dan Bracaglia

Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 70mm equiv.

I brought the Panasonic G9 along to a University of Washington vs Loyola Marymount NCAA basketball game. While not advertised as a sports camera, the G9 is slated as the brand's top stills-oriented body, and has impressive burst specs to boot. It is also priced similarly to Nikon's APS-C flagship, the D500. To put it simply, basketball seems like inside the realm of what someone would expect to be able to shoot with the G9.

I’ve been shooting college hoops on and off for ten years and in that time have used closed to 25 different cameras, starting with the Nikon D100. However all the cameras I've used courtside have offered some sort of phase detection AF. The Panasonic G9 by comparison uses contrast detection and the company's Depth-from-Defocus AF. DFD has proven to be capable at maintaining focus on a rapidly approaching subject (spoiler alert from our upcoming review: the G9 aces our bike test). But basketball is among the most challenging sports for a camera's AF system to succeed in.

Sports-oriented specs

Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 400mm equiv.

College gyms, even modern ones, are generally dark (I was shooting ISO 3200, 1/1000 sec at F2.8 for all these photos,) with ugly yellow hues as a result of the reflection of the wooden floor and lighting that often flickers significantly. Action is fast paced, with plenty of confusing elements to distract and trip up a camera’s AF system. In short, the G9 had its work cut out for it.

Shooting at 9 fps provided a nearly endless amount of buffer depth

Fortunately, the camera can shoot at up to 20 fps with continuous AF using the electronic shutter, and 9 fps with AF using the mechanical shutter: the former is a faster top burst speed than the Nikon D5 or Canon EOS 1D X Mark II. Conveniently there are ‘burst shot 1’ and ‘burst shot 2’ settings on the drive selector that can be customized to the burst speed and shutter type of your choice. I set one to mechanical shutter + 9 fps and the other to electronic shutter + 20 fps, making it easy to switch on the fly. The 20 fps mode in particular is impressively fast. You get somewhat of a limited window at the camera’s top burst speed: about 50 shots out of the G9 at 20 fps before it hits its buffer. Thankfully, the buffer clears quickly.

For the sake of testing I used the 20 fps mode quite a bit, with decent results in the full AF coverage area "225-area" mode (more on that below,) but was often frustrated that the burst time was not long enough to fully capture a moment of action. The increased number of frames hardly seemed worth it for the limited burst window. Not to mention rolling shutter reared its ugly head in some of my shots. By comparison, shooting at 9 fps provided a nearly endless amount of buffer depth.

Stumbling points

When in doubt, shoot wide. Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 24mm equiv.

About a quarter of the way through the game it became clear I was not going to be able to use the G9 to photograph basketball the way I would with a DSLR: using a single point or small zone, slightly off center, with back-button AF. First, issues with back button AF…

Like most sports cameras, there are two ways to turn AF-On on the G9: via a half shutter press, or by assigning the function to the AF/AE Lock button. Oddly, at least on the body we're using, AF-C performance seems to vary depending which method you use to engage AF. Keeping the shutter half-pressed to maintain focus seemed to result in more decisive focus change, while using the back button seemed to result in AF-C performance that was jumpier and more easily confused.

When AF-C is engaged, the ‘AF flutter’ of the cameras DFD system can be pretty distracting

The camera gave hints at why this might be. When using a dedicated button, the EVF display brightens considerably as if the aperture is opening up wider than the specified aperture value to meter/focus and remains brightened as long as the button is held. When you initiate AF using a shutter half press, the EVF display brightens momentarily then dims back, suggesting the aperture is opening wide to initially acquire focus then returning to the shooting aperture. We've asked Panasonic for an explanation of this discrepancy and will update this article in response.

But that wasn’t the only stumbling point I encountered: when AF-C is engaged, the ‘AF flutter’ of the camera's contrast-detection-based DFD system can be pretty distracting when one's eye is to the EVF. Furthermore, in both 60 fps and 120 fps display modes, EVF resolution drops significantly when the shutter is pressed, making it nearly impossible to tell what's in focus. This also makes it very difficult to follow the action (unless shooting with both eyes open).

Despite this ambiguous feedback, I actually ended up with more photos in focus than I initially thought while shooting (this was when using the 225-area AF mode). Unfortunately this meant shooting basketball with the G9 left me completely unsure of which shots I got and which I did not.

AF area modes: which worked, which did not

This photo was shot using the camera's 225-area AF mode where the camera chooses the point of focus. Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 92mm equiv.

During the game, I tried a variety of AF area modes including the single point '1-area' mode that would ordinarily be my 'go-to' for basketball. I also tried 'Custom Multi (Zone),' and '225-area' (full AF coverage) and found the last one to be most effective at getting something in the frame in focus. This is of course came at the expense of the photographer being able to choose a point or player to focus on. For most serious sports shooters this is far from ideal.

Shooting basketball with this camera left me completely unsure of which shots I got and which I did not.

All the other AF area modes resulted in a hit rate significantly lower than I’ve come to expect from a flagship stills camera. For instance, on several occasions while using single area or zone modes, a player would be driving down the court with no one around them and the camera failed entirely to lock focus.

Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw. Note: This image was cropped in post.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 70mm equiv.

I also tried the Tracking AF mode a little during warmups, with decent results. But as I have experienced in the past using other cameras, basketball is too fast-paced and unpredictable for me to feel comfortable employing subject tracking during game play.

TLDR:

The G9 can be used to shoot indoor sports with a good degree of success if you let it pick the point of focus via the 225-area AF mode, but be prepared to shoot with both eyes open because the combination of AF flutter (due to DFD) and dropped EVF resolution when the shutter is pressed, make following action a challenge.

The G9 can be used to shoot indoor sports with a good degree of success if you let it pick the point of focus via the 225-area AF mode.

If I was casually shooting sports, with the intent on getting a few good keepers, I’d bring the G9 along. If a publication hired me to document a basketball game, I’d reach for a camera with phase detect AF.

Edited to taste in Adobe Camera Raw.
ISO 3200 | 1/1000 sec | F2.8 | 70mm equiv.

Special thanks to the University of Washington Athletic Department.


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