Challenging autofocus: Rugby

Image processed and cropped to taste in Adobe Camera Raw; only slight adjustments made to white balance, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks and noise reduction.
Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 100-400mm F4-6.3 | 224mm | 1/500 sec | ISO 200 | F5.6
Photo by Carey Rose

Now that we've seen how the Panasonic GH5 handles more controlled circumstances, let's take a look at how it does in the mostly uncontrolled circumstances of a rugby match. Here, we had the GH5 locked in its highest burst rate with autofocus at 9fps, put the Tracking AF parameters into 'Set 4' for erratic subjects and started firing away. We exclusively used the Panasonic Leica DG Vario-Elmarit 100-400mm F4-6.3. Focus / release priority was set to 'balanced.'

Using the camera

The biggest issue with using the GH5 to capture fast action concerns the viewfinder. The GH5 may have a very high quality electronic viewfinder, but when you are shooting at its maximum burst rate, the resolution drops so far as to make it difficult to tell what's in focus at all; beyond that, the 'tracking' reticules are already difficult to see with lots of moving subjects, and when the resolution drops, they become obscured even further.

This basically meant that I just had to 'trust' the camera most of the time during bursts, which in this instance at least, worked fairly well. And we should note that if you drop the burst rate to M or L modes (7 and 2fps respectively), there's a higher-resolution feed between shots.

Warming up - the GH5 has some quirks to get used to when shooting fast action, but it ended up being a better performer than I expected.
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 200 | 1/500 sec | F4
Photo by Carey Rose

Panasonic's Depth-from-Defocus technology is the best thing to ever happen to contrast-detect autofocus. Even at full zoom, the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens never hunted the wrong direction. Not even once. But there is one troublesome aspect that is exhibited across Panasonic's line of cameras. Once you initiate tracking on an subject, the camera continues to track until you press another button to cancel; usually the 'Set' or 'menu' buttons.

The problem with this is twofold. First, if the camera lost the subject, I had to release my half-press on the shutter, hit the 'Set' button, and then initiate focus again; initial acquisition is still very fast, but that added step of the cancellation button press is really a pain when you're firing away at 9fps. It would be nice to at least have a menu option that would discontinue tracking when the shutter button is released, and only have it initiate while half-pressed.

The nature of the DFD system, just as seen in our bike tests, means that the 'wobble' during continuous autofocus can sometimes get in the way of absolutely critical sharpness; or, the GH5 may have jumped its tracking to number '9' who seems to be in slightly better focus. But because of the EVF resolution drop, I couldn't tell while shooting.
ISO 1000 | 1/800 sec | F5.5
Photo by Carey Rose

The second problem with this is when trying to photograph different subjects that are at very different depths (especially noticeable when shooting near the long end of this lens). The distance difference between a tackle right in front of me on the sidelines and the referee on the far end of the field was so great that swinging the camera from one to the other would show an image completely obscured by blur; I half-pressed to rack the lens to the proper range, then had to cancel tracking, and then re-initiate it on the subject I wanted to track in the first place. It got a little old.

Other usage notes

All in all, I found the Panasonic Leica DG 100-400mm lens to perform superbly, so long as you've got enough light for the aperture range. Focus was generally swift, and the zoom range was incredible.
Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 500 | 1/800 sec | F4.6
Photo by Carey Rose

As with other fast-shooting cameras with electronic viewfinders, I found it best to disable the eye-sensor and just stick to using the EVF only, rather than deal with the shot-missing delay of having it switch every time I brought the camera to my eye. Leaving the camera constantly on with no option to sleep saw me through the 80-minute match just fine, with one bar of the battery drained.

One very nice touch on the GH5 is that you can enter the menus, manipulate all of your settings and see the most recently written image to the card in playback, all while the buffer is still clearing.

Lastly, for more casual use in Single AF when just shooting around town, movement of the AF point using the joystick could stand to be a bit faster; but it's certainly better than no joystick at all, and there's always the touchscreen if you prefer. Of course, touchpad AF remains a good option provided you're not shooting in soggy Seattle weather (when the screen gets wet, it doesn't perform as well for this purpose).

Really, what Panasonic has done is proven how good a contrast-detect-only autofocus system can be, and have made a camera that is really far more well-rounded than it might seem at first glance; in other words, the GH5 isn't just a camera for video enthusiasts. It may not attract the topmost tier of dedicated sports shooters, but on the whole, is highly capable for more casual action shooting.

Out-of-camera JPEG |ISO 640 | 1/800 sec | F4.5
Photo by Carey Rose