Achievement Unlocked: Squirrel

This is a fat squirrel.

It is the end of winter. Perhaps the more important point is “this is an alive squirrel.” Which is to say “this is a successful squirrel.”

(Still: he can’t keep using that excuse. If he doesn’t have the winter fat gone by the end of April, he needs to just admit that he only bought the gym membership  for show.)

I finished off my formal testing of the OM-D E-M1 on Friday, by spending an hour or so shooting squirrels in the Public Garden, using the lone type of “aim and fire” weapon that the park rangers don’t frown upon. This part of my test suite started off as a joke about one of Apple’s iPhone sample images but wow, it turns out to be one of the most valuable tests I perform. Many folks buy cameras for photos of their kids. Squirrels are perfect simulations of a little kid’s speed, agility, jitteriness, unpredictability, and absolute, cheerful indifference to the photographer’s instructions.

Once again, the E-M1 performed handsomely. Focus and capture happen fast, fast, fast, it can shoot full-sized images at a furious 10 frames per second, and the buffer is large enough that you can shoot many bursts in a row without having to wait for the camera to finish writing data to the card.

Focus-tracking is one of the signature weaknesses of the Micro Four Thirds system. Well, maybe I should call it a “lack of a strength”; it works great, but if you’re frequently shooting fast-moving action, a Micro Four-Thirds camera isn’t likely to be your best choice. The smaller sensor just isn’t as agile in this mode as an APS-C sensor, like those found in other mirrorless compacts.

I wasn’t bothered by that problem. The E-M1’s LCD screen has a “touch to focus and capture” mode. Instead of managing a fiddly follow-focus feature, I just flipped out the screen and tapped on squirrel faces. The EM-1 focused and snapped the picture before the critter moved out of frame or out of focus.

Blurry photos were the result of my lack of experience in shooting moving subjects. I thought a shutter speed of 1/250th would be plenty fast to freeze motion. What a dope. I forgot that as evolutionary machines, the design of the squirrel has been optimized for running away very fast from things that might eat them. The burst mode captured some nice action that would have made for great photos if I’d set the camera properly. It’s just another reminder that it’s technique, not tech, that makes the picture.

I shot most of my squirrel pix with my consumer-grade Panasonic 40-200mm zoom (equivalent to 80 to 400 in full-frame camera terms). Contrast and color aren’t what I’d call “wow” and the mechanical action of the zoom felt stiff. It’s a terrific lens that delivers lots of value at an affordable price. This is a perfectly fine photo, particularly after I spent a little time tweaking it in Aperture.

But it really made it easy for me to comprehend the advantages of a “pro” lens. I’ve always understood that in an academic sense and now I’m seeing it in the form of pixels. I’ve been mostly shooting the E-M1 with Olympus’ pro-grade 12-40mm f2.8, and now it’s spoiled me.

“Maybe we should start saving up for a pro-grade long zoom, in a year or two” I thought.

Then I checked online and looked at the prices.

“…Or three, or four. Or maybe we should just rent one. …Not too often.”