Friday, September 01, 2006

Animal Experimentation With The Fuji E550


Don't worry, it's only artistic experimentation - dogs in the post office, Gijòn

I first noticed the Fuji Finepix E550 after checking out the shooting data for Dr.Beef's excellent cat pictures on Flickr, wondering how she got such spontaneous shots of her furry friends. The answer came a few months later when my friend Irma Page showed me her E550; she was taken with it for its high resolution, I was astonished by the speed with which it powered up and took shots. I was using two Canons; a PowerShot S50 and a PowerShot G3, both excellent cameras, but not the fastest beasts on the block.

I'd been looking to upgrade my S50 for a while, but when I discovered you could get a Nikon D50 SLR body for less than the compact I was then considering, the Canon S80. The chance to use my old Nikon lens collection again was too much to resist, so I gave up on upgrading from the S50. But then, while talking to Irma, she mentioned that E550s were being sold off very cheap (probably due to the introduction of the E900), so I had a look on eBay, and here we are...

I won't bother with a detailed description of the E550 as those nice people at DPReview have done a much better job of it than I ever could; the short version is the E550 is a just-about-pocket-sized, rather boxy and unlovely-looking camera with full manual control, a 32.5-130mm (35mm FoV) f2.8-5.6 zoom and 6.3 megapixels that can be interpolated in-camera up to 12.3 megapixels using Fuji's "Super CCD" system.
It runs, usefully, off AA-sized batteries; I use NiMh rechargeables, but it will take ordinary alkalines if you're caught short. It has a built in discharger to help prevent battery memory problems.

Button Portrait

You lookin' at me?

So, how did it perform? I'd had it for a while when I decide to really test the shutter-lag (or lack thereof) and continuous shooting against visiting cat Button, who was being steadily driven kill-crazy by the swarm of dragonflies flitting around our garden this afternoon. The first challenge was to see if I could capture a simple portrait - often tricky as a cat will usually look in any direction except at you when you're pointing a camera at him. My usual experience with cats and Canons was of sitting there like an idiot, making a variety of squeaking, whistling, clicking and popping noises until one of them finally piqued the cat's interest, at which point I'd be rewarded with a fleeting glance, which I'd miss by 1/8 second due to the camera's shutter lag.
No such problems this time - lots of squeaking and clicking, true, but two out of two glances caught successfully, of which the one above is the best.

Button Flipping

Believe it or not, he's heading out of the frame here...

Next came the attempt to capture Button in action. Whenever a dragonfly strayed within range, Button would go for it by leaping backwards and up, so that he performed a complete backflip. Seen out of the corner of the eye, this gave the impression someone was hurling him across the garden like a boomerang.
It was hellishly difficult to capture because the leaps came suddenly and at random, though usually in pairs, followed by long periods when the cat would be getting his breath back. Button also tended to leap farther than I expected; this meant my first few shots consisted of random bits of kitty anatomy poking in from the edge of the frame.
The important thing to note, though, is that I was getting the cat in mid air; my reflexes and panning skills might not have been up to tracking a pinwheeling furry maniac, but the camera was keeping up with both of us.
I decided to try the continuous shooting next, and that was my downfall. Because the Canons were so "laggy", I'd developed the technique of continuous shooting from just before I thought something was going to happen, in the hope that the frame burst would catch what reflexes could not. The E550 has two continuous modes; one takes four shots at 3fps, then stops to write the pictures to the card. The other mode will capture an apparently limitless number of frames, also at 3fps, but only save the last four pictures shot. This allows you to keep shooting until you see the shot you want, rather than having pre-empt the action and hope it will occur during a limited shooting burst. Furthermore, that 3fps is pretty scorching for a compact - in fact it's better than my D50 SLR can manage.
I set the E550 to the latter continuous mode, then waited for Button to spring. Up he went - perfectly centred in the finder for the only time that afternoon - but then, much faster than I expected, another four frames went through the camera and my perfect shot was lost. I was left with four frames of a cat landing on a lawn (which looks not dissimilar to a cat crouching on a lawn, and not at all like a cat hanging in mid-air over one, perfectly centred in the frame.)

Button Charging

Button flees my belovèd, the startling Dr. F.
Why, I don't know; I'm the one who trod on him...

Since Button's bursts of motion were so short I decided to try the more usual "shoot four and save" mode - this worked much better, as you can see above. I think this was originally frame two of a set of four.

So, on a first quick try, the E550 does what I bought it for; catches the moment quickly and discreetly. There's stuff I don't like about it - the macro mode is poor, the zoom has trouble focussing in low light at the long end, the JPEG compression options are limited and it's possible to wipe the XD card by carelessly disconnecting the camera from your computer - but as a carry-anywhere candid digital camera it's the best thing I've found so far, especially for the (second hand) price.

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