Nature in Short / Duck paparazzo tries out his new camera

By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News

By Kevin Short / Special to the Japan NewsLast week I finally busted my savings and bought an Olympus OM-D EM1 Mark II digital camera. I have been using the Mark I for about two years now, and have been very impressed with the performance. I needed a second camera anyway, so instead of looking for another Mark I, I went ahead and shelled out about ¥190,000 for the new model.

According to the experts, Mark II improvements include a more powerful sensor, faster and more accurate automatic focusing, better in-body image stabilization, longer-lasting battery and double SD slots.

The marketing literature for any camera features beautifully composed shots taken by professionals. But I have no interest whatsoever in photography as an artistic endeavor. For a naturalist like me, a digital camera is primarily a tool for recording the fine details of local plants and animals.

I immediately put my new camera to work at a small neighborhood park. Two species of duck, the spot-billed duck or karugamo, and the mallard or magamo, are spending the winter on the park pond. The spot-billed duck is a year-long resident that breeds here during the summer, but the mallard is just a winter visitor.

No feeding is allowed at this pond, so the ducks were resting quietly about 15 to 20 meters from shore. I set up my tripod and snapped on my 75-300mm zoom lens. This is an inexpensive zoom that even an underpaid university professor can afford. Olympus’ 300mm fixed telephoto costs twice as much as my new camera, and some truly high-end lenses go for over ¥1,000,000!

The spot-billed ducks are easy to photograph. Their mottled light brown body and black bill with orange tip present no problems in managing contrast and color saturation. The mallard, however, is a true nightmare. The head is covered with soft iridescent feathers that flash vivid green in bright sunlight, but turn dull black in shadow. These ducks also have extensive areas of greyish white plumage that can easily be overexposed.

I was thoroughly impressed with the performance of my new camera. Even at that distance and, of course, with a high ISO setting to keep the shutter speed up, the duck pictures turned out true, and stayed sharp enough even when heavily cropped to make my typical field-guide-style close-ups.

I also needed to take some photos of a witch hazel tree that was blooming at the park. Two species of witch hazel can be found locally: the native Japanese witch hazel called mansaku (Hamamelis japonica), and the Chinese species shina mansaku (H. mollis). Several ornamental hybrids have also been developed. To tell these apart I need a series of photos clearly showing the color and length of the petals, and the shade of red on the inside surface of the sepals. Fitted with an inexpensive 60mm macro lens, the Mark II was well up to this task.

These next few weeks will also be the last chance to document the winter buds of various trees and shrubs. These buds contain the new leaves and flowers, and are often distinctive enough to identify species.

A good example is the deciduous gonzui shrub (Euscaphis japonica), fancifully called Korean sweetheart tree in English. My new camera was able to clearly document the two fat red buds at the tip of the branch, as well as the scars below each bud, which were left when last year’s leaves fell off.

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Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sience.Speech

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