Friday, 21 October 2016

Pentax Espio 80V

Let's have a look at the Pentax Espio 80V.

There are spirits in the sea, and every ocean has a soul. We sense it in our sleep. I have never seen the Arctic Ocean but its distant chill haunts my dreams. A few months ago I wrote about Cerro Torre, in the Andes. Rock spike stabbing two miles high. If God tripped he would run himself through.

Some mountains bore men; others excite them; a few terrify. Cerro Torre's death toll is in the low single figures, not because the mountain is easy, but because it is so hard only the most committed make the attempt.

A while back I had a look at the Olympus Stylus Epic, a terrific compact film camera from the 1990s. The Stylus' fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens was excellent, but in the actual 1990s people wanted zoom lenses instead. What were those zoomy compacts like? A Pentax 80V came to me for nothing so I decided to try it out. It was actually launched in 2002, which is the 1990s (this is official).

What of the ocean depths. The most challenging dives have also claimed the fewest souls. The deepest stretch of ocean is the Marianas Trench in the Challenger Deep of the Western Pacific. The only corpses down there died long before they hit bottom; only three men have made the descent, and they all made it back. Not the same but alive. Above them the ocean, and above that an infrastructure, a lifeline of support ships and cold hard cash.

Here's the little bastard. It's chunky but the ergonomics are decent. There was also an Espio 80 with a similar specification but a more attractive body and a faster lens. The 80V has a typically useless 1990s-style viewfinder. DX film encoding, motorised everything, active infrared autofocus, no manual overrides. CR123A battery. It leaves the film leader out.

The Marianas Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, but the conditions are not comparable. The equipment required for human survival at high altitudes is relatively simple. Some mountaineers have even trained themselves to tackle Everest's final ascent without oxygen. It can be done.

But at 35,000 feet below sea level no amount of training can acclimatise the human body to the pressure of millions of tonnes of water. Even at shallower depths no man has held his breath for more than twenty-four minutes; people drown in the bath.

Image-quality-wise the 35-80mm lens is surprisingly good, although f/6.3-12.5 is incredibly slow. As a daylight snapshot camera the 80V is fine, but it has no character, and in 2016 why bother with it? The simple viewfinder and narrow aperture limit your creative options.

Diving is difficult and the sea is deadly, the old grey widowmaker of legend. Its vast, featureless expanse confounds navigation, and without cover the elements are pitiless. At great depth rigid diving suits eliminate the problems that arise from compression, but they are clumsy and expensive. A spacesuit only has to keep the pressure of less than one atmosphere in, whereas at a depth of five hundred metres a rigid diving suit must keep the pressure of fifty atmospheres out, while allowing the diver sufficient flexibility to use his limbs.

There's noticeable barrel distortion wide open; the telephoto range is better. 2002, 2003 was the last gasp of film compacts. The unusually wide Pentax 24EW and the Nikon Lite-Touch 70Ws, with a 28-70mm f/5.6-10 lens, were typical of the best, but they still weren't good enough. The shift to digital also meant a shift to smaller sensors, which allowed for faster lenses; at first the noise and unsubtle sharpening of early digital cameras nullified this advantage, but within a few years digital compacts had with a very few exceptions overhauled their film ancestors.

Rigid suits are relatively safe, but the operators are forced to use metal pincers, or entirely mechanical manipulator systems; no-one has managed to create gloves that will work at great depths. The alternative to a rigid suit is to use traditional wet- or dry-suits, but this requires increasingly esoteric mixtures of breathing gasses combined with staged ascents, to allow time for the gasses to diffuse throughout the body.

After enough time at depth the human metabolism begins to resemble fizzy lemonade; unless the cap is released slowly there is an explosion of bubbles. The formation of bubbles inside the body can be fatal, and even experienced divers make mistakes, especially given that diving gases under pressure can have a narcotic effect. Astronauts have it easy; once through the airlock they can remove their spacesuit and carry on with their work.

It says "no photo", but I took a photo, because each man is a god. Typically with old film compacts the ur-model was the simplest and best. The later zoomy spin-offs were boring. The pinnacle of the Espio range was the Espio Mini, which had a fixed 32mm f/3.5 lens - slightly wider and slightly slower than the Stylus Epic's 35mm f/2.8, but still miles better than a zoom, especially in the right hands.

Even after reaching the surface, deep-sea divers must pause for several hours until they can consider another dive. Furthermore the need for a staged ascent introduces a new set of risks; if the diver has miscalculated his gas reserves, or if a medical emergency compels a rapid ascent, his only hope is a decompression chamber. But even that solution can be fraught. During the Piper Alpha fire of 1988 the rig's divers were lucky enough to exit the chambers before the fire destroyed their oxygen supply; if the timing had been wrong, they would have been faced with a choice between two equally nasty deaths. The Byford Dolphin decompression incident of 1983 - during which one unfortunate diver was almost entirely degloved - is the stuff of internet legend.

This post was brought to you by Kodak Ektachrome 100; nine-year-old Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007.

We live in a narrow band of warmth and light. Outside our comfort zone we die; the whales gaze as our corpses fall. We came from the sea, inherited the Earth, and perhaps one day the sky will be ours.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Agfa Clack

Agfa Clack, Fuji Velvia 100

Let's have a look at the Agfa Clack. It's a simple, toy-like camera from the late 1950s, essentially an update of the company's earlier range of box cameras, but with an eye-level viewfinder.

It's cute:

Shown here with red Rollei bayonet filter, which fits neatly over the lens, although it doesn't stay on unless you use blu-tak. The Clack shoots in 6x9cm format with standard 120 film. The shutter speed is around 1/30 second, plus bulb, and it has two selectable apertures - apparently f/11 and another one, either f/13, f/16, f/12.5 depending on who you ask. There is also a close-up lens. There was a flash unit, which attached to the metal prongs on top of the camera.

The inside of the camera advertises Agfa's film:

In my experience any black and white film will produce usable images in daylight; don't worry about that. I shot a mixture of Ilford 125, Fuji 400, and even a roll of Ilford 3200 and they all came out fine. I stand developed them with Rodinal. I haven't tried colour print film.

I shot some Velvia 100, which was overexposed in bright sun but spot-on in the shade. My suggestion is that if you plan to shoot slide film on a sunny day you should use Velvia 100 with a polarising filter, or Velvia 50 without a polarising filter. Remember to shade yourself from the sun, and also remember that a technically wonky image of something interesting is far better than a technically perfect shot of something boring.

The Clack's image quality disappointed me. Not because it's awful, but because it's too good. The Holga has a cult following because of its ropey plastic lens, which is sharp in the middle but soft and dreamy around the edges, with tonnes of distortion and vignetting.

In contrast the Clack's simple lens is pretty good. It has mild vignetting and is decently sharp across the whole frame. With colour film there is noticeable CA but in Agfa's defence they probably didn't expect that people would use expensive colour film in their cheap camera. Contemplate the following:

With a sharp eye you can pick out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Here's a 100% crop from the middle of the image, which I have sized down to 3000 pixels wide:

And here's the extreme corner:

Optically that's excellent for a cheap box camera. As the internet is wont to point out, the Clack's box doesn't hold the film flat, instead the film curves to fit the chassis, which apparently helps combat field curvature of the lens. I had alway assumed this was internet rubbish, but perhaps it is true.

Marino Marini's "The Angel of the City", photographed with a Moto G. You have to wonder if Peggy Guggenheim ever... you know, test-drove the sculpture. I imagine it was cold.

The 6x9cm format fits eight shots on a roll of 120, so it pays to develop your own film. The Clack's only other control is a winding knob, and as with the Holga you have to check the film count by looking through a small red window at the frame numbers on the back of the film. If you forget to wind the film on, you get multiple exposures:

Do I have anything else to say about the Clack? You can fit four rolls of 120 film inside the camera - one in each spool and two in the light chamber. With a bulb setting and a tripod mount the Clack is a popular pinhole conversion. It's surprisingly hard to press the shutter button without jogging the camera. There is a tiny handstrap running along the left side of the camera, but it's too small to use unless you have tiny hands. My Clack's shutter was intermittent at first, so I opened up the lens and fixed it. The shutter is triggered by a piece of metal sliding along another piece of metal, so I polished the two pieces of metal and then it worked.

Also, the Agfa Clack is one of the few cameras named after a sound. The only others I can think of are the Konica Pop, the Canon XapShot, and the short-lived Nikon Crackle-gurgle-bang-hiss-roar-throb, which was pulled from the market in the wake of 9/11, for obvious reasons. Have you ever read about the Italian futurists? They were hot for noise-sounds. Luigi Russolo's 1913 essay "The Art of Noises" envisaged a future in which musicians could use all kinds of sounds to make music - not just the melodic scrapings of violins, but also whispers, animal noises, and hissing, and today we have Bjork. How could they have known?

Furthermore, in his classic work "Zang Tumb Tumb", published in 1914, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote "pic pam pam crépitation d'incendie TOUM TOUM couchez-vous c'est le Brion quit tire ssssrrrrappnells... PIIING... sssrrr zit zit zit PAAC", and that is all I have to say about the Agfa Clack.

Friday, 7 October 2016


Off to Cordoba, which is a short train ride from Seville. Like much of this part of Spain it resembles Morocco, but less hardcore. It is searingly, bakingly, shakingly hot in October, as if designed to weed out and evaporate any British people who visit the place, but I am made of sterner stuff, and furthermore I have a sun hat.

I laugh at the sun! Because I have a sun hat. The sun has made the planet Venus inhospitable to all known forms of life but it has no power over my head. The atmosphere of Venus is hot and full of carbon dioxide. It's a lot like putting a heavy blanket over your head and not sticking your head out for air, and then periodically Soviet space probes invade your blanket and their lens caps don't fall off.

I have found that if you tip your sun hat at women and call them "m'lady" they enjoy that - they laugh and laugh, and laugh. I have some advice - instead of directly asking women if they have a boyfriend, ask them a question about their boyfriend. e.g. "You are very attractive, YOUR BOYFRIEND is a lucky man".

If it turns out that they don't have a boyfriend, follow them around until you become their boyfriend. It has not worked for me yet, but there are still some places where the local police do not recognise me.

The Kodak sign has become a legacy symbol, akin to the floppy disk icon

In the limited time I had in Cordoba I made a beeline for the main event, which is the Mezquita. This is a fascinating building. It's a former mosque with a cathedral built in the middle of it. One moment you are walking through a forest of pillars, the next moment you are confronted with a cathedral.

The effect is striking. I'm not sure it works. The cathedral is very tall but not very large, and when I was there the whole place was packed with tourists, including me, although of course I am a traveller, because I once washed a pair of socks in the hotel sink. I am better than the other people. On a scale of ten, I am seven or eight out of ten - they are three, or fewer.

As in the previous post I used a Fuji S5 and a Peleng fisheye lens and some software. The lighting conditions made me wish that Fuji had persisted with the S5's SuperCCD SR sensor. Even at ISO 1600 the camera can retain highlights like nobody's business, but it gets very noisy. Alas the S5 was the end of the line. It has aged well, resolution notwithstanding.

I'm in two minds as to whether a tripod makes a person a tourist or a traveller. On the one hand a tripod is genuinely useful, on the other hand it smacks of trying too hard. It's the kind of thing a landscape photographer might carry around, and no-one wants to be a landscape photographer. They're nerds.

Furthermore the combination of rigidity and mass required by a decent tripod makes it difficult to transport a tripod abroad, and of course most places frown on tripods. I remember trying to set one up in the toilet of a Burger King on the Edgware Road, and despite the fact that there were no signs forbidding tripods the security guard insisted that I leave. This was before I really got to grips with the alcoholism.

But if God had intended for mankind to remain sober, why did he make the world so bad?

This is snek. He's just outside Seville's Santa Justa train station and has presumably been around since 2010. I wonder what graffiti artists think about council-endorsed graffiti. The council tends to pick the most skillful artists, and their work persists for several years - but graffiti is a transient art form, and without constant regeneration and replacement it loses its power to shock, it becomes part of the furniture, unnoticed, anonymous.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Metropol Parasol, Seville

Off to Seville, to have a look at the Metropol Parasol. It's a gigantic mushroom / alien skeleton that puts me in mind of one of the early levels of Thief: The Dark Project, although I'm sure if you try and shoot passers-by with water-filled arrows the police will arrest you. I took along my Fuji S5 and the Peleng fisheye lens I have written about in a previous post. With a resolution of only six megapixels the S5 is behind the curve, but its dynamic range is still very impressive.

The parasol is a legacy of Spain's boom years. Building began in the mid-2004s but didn't finish until 2011; it's made out of wood, but it had to be reinforced, and the project eventually came in late and over budget. Up-close it looks a bit shoddy and I wonder how long it will last. The walkways that run along the top are held on with little screws and the whole thing needs a clean. The entrance is downstairs, and although there was a plan to have a little shopping mall underneath the structure the owners must have been unable to sell the units, so there is just a souvenir shop and some vending machines. If it catches fire the only thing that remains will be a set of unimpressive pedestals.

But I'm being mean. It's a striking presence. For €3 you can take an elevator to the top floor, where you get a complimentary drink. I chose a wine cooler. The lower area is basically a child's playground, so the ambiance is nice. As I sat drinking my wine cooler and listening to the sound of children laughing at someone else for a change I thought of a better world.

A walkway runs along the top of the structure; it's hard not to imagine that you are walking on top of a cloud, and as I gazed down at the people down below whilst drunk on the complimentary drink - remember that complimentary means free, complementary means that you are pretending to be nice to someone - which was a wine cooler, I imagined that I was one of the Greek Gods of Mount Olympus. Wearing a toga and sandals. Did you know that Mount Olympus is a real place? Did the Ancient Greeks notice that there were no Gods living on top of it? Perhaps they chose not to look too hard. Did you know that McDonald's in Spain serves beer? It's true, I have seen it.

The parasol also acts as a sun shade. Even in October Seville is dry, dusty, and bakingly hot. It put me in mind of the old Spaghetti Westerns, although they were filmed in south-east Spain, not Seville (the landscape of Seville is too flat). The locals have adapted to the sun, firstly by being thin and lovely and secondly by building the city so as to block out the sun, viz:

Which made me wonder. Imagine if they build a giant sunshade on top of Seville - and then people started living on the sunshade. They would have to build a second sunshade on top of that. The result would be something akin to Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, but without the robots. I didn't see any robots in Seville.

As a British person - I am a British person - Seville is odd. It is the anti-Britain, with constant heat and the locals are thin. Beer is incredibly cheap but if there is a massive alcohol problem, I didn't see it. The air of constant violence that characterises Britain is absent. Seville is full of sad, pathetic losers who have reasonable conversations in bars and clubs really late at night - wasting their lives - when they should be fighting or sitting at home watching television instead.

Spain is where British footballers and pensioners go to live, but not Seville; it's too hot and nowhere near the beach. I have a Brit-dar but it rarely went off, instead the city seems to be very popular with Chinese tourists, who are a great unknown. British people have a peculiar relationship with themselves. They go abroad to get away from Britain, but choose to visit places that have large populations of British people, who they secretly despise. I have a nagging feeling that the Europeans think that we are the freaks, which is of course not true.