Tuesday, 29 March 2011


I often go back through the archives looking for things to illustrate these posts; these two images were shot with a Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2.0, and were originally going to appear there - ages ago - but why not post them on their own? Why not indeed.

That's not dust on the sensor. Kumi's standing in front of a polystyrene reflector with bits knocked out of it, and I didn't spot heal the bits from the first photograph. They were both shot at The White Womb in Stoke Newington, a lovely laid-back place.

By which I mean that The White Womb is a lovely laid-back place. Not Stoke Newington. I mean, I'm sure Stoke Newington is also lovely. Oh, I've got myself in a muddle again.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Infrared Tunisia II: Monastir

Monastir has two things. The Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum (above) and the Ribat (below). And lots of people and so forth, who live their lives; but they aren't things.

And there's an abandoned car park just up the coast:

So, three things. Monastir has three things. The Habib Bourghiba Mausoleum and the Ribat and an abandoned car park just up the coast. And a beach. An airport, but not for much longer. Amongst its many things etc.

The Ribat is a popular filming location. It has several different bits, you can't see any of the surrounding buildings when you're inside it, and with some creative camerawork you could turn it into an entire city. The last time you saw the following view it had ROMANI ITE DOMUM written all over it:

If only I had pressed the button a split-second earlier. I'm tempted to edit it so that the cat is just to the left, but it would be tricky to get the pattern to match. I'm also tempted to call the shot Stray Cat Infra-Blues but (a) it might not be a stray cat and (b) it would be a godawful name. And it would be technically misleading; infra-blue is green.

If there's one thing I've learned from Monty Python it's that whimsy needs a solid grounding in hard fact in order to work. That's what separated the Pythons from Spike Milligan. His brand of whimsy was just a lot of made-up nonsense that relied on shock effect to deliver its comedy payload. There was no second strike. In contrast, the Pythons prepped the target with ECM, Wild Weasel support, and once the bombs had gone in they had sufficient resources to bounce the rubble; they were operating in a different league.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Infrared Tunisia I

On the left you can see the Trans-African Highway, Route One, running from Cairo (behind the camera) to Dakar (ahead). Beneath it and further along was Tunis' main drag, the Avenue Habib Bourguiba. At each end there were armoured cars, humvees, trucks, razor wire, and bored-looking soldiers scanning the passers-by. In between the checkpoints there was a small demonstration but at no point was I dragged from the crowd and stamped to a pulp, as at the end of The Day of the Locust. Neither did I ride a tank or hold a General's rank.

I was curious to see what Tunisia looked like through the electronic eye of an infrared camera, so I took myself to Tunisia and found out. Here are some of the results. I used the exact same camera that appears half-way down this post, with the same lens but without the battery grip. See that above? That's in Sousse, between two beaches. In March 2011 it was either closed or abandoned for good, probably the latter, but the locals used it as a hangout.

I stayed in Sousse, actually in Sousse rather than up the coast where the package tours go, because I am value-conscious.

That's one of the towers at the entrance to the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum, in nearby Monastir. Bourguiba seems to have been a popular fellow; a lot of the streets are named after him, all across the country. I stayed on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Sousse and visited the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis and probably the one in Monastir without realising it.

Above, the moon; and above that, and below, the colosseum at El Jem, with a slit that puts me in mind of the slit in James Woods' chest in Videodrome. Don't worry, there will be more pictures in the next post. I travelled by train and relied extensively on my eTrex Legend HCx to tell me when to get off and where to go, what clothes to wear etc. El Jem is a short train ride away from Sousse, which is why I stayed at Sousse; it's a strategic location, with rail links to Monastir and Tunis as well. Here's the train station at El Jem:

Fifty minutes in the distance is Sfax; roughly two hours later the line terminates at Gabes, and thence by car or bus to Matmata and Medenine and Tataouine, or on to Libya. Not at the moment though. That would be unwise. Behind the camera, Sousse is an hour away, Tunis roughly two hours beyond that.

Next up, the Strait of Sicily, beyond the beach. There seemed to be two classes of beach; covered in rocks and glass for the locals, lovely and smooth for hotel residents, e.g. not the locals. I found a Doc Marten boot, just the one. No-one was swimming because the temperature was a freezing 19, 20c, with a breeze.

I have no idea what the ship was doing. It was there all the time, just waiting off the coast. Perhaps it was a different ship each day, waiting to go into port. I call the following photograph "Self-Portrait with Colosseum".

Colosseum was also the name of a rock band. They did a song called The Kettle which is the best jazz-rock song about a kettle. Next, Tunis, although I didn't take many pictures in Tunis itself. At this point you've probably realised the problem of using a wide angle lens all the time; there are only so many ways to compose a shot.

This is my enduring memory of Tunisia, and North Africa in general. A patch of waste land with bricks and bottles, and a broken warehouse and a worn-out palm tree, and cars going by, and the smell of diesel and rubbish. And nestled amongst all of it were some wonderful things; probably made wonderful by money that could have cleared up the bricks and bottles and the broken warehouse and so forth. No doubt a Tunisian person visiting Slough or Glasgow would have had the same impression of the United Kingdom. I'm not sure if there are wonderful things in Slough or Glasgow, though. Food about equal.

I speak only of the surface, not of the people. I did not interact with the people.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Solid State II (Beta)

A while back I had a go with Ableton Live, and the results were mighty fine. Now I have had a second go, and the results are even better, because they're (a) louder and (b) faster, 160bpm instead of 140bpm, viz:

After having mastered both photography and music, you might wonder if there are some things I cannot do. The answer is that I cannot love, and I cannot pull myself along monkey bars. Everything else is within my grasp.

On a more serious level the footage was shot with a Canon 5D MkII at the Heygate Estate, which is familiar to you from previous posts. I used an old Olympus 21mm f/3.5 manual focus lens, set to f/8 and near-infinity, which focuses on everything beyond arm's reach. For stills photography it's a slow lens, but this isn't a huge issue when filming motion, because you can get away with much lower shutter speeds (in fact you generally want to use low shutter speeds, otherwise the video looks choppy). The 21mm f/3.5 is almost distortion-free, which is very useful for video because it is hard to correct for subtle distortion with most video editing software. Furthermore it's tiny and robust, so there's very little chance of banging it against something. And it's a prime lens, so no zoom creep. And it has lovely smooth bottom and a fount of interesting anecdotes and it always pays the bills in restaurants and gives you a lift home and doesn't laugh too loudly.

The brief burst of nature footage was shot a while back; I had it lying around, I thought I'd put it in. You can't really see it at this resolution but the moon has jet planes flying beneath it. The music itself (or at least the structure of the music) is very loosely based on part of David Whittaker's soundtrack for the 1988 computer game version of Oliver Stone's Platoon. Breathe in. Just like the real-life Vietnam War the computer game was no fun at all, but had a great soundtrack.

David Whittaker tends to be overshadowed nowadays by fellow composers Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway. He split his time between the C64 and the ZX Spectrum, and seemed to work mostly for Codemasters on their endless Professional X Simulator titles, back when Codemasters only released naff budget games.

Nonetheless one of his tunes for the obscure 1984 game Lazy Jones was swiped by Zombie Nation for their song Kernkraft 400, which got to number two in the UK pop charts in 2000. On the one hand this seemed a naff thing to do; on the other hand Whittaker had, in turn, swiped parts of Fade to Grey and 99 Red Balloons (and others) for the rest of the Lazy Jones soundtrack, so I suppose karma was working in the background. I really must settle on a standard format for song titles and computer game titles. Bold, or italics, or quotes, or just capitalise them?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4

Tree, Sousse, Tunisia
Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.4, 5D MkII, f/1.4

A while back I had a look at the Carl Zeiss 1.7/50 T*, a vintage lens from the days of the Contax RTS. Nowadays Zeiss are great mates with Sony, and produce a range of top-quality autofocus lenses for the Sony Alpha system, as well as a parallel set of manual focus lenses for other lens mounts. From 1973 until 2005 Zeiss was instead great mates with Yashica, and designed lenses for Yashica's upmarket Contax range, although they used the same lens mount as Yashica's cheaper, own-brand cameras. The lenses were all of a high standard and are still desirable today, because they're still good and they can be easily adapted to work on Canon EOS bodies. The 50mm f/1.7 was the entry-level kit lens, although judging by my informal tests it was very sharp.

Tunisia Can Into Space
Same as before, but at f/2.8

The 50mm f/1.4 was the pricier option, and seems to appear in 90% of all Contax RTS product shots on the internet, viz the following, courtesy of the endlessly-handy Flickr megachap Nesster:

Contax RTS - Real Time System

That bunch of lenses on the right would have cost you a pretty penny in 1975, and would probably still set you back a fair amount in 2011. Zeiss still makes a 50mm f/1.4 Planar, although the physical design is slightly different - the modern version has a prominent silver filter thread on the front of the lens, which also serves as a bayonet mount for the lens hood. The modern 50mm f/1.4 is available in a range of contemporary lens mounts, including Canon EOS, Nikon F, and even the old M42 screw mount. Oddly, despite the Zeiss/Sony alliance, there isn't a version for the Sony Alpha, at least not yet. There is a Sony 50mm f/1.4, but it's an old Minolta design.

Here's what my 1.4/50 looks like, resting in front of a group of other 50mm f/1.4 lenses:

It glows red on account of Zeiss' T* multicoating, which the company was and remains very proud of. In the background, an Auto Chinon 55mm f/1.4, an Olympus 50mm f/1.4, and a Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4. All good. The Chinon is the largest and heaviest. The Zeiss lens has an attractive combination of relatively light weight and solid precision that pleases me. It has good manly full aperture stops rather than half-stops, which means that when I go from f/1.4 to f/5.6 I go click-click-click-click instead of click-click-click-click-click-click...was that a click-click or just a click? [Looks at lens] etc fiddlesticks pooh

Judging by the serial number on my lens, and the serial number of the lens in the advert - which is dated 1975 - mine was probably made in 1975, which means that it's older than me. It feels better-made than me, and it's sharper than me. It is my superior in almost every way.

Carl Zeiss operate on a higher plane than most other camera companies, and so they still have the data sheet for the 50mm f/1.4 available on their website, here. I'm not a scientist, but judging by the MTF diagram it should be very sharp at f/5.6, and indeed it is. General internet wisdom seems to have it that the lens is contrasty, with fairly unimpressive bokeh, similar to the Canon 50mm f/1.4 in terms of sharpness (not great wide open; awesome stopped down). The chaps at SLRLensReview had a pop here. There isn't a great deal about it on the internet otherwise, and it tends to be overshadowed in the search results by the modern version.

The logical thing would be for me to compare it with the Zeiss 50mm f/1.7, or the Canon 50mm f/1.4, but I'm not a logical man, I'm a raging beast, and I don't have a Canon 50mm f/1.4. And so I decided to test it against my Canon 50mm f/1.8 MkII, which was to hand. You probably know what this lens is like already. It's good! But the 50mm f/1.7 is better. And, as we shall see, the 50mm f/1.4 is also better.

Here's some barrel distortion, and also some of the ineffable "3d quality" that comes from a combination of wide aperture and high contrast, and also a Gorillapod, slightly bent:

Gorillapod porn. I'm not going to complete that sentence; I'm just putting that idea in your head. Gorillapod porn. I took the photo at a place called Sousse Residence, a cheap-but-cheerful hotel in Sousse. The homepage goes on about an accueil but no matter how hard I looked I couldn't find one. Which is a shame because I could have done with some water. Here's the bokeh, wide open and then f/2.8, Carl at the top and Canon at the bottom:

Both photos appear to have Joel and the Bots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 sitting at the bottom of the frame, although they're on the wrong side. What has my life come to, that I spend my time writing about blurred photographs of a pair of sheds? How did I fall this far? Still, the framing is different because I shot these hand-held, on a rare sunny day in England in February. The bokeh is basically the same, and not particularly good in either case; Carl looks a bit washed-out and cooler. Take heed before making too much of the colours; there were clouds overhead and the lighting conditions may well have changed from shot to shot. I was paying more attention to the shutter countdown and the wind. Here's a real-world example of the bokeh, which isn't offensively off-putting but is nonetheless not as smooth as it could be:

Cactuses at Sidi Bou Said
f/1.4 again

Here's the same basic scene, middle of the frame, wide open, Carl at the top and Canon below, 100% crop, unsharp mask of 0, 0, 150, Canon 5D MkII:

They both have a typical purply glow. The Zeiss lens seems a bit sharper but it's not really significantly so, albeit that Carl is two thirds of a stop wider, f/1.4 instead of f/1.8. Here's the same at f/2.8, at which point the lenses seem to reach maximal centre sharpness:

Carl is again a bit sharper, although it's not a vast gulf. I won't present any more centre crops because you'd just be looking at the same image over and over again and it would be boring. Here's the corner of an APS-C frame, also wide open:

Carl's extra contrast actually seems to obliterate some of the shadow detail. Here's the extreme corner, and it looks grainy because I've brightened it up and turned down noise reduction as much as possible:

Carl is noticeably better in the extreme corner, although both lenses are fairly blurry. That'll teach you - again - to shoot a distant landscape scene at f/1.4.

Here's the APS-C corner at f/2.8:

Carl's doing pretty well. Here's the extreme full-frame corner at f/2.8:

Carl improves, Canon does not, at least not by much. Let's have a look at f/8:

They're much better and much the same. Here's the corner at f/8:

"After a while all I'm doing is punching wet chips of bone into the floorboards. So I stop." Carl has nothing to be ashamed of. Out of curiosity I shot the same scene at f/11:

The Zeiss lens actually seems to be softer at f/11 than f/8, whereas the Canon lens improves a bit, with the result that the lenses are on roughly a par at that aperture. Both lenses remain a little bit soft in the last hundred pixels or so. Here's a crop from the top-right of the image, also at f/11, showing off the prominent lack of CA:

So, there you have it. Of course, my Canon 50mm has been around, and might have been bashed-up; but Carl is older than me and was mounted on the camera with a cheap eBay C/Y-EOS adapter, so neither of them are operating at their full capacity. Carl is sharper in the middle at wider apertures, and sharper in the corners until f/11; but even so, the Canon lens is very good. There's no shame in losing to Muhammad Ali.

At this point I should insert some pretty pictures of things. But I'm saving up for my next trip abroad, which if all goes well should be Tunisia. A week and a half from now. I booked the trip back in early December, giving no great thought to the political situation there, other than that it was the kind of country where tourists should not talk about politics or interact with the locals. Tourists should instead talk loudly with other tourists about their mortgages, in a land of "beer and bikinis", where prostitution is legal. Probably not so much fun for the locals, but they are not allowed inside the hotel compound, so it doesn't matter. They live their lives of quiet desperation. "Trying to make ends meet / you're a slave to money / then you die".

But on 17 December the police tried to stop a man called Mohamed Bouazizi from making ends meet, and with no future and no way out he took his own life in protest, setting himself on fire in public. For perhaps the first time in history this actually had a practical result; his funeral procession turned into a mass uprising which ousted the president, and that in turn inspired the people of Egypt to do the same, and then the people of Libya, at which point the joy and happiness at watching the plucky North Africans and their protest festivals abruptly ceased, in a barrage of airstrikes and anti-personnel gunfire from anti-aircraft artillery and all the other explosive toys that money can buy.

I dimly remember Colonel Gadaffi and Libya from my childhood, from Love Missile F-111 and the shooting of Yvonne Fletcher and F-15 Strike Eagle which, according to TIME magazine, was released just before the air strikes and consequently benefited from the publicity. "Still, says MicroProse Executive Fred Schmidt, "it's a way to find out what it felt like over Libya, and, as our advertisement says, 'The best part is . . . no one gets hurt.' "" Gadaffi was nobody, and then he was our enemy, and then he may or may not have ordered the Lockerbie bombing - and then suddenly he was our friend, and we weren't supposed to talk about Lockerbie any more, and now he is our enemy again. No longer will world leaders shake his hand and smile whilst doing so, at least not in front of the world's press. What goes on behind closed doors is none of our concern.