Monday, 11 March 2013

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro: Doppler

Today I'm going to write about the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro, an old lens from the early days of the EOS system. It was launched in 1990, according to the Canon Camera Museum, and replaced ten years later by the 100mm f/2.8 USM, which is still on sale today. And I'm going to do this whilst listening to the Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, the man's debut album. Surprisingly, it wasn't released on Warp - instead, it came out in 1992 on a little Belgian label called Apollo. The 100mm f/2.8 USM is a popular 1:1 macro lens that's fast enough to do double-duty as a portrait lens and short telephoto. I've never used the USM version, but I came across a great deal on the original and decided to see what it was like.

The chronology of Canon's EOS 100mm Macro lenses goes something like this:
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro (1990 - 2000)
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM (2000 - Present)
- Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM (2009 - Present)

The 100mm f/2.8 USM is one of the gems of the EOS system. The L equivalent is by all accounts a lovely lens, but it's also very expensive and you have to wonder if you need a weather-sealed, image stabilised short macro.

The original 100mm tends to be forgotten nowadays, because it predates most of the modern digital photography websites, and 1990 was a long time ago. In 1990 the EOS system was three years old, and had some gaps in its lens coverage. If you wanted a short telephoto there was the 80mm f/1.2 and the 80-200mm f/2.8, which were very expensive, or the 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus, which was apparently a bit meh. There was a big, empty, prime-less gap in the 50-135mm range which the 100mm f/2.8 Macro helped to fill, and it was eventually joined by the 80mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2. And of course it's a macro lens - the only other EOS macro lens in 1990 was a 50mm f/2.5 model.

For the purposes of this post I stuck it on a 5D MkII. I first heard 85-92 about five years after it came out, and compared to the lush ambient soundscapes of The Orb and Future Sound of London it felt old-fashioned in a classical way, the aural equivalent of an old black and white silent film. I've always had a soft spot for it.

As legend has it, the album was mastered from a tape cassette that had been chewed up by Richard James' car stereo. Furthermore he had a tiny budget, and production-wise the tracks tend to be awash with reverb - drums and everything - as if he didn't have access to a mixer with effects sends. And so the record has an odd, ancient sound. Despite this it's a solid album, on a par with the classic compilations that Warp put out a few years later - Bytes, and Artificial Intelligence, for example. Just like those records it's a schizophrenic mixture that could have done with a different track order but it's always listenable.

Here's what the lens looks like:

Physically it resembles the USM version - although the depth of field scale and manual focus ring are swapped around - with the major difference being that the front element is way down inside the barrel, rather than near the surface:

As a consequence you don't need to bother with a hood. Optically they have different designs. The USM version has twelve elements in eight groups versus ten elements in nine groups for the original. What does this mean, performance-wise? I have no idea, and I can't find any comparisons of the two lenses on the internet because the pre-USM version is so obscure.

I didn't do any formal tests; I don't have the means to evaluate a macro lens. I would need some way to hold the lens perfectly perpendicular to a detailed close-up target; getting it perpendicular would be difficult. I can only assume that it's fit for purpose. Here's a crop of a close-up shot of a pound coin:

My impression is that at f/2.8 it has a small amount of colour fringing on high-contrast edges, although in the macro range this isn't a problem because you won't be using f/2.8, the depth of field is much too narrow. Stop down to f/4, f/8 and beyond and it becomes as sharp as any lens. Here's a comparison of the vignetting at f/2.8 and then f/4:

The good songs are right at the start of the album, albeit that they're really good. "XTal" is a neat taster but for me the high spot is "Tha".

It reminds me of Neu's "Hallogallo", in the sense that for nigh-on ten minutes it goes nowhere and stays the same, and yet it's endlessly fascinating, like a sculpture or a clever clockwork toy. It's a mixture of ghostly voices, an organic bassline, far-away strings and a simple pulse beat, and it's one of the few tracks on 85-92 that would have fit well into Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Twenty years later it still sounds like the future, a future of distant machines and neon lights, where the internet became a... well, the internet became what it became. The track throws me off into an electronic reverie for the days of Snow Crash and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Few things date more than science fiction that comes true; for a brief moment the sectors remain untouched on the platter, and then new data is written over them, and the files are gone.

The 100mm is a very versatile lens that happens to be pretty good at all the things it does, although at the same time it falls between several stools. As a 1:1 macro lens you won't get striking shots of insect eyeballs or bacteria - that kind of thing needs specialised equipment - and if you plan on taking shots of flowers in the garden you'd better hope that there's no wind, because at 1:1 the slightest breeze throws your focus off. The original 100mm f/2.8 has pretty ropey autofocus, too. It whines back and forth when it can't get a lock, which is embarrassing if you're in public. Passers-by will point and laugh at your inability to focus properly and you'll feel ashamed, especially if you're a man. By all accounts the USM version is greatly superior in this respect.

From that point onwards the album dips, although it remains listenable. Most of the tracks present one good idea but then fail to develop it, perhaps because Mr Twin had very limited sequencing equipment, or maybe he was zonked out of his head on drugs or (more likely) he didn't ever imagine that the tracks he did all those years ago would be put out on an album, and he had no way of going back and finishing them. Of course, "Tha" itself is just one idea, but it works brilliantly, and it sounds right. "Ptolemy" simply needed more work. In fact it sounds a bit like a Madonna backing track - seriously, it's not too far from mainstream chart music of the late 1980s. Perhaps it was a mickey-take. "Heliosphan" has a superbly atmospheric opening that builds up and up, but again it goes nowhere.

The lens has great, L-quality contrast, which was the first thing I noticed. For the images in this post I've used Photoshop's Auto Contrast and, for the most part, nothing else. I sized them down.

"Ageispolis" has noodling, which is something the Aphex Twin wisely chose not to pursue with his later records. There are gems in the second half of the record, though. "Schottkey 7th Path" and "Hedphelym" are the kind of atmospheric tracks you might have on the background, quietly, as you play top Zombie mod DayZ. "Delphium" is a good solid bleep tune along the lines of Warp's early records and demonstrates that Mr Twin could do straightforward melodic techno if he wanted to.

Instead he chose something else. Selected Ambient Works was followed by Selected Etc Vol 2, which was more conventionally ambient, with lengthy washes of sound. It has an elegaic air altogether absent from 85-92, which is emotionally much more straightforward. In fact I don't think of it as an emotional record. It's evocative, but I feel images and ideas when I listen to it, rather than terror and ecstasy and the other three emotions, which I call bang, sack, and master.

London is so trendy that it even sells The Impossible Project's Polaroid films in physical shops, and it has a Lomography store (viz the previous post), albeit not in the same place. Even though most of Britain no longer has shops, London still has a few left. Clinging on for dear life against a tide of rent and rate rises. Trying to make ends meet. Slaves to money. Then they close.

Trendy shops with narrow appeal rely on young people with disposable income to turn a profit, but if all the young people are unemployed there is no-one to keep them afloat. All the record shops, retro fashion boutiques, comics shops, etc. They will all retreat to the internet, where they swap rent payments for hosting fees. One day the money will grow back, but the high street will not.

5D Mk II / 100mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8 / ISO 12800

On a full-frame camera 100mm is just about usable as a walkabout lens, although you'll wish you could go wider. On an APS-C camera it becomes a 160mm f/2.8, which is definitely in the telephoto range and awkward indoors unless you're actually using it as a macro lens; it's good for museums, probably better now than it was in 1990 because you have ISO 12,800 in colour instead of Tri-X pushed to ISO 1600. Pair it with a single wide prime and you have a compact travel kit.

The bokeh is a bit busy, although in the macro range the background becomes an amorphous paste, so it's less of an issue than with a portrait lens. If you're an eBay seller who sells coins, stamps, old postcards, anything roughly A5 or smaller, it's absolutely splendid. Clamp the camera to a tripod, set up the lights, and bang-bang-bang-bang you'll end up with hundreds of sharp, detailed shots of your inventory. Faster than using a scanner, too.

In the end I got rid of mine. What it does, it does very well. But for a portrait lens I want longer, or faster, or both, and I already have those things. In the outdoors, macro photography is fiendishly tricky, and I've never really been interested in it. For static subjects indoors I'm prepared to use macro rings, which are a doddle if your camera has live view. For wildlife the autofocus of the original, pre-USM model is awkward for insects and squirrels, and for anything larger you don't need a macro lens unless you want to photograph boils or scabs etc.

The bokeh is slightly "edgy"

Of course, if you're into Macro photography it's a steal, and as a third lens - after the kit lens and the 50mm f/1.8 that everybody buys - it's a super choice, basically surpassing the image quality of a 70-200mm f/2.8 pro zoom in a multi-purpose lens that costs less than half the price. On the used market it's an obscurity, because it was discontinued so long ago, and it doesn't sell for much less than the USM version, so I would recommend that instead. Or an 85mm f/1.8 with an extension ring and patience. Or Tamron's popular 90mm macro, which is apparently just as good but cheaper. It's worth pointing out that despite dating from the first years of the EOS system, the 100mm f/2.8 worked perfectly on my 5D MkII, which is a modern digital SLR (they didn't even have digital SLRs in 1990). Well, modern-ish, it's a couple of years old now.

85-92 slots neatly into Mr Twin's musical world. Right next to Surfing on Sine Waves, his next album, which was released under the Polygon Window name. Sine Waves is slicker than 85-92, and sounds more of a piece, although it's less diverse and feels a bit conservative in comparison. As if it was his audition for Warp Records, and he wanted to show that he could do a whole album of Warp-style music without dropping the ball. Everybody likes "Quoth", and I have a soft spot for Sine Waves on the whole, but it feels like a dead end. James' proper first album that was conceived as an album rather than a collection, I Care Because You Do, is closer in its diversity to 85-92 than Sine Waves, but with much more elaborate production, and the songs evolve rather than remaining static. Yes, ambient music generally remains static, but I get the impression that the tracks on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 weren't really conceived as ambient, the label was just slapped on for marketing purposes. Unlike Ambient II, which was ambient through and through.

Nonetheless Aphex Twin's ambient music was quickly overshadowed by his other music, and for a few years he became the arch-terror of the British specifically Cornish and electronic music scene, stalking the land like a giant predatory bird of prey. He played on this, with unsettling videos and album cover art, even though the music was often much less scary than the cover art suggested. By the time of his 2001 album Drukqs he was, with Chris Morris, one of the Gods that ruled the UK hipster scene. For a short while it seemed as if they knew and they were going to lead a revolution. And then as if by magic they both ran out of ideas and faded away from whence they came, to be replaced with a million tiny children. Mr Twin got what he wanted - a collaboration with Philip Glass, money, respect, a home in a converted bank - but there's a sense that he spread himself too thinly.

Looking back, I Care and Selected Ambient Volt II are the strongest. The Come to Daddy video tells you all you need to know about being young in Britain at the turn of the millennium. But it's impossible to summarise Richard James' work, because so much of it was released on EPs and compilations. Other acts ploughed similar furrows to a greater depth, but none ploughed so many furrows or used the same... the same kind of plough, the same kind of seeds. His own label, Rephlex, still puts out records, although listening to (plucks name out of Discogs) Macc and DgoHn's latest platter or Steinvord's "Backyard", it sounds as if his tastes are stuck in a rut. Macc and DgoHn sounds like a parody of a band name. Compare those records with Squarepusher's first album, which came out in 1996, or the following from Autechre, which was released just as the band was getting glitchy but not too glitchy:

Perhaps it happens to every generation. You see your dreams not exactly fade away, but they don't change the world as you expected; the world carries on, and another generation has a set of dreams, and they end up like layers on the surface of a pearl.