Sunday, 1 September 2013

Olympus 21mm f/3.5

Fuji Superia XTra 400

I had always assumed it was a bad translation of "do go on" - as in, proceed - but looking at video footage I realise that it was simply "dogoon", just a nonsense word. Yes, "goon" might be "go on", but what could "gogon" and "bogon" mean? It has haunted me for so many years, and I still can't find closure. It's an itch I can never scratch. Today we're going to look at the Olympus 21mm f/3.5, an old superwide lens for the OM film camera system.

Polypan F 50

Here it is, on an OM-2n, wrapped up in black leatherette:

It's a teeny-tiny quasi-pancake lens. The OM system majored in wide and normal primes, with a limited range of telephoto lenses and very few zooms. It was as if the chaps at Olympus secretly wanted to work for Leica instead. In common with most of the other OM lenses, there were a couple of 21mm lenses, differentiated by maximum f-stop - the f/3.5 was the budget model, and there was a much more expensive f/2.0 version, which was one of the fastest superwide lenses ever made in the film era. I say superwide, because 21mm is just wide enough to be a special effect, but not quite wide enough that you can't use it all the time.

Alas, the Heygate Estate has now been boarded up

Here is some of it from a couple of years ago, shot with an infrared camera. I assume that the estate was demolished in order to bolster prices in the newly-built, neighbouring Strata building (to the left in the shot above), although I find it hard to believe that any of the estate's residents would have been able to afford the building's £400,000+ two-bedroom flats.

Looking through old issues of Popular Photography the f/3.5 seems to have sold for around $220 circa the early 1980s, vs $90 for a 28mm f/2.8 and $340 for the f/2.0 model. Probably something like $50,000 in modern money, I dunno.

This was shot on a bend. For a better example of the f/3.5's distortion see the next picture.
You just know that Laura's reaction was "you're so cute - do you mind if I send a photo to my boyfriend?"

"Where we're going, you won't need eyes to see"

Ah, Event Horizon. One of those films that came and went. Not part of a franchise. No plans for one. Never remade. Nowadays Paul Anderson is famous for the Resident Evil films, but before they came along he was one of those British directors who went to Hollywood and then flopped and vanished, viz Danny Cannon, Clive Barker (as a director), and Danny Boyle, who - as with Anderson - managed to salvage his career after the back-to-back flops of A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach.

In contrast Danny Cannon went off into television and Clive Barker gave up on directing entirely. I saw both Judge Dredd and Event Horizon at the cinema when they came out, and they passed the time, but Horizon had something, whereas Dredd felt like a great big nothing. Horizon had plenty of problems - too many cheap jump shots, a rushed plot with several big holes - but I can still remember it, which is more than can be said for Dredd. The characters for the most part were sympathetic, the feeling of being stuck miles from home was vivid, the production design was striking, and it's always unnerving to see an eyeless Sam Neill-with-two-ls bleeding from unexplained lacerations on his face, because he's usually such a nice man.

The original idea was to create a kind of "The Shining in space", and just like Kubrick's film Event Horizon works on the level of dreams and nightmares. Much of it plays out as an extended bad dream, perhaps the dying vision of Sam Neill's unfortunate wife. Production-wise it dates from the short-lived models+CGI era, and on a visual level it has aged very well. In my opinion it would have benefited from having the director and the scriptwriter sit down for a long, drink-fuelled meal in order to work out once and for all what kind of film they were going to make; a nightmarish descent into irrational, skin-crawling terror a la The Shining or a fairly conventional boo! monster film, albeit without a monster, in the mould of Sphere (which it resembles - the two films even have a sequence in which the main characters translate an important message incorrectly). Say what you like about Event Horizon, it was no Sphere.

Why did I photograph this? Because it says "hundred sixty six", and that's unusual. Most things don't say that.

And that's the 21mm f/3.5. Judging by this comparison it vignettes slightly more than a Canon 17-40mm f/4.0 zoom, has slightly more CA, but is slightly sharper. And it's a lot smaller as well. Mounted on an OM-2 the whole package fits neatly in one hand, and it's probably the most compact way you can get superwide coverage in any system, outside the world of pinhole photography and fisheye lenses (compact cameras rarely go wider than 24mm). The slow speed is less of an issue with an ultrawide - most of the shots of the graffiti were taken at 1/60th, 1/30th - although it's surprising that Olympus never released an f/2.8 model. There were f/2.8 versions of the 24mm, 28mm, and 35mm OM lenses, for example. As with the other OM lenses it focuses very closely and takes 49mm filters, although I find that even thin polarising filters vignette.