Sunday, 8 September 2013

Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1

Let's have a look at another lens that I've used a few times on a digital camera, but never on one of the film bodies for which it was made. In this case it's a Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1, mounted on an Olympus OM-2N.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking. Why is that man photographing everything twice? 'cause it's a zoom lens, that's why. I'm showing you what it's like at 70mm-ish and 200mm-ish. Colour-wise it has a desaturated look, even on a digital camera.

Here's what it looks like:

The lens was more of a specification than a single product - Vivitar sold several different 70-210mm f/3.5 designs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Mine is the Mark II version, which seems to have emerged in the late 1970s; the original was released in the early 1970s and was larger and heavier, with "wings" near the lens mount and a closer macro. The MkII was made by Tokina.

In the 1970s the idea of a decently fast telephoto zoom with good sharpness and close focusing was powerfully appealing, and the 70-210mm f/3.5 remained on a sale for years. It pops up as late as 1985 in Popular Photography adverts, alongside a newer f/2.8 model, which was apparently not as good. By 1985 it sold for $109, vs $119 for a Nikon 105mm f/2.5.

The lens is prone to flare if you point it towards the sun; not usually a problem in England.

It is perhaps the only zoom lens that ever photographed Michael Jackson's penis.

No, seriously. In 1993 Sergeant Gary Spiegel of the LAPD was asked to photograph Michael Jackson's penis as part of the Jordan Chandler molestation investigation. According to Be Careful Who You Love, a cash-in account of the case, Spiegel carried "a Canon AE-1 Program 35mm camera with a Vivitar Series 1 28-90mm zoom lens attached to the camera and a Vivitar model 283 flash unit detached with a remote sensor cord [plus] a second lens, which was a Vivitar Series 1, 70-210mm zoom lens", which was intended for close-up photography. As they pulled down Michael Jackson's shorts his manner was described as one of hostility and anger, which is unsurprising; if the LAPD tried to pull down my shorts I would be hostile and angry too.

Unless, I dunno, there was a serial killer going around bursting people with his enormous cock, and they suspected that I was the culprit. That would be flattering. I would probably be very popular in prison. Still, as I hold my push-pull Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 I find it hard not to think of Michael Jackson, and also David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, which could almost be subtitled The Michael Jackson Story (As Told by Michael Jackson). His cock also appears in that film. David Bowie's cock. Which he apparently called "the lance of love", according to former wife Angie Bowie.

Dell-ah-veen. Dell-ah-veen. It's French, usually rendered as De le Vingne, so presumably her dad's ancestors owned a vineyard. Or worked on a vineyard, or drank a lot of wine.

But the lens, what's it like? On a film camera? Question mark? It's not bad at all. Black, so it's inconspicuous; well-made, so it doesn't rattle; enormous manual focus / zoom ring / carrying handle, so it's easy to compose with. 70mm is slightly too narrow for an everyday walkabout lens and f/3.5 isn't much use indoors - for which Vivitar had the 285 flash - but the same is true of any other comparable zoom. As a specification, 70/80-200/210mm with a constant aperture was popular until the 1990s, when it was displaced by slower, longer 70-300mm f/4-5.6 image stabilised lenses and faster, more expensive 70-200mm f/2.8 models. The 70-210mm f/3.5 exists at a historical fork in the road, although Canon still sells a 70-200mm f/4, which is very popular.

Distortion-wise, I can't say I noticed very much. In terms of sharpness it's surprisingly good for a forty-year-old zoom lens. Take for example the following image of London's Citadel, shot at the wider end of the range at f/8 a few days before the unexpected failure of the dark fusion reactor:

It was weird. One moment everything was going okay, the food arrived on time and the weather was nice and warm, the next moment everything was in ruins and some blokes from out of town were telling us that we had to fend for ourselves and also there was no more food, and then everything blew up and we were killed, although we died happy... it's an extended reference to Half-Life 2, doesn't work if you're not familiar with the game. Hopefully you are familiar with Half-Life 2.

Here's a 100% crop from a file sized down to six megapixels, scanned with an Epson V500, without any sharpening or noise reduction:

The Epson V500 is not the last word in film scanners, and I was using Kodak Colorplus 200, which is the slag of all films. It has all the grain and sickly colours of fast film, but it's slow! It's probably the most filmy film that I have shot, in the sense that it looks like the kind of cheap crappy film that real people bought in the 1970s and 1980s when they went on holiday. It's more representative of film than (say) Fuji Velvia, or Kodak Portra, which only sold to a small minority.

Still, I don't have a problem with the lens' sharpness. I didn't get around to playing Half-Life 2 until last year - the game came out in 2004 - but I was struck by how well it has dated, and how accurately it predicted the course of subsequent history. In Syria and Iraq and across the world there are Gordon Freemans and Combines fighting each other to rule the ruins, except that whereas Gordon Freeman was obviously good and the Combine were quite clearly bad, real life is much less clear-cut. Besides, Freeman is a surprisingly ambiguous hero. Throughout the original Half-Life he leaves a trail of destruction; most of the people he meets are killed, a couple of them as a result of Freeman's actions, and ultimately he is a pawn of amoral forces beyond his understanding. The result of his heroism is a huge pile of corpses and a radioactive hole in the ground.

The same is true of Half-Life 2, in which Gordon Freeman fights to save humanity from the evil Combine by killing dozens of human beings and then blowing up a major human population centre, leaving the Combine Empire itself unscathed and the people of Earth in a perilous position. If the events of Half-Life 2: Episode Two are anything to go by, we would have been better off leaving the rebellion to our robot companions. Dog, our heroes' eight-foot-tall metal companion, is much more effective in battle than Freeman and his allies. An army of similar robots would make short work of the Combine, although there would be the problem of dealing with the robots once the war had been won. It would be unfortunate if humanity simply swapped Combine domination for slavery under robot rule. At least they would be our robots, our legacy.

Half-Life 2 has an unusually melancholic atmosphere for an action-packed computer game. At the outset the alien invaders have already won; their conquest of humanity is presented as a fait accompli. But whereas most similar games would have the hero putting everything right by blowing up a final boss, HL2 is much bleaker. A combination of desertification and alien infestation has ruined the ecology, to an extent that the sea level has dropped by several feet and the countryside is riddled with alien wildlife. A generation of human beings has been kept from breeding by an artifical sterility field, and by the end of the game the remaining pockets of humanity are quite obviously doomed. Gordon Freeman's ultimate goal seems to be to provide the human race with a quiet place to build a monument to its passing.

I ought to write something about the Half-Life games. Valve Software didn't call their making-of coffee table book Raising the Bar for nothing. The name is a pun - hero Gordon Freeman begins the two Half-Life games armed only with a crowbar, which remains surprisingly useful as a means of bashing open supply crates - but Half-Life really did breathe new life into the moribund first-person action genre, and Half-Life 2 was a brilliant piece of work. A rare example of a commercial product devised by people who seemed to care about what they were doing, with enough resources to indulge themselves, but sufficient constraints that they didn't produce a sprawling mess.

The lens. Its colours feel a bit washed-out, viz the image at the very top of this post, but Photoshop can work wonders with that. Its most obvious deficit is colour fringing in high-contrast situations, e.g.:

You need to vibrate higher so you can capture the opening of the portal that connects this Earth of 3D to one Earth of 4D or 5D

I had always assumed that purple fringing was a digital thing, but obviously not. Macro-wise it has a 1:4 reproduction ratio, which is slightly better than most similar modern zoom lenses, but not as good as the original 70-210mm's 1:2.2 (which was achieved with a fiddly gearswitch - later versions of the lens simply focus very closely (very closely)).

The bokeh is pleasant and slightly swirly:

Remember Whose Line is it Anyway? There was a game where a member of the audience would write down a phrase on a post-it note, and the cast would then run through a sketch, and at a key moment they would pull out the post-it note and deliver the line. E.g. "Colin, how are you?", "I'm fine", "Well, I just wanted to" (pulls out paper) "overheat piping hot ensure tear plastic hole do not overheat upright pouch piping hot ensure enjoy! enjoy! enjoy! piping hot!"

That was my favourite game, because the humour was unpredictable. I mean, the audience could have written literally anything provided that it fit onto a post-it note, and believe me you can fit a lot onto a post-it note, especially if you leave out the vowels. Imagine if the game was actually being used by MI6 to deliver secret messages to agents in the field, and Whose Line existed purely as a vehicle for that one game; the programme itself was merely an MI6 front, but it turned out to be so useful that it was picked up by the CIA as well. It seems very suspicious that it should return to television just as the Middle East appears to be sliding into war.

If my hypothesis is true then Ryan Stiles has blood on his hands. Every time he reached into his pocket somebody in Eastern Europe or the Middle East or Africa died. Every arms dealer or property magnate or unreliable Admiral or unlucky border guard or Nigerian rebel leader who turned up dead in the boot of a burned-out car died because Ryan Stiles reached into his pocket, and he never knew. He never knew the power he had. But then again if he had refused to read out the message who knows what fate would have befallen him.

The pawns are told that if they reach the other side of the board they will become mighty beyond their wildest dreams; but in the real world of professional chess, the pawns never reach the other side of the board.