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. A spike of rock that stabs two miles into the sky. If God tripped he would impale himself on it, and then there would be no God.

Some mountains scare 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 launched in 2002, which is the 1990s (this is official).

From the sky to the ocean depths. The most challenging dives have also claimed the fewest souls. The deepest stretch of ocean is the Marianas Trench in 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.

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, 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.

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. The 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 among 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 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, which can be fatal. 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 and 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 to exit the chambers before the fire destroyed their oxygen supply. If the timing had been wrong they would have had a choice between two equally nasty deaths. And the memorably grisly 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 from the dinosaurs, and perhaps one day the sky will be ours.