Sunday, 9 April 2017

Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8: Ducks are Birds

Let's have a look at the Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8, an old zoom lens from the late 1970s that takes up very little space in a travel bag. Here's what it looks like:

The creatures we become / will visit distant suns / and find to their dismay / that they are all the same

The coating is an attractive red-purple-amber colour.

Vivitar sold it for all the popular camera mounts of the day. It pops up in camera magazines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, often sold alongside a 2x teleconverter. Vivitar's adverts claimed that the teleconverter was a specially-formulated "matched multiplier" that worked best with the 70-150mm, but it sounds like total balls.

Off to Monte Isola on Lake Iseo, which has sunshine and cats (pictured).

In common with other Vivitar lenses the 70-150mm was built by a third party, in this case Kiron. To confuse matters Kiron sold the lens under its own name as a 70-150mm f/4, and furthermore Vivitar sold two different 70-150mm f/3.8 designs - the first had separate focus and zoom rings, my version has a one-touch pushy-pully-twisty control. Despite being roughly thirty years old the pushy-pully-twisty zoom ring on my model doesn't flop about.

It was a sunny day and I had the luxury of stopping down to f/8, which is easy on lenses. At f/8 the 70-150mm has very little vignetting and none of the "glow" typical of 1970s zooms. There's a bit of pincushion distortion at 150mm.
The colours are fine, again without the obvious washed-out quality of 70s zooms, but hard to judge given that I was shooting expired Ektachrome, which had a purple cast, and furthermore atmospheric haze made everything look slightly blue. Which I compensated for in Photoshop, although in this case I think I amped up the colour a bit too much.

But was I blue? I was not blue because Lake Iseo is a happy place. This is a 100% crop from the middle, scanned at 2400dpi with an Epson V500. A dedicated film scanner could probably get more detail out of the original negative.

Short, relatively fast tele-zooms were a fad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Zoom lenses had been around for a few decades but they really started to become popular in the 1970s. The typical 80-200mm f/4 lens of the day was however very bulky, and there was a gap in the market for shorter models that could replace an 80mm and 135mm portrait lens. The Olympus 70-150mm f/4 was an early example, launched as part of the OM range in 1974; by the end of the decade there were loads of third-party short zooms, which nowadays clutter up eBay. Nikon's relatively large 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E is quite fondly remembered.

Monte Isola is a fun day trip, or two-day stay if you want to catch the sunrise. The island itself is pedestrianised - the locals get about on scooters and Piaggio Apes - and although there isn't much to do beyond walk around and eat, what's wrong with that?

On the whole 70-150mm zooms fell between two stools, too slow for indoors and too short for the outdoors. If you want to photograph birds, cats, ducks and so forth - and I realise that ducks are birds, perhaps I could have said hedgehogs instead - you have to get right up close to fill the frame at 150mm, which is risky.

About a year later I got hold of a Kodak DCS 14n, a Nikon-mount, 14 megapixel full-frame camera from the early 2000s. Whilst trying it out I used this lens, and here are the test shots. Firstly in the middle at 150mm, f/3.8 and then f/8, no sharpening:

As you can see it goes from mediocre to okay. In the corners it is at least consistent, again at f/3.8 and then f/8:

If I take the last image and correct the CA and apply sharpening it's actually not bad:
I won't bore you with any shots at 70mm because it's basically the same; unspectacular wide open in the middle with lots of vignetting, decent at f.8. If I was giving the lens marks out of ten I would give it a couple of extra marks for being so small and handy.

The bokeh isn't particularly smooth although I have seen worse.

The range makes more sense for tigers, cows, horses, and people, for whom you can zoom in to 150mm for a head and shoulders portrait and zoom out to 70mm for an upper body shot.

This was shot with a 20mm. In the absence of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude organisation the only practical way to reach Monte Isola is by ferry.
The island pictured in the poster (and at the top of this article) is the Isola di San Paolo, which is also accessible by ferry albeit that it's privately-owned. Google Street View has some images taken during the fortnight that The Floating Piers was in situ:

The inhabitants of Monte Isola string up the bodies of dead fish in these execution racks, facing the lake, "pour encourager les autres".

It seems that only Tamron made a short f/2.8 zoom, and it was a special soft focus model that sold in tiny quantities. With a 2x teleconverter the Vivitar 70-150mm becomes a 140-300mm f/8, which is very slow. My hunch is that unless it is an extraordinarily bright day, it would be better to ignore the teleconverter and just enlarge the photograph, or get closer, or put the camera away and just savour the moment.

70-150mm zooms don't have a direct modern equivalent; their heirs are image-stabilised, plastic-bodied 70-300mm f/4-5.6 designs, which have a more useful range but are much more conspicuous. It's funny the things that stick with you. For most of my adult life I have carried the words "beep cleep chimney" in my head. They come from this sketch, from Alas Smith and Jones:

Strictly speaking it was just "Smith and Jones" when they moved from BBC2 to BBC1.

A bunch of dinner party guests are playing charades. The joke is that instead of picking "vertical assembly building" or "Schleswig-Holstein question", their senile uncle has picked "beep cleep chimney", which doesn't make sense.

The sketch is cleverly constructed. There's an initial laugh at the realisation that the answer is beep cleep chimney, which sounds inherently funny; then there's a second laugh when we cut to the senile uncle, because (a) we suddenly realise why such an unlikely combination of words were picked and (b) Mel Smith looks stupid. The sketch is cruel and funny. All humour stems from violent subversion; the sketch subverts our expectations of charades, then dabbles in absurdism, which is yet another form of subversion.

The lens focuses closely enough to be used as a 1:4 macro. This is an Olympus Stylus Epic shot with a Fuji S5 at 150mm, f/11.

Alas Smith and Jones belongs to a generation of British television sketch shows that was supplanted if not exactly made obsolete by the dark realism of The Day Today and latterly the likes of Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look. Smith plays the senile uncle as a broadly comic village idiot, but a modern take on the same material would portray the character realistically, ending the sketch on a sour note. The humour would then derive from our discomfort at the fact we are laughing at a mentally ill old man. A similar idea was the basis of Mitchell and Webb's final sketch, in which a senile Sherlock Holmes tries to force coherent thoughts through the fog of dementia.

For British television sketch shows the 1980s was akin to the Bronze Age of American comics; although Russ Abbot and Cannon and Ball had huge ratings, the more sophisticated likes of Not the Nine O'Clock News, Alas Smith and Jones, Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, French and Saunders and so forth also attracted millions of viewers, bringing elements of the new Alternative Comedy to mainstream attention. The Vivitar 70-150mm f/3.8 is neat, albeit that the range is very short; the Nikon version is particularly handy if you have a posh Nikon body, because it mounts and meters natively; Alien: Isolation has one of the best soundtracks of any