Saturday, 7 July 2018

Canon 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM: Today Or Rest of Year

Let's have a look at the Canon 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM. It's a second-generation Canon EOS lens from the early 1990s, optically and mechanically based on the first-gen 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 but housed in a generation two body with an ultrasonic focus motor. A long time ago I owned a 28-70mm and it was pretty good, so I was curious to see what its successor was like. I also wanted to visit one of Britain's few remaining Wimpy restaurants, but the restaurant I picked was closed, so that dream was dashed.

I put the lens on a Canon EOS 50 / Elan II, which isn't period-correct but in a hundred years no-one will remember the fine details. It's the little bastard on the left, here:

On the right a Nikon 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5, which is a few years older than the Canon lens. I'll write about it later. Optically it's the better lens, but it's heavier, bigger, and the autofocus is slow and grindy and noisy.

Alas the Bermondsey / Southwark branch of Wimpy has closed, but a few branches remain.

Wimpy was an American import that came to our shores in 1954, twenty years before McDonalds. In the 1950s it was embraced by young people but pooh-poohed by bowler-hatted businessmen and Hitler-moustache-wearing Alf Garnett-types because it was a sign of encroaching Americanism which was a bad thing.

The original American Wimpy died off in the 1970s, but its international spin-offs survive to this day in the UK and South Africa. The UK version clings on by its fingertips while the South African version is apparently very popular over there. Perhaps, one day, when Africa becomes an economic powerhouse, Wimpy will spread out from that continent to rise again.

I learn from the internet that until 1971 many British restaurants, Wimpy included, refused to serve unaccompanied women after midnight on the assumption that they must be up to something. I'm guessing that on a practical level Wimpy didn't want specifically female prostitutes giving out handjobs in the toilets, although they obviously didn't have a problem with men doing the same. There were a bunch of midnight sit-ins by feminist protesters and so the policy was repealed.

Do prostitutes give out handjobs in the toilets at Wimpy nowadays? I have to say that as a virile, hetereosexual man, I've never once had a twinge of sexual arousal in a restaurant toilet. It's one of the least sexy environments imaginable. I have never associated damp toilet rolls and the smell of pee with pelvic sorcery. I just wanted to share that with you, dear reader. Toilets don't get me in the mood. Slaughterhouses, operating theatres, bicycle shops, that's another matter. But not toilets.

McDonalds didn't really become ubiquitous in Britain until the 1980s, by which time Wimpy's combination of proper cutlery and tomato-shaped plastic tomato sauce bottles was naff in comparison. A cheap British attempt to evoke American glamour. Nowadays Wimpy is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a sad joke. Its decline was compounded by the fact that, as it retreated, the remaining restaurants were left in poor locations, furthering the perception that Wimpy was a low-rent pile of cack.

I'm old enough to have visited Wimpy during its days as a going concern, and I remember that the burgers were actually pretty good. The restaurant existed in a middle ground between McDonalds and something like Wetherspoons or Little Chef - it aspired to be a proper restaurant - and ultimately I suspect it was doomed because it was neither one thing nor the other. Not fast or cheap enough for fast food, and unlike Wetherspoons it didn't have cheap beer. I doubt that anybody under the age of thirty remembers it.

I'm going to stop talking about Wimpy now. The Canon 28-80mm is essentially a 28-70mm with gen two EOS cosmetics, plus 10mm on the long end and an ultrasonic focus motor, which was a big thing in the early 1990s. My 28-80mm is a quarter of a century old, but the autofocus motor is still quiet and fast. It focuses with a muted swushtt noise and if it misses - which it never does - it has an always-on manual focus ring.

The 28-80mm was launched at a time when Canon was winning the camera wars. The early Nikon AF lenses were buzzy and slow, driven by a motor inside the camera body, and there was nothing in Nikon's range to match the ultrafast Canon 50mm f/1.0L.

Since then Nikon's autofocus technology has caught up - they introduced their version of USM in 1996, and gradually shifted to in-lens motors through the 1990s and early 2000s - but even today there are no ultrafast Nikon autofocus lenses because the F-mount is just too small.

The 28-80mm's mechanical design is similar to the 28-70mm, in that the inner tube pulls back into the body as you zoom past 50mm:

At 28mm and 80mm it's flush with the front of the lens, moreso at 28mm. This means that using a polarising filter or even putting the lens cap back on is awkward, and you can rule out using a filter mount. The inner tube also rotates when it focuses. The back of the lens has a glass element over the end that hopefully keeps out dust:

It would have been ace if Canon had put a glass element on the front of the lens as well, perhaps with a filter thread, but we can't fix the past. We can't even fix the present. It's all broken. The best we can hope for is to survive, and even that is mostly out of our hands.

The lens was launched in 1991, alongside the EOS 100/Elan. It was sold as part of a kit with the camera. Popular Photography's July 1992 issue has a review, which reveals that it sold separately for $425:

If you scroll up a few pages there's a review of the EOS 100 / Elan as well. Note how they completely dismantle the camera and subject it to a battery of tests. For a few years traditional print magazines believed that quality would help them survive against an onslaught of poor-quality websites, but in practice the mass market isn't willing to pay a premium for quality - some people are willing, but most aren't - and furthermore magazines went downmarket until they didn't even have quality on their side. Pop Photo itself folded in March 2017, but thanks to Google Books some of its issues live on, which is handy if you want to learn about the 1990s, because the decade is too recent to have been mythologised but is old enough that the modern internet has very little about it.

Back to the 28-80mm. Nowadays it's obscure and doesn't turn up very often on the used market. In 1992 Canon launched the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which generally overshadowed the 28-80mm, and a year after that the company launched the value-engineered 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6 USM II, which had a plastic lens mount and was apparently not as good optically.

The 28-80mm USM II was followed by a bewildering range of plastic-bodied 28-80mm, 35-70mm, 28-90mm, and 28-105mm lenses that were bundled with Canon film SLRs until Canon stopped making film SLRs in the early-mid 2000s. One day these lenses will be rare, because no-one ever cared about them. Over in Nikon-land a very similar process took place, culminating in the ultra-cheap but surprisingly good 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 G which I will have to write about some day.

What's the 28-80mm like optically? Lots of barrel distortion at 28mm:

Lots of vignetting as well, here mounted on a Canon 5D MkII:

Incidentally the film shots were taken with Agfa Vista 200, for a long time the standard pound shop film although sadly discontinued. The colours are vivid and slightly unreal, viz the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals. In comparison the above shot taken with a 5D looks flat and dull and purple, which is good in one way - it's always better to start with flat and dull, because you can jazz it up with Photoshop, whereas it's hard to un-jazz vivid and unreal - but disappointing if you want vivid and unreal straight from the camera.

At 28mm in the middle the lens is just fine wide open and improves slightly at f/8 and f/11, bearing in mind that these are 100% crops from a 21mp image with no sharpening or CA correction, and that we're looking through a couple of hundred feet of warm air:

The extreme corner is gnarly wide open in a way that would be hard to salvage with Photoshop, still pretty poor but salvageable at f/8, slightly better at f/11:

At 80mm it's more consistent across the frame. In the centre it is, again, decent wide open - more decent than at 28mm - but stopping down to f/8 makes it pretty good. At f/11 the image is slightly softer - diffraction, bad air, wonky tripod, slightly off focusing? Who knows:

In the extreme corner it's good wide open, pretty sharp at f/8, slightly softer at f/11:

For the curious among you the Nikon 28-85mm is basically the opposite, better at 28mm than 80mm.

Does the 28-80mm make any sense nowadays? In its favour central sharpness is good at all focal lengths, and stopped down to f/8 or f/11 it's consistently decent across the frame; it's also small, very light (330g, essentially the same as a can of Coke but with a bit chopped off the top) and the ultrasonic focus motor is just as good as it was in 1991. If you already have a bag of prime lenses but have a hankering for an ordinary standard zoom it takes up very little space in a camera bag. If you're a retro enthusiast it pairs well with an EOS 100 / Elan albeit that no-one nowadays is very enthusiastic about 1990s film SLRs. On an APS-C camera it's a slow 45-130mm, so no to that.

On the other hand if you already have something like a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8, as I do, it's basically a curiosity. The Tamron lens is faster and sharper, perhaps not as well-built, more expensive but still cheap in objective terms. The 28-80mm is still overshadowed by the 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which isn't much more expensive on the used market. You also have to ask yourself if you'd be better off with a 40mm f/2.8 and walking back and forth a bit.

Also, walking back and forth a bit would make you fitter. Not that I'm suggesting you're fat, but let's face it, you could do with some exercise.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

The Art of Gran Turismo 6

Gran Turismo 6 is almost five years old. The in-game graphics are often rough and the career racing aspect involves a lot of grinding for imaginary money; the online services were turned off a couple of months ago so you can't race against people any more, but the photo mode can still deliver the goods.

In theory GT6 was replaced by Gran Turismo Sport for the PlayStation 4, but Sport is aimed squarely at the online-only multiplayer crowd. For the time being there isn't a decent PlayStation 3 emulator for any platform and GT6 hasn't been re-released in remastered form, which puts fans of the Gran Turismo game in 2018 in an awkward position. The next proper Gran Turismo game hasn't been released yet and the last proper game is unavailable for modern gaming platforms. Incidentally Sport has a photo mode but I understand it uses photographic backdrops rather than rendered environments.

I've written before about virtual photography. When I was very young there was a fractal landscape generator called Vista for the 16-bit computers. If you ever owned an early-90s trance compilation it probably had a Vista landscape on the cover (or a dancing robot; or an alien smoking a joint).

Even then it struck me that if a computer could make a sufficiently detailed recreation of the real world, why bother carrying masses of photo gear up a mountain when you could achieve the same results by rendering it at home?

All of the images in this post could have been produced in the physical world, but it would have cost a fortune, and finding someone willing to race their Dino 246 would have been difficult. In GT6 the Dino 246 is a terrific car - relatively cheap, with lovely handling and snappy acceleration. I felt almost dirty tuning it up and I refuse to add a wing.

In the future when every square inch of the Earth's terrain has been photographed with Google Earth, and every object has been digitised, people will never need to leave the house and photography as we know it will die. Which is perhaps for the best because far in the future we will be living in underground caves. Perhaps therefore we will sit in our tiny coffin apartments and send drones out into the wilderness to take photographs for us, which raises the possibility that all of this has already happened, and we are already drones, and our masters lurk underground.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Off to the cinema to see The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, a classic Spaghetti Western from 1966 that only has an Oxford comma if you watch it in Italian.

According to Empire magazine it's the twenty-seventh best film of all time. Twenty-five places better than Once Upon a Time in the West, which is wrong. Sight and Sound doesn't rate it so highly, putting it at joint fifty-nine, alongside Aguirre, but their list doesn't contain Flash Gordon or Where Eagles Dare so I think we can safely ignore their opinion. The fact is that the world's critics are mistaken. Ugly shouldn't be on any best film lists. It's good, but not that good. It feels like an expansion of a TV show for the big screen. A big frame housing a small picture.

Now, I love Spaghetti Westerns. They're basically Star Wars but with horses instead of spaceships. Spaghetti Westerns are Conan the Barbarian with six-shooters, or Lord of the Rings but everybody is normal-sized and a bastard. You know about Spaghetti Westerns already but I'll refresh your memory. They were financed by the Italian film industry back in the 1960s and early 1970s, with European locations doubling for the Old West. A Bullet for the General, Villa Rides, Shalako etc were filmed in Spain, but a few were shot in Italy itself (Django, My Name is Trinity) and a handful were even filmed in Yugoslavia, although that location was far more popular for East German "osterns".

The Good, The Bad and The Etc was mostly filmed on location in Spain. This scene however was filmed in Italy, on the same set as Django (bottom). Sergio Leone had more money for set dressing and extras than Sergio Corbucci.

European Westerns have been around forever but no-one cared much about them until Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars came along in 1964. Legal issues kept it from the international market until 1967, but despite the three-year delay it was a big hit abroad and established Clint Eastwood as a major screen presence. It was also very influential. During the 1960s Hollywood struggled with the problem of how to update the Western for the age of Vietnam and civil rights. John Wayne was still very popular but his time was passing, and although there were some terrific Westerns in the 1970s the genre quickly lost its dominant position. Four of the most popular films of 1969 were Westerns, but from 1970 onwards the genre seemed to disappear into the same murky swamp as the WW2 film and the musical.

It's interesting to compare those four films. I like to think that they were all influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, if only negatively. Paint Your Wagon starred Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, in theory an awesome combination, in practice not. Wagon cost a fortune and ran for over two hours. Along with the likes of Hello Dolly! and Dr Dolittle it was a bloated mess that represented everything wrong with traditional Hollywood. In 1969 cinemagoers instead went to see Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, contemporary drama that made more money than Paint Your Wagon. They have aged in their own way but seem a lot more modern.

Clint Eastwood is The Good, Lee Van Cleef is The Bad, and Eli Wallach is The Ugly.

Of the other popular Westerns that year, John Wayne's True Grit was a conscious rejection of the cynicism and casual brutality of Spaghetti Westerns. It had relatively little violence and the heroes won out in the end. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the most popular film of 1969; it had some of the moral ambiguity of the Spaghetti Western via Bonnie and Clyde, but smoothed out and tidied up for a mainstream audience. I have always assumed that people flocked to it for the chance to see Paul Newman and Robert Redford in sharp duds rather than because it was a Western.

The fourth film was The Wild Bunch, which was neither smooth nor tidy. It was more violent than any Spaghetti Western, doubly so because the violence felt more consequential and the characters were less cartoonish. It had masses of bullets and bloody squibs with a body count in the hundreds, and when people were shot there was a splutch! of blood. The final shoot-out is still awesome today. I can't imagine what people in 1969 thought about it. Warren Oates gets plugged full of holes but it just makes him madder. Every time I watch that film I end up wanting to machine-gun hundreds of people but sadly here in the UK civilians are not allowed to own machine-guns so instead I can only dream. Every night when I try to get to sleep I imagine that I'm machine-gunning a huge crowd of people, and almost immediately five hours have passed and I have to get up to pee.

That's called nocturia, by the way. When you have to get up in the night to pee. It's normal unless you have to get up several times per night every night for days on end, in which case you need to cut down on caffeine and fizzy drinks. The Wild Bunch is grounded in reality but has a poetry of its own. It's a better film than anything Sergio Leone directed in the 1960s, but I don't particularly enjoy it. Ditto Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which tells a similar story - the passing of the Old West and the replacement of rugged individuals with institutions - but in a more low-key style. In the 1970s Hollywood revised the Western, stripping away the mythology and bringing in mud, pain, and futility; some of the films were fantastic, but they were no longer the single dominant mainstream genre or indeed a mainstream genre any more.

But let's get back to demolishing The Good etc. It was Leone's You Only Live Twice. A self-conscious attempt to top its predecessors by putting more money on the screen. Fistful of Dollars took place in a small town; For a Few Dollars More spread the action out a bit, but still had a compact scale. Ugly on the other hand has a huge Civil War battle with hundreds of extras supplied by the Spanish army, plus an expansive prison camp, a ruined town, a massive outdoors cemetery with over 5,000 crosses also apparently constructed by Spanish soldiers, and a purpose-built rail line in the middle of nowhere.

Some of the explosions go off very close to the extras, probably drenching them with spray. Did Italy have health and safety regulations in the 1960s? I have no idea. The film also has at least one horse fall, but the horse gets up afterwards so that's okay.

The problem is that, as with You Only Live Twice, the film is big but flabby. It feels like a disjointed set of arbitrary scenes one after the other, but unlike Twice it doesn't have non-stop action on its side. It picks up the pace towards the end, but it's not enough, and the overall effect is numbing rather than exciting.

At heart Ugly is a manic action cartoon, a picaresque in which the main characters are moved from one scene to another as the plot demands. We're not supposed to care about the plot on a logical level. Clint Eastwood is twice saved from certain death by cannonball explosions that come from nowhere; Eli Walach escapes from his captors by leaping from a train in broad daylight, but no-one seems to notice.* Our heroes spend what appears to be hours fixing dynamite to a bridge in full view of an enemy trench system, but nobody on either side sees them or shoots at them, even though the camerawork implies that they're being observed. As Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2003 review, characters in Ugly can sneak up on each other in open countryside because they are invisible until they enter the camera frame. The film doesn't take place in our world.

* I wonder if this scene was supposed to take place at night, but Leone realised that it wouldn't look good. The characters are mostly asleep, as if it was night-time. After escaping from the train Wallach lurks next to the tracks until another train comes along, but no-one spots him. They're in the middle of nowhere but the landscape is flat and the train guards would surely notice him.

The opening shot is fantastic. A weathered man we don't recognise abruptly swings his head into the frame in a way that's just artificial enough to make it clear that the film is a cartoon.
It's as if Leone wanted to point out from the very first shot that, although the natural world can be attractive, the human world gets in the way and is not pleasant.

Condensed down to ninety minutes The Good might have been fantastic, but the film can't sustain its energy over the course of three hours. Conversely it doesn't work as an epic melodrama either. It's not in the same league as Once Upon a Time in the West and suffers in comparison with that film. The characters of West had a certain amount of depth; the plot was simple but touched on larger themes, and the occasional profundity was modest and generally worked. In contrast the characterisation in Ugly is paper-thin. Lee Van Cleef is a suave bastard, Clint Eastwood is stoned, Eli Wallach is an amphetamine-crazed variation of the archetypal Mexican bandit. We learn a little about Wallach, nothing about the others.

Ugly has an appealingly direct unsentimentality about it. For the most part the writing is functional, which is a good thing because when it tries to be deep it doesn't work. Late in the film Eastwood hands a dying soldier a cigarette, which is played and scored for pathos but nowadays comes across as unintentional homoerotic. Wallach tries to reconcile with his brother, a priest, but the characterisation and drama are on the level of a soap opera, and after one brief scene it's never really explored. He immediately reverts back to being a bastard again.

About the only clever piece of writing that works is a scene in which our heroes try to flag down a column of Confederate soldiers only to realise, too late, that they're Union men whose blue uniforms have been turned grey by dust. The film immediately cuts to our heroes bring taken to a prison camp. On the surface it's a neat gag, but in an economical way it implies that, whatever the moral imperatives driving the two sides in the Civil War, the reality for people caught up in the fighting was grim; and furthermore that for all their notoriety the three bandits at the heart of the film are specks of nothingness compared to the orchestrated machinery of war, and that in a brutal world you should "get out of the road if you want to grow old".

Actor-wise it's dominated by Eli Wallach. Off the top of my head he has more dialogue by himself than everybody else in the film put together. A little of him goes a long way, but nonetheless I enjoyed his performance. His character is a complete bastard who comes close to murdering Clint Eastwood twice, but he has charisma and would probably be fun to get drunk with provided money wasn't involved. Lee Van Cleef has very little to do and mostly just glares albeit that he's good at glaring. He only has a few minutes of screen time and doesn't say a lot. Clint Eastwood is also surprisingly underutilised. He's on the poster, but his character just drifts through the film, spending most of his time as a captive of either Wallach or Van Cleef. The other notable speaking roles are Aldo Giuffrè, who is a drunk army captain, and Luigi Pistilli as Wallach's priest brother. They have distinctive faces and I wonder if they were popular in Italy. It's hard to evaluate the film's acting because it's dubbed in post-production; you get used to it but the dubbing creates a distancing effect.

On a purely technical level it's not as good as Once Upon a Time either. With the exception of the graveyard scene at the very end the cinematography doesn't have the same visual pizzazz. The drawn-out gunfights that worked so well in Time feel unnecessarily extended in Ugly and I kept wishing Leone would just get on with it.

The two films begin in almost exactly the same way and it's interesting to compare them. Ugly starts with a suspenseful sequence in which some gunmen approach each other in the middle of nowhere. At first it seems they're going to fight - perhaps these people are the main characters - but they're actually teaming up to kill Eli Wallach. After two minutes of close-ups they launch their attack but are immediately shot dead. It's neat but visually ordinary and feels like a throwaway gag. Time tops it with an opening scene that runs for thirteen minutes - one-tenth of the entire film - during which almost nothing happens, but it's far more assured. The editing, framing, and particularly the use of sound is mesmerising. In its own way it's also a throwaway gag, but it's a breathtakingly well-executed throwaway gag.

Shortly after that the two films introduce the chief villain doing what he loves best, killing farmers and their children. In Time we don't see Henry Fonda's posse until after most of the killing is over. We know they're there, because birds take flight and everything goes quiet; after the initial volley of gunfire they emerge onto the screen like ghosts. It's classy as heck. In contrast Lee Van Cleef's entrance is undramatic. His intimidation feels like petty bullying, and despite being the film's personification of badness he's surprisingly reasonable. Whereas Henry Fonda straight-up murders a defenceless child in cold blood Van Cleef only shoots his first two victims after they pull guns on him.

Watching the film afresh it struck me that Van Cleef's character isn't really all that bad. He beats a woman, but the film takes place at a time when society didn't much care, and once she spills the beans he throws her aside and walks out. He doesn't shoot her, and unlike the villain in Few Dollars More he doesn't force himself on her either. He tortures prisoners, but again the film is set during a time and place when that wasn't unusual. Judging the characters purely by their actions on the screen Eli Wallach is actually more bad - he tortures Clint Eastwood's character and twice almost kills him, and is just as ruthless when he stumbles upon a dying soldier, pumping him for the location of hidden gold rather than immediately trying to help. The film gives him a pass because he's a comic figure, and there's an implication that most of the crimes he is accused of are flim-flam, but he's the most vicious of them all.

I'm willing to throw the world's film critics a bone. Back in 1966 the original Italian version of Bad was just shy of three hours long, but for international audiences it was cut by a quarter of a hour. This is the version that became a hit abroad. The original DVD releases of the film included the cut scenes as extras. They were in Italian because they had never been dubbed into English. In 2003 the film studio decided to add the cut scenes back into the film, with Eastwood and Wallach returning to dub new English dialogue (Van Cleef, who died in the 1980s, was dubbed by someone else). This is the version I saw at the BFI. Unfortunately the extra scenes just slow the film down and if I had seen the film when it was new I might have liked it more.

On a tangent, there's a fascinating blog post here about the various edits that have been made to the film over the years. It's part of a series of posts that document tiny little cuts and musical edits that began even before it went on wide release in Italy.

A note on the screening. I saw the film at the BFI. I don't know if it was a film print or a digital projection. The soundtrack appeared to be in mono, or at least I perceived all the music and sound effects coming from behind the screen, and only behind the screen. It was odd at first. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of surround-ness the theatre pumped the volume up so that Ennio Morricone's music was almost distorted. During the screening a woman decided to laugh very loudly whenever Eli Wallach appeared. I secretly wished that the security guards would put a noose around her neck and force her to balance on the back of the chair for the remainder of the screening. It would have been a suitably cinematic gesture and furthermore it would have sent a message to the other people in the audience.

When the guards actually did escort her out I felt a moral pang for a brief moment. I had wished ill on that woman, and my wish had come true. But my moral pang quickly passed. If there's one thing I've learned from Spaghetti Westerns, it's that human life is not sacred, and that over time you get used to anything, even if it's revolting or morally repugnant. When I lived in London I got used to the London Underground. People in Mexico are used to mass killing by drugs cartels. People in Northern Ireland have got used to untouchable IRA members gloating about Hyde Park. You get used to it. The lady's removal caused something of a ruckus in the cinema, presumably from people who had not yet got used to ignoring the suffering of others. They will!

They will. I've seen Full Metal Jacket. They will resist; then they will join in. I'm digressing here. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly doesn't work no matter how you pigeonhole it. The world's film critics are wrong. As an action cartoon its manic energy is spread out too thinly. As an exercise in pure style it's not as assured as Once Upon a Time in the West. It had a bigger impact on pop culture than Time but that was probably because the latter film was a relative flop. As a melodrama it's not as satisfying as Few Dollars More. As a meaningful epic it's inferior to, again, Once Upon a Time in the West, but also The Wild Bunch and any number of other late-60s Westerns; at the same time it has just enough pathos to imply that Leone didn't intend it to be a subversion of epic cinema. As sheer spectacle, as a visual feast to wallow in, the cinematography and editing get the job done but don't really stand out. The violence and brutality seem tame nowadays. It doesn't even have very much of Clint Eastwood. Eli Wallach is fabulous but one-note. Ennio Morricone's score is however terrific.

Why is it so fêted? Twenty-seventh or fifty-ninth best film of all time. I have several theories. Good isn't a patch on Once but Once was a flop whereas Good embedded itself in the popular consciousness, so in the 1970s and 1980s it was the most prominent Spaghetti Western. Even nowadays Once has a faint air of Heaven's Gate about it, e.g. loved by The Europeans but unpopular in the home of English-language film criticism e.g. the United States. Obviously nowadays Once has been thoroughly rehabilitated but some of its former obscurity remains.

Secondly there's a more prosaic reason. Imagine you've been asked to make a list of great films. You feel the need to include a Spaghetti Western, because it's an important genre and you have a hundred spaces to fill, but you already have Once Upon a Time in the West on your list, in the "great films" section. So you need a second choice. Django is hip but it's not that good. As far as you're concerned Fistful and Few Dollars More are just prototypes for The Good etc. You can't pick both Fistful and Good because then you would have four Sergio Leone films on your list (along with Once Upon a Time in America) and that's too many. You can't just pick Fistful of Dollars by itself because people will wonder why you ignored The Good etc.

So you pick The Good etc even though you don't like it and never watch it. It's the same process that results in the deadly dull Goldfinger being selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the best James Bond film of all time, when it's not even the best James Bond film of the 1960s. Over time films accumulate a mass of baggage, and eventually critics start rating the baggage instead of the film, goodbye.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Kiev 4 / Kiev 4A

Hutter-buxtable hellosay today the Kiev 4, a rangefinder camera from long ago and far away. Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring-a-dong-dillo! I'm going to write the rest of this post in the style of Tom Bombadil, the jolly forest man from Lord of the Rings, although he was left out of the films because he's bloody irritating. Ring-a-dong! Hop-along! Fal-lal the willow!

J R Tolkien could not have known that dong would eventually become a naughty word. Come, merry dol and I'll stop it. It was a bad idea. It was a bad idea. I'll stop it. It's just that I'm nervous because this is only the second paragraph. I've only just got started. It takes a while for the nerves to settle. Takes a while for the nerves to settle.

During the 20th Century the Russian camera industry exported three rangefinders to the West. That's a terrible first line. Three cameras in total? The Russian camera industry exported just three cameras? It exported three models of rangefinder camera. Not three individual cameras. The Fed and Zorki were clones of the pre-war Leica II. They used a variation of the Leica M39 lens mount that was almost but not totally compatible with Leica lenses. They were launched in the pre-and-post years respectively and remained in production until the late 1980s, at which point the Soviet Union's economic model collapsed and the Soviet camera industry was swept away by floods of cheap cameras from Japan, if that hadn't happened already.

My impression is that by the 1980s the Fed et al were viewed as sad old jokes in the USSR. The irony is that just as the Russian camera industry died off, Western hipsters fell in love with the cameras, although ultimately there were so many in circulation on the used market that it probably wouldn't have kept Fed or Zorki in business even if they had been hip to the latest trends. Thus although actual Russian people probably grew up lusting after the Nikon F4, Generation Y grew up dreaming of Holgas* and Horizont panoramic cameras.

* Technically the Holga is Chinese, but they all get lumped into the same mish-mash.

Early models of the Fed and Zorki resembled the Leica II. Later models of the Fed had an updated, ugly body; the Zorki generally remained Leica-looking throughout its life and fetches a higher price on the used market because of this. Not a particularly high price. A lot of old Zorkis were tarted up with black paint and fake Luftwaffe markings because there are a lot of gullible people out there.

The cameras had a combined viewfinder/rangefinder window with a 50mm field of view, which means that if you wanted to go wide or long you had to use a shoe-mounted viewfinder. Shoe-mounted viewfinders look awesome but are awkward. Russian rangefinders are of course manual everything although later models of the Fed had an uncoupled lightmeter.

I've never been keen on old Russian Leica clones. I don't have a bag of Leica lenses. If I did, I would be tempted to buy a used Leica body to go with them. Only a handful of Russian rangefinder lenses are widely available - the 35mm f/2.8 Jupiter 12, the 85mm f/2 Jupiter 9, and various 50mm standard lenses, generally 55mm f/28 for the Feds and 50mm f/2 for the Zorkis. Add on the bulk that comes with an accessory viewfinder and a lightmeter, plus nagging reliability issues, and it just seems like a lot of fuss for little reward. Will a Zorki lubricate the moral restraints of young women and/or cause other men to respect me? I doubt it.

When I was young I had a book by W E Johns called Now to the Stars. Apart from Biggles he also wrote sci-fi. In the book the heroes visit a planet covered in ice; they could look down into the ice to see a civilisation frozen in time. That's how I imagine photograph-world. It's a world in which everything and everyone is trapped in transparent glass, fixed at the moment of catastrophe.

The Kiev is the odd one out. It's based on the Contax II/III, a completely different camera that was originally launched by Zeiss in the 1930s. Throughout its life the Contax was Leica's arch-rival; it had a faster shutter, a longer rangefinder base, a more versatile lens mount, in-body lens focusing and, on the Contax III, a lightmeter, which was a big deal in the 1930s. There was a wide range of lenses of at least equivalent quality, but the system was more expensive and the original Contax I was apparently very unreliable.

The Contax/Kiev has an unusual lens mount. Standard 50mm lenses go inside the mount and engage with the focusing wheel. They don't have a focusing mechanism of their own; instead the entire lens rotates inside the mount.

Other lenses use the external bayonet mount. You can see the prongs at the 12 o'clock, 4 o'clock, and 7 o'clock positions. 

Bayonet mount lenses have their own focusing mechanism and focus in the traditional way, by turning the front of the lens.

The focusing wheel. It only works properly with 50mm lenses. In practice I found it easier to focus by turning the lens. The little tab unlocks the infinity focus lock, which was a thing in the 1930s. The old collapsible Leica lenses had infinity locks. I'm not keen. I suppose the theory was that you could lock the lens at f/8 and infinity and forget about focusing, in which case a thirty-feet-lock would have given the photographer more depth of field. You're supposed to change lenses at infinity so perhaps there was a good reason for it after all.

Sadly for the world in general and Zeiss in particular the Second World War broke out during what should have been the heyday of the Contax. The Zeiss factory was based in Dresden, which ended up in the Soviet zone of occupation. Immediately post-war the Soviets restarted production of the Contax using the original factory tooling and even spare bodies that had been stockpiled during the war. Contax production also restarted in the West a few years later, with the reformed West German Zeiss launching the updated Contax IIa and IIIa, so for a few years there were both East and West German Contaxes on the market.

West German Zeiss pulled the plug on the Contax rangefinder in the early 1960s. The Contax name re-emerged in the 1970s with the Contax RTS, a range of essentially rebadged Yashica SLRs with terrific Zeiss lenses. In the 1990s Yashica launched the Contax G, an autofocus rangefinder system that in retrospect was a few years ahead of its time; the Contax name is currently dormant.

The Nikon S rangefinder of the 1950s and 1960s was a copy of the Contax IIa, with the same lens mount, and a few third-party manufacturers made Contax-mount lenses, but not many. On the whole Leica was more popular. Leica remains in business and still sells a 35mm film rangefinder camera, making Leica technically the winner of the 1930s rangefinder wars.

So, people of the 1930s, it was Leica. Leica won. Are you listening? Hello?

You can't talk to the past. What's the Kiev like? Annoying and slightly disappointing. Only slightly because my expectations were low. I'm not a camera collector. If a camera doesn't bring something to the table I sell it on. Each of the cameras I have kept does something well. My Mamiya twin-lens-reflex has lovely bokeh and makes me feel like a god because medium format film does that; my YashicaMat is easier to carry than my Mamiya; my Olympus OM-2n has a terrific viewfinder and never gets the exposure wrong; my Fuji S5 captures clouds without blowing them out, etc. The Yashica Electro I owned ages ago is conceptually similar to the Kiev but the viewfinder was a lot nicer and of course it had automatic exposure. The big problem with the Kiev for me in 2018 is this:

It's an Olympus XA. Half a century newer than the Kiev, so comparisons aren't fair, but neither is life. The XA has a smart little 35mm f/2.8 lens with aperture-priority autoexposure in a tiny body that fits into a pocket. It also has a surprisingly large viewfinder, and although the rangefinder base is minuscule I've never missed focus yet. Switching aperture is simple with the XA, awkward with the Kiev because you have to hold the lens still and find the aperture ring. The XA has less control than the Kiev but I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of control for immediacy and speed. Lens-wise the Jupiter-12 has more distortion and the corners never seem to sharpen up, but I'm wary of comparisons given that the Kiev and lens are very old and have never been serviced.

In comparison the Kiev is the size and weight of a small SLR, surprisingly noisy (not SLR noisy, but not XA quiet either), and of course manual everything. It's not dreadfully inconvenient to pop out a lightmeter now and again but it just adds one more thing to the list of things that get between the intention and the act of taking a picture. Of course in the 1930s the Contax probably wowed people, although from what I have read it was controversial even when it was new. It works better as a history lesson and mantlepiece ornament than an image-making tool.

The Jupiter 9 has several aperture blades. Fifteen aperture blades. The lens was also released for SLR mounts and is commonly available in a black-painted M42 version.

The Jupiter 9 is a big chunk of metal and glass. The Kiev is chrome-plated whereas the Jupiter lens is more nickel-y, which is why it has a slightly warmer colour.

Ergonomically the Kiev is a mixed bag. The single-knob shutter speed/wind-on/shutter-cock control is pretty good, and although it takes ages to rewind the film at least the rewind knob isn't painful. The in-body focusing wheel has a lock at the infinity mark, which kept catching me out - you have to push down the little tab to unlock it - and the rangefinder window is positioned precisely where your fingers hold the camera, so you have to adopt the famous "Contax hold" in order to clear the window. The viewfinder is fairly dim, but perhaps it was lovely when it was new.

The extra width of the rangefinder might be useful if you take a lot of close-up photographs at f/1.5 but is otherwise of questionable worth. It's notable that both Nikon and Contax moved the rangefinder window inboard an inch post-war and no-one complained.

The other issue isn't really the Kiev's fault. My two bodies were built in the 1960s and 1970s and presumably haven't been serviced since then; the 4's slow shutter speeds don't work very well, but servicing them in Britain in 2018 is basically impossible and even if it wasn't it would be uneconomical. The rangefinder in both cases seems to be accurate although the dim viewfinder makes focusing difficult in low light.

The most widely available Kievs nowadays are the 4 (lightmeter), the 4A (no lightmeter, better-looking because of it) and the 4M/4AM, a modernised version from the 1980s with some plastic components that's apparently not as well-made as the earlier models. The takeup spool in my two Kievs has a non-standard film slot, so I have to chop off part of the film leader to get the film to take, although beyond that I've had no issues with film transport. The frame spacing is inconsistent but not wildly off, not enough to confuse my scanner anyway. The entire back of the camera comes off to load film.

Ultimately I didn't warm to the Kiev. I didn't expect to. I first became aware of Russian rangefinder cameras twenty years ago; it took me twenty years to build up the enthusiasm to own one. It's not so much the Kiev's foibles that put me off. I got used to keeping my finger away from rangefinder window, and infinity lock isn't an issue with non-50mm lenses. It's because the concept of an SLR-sized manual-everything rangefinder doesn't appeal to me. It doesn't have a niche. It's too big to put in a jacket pocket without ruining the jacket's lines, it's not especially cheap on the used market, the need for a separate viewfinder is awkward, and the wide rangefinder base slows things down if you want to go from close to far focusing quickly.

The advantage of the Kiev's interchangeable lens mount is nullified by the general lack of available lenses on the used market. The Contax ceased to be a thing seventy years ago, and even then it wasn't the biggest thing, so Contax/Kiev/Nikon-mount lenses are hard to come by today. The more extreme lenses are still very expensive because they're prized by fans of the Nikon S. Unlike the Canon 7 with its 50mm f/0.95, the Contax/Kiev didn't have a killer lens that isn't unavailable in another lens mount. The lenses can be mounted on modern mirrorless cameras although the same is true of contemporary M39 Leica lenses, which are more widespread; Soviet-era Kiev lenses were generally made for M39 as well, so that they could fit the Fed and Zorki.

In summary the Contax/Kiev is an interesting historical relic made obsolete by subsequent developments. It's more gimmicky than the pre-war Leica and thus easier to write about, and the chunky, rectangular body is less sissy than the Leica, but on a rational level - I am a rational man - it is perhaps inevitably out of step with the times.