Saturday, 11 August 2018

Nikon 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5

Let's have a look at the Nikon 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5, a standard full-frame zoom lens from the dawn of Nikon's autofocus era. It was launched back in 1986 as part of the first wave of Nikon AF lenses and remained on sale until the end of the 1990s. Despite being over thirty years old it's pretty good.

Does Benedict Cumberbatch sit at home and write about *us*? Is he disappointed with us? Jesus was disappointed with us. But he loved us all the same, and I like to think that Benedict Cumberbatch loves us as well, including me.

In the last post I looked at the Canon 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6, which occupied a similar niche in Canon's product range albeit that it was released a few years after Nikon's lens. They were both moderately expensive, slightly upmarket standard zooms that were eventually displaced by much cheaper budget-priced lenses. On the used market they make for an interesting proposition because they're slightly better than the lenses that replaced them. Of the two the Nikon lens is better on an optical level, but it's larger and weighs half as much again as the Canon lens so I haven't used it nearly as much.

The 28-85mm is the chunky fellow on the right. Shown here extended to 28mm. The lens is most compact at 85mm. As mentioned in the text, shiny black plastic wasn't very attractive even in the 1980s.

All of these images were shot with a Nikon F-50 - not an exceptional camera by any means, but blessed with Nikon's matrix metering system, which is consistently good.

There were two versions of the 28-85mm. They were very similar. Mine is the very first, with a serial number that suggests it was made in 1989 or 1990, quite late in the run. Nikon's first-generation autofocus lenses had a distinctive house style that hasn't aged well. The bodies had stark black and white text, with a white-outlined distance scale and a cheap-looking and very narrow manual focus ring. The manual focus ring is the ridged bit of plastic near the front of the lens, here:

It resembles the manual focus ring on Canon's 50mm f/1.8 "nifty fifty". It's connected directly to the barrel of the lens rather than being geared, and it's actually easier to manually focus the lens by turning the front element instead. Nikon's generation one house style didn't last very long - from 1987 onwards the company replaced the plastic manual focus ring with a bumpy rubber grip instead. Traces of the original look survived into the AF-D era but were mostly wiped out in the switch to AF-G lenses, but e.g. Nikon's modern 20mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8 prime lenses still have the old-fashioned distance scale.

I'm not a Nikon person, but my impression is that even Nikon people aren't particularly enamoured of the company's early autofocus lenses. Optically they were essentially the same as their AI-S manual focus predecessors, but housed in plastic bodies; in a few cases the autofocus lenses were based on the earlier, budget-priced Series E range instead. A couple of them have an interesting specification that wasn't duplicated by later lenses (the constant-aperture 70-210mm f/4 and the 55mm f/2.8 Micro, which was replaced within a few years by a 60mm model) but on the whole they don't stand out nowadays and felt a bit cheap at the time.

In the shot a few paragraphs up the page my 28-85mm is mounted on a Nikon F-50, which isn't period-correct. The F-50 is a budget SLR from the mid-1990s; the 28-85mm was launched a decade earlier, alongside the F-501 / N2020. It's a screw-drive lens driven by a motor in the camera, and at least on an F-50 the autofocus is buzzy and slow. I'm wary of passing judgement on the autofocus because it may well be lighting-fast on a Nikon F4. I can however understand why Canon's USM was such a big deal at the time; the difference between the fast, almost-silent swush of USM and Nikon's whirry gears is stark.

In the previous article I tried to visit Wimpy, but the branch I chose was closed. I am not dissuaded that easily, however, so I visited Basingstoke, which is essentially a train interchange connected to a shopping mall that backs onto a commuter town.

I have several ambitions in life that I will never achieve. I will never photograph the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong, or capture the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it rests in the VAB, or document the radioactive wastes of Pripyat, or visit Machu Picchu etc. They are forever beyond my grasp. Eventually Wimpy will be beyond my grasp as well, but not this day. Not this day!

I feel incredibly self-conscious taking pictures of food, but I did manage to take this snap of a Wimpy ketchup bottle:

Somewhere in Britain there's a factory that produces Wimpy ketchup bottles. I picture a worn-down building on an industrial estate next to a train line somewhere up north, perhaps in Huddersfield or Doncaster. The employees have made Wimpy ketchup bottles all their lives. Fifty years ago their business boomed, but over the last few decades it has been in constant decline, but they cling on, like the last few manual typewriter repair technicians in India, or the steam train engineers of China.

They are desperate now. The older employees are nearing retirement; they feel sorry for the younger employees, who will be unemployed when the factory closes. The youngsters will have to move to a different town, and in the long run Huddersfield - or Doncaster, wherever - will become a city of old people just waiting to die. The playgrounds will stand empty. There will be no life, the barest minimum of movement. The city will experience a fate akin to the heat death of the universe, hanging on in quiet desperation until the final subatomic particle undergoes a quantum fluctuation into another universe entirely, leaving blank nothingness for all eternity.

For now Wimpy survives. I have to say that the burger was fine, the fries not so good, the general ambience decent enough. As mentioned previously I'm old enough to have visited Wimpy when it was still a "thing", and although I don't have much memory for food the burger tasted as I remembered. The problem is that the prices are higher than McDonalds and Burger King, and even though the quality seems better and Wimpy has table service, the same is true of Wetherspoons, but Wetherspoons has beer and feels like a proper restaurant. The odd thing is that Nando's has essentially the same mixture of qualities as Wimpy but whereas Wimpy is in decline Nando's thrives, perhaps because Nando's has a distinctive USP - a poor man's imitation of high-class dining - whereas Wimpy has a muddled message. Is it nostalgic? Classy? A party destination? The home of good food, or what?

But enough of this. What's the 28-85mm like on an optical level? Wide open at 28mm it has very mild vignetting:

That was shot with a Kodak DCS Pro 14n, a 14 megapixel full-frame digital SLR from the early 2000s. It was in theory Nikon's first-ever FX camera, albeit that the sensor and electronics were provided by Kodak. It illustrates one of the 14n's many problems. Notice how the sky is purple on the left and green on the right? The 14n and its heirs had a feature that corrected colour casts across the image, which Kodak argued was an inherent quality of SLR lenses. However the problem seems to have affected no other manufacturer of full-frame cameras before or since, which suggests to me that there was something off with Kodak's sensor. The camera's lens optimisation database includes an entry for the 28-85mm but no amount of fiddling with it actually did anything.

Resolution-wise the 28-85mm is sharp in the middle wide open at 28mm, perhaps fractionally better at f/8, improves no more at f/11. The 14n doesn't have an anti-aliasing filter and you can see some moire effects in the text on the street sign:

Out towards the edge it's soft but not awful wide open, again improving at f/8 but not any more at f/11, with some obvious red-blue CA:

In the extreme corners the image is again soft-but-okay wide open, and becomes actually pretty good at f/8 and f/11, again with minor CA:

Compare this with the same shot taken with the Canon 28-80mm, which is soft at 28mm in a way that can't easily be fixed with Photoshop and never gets particularly sharp even stopped down (shot with a 21mp 5D MkII):

At 85mm the lens isn't quite as good. Wide open it's soft, with a glow on highlight edges, but again it gets better at f/8 and stays good at f/11:

Here's another example of the glow wide open, more pronounced this time:

In the corner it goes from being soft to being less-soft, peaking at f/11, but it isn't as sharp as the Canon lens:

It has to be said that unless you're splitting hairs, or perhaps shooting with a much higher-resolution camera, if you lock the 28-85mm at f/8 it's essentially sharp enough across the frame, and even wide open the results are decent. At 28mm it's very good, surprisingly so for an autofocus zoom lens from the 1980s. The build quality isn't very inspiring (the inner tube rocks back and forth slightly) but, again, this lens has survived for thirty years, far longer than I imagine Nikon expected when they built the thing.

As was the fashion back then the lens has a special macro gear that activates at 28mm. You twist the lens to 28mm, push a button, and continue to twist it beyond 28mm, at which point it starts manually focusing in a macro range. In olden times standard zooms tended to have quite long minimum focus distances so a special macro clutch was often added to compensate. The 28-85mm's minimum focus distance is 0.8m, which is further than modern lenses but perfectly usable, so the macro mode feels superfluous.

What happened to the 28-85mm? There's very little about it on the internet nowadays and Google Books has nothing. It seems to have undergone the same kind of evolution as the Canon 28-80mm - at first displaced by a direct replacement (in this case the AF 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5), and then further overwhelmed by a mixture of ultra-cheap plastic-mount standard zooms and more capable, slightly more professional models on the other. Its spiritual successor was the highly-regarded 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5, which I have used very briefly; the 28-105mm was sharper at all focal lengths and focused much closer and is generally a better lens. I imagine its modern equivalent is the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 VR, the end.

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.