Thursday, 29 September 2011

Sony NEX: An Orchard of Mirrors

Q: What would a French person call a large number of lenses?
A: À l'ensemble!

I'm a funny guy, me. I like me. That's why I'm going to kill me last. Never mind that the French word for lens is actually objectif. Never mind that. I admit that objectif is a good word. So is parasoleil, which is the French for lens hood. They're all good words, French is a good language, the women are attractive, it is a jolly place. Right, I'm warmed up. Begin. Over the last couple of years the big new thing in the world of digital photography has been the compact interchangeable-lens electronic viewfinder mirrorless compact neo-rangefinder compact camera or CILEVMCNRCC for short, which is pronounced exactly as you would expect, CI-LEV-MC-NRCC. They combine SLR-style image quality with small bodies and an interchangeable lens mount. They differ in the details.

A rose, shot with the Vivitar 75-150mm f/3.8 in the photograph just above it

The two most popular formats are Micro Four Thirds, which has been around for a while, and the relatively new Sony NEX, which is technically called Sony E-Mount but everybody calls it Sony NEX so there. They're both very good, with swings and roundabouts, ashes and diamonds, foe and friend. There are other formats, too, although they have had limited uptake. The Samsung NX is conceptually similar to Sony NEX, with an APS-C sensor, whereas the new Pentax Q and Nikon 1 systems are smaller - much smaller, in the case of the Pentax Q - and use a relatively titchy imaging chip.

Sony NEX 3 / Olympus 24mm f/2 @ f/4

Oldest of the lot is the Leica M system, which dates back to the 1950s and comprises a bunch of attractive bodies and super effective lenses, which are very expensive. It was brought into the digital age in 2004 with the Epson R-D1, a rangefinder body aimed at the untapped market of Leica fans who were also passionate about inkjet printers. I have no idea what was on Epson's mind when they launched the camera. It was based on a Cosina-Voigtlander body, and should really have been sold as a Voigtlander, but what do I know?

Leica eventually launched their own digital rangefinders, the APS-H M8, in 2007, although it was a bit of a disappointment. Leica fans weren't too pleased with the APS-H crop factor, and the camera had a weak infrared filter which led to unwanted colour casts. The full-frame Leica M9 of 2009 was, in contrast, a clever triumph of style and technical acumen.

Like all Leicas these are lusted-after by photographers, but actually bought and used by the Dominique Strauss-Kahns of this world. By the time you have £8,000 to spend on a hobby camera with one 50mm lens you are no longer one of us. You are one of them.

Micro Four Thirds bodies are made by Olympus and Panasonic, and are small and cute and generally built to a decent standard. They churn out nice sharp images that unfortunately aren't too great at higher ISOs. Olympus bodies have built-in image stabilisation; Panasonic bodies don't. The sensors tend to have a resolution of twelve megapixels, which is plenty. They have a 2x crop factor compared to 35mm, and a wide range of dedicated lenses, including the apparently lovely Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, which is the standard lens for tasteful people. Generally the lens range is very good, and they perform better at wider apertures, which counteracts the relatively poor high-ISO performance.

In the blue corner is the NEX system, which stuffs an APS-C sensor into a tiny slip of a body that appears to have emerged from the future. Mine is an NEX 3, the cheapest of the first wave; a second wave is being launched as we speak. As I write. Fourteen megapixels, very good high-ISO performance, surprisingly so for Sony. Flip-up screen.

The big fly in the ointment is the system, which is rotten. The bodies don't have a flash hot shoe, and so you have to rely on a teeny-tiny flash unit that awkwardly screws into a socket on top of the camera. There's one flash unit for the NEX system and it's rubbish. Weak, can't be tilted or swivelled. The tripod mount is unsupported by the body, and doesn't feel very safe. And the lens range is small and dull, although on the positive side they're well-built. There's a conceptually interesting but optically unexceptional 16mm f/2.8 pancake; three decent but uninspiring zooms; a 50mm f/1.8 and a 30mm f/3.5 macro, which might well be great (they're very new) but the specifications don't really stand out. No fast wide or normal primes, no fast telephotos, no good wides, and most glaringly no ultrawides of any variety. Micro Four Thirds owners have the Panasonic 7-14mm f/4, the Olympus 9-18mm f/4-5.6, and Panasonic's 8mm f/3.5 fisheye; the NEX system has nothing except for an add-on converter lens for the 16mm pancake.

In common with most compact cameras the NEXes are designed for landscape use; there's no vertical grip, no option for one. On the one hand, vertical handling isn't bad, because you grip the lens, but on the other hand it's still awkward, and it would be nice to have an accessory grip - or even just a small extension that screws onto the base - if only for the extra battery power.

Sony NEX 3 / Olympus 50mm f/1.4

But. The NEX can use almost every lens every made, with adapters, which is what prompted me to buy a cheap NEX 3 body (the model was recently discontinued). The Micro Four Thirds system is even more conducive to adaptation - the smaller sensor allows for the use of tiny C-mount 16mm cine camera lenses, and exotic medical optics and security lenses too - but I was turned off by the 2x crop factor. It turns your manual focus lens collection into a bunch of short telephotos, which is no doubt entertaining, but also monotonous. The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 in the photograph above would become a very large 28mm f/2.8; optically excellent, but unwieldy for what it is. On an NEX, with its 1.5x focal length multipler, it's a 21mm, which is still very wide. Not very, very wide, but wide enough for me. As the actress said to the Bishop.

Here's a Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5 Series E mounted on an NEX 3 with some macro rings, just to make it look even sillier. The adapters range in price from cheap, about £12 from the various Hong Kong and Chinese sellers on eBay, to a couple of hundred dollars for posh models from Rayqual et al. I have Nikon F-mount and Olympus OM adapters, and I will be using these in forthcoming posts rather than just photographing them. There appear to be adapters for all the major SLR ranges past and present, and most of the rangefinder mounts, including Leica and Contax/Kiev.

There's even a Canon EOS adapter, which has its own built-in aperture on account of the fact that EOS lenses have electronically-controlled apertures which the NEX can't control. No, really, look. Does it work? Dunno. I don't know. I just don't know. I really just don't know. I'm afraid that I really just don't know.

But, yes. Now I can try out the old Canon FD lenses, and Minolta SR lenses from the 1970s, and those cute Zorki / FED rangefinder lenses from the Soviet Union, all of which have gone up in price over the last few years on account of the big new thing in the world of digital photography, the compact interchangeable-lens mirrorless electronic viewfinder compact neo-rangefinder camera or CILMEVMNRC for short, which is pronounced exactly as you would expect, CILM-EV-MNRC. They combine SLR-style image quality with small bodies and an interchangeable lens mount. Details.

Not a rose, shot with the Vivitar 75-150mm f/3.8 in the photograph just above it

The two most popular formats are Micro Four Thirds, which has been around for a while, and the relatively new Sony NEX, which is technically called E-Mount but everybody calls it Sony NEX so there. They're both very good, with swings and roundabouts, hot ashes and trees, hot air and a cool breeze. Micro Four Thirds bodies are made by Olympus and Panasonic, and are small and well-made, with nice sharp images that aren't too great at higher ISOs. The sensors tend to have a resolution of twelve megapixels, which is plenty. They have a 2x crop factor compared to 35mm, and a wide range of dedicated lenses, including the apparently lovely Panasonic 20mm f/1.7, which is the standard lens for tasteful people.

Sorry, I came over all Monty Python there. But I didn't go all the way. The Pythons would have repeated the entire article all over again. But I never had the nerve.

To make the final cut.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No New Star in the Sky


"The sun has got his hat on
the sun has got his hat on
and he's coming out to play"

Let's assume that the hat is made out of stone, so that it doesn't catch fire. Why would the sun wear a hat? To keep off the sun? Hmm? Doesn't make sense.

I wonder what kind of games the sun would play. Not cricket. The stumps would catch fire and furthermore she is a woman. Certainly not swimming, which would be disastrous, although I imagine she would look nice in a swimsuit.

After a bit of thought I came to the conclusion that the sun's preferred pastime would be hot air ballooning, which makes perfect sense. She could use the balloon to travel through space, and return to her home in the middle of the solar system. Hopefully before all the planets have whizzed off into the universe. "When the cat's away, the mice will play"

I picture the sun looking like Ms Pac-Man, with a big yellow body and little spindly arms and legs and a big mouth and a little bow on her head. Snacking on asteroids and other space debris that pass by. She sends out dangerous rays, but it's not her fault, she's just over-enthusiastic.

What does Mr Moon do for fun? The obvious answer is ice skating. Mr Moon is locked in a romantic triangle with the Earth and the Sun. He has the Earth; the Earth loves him, but he wants the Sun instead. The Sun is haughty and selfish, not really bad, just very spoiled and uncaring. She is not capable of loving someone else, and the Moon can perhaps understand this, but she lives in the big city, and has money, and the Moon is seduced by this, his rational mind is clouded. He is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. Moon-moth to a Sunflame will be the title of a forthcoming blog post.

One day he'll realise that he can never have her, that she is just a dream, but by then the Earth will have been smashed to bits by a giant asteroid, and the Moon will have nothing left, and it was all his fault. If he had stayed behind he might have deflected the asteroid with his gravity, or taken the hit himself. But no, he had to go chasing the unattainable, and that is what he got.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Monza: Nightmare Passion Fish

Off to Monza. My original idea was to explore the racing circuit's famous banked curves, which are disused and derelict in a romantic way. Unfortunately - like a floppy-haired fool - I picked the same day as the 2011 Italian Grand Prix. The exact same time! The screaming engines grew louder as I approached. I assumed there was a track day; there was, but it was the biggie. Having missed the start I decided not to pay the entry fee, which was steeper than the banked curves themselves, and instead wandered around the park in search of somewhere to pee. I learned that Jenson Button in Italian is Jenson Bou-ton or something along those lines. I remember that it sounded different. I don't actually remember what it sounded like.

I wonder how they pronounce Michèle Mouton? Mitchell Mutton, probably. I shouldn't keep saying they, I should say we.

Tip: Monza's park seems to be divided into two zones, separated by a wall, which has graffiti on it (enc). The larger, northern part is more open. The smaller, southern part is more closed and has more trees. Pee there. Or anywhere, really. Italians get drunk at home and pee in the street, which is the opposite of Britain, except that drunk British people often pee in the street too. Not as a result of rational calculation, but as a spontaneous expression. You can do anything when you're drunk.

The swan turned into a duck.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Venice: Visible Light I

Off to Venice again. Last time I took an infrared camera, viz and viz, in order to record the reality that we do not see. "We don't see things as they are; we see things as we are." Rather than probe the blackness a second time, I decided to take an ordinary, visible light camera instead, and these are the voyages etc.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Most Efficient Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover

In 1670 French mathematician Pierre de Fermat famously left the world a puzzle, although he had been dead for five years when he did so. His son had set out to collect and publish his papers for posterity, and amongst Fermat's library was a recent translation of Diophantus' Arithmetica, originally written during the second century AD. The book consisted of mathematical problems; whilst pondering them, Fermat doodled his thoughts in the margins, and one day he came upon the idea that no number, when raised to a power greater than two, produces the sum of two other numbers raised to that same power. He earned his mathematical stripes by analysing the nature of curves - what were they, where did they come from, how did they work? - but it was this doodle that earned his place in history.

A curve, at the Heygate Estate, London

For example, let's take the numbers three and four. They're ours now; no-one else can use them for the next few minutes. We will feed them, care for them, and let them go once we have used them. Three to the power of three is three times three times three equals 27, which is a horrible number. Four to the power of three is 64, which is much nicer. Add them together and you get 91. Now try and find a number that equals 91 when you raise it to the power of three.

Five? No, that's 125. Obviously not four, because we know that's 64. It can't be a number greater than five, or less than four, which leaves us with nothing. Yes, in theory you could create a new number in between four and five, such as for example schwemmberg, which is a number I have just created in my head which is equal to four point four nine seven nine four one four four and so on. But let's imagine that you can't use any of these in-between numbers. You can only use pure, ordinary, proper numbers, even including the bad ones like five and seven. In which case there is no number which, when raised to the power of three, produces the sum of three and four also raised to the power of three.

Ulorin Vex, who is possessed of curves

But there are many numbers. What if we decided to raise 379 to the power of 15, and add it to 675 added to the power of 15? We'd have a huge number. Surely there must be another whole number somewhere that, when raised to the power of 15, produces the sum of 37915 + 67515? Or any other case of xn + yn = zn? I'll just have a think.

(years pass)

No, there isn't.

(longer pause)

Hang on, I've worked out why.

(even longer pause)

No. In fact I haven't. Now I'm an old man, and I've wasted my life. Damn.

Famously, Pierre de Fermat thought he had. Worked out why. But the margin of his copy of Arithmetica was too small to write it down. "Cujus rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi", he wrote (in Latin). "Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet". If you say that slowly in a low voice, it sounds awesome.

Fermat never revisited his proof, at least not that history records, and by the time his marginalia was shared with the world he had been dead for five years. You know, in Fermat's day people had loads of deep thoughts, but no space to write them down; and even if they did so, there was a good chance their words would be lost with time, their books burned, ripped up and turned into packing material, never read by other people because there was no way to broadcast that information. Nowadays it seems that we have infinite space but no deep thoughts, only shallow ones not worth preserving or sharing. Earlier today I went to the shop and bought some Lithium AA batteries, because they are lighter and last seven times longer than conventional NiMH rechargeable batteries. Later I will have pasta for tea. "I'm wearing a four-button double-breasted wool and silk suit, a cotton shirt with a button-down collar by Valentino Couture, a patterned silk tie by Armani and cap-toed leather slipons by Allen-Edmonds."

Ultimately a proof was found, in the 1990s, but it took supercomputers using mathematics that would have been beyond Fermat's puny French 17th-century mind. Mathematics that would have freaked him out. The proof couldn't have been Fermat's proof, which leaves two possibilities. Firstly, Fermat was wrong. This would explain why he never revisited the proof, but how can we be sure that he didn't? His original copy of Arithmetica is long-gone - it would be worth a fortune if someone found it nowadays, but seemingly his son threw it away - and we can never be certain that he didn't write out a proof on some paper that was subsequently lost. Alternatively, it could be that he was right all along, but he had a simpler proof that has defied centuries of thought.

"Nothing is forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten."

Which leads us to the topic of today's post. Fast-forward to 1975. After leaving Simon & Garfunkel - he was Simon - US singer-songwriter Paul Simon embarked on a solo career which was very successful in the United States but generally a bust here in the UK, where he is remembered as the man who did "Call me Al" in the 1980s. In 1975 he had a big hit in the US with "Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover", a song notable for its drum pattern. Steve Gadd, drummer to the stars, had come up with a style he called Lazy Drumming, whereby he only had to move one limb at a time. This conserved energy, which was a big topic in the mid-1970s. Here's a pair of Converse All-Stars, photographed with an infrared camera, because I could:

You know, I've always wondered why drummers don't put sticks on their heads, or little bells. After all, the head is a limb. It can move, do things, hit things. And yet drummers only use their arms and legs. Also, cock drumming. That's six limbs. But I digress.

Famously, Simon only presented five different ways to leave your lover. One of them - "just get yourself free" - was too vague to be of practical use. There wasn't space in the song to fit all of the fifty ways; it would have been too long to play on the radio. And so his fifty ways remained hypothetical.

Until now.

After years of study I present The Most Efficient Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover. Scientifically chosen to fit the metre of the song. Sorted upwards in order of efficiency. These aren't necessarily the fifty ways that Paul Simon intended - we will never know what was going through his mind, in 1975 - but they are fifty ways, and there are fifty of them, and they are ways. Scientifically-proven ways. Proven, by science.


The Most Efficient Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover

Go, Jo

Fly, Eli

Blow, Moe
Dash, Ash
Deny, Kai
Ebb, Webb
Fade, Ade
Cut, Mutt
Run, Alun

Adieu, Boo
Bolt, Walt
Buzz, Buzz
Dust, Just
Hike, Mike
Quit, Brit
Scram, Sam
Skim, Akim
Skip, Chip
Split, Kit

Cease, Rhys
Chill, Phil
Depart, Art
Shirk, Dirk
Shoot, Knut
Unass, Cass
Whizz, Aziz

Break, Blake
Desert, Bert
Drive, Clive
Flee, Leslie
Go 'way, Jay
Jet, Ornette
Leave, Steve
Move on, Ron
Recede, Said
Rotate, Nate
Secede, Bede
Swerve, Merv
Unload, Joad

Forsake, Jake
Retreat, Pete

Conclude, Jude
Creep, Pradeep
Retire, Squire
Unhitch, Mitch
Vamoose, Moose
Withdraw, Thor

Detour, Seymour
Disappear, Amir
Melt, Roosevelt

For the curious, the next seven ways are:

Abscond, Armond
Scarper, Harper
________, _____*
Decamp, Beauchamp
F--- off, Kristoff
Take flight, Dwight
Tergiversate, Drake

* Newspeak; Clive is an unperson.

I'd just like to thank the English language, which has an abundance of words that mean almost but not quite the same thing. In technical terms, English has multiple redundancy, like a fighter jet. Which is useful in case some of the words are forgotten, or fall out of fashion. Perambulate, for example, was all the rage in the 19th century, whereas nowadays it's just a baroque flourish, no longer an organic part of the language. If it was the only word that meant what it meant, we would nowadays have no way to express the concept of perambulating, except by waving our hands and/or hips, as in for example this documentary about people who seem to have forgotten a tonne of words. They forgot words and learned something else instead.

Fortunately we have lots of words that mean the same thing as perambulate, so we can give that one a rest and use the others instead. Like shoes. Wear one pair today, the other pair tomorrow, repeat. I wonder if at some point in the past a fundamental concept was lost to humankind - a concept akin to love, or hate, lust, desire - and ever since then we have been unable to express it, except by some ritualistic gesture-echo, because there are no words to describe it. That might explain the root of our unease. Lurking within us like a sub-oceanic bubble. Just waiting to break the waves and suffocate us all.