Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Helen Diaz: Discard the Seasons

More of the lovely Helen Diaz, from a few weeks ago, looking almost entirely to the right, but not in the following image, where she is looking at you. Also, for no reason whatsoever than because I liked it, a statue from the Victoria & Albert Museum that lots of people have photographed, including me (scroll down).

Eve, by Sir Thomas Brock (1899)

Brock made several different copies of the same basic sculpture, perhaps because there was a market for life-sized naked women in the late Victorian era. History does not record the name of the model, no doubt a poor urchin girl who was used and tossed aside; that is the fate of models. History does however record Thomas Brock's name. He spent his professional life sucking up to the British Establishment, and he was knighted for it, and showered with government commissions.

He also sculpted the lady in the middle here, at Admiralty Arch, shown next to a statue of Yuri Gagarin that was put up recently just next door:

On the left, Gagarin is catching a helicopter. Brock's sculpture represents the spirit of navigation. A second sculpture on the other prong of the arch embodies the spirit of gunnery; she carries a flintlock and wears a suit of armour. Ultimately that's what the British Empire was built on. Navigating around the world and blowing it up, or threatening to blow it up.

I've always assumed that Eve would be a sturdier lady, 'cause although everything was laid on in the Garden of Eden, they still had to at least forage, and that means nettles equals pain. Brock's Eve would have moped around being self-absorbed, and if there's one thing men don't like it's mopey self-absorbed women. So perhaps Adam was glad to be cast out of Eden. I don't know.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Sony NEX: Samyang 14mm f/2.8

A while back I bought a cheap, second-hand Sony NEX 3, and I've been trying it out with some of the lenses I have. The NEX system is pretty dismal as a system, but the bodies are lovely and can accept almost every other lens ever made by using cheap metal adapter rings. The result is relatively bulky, but still smaller than a conventional SLR. In this post I'll have a look the Samyang 14mm f/2.8, and I'll keep it brief because there's not much to say, and all of it good. Here's Tom Waits' new single, which has nothing to do with this blog post at all, but is awesome nonetheless:

I've written about the lens before, on a full-frame camera, but although I've used it extensively on an infrared-converted APS-C SLR, I haven't really seen what it's like on a conventional, visible light camera. The NEX 3 has an APS-C sensor with a 1.5x crop factor, roughly the same as Nikon, just slightly wider than Canon, and a 14mm lens becomes a 21mm, which is no longer eye-poppingly wide but still very wide. In this context the Samyang lens is almost exactly the analogue of a Carl Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon on a full-frame camera, with performance to match, albeit that there's one fly in the ointment. On a physical level I bought mine in May 2010 and have since taken it to Barcelona, Italy (including Venice), and Tunisia, as per this infrared shot of a statue of the young Habib Bourguiba in Monastir, taken back in March of this year:

But first, the scene, at f/2.8, of beautiful Culver Street Car Park, rendered with ACR, with no sharpening or other corrections:

Here are 100% crops from the middle, f/2.8 at the top and f/8 at the bottom:

One of the cars has moved. I think there's a person in a blue top, obscured by lamp-posts. Apart from that they're very similar identical. The lens is perhaps just a tiny but sharper at f/8 but it's only noticeable if you zoom in. Here's what the bottom image looks like run through my secret, very mild unsharp mask settings:

Here's the extreme bottom-right corner of the frame, same deal as before, f/2.8 at the top and f/8 at the bottom, with auto contrast (the wall is in shadow):

The difference is, er. As before, the lens is sharp wide open and doesn't seem to improve stopped down. This seems to tally with Photozone's findings; their chart shows an infinitesimal improvement from f/2.8, which is excellent, to f/5.6, which is more excellent. Looking at the same site's tests of the different APS-C ultra-wide zooms, such as the Canon 10-22mm and the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, they all seem to be as good as or slightly better than the Samyang lens in the middle at 14mm, but not as good in the corners; and none of them are as good at f/2.8 (few of them even go that wide). In Nikon-land the physically similar 14-24mm f/2.8 seems to pip it, at six times the price.

There is one problem, though; extreme barrel distortion. On a full-frame camera the distortion is hard to correct, bulging in the middle and flaring out at the edges, although PTLens has an effective profile for the lens that works brilliantly. On an APS-C camera it has conventional barrel distortion, which is easier to correct, although again PTLens will do this. If you wave your mouse over the following image you can see what happens when the original picture is corrected with PTLens:

And for the curious, here's what the corner looks like after the correction has been applied (compare with the f/8 corner crop above):

A bit of the edge has been cropped off (it's more like a 22mm lens now) and the image quality should be slightly less impressive, because it has been stretched a bit, but I can't see it. Ultimately I conclude that the lens is a very, very good 21mm f/2.8-equivalent on an APS-C camera, if you can stomach having to focus manually, and you don't mind the size. It's worth pointing out that there aren't really any dedicated APS-C ultrawide primes - lots of zooms, no primes - so if you want an excellent 21mm-equivalent there aren't many alternatives.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Human Centipede: Variations

Over the last few months the biggest news in the film world has been the launch of The Human Centipede II, the long-awaited sequel to the classic The Human Centipede, which is about a surgeon who grafts a bunch of people together as per the title. Sadly, the sequel is just more of the same basic concept, and so I have come up with some hypothetical ideas that a further sequel might use.

Yeah, ving love to you too

The last time I used my powerful brain in this manner I managed to solve the problem of Paul Simon's Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover, and perhaps next time I will work out a pragmatic, just, and workable solution to the problem of post-Ghadaffi Libya and The New Middle East. Or I might draw up a list of unlikely Beatles song titles. The choice is yours.

Or rather, it is mine. Look at the fish; they long to escape, but if they could break the bowl they would all die. For a fish, freedom equals death. And so it is with people. Time is a cage. Being is an anagram of begin, and that is what I will do.

The Human Centipede of the Lambs, in which an evil serial killer who lives in a basement stitches together a bunch of lambs, but they turn on him and bite him, and then Jodie Foster comes along and shoots the serial killer and adopts the poor lambs - but Hannibal Lector gets hold of them, and eats them with a nice red wine, which makes sense because you're supposed to drink red wine with lamb.

Saving the Human Centipede, in which the centipede storms up the beach on D-Day, chowing down on Germans, and along the way its component bodies are killed off, one by one, until there's only one left. At which point the government ask him to come home, but he refuses because he's not going to leave his buddies, dammit.

The Human Centipede Two: Electric Boogaloo, which pretty much writes itself. The human centipede finds itself unable to function in society, *but* it's one bad mama-jama on the dance mat, and so it takes up breakdancing and becomes a hero. In the end, all the other dancers realise that six legs are better than two, and they start sewing each other up as well, until eventually two-legged people are the persecuted minority. But that's not a problem, because before long the whole world becomes one giant breakdancing centipede and there is no more war.

The Human Atari Centipede in which an evil scientist kidnaps a bloke and encases him in a Centipede arcade machine, feeding him ten pence pieces, forcing him to make bloop-blip noises, tee hee joystick tee hee. Followed by The Human Outrun, in which the man is encased in a Ferrari, and forced to drive across America whilst listening to catchy jazz fusion music.

The Passion of the Human Centipede, an epic set in ancient Judea, which stars Christian Bale as Jesus Christ. His followers are so fanatical that they staple themselves to his bottom - perhaps in the belief that the son of God's poop has mystical powers - but the Roman authorities take a dim view of this, and decide to crucify him before the entire population of the ancient world becomes one giant breakdancing centipede and there is no more war.

But the plan goes awry, because the centipede is too large to nail to a cross, and so he breaks free and goes on the rampage. It all ends with a huge battle between the cream of the Roman army (with catapults, spears and so on, boiling oil, etc) versus the gigantic and pissed-off Jesus Centipede, which towers over all of them and sends dozens of men flying through he air with every sweep of its tail, bolts of lightning and so forth, holy fire, it's awesome.

In the end the Romans have to enlist the help of Plato, who designs an electrically-powered flying machine that carries bombs. Jesus swats it out of the sky, sending it spinning out of control, but Jude Law jumps in the pilot's seat and pilots it on a heroic suicide run that blows up most of Jesus' body. But it's not over, because what remains of Jesus climbs to the top of Mount Sinai, where he is cornered by the Romans, and it's a bit sad, like King Kong. It ends with Jesus engulfed with flames, shouting "is this the end for Jesus?", raising his fists to the heavens as the flames rise higher. God is played by Helena Bonham Carter and she is very upset, which sets up the sequel.

The Human Centipede: Its First Assignment, in which the human centipede joins the NYPD, and is sent out to patrol the streets with a badge and a gun and a hastily-modified uniform. Lots of jokes whereby it trips up thugs with its back legs, spits poop at them, does trick shots, transforms into a fly and melts their faces off etc. Genuinely scary bit where it rears up on its hind legs and frightens a drug dealer, who says "lawks a lordy, I ain't never gonna do drugs again" in a comedy black person voice, and in the background a wino takes a look at his wine bottle, shakes his head, and then throws the bottle away.

The Human Sausage-Dog, in which the mad scientist buys a sausage dog, and looks at it.

With The Human Centipede, which is released in the States as Meet the Human Centipede. Or was it the other way around? Same poster, anyway, a moody black and white number with Ringo's head grafted onto a body of unspeakable horror. Lots of tracks you don't recognise because they didn't put their singles on the album, you have to buy Past Masters for that.

The Human: Being, in which a mad scientist creates a life form that eats food with a mouth located in the front of its head, and poops from an orifice located in between its buttock cheeks, which exist in order to keep the orifice closed, and provide useful hand-holds in case someone else wants to do that. This creature wears a hat, and has a job, and brings home the bacon, so that no-one knows it are actually freek. "Is it not a man?", people say.

The Centipede Human, a macro-scale drama starring an evil centipede that gathers other centipedes and stitches them together - thousands of them - in order to create a human-sized human being made out of a writhing mass of dying centipedes. With a core of dead rotting insects where its heart should be. This creature goes on to be quite successful in the world of business and ends up rich, with a much younger wife, and a yacht.

The Human Centipede League - that's pronounced leeg, not lee-ague - in which a crazed fan of electronic pop pioneers The Human League kidnaps Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh, Glenn Gregory - by mistake - and Phil Oakey, and forces them to reform the early version of The Human League, by stapling them to (a) each other and (b) a Roland System 100m modular synthesiser. The crazed fan also captures the two girls, and slide projectionist Philip Adrian Wright, but... well, that bit's horrible, to be honest. The snapping... the... the twisting (hand gestures). Best not dwell on... No.

The Human Centipede with Two Backs, in which a man and a woman decide to lock their hips together for ninety minutes or so, in a variety of positions - from the front, and from the other side. This would be cheap to film and you could probably save a bit of cash and do it on videotape, sell it via mail-order or the internet. Ends with the revelation that the couple could have separated themselves at any time, but chose not to do so.

The Alien/Predator Centipede, in which a mad scientist in the future grafts an Alien (from Alien) onto a Predator (from Predator), with a colonial space marine taking up the rear. People will go to see the film to find out whether aliens poop, or not.


Monday, 10 October 2011

Helen Gets her Freak On

The smashing Helen Diaz there, dancing like a lunatic. After numerous upgrades I now have a computer that can edit HD video, so I decided to see if I could create a tiny film that has lots of little cuts. I was also inspired by the classic old video for the late, great Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love", which was created by the late, great Terence Donovan. Donovan was a stills photographer at heart, which is probably why the video is essentially an animated tableau vivant, but I'm not complaining. It was a clever idea, and more importantly cheap and easy to do.

The difficult part was getting hold of a bevy of attractive women. ZZ Top, who were around at the same time, and also liked to fill their videos with girls, recruited from the pages of Playboy. Terence Donovan no doubt went through his address book of high fashion models, swapping tips with Robert Palmer, who probably had an address book of his own. I would pay money to watch a film in which ZZ Top and Robert Palmer circa 1984 are brought together, and forced to spend time together. I would pay money to see that film. With Bryan Ferry doing a guest spot as God.

And after mentioning God there is a photograph of a woman's hips. Unconscious symbolism in action. Here's a simple behind-the-scenes picture:

The camera isn't as close to Helen as it looks, that's perspective. Although it's bad form to extend the centre column like that, its the easiest way to lift the camera up and down, and I like to work fast. But I hate the horrible jiggly move-the-camera-back-and-forth, back-and-forth, tilt-it-a-bit that e.g. porn videographers like to go for. In previous posts I've enthused at lengthy about my new toy, a Sony NEX 3, and so I bought that along because it also records video. I used it as a "b-roll" camera, capturing wide footage to splice into the stream, with an Olympus 50mm f/1.4. Here's a still photograph taken with the camera, using the manual focus peaking thing to focus on Helen's eyes:

The NEX 3 isn't ideal for video. On the positive side it records nice clean 720p, although it's much grainer in low light than my 5D MkII, and its ugly grain, so shoot at f/1.4 if at all possible. On the negative side there's no manual control of shutter speed, ISO value, or frame rate, which is limiting, and it's only 720p, or 1280x720. The slightly more expensive NEX 5 had 1080 (1920x1080), but it was interlaced, and apparently the quality wasn't obviously better. But for split-second cuts I didn't mind. And it was a bonus, anyway.

In contrast the 5D is splendid for video within its limitations, which I have written about before. As a carefully-used special effect its big sensor is like a big clunking fist. Here's Helen not dancing:

I will never reveal how I achieved the effect with the duck. Here's Robert Palmer, in a video that dates from a bygone age. It was controversial at the time for presenting the band as mindless automatons, and then it was just a silly sexist relic of the 1980s, and nowadays it is a classic. And, Robert Palmer, whaddaguy. Ponder his conceptual similarity to Paul Young, and then ponder the vast gulf that existed between them.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Crop Factors: An Illustration

Apropos of nothing... no, let's tie this in with the recent launch of the Nikon 1 system. (Cough). Crop factors. About ten years ago. It was. About. A long time ago. Many years. Several. It was all the rage, a few years ago, to write blog posts about cropping factors, and this one's mine. A bit late to the party, but that's okay. I don't like parties. I also don't like writing introductions, I'm not warmed up yet. I take a lot of warming up. Cue picture, which you can click on, although you might prefer to right-click and select "view image", because it's larger than Blogger's preview:

The original was taken with a Canon 5D MkII, using a Nikon-mount Samyang 14mm f/2.8. As you can see, the corners are rubbish on a full-frame camera (check out the hotel in the top right), but splendid on all the crop formats, which makes me wonder why Samyang don't release a dedicated APS-C version of the lens with a smaller front element and a filter thread.

When I took the image I was standing half-way up the Sousse Residence in Sousse, Tunisia, in March 2011, frazzled after spending the morning exploring El Djem. The place seems to have closed since then (the website still exists, but their listings are gone from Tripadvisor and so forth). Nice place; cheap; big rooms; lots of cracked paint, not too sure about the wiring; cheap; just around the corner from the train station; cheap. Here are some more shots taken just around the corner:

With a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4. But, anyway, back to the crop factor image thing. You'll notice that it's split into segments. That's because it's too large for the Blogger platform. I've put a copy of the single, unbroken picture here. Amongst the crops I've included the old half-frame 35mm system, which had an unusual 18x24mm vertical format, and the 2/3 sensor used in certain compact cameras. The latter is just for reference, although the former is potentially useful as there was a Nikon-Pen F adapter, and so the lens I used could, in theory, be mounted on a Pen F.

Right, I'm warmed up now.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Evil Queen II

A while back - the last time England had sunshine, in fact - I popped off to the local woods with the lovely Mellie D in order to mess around with vaseline-smeared filters and prime lenses; going through the footage recently I was struck by how good it looked as a series of still photographs, so here are some 1080 screen grabs. All shot with a Canon 5D MkII, a hefty tripod, and three lenses; a Tomioka 55mm f/1.4, a Nikon 75-150mm f/3.5, and an Olympus 24mm f/2.8.

It has to said that Roger Corman did more with less. A pretty girl, a handsome man, some ugly people, some woods, a rubber octopus, a few prop guns and some blanks; that's pretty much all you need to make a film. And a car.