Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pentax SP500

The Pentax Spotmatic is one of the most fondly-remembered SLRs of the 1960s. It was cheaper than a Nikon, smaller, and it had a built-in through-the-lens lightmeter, which was unusual at the time. The original Spotmatic was only on sale for a few years, and in practice when people nowadays talk about the Pentax Spotmatic they're probably referring to all of the various models that Pentax sold during the 1960s and early 1970s. They were physically and technically very similar. For example, the internet tells us that The Beatles owned Pentax Spotmatics, but on closer inspection it looks as if they have pre-Spotmatic Pentax S1s or SVs (the rewind knob and metal around the lens mount give it away). Ringo Starr has such kissable lips, doesn't he?
I say Pentax - the camera was, strictly speaking, an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic, because in those days Asahi was the company, and Pentax was the brand name, and Spotmatic was a kind of subtitle, because the camera had a light meter, and matic. Got that? The lightmeter was centre-weighted, and there was nothing automatic about the camera - you had to meter and set the controls by hand - and so it should have been called the Asahi Pentax Centremanual, but obviously the men at Asahi decided that poetry was more important than technical accuracy. Don't worry, the rest of the post is easier to read. Writing a blog post is very much like making love - it starts off with a flurry of technical details, and then you get into a groove, and at the end you think "is that it?", and you wonder if it was worth the expense. And then you spend a few minutes looking at old issues of Record Mirror with Johnny Rotten on the cover.

Still, in the US it was often called the Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic because it was imported by a company called Honeywell, a giant conglomerate that made or makes fridges, thermostats and cluster bombs, including the awesome Vietnam-era MK-20 Rockeye and the CBU-87 Combined Effect Munition, one of the stars of the first Gulf War.

Pentax followed the Spotmatic with a pair of budget models, the SP1000 and the SP500, which lopped off the self-timer but were otherwise much the same. The SP1000 had a top shutter speed of 1/1000, just like the original Spotmatic. The SP500 had a top speed of 1/500 but - as every article about the camera is obliged to point out - this was achieved by rubbing the 1/1000 mark from the shutter speed dial. You could still select 1/1000, although it wasn't tested by the factory to be accurate at that speed:

Pentax had pulled the same trick before, with the S1a. It comes across as simultaneously shrewd and a bit unfair; it's odd that the company didn't put a hotshoe or a film memo holder (for example) on the Spotmatic, and simply leave it off the SP1000 as a cost-saving measure. Still, I'm not an engineer.

Here's what the camera looks like. I have no emotional connection with Pentax and so I bought the cheapest working model I could find, which was £9:

That didn't include the lens, of course, although after using it for a few years it ain't pretty no more (a screw was loose, and so I had to take off the front bezel, which scratched it to botheration). The 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar is lovely to use, look through, and hold, with pleasant bokeh and a good chunky focus ring. It's an M42 lens, which means that it has a 42mm screw mount. The M42 mount was shared by contemporary Prakticas, Zenits, OEM Cosinas, and even the very first full-frame Olympus SLR, the FTL.

Record Mirror, 11 December 1976: "like hit men they have come out of the night to shoot the legs off a tired music industry that has relied on crutches far too long". Barry Cain, I ask you - what's the point of shooting the legs off a person who already uses crutches? The metaphor doesn't make sense.

Seriously, "dah dah dah has come to pour petrol on the crutches of a tired music industry" or something along those lines would have made a lot more sense. Hitmen kill people with petrol; crutches are made of wood, it works. If only I could go back in time to 1976 and become editor of Record Mirror, I might have done some good. If only.

M42 lenses are cheaply available on eBay, although beyond the Takumars there weren't very many stand-outs, and the range is generally limited to 28mm at the wide end and 200mm at the long end. And they're mostly half a century old by now. Nonetheless the Russian 16mm Zenitar fisheye is available in M42, and there were several long M42 mirror lenses. Very few zooms. M42 was briefly revived in 2003 with the one-off, limited-edition Voigtlander Bessaflex TM, which came with what must be the last new-production M42 lens ever, a Topcor 58mm f/1.4. This was discontinued in the mid-2000s although a rebranded version for other lens mounts is still sold as the Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton.

The Takumar has a 49mm filter thread, and because I have some old filters lying around I decided to have a go with a Hoya Star-Six. This has lines engraved in the glass that make point light sources look like the opening credits of John Nathan-Turner's early-80s Dr Who opening sequence. With Peter Howell's reworking of the classic Dr Who theme, performed with a mixture of Yamaha CS-80 and vocoder. Fifteen years later, when the kids were old enough to afford musical instruments of their own, they formed Orbital and The Future Sound of London.

Er, yes, star filter:

The effect is naff if you overuse it, so that's enough of that.

Not many shops sell film in London in 2013, but there's one on Tottenham Court Road that does (for £7.99 a pop, mind). I used a mixture of some long-expired Fuji 400 that I bought ages ago, some new Kodak Ektar, and some new Kodak ColorPlus 200, the absolute cheapest 35mm film you can buy new in the UK today (at £2.39 a roll with eBay prices, in a pack of five). Here are some shots taken with this film, on an overcast day, with the colours balanced for daylight - they looked a bit green straight from the scanner - and the contrast turned up:

BOWIE IS LONDON, do you see? Also, his eyes are records.

But, the camera. What's it like? Not bad. The major innovation at the time was the light meter, which on my example was naff. Even after using the correct and tricky to source battery it seemed to be a stop under in bright daylight but roughly correct in dimmer light, so I used a handheld meter instead. Ergonomically the design must have had some thought put into it - the speed dial is right up against the shutter button, so it's a cinch to change speeds whilst holding the camera up to your face.

On the other hand I wasn't enamoured of the meter control. I can see how it's supposed to work. You hold the camera in your left hand and use your thumb to trip the meter, with your fingers changing the aperture. But I never became comfortable with it. In my opinion the unlovely, unloved Praktica LTL of the early 1970s got this right, by putting the lightmeter control right next to the shutter button (which was, unusually, mounted on the front of the camera).

Objectively, of the film cameras I've had a look at this year, I still prefer the Olympus OM-2. It's smaller than the SP500 and it has automatic exposure, which is the kind of thing that macho hardcore photo purists despise but, dammit, it works and it saves messing about. Yes, I said messing, I apologise. Of course it's not a fair comparison. The SP500 was an evolutionary update of a design that had its roots in the 1950s, the OM-2 was state-of-the-art for the mid-70s. A more fair comparison would be a Pentax ME.

Whilst I wandered around Soho and the area around Charing Cross and latterly Kensington, did any young ladies accost me and demand that I take their portrait? No, and so in that respect the SP500 failed. Perhaps it's not the camera. Still, my search continues.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Nikon MD-4

My excuse? I was bored, it's raining. Britain has a couple of days of sunshine in March followed by weeks of freezing rain.

The Nikon F's F-36 motor drive seems to have been regarded at the time as a technical novelty - it had to be fitted at the factory and carefully tailored to the body - but the F2 had several popular motor drives, all of which look very unwieldy nowadays, because the batteries and motor were held in separate units. The F3 was much simpler. The MD-4 was the F3's standard and only motor drive, although there was a modified MD-4 for the rare, 13fps Nikon F3HS. It looks ridiculously imposing by modern standards although it's great to hold and, cleverly, it keeps the camera upright even if you fit a heavy lens to the F3.

Even more importantly it makes you feel like a real top photojournalist. Like in The Year of Living Dangerously or Salvador etc. Which is, strictly speaking, wrong. The vast majority of Nikons in old movies were Nikon Fs and F2s (as per this list at Petapixel), presumably because most of the dramatic stories of photographic derring-do happened during the Vietnam period. Putting on my cultural studies hat, I could furthermore argue that Hollywood in the 1980s turned away from serious contemporary drama and embraced fantasy instead - shifting abruptly from Apocalypse Now to Delta Force and Rambo: First Blood Part II - which precluded the F3 from building up much of a cinematic legacy. In the action films of the 1980s photojournalists were not heroic crusaders, they were instead turncoat traitors, stab-in-the-back fifth columnists who were conspiring with the liberal establishment to undermine all that was great and good in the world. Salvador was an exception, but for the purposes of this post it's wrong, unacceptable, because James Woods carried a Canon F-1 in that film. This is not the first time James Woods has defied me. The magnificent bastard.

Still, Vietnam, eh? Full Metal Jacket has masses of Fs:

The Nikon F and the M16, seemingly made for each other. One of them kills, the other allows the dead to live again in far-off lands. The MD-4 takes eight AA batteries or a special NiCad pack which is impossible to find in working condition nowadays. With AAs it shoots at four frames a second, and judging by the waveform my MD-4 is still spot on after all these years. The battery pack boosts it to 5.5fps. Without the MD-4 the F3 is surprisingly petite. I feel sorry for the Earl of Lemongrab, but at the same time I worry that he will discover how to make a battery out of himself. The resulting explosion of electricity would be disastrous for the Candy Kingdom.

The later F4 (1988) had a built-in motor, although adding one of the battery grips increased the frame rate from 4.0 to 5.7fps. The F5 (1996), in contrast, was a monolithic block, after which the F6 (2004) went back to the F4 way of doing things, with an optional battery pack that boosted the frame rate. And that's that.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro: Doppler

Today I'm going to write about the Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro, an old lens from the early days of the EOS system. It was launched in 1990, according to the Canon Camera Museum, and replaced ten years later by the 100mm f/2.8 USM, which is still on sale today. And I'm going to do this whilst listening to the Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, the man's debut album. Surprisingly, it wasn't released on Warp - instead, it came out in 1992 on a little Belgian label called Apollo. The 100mm f/2.8 USM is a popular 1:1 macro lens that's fast enough to do double-duty as a portrait lens and short telephoto. I've never used the USM version, but I came across a great deal on the original and decided to see what it was like.

The chronology of Canon's EOS 100mm Macro lenses goes something like this:
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro (1990 - 2000)
- Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM (2000 - Present)
- Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM (2009 - Present)

The 100mm f/2.8 USM is one of the gems of the EOS system. The L equivalent is by all accounts a lovely lens, but it's also very expensive and you have to wonder if you need a weather-sealed, image stabilised short macro.

The original 100mm tends to be forgotten nowadays, because it predates most of the modern digital photography websites, and 1990 was a long time ago. In 1990 the EOS system was three years old, and had some gaps in its lens coverage. If you wanted a short telephoto there was the 80mm f/1.2 and the 80-200mm f/2.8, which were very expensive, or the 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus, which was apparently a bit meh. There was a big, empty, prime-less gap in the 50-135mm range which the 100mm f/2.8 Macro helped to fill, and it was eventually joined by the 80mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2. And of course it's a macro lens - the only other EOS macro lens in 1990 was a 50mm f/2.5 model.

For the purposes of this post I stuck it on a 5D MkII. I first heard 85-92 about five years after it came out, and compared to the lush ambient soundscapes of The Orb and Future Sound of London it felt old-fashioned in a classical way, the aural equivalent of an old black and white silent film. I've always had a soft spot for it.

As legend has it, the album was mastered from a tape cassette that had been chewed up by Richard James' car stereo. Furthermore he had a tiny budget, and production-wise the tracks tend to be awash with reverb - drums and everything - as if he didn't have access to a mixer with effects sends. And so the record has an odd, ancient sound. Despite this it's a solid album, on a par with the classic compilations that Warp put out a few years later - Bytes, and Artificial Intelligence, for example. Just like those records it's a schizophrenic mixture that could have done with a different track order but it's always listenable.

Here's what the lens looks like:

Physically it resembles the USM version - although the depth of field scale and manual focus ring are swapped around - with the major difference being that the front element is way down inside the barrel, rather than near the surface:

As a consequence you don't need to bother with a hood. Optically they have different designs. The USM version has twelve elements in eight groups versus ten elements in nine groups for the original. What does this mean, performance-wise? I have no idea, and I can't find any comparisons of the two lenses on the internet because the pre-USM version is so obscure.

I didn't do any formal tests; I don't have the means to evaluate a macro lens. I would need some way to hold the lens perfectly perpendicular to a detailed close-up target; getting it perpendicular would be difficult. I can only assume that it's fit for purpose. Here's a crop of a close-up shot of a pound coin:

My impression is that at f/2.8 it has a small amount of colour fringing on high-contrast edges, although in the macro range this isn't a problem because you won't be using f/2.8, the depth of field is much too narrow. Stop down to f/4, f/8 and beyond and it becomes as sharp as any lens. Here's a comparison of the vignetting at f/2.8 and then f/4:

The good songs are right at the start of the album, albeit that they're really good. "XTal" is a neat taster but for me the high spot is "Tha".

It reminds me of Neu's "Hallogallo", in the sense that for nigh-on ten minutes it goes nowhere and stays the same, and yet it's endlessly fascinating, like a sculpture or a clever clockwork toy. It's a mixture of ghostly voices, an organic bassline, far-away strings and a simple pulse beat, and it's one of the few tracks on 85-92 that would have fit well into Selected Ambient Works Vol 2. Twenty years later it still sounds like the future, a future of distant machines and neon lights, where the internet became a... well, the internet became what it became. The track throws me off into an electronic reverie for the days of Snow Crash and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Few things date more than science fiction that comes true; for a brief moment the sectors remain untouched on the platter, and then new data is written over them, and the files are gone.

The 100mm is a very versatile lens that happens to be pretty good at all the things it does, although at the same time it falls between several stools. As a 1:1 macro lens you won't get striking shots of insect eyeballs or bacteria - that kind of thing needs specialised equipment - and if you plan on taking shots of flowers in the garden you'd better hope that there's no wind, because at 1:1 the slightest breeze throws your focus off. The original 100mm f/2.8 has pretty ropey autofocus, too. It whines back and forth when it can't get a lock, which is embarrassing if you're in public. Passers-by will point and laugh at your inability to focus properly and you'll feel ashamed, especially if you're a man. By all accounts the USM version is greatly superior in this respect.

From that point onwards the album dips, although it remains listenable. Most of the tracks present one good idea but then fail to develop it, perhaps because Mr Twin had very limited sequencing equipment, or maybe he was zonked out of his head on drugs or (more likely) he didn't ever imagine that the tracks he did all those years ago would be put out on an album, and he had no way of going back and finishing them. Of course, "Tha" itself is just one idea, but it works brilliantly, and it sounds right. "Ptolemy" simply needed more work. In fact it sounds a bit like a Madonna backing track - seriously, it's not too far from mainstream chart music of the late 1980s. Perhaps it was a mickey-take. "Heliosphan" has a superbly atmospheric opening that builds up and up, but again it goes nowhere.

The lens has great, L-quality contrast, which was the first thing I noticed. For the images in this post I've used Photoshop's Auto Contrast and, for the most part, nothing else. I sized them down.

"Ageispolis" has noodling, which is something the Aphex Twin wisely chose not to pursue with his later records. There are gems in the second half of the record, though. "Schottkey 7th Path" and "Hedphelym" are the kind of atmospheric tracks you might have on the background, quietly, as you play top Zombie mod DayZ. "Delphium" is a good solid bleep tune along the lines of Warp's early records and demonstrates that Mr Twin could do straightforward melodic techno if he wanted to.

Instead he chose something else. Selected Ambient Works was followed by Selected Etc Vol 2, which was more conventionally ambient, with lengthy washes of sound. It has an elegaic air altogether absent from 85-92, which is emotionally much more straightforward. In fact I don't think of it as an emotional record. It's evocative, but I feel images and ideas when I listen to it, rather than terror and ecstasy and the other three emotions, which I call bang, sack, and master.

London is so trendy that it even sells The Impossible Project's Polaroid films in physical shops, and it has a Lomography store (viz the previous post), albeit not in the same place. Even though most of Britain no longer has shops, London still has a few left. Clinging on for dear life against a tide of rent and rate rises. Trying to make ends meet. Slaves to money. Then they close.

Trendy shops with narrow appeal rely on young people with disposable income to turn a profit, but if all the young people are unemployed there is no-one to keep them afloat. All the record shops, retro fashion boutiques, comics shops, etc. They will all retreat to the internet, where they swap rent payments for hosting fees. One day the money will grow back, but the high street will not.

5D Mk II / 100mm f/2.8 @ f/2.8 / ISO 12800

On a full-frame camera 100mm is just about usable as a walkabout lens, although you'll wish you could go wider. On an APS-C camera it becomes a 160mm f/2.8, which is definitely in the telephoto range and awkward indoors unless you're actually using it as a macro lens; it's good for museums, probably better now than it was in 1990 because you have ISO 12,800 in colour instead of Tri-X pushed to ISO 1600. Pair it with a single wide prime and you have a compact travel kit.

The bokeh is a bit busy, although in the macro range the background becomes an amorphous paste, so it's less of an issue than with a portrait lens. If you're an eBay seller who sells coins, stamps, old postcards, anything roughly A5 or smaller, it's absolutely splendid. Clamp the camera to a tripod, set up the lights, and bang-bang-bang-bang you'll end up with hundreds of sharp, detailed shots of your inventory. Faster than using a scanner, too.

In the end I got rid of mine. What it does, it does very well. But for a portrait lens I want longer, or faster, or both, and I already have those things. In the outdoors, macro photography is fiendishly tricky, and I've never really been interested in it. For static subjects indoors I'm prepared to use macro rings, which are a doddle if your camera has live view. For wildlife the autofocus of the original, pre-USM model is awkward for insects and squirrels, and for anything larger you don't need a macro lens unless you want to photograph boils or scabs etc.

The bokeh is slightly "edgy"

Of course, if you're into Macro photography it's a steal, and as a third lens - after the kit lens and the 50mm f/1.8 that everybody buys - it's a super choice, basically surpassing the image quality of a 70-200mm f/2.8 pro zoom in a multi-purpose lens that costs less than half the price. On the used market it's an obscurity, because it was discontinued so long ago, and it doesn't sell for much less than the USM version, so I would recommend that instead. Or an 85mm f/1.8 with an extension ring and patience. Or Tamron's popular 90mm macro, which is apparently just as good but cheaper. It's worth pointing out that despite dating from the first years of the EOS system, the 100mm f/2.8 worked perfectly on my 5D MkII, which is a modern digital SLR (they didn't even have digital SLRs in 1990). Well, modern-ish, it's a couple of years old now.

85-92 slots neatly into Mr Twin's musical world. Right next to Surfing on Sine Waves, his next album, which was released under the Polygon Window name. Sine Waves is slicker than 85-92, and sounds more of a piece, although it's less diverse and feels a bit conservative in comparison. As if it was his audition for Warp Records, and he wanted to show that he could do a whole album of Warp-style music without dropping the ball. Everybody likes "Quoth", and I have a soft spot for Sine Waves on the whole, but it feels like a dead end. James' proper first album that was conceived as an album rather than a collection, I Care Because You Do, is closer in its diversity to 85-92 than Sine Waves, but with much more elaborate production, and the songs evolve rather than remaining static. Yes, ambient music generally remains static, but I get the impression that the tracks on Selected Ambient Works 85-92 weren't really conceived as ambient, the label was just slapped on for marketing purposes. Unlike Ambient II, which was ambient through and through.

Nonetheless Aphex Twin's ambient music was quickly overshadowed by his other music, and for a few years he became the arch-terror of the British specifically Cornish and electronic music scene, stalking the land like a giant predatory bird of prey. He played on this, with unsettling videos and album cover art, even though the music was often much less scary than the cover art suggested. By the time of his 2001 album Drukqs he was, with Chris Morris, one of the Gods that ruled the UK hipster scene. For a short while it seemed as if they knew and they were going to lead a revolution. And then as if by magic they both ran out of ideas and faded away from whence they came, to be replaced with a million tiny children. Mr Twin got what he wanted - a collaboration with Philip Glass, money, respect, a home in a converted bank - but there's a sense that he spread himself too thinly.

Looking back, I Care and Selected Ambient Volt II are the strongest. The Come to Daddy video tells you all you need to know about being young in Britain at the turn of the millennium. But it's impossible to summarise Richard James' work, because so much of it was released on EPs and compilations. Other acts ploughed similar furrows to a greater depth, but none ploughed so many furrows or used the same... the same kind of plough, the same kind of seeds. His own label, Rephlex, still puts out records, although listening to (plucks name out of Discogs) Macc and DgoHn's latest platter or Steinvord's "Backyard", it sounds as if his tastes are stuck in a rut. Macc and DgoHn sounds like a parody of a band name. Compare those records with Squarepusher's first album, which came out in 1996, or the following from Autechre, which was released just as the band was getting glitchy but not too glitchy:

Perhaps it happens to every generation. You see your dreams not exactly fade away, but they don't change the world as you expected; the world carries on, and another generation has a set of dreams, and they end up like layers on the surface of a pearl.