Saturday, 24 February 2018

Samyang 35mm T1.5 / f/1.4

Let's have a look at the Samyang 35mm T1.5. It's a fast wideangle full-frame lens from Samyang of Korea, available in a wide variety of lens mounts, although for this article I stuck it onto a Canon 5D MkII. The T1.5 is the cine version of the Samyang 35mm f/1.4 but with a slightly different body. Optically it's the same, so all the information in this review applies to both versions of the lens. I wrote this review while listening to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Ears on repeat. If you want to see more examples my review of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains was brought to you by this lens.

You and I know T-stops, but for the benefit of casual readers an f-stop is the ratio between the diameter of the maximum aperture of the lens and its focal length such that an f/1.4 lens has an aperture that's twice the diameter of an f/2.8 lens and bear in mind that the diameter expands in two dimensions so f/2.8 is actually two stops slower than f/1.4 whereas a T-stop is (looks it up) a T-stop is a measurement of the Transmittance of the lens expressed as the f-stop minus the percentage of light lost during transmission through the lens breathe in. Got that? It's an f-stop with a tiny bit shaved off to account for the light loss of all the glass and glass-air interfaces inside the lens.

At f/1.4.

The T-stop is always slightly slower than the f-stop because we live in an imperfect world where everything is broken and wrong. For coated prime lenses the difference is usually tiny. It starts to mount up with complex zoom lenses that have several elements and becomes a major problem with lenses that have non-standard optical paths, such as soft-focus lenses and mirror lenses. The famous Minolta/Sony 135mm f/2.8 STF for example has a T-value of T4.5 because the built-in neutral density filter saps a lot of light; macro lenses lose light because the image circle is spread-out at macro ranges, and mirror lenses lose light because it reflects off the mirror surfaces.

The lens is massive, roughly the same size as a 16-35mm f/2.8 full-frame zoom lens. Think of the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux and then imagine the opposite of that.
It's plastic, lighter than it looks; it doesn't rattle. The T1.5 cine version has a smooth, geared focus ring, which is fine handheld, and a declicked aperture.
In this image the lens is at the infinity hard stop, which isn't quite at the infinity mark. Mine is a native EOS mount lens.
There are no electronic connections. The Nikon stills version of the lens has auto-aperture, but otherwise you have to stop the lens down manually. It's a bit like using those old preset aperture lenses from the 1960s - you have to focus and then twist down the aperture until the shutter speed is at a value that pleases you.

The filter thread is plastic. The front element moves back and forth inside the barrel; the manufacturer makes no claims of weather or dust sealing. I imagine that leaving a UV or polarising filter on the lens all the time might cut down on dust in the long-term. For most of the shots in this post I used a polarising filter.
The box comes with a hood, which I have never used and didn't miss, and a felt bag.

e.g. the bag is made of felt. Obviously I had to feel the bag in order to remove it from the box. That goes without saying. T-stops are a motion picture thing. Cinematographers like to get it right in camera because cinematographers are hardcore. If you get the exposure of a stills photograph wrong you can salvage it in the darkroom. Ditto for motion picture film, but imagine that you've just shot fifty-six individual takes of Liam Neeson jumping over a fence, with different lenses, and you have to splice those takes together. If the exposure is the same all the way through you just have to worry about the natural rhythm of the cuts, which is difficult enough. If the exposure is different you have to adjust the lighting and perhaps colour balance of each shot, which wastes time. Imagine having to do that in the days of film, when there was no Adobe Premiere. Imagine Ridley Scott shouting at you for getting it wrong.

I've always wanted a fast wide prime. There are several choices but I plumped for a 35mm f/1.4. Why 35mm? 35mm is a vintage focal length from the days of the Leica/Contax rangefinder wars; it's a gentlemanly focal length, a bit staid, but it won't let you down. A couple of years ago I took a holiday with just a 35mm f/2.8 Olympus Stylus Epic, which I then ended up taking to Berlin as well, and I didn't feel underdressed.

Why f/1.4 and not f/2 or f/2.8? Fast prime lenses have a split personality. Wide open they can see in the dark and the wide aperture gives the photographer more control over depth of field; stopped down they're very sharp. I've shot a lot of medium format film over the last few years, and medium and larger formats have a particular look. The narrow depth of field combined with good central sharpness equals a kind of 3D pop-out effect that's hard to replicate with smaller formats.

A little bit of the medium format look, shot with a YashicaMat (top) and a Mamiya RB67 (bottom, cropped from 6x7).

At f/1.4 with a 35mm-format camera you still have to get very close to things in order to achieve the pop-out effect. At middle distances the depth separation is subtle, but it's there:

Never let it be said that I don't have any photographic ideas. I do have photographic ideas. Three or four of them at least that I reuse a lot. But the first step to dealing with your addictions is recognising that you have them. As you can see the bokeh is decent but nothing special. This seems to be typical of fast wideangle lenses.

Optically the lens is perfectly usable for reportage wide open, with a bit of glow around highlight edges; sharp in most of the frame at f/2.8, all of the frame at f/8 except the last few hundred pixels in the corner. It also seems to be better at close-up and medium distances than infinity, or alternatively it could be that I'm rubbish at focusing a wide angle lens manually at long distances. Here's a 100% crop of the seagull at the top of the post, taken at something like 1/8000th at f/1.4:

That's pretty good for f/1.4. Seagulls have teeth. Isn't it amazing what the natural world can produce all by itself? The hair, the beak, its eyes; honed over millions of years by natural selection. Our own creations are crude in comparison. Until we can build machines that create themselves we will remain in the shadow of the natural world. Why shoot at f/1.4 in bright sunshine? Over the last two decades it seems to have become standard in press photography to use fast wide angle lenses wide open in bright sunshine, I assume because photojournalists aren't allowed to retouch their images, and a combination of the narrow depth of field and vignetting of wide apertures draws attention to the subject in-camera. Consider this image of the Badwater Ultramarathon from July 2013, shot in the bright sunshine and searing heat of Death Valley:

This is my mental image of modern press photography. The EXIF data is gone but my hunch is that it was shot with a 35mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.2 or f/1.4 wide open, which in theory is insane - it's Death Valley in late morning or early afternoon - but that's how press photography is nowadays.

Earlier generations associated grainy black and white film with veracity, because that's what photojournalism looked like in the 1960s. For my generation black and white is an affectation, and the look of "reality" is 24mm f/1.4 at f/1.4 in bright sunshine with harsh shadows and washed-out colours, and everything is sand or dirt. The look has permeated computer games to an extent that muted brown is now a cliche of Modern Warfare and Call of Duty. It's another example of how the medium shapes our view of the world and becomes a message in itself, next paragraph.

This is by coincidence one of my greatest sexual fetishes.

I wonder if people in the Victorian era associated hard-hitting news with the look of woodblock engravings. Who knows. The following four images were shot at f/8 and f/1.4 respectively, followed by 100% crops from the centre and corner, with no sharpening or correction of any kind:

There's a teeny-tiny bit of CA on the artist's jacket and the post, but it's minuscule. The corner isn't as bitingly sharp as my Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 but then again my Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 can't do f/1.4.

You'll have to trust that I focused correctly - Samyang lenses are notorious for misaligned focus scales, and for focusing past infinity. My impression is that the lens isn't great at infinity focus.

This is the same image, but with sharpening and some CA correction, which suggests that the perceived lack of sharpness is more a function of glowy edges than poor resolution. Serves you right for photographing a landscape at f/1.4. On a more serious level the lens might not be great for astrophotography unless you stop down to f/2 or so.

The lens is available for all of the popular full-frame lens mounts and the likes of Micro Four Thirds as well, and to confuse matters Samyang also sells a completely different, autofocus 35mm f/1.4 for mirrorless cameras. Furthermore the lens is available under a variety of brand names, of which Rokinon seems to have captured the public's imagination the most, perhaps because it sounds very aggressive.

Samyang also sells a 35mm T1.5 as part of their professional XEEN range of cine lenses. I assume the optics are the same, but the XEEN lenses are made of metal and have a common physical design. They're a lot more expensive.

It's an advert for a film in which Mussolini comes back from the dead. It's fascinating to imagine how politicians from the past might fit in with the present; my hunch is that Mussolini, Stalin, Ramsay MacDonald and the like would adapt much more readily than Hitler, because they were essentially opportunists whereas Hitler had a very narrow focus on a limited range of political ideas, wedded to a certain time and place that has long passed.

This was taken with my mobile phone. Sylvio Berlusconi must really like being Prime Minister of Italy. I imagine he can use the role to pass laws that benefit his business interests, but otherwise being Prime Minister of Italy seems like more trouble than it's worth.

There's a tiny bit of mostly-barrel-with-a-bit-of-moustache-style distortion. PTLens has a profile for it.

In fact every image in this post illustrates one of my sexual fetishes, including the seagulls.

There are lots of alternative lenses in the 35mm range. At the top of the financial tree Nikon and Canon make weather-sealed autofocus 35mm f/1.4s; Sigma makes an apparently terrific 35mm f/1.4; Zeiss sells a manual focus 35mm f/1.4 for several lens mounts, plus an autofocus 35mm f/1.4 especially for the Minolta/Sony system. I haven't used any of them. Are they any good? Probably!

As mentioned in the text I didn't bother with a hood. Flare resistance was however infinitely superior to Samyang's 14mm f/2.8. Note in this photo the distinctive colour shift from "bokeh fringing" - branches away from the focal plane are green, closer purple.

The people of Rome are like honey badgers. They park wherever they want. Here's some more purple fringing on highlight edges, which as before goes away when you stop down and can generally be Photoshopped into oblivion.

35mm is however a venerable focal length that, as with 50mm, crosses financial boundaries and appears to be difficult to do badly; until recently Canon and Nikon made 35mm f/2 lenses that were amongst the cheapest in their prime lens range. The two lenses were replaced with a more expensive f/2 with image stabilisation and an f/1.8 respectively. In the mid-range Tamron also sells a 35mm f/1.8. Judging by the reviews they all have unimpressive bokeh, are usable wide open, nice at f/8. At this point in the post the anger and aggression that drove the preceding paragraphs has subsided to be replaced by a kind of gnawing fear, a gnawing dread, gnawing.

At the bottom of the pile is Yongnuo, a kind of mini-Samyang famous for its flash units. Yongnuo makes a 35mm f/2 that looks like a clone of the old Canon 35mm f/2. It sells for less than a hundred English pounds and apparently isn't very good. I know very little about vintage 35mm lenses, although from what I have read the otherwise-reliable Olympus OM range of compact primes apparently wasn't all that hot at 35mm. In the early 1970s Nikon launched a 35mm f/1.4 which was subsequently modified for AI and then AI-S. It's much smaller than the Samyang 35mm and is apparently still on sale new, although you have to ask and it's very expensive. It has a certain amount of investment value, but on an optical level it's apparently not as good. As far as I know Canon didn't sell a 35mm f/1.4 during the FD years, instead opting to one-up Nikon by selling a 24mm f/1.4 instead, but that's a whole 'nother focal length.

The best 35mm lens I own is my aforementioned Contax 35-70mm f/3.4, which I never use because it's slow and awkward.

That's it. Can't think of any more to say. Might as well stop before the bad words come. While in Rome I only saw an image of Cara Delevingne once. A few years back it seemed as if London was plastered with a mixture of adverts featuring Cara Delevingne and posters for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, to an extent that I now associate 2014 and 2015 with images of Jennifer Lawrence surrounded by flames. Then the posters were gone and now London seems like an alien place; the new posters are strange and unfamiliar, the iconography means nothing to me. I miss those posters. I associate them with a certain time in my life, and now they're gone forever.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Bomarzo, Monster Park I: Kodak Pro Image

Off to Bomarzo, to see the Parco dei Mostri, an attractive park dotted with monstrous stone sculptures created in the late 1500s. That's the late 16th Century. It always threw me as a kid that the 19th Century had years beginning with 18 and the 1900s were actually the 20th Century. The reason of course is that the years from one to one hundred inclusive were the 1st century, and the years from 101 to 200 were the 2nd century, although to confuse things a lot of people place the beginning of the centuries at the etc next paragraph.

I took along my Fujica Half, a half-frame camera from the 1960s. It has a selenium meter that still works, and it's small and handy and I like half-frame so why not. I also decided to try out some film I bought. Kodak Pro Image, a long-discontinued portrait film from Kodak, probably from the early 2000s:

What was Kodak Pro Image? That's a good question. There's almost nothing about it on the internet, nothing from when it was real. The packaging has text in English, Spanish, and what I assume to be Portuguese, so perhaps it was professional film made for the South American market; or for that matter the British, Spanish, and Portuguese markets, who knows. How it ended up in England, I know not. Mine was made in 2009 and is now out of date. What was Kodak? It was a huge company that made film and imaging products. It still exists, but for the most part it is now a faded sign that you see on top of magazine kiosks when you go on holiday.

Kodak still sells some film. Its official professional portrait film is Portra, which has never really grabbed me, but then again perhaps that's a good thing given that portrait film is supposed to be subtle. I can't really judge Pro Image because my rolls are ten years out of date and I can't tell how they were stored, but it has a definite orange-yellow-red bias, which makes sense for a portrait film.

Fresh from the scanner the images appear to have an orange warming filter slapped over them, not necessarily a bad thing. With a bit of tweaking the results can be made to look normal, but I like the orange. Bear in mind that I went to Bomarzo in February; Pro Image gives the impression that I went in summer and that it was pleasantly warm, whereas in reality the sunshine was harsh early-spring sunshine and it was cool in the shade. Sweet lies. Pro Image coped well with backlighting and highlights, which is one of the good things about negative film. It's ISO 100 but I gave it a slight boost because it's so old. There isn't a lot of grain, but then again it appears to be a relatively modern 100-speed film; film was pretty slick in the 1990s.

On a tangent, I've seen a few fashion shoots over the last couple of years that have film grain, but they were obviously shot with a digital camera. The grain has been added in post-production. Grain in the context of stills photography is a bit of an illusion. I remember seeing an exhibition of images by Eugene Smith, complete with the original negatives and some unaltered full-frame prints, and it struck me that the grainy look of black and white film wasn't just a function of pushing, it was also a function of cropping as well. Eugene Smith did a heck-tonne of cropping, and if you want to capture the grainy look of old film you have to bear in mind that even old film wasn't all that grainy unless it was pushed, and you're actually looking at extreme cropping.

Furthermore 35mm motion picture film is essentially half-frame, but with an even smaller frame because it has to accommodate the optical soundtrack, and furthermore the images you see in this post and throughout this blog are the entire frame with no cropping, whereas films were always cropped a little bit during projection. I'm digressing here.

Bomarzo is a small town that trickles down from the top of a hill. It has a population of crows that swirl out from a castle and swirl back in again. It's spooky in a gothic horror way, especially given that the houses are mostly monochrome.

This was shot with my mobile phone. It illustrates one of the perennial problems with smaller digital sensors and digital photography in general; the sky is blown out, gone, and it's not coming back.

The town is off the beaten path, and perhaps because of that a lot of houses seemed to be for sale. I imagine it's a tricky commute, given the winding roads and general isolation. Getting there from Rome is difficult. I took the train to Viterbo, then a bus, then I walked to the park, then on the way back I took the bus to Viterbo and the train back to Rome. This chap has a very useful guide, which is in Italian but you get the gist. As before I relied on OSMAND on my mobile phone to show me the way; the OpenStreetMap data for Bomarzo even includes the special hidden zig-zag stairs that take you down from Bomarzo to the road leading to the park.

The walk from Bomarzo to the park involves going up into Bomarzo and then down into the park, but before reaching it my way was blocked by a landslide and I almost had to turn back:

In the end I found some planks of wood, and I rested them on top of the landslide and skated down the hill and ramped over the landslide and when I was in the air I did a cool backflip and landed again and continued downhill to the park. Some people watching me applauded and a cute girl asked for my mobile number which I gave her.

Viterbo, by the way, is a big road junction. There are no pavements and everywhere there are main roads packed with cars. The pedestrians are downtrodden. This is my enduring memory of Viterbo, and this is just one road junction of many:

From top to bottom a pedestrian crossing that leads from a broken pavement to a metal barrier; a load of cars; a garden gate that opens onto a busy main road, with a pavement - if it really is a pavement - that's just a painted line. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring came true, and exists today in Viterbo. I felt sorry for the people. Even the people in cars. They drive; but they are driven, by Moloch, who will never be satisfied until the people of Viterbo have destroyed their own souls.

Alternatively you could go via Orte, but I chose Viterbo because the bus terminates there, and there's an automatic ticket machine so you don't have to order a bus ticket from a human being. I learned from gazing out of the bus windows that rural Italy consists of groups of old men sitting around tables talking to each other while no doubt the women actually do all of the work.

Because this is the internet and the possibilities are endless I have decided to make the rest of this paragraph interactive. I'll provide you with some letters and you can re-order them as you wish, and at the end there's a chocolate bar. oaewekhi. cgtulihMuyohtwm ehdaaae emhaublroniEI pratprnlpshsn eeoodrdLoteharecgns'e itiho-thdi ubGwnesrItplehpa ttmhhaefh ogsOesincodtpi dlusre0iriiT ndldcpi; rd:deesarcgeaOu u2rodkudwss9eprsuarmrife5ecinTiensprttneooydwes. bakt boons enhchyglhb tunrm,btsnnthksp Brooyfteaoar ypwews,thruadadcjsfcishPstneytsefecr onolIiucrtioa i1dta gbo.edusfihhe rusFtateo fltcf Csk ahifeni oyeplrao phtefnieesan ilesocrge Pkuel uiebsbmctezee6oitpr yaanls [milky bar]:

That covers the history of the park. It's a pleasant wander for a couple of hours, smaller than I expected. Bomarzo has a small supermarket but make sure you buy drinks first because it's a challenging hike back uphill to Bomarzo. The park in theory has a little cafe area, but it was closed when I arrived. Entry is €10 which is very reasonable for something so photogenic.

The leaning house is a terror. The tilted floor is subtly disorientating. I wonder if sick building syndrome is caused by wonky floors; tiny errors in levelling that make people feel nauseous.

At this point I reached the end of my single roll of Kodak Pro Image. I sat inside the monster's mouth and changed to Kodak Ektachrome, which will be in the next post. It's interesting to compare the war elephant that I saw in February 2018 with the elephant pictured in LIFE magazine's shoot, back in 1965; the elephant is a little bit more eroded and more mossy, but in fifty years it hasn't changed much, so there's no rush to visit the place. It will be there, waiting for you, next year and the next.