Sunday, 26 August 2018

Mamiya 55mm f/4.5: The Phantom Itch

Let's have a look at the Mamiya 55mm f/4.5. It's a wide angle lens for the old Mamiya C twin-lens-reflex system. In the past I've used the Mamiya 65mm f/3.5, which was the other wideangle lens for the Mamiya C, and I was always curious about the 55mm. The focal length is very wide for medium format but the relatively narrow aperture bothered me, but I had to find out what it was like, so here we are.

There were several Mamiya C cameras throughout the system's life. I used a Mamiya C3, one of the earliest. The C3 shoots 6x6cm negatives on medium format film.

Medium format is a very different world in which the equipment is big and heavy, the lenses are slow, focal lengths behave differently and the photographers are angry men who despise you. In the medium format world 80mm is normal, 180mm is short portrait, 55mm is akin to 28-35mm or so, 40mm is about the widest you can get without straying into panoramic or fisheye territory.

In my experience 55mm feels like a narrow 28mm with more at the top and bottom on account of the square format. Contemplate the following image, which shows the full 6x6cm frame with a red box indicating the 3.6x2.4cm outline of a 35mm negative:

If I crop the negative down to that red box the result is a 35mm-sized film frame shot with a 55mm lens, which is what you'd get if you could somehow mount the Mamiya 55mm f/4.5 on a full-frame digital SLR:

Sadly it doesn't go the other way; you can't use 35mm full-frame lenses with medium format gear because firstly the lens-to-film distance is all wrong and secondly they don't project a large enough image circle to fill the frame. The exception is shift lenses, which are essentially medium format lenses made for 35mm full-frame cameras with a mechanism that allows the lens to shift around the frame, but I'm digressing here.

I like to think that Rick Astley never went away; we are the ones who strayed. He was there all the time. We just had to open our hearts and let him in.

I've written about the Mamiya C before. The system was launched in the late 1950s and remained in production right up until 1994. Uniquely for a twin-lens reflex it was a complete system, with interchangeable lenses, focusing screens, eye-level viewfinders, flash bracket-stroke-carry handles, a special parallax-correcting tripod mount, lots of other stuff. Most other twin-lens reflexes had a fixed lens, usually 75mm or 80mm, occasionally with an accessory optic that screwed onto the taking lens, but none of them were as well-thought-out or easy to use as the Mamiya C.

A 55mm f/4.5, sitting next to a 65mm f/3.5. My 65mm is one of the older, chrome-bodied models. The 55mm was launched later in the system's lifecycle and has a black body. The very last C-system lenses had a blue dot on the shutter cocking lever although I've never seen a photo of a 55m with this dot.

For the images in this post I used the Mamiya C3 on the right. It's over fifty years old but still works. On the left is a Mamiya C33 with the lens removed; the lens is held in place with a bent piece of wire. It's crude but effective.
In the shot above the 55mm f/4.5 is set at 1/125th and f/11, which is about right for ten-year-old 100-speed negative film in bright sunshine.

Mamiya TLR lenses had the shutter and aperture mechanism built into them, with focusing done by the camera body. You see the knobs at the bottom of the cameras in the picture above? When you turn them the whole front of the camera slides in and out. That's how the lens focuses, and it can focus very closely, almost as closely as a proper macro lens.

On a mechanical level Mamiya TLR lenses are easy to open up - the front elements usually screw right off - which is handy if you want to blow out the dust or un-gum the shutter. With I think just one exception the viewing and taking lenses were the same so if the viewing lens has a scratch you can just swap over the elements. In theory the lenses were calibrated at the factory with little metal shims but in my experience any impact on image quality that comes from swapping lenses isn't apparent.

I shoot a lot of film, but I'm not blind to its flaws and limitations. If I could take pictures by blinking my eyes I would do that instead of carrying a camera; the only thing that really matters is the end result.
This image does however demonstrate one of film's few killer features, or at least one of negative film's few killer features; it's very hard to blow out highlights. Even if you overexpose a lot, highlights retain some colour, which is terrific if you shoot backlit subjects.

The last and best of the Mamiya TLRs was the C330f, which was launched in the early 1980s. It had some plastic components and weighed less than its predecessors. By 1994 the system was an anachronism - it was an anachronism in the 1970s - but it still sold a trickle of units because there was a niche for it. If you wanted to shoot 6x6 medium format a Mamiya TLR was objectively better than a Holga or a Lubitel; more flexible than a YashicaMat; cheaper than a Bronica SQ; much cheaper (and more flexible) than a RolleiFlex; much much cheaper than a Hasselblad; more reliable than a Russian Pentacon / Kiev, I think I've covered all the bases.

My impression - and I have to say I have no evidence for this, it's just my hunch - is that 6x6 fell out of fashion with camera manufacturers in the 1980s in favour of 645 and 6x7, both of which fit more naturally into magazine pages and portrait frames. By the time digital cameras came along the majority of medium format systems were 645, and even today most medium format digital backs are 645, or cropped 645. I mention this because one thing the Mamiya C lacked was interchangeable film backs; a 645 or 6x7 back might have extended the system's life a bit.

Ironically the rise of Instagram has made square incredibly hip with young people, to an extent that Fuji actually launched a square version of their Instax instant film camera a few years ago, thus demonstrating that the universe is contracting, or that it's a rubber band or something.

What's the 55mm f/4.5 like? Pretty good. There's very mild barrel distortion, but it's easily fixable with Photoshop and invisible unless you're a fan of geometric purity. I tried to shoot at f/11 all the time. At f/11 it's basically razor-sharp across the frame.

I scanned these images with a plain old Epson V500 desktop scanner, by no means the last word in film scanning, so I can't pass authoritative judgement on the 55mm's image quality, but my impression is that wide open it's sharp in the middle with slightly murky extreme corners and from f/8 onwards it's sharp across the frame.

A crop from the top-left, shot at f/11.

f/4.5 isn't as big a limitation as it seems. Mamiya TLR bodies are heavy, and the leaf shutter just goes SNICK (it makes a metallic CHING! sound) and I had no trouble hand-holding it at 1/15th of a second. Weight is nature's image stabilisation.

Wideangle with 6x6 is however problematic. As mentioned in my article on the 65mm, square format forces you to think about framing; if you shoot square as you would rectangular 35mm, you'll end up with empty patches at the top and bottom of the image.

In the next two images I've tried to spread the scene across the whole of the frame, but in the third image there's a big empty space at the bottom, albeit that it would be easy to crop out. Cropping was one of medium format's killer features back when medium format was a thing.

This was shot at f/4.5 - the extreme corners aren't that hot but the middle of the image is fine.

I shot all of these images with some Fuji 160 that expired in 2009. I exposed at ISO 100 and then added a bit more exposure just for good luck. When it comes to negative film, light is a bit like wine - it doesn't hurt to have some more.

An example of cropping. This is a distant view of the Miramare Castle, plus some young ladies who paddled into view. As I stood on the jetty, peering through the viewfinder at a landscape I could never possess and some women I would never have, I contemplated the fact that as men age they become physically repellent, and that even when I was younger all of this was beyond my grasp. And yet I keep going because I am driven by a satanic rage.

This was underexposed. The negative was thin. A leaf has fallen on the car's bonnet. Just in front of the car is a heart-shaped leaf on the ground, aligned with the car's direction of travel. That's the great thing about photography. It's a lot more detailed than real life. You can savour it.

The big problem with the Mamiya C is its bulk and weight. It's awkward to handhold and takes up a lot of space in a bag, and furthermore you need to carry a separate lightmeter. In the 1950s and 1960s photojournalists used twin-lens reflex cameras for news photography but as soon as they were allowed to use 35mm SLRs they switched and didn't go back.

There's another issue as well. The 55mm f/4.5's relatively narrow aperture. Not because of its speed but for the depth of field. Medium and large format photography has a distinctive look. It comes from a combination of shallow depth of field, razor-sharp middle, and zero vignetting. All of this makes the subject pop out, as if it was mounted on a glass plate held in between the camera and the background - or as if the subject was poking his or her face through a wall of water.

Sadly this effect isn't very pronounced with the 55mm f/4.5. The depth of field is such that everything is usually in focus. Sized down to 1000 pixels you end up wondering why you didn't shoot with a digital camera instead, cropping the image square with Photoshop. It's interesting to compare the results with images shot with a Holga, which has a 60mm f/8 lens; the Holga's aperture is even narrower, but the extremely blurry edges mimic the out-of-focus look of medium format so Holga images often end up looking more "epic".

Vesuvius, shot with a Holga

Nonetheless the the 55mm f/4.5 is the easiest, cheapest, most reliable way to get wide angle coverage in 6x6 medium format today, just as it was in the 1970s. It was the widest lens available for the Mamiya C and commands a price premium because of it; the Mamiya C's lens range was small enough that it's not too hard to collect them all, and perhaps one day I will.

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.