Thursday, 28 March 2019

Canon T70: Slim Pickings for Mister Friendly

I like to believe that most sports evolved from hunting and survival skills. Many thousands of years ago if a caveman could run faster than his prey and throw a rock accurately, he could put food on the table; if he couldn't, he starved. Fast-forward to the present day and we have sprinting and javelin and shot-putt and so forth.

Hurdling grew from the need to run quickly over difficult terrain. What if you're being chased towards a cliff, and there's a pool of water at the bottom? That's where diving comes from.

Tennis? You can do a lot of damage with a tennis racket. Race walking? I call it "stealth running". Triple jump? No idea.

And of course there's cycling. It's often forgotten nowadays, but the invention of the bicycle in the early 1800s revolutionised hunting. For the first time human beings could keep up with the fastest land animals, such as cheetahs and antelopes and springboks and horses in that order. Humanity did not truly become master of the world until the invention of the bicycle.

During the heyday of European colonial expansion the jungles and plains of Africa hummed with the squeaky whooshing sound of European bicycle hunters. The long-term environmental consequences were disastrous. Lions and elephants etc were overhunted, but worse than that they were humiliated. After thousands of years of supremacy lions had met their match, and this realisation sent them into a deep, species-wide depression from which they have yet to emerge.

As the first European bicycle hunters rode out from their verandas, gin and tonic in hand - spritz in hand, whatever - the lions must surely have realised that their time was over, and today we're going to look at the Canon T70. It's a 35mm SLR launched by Canon in 1984. It's called the T70. I have a photograph of it, here:

It's sitting in front of a Nikon F-301. I put it there because I wanted to. Have you ever heard of Pop Ambient? It's a series of compilation albums put out annually by Kompakt Records. The first one came out in 2001. They're still going. Each album has about ten tracks of ambient music, generally upbeat and attractive rather than dark and moody. What separates Pop Ambient from other compilations is that the standard is very high.

I'm listening to Pop Ambient 2003 right now, and it makes me feel slightly sad, because good music always makes me feel sad. Why isn't more music like this? Did the people who wrote the tunes on Pop Ambient 2003 wonder what the world would be like in 2019? They could not have imagined that in the distant future of 2019 people would be able to listen to music with a computer, as I am doing now. The highlights are Markus Guentner's swoopy "Express Yourself", Klimek's mysterious "Milk and Honey", and Leandro Fresco's "Buenos Amigos", which sounds like a summer night.

But the album is solid throughout. It even has a track by The Orb, and it's not bad! There isn't a definitive history of Pop Ambient on the internet, or at least I can't find it. I have the impression that for the first few years the albums were lost in a sea of chaff, one of hundreds nay thousands of generic ambient collections, perhaps notable for showcasing ambient music at a time when it had fallen out of fashion in favour of glitchy EDM. By surviving for nineteen years it has carved a niche for itself. It has, sadly, outlasted Pete Namlook and Fax Records.

The albums are released at the end of the previous year. Pop Ambient 2003 came out in late 2002. As a consequence they don't feel like retrospectives, they feel like heads-up previews of the year to come. The most recent is Pop Ambient 2019, which was released in November 2018. In contrast the F-301 was launched a few months after the T-70, in 1985. The two cameras were state-of-the-art at the time. They had manual focus but everything else was electronic, with motorised film advance, an electronically-controlled shutter that didn't work without batteries, plus a range of program autoexposure settings and light-up LEDs in the viewfinder.

BC stands for battery check. It makes a click noise and shows the battery level in the LCD. It feels like a waste of a button. Why not just show the battery level when you turn the camera on, hmm? Canon, are you listening?

The T70 is in theory the more advanced of the two cameras. The F-301 has motorised film advance but you have to rewind the film manually, whereas the T70 winds the film in both directions. The F-301 has a conventional film speed dial whereas the T70 has MODE and UP/DOWN buttons and an LCD panel, which was wicked cool at the time but hasn't aged well at all.

Old camera manuals often have models who look Japanese-European, or Japanese-American. I wonder if it's because Canon etc wanted to use Western-looking models - to appeal to the Western market - but the only Western-looking models available in Tokyo at the time were Japanese-Americans. Who knows.
The manual talks about the five-year lifespan of LCDs. Thirty years later Canon's concerns appear to be unfounded, because the T70's LCD is still readable. I haven't had to change the backup battery.

Design-wise the F-301 is essentially a baby Nikon F3. It looks boring in photographs but it's surprisingly attractive in real life. It's low-key, conservative. The T70 on the other hand is postmodern. It's self-conscious. It it was bright purple it would fit right in with contemporary Memphis Group furniture. Sadly the looks have aged about as well as the button-driven interface, e.g. badly. It was launched at a time when camera manufacturers were really starting to pay attention to the physical design of their cameras but unfortunately this was the mid-80s, when there were a lot of bad design ideas floating about. Let's just say that Canon's designers wanted to get something off their chest, which they did.

The T70 was released at a time when dials were old-hat. The hip new thing was multipurpose UP/DOWN buttons. They set the program mode, the shutter speed, and the ISO. The T70 was one of the first SLRs with a top-mounted LCD.

The T70 has a fussy mixture of plain flat surfaces and awkward angles. I think the handgrip is supposed to look like a stylised hand, gripping the body of the camera. The bit where the body bends down and the shutter button surround bends with it is distinctive, but doesn't help disguise the fact that the right side of the camera looks too long.

What's the T70 like to use? For the most part it's anonymous. I put it in PROGRAM mode and shot. The viewfinder is spartan but it has a big split-image focusing aid. The body is wide but thin, and I wish the shutter button was further forward, but everybody's hands are different so I can't hold that against the camera. It has a quick-load system whereby you pull out the film, rest the leader against an orange mark, and close the back, at which point it takes three shots quickly and you're ready to go. It doesn't have a dedicated burst mode, you just hold the shutter down and it fires at one shot per second or so.

Some cameras shoot until frame 36, and then stop, but the T70 keeps going until it detects the end of the roll. Mine consistently got 37 shots out of a 36-shot roll. The winder actually chewed up the very end of the first roll I put through it:

But from that point on it behaved. The viewfinder is okay, but only okay. I found that unless I held the camera in a certain way I couldn't see all of it. It's not as good as the viewfinder on my Olympus OM-2n. The T70 uses Canon's FD lens mount, which dates back to 1959. There were several generations of FD cameras of which the T70 was part of the last; there was a brief period from 1987-1990 or so during which FD overlapped with the new EOS system.

I know very little about FD. I've avoided it because the lenses are difficult to use with modern cameras. The lens registration distance of FD cameras was very short, which means that FD lenses can't easily be adapted to work with Canon EOS or Nikon F-mount digital SLRs. For this reason there isn't much content about FD lenses on the internet. During the heyday of the digital SLR boom photographers snapped up old manual focus lenses because they could be adapted to work with Canon and other digital SLR systems, but FD was un-adaptable and so it didn't get much coverage.

In the 1960s and 1970s the FD system played second fiddle to Nikon F, but Canon was determined to win the SLR wars, so there was a string of fascinating FD lenses that pushed the envelope of what was optically possible at the time. Canon's first ever red-ring L lenses date from the FD years. Some of the designs, such as the 24mm f/1.4L and 85mm f/1.2L, were carried over to the EOS mount. The very last FD lens, the 200mm f/1.8L, was released for both systems, a distinction it shared only with the ultra-rare 1200mm f/5.6L.

Although FD lenses can't easily be adapted for modern digital SLRs they can be used with mirrorless cameras, and the lack of electronic aperture and autofocus is a plus because there are fewer things to go wrong. As a consequence used prices for FD-era L lenses are surprisingly high; the non-L FD lenses that have survived to the present day are cheap, if you fancy manual focus telezooms.

The FD system has an odd breech-lock-style lens mount. You press the lens against the camera, hold it still, and rotate a collar on the lens that locks it into place. It's awkward. No-one else used it and Canon probably doesn't like to talk about it now. Note that the foam bumper is in great shape, which makes me wonder if Canon used special foam, or if I was just lucky to buy a T70 that was stored in a salt mine.

In the early 1980s SLR manufacturers wrestled with the problem of adding autofocus and electronic exposure control to their lens mounts. Program autoexposure was particularly hard. It only works properly if the camera knows the aperture and focal length of the lens. Nikon's solution was AI/S, which added a pin and a dimple to the F-mount, but it could only identify two focal lengths and was only used in a handful of cameras.

The F-301 has separate PROGRAM and PROGRAM FAST modes for telephoto shooting whereas the T70 has PROGRAM and PROGRAM WIDE and PROGRAM TELE, depending on which kind of lens you have. You have to set the program mode manually. What if you have a 35-200mm zoom? Do you switch from PROGRAM WIDE to PROGRAM TELE when you zoom in, or do you not bother? The whole point of program AE is that it's supposed to make things simple, not fiddly.

The problem of communicating information between the lens and camera vexed SLR manufacturers for several years. It was one of the reasons Pentax gave up on the M42 screwmount in favour of the PK bayonet. By the 1980s it was apparent that mechanical solutions were too limited. Nikon and Pentax solved the program by adding electrical pins to their lenses that transmitted EXIF-style information to the camera, but Canon decided to start from scratch with the all-new, all-electronic EOS mount, which survives to this day.

Their decision wasn't totally unprecedented. Minolta did much the same thing when they switched from MD to the Maxxum autofocus mount, but the FD system had much greater uptake with professional photographers and so there was a lot more grumbling.

It's ancient history now. Everybody alive in the 1980s is now dead. It was a foreign country.

The T70 was part of the last generation of FD cameras. They were all called T-something and they were an interesting cross-section of the SLR market circa 1984. The Canon T50 was the simplest. It resembled the T70 but only had program AE, no other exposure modes, not TV or AV or manual or anything, just program AE, just one program. It had motor advance but not rewind. It was a contemporary of DX encoding but didn't support it. The T50 was essentially a point-and-shoot SLR, even simpler than the Olympus OM-10 and Nikon EM.

The Canon T70 added motorised rewind, some extra program AE modes, and TV. But not AV. The only non-program mode is shutter speed priority. This was a Canon thing. I don't like it. I don't care if the shutter is firing at 1/125th or 1/500th, I just care that it's fast enough to eliminate camera shake.

The T70's top-plate LCD shows the shutter speed, program mode, and film ISO. The viewfinder shows the aperture, but not the shutter speed, which is a shame because the only way to know the speed that program AE has chosen is to take your eye from the viewfinder and check the top LCD, which doesn't work because the LCD updates continuously and if you point the camera away from the subject the shutter speed changes.

TV mode has a permanent automatic program shift feature. If you set the shutter to 1/500th (for example) but the camera determines that even with the aperture wide open it can't possibly make a correct exposure, it selects a slower speed. What's the point of having TV if the shutter speed is just a suggestion? Why does the T70 make me angry?

Shown here with a Vivitar 28-90mm f/2.3-3.5 Series One.

In contrast the F-301 shoots at whatever speed you select and it has AV and the viewfinder is better and I like it more. Why am I so digressive? Is it the cocaine? Not just that. Imagine if you just walked from the Gare du Nord to the Eiffel Tower and back again in a straight line. You'd end up with the impression that Paris was a cesspit that smelled of pee, which is true, but you wouldn't have enough evidence to be absolutely sure. You'd wonder if perhaps there were bits of Paris that were nice. You'd be tempted to go a second time, which would be an even bigger mistake than going the first time.

In the 1920s Basil Liddell Hart theorised that future wars could only be won by using a strategy that emphasised an indirect line of attack - "the strategy of the indirect approach", as he called it. Hart's views were shaped by the stalemate of the First World War, in which equally-matched armies met head-on and quickly reached a stalemate. Hart theorised that an attack against an unexpected front, formulated so as to throw the enemy off-balance, was far more likely to succeed than an unsubtle front assault.

It sounds intriguing, and for a while during the Second World War his advice seemed to be vindicated - France was defeated by an indirect attack through the Ardennes forest, and our bomber offensive against Germany was in turn an indirect attack against Germany's industry - but today his reputation is more mixed.

The problem with Hart's writing is that he tended to massage his examples until they fit his thesis, and what about Gallipoli, hmm? That was an indirect attack, and it was a disaster. Our indirect attack on mainland Europe through Italy was launched a year before D-Day, but by the time we reached Italy's northern border the Russians had entered Berlin and ended the war. And yet Castro in Cuba and the North Vietnamese employed Hart's ideas with great success, so what do I know?

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the winning strategy is the strategy that wins. One of the key aspects of Sun Tzu's teaching was the idea that an attack should only be launched from a position of superiority, such that the eventual victory might look like a pushover to an outside observer. Looking back at the first Gulf War, the allied assault on the forces of Saddam Hussein seems almost comical - the ground war was over in two days and the United States suffered more casualties from accidents than enemy fire - but the purpose of war is to achieve a political objective, not to entertain people. At exactly the same time but a few years earlier the Canon T80 took away the T70's TV mode and added little pictograms to represent different program AE modes, with e.g. a running figure for PROGRAM FAST, a silhouetted figure for a program mode that leaned towards wider apertures, etc.

And the T80 also had autofocus! In theory a big deal, but there were only three T80 autofocus lenses, and the system was slow and inaccurate. Looking at contemporary reviews it seems to have been treated as a gimmick even back then. In some respects the T80 was a prototype of the EOS system to come but in general it went nowhere.

Top of the range was the Canon T90, which had a full spectrum of autoexposure modes wrapped in a body that was the spitting image of the later Canon EOS-1n. The top shutter speed of 1/4000th plus 4.5fps frame advance was state-of-the-art in 1986. Unfortunately the shutter tends to gum up over time which means that the T90 is a risky choice in 2019.

Last of the line was the Canon T60, which was released in 1990. It was the last ever FD camera. As with other last-of-the line cameras such as the Olympus OM2000 and Nikon FE10 it was an OEM design manufactured by Cosina. Ironically it is, at least in theory, the most desirable of all the T-series cameras nowadays, because it's mostly manual and has AV. However it had a reputation for unimpressive build quality and it doesn't appear to have sold in great quantities so it's quite obscure on the used market.

Can I wrap this up now? If you want to try out the FD mount the T50 is the cheapest used FD camera, in fact it's one of the cheapest film SLRs of any kind on account of its basic feature spec. The T90 is in theory the best, but can you trust it? As mentioned FD lenses range from very expensive to very cheap, but you should be able to pick up a Canon 28mm f/2.8 and 50mm f/1.8 very cheaply.

There were of course pre-T-series FD cameras. Lots of them, but for some bizarre reason eBay's prices are very high, moreso than film-era EOS cameras, more than Nikon or Olympus cameras from the same period. Is there really a cult market for the A-1 and the New F-1? You'd have to be in your sixties at least to remember when they were new, and in 2019 nothing about them stands out beyond the rare star lenses.

Turin. I wish I'd spent more time there. The T70's exposure system generally errs towards preserving highlights, which makes me wonder if it was set up for slide film.

Canon sold a command back for the T70. It could do timelapse shooting. It could also imprint the date on the film. The calendar ran to 2029. There are ten years left.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Vivitar 200mm f/3 Series 1: Fake Faces

It's Christmas once again, so let's have a look at the Vivitar 200mm f/3 Series 1, a fast-ish telephoto lens from the 1970s. I've written about this very lens before, but I recently picked up a cheap copy for the ancient Canon FD mount so I decided to try it out on a film camera, with film, in the year 2019, which is this year, which is 2019.

I've used a lot of film cameras over the last decade or so, but there are a couple of systems that I've avoided. Specifically Canon FD and Minolta MD, because there isn't an easy way to use the lenses with modern digital SLRs.

Olympus OM lenses can be adapted with a simple ring, ditto M42, Pentax K, Contax, and T-mount. Nikon F lenses still work with Nikon F cameras, mostly. The problem with Canon FD is that the camera bodies were very thin, which means that the lenses won't focus properly on modern digital SLR bodies. The focusing range is reduced so that they won't reach infinity any more. You can only use the lenses as close-range macro lenses.

FD lenses can be adapted to work perfectly well with mirrorless cameras, but in my experience using a manual focus telephoto lens with a mirrorless camera is awkward. Nonetheless I don't like having an itch I can't scratch, so I picked up a cheap Canon T70 to go with the lens.

The Vivitar 200mm f/3 is fat, short, heavy, extremely well-made. It has a lovely black finish. The body is metal. Judging by the serial number mine was built by Komine, an obscure Japanese OEM from the 1970s. I can't tell how old it is, but I'm guessing it was made in the mid-late 1970s. My lens is probably more than forty years old. That's very old. Can you imagine being forty years old? If you drink a lot, I mean a lot, you won't have to be forty years old ever.

The focusing action is still smooth and the paint has held up. Series 1 lenses were sold at a price premium, and although by modern standards they're not particularly special optically, they were built to a high standard.

That's probably why Vivitar eventually gave up up on Series 1. They must have been expensive to make. The 200mm f/3 was part of a set that included a 135mm f/2.3 and 28mm f/1.9, all of which used the same basic design language. They had shiny black paint, a bulging conical design, a solid metal build, and the aperture readout was visible through a cut-out in the mount end of the lens.

The 200mm f/3 has a built-in sliding lens hood. The length and weight is such that it's easier to carry the camera by the lens, rather than the body. There's no tripod foot. It's on the verge of needing one. On a mirrorless rangefinder the combination would be very unbalanced.

I've always wondered why Vivitar didn't just lie, and call it f/2.8. Why f/3? The T-70 in the picture identified the widest aperture as f/2.8 but that's probably because the LED didn't have a mark for f/3.

I digress. As with the 135mm f/2.3 the 200mm focuses very closely, down to 1.2m, just under four feet. That's better than a lot of modern 70-200mm zooms.

What was Series 1? It was Vivitar's top-end lens range. Some of the lenses were designed at Vivitar's behest and manufactured to order by Japanese OEMs, but a lot of them were simply rebranded imports from OEMs such as Komine, Kino, Cosina and so forth.

By far the most famous was the 70-210mm f/3.5, then in rough order the 90mm macro, the 90-180mm macro zoom, and a series of mirror lenses, and the aforementioned 28mm f/1.9, which is unusually fast for a 28mm prime even today. I've used some of them! But not all of them.

200mm is an odd focal length, about the longest that can be made cheaply to a decent quality. It's too long for indoors or low light, nowhere near long enough for wildlife or airshows, awkward for sports. On the other hand if you ever find yourself in the car park on the hill in Florence - it's called Piazzale Michelangelo, but it's a car park - 200mm is absolutely perfect for the river and the main cathedral. I know this from personal experience. 200mm is also excellent for head-and-shoulders portrait shots and distant hilly landscapes.

200mm primes nowadays play second fiddle to 70-200mm or 70-300mm zoom lenses, and for sports and wildlife photographers a 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8 is more useful, but there are a few superstar 200mm lenses. Notably the Canon 200mm f/1.8, which was sold as both an EOS and FD lens, and also Olympus' semi-legendary 250mm f/2 - legendary because no-one on the internet appears to have one - and the Nikon 200mm f/2 of the late 1970s. There's also an overlap with a variety of classic 180mm f/2.8 lenses.

What's the 200mm f/3 like? I can't test it out formally. I have a Canon FD-EOS adapter, which lets me mount the lens on my 5D, but it won't focus to infinity because the FD mount was like that. It still focuses out to about eight feet or so. The frustrating thing is that if the adapter was slightly shorter, or the mount was shaved down a bit, the lens would focus far enough to be usable as a short portrait lens.

But I don't want to damage it - on a physical level it's in great condition - and even though it won't focus to infinity it's still usable as a short macro lens. The following image of a Canon T70 was shot with this very lens on a Canon 5D MkII using an FD-EOS adapter at f/11:

Canon's FD series had a undercurrent of perversity to it. The company wanted to differentiate their cameras from the competition, so although everybody else settled on aperture-priority exposure, Canon decided that people really wanted shutter speed priority instead.

The FD mount has a breech lock. With every other lens you push the lens into the camera mount and then rotate it until it locks. Easy! With FD lenses you have to push the lens into the mount and then hold it still while you twist the locking ring, which is difficult, especially if your hands are frozen or bloodied.

The T70 has shutter speed priority plus some program modes but it doesn't have aperture priority. I mostly put it in program-tele and forgot about it. Wide open the 200mm f/3 has a glowing softness that can be helped with Photoshop, and it also has noticeable purple fringing on highlight edges. Stopped down just slightly - the next stop after f/3 is f/4 - the softness goes away and the purple fringing diminishes although even stopped right down it's still there.

In its favour there's very little geometric distortion - perhaps a tiny bit of pincushion, but that might be a film scanning issue - and even wide open there's no vignetting, even with the hood extended. The huge front element probably has something to do with that. The purple fringing is an issue if you're shooting tree branches against an overcast sky, otherwise not really, but on the other hand it's one of those aberrations that's awkward to correct. The focusing action is smooth, dampened - there's absolutely not the slightest chance of it creeping - and it takes about three twists to go from lock to lock.

Is it any good? Do you need a 200mm lens? Vivitar also sold a bunch of 200mm f/3.5 lenses that were smaller and lighter, and of course you probably already have a 70-200-300mm zoom lens. The 200mm f/3 is compact and at f/4 it's probably better than a cheap 70-300mm lens, although it's a niche case. It doesn't have image stabilisation but I found that the weight helped to keep the camera steady (the shot of the dinner table above was at 1/125th, off the top of my head).

Oh yes, the colours. I'm not sure if it's a Vivitar thing, or a 1970s thing, or a coating thing, but in common with every Vivitar lens I have used the colour balance is relatively muted, slightly purple, slightly "gritty", although a bit of slider-dragging with Photoshop can fix that. I used Fuji Superia, the weather in Milan was 21c but the locals were all dressed in winter gear, and I had a Pastel de Nata which - get this - isn't even Italian.

Vivitar still exists, or at least the name still exists. It's one of those ghost brands, like Polaroid and Kodak, that appears in pound shops but doesn't have a headquarters building or staff because it's just a name. Like Atari or Jensen.

Somewhere out there is a man, or woman, who has a complete mental grasp of the corporate history of Atari and Infogrames. There were two Ataris, the arcade Atari and the computer Atari, and one of them was bought by Hasbro and then sold to Infogrames, who changed their name to Atari Inc, who owned Atari Interactive, and they also bought Atari Europe, and now they're called just Atari, or something, I don't know. Does a company still exist if it doesn't exist? I don't know.