Thursday, 25 July 2019

Venice with a Fuji S5

Let's have a look at Venice, which I visited last year with a Fuji S5. Inevitably I end up with more photographs than I can use, so they sit on a hard drive gathering digital dust until I decide to dig them out.

My trip was mostly an excuse to carry around a big, heavy Mamiya twin-lens reflex with a 55mm f/5.4 lens - the widest for the Mamiya C-series TLR system - but I also took along my Fuji S5 and a fisheye lens because I love carrying things.

The Fuji S5 was launched in 2007. I've written about it before. Despite being twelve years old it still has very impressive dynamic range. Back in the 2000s the camera market only cared about megapixels, but in a move that was either very brave or completely misguided Fuji decided to prioritise vivid colours and dynamic range for their S3 and S5 SLRs.

They both used Fuji's clever SuperCCD SR sensor, which was designed to capture highlights without blowing them out. The image taken from the belltower above came out of the camera looking like this:

Which is more or less the correct exposure, although without digital burning it looks very bland. If the image had been shot with a compact camera the sky would be blown out irrevocably, and even with a digital SLR shooting a RAW file the sky would probably look something like the following if you had tried to burn the clouds:

The S3 and S5 on the other hand had a multilayered sensor, with two sets of photosites. There were six megapixels of full-sized photosites that captured the bulk of the image, plus six megapixels of tiny photosites studded in between the standard photosites that captured the same image underexposed by four stops. Photosites photosites photosites. There must have been a better way to write that sentence without using the word photosites so much, or sensors.

The camera's internal software produced relatively muted results, and at first Photoshop couldn't make use of the extra pixels, but nowadays the S3 and S5's RAW files are easy to work with using Adobe Camera Raw. A quick go with the graduated filter brings out lots of detail in the sky, and you can go mad with this, as if you were top Romantic painter John Martin and you wanted to scare people.

On a physical level the S3 was built around a Nikon F80 and had a slow data buffer that made it difficult to use for anything fast-moving, such as wedding photography; the S5 was essentially a Nikon D200 with Fuji electronics, but although it fixed the S3's problems it was too little, too late. Back then people wanted full-frame and sixteen megapixels, not APS-C and six megapixels.

Historically Fuji was out of step with the times, but only just. Also in 2007 Nikon launched the D3, which was a game-changer. Its emphasis on higher ISOs over megapixels was a game-changer, and almost overnight the competition scrambled to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of their sensors at the expense of resolution. Fuji's digital SLRs had very good light sensitivity but they weren't in the same league as the D3, and there was sadly never a full-frame SuperCCD SR sensor.

Modern digital SLRs can approach the same dynamic range as the S3 and S5, but they tend to prioritise noise-free shadows, which is slightly more awkward to process with Photoshop. Processing S3 and S5 files is similar to burning black and white film, but lifting shadows is unintuitive.

The two cameras still have a cult following. The S3 is flimsier and slower, but uses standard AA batteries. The S5 is objectively superior - faster, more robust, and it will meter with manual focus lenses, whereas the S3 won't - but the batteries are long out of production. Frustratingly the S5 can't use D200 batteries, even though they're physically identical. Over time it will suffer the same fate as the Kodak DCS 14n / DCS Pro SLR, death-by-proprietary-battery, but for now it's still one of a kind albeit that there were two of them so it's one of two-of-a-kind the end.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2019

Off to the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed. It's a motor show held annually at the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex, spread across four days, with Thursday as a preview day. I went on Friday, the first full day of the event, and it continues over the weekend. Some people camp out for the duration but I just went for one day. I bought my tickets six weeks ago, but even then Saturday and Sunday had sold out, so you have to book early.

Why did I go? Gran Turismo 6, that's why.

One of the most entertaining events in that game is the Goodwood Hillclimb, a time trial that seems simple at first but has hidden depths. It takes less than a minute to complete, but in practice most of my attempts meet with disaster in the first ten seconds.

One of the easiest ways to win races in Gran Turismo is to use the trackside barriers as speed brakes, but the opening part of the Hillclimb doesn't have barriers, so if you leave the track you just slide off into the grass. Furthermore you can't bump into other cars to slow yourself down because there are no other cars. It's just you versus time, just like life itself. You versus time.

There are no shortcuts, no cheats, no way of gaming the game. You have to bite the bullet and learn how to precisely modulate the throttle, the brake, and the steering, just as the designers intended. If only for that one event you can't hide. You can't rely on out-horsepowering the other cars. You can't rely on the AI slowing down in the last two laps. You have to actually drive the car.

The Hillclimb is seared into my mind mainly for the final run, where you have to guide a prototype Red Bull X2010 around the course. In theory a great car, with excellent acceleration and lots of downforce, but the Hillclimb is very narrow, and without precise control you tend to, yes, slide off into the grass. Perhaps with throttle pedals and a steering wheel clamped to a very solid oak desk it's easier, but alas I only have a PlayStation control pad.

The Festival of Speed has several events beyond the Hillclimb - for a small sum you can be drifted around in a Jaguar.

How does the Hillclimb go? It starts with a short straight. Sadly I couldn't get any shots of the opening straight because in 2019 it was grandstand-only. It would have been impossible in any case because even on Friday morning during the very first run Goodwood was very crowded. It's Britain's only large-scale supercar festival with track action, and it has such a high profile that people come from all around the world to see it. Instead I wandered around the ground a lot. There's a rally stage up in the forest at the top of the hill.

The marshals are volunteers. They do a six-hour shift each day in exchange for free run of the event off-shift. In practice I doubt that they have much spare time - the event runs from 08:30-18:00, leaving very little time to get changed, clock out etc - so presumably they do it for fun and go home exhausted.
Safety-wise the event has had, as far as I can tell, only three deaths. During the first Festival of Speed in 1993 a motorcyclist was killed in a crash just beyond the finish line, and in 2000 a car went off the track, killing the driver and a marshal.
Beyond that most of the Hillclimb runs aren't driven in anger - the older cars are too valuable to wreck - and the competitive entrants are top professionals in modern cars, so my hunch is that the biggest risk is from freak events. Loose bits of airborne metal, heat exhaustion, heart attacks etc.

This chap's Audi has seen better days.

Gran Turismo is a faded giant, but I imagine that lots of people like myself still remember the games. I have to admit that when I was younger I associated hillclimbs with Morgan three-wheelers and men who wear tweed - many decades have passed since ordinary cars couldn't go up a 4.9% gradient - but Gran Turismo made the event hip again.

But where was I? After the opening straight there are two right-handers, then an extremely shallow right that takes you in front of the spectators, then a sharper left-right with a bump. Then you brake for a left turn, the famous Molecomb corner. Braking for the corner is difficult because you have to start braking at the end of the bumpy left-right.

If you don't brake, you slide off into bales of hay. On a photographic level Molecomb isn't that great. It's a tidy corner, not a slidey corner. Unless the driver is pushing hard enough to upset the car, or your reactions are good enough to catch the car in the brief piece of track just before the turn, you'll end up with shots of cars driving towards the camera as if they were standing still.

Next is a short uphill straight, shown here with some cars coming down after their run:

At the top is an awkward right-left. Awkward for a number of reasons. It's in the shade, so on a sunny day the driver can't see it. The left wall is stone, and the turn is very tight, so I imagine more than one wing mirror has ended up clattering down the track, adrift from its car. In Gran Turismo 6 it's also awkward because the gradient slows the car a little bit, so if you brake as you would on the flat you lose more speed than you might want.

Here are a couple of shots of that bend from GT6, because photographing it in real life is impossible without a press pass (and in this case a camera mounted in a second car):

After the shaded right-left there's a shallow right, and at the top of that there's another shaded turn, this time a relatively gentle right that's still dangerous because you're going faster. Out of the shade you come to a straight:

Which ends with a shaded left turn, which is relatively shallow but again dangerous because you're picking up speed for the final straight, where you hope beyond hope that one last burst of speed will compensate for the wide turns, the off-track excursions, the poor braking, late cornering, wall collisions, the waste, the lack of urgency, the things you didn't say, the chances you didn't take, the money you wasted, the shouting, and yet what could you have done differently? You were born to a world that didn't need you, constrained throughout your life by a lack of resources, just like everybody else, and like billions of others who are alive today and billions more who are dead you had no chance. The best you can hope for now is to drown it all out with alcohol and die in your sleep.

But perhaps one last burst of speed can make amends. One last burst of speed. And yet so many of my runs in Gran Turismo ended with disaster. I pushed too hard on the final straight and went wide, brushing into the right wall, so I overcompensated and smacked into the left wall with enough force to disqualify me from the run.

Gran Turismo 6 again

That's enough about the Hillclimb. It's distressing. I also went to test out my 300mm f/4 IS. Having now been there in person my tip is that if you have an APS-C camera, a 70-200mm f/2.8 is ideal for Goodwood, and with a full-frame camera a 100-400mm lens is similarly terrific, bearing in mind that with action photography of high-speed cars it's a good idea to shoot with lots of space around the subject and compose the image by cropping later on. Sigma makes a 120-300mm f/2.8 that would be ideal if you can hold it all day.

What of the rest of Goodwood? There was a dedicated drifting arena, which was packed four-deep with people holding mobile phones above their heads. Nothing wrong with that. There were a number of trade stalls, including a small "Mini village" with a hairdresser and a photo studio. I learn that you can buy a roof-top tent for the Mini Countryman, which is one of those things that's simultaneously naff and awesome.

Attendance is capped at 150,000, but it was still extremely busy. For the following set of images I used a simple formula - I stood about six feet from the car and shot the badge - but even that was difficult because it was hard even to stand still.

It was a hot, stuffy day. The Veuve Clicquot was £45 a glass. The newspapers talk of economic decline but I saw no evidence of malaise; perhaps the party will go on forever.

Now, I'm not a professional action sports photographer. I generally dislike commodity-style photographs. There's very little room for "you" unless you're exceptionally good, and being exceptionally good is not easy. Have you ever seen It's full of objectively great photographs of airliners, but they all look the same, and more importantly they have AIRLINERS.NET banners because from the owners' point of view the photographers are fungible. In a fungible field you can rise to the top with hard work, but even the greatest gunslinger has a bullet with his name on it, and when it strikes you'll end up in an unmarked grave like everybody else.

Also, Goodwood's track is narrow, and the background is very busy. Contemplate the following image:

That's a lot of middle-aged men wearing shirts and cargo shorts. You can't see the cargo shorts but they're there, hidden behind the hay. The fantasy of Goodwood is Rosamund Pike in a white dress, but the reality is overweight middle-aged men wearing shirts and cargo shorts. Why is Rosamund Pike glamorous? Partially the shape; partially because in a world of overweight middle-aged men in shirts and cargo shorts Rosamund Pike is rare. If everybody looked like Rosamund Pike or Gemma Arterton, we would instead dream about Bernard Manning farting.

Ordinarily, if you want to blur out a background you choose a wide aperture, but paradoxically that's counterproductive with motorsports because you end up shooting at 1/1000th, which freezes the car in motion. You end up with a boring shot of a car sitting on the track with some blurry faces in the distance. The classic technique for motorsports is panning with a dragged shutter. In the following image I stopped down to f/11, 1/90th while tracking the car, which turned the background into streaks at the expense of ultimate sharpness:

Ideally an f/2.8 telephoto wide open with a polarising filter or ND filter to slow down the shutter would be perfect, but it would also be awkward - you would be composing through a dim viewfinder, and some cameras only have high-precision autofocus if their sensors get t/2.8 or thereabouts, e.g. f/2.8's-worth of light.

There is another option. Cheating with PhotoShop. Slow-speed shutter dragging is quick, dirty, and effective, but erratic. It's a lot like life. Suppose you absolutely need to get an image of a Ford GT40 whizzing past the stands, and you can't afford the risk of getting a blurry shot? You can cheat by using PhotoShop's motion blur filter.

Contemplate the following:

It doesn't bring me joy. Middle-aged men again. Now contemplate the following image, which was the work of ten minutes in PhotoShop (layer via copy - motion blur - layer mask - eight minutes of work with a brush):

The masking could be better. It looks a bit like a cut-out sitting on top of a background. I could have added radial blur to the wheels, some blur to the edges of the car, etc, but it's good enough for the internet. The synthetic motion blur is smoother than the real thing. The other way to jazz up a photograph of a car is by tilting it, as per the old Batman TV show:

And that's the Goodwood Festival of Speed. As a grand day out it's expensive unless you really like cars, in which case cost is no object. From a photographic point of view it's frustrating, crowded, physically demanding if you're carrying a lot of water and a camera and a big lens (it's a hill!). If you have kids, you're going to have to carry them over your head if you want them to see the Hillclimb. Ordinarily I pooh-pooh the idea of grandstand seating at festivals - it feels wrong - but if you want to photograph the cars on the Hillclimb having a Grandstand pass might make sense, especially if you sit near the front.

Sadly you will have to accept that, unless you have a press pass and a budget, you will get better results with Gran Turismo 6, but even that's slightly difficult. Gran Turismo Sport for the PlayStation 4 doesn't have Goodwood - the game focuses on competitive multiplayer, not time trials - and the PlayStation 3 is extremely difficult to emulate, so the only way to play Gran Turismo 6 is with an actual physical PS3. But you can also use it to watch Blu-Rays, and also play Journey, and during the winter months it will heat up your house, the end.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Lithuanian MRE: Meal 10, Beef Stew with Vegetables

Let's have a look at another MRE, but this time a Lithuanian MRE, from Lithuania. Where is Lithuania? It's in Europe, tucked away in the bottom-right corner of the Baltic, with Latvia and Estonia sitting on top of it.

Technically Lithuanian MREs aren't MREs - they're Sausas Maisto Davinys, "dry food rations", but I'm going to call them MREs because I want to. There are ten separate menus and they're all meat stews. Lithuania does not have vegetarian MREs. I opted for variantas 10, beef stew with vegetables, or jautienos troškinys su daržovėmis.

As with all military rations, Lithuanian MREs aren't really practical as civilian food. They're too expensive to eat as a regular meal and too bulky for camping. Each MRE is a single meal with roughly 1,400 calories, but there's a lot of potential jetsam. If you ate lots of them you would quickly end up with superfluous fuel tablets and spoons. If you're preparing for the apocalypse, rice and dried meat keep longer. They are however fun novelties. Let's see what's in the packet.

My first impression was condoms. The interior of the packet smelled of condoms. Not the food, just the packaging. This meal has some SU-1 rusks, a packet of unsalted hazelnuts, a main meal in a plastic bag, plus an accessory packet with some honey, a bar of chocolate, an orange-flavoured drink, a packet of coffee, and some sugar. No milk, because Lithuanian army units take their livestock with them.

The internet is full of armchair generals who have batty theories about modern war. My theory is that farm animals are tragically underutilised on the front line. Obviously they're a ready supply of milk and eggs, but they can also be used to carry heavy loads, clear minefields, provide decoys for heat-seeking ground-attack missiles, and they also provide warmth and company. I will send a copy of this blog post to the Lithuanian foreign ministry, but you heard it here first.

If you read the ingredients often enough you too can learn basic Lithuanian. Druska is salt, vanduo is water, yes and no are taip and ne, beer is alaus, high-bypass jet turbine engine is aukštos aplinkkelio reaktyvinis variklis. Easy!

The MRE has two heaters. There's a US-style flameless ration heater activated with water, plus a hexy stove:

In this picture the Lithuanian spoon is shown next to a standard US MRE spoon. The US spoon is more substantial but in its favour the Lithuanian spoon has a sharper edge, so it cuts through food more easily.

And some matches, in a proper matchbox. I'll save the hexy stove for later. Why does the meal have two types of heater? I have no idea. My guess is that the Lithuanian armed forces have five million hexy stoves in a warehouse from the 1990s and by gum they're not going to waste them.

Let's heat up the main meal with the flameless ration heater. It's super effective! It immediately swelled up, releasing plumes of steam which are not captured in the following images, but they were there nonetheless:

The flameless ration heater's packaging has no less than three warnings that you shouldn't eat the heating element:

Lithuania reintroduced conscription in 2015, so perhaps the people who designed the FRHs were terrified that the first batch of conscripts would be malnourished knuckle-draggers from the Lithuanians sticks. Shoving an FRH down someone's throat strikes me as a fantastic method of torture - it would boil their stomach, perhaps causing permanent damage. You'd have to force it down with a broom handle and then clamp their mouth shut. They would thrash around in agony!

While the meal cooks, let's try the rusks and the honey:

I like to think that honey is evidence that God wanted us to be happy, but only if we braved swarms of bees and stole their food first. The rusks are made in Poland, and also appear in Polish rations. Steve1989 tried them out in a Polish ration back in 2016:

I learn that they're informally called "panzer crackers" because they're so tough. And they are! Even after dunking them in my coffee I still had to bite hard to break them into bits. They have a pleasant wheaty smell but a generally neutral, unsalted, unsugared taste. I'm not a honey connoisseur; the honey had a "fruity" taste, slightly acidic, and at first I wondered if it was actually marmalade. I think the rusks are included as general roughage and in the end I broke up the final one and mashed it into the main meal.

I mentioned coffee. You get coffee and sugar but no milk, although I added some milk to mine:

It's similar to US coffee, instant, type III, or whatever branded type of coffee is included in modern MREs. Hard rather than smooth, enough for a standard coffee cup. It gives me a mental image of the kind of working person's office where the walls are breezeblocks painted white and there's a noticeboard with an advert for a local band on it. Let's try the chocolate:

At first I thought it might be laced with amphetamines, like the chocolate that Germany had during the Second World War, Scho-Ka-Kola, but sadly it's just standard dark chocolate. It has a mild taste. After eating it I didn't feel an urge to try on all my old shirts and neither did my gums start sizzling. As a joke this paragraph was originally going to be a single unbroken 1,500-word sentence, as if I was under the influence of amphetamines, but after writing it the end result was indistinguishable from the rest of my blog so I included it out. When the amplitude of a signal falls below that of the cosmic background radiation the signal becomes indistinguishable from random noise, and at that point it is lost. It cannot be reconstituted. The same is true on a quantum level. All signals eventually become indistinguishable from quantum fluctuations. This is why immortality is impossible. It would require infinite energy, which would in the long run raise the cosmic background radiation to such a high level that atomic bonds would be impossible, at which point whatever coherence existed would again be lost. There is no escape. Let's try out the main meal:

It looks like cat food, but it smells nice. It's a meat-heavy, broth-light, vegetable-light stew, essentially a small can of cooked beef with some stewy bits. I keep using the word "mild", but it was indeed mild. US MREs include salt and hot sauce for seasoning; the Lithuanian meal would have benefited from a bit more spice, or any spice, but perhaps it's a regional thing.

The stew was slightly less greasy than I expected, but that doesn't change the fact that it feels strange to eat stew by itself - it's a shame they couldn't have included some potatoes. Ultimately it filled a hole and was tastier than it looked, but it wouldn't be very appetising cold, and if I was a Lithuanian conscript I would tolerate it but not look forward to it. It's not in the same league as the Polish MRE I will try later in the year.

Let's try out the orange-flavoured no-juice drink. US MRE drinks are better than they look - subtler and less chalky than you might expect - but the Lithuanian variety wasn't in the same league:

It looks as if it should be an effervescent sugar overload, but it tastes like a flat weak lemonade. As with US MRE drinks it exists purely to mask the taste of chemically-purified water, and on that level it works, but as a drink to enjoy it's no good.

Anything else? Oh yes, the hazelnuts:

They're unsalted and there's a surprisingly large amount of them. Eating them was a chore because they're very dry, but I suppose they're meant to boost your protein levels in a healthy way rather than entertain you.

About a year ago, and just for the heck of it, I tried out the hexy stove. One tab will heat up a can of beans so that it bubbles and would probably warm up two cans so that they were edible. I wouldn't rely on the tabs to cook raw meat, and of course I tried it out in a temperate climate; in freezing weather you might need more than one tab.

As mentioned in this series of posts US military meals tend to have a lot of salt, which makes sense if you do a lot of hard work in hot sun, but this Lithuanian MRE was generally salt-free and instead had more of an emphasis on fat. Perhaps they're more suitable for Lithuania's climate, which is apparently typical of the Baltic - nice but short summer, freezing cold and raining the rest of the year. Who knows, the end.