Drag racing

I tried something new, and it wasn’t wearing different clothes. I learned that there is a drag-racing racecourse reasonably close to where I live. A local sports photographer was going to an event and offered to advise and support a small group of snappers. So I signed up.

Having been a nerdy wannabe (and then be) motorcyclist as a youth, I’d had some familiarity with the sport as it was back then. I think George Brown was still racing one of his Nero variants, or was at least recent enough that we knew his name. Oh, and it was known as sprinting, not drag, which is a better description of what it is all about. This of course sparked another memory of going to a tractor-pull competition. This was all about pulling a weighted trailer as far as possible up an earth strip. The trick was that the trailer had a large weight on it, and the front of the trailer was not wheels but a plain metal sled plate. As the trailer moved forward, the weight also moved forward, loading-up the sled and making the trailer harder to pull. This event also required ridiculous amounts of engine power and produced loads of noise and spectacle. What can I say? I loved it all. Anyway, back to the story.

First question is what lenses to take? A few years back when I went to Silverstone I took all of them and nearly came home with a hernia. But let’s say I want my field of view or frame to be 3m wide and let’s assume I will be 30m away from the racers. The magic formula tells me I want an angle of view of 100 mils, so I’ll need the equivalent of a 300 to 400mm lens on 35mm or full-frame. Easy. I have a 70-300 zoom and a fixed 400mm. If we do get near the paddock area I can swap for a 35-70 zoom. This is bold (for me): I usually take two lenses to go to the newsagent. The 400mm doesn’t have a decent lens hood and it could be sunny, but it’s easy enough to make one: it has a 5 degree angle of view so it’s just a bit of work with a protractor and some scissors.

I’m also taking my monopod. This is a Benbo one that must have turned up cheap somewhere in the past. It has a plastic V on top instead of a tripod thread. This makes it easy to support the lens, then set it aside instantly if I need to do something else.

So kitted-out, off I jolly well set. I also found out how the racing thing worked. The course is one eighth of a mile – a furlong, 220 yards or 201 meters. There are two lanes on the track. The racing is controlled by a small tower of lights, known as the christmas tree. The racer pulls forward to a marked line and the top light goes white when the front wheel is on the line. Then a set of orange lights go on, followed by a green. At the green light the racers depart. They are timed over the course distance and their speed measured at the end. It sounds sedate. Then consider that the fastest cars can complete the distance in under six seconds and be doing 130mph as they cross the finishing line. I was told that some courses are a quarter of a mile, and the cars can reach 250mph. That’s pretty extreme. So they use every method invented to accelerate as hard as they can – huge engines, superchargers, weird fuels, nitrous oxide, sticky tyres and probably pagan sacrifice. As a result, they can be loud. No, make that LOUD. I was warned to bring ear defenders, but didn’t expect to feel the pulsing sound in my chest.

The chequered yellow panels are the finishing line. The dots in the smoke are stones that were stuck to the tyres.

On the course I was at, the 300mm was just about ideal at the long end. I did use the 400mm to pick out single cars and details, but it’s slow to focus so not as handy as the the 300. If I go to another event I’ll probably take the same pair again. The 35-70 was perfect in the pit area. Oh, and that’s another thing – this is not Formula One: you can talk to the racers and team, look at the cars and generally get a close look at some extreme engineering. And what’s even further from F1 is that some of the cars and bikes are old. One of the racers was an old Commer van that still had the faded newspaper delivery sign on the side. Oh, and a large V8 engine hidden in the middle of the body. There was a Ford Anglia with a much bigger engine than the one in my grandad’s. And a rough looking MG which squirmed down the track as the rear tyres tried to overtake the front.

A fast shutter speed reveals what the eye cannot see – that the sidewalls of a car’s rear tyres are twisted into ripples by the extreme torque of the engine. And that the rotation of that engine causes one of the front wheels to lift off the road. If these things can reach 250mph I have no idea how they stay on the track.

Look at the rear tyre

One thing that worked very well was my new camera. It allowed me to raise the ISO as needed to get the shutter speed and aperture combinations I wanted. It also has good image stabilisation so it helped me work with long lenses in a buffeting wind.

Both front wheels are trying to lift, but the right one is held down by the torque reaction of fhe engine.

Did I enjoy the racing? Yes, I did. Lots of things going very fast and making loud noises. Did I enjoy the photography? Yes, I did. I love shooting action and people doing things. It was all about fast focusing, panning and framing. About as far from landscape or still life as you can get. Will I go again? Yes, given the chance.

Culling the herd

The time has come (the walrus said) to reduce the quantity of photographic equipment I own. I have realised that I really don’t need several versions of the same thing. If there is a best or better in the set, then why do I need the others? Besides, I don’t have the time to shoot them all. And (trying to keep a straight face) the whole point is the pictures, not the cameras that take them. I can justify having one spare camera to replace an old relic that could fail, but not four. I have recognised and now need to get over my addiction.

What made the decision for me was moving house. If you stay in one place it’s easy to store things. It’s when you have to pack them up and move them that you realise how much stuff you have accumulated. Books are worse. I confess that we had close to 800 in the house. Drastically reduced now, but still enough that I could make a good Zoom background if I wanted to. Or a play fort.

So this is the opposite of GAS. Let’s call it SOLID – selling off lots of idle dogs.

The lenses it makes sense to keep though, more so than cameras. These are the important bit, after all. For all the talk about how wonderful some cameras are, they really only provide a shutter and a method for holding the sensor or film. One camera and three lenses is a lot more useful than the other way round. On the other hand there are some cameras with special functionality. Stuff that is waterproof or panoramic is unique, but M42 SLRs are all much the same. So specials can stay but the generic can go.

A subset of the saved.

I did a bit of an exercise, building a table of camera types against the things I wanted them to do. The reason was to make it obvious to me where I had too many of the same thing.

So what is going? Everything I have multiples of or don’t actively use. I will keep anything I have been given, as these are special because of the person who gave them to me. Not that I’m showered with gifts (send more pies!), but these are staying.

By the time I post this I will probably have sold them, so this is the list of the dear departed:

  • Pentax MV body. Auto-only body that came with a useful lens. The lens stays, the camera goes.
  • Zeiss Contessa. Generic 60s fixed lens rangefinder camera.
  • Nikonos III.
  • Pentax A3 body.
  • Pentax MZ5-n body.
  • Fed 50 compact.
  • Fujica STX-1 with 55mm lens.
  • Olympus 35 RC.
  • Zeiss Contina.
  • Leidox 127 format camera with a 35mm adaptation.
  • Canon Canonette 2b.
  • Agfa Super Silette.
  • Lomo Cosmic Symbol.
  • Kodak Retinette 1a.
  • Diana.
  • Olympus Pen EE-2.
  • Canon Ixus 750 with underwater housing. Very capable but superseded.
  • An Ozeck 80-205mm zoom.
  • Canon Powershot A590. Excellent camera, but also superseded.
  • A Pentax Takumar 70-200mm zoom.
  • A Chinon 35-200mm zoom.

Will I miss them? I doubt it – I hardly used them. I can use the little money they bring in to go towards something better that I will use much more. Their departue has freed space and removed a source of anxiety.

I also have a bunch of dead camera bodies that I need to find a way to give someone as a source of parts (or as a boat anchor).

This may not be the end of it. I am now evaluating my cameras agaist new criteria such as ‘do they have a special funtion that I need?’ and ‘are they tools or toys?’. Besides, analogue photographers are complaining about the rising price of old cameras, but continue to hoard them in bulk and stalk them on eBay. Time to release into the wild the cameras I am not using.

The Good, the Bad and the Fugly.

Fly free, my pretties! And the other ones.

The Lomo Spinner

If I thought the Horizon was a weird wide-angle camera, then this is taking it all too far. Where the Horizon rotates the lens to scan the image across a curved film plane, the Spinner rotates the whole camera while pulling the film past a slot behind the lens. It’s the same basic idea: scan the image across the film through a narrow slot. But where the Horizon shoots a 120 degree field of view, the Spinner can do 360 (and often a bit more). There is no standing behind this camera – you are usually in shot.

The metal ring is the pull-string that operates the spinning.

The camera is driven by a spring motor in the handle. You pull out a length of string to wind the motor and when you let go, the whole camera spins around on the handle. Your two composition choices are how level you want the camera to be, and where the rotation starts. Where the Horizon holds the film around a curve to match the rotation of its lens, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot as the camera rotates. This means it also exposes the sprockets.

The bubble level would be more useful on the underside. The switch for apertures and rewind is visible below the name badge.

The shutter speed is between 1/125 and 1/250 and there are two apertures available at f8 and f16. So you will also need to use the film sensitivity as one of the controls. Sunny days will use 100 ISO and darker days 400. It’s probably best to use colour negative film and go for over rather than underexpose and use the film’s latitude to cope.

Flat film gate with a slot. The film is held against it by the roller on the rear door. The drive belt at the bottom pulls the film through as the camera rotates.

Like the Horizon, the lens gets the extreme angle of view by rotating rather than being inherently very wide. But while the Horizon has a 28mm lens, the Spinner seems to be 25mm. Probably just as well, as the photographer usually in ends up in the shot and is pretty close to the camera, so that extra bit of wide-angle keeps the shooter in focus.

360 degree field of view

Shooting it is an experience – you hold the ‘stick’ at the bottom of the camera, try to get it level, then pull and release a string. Pulling out the full length of the string gets you a shot of a bit more than a full rotation. You can also pull out less string and get a smaller scan. This may be the only way to stay out of your own picture, other than holding the Spinner up over your head. This is why it really needs the bubble level on the bottom of the camera – so that you can hold it up and get it level and not be in your own shot. On the other hand it’s great for group shots, as the photographer is usually always missing. There is a tripod socket on the bottom of the handle, so it is also possible to set it up on a tripod, duck down and get a 360 panorama in one shot.

Croix de Van, Switzerland

The Spinner gets around eight shots on a 36 exposure roll, depending on whether you do full or partial spins. Scanning them can be a problem – I scan each frame in sections and combine them. The frame size can be up to 23cm – that’s 230mm, so six times wider than a normal 35mm frame. If you send the film away to be processed remember to ask for it not to be cut.

So it’s a rather specialised little beast, but good at what it does.

Pentax 15mm lens

This is one of those lenses I mentioned that, if I ever sold it and was filled with remorse, I couldn’t afford to replace.

How I came to buy it originally was luck. It was a rare and expensive lens – Pentax can’t have sold a dozen of these a year. And yet a branch of Jessops nearby had one on sale. This was in the days when Jessops were useful. When I asked about it, the reason was because a customer had ordered it but then declined to buy it. It was such an extreme lens that the shop must have thought they would never shift it. So they had it on sale for the same amount I had separately paid for a secondhand MX body. Even then I swithered about it. How many people really need a 15mm lens?

And yet it’s rather marvellous. It has a 100 degree horizontal field of view, but it is also rectilinear. This means that straight lines stay straight and don’t bow like a fisheye lens. There is a whole rabbit warren to drop down if you want to learn about the different ways an extreme wide angle can work, but it basically comes down to two things: do straight lines curve or not and do circular things stretch into ovals at the sides of the frame?

This is an estate agent’s lens. Pop this on a tripod, get it level and you can make a phone box look like a ballroom. All the lines stay straight, so there is no obvious distortion. You can get a lot in the frame without the usual fisheye distortion or get in close and get some strong diminution effects.

It may not look much, but that’s the point. I was nearly close enough to touch the building.

Those that know give the lens a mixed reception and say it’s soft in the corners wide open and suffers from flare. I like it a lot, but use it less than perhaps I could. The built-in yellow and orange filters are useful for black and white and there’s also a UV and skylight filter for colour. The built-in lens shade does at least belp to keep the front element from harm.

In terms of handling it’s a bit of a beast. It’s heavy, for a start – 595g. The large front element and built-in hood need a deep slide-on lens cap that is better described as slide-off. I’ve got a strip of masking tape round the end of my lens to make the cap a tighter fit, but it’s still covered in dings from its escape attempts. Despite being heavy, it’s easy enough to carry though. I did a photo-walk and used this lens. The camera was actually a nice balance and quite discrete for hand-carrying. With the lens on a Pentax MX body weighing 495g the point of balance was to carry the outfit by the lens body with a wrist strap for safety.

Strap 1

It has a lovely smooth focus action, just as you’d expect from a Pentax lens. The extreme wide angle means that the throw of the focus ring is quite short – perhaps 60 degrees to get you from infinity to it’s minimum focus of something like 25cm. The depth of field is also pretty extreme – at f8 it covers from infinity to about 50cm. Circles do become elliptical at the sides of the frame though, but that’s to be expected with an extreme angle of view.

Does it flare? It can, yes, but the picture below was taken into the sun. I have had some flare streaks before, but it seems to be from shooting across the sun rather than into it. Up with it you are going to have to put though, as you’re not going to get a bigger lens hood on this baby (unless you make one).


The built in filters are more convenient than some fisheye lenses that need separate filters fiddled onto the rear of the lens. They also stay clean and are part of the lens’s formula. The down side though is that you can’t easily swap one of the filters for something else. I had an Arsat 30mm fisheye for my Kiev 60 that took screw-on filters on the rear of the lens, so it would be possible to take say the green filter apart and replace it with a neutral density. I did this trick with my Horizon camera to give me an IR filter.

So, is it worth the expense? Maybe, if you can get one at a good price. You really need the lens cap with it, as nothing else will fit and that front element sticks out a lot. It would be interesting (in a nerdy kind of way) to compare it with some other extreme wide angle lenses such as Samyang. But then you descend into the madness of rectilinear versus fisheye rendering (see link above) and end-up buying one of each. But, if you can find or borrow one, try it. It really is a new way of looking at the world.

Horizon 202

Whatever possessed me to buy a camera where you can accidentally get your knuckles into shot? Or I thought I could, even though I haven’t done it yet. The temptation was the 120 degree field of view and the distortions you can get because the lens swings in an arc. I’m a sucker for odd.

With the clip-on handle fitted.

So the basics are that it swings the lens in an arc and projects the image through a moving slot onto a curved film plane. In action it scans a narrow strip of light across the film. There are two swing speeds for the lens and a set of different slot widths for the scan. Together these give you a range of shutter speeds. Not a full set, as the two ranges don’t quite meet.

You can see how your knuckles could get into the shot. The switch on the left selects the yellow or white range of speeds.

Because the lens effectively turns its head, straight lines across the frame appear to recede at the sides. Keep the camera level and the horizon will divide the frame across the centre. Tilt the camera and it bends from bowl to hill. There is a bubble level in the viewfinder and on the top of the camera to help.

Only do this when you are the passenger!

The basic specs are that this camera uses a 28mm lens set at a fixed focus distance. This is fine, as the depth of field covers just about everything. For those of us shooting mono or infrared the lens can take clip on filters which can be fitted part-way through winding the camera, when the lens is midway through swinging back to its starting position. The camera comes with three filters, stored in the clip-on handle. These are a yellow, a UV and a neutral density one. The ND filter is handy because you have a limited range of shutter speeds. I took the plain UV one apart on mine and replaced it with a visually-opaque IR filter. Because the lens swings across a curved film plane it doesn’t vignette at the sides like a fixed wide-angle lens might.

The frame size is the normal 35mm film height (24mm) but as wide as a medium format negative at 58mm giving you a 2•5:1 panoramic format. The 58mm width means it can be scanned or printed from anything that can handle a 6×6 film frame. To be able to scan the film on 35mm kit I scan each frame in two pieces, then combine them. You will get around 22 shots on a 36 exposure film.

The camera looks like a fragile plastic fantastic, but I believe it’s actually a cosmetic plastic shell over a metal chassis. I’d still avoid dropping it though.

The camera can be awkward to load – the film has to follow a curved path so it needs more than the usual guidance. The advice is to put the film behind everything: it goes behind every roller and guide you can see.

What got me thinking though, and the reason I bought it in the first place, is the potential of that swinging lens. It swings left to right, so a fast-moving subject also moving left to right ought to be stretched. Moving right to left it ought to be compressed. If I stand on a bend and photograph the traffic it should also do odd things with the shape of the corner. And I wonder what would happen if I panned the camera to follow a passing subject? There is also the potential to photograph a group of people arranged in an arc in front of the camera. The picture should look as though they stood in a straight line, but all facing the camera.

Moving right to left – some possible shortening of the bike

In use the camera is awkward to hold. The shutter release is set back, so your trigger finger is not in the usual position. It also takes a firm press to fire the shutter. The clip-on handgrip is very useful for keeping your fingers out of the frame, for aligning the camera and for allowing your right hand to take a loose grip in order to reach the shutter release. I’ve used it plenty of times without the grip though, as it makes the camera easier to carry.

Panning the camera. Less background blur than I expected, but it was a fairly slow pan.

You will spend a bit of time trying to get the bubble level in the viewfinder centered. The viewfinder shows the field of view of the lens pretty well but not the distortions it produces. When you do press the shutter you get an extended mechanical whoosh as the lens drum spins. It’s unusual and distinctive.

A lot of the time you can’t even see the distortion from the swing lens.

It’s a good idea to keep this camera in its case or well protected when you are not using it. If a bit of grit gets into the swing mechanism you will get vertical bright lines appearing in the frame where the lens slows-down briefly. If you are buying one second-hand, see if you can get a recent picture taken with it. Streaks mean grit.

Proof at last – the world really isn’t flat.

But, for all its awkward handling, this camera produces unique results. There are very few swing-lens cameras, and this one is probably the most accessible and cheapest way into the world of swing.

Alfred Klomp has also written about the Horizon camera in far more detail than me.

Gear Addiction Syndrome

So I was reading Unwinding anxiety by Judson Brewer, as one does, and came across a definition of addiction: “continued use despite adverse consequences”. A chill ran through my heart (not really, but a wrinkle of worry wormed across my brow) – does he mean Gear Acquisition Syndrome?

If I have more camera or lenses than I can carry and I am still looking at the results of my saved searches from eBay, I must be addicted.

There was a time, a few years ago, when film equipment was cheap because it was old and analogue. I would have sold all my kit at the time but the return was so low that I kept it for occasional use. Then I bought a few lenses to make up what felt like a full set. Then I am afraid that I bought things to play with. And I think that is the basis of my GAS and addiction. “I am Fup Duck and I have too many cameras and lenses”.

But I like variety. I don’t need to have a collection of every model of a certain camera, as my addiction is not ownership or completeness: I want different things to try. I have analysed my set of cameras and lenses for functionality in what I felt was a rational approach to building a full suite of capability. What I didn’t think about was what caused me to have so much stuff to choose from.

One of the drivers is curiosity – I am a very curious person (probably in both senses of the word). I love to find out how things work and to solve problems. So something like a half-frame camera with a rotary shutter is catnip to me, as is a camera that you twist the lens to work. What is telling is that I borrowed one of these and sold the other one. I think I would own less kit if I could borrow more.

I think there is also a desire to be equipped and ready. It’s probably like carrying some multi-function survival tool around to give me the assurance that, come the zombie apocalypse, I could cope. And is a penknife with ten blades better than one with three? I went down that rabbit hole with underwater cameras and came to the conclusion that the best camera was one that was good enough, but easy to use. But this sense of having the special thing in case I ever need it has driven some lens purchases. My only defence is that I only ever bought cheap – when I spotted a 300mm lens in a charity shop one time, I bought it. I now have a long lens, if I need one, that cost much less than buying one in the future when I do need it. Of course, if I never use the lens it was a waste of money and storage. And that’s the very definition of addiction.

Now, what Mr Brewer talks about is the link between the trigger, the behaviour and the reward. So one of these loops for me is the trigger of curiosity: I wonder what a thing is like. The behaviour is then to acquire one of those things to find out. The reward is the pleasure of investigating and learning. This is fairly well controlled, as I tend to then sell the thing once I have played with it. So this little addiction varies from cost-neutral to making a small profit.

The other loop is more of an addiction, and this is the one where I buy things to fill a perceived gap. Do I have an underwater digital camera? Yes, but what about an analogue one? Do I have a 400mm lens? What about a 200? And shouldn’t everyone have a 70-210mm zoom? This is more pernicious as I accumulate these things and rarely sell them on. The saving grace is that the adverse effects are small: I do not spend much money on this stuff. I tend instead to take opportunities: I will buy something if it turns up at the right price (low) and fills a perceived gap. I’d love a macro lens, for example. Not because I shoot loads of macro stuff, but I would use it for scanning negatives. But I am not willing to pay what they sell for and I already have other means of doing the same job (bellows and an enlarger lens). So I would only buy a macro lens if it was cheap, which isn’t going to happen. But this particular form of my addiction has resulted in me owning more cameras and lenses than I need. And I think the resolution would be to rationalise what I actually use and need and find a way to hire or borrow things that I might use only once or never. What I will also need to do is to refocus the feelings of reward from having all the tools I could need into having the perfect “capsule wardrobe” of essential and multifunctional equipment.

The first step, of course, is to decide if GAS is actually a problem. I think it is, as I have more stuff than I can use. There is no point hoarding cameras for the future: if film does continue to grow then someone may start making cameras again. And if not, they won’t. In which case we may be left with large format film, as there won’t be any 35mm cameras left to shoot the smaller formats. So don’t worry, be happy. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The thing that’s going to help me though is to recognise that I don’t need a huge reserve of every type of camera and lens, plus an extra of each camera in case the first one breaks. It’s only recently (in relative terms – I’ve been around since the last ice age) that I’ve had anything more than a basic camera setup. That never seemed to stop me. So perhaps the simplicity of a capsule camera bag is what I need? That and the recognition that I don’t need to feed this hoarding behaviour.

What we potential members of Analogues Anonymous need is a camera and lens library so the we can scratch the curiosity itch without incurring ownership. Or get the use of something exotic for only the time we actually need it. I’ve got a range of odd kit that I don’t use all the time, but wouldn’t have the use of otherwise. If this charged enough to cover the costs of repairs and CLA, it could help keep some useful skills in business too.

What do you think? Would you give up hoarding kit if you could borrow it?

Things are looking up

In terms of ease of use and quality of results, photography is so much better than it used to be. What brought this (less than genius) thought on was finding a copy of Lichfield on Photography in a charity shop. Whatever you may think of his work, he was successful for quite a few years. The book dates from 1981 and is printed on fairly good coated paper. So the pictures ought to be good. But they’re not.

It’s probably not his fault. Possibly a lot of the mono pictures were converted from colour slides. Perhaps the printing was poor, resulting in the lack of any shadow detail. Or perhaps this was the best we could do in 1981.

I shouldn’t be sarcastic – I have said before that grain and sharpness are not the most important aspects of a picture. But that’s not the point here – what I noticed is just how much better are the results we see now compared to then.

Then was shooting Polaroids to check the lighting. High ISO meant heavy and intrusive grain. Commissioned work meant shooting colour slide film, with no opportunities for post-processing or even cropping. Your shutter might top-out at 1/1000 and your lenses at f2, or smaller if you used a zoom. To get the best results you would be shooting at ISO 25 or 64. Chimping would mean sending a test film for processing or clip tests.

I can hardly criticise – this is grainy and it wasn’t even dark

Now is autofocus and face detection, low-noise ISO in the tens of thousands, large aperture lenses and magic zooms. Plus the ability to tell immediately if the picture worked.

You could say that it needs less skill to make a picture, but it also means that it is easier to get a good picture. See Lichfield – you have to agree that he had the skill, but you can see the limitations of his equipment and the process of printing. Even something as prestigious as National Geographic shows how the underlying technology has improved.

I have certainly taken advantage of this in my diving. I started with a 3mp camera and rapidly found I needed better. I moved to an 8mp camera that has better features and image stabilisation. This wasn’t a deliberate choice mind, it was what was available on eBay. Eight megapixels was pretty good but then I bumped into the jaggies again. So the next step is up to 10mp with a camera that can save raw files. And the technology also brings me image stabilisation, automatic flash control and a macro mode. Compare this with the analogue cameras I have wrestled with underwater and I can’t see myself ever going back. Yes, the technology has made it easier and you could say it has removed the need for technical skill (Lichfield was also saying this in 1981 about cameras with auto-exposure). But it has also allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures rather than juggling the camera settings.

This is at the limits of what my 8mp camera can do and won’t take much enlargement

So I think a few things have happened: better kit has lowered the trade-craft barrier to entry; better kit has raised picture quality generally; good photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. Where is it going? I don’t know. But post-processing software can correct mistakes, smooth skin, replace skies and add mood. Cameras can focus on faces or even eyes and take a blizzard of shots to capture the perfect timing. But there is still a difference between good and bad pictures, if a good picture was your intent.

But basically, bring it on! I will take all the cleverness the camera people can give me (or I can afford) because it generally gives me better results. Or fewer chances to be rubbish. And it gives me the space to go back in time in an area of my choosing to gain an effect – things like using old lenses or shooting in mono rather than colour. Same with cars – my current car is far more advanced than my first one. Do I miss the ability to start the engine with a handle? No. Do I like heating? Yes, and I can turn it off if I want to get nostalgic. So if the purpose of photography is to make pictures rather than drive cameras, then things are much better now than they were then.

Going to extremes

While I have wittered about cameras being Turing machines that can do anything photographically, there are edge cases that are difficult to adapt to. At these times we turn to the weird and wonderful. I admit to owning a few of these and being curious about the rest.

Very wide angles and panoramas are something I do have. I’ve posted before about the Horizon swing-lens camera, but I’ve also got a Lomo Spinner. Where the Horizon scans the lens across a length of film, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot behind the lens. Much the same effect, except the Spinner can do more than a full circle of view. It’s tricky to not include yourself in the picture and equally hard to keep it (nearly) level. But when you want a 360 view without stitching, the Spinner is your friend.

This is also a fine example of Swiss health and safety: a sign on the approach that says ‘be careful’.

For less extreme frame widths I’ve used wide angle lenses. I’ve got one of those negative diopter adapters that fits on the front and gives a wider view. On a 28mm lens you get the full circular fisheye effect with loads of internal reflections and fuzzy edges. Cheaper than a real fisheye for occasional use though.

The extreme of this might be something like the Nikon 8mm lens, that looked like a goldfish bowl. I’ve got a Pentax 15mm lens that I love dearly and had a 30mm fisheye for my Kiev which has roughly the same angle of view, although with much more curvature.

Not bad weather for Yorkshire – you can nearly see the horizon

At the cheap end of the scale I also have a Lomo Fisheye. Given its limitations it works pretty well. The circular image is a bit cropped, but it has a very strong fisheye effect.

At the opposite end are the long, long lenses. I suppose bird-watchers use these, and I use them for sports. Does anyone remember that creepy gadget that used to be on sale, that put a sideways-looking mirror in a fake lens hood for taking covert pictures of people? Jessops used to sell it as a candid angle lens attachment Eew. Although there must have been a market – my great aunt Maud insisted on borrowing my camera with a long zoom when (years ago) we went past the nudist beach at Brighton. Which is interesting, as I would not have done the same for a great uncle. (OK class, discuss).

I’m lucky that I have some longish medium format lenses with an adaptor that lets me strap them to an APS-C digital camera. The focal length multiplier, and the fact that the sensor is using the sharper centre of the image, means a very long lens at a fairly short price.  One of them is a Jupiter 36b 250mm though, which is so heavy it must be a solid cylinder of glass. On the plus side it has so much inertia there is no chance of it bouncing with your pulse.

But as the man said, ”call that a lens?”. At the long end there seems to be no limit. How about a 1700mm f4 made to cover medium format, allegedly made for a member of the Qatar royalty? It weighs 256kg, so your camera bag had better have wheels. Zeiss made that one, and then Canon stepped in with a 1200mm f5.6. Supposedly one of the most expensive lenses ever made (except for the Zeiss, which was never on general sale). There were only a few made and got used for special events where the Press needed to get really close. That lens is a few years old now, but Canon will still sell you an 800mm f5.6. Granted it’s nearly £14,000, but if you need one, you need one. Stick a 1.4x teleconverter on it and bump the ISO up on your modern camera and you have the same reach.

The problem of course is using something with such a narrow angle of view. You almost need a spotting lens to help you point the main lens in the right direction. Then it’s a huge tripod, high ISO and pray nobody bumps you.

So a long zoom might be easier, as you can find your subject at the wide end and then zoom in. It also gives you some adjustment if the subject is moving towards or away from you. I’ve shot at a cricket match with a 300mm, which was barely adequate from the boundary, but worked fairly well as the action was side to side. Somewhere like the public area by the hairpin at Silverstone is harder, as the vehicles come towards you, turn and go away. You need either a long zoom or to pick one spot. A narrow angle of view means that you need Jedi reflexes to trip the shutter, or you follow the vehicle and press the shutter at your pre-focussed spot. When I was there I saw a third solution. This guy had a very long fixed lens. He set the camera up on a tripod pointing up the track and obviously made a note of what was in his frame. He sat next to the tripod with a remote release. As the (bikes in this case) entered his area he tripped the shutter. Much less stressful than me trying to follow-focus with a manual lens on a monopod. I would love to have had something like the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8.  It comes with a teleconverter so at the top end you have a 1000mm f5.6. It weighs about 16kg though, so you’ll not be hand-holding it.

I suppose the other extreme is aperture. With computing power getting cheaper and manufacturing getting more clever, we can now make lenses as standard that used to be unique and hand-made. Zeiss made a very wide aperture 50mm lens for NASA. They made only ten copies. Yet now you can buy a mass-produced 50mm f0.95 lens. Instead of special order, you can even get it on Amazon. There seems to be a wide-aperture lens announced every week, and the prices are reasonable for something so clever. Like I said, I expect it’s a combination of computing power to design them and very clever automated manufacturing to make them. With that goes the ability to make aspherical lens elements more easily and cheaply, making the lens design easier and the lens performance better. I just hope it all goes to better use than the hunt for bokeh though.

I’ve got a close cousin to the wide standard lenses, in a 55mm f1.2. The wide aperture does make it easier to see the point of focus but the lens is quite heavy. Unless I really needed it, I am more inclined to take a short zoom when I go out, as it’s more practical for general shooting. But, and this was the whole point of the article, it’s a tool in the box. It sits with the very wide angle stuff and the very long lenses as solutions for specific problems. Anyway, that’s how I used to rationalise owning too many lenses. And I can’t even play guitar.

One to one or one to many?

One camera with several lenses? A particular lens used on several cameras? Or one lens per camera? If I think about the cameras I have that can swap lenses, I have more lenses than cameras. On the other hand, I still have a lot of cameras.

There is a definite argument for one lens per camera when you are shooting action or the conditions are bad. For some sports or action you don’t have the time to be swapping lenses, plus there is the risk of damage or dirt to the lens you are not using. And in wet or dusty conditions I don’t want to be swapping lenses anyway. I remember taking pictures on a very windswept beach where the air was basically opaque from ground to knee level. Not a place to put your camera bag down.

There is a risk that you end up looking like the Dennis Hopper/ Tim Page character from Apocalypse Now, dangling with cameras like a sale at Jessops. But if I was doing something where it was necessary, I’d probably do the same. Probably not as many drugs though.

But at the end of it all, a camera is just the thing that drives the lens. Except I suppose when the camera has a special quality of its own, like a certain type or size of film or sensor, and doing something clever like panoramic framing.

It’s an idea I started playing with previously, when I started wondering about the functional value of all my kit. So I really ought to think about the lenses too. Do I really need two 135mm lenses for example, or a boxfull of fifties? Maybe yes to the fifties, as they each have a distinctive character. Most of my lenses work on most of my cameras, so perhaps I need to make another grid to work out what I really need and what could be swapped for something more useful?

So, the meaning of the grid: N means the lens is native to that camera. A tick means it also fits this camera. The number in brackets is how many of that lens I own. (I know, I’m ashamed myself). I have given the lens’s actual focal length and ignored the angle of view.

You will see from the grid that I acquired lenses like they were cheap and about to go up in price. Guess what… I didn’t know about increasing in price but I do like a bargain. In general I bought the fixed focal length lenses because I wanted what they could do, the long lenses to cover sports and the zooms because they turned up at the right price. Maybe that’s not fair – there are three zooms that really matter. The 16-45 is brilliant on the APS-C digital camera. The 24-50 is equally great on the full frame camera. And one of the 70-210 is a Vivitar Series 1. This is the lens that a pal of mine at university used to fell a problematic person who was blocking his view. Any lens that can be set to stun and then keep rolling is a bit of a legend to me. I’ll admit – I also have lenses that turned up as a body cap on a camera I wanted, were too cheap to pass up or were part of a bizarre experiment.

I think I have definitely strayed into the many-to-one area in my lens to camera relationship. So what’s a poor boy to do?

I definitely have too many lenses. A few years ago I went to photograph some motorsports and, as I hadn’t done it for a while, took all my long lenses. That was one heavy bag. I can also feel a cull of zooms coming on. Some of them, like the 80-205, are worth peanuts but they are taking up space and someone else might get some use out of them. Same with one of the 70-210s and maybe a few more. So I suppose at the moment I am definitely in the region of (very) many-t0-one and I feel I need to get to the smallest set that fits the cameras I need them to.

Watch out eBay – here I come!

Unfaithful to Pentax

I’ve done a thing I never thought I’d do, and bought an SLR that is not compatible with my Pentax kit.

Up until now all my SLRs could share the pool of lenses. This new one stands alone.

Fuji camera

Why was my head turned? A cheap and interesting lens. It was the beginner’s kit lens at the time this camera came out in the late 70s, and probably since. It’s 55mm focal length and f2.2. So far, so modest, but I heard it could give interesting results. It has four elements in four groups and the online wizards say it’s a Zeiss Unar design. This is the ancestor of the Tessar, the difference being that the air-gapped pair of rear elements in the Unar are cemented together in the Tessar. So you could say it’s not as good but cheaper to build than a Tessar.

I had a bit of fun (true for small values of fun) a while ago comparing bokeh and rendering between different types of 50mm lenses. What I hadn’t got at the time (or since) was a five element lens. I didn’t even know there was a design with four. But now I do.

It was on eBay as an Adaptall-2 fitting, which was great. It turned out to be Fuji bayonet with an Adaptall-labelled rear cap. No matter – the lens was very cheap and a bit of searching found a very cheap Fujica STX-1 body to fit it to. Even together the pair fell inside the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge rules. We like cheap when we are experimenting.

The lens is certainly cheap. It has a plastic body and a five blade aperture. The camera is cheap too – it was Fuji’s entry model in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s totally mechanical, with a top shutter speed of 1/750. Mine has a dent on the corner and the crank is missing from the film rewind. But it works. It’s also the early version of this camera with a meter needle rather than LEDs, so it’s pre 1982, making it around 40 years old. But the meter works, so hurrah for cheap old cameras. Even so, who cares? It’s the lens I’m interested in.

So what does the father of Tessar look like? (I was going to call it John Durbeyfield, but that’s just too obscure). Quite hard to focus in dim light, but that’s more to do with the camera’s screen than the lens. It feels very plasticy – focusing it or changing the aperture feels like bits of plastic sliding on each other rather than brass or aluminium. It doesn’t rattle like some old lenses though, so that’s a bonus. Closest focus is 0.6m which isn’t bad. Some people have raved about its bubble bokeh, but I’ve seen so many adverts claiming that anything from a telescope to a microscope is a bokeh monster that I don’t really believe them.

As I’m not sure about the camera’s light seals I shot it first with the tail end of a part-used film. No light leaks apparent, so all seems well.

For the camera buffs it’s a basic SLR and works just like they all do. The shutter speed range and the one in use are visible at the left of the viewfinder with the meter needle on the right. A half-press on the shutter button switches on the meter. There is a lock for the shutter release so it’s safe to leave the shutter cocked. This is a cheap and basic camera that would (and still does) do the job. The only real drawback, then as now, is that you are largely confined to Fuji lenses. The flange distance was less than M42, so there was an adapter available at the time that could get you access to a wider range of screw-mount lenses. Whether the adapter is still available I don’t know, and I have no wish to use this camera with my M42 lenses – this is to mount the mighty Unar.

So how did it handle? Like a film SLR. All the usual controls in the usual places. A little limited in bright conditions by the low top speed, a little limited in dim conditions by the small maximum aperture and a dim focusing screen. And the lens? At the usual range of distances and apertures, just like any other standard lens. I’m not going to point it at a resolution chart or even a wall – what’s the point?

These are the first shots out of the camera. First test of course is to recreate the bokeh shots I did, but using Wilson’s fruity friend.

Fuji pine

Nice and smooth with a hint of double image in the white bench.

Fuji tree

The possibility of a bit of swirly in the background.

Fuji Charlie

Again, nice and smooth. A bit of double image or outline in the strand of plant, which mean it may well do the fabled bubble bokeh.

Still, for what it cost this is fun. Fun enough that I used it for the Casual Photophile Challenge.


PS – the Classic Lenses Podcast then did an episode on this lens. Looks like mine is a good one for not being cracked.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: