Vintage

I came across a video that wanted to tell me about the vintage lenses I “must” have. Well I’m interested in vintage lenses, so I gave it a watch.

Hmm. Apparently someone doesn’t know the meaning of the word “vintage”. Is it me?

To my mind a “vintage lens” in this age of the digital camera is one originally manufactured for use on a film camera. Perhaps this is wrong?

Maybe they meant “vintage style” lens, such as those manual aperture/manual focus lenses available from certain artisan (*ahem*) manufacturers which can give you that ‘vintage’ look and operation without the expense of actually having to track down a 58mm f1.9 Meyer Gorlitz Primoplan.

But even that does not explain the list consisting entirely of currently-available and mainly automatic lenses, such as the Canon 50mm f1.8 EF. I happen to have one of those, and I would not describe it as “vintage”. Not ever.

On the other hand I, personally, could be described as a “vintage photographer” so maybe the fault lies not within the lenses but within myself.

Oh well.

Here’s a couple of shots of a vintage late ’40s to early ’50s GMC ‘5 window’ pick-up I came across while walking around town. It’s nearly impossible to tell GMC years apart, within certain eras, at a glance as they didn’t change much – unlike their Chevrolet cousins – due to low sales volume.

Somewhere around 1950, give or take three or four years.
Hopefully it will be restored.

Photos taken with the Canon G11, a nice ‘walking around’ camera. Is it vintage digital? You tell me!

Another 50 = 80

Continuing with my Canon “practise”. In this case the lens is the wonderful Asahi Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f1.4. It is a faultless lens, and even a blind photographer like me can get good shots with it.

Crystal Tree
Frosted Woods
Close to the Ice
What are you looking at?

Answering the riddle

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Practice, practice, practice!

Here I am practising with the Canon T100 and 55-250mm lens.

Big black bird (raven).
Cold sun. Taken through the window on a -34C day, but that’s okay because it’s supposed to be ‘soft’.
“Dogs and cats don’t get along.” (Marley & Squeak)
Zig-zag. I like a bit of ‘real life abstract’.
Bitty brown bird (junco).
Light, shadow, texture, pattern.

So what’s the score? One out of every seven pictures shot was ‘acceptable’. Not very good, but an improvement over the Nikon’s one out of ten. The reasons for the improved performance are several: the Canon has a larger, brighter viewfinder which is easier for me to see through (although I still mis-framed shots); its autofocus is faster and more dependable (although again I missed shots because the focus points are little black dots and my eyes have their own ‘little black dots’ built-in); the zoom is a mechanical ring, not motor-driven that sometimes locks up as the Nikon does; the sensor is larger, higher resolution, and not failing; the lens isn’t loose and wobbly.

I miss the Nikon’s excellent (actually better than the Canon’s) lens resolution and its extreme zoom range, though. But it is nice to know the camera isn’t going to just fail randomly as its worn-out predecessor does. The battery lasts longer too. I’ve had the T100 for three years now and bought it to replace the P610, but it was hard to give up a camera that so perfectly fit my shooting needs. Now those needs have changed and I have no choice (many of the shots missed with the Nikon were due to my just not being able to see what I was doing with it).

Next step is to put the fixed focal length ‘prime’ 50mm on it and shoot some more, although I dislike having that limitation. I also need a much longer than 250mm lens for my usual wildlife photography, but that will have to wait for now. (It’s been waiting for three years, what’s a little longer?)

Footnote: it was -40 Thursday morning, but it’s headed for above freezing next week. This weird weather continues to complicate things.

Whither photography?

Bad photo of the moon. The white dot on the right is Venus.

Premise: a desire to replace the ailing Nikon P610.

Solution: purchase a long telephoto lens for the Canon T100.

Selection: Sigma 150-600mm.

Problem: Many.

Let’s start with the price. It’s over $1,000, all said and done. That’s a lot of money to me. In fact if I had $100,000,000 I’d still think $1,000 is a lot of money – because I’m a cheapskate. Er, frugal.

Well recently it’s been “on sale” in the off-and-on method of modern con artistry. I mean merchandising. Yeah, that’s it; merchandising. Not con artistry. In any case the “sale” has amounted to a whopping 9% off regular price. Nine percent. Not even ten. This is with the Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Holiday Season sales allegedly trying to lure people to buy with low, low prices. I laugh scornfully at their pathetic attempts. The lens is 20% too expensive to begin with, and 9% off is just a joke. Our sales tax is 12% here.

Then there’s the “other thing”.

My last eye exam included such terms as “cataracts”, “glaucoma”, and “epiretinal membrane”. All of which can be treated to varying degrees of success, but with no guaranteed results for any. And underneath it all I still have the re-attached retina and cloudy aqueous humor complete with floaters. In other words the best that can be offered is not going blind rapidly. Definitely not any hope of return to fine vision. Now for most people this would not be an issue, but for a photographer … seeing the fine details is essential. I’m sure some of you have noticed the decline in quality of my work since¬†The Last Picture? Instead of nine out of ten images being good, it’s one out of ten being acceptable.

Given those circumstances one has to wonder about the practicality of investing in any more photographic equipment of any type at any price.

Not-so-bad picture of the moon.

Another boring lens test post

Okay, I bought a Canon 50mm f1.8 EF lens. I would not have done so if a 40% off the lowest regular price around sale had not come up. I especially would not have done so if I’d known about the unexpected $250 in vet bills that came up afterwards or the unexpected $186 in other expenses or the price of gasoline going back over $2 per litre. Let’s face it; if we could see the future we’d all win the lottery.

But it seems every Canon owner has one of these lenses so … why not me? Just how good is it anyway?

50mm on the 1Ds.
40mm on the 1Ds.

The quality is almost identical to the 40mm ‘pancake’, and indeed it’s not much bigger. For general shooting, both are ‘good’ but neither are ‘excellent’. In fact not only does the classic Super Takumar 50mm f1.4 utterly destroy them in sharpness, the venerable Nikon P610 is also noticeably better (when it actually manages to get a correct focus lock, which is rare these days). This is the sort of thing that makes me want to try a Nikon DSLR.

Now let’s see the two lenses on the crop sensor Canon T100 (from the same place):

40mm on the T100 – about 64mm equivalent.
50mm on the T100 – about 80mm equivalent.

(You may notice the T100 overexposes and the colours are not as rich.)

How is the 50mm for really close-up sharpness?

On the T100 – notice focus did not lock in the right place.
Segment of 100% image at the sharpest area.

Of course these were taken wide-open to give it the toughest test. Again, it’s good but not excellent. Frankly I expect better from Canon. Oh I get it: you’re supposed to spend the big money and buy their top quality lenses instead of spending reasonable amounts and getting mediocre results. That’s another shoot-yourself-in-the-foot strategy from Canon, which goes with their no-third-party-RF-series-lenses announcement. They don’t seem to get the idea of “brand = reputation” and that people will accept lower quality from ‘off-brand’ makes at lower prices but won’t accept lower quality from ‘name brand’ makes at any price. (I have seen this failed marketing strategy before, as in when certain car makers introduced junky low-priced cars to ‘compete’ with the import makes when all they wanted was to get people into showrooms and talk them into higher priced, higher profit vehicles.)

So it’s not the best lens, but can you take a good picture with it?

Evening sky with the 50mm on the 1Ds. No adjustments other than sizing.
Fuzzy seeds with the 50mm on the T100. Cropped and sharpened.

Yes, I guess so. Although it seems to work better on the 1Ds (full frame) than on the T100 (crop sensor). The ‘medium’ focal length afforded by the 1.6 factor on the APS-C camera puts the lens in a range I don’t normally use. Frankly it’s a little disappointing over-all, like every purchase I’ve made lately.

Anyway … Once this holiday weekend is over it’s on with the wood harvest (a couple more loads at most) and then close up the cabin for the season.

Marley finds lens testing boring.

Gear down, gear up.

(Note: through dint of major effort I am avoiding commenting on life in general at this moment and instead concentrating on just one of my many problems.)

For the sake of argument let’s say my Nikon P610 no longer works at all. This is not yet true, but like the Kodak P850 and V1003 before it the Nikon’s functions have become erratic and the resulting images less than ideal. It is inevitable that it will fail altogether at some point. I already can not rely on it, which is a shame because it is an excellent camera. Was.

So, what to do about losing my #1 piece of equipment?

First of all the key reason why the P610 took so many pictures for me: the fantastic zoom range. My photography involves me being out and about and seeing things near and far. Often very far. As such I need to be able to switch from close up (not just wide-angle) to telephoto quickly. I can stand in one spot and see a butterfly on a flower right in front of me and a bird in a tree yards away. Thus the extreme zoom lens is an important feature for me.

Right. So replace it with another comparable camera, yes? No. Why not? Three reasons:

1). There aren’t any exact matches. The newer versions from Nikon are ridiculous in their zoom ranges, larger and heavier, and burdened with extra features which add no functionality. Other units from Canon and Panasonic have less zoom but as much ‘technoglitz’ and none have a guarantee of lens quality. The ol’ P610 quite spoiled me for its lens and newer offerings, even more expensive ones, have not shown to be as good quality.

2). Prices are nuts. The P610 cost roughly $400 new and whereas we can expect a bit of inflation the P1000 replacement is 4X that price. The Canon SX70 is 2X. The only thing comparable is the Panasonic FZ80, and it has other faults.

3). “To thine own self be true” – Polonius. In researching dealing with this problem I naturally turned to my current arsenal of cameras to see which had the best potential for stepping up to the plate to pinch-hit for the Nikon. The truth is none of them quite cut it, but there was a recurring theme among certain ones; namely the EVF models wherein even the best (Sony a6000) is difficult for me to use with my failing eyesight. The optical finders are much larger and brighter and easier to see, so buying another camera with an EVF would be like pretending I haven’t got a vision problem.

How bad is that problem? There is currently an optical puzzle making the rounds of the Internet where you’re supposed to read the number in a swirled pattern. My left eye can see five of the seven digits. My right eye can not discern any one them. Yes, it’s that bad. I have taken to ‘resting’ it with the eye patch as much as possible so that when I do need depth perception or increased peripheral vision it can be used. This is incurable and only goes in one direction. It does not help that most cameras are made to be used with the right eye. The DSLRs are a little easier to switch with owing to the finder being basically in the middle of the camera instead of on one side.

Now the interesting thing is that the Panasonic FZ80 is available for <$400 right now. But see problems 1, 2, and 3 above. Only the price and my boredom caused me to look at it at all. Anyway I can’t afford even that.

So I’m back to trying out my existing cameras. None of them has the ultra-long telephoto ability. Going back to #3 I have to wonder if that matters since I can’t spot those far away birds now anyhow. Mostly I triangulate on the sound and then scan the trees where I think one is for movement to zoom in on. Usually by that time the bird has flown off, and so have its descendants.

Objectively the Sony a6000 isn’t suitable even if I spent $1,000 on a long lens for it, which I’m not going to do. Good though the camera is I have troubles using it beyond just the EVF issue as outlined above. It’s a shame because it is a good camera and I like it save the few operational flaws (which are more problems with me than with it).

The Lumix ZS60 is out because of the EVF, the short focal length range, and the poor quality lens.

I like using the Olympus E410 but guess what? There are no lenses available for it because the four-thirds format was supplanted by the micro-four-thirds system. So I should go out and buy an OM? Not too bloody likely that would happen! Besides which changing lenses out is not as convenient as simply zooming from one extreme to the other.

Of course the Canon G11 and 1Ds aren’t at all suitable for daily use as the former is fixed lens with a limited range and the latter weighs nearly as much as a compact car as well as not having a long focal length lens.

This leaves the Canon T100, which also lacks telephoto lens range. That costs a ton of money, and again this is a compromise because even with it you don’t have that wide-to-telescope-like focal length range.

If only they built a DSLR with a 1/2.3″ sensor! But they don’t and won’t so that’s the end of it.

Oh I didn’t mention my Pentax K100Ds. The reasons why should be obvious.

Since the equipment can’t/won’t/doesn’t exist the only choice is to compromise on style. I already find it frustrating when I go out with the ‘wrong’ camera and see something that it can’t get an image of (the other day it was a pileated woodpecker on a power pole when I had the G11 which doesn’t have a long enough zoom). Now I’m going to have to give up on shots because I can’t change lenses fast enough and don’t have long enough focal length.

This is a problem that has no solution. Just like all the others.

Frustration. (Olympus E410)

Low-cost lens cavalcade BONUS!

This is not one of the lenses from the Great Deal. I bought this off ego-Bay before they branded me Public Enemy Number One and forbade all interaction. It wasn’t as cheap as the deal lenses on an individual basis were, especially not after having to buy an adaptor for it. What is it? It’s a Super Albinar 28mm f2.8 in Canon FD mount:

Odd lens out.

This is one of those “store branded” lenses made by who-knows-whom, in this case for photo retailer Albi’s. I originally got it thinking it could be adapted to the Canon T100, but to do that correctly requires an expensive adaptor with a piece of questionable-quality glass in it to get the focusing re-aligned to where infinity isn’t 2″ away. So I ponied up another $20 to fit it to the Sony and tested it alongside the other lenses.

As a ‘scene lens’ it does alright. Try to ignore the recurring spots on the image sensor.

I usually do not shoot with wide-angle lenses. Yet I seem to have collected up two 28mm ones, an M42 mount and this one in Canon FD, as well as a 24mm Vivitar. All three, it turns out, are perfectly good lenses. That’s the thing with store-branded equipment; you never know until you try it if it is any good. It could be made by a quality company but the price-point demands of the retailer can compromise performance. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.

Nothing to complain about here.

In this instance the luck is with us. Nothing wrong with the colour or contrast, and the controls work fine (even though the adapted mount is fiddly and you have to check to be sure everything is locked and the aperture actually stops down properly when you turn the ring). But is it sharp?

Full image
Crop 640 x 427 from 100%
Larger than life.

Uh, I think we’ll take that as “yes it’s sharp”.

Under some circumstances there is ‘fringing’ and other signs of chromatic aberration. But it is not a dominant characteristic that shows up all the time.

Odd tracks.

Over-all I’d rate this lens as very good and even though it’s not a focal length I typically use I have got some pretty good pictures out of it – some more of those coming later. Of course I’m going to keep it, because I can’t actually unload any of my surplus equipment now (thanks ego-Bay, may you rot in hell).

I would like to do some more ‘testing’ of some of these old lenses, but circumstances right now are extremely limiting and the future isn’t looking very good either.

Low-cost lens cavalcade #10

Now we come to the last of the ten (usable) lenses I got in the great deal, the Asahi Pentax Super Takumar f3.5 135mm.

Saving the best for last.

This is a lens I’ve wanted for a long time: it is the ‘missing’ member of the ‘standard trio’ of lenses for my Pentax Spotmatic 1000. Back in the day when I was using this as my main camera I managed to obtain a (radioactive) 35mm Super Takumar wide-angle to go with the 50mm standard lens, but could not afford the 135mm version. Instead I purchased a much cheaper 135mm f2.8 Vivitar, which I still have. Now through the good fortune of one deal I have the Pentax telephoto. There are longer Super Takumar lenses, and shorter ones too (I also have a 28mm), but the combination of 35-50-135 was considered a ‘proper kit’ of lenses in that age of film SLRs. There is also an f2.8 version of the 135mm, but that is not the one I have found.

So let’s see how well it works.

Duncan in the snow. What a 135mm lens is meant for.

The next photo was taken on a cloudy day, yet contrast and colour are good. Sharpness is nothing to complain about either, and no sign of chromatic troubles. But let’s push the limits.

The full view.
640 x 427 segment of the upper chickadee.
640 x 427 segment of the lower chickadee.

Now when we do the digital zoom thing we see sharpness falling off and chromatic troubles arise. Not as bad as some of the other lenses recently tested, though. But is this how the lens would typically be used?

The neighbour’s house.

If you don’t zoom in digitally everything is fine, especially in bright light when you can stop down to f8 (the ‘non-existent’ sweet spot for this lens). I shot quite a few ‘standard’ pictures and found it to be more than adequate under normal conditions.

The lens can do quite well.

Although 135mm is quite short for my usual photography I can see there are times when this lens would be just the right thing.

When all the elements come together …

I rate this lens as very good. Even though the performance has some shortcomings, they only appear when it is pushed to perform under less-than-ideal conditions. What’s more the actual handling of the lens (focus and aperture rings) is the usual high-quality of Super Takumars, so I have no complaints on operation.

Well that’s the last of the ‘deal lenses’. Of course they were not all the equipment I got in the deal, but much of it really isn’t of any use to me. The question remains: was all of it together worth the money?

Notice I haven’t yet revealed how much I spent.

What did I get that I will continue to use? A couple of cases and three lenses: the 28mm Vivitar, the 58mm Helios, and this 135mm Super Takumar. Now, what is a lens worth?

One of the on-line sources I follow has posted a list of “the best M42 lenses for $150-$300”. That’s per lens, and even the low end is expensive by my standards. Okay, I’m a cheapskate. So what would you be willing to pay for any one of those lenses (assuming you wanted one of them)? Half the ‘starting price’ mentioned in the article (i.e. $75) perhaps?

How about $60 for the whole boiling?

Come to that, I’ve probably had that much money’s worth of fun playing with the lenses and other things.

And I intend to have more fun with some of it in the future.

Low-cost lens cavalcade #9

Here we are at one of the most hyped lenses in all of photographic history: the 58mm f2 Helios M44-2!

Is it as good as the tales it generates?

I say “most hyped” because it is all over the Internet in its many incarnations to the extent where it has become legend. Or perhaps myth. You see the history behind its legend includes a certain factor which is largely ignored these days, if not edited out completely: it’s cheap. The truth is this Biotar-based design was churned out in the Soviet Union for years in large numbers, making it highly available and, originally, not very costly. So we start with a good lens design, make it in vast quantities over a long time, and the next thing you know word gets out that you can get the equivalent of a Zeiss lens for pocket change.

Yeah, well … currently there are three available near where I am and the asking price is anywhere from $90-$150. Not exactly cheap for a 50-year-or-so-old lens of dubious quality and origins. Fortunately mine came at the bottom of the lens deal box so I was not out a lot of money to try it. I would have been sad to pay today’s asking price for one of these. Honestly they used to be offered up for like $10.

But is it worth any price at all? Good question. Setting aside the fan-base hyperbole and the coolness of having a “commie lens” (not so cool in the post-USSR era which has made Russian goods more readily accessible), just how good is it? (We must also ignore the manual-only aspect because that is part of why you get this sort of lens in the first place.)

Full disclosure: my example, built in the KMZ factory and thus supposedly one of the superior editions, is damaged. Some previous idiot stored it with no rear cap and so there are a couple of quite noticeable chips on the rear element. As you probably know a small fault on the back of a lens turns into a bigger problem than it would on the front because of the ratio between the two ends. Mine is also stiff to focus to the point where it has a tendency to unscrew in its mount instead. There is also some oil visible on the diaphragm blades.

Nevertheless, it shoots pictures.

Snow on trees scene.

At 58mm on the Sony a6000 it’s the equivalent of 87mm full frame, which is not a focal length I typically use.

Better close than far.

With good lighting conditions the contrast and colour are pretty good. As light falls off the rendering is not so spectacular. So how is the all-important sharpness?

The full image.
Cropped segment of 100% image.

Not bad, especially considering the damage. It’s no Super Takumar though. Nor is it a real Zeiss Biotar (yes I have used one). With certain lighting conditions you can see some chromatic problems, despite the fact this thing has a ‘built-in’ lens hood due to the deeply recessed front element.

Just a ‘snapshot’.

It’s clunky to use, make no mistake. Not smooth and the rings are no pleasure to handle either. With the mount adaptor it’s quite a handful of lens. Over-all it has a sort of “arty” aspect to it, albeit not one that I find particularly pleasing (especially not given the quality of operation). No, I did not even try to judge the you-know-what clich√© effect because I’m not interested in that. Such would be akin to evaluating a flare filter or something, and not in keeping with the straight-up lens testing I’ve been attempting here.

Artistically viable.

I’m giving the Helios 44-2 a “good” rating, and would not be surprised to find that other copies of this same lens might rate very good as it has potential (a number of sites have mentioned some significant variations in performance and quality depending on the place and year of manufacture as well as the actual changes made).

Right now it is sitting with a front and rear lens cap on, tucked into a hard leather snap case in a drawer. I probably won’t be using it much, but of the ten lenses I acquired in this deal it is definitely one of the better ones. And if the current asking prices are in any way based on reality it’s one that makes the whole purchase worthwhile on its own.

Low-cost lens cavalcade #8

If anyone ever listened to my advice I’d probably tell them something like “don’t spend a lot of money on old telephoto and zoom lenses”. The reason for this is that lens design has improved greatly over the years, and the longer focal lengths have benefited the most. For example this entry’s test subject is an old Vivitar 300mm f5.6.

One long and heavy lens.

This is a large lens. It weighs in just under two pounds and does quite a job on the tripod trying to hold it steady. If this were mounted on the Canon 1Ds it would be an unmanageable 5+ lbs. of equipment. It is also a ‘slow’ lens at only f5.6, but at 300mm it’s the kind of focal length that is suited to much of my photography. By the way the “P&B” on the front of the lens is for Ponder & Best, the ‘maker’, who started using the Vivitar name in the 1960s – when this lens probably dates from given its design. In fact their equipment was made by other companies under license. I have a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens that is excellent, and also a 24mm f2.8 (acquired in the same deal as this long lens) which also performs very well. This 300mm, however, is not as good.

A “medium shot” of the Nissan.

Sharpness is lacking, contrast is low, colours are dull, and chromatic aberration shows up too often. Despite this it is possible to get decent pictures with it, but you need just the right conditions – such as bright light so you can use f8 and a tripod because hand-holding this beast is a challenge.

Full image of a black-capped chickadee.
100% segment of the last image. Cute little bird (with a sunflower seed in its beak), but the detail is fuzzy not feathery.
With some effort it can render a decent image.
A cap wearing a hat – of snow.
With enough light, a tripod, and the proper alignment of all the stars in the universe …

Although it is possible to get a good picture from it, most of the time it fails. It’s hard to use too, due not only to its large size and great weight but also looking through a maximum aperture of only f5.6 is difficult for my fading eyesight. I have a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 that is smaller, lighter, sharper, and has better colour & contrast. Over-all I can only rate this lens as “fair”. It doesn’t even have any particular characteristics that make it interesting, unless you like schlepping around a lens that can double as a piece of weight-lifting equipment.