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.

Low-cost lens cavalcade #7

A new year and a ‘new’ lens. This time it’s the Vivitar 24mm f2.8:

Uh oh, it has fungus.

Yes it has fungus. That’s worrying but it isn’t on the glass and there’s no sign of it affecting the images. Yet. Someone skilled with lenses could no doubt take this apart and clean it up quite easily. That someone is not me. I’ve made some recent ventures in lens repairing and … best if I just leave this one alone.

This lens gets some ‘extra’ display shots here because it has some curious ‘extra’ controls which I can not figure out how they function. On the bottom is this tab with markings that doesn’t move even when you push the metal button in:

What is this for? How is it used?

And then the aperture ring has an ‘extra’ set of markings mirroring the f stops but all in green:

Probably some kind of camera-specific auto aperture control.

This is one of those lenses with the tiny button on the back that needs to be pushed in to get it to shift to ‘manual’ if you don’t have it screwed in to the right kind of camera body. (I think this is the Pentax ‘SE’ edition of the M42 mount.) I got it shifted (which means it can also work on the Canon, by the way) and took some shots.

Wide-angle it is even on a cropped sensor camera.

Oh look: I finally got the spots off the sensor! For now anyway. Speaking of it being wide-angle:

The mighty Nissan. This close you can just see some distortion.

Colours are spot-on and contrast is good with no sign of chromatic aberration. Let’s see how sharp it is:

Wild rose full size.
Cropped segment of the full image. This lens focuses to 9″!

That is a very sharp lens. The biggest problem I had was not being able to see well enough to focus at very close distances where depth of field dwindles at f2.8 – even on a 24mm lens.

To ‘correct’ this shot I would have had to adjust the trailer.

Despite the fungus this lens gets a ‘very good’ rating. If put up against the Super Takumar 28mm you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The only things against it are that I rarely use such wide-angle lenses and it has that ‘extra’ control function. Neither of those are a fault with the lens. I think this may be good for landscape shots if the 50cm of snow ever melts around here. Hey it warmed up above zero Fahrenheit for the first time in many days! Maybe there will be a Spring.

Spring? Not yet.

In other news it will be a few more weeks before my wife will return, unless they cancel that flight on her as well. Meanwhile I’ve got more medical tests to take, and the temperature is supposed to go down yet again. With more snow. No, we’re not quite to Spring.

We came to an agreement

It’s a bad idea for me to get bored. You know that camera stuff I was boasting about not buying? Well …

The deal.

Anyway it worked out okay. With a Praktica LLC SLR (not a great camera) I figured I’d have some mediocre M42 lenses to play with, right? And yes as I looked at them they were mediocre: a Sun f2.8 28-80mm, an Opticon f2.8 135mmm, a Cunor f4.5 200mm, a Tokina f4.5 80-200mm (which appears to be Canon FD mount but is damaged on both ends), and of course the ‘standard’ Pentacon f1.8 50mm “electric” for the Praktica. Beyond that there are some miscellaneous items like three old flashes, some cheap M42 extension tubes and extenders, plus cases and caps not necessarily matching or fitting anything. In terms of cases the big, blue fibreglass and aluminium Hewlett-Packard one he gave me as a bonus is quite the nicest of them. The black leather one is trash but the brown one can be used with some fixing up.

As it was I didn’t look at everything before I bought it. I figured I was ahead anyway. The seller kept going on about the Canon VHS-C camcorder, which is frankly junk and headed for recycling. But once I had it home and pawed through everything I found the solid gold at the bottom of the brown case: a Pentax Super Takumar f3.5 135mm! Oh some people may say the gold was the Helios 44-2 f2 58mm that was hiding in the same case. The Vivitar f5.6 300mm is probably a pretty nice lens too. Likewise the Vivitar f2.8 24mm. Maybe even the Prakticar f4.5 70-210mm zoom, although likely not as it feels like the cheapest lens ever made. I’m sure the best is not the Meyer Domiplan f2.8 50mm because I’ve had one with my Exacta equipment and they aren’t impressive.

There’s also an old Sekonic meter, but that appears to not be working. Likewise the flashes probably aren’t worth bothering about, not even the Braun 340 SCA.

The likely best lenses.

Anyway that’s ten new-to-me M42 lenses to play with, which should keep me from being bored for a while. If we ever get any sunshine around here again.

Feel free to try and guess the price. You wouldn’t believe it.

That which we call a lens

Even though I still haven’t cleaned the sensor on the ‘new’ Canon 1Ds, I have tried a couple more lenses on it. So far I’ve used the two Canon EF lenses I have (40mm and 75-300mm) and the 50mm Pentax Super Takumar. All okay so far.

Now a brief explanation of Canon EF lenses. There are two types: the EF, which has a red alignment dot, and the EF-S which has a white alignment square. Both will fit on a crop-sensor camera such as my Canon T100 (the body of which has both the red dot and the white square), but only the red dot EF lenses work on the full-frame cameras like my Canon 1Ds (which has only the red dot). The EF-S lenses will not fit due to the rear of the lens intruding into the camera body. Don’t try it, you could damage something.

That said, the next lens I tried was my old M42 mount Vivitar 135mm f2.8. It’s a pretty good lens too.

I like this.

How sharp is it? Here’s a portrait of Marley the usually silly dog:

Marley being sensible.

And now we take a 640×427 segment out of the full frame, right around her eye:

Up close and sharp.

It is not the sharpest lens I own, but it’s hard to fault it. There’s no trickery like ‘unsharp mask’ used here either; it’s all in the lens.

But the lens does have its failings. Of course it’s manual, so that means manual focus and manual exposure. So no quick ‘grab shots’ of anything. Also, for most of the things I shoot the focal length is pretty short:

Three snow geese far away.

That is again taking a small segment from the full frame, and the birds are still very small. I even used the unsharp mask to enhance their shape, but no amount of computer processing will make up for the physics. Really: you’ve got to stop believing those TV shows that pretend a satellite in orbit can read a license plate that’s perpendicular to its lens as clearly as if it were ten feet away.

Now back to the EF vs. EF-S issue. I have one more lens in my collection which claims to be EF, in that it has the red alignment dot and will fit the full-frame camera. There’s just one little problem:

Say “nyet” to vignette. (The bird lost in the middle is a black-capped chickadee.)

This is the 18-200mm Tamron, which also has sharpness issues at any setting. Here we see the vignetting that showed up as a minor thing on the APS-C sensor at the 200mm length becomes full-blown-artistic-whatsit whether you want it or not. Yes you could crop this out, but then you’d notice the blurry focus all the more.

It’s a dark-eyed junco. Take my word for it.

Nope. That lens is not good enough for me. BTW it also focuses noticeably slower than the Canon lenses, and sometimes inaccurately.

I still have the 35mm and 28mm Super Takumars to try on this camera. But first I absolutely will clean the sensor. I promise. Or at least make a try at it.

I also need to get a larger CF card because at full resolution I can only fit 11 images on the 64 MB one I have. That isn’t even a ‘half roll’ equivalent.

I, eagle

Tracking a bald eagle on a gray afternoon with the Pentax K100DS and Vivitar 135mm f2.8 lens (202mm equivalent). “Full manual” with focus, aperture, and shutter speed pre-set. Except for the last two images, each picture is a 640×426 crop of the full size. Processing included sharpening, +10 contrast (dull day, old sensor), and smudging the flaw spots if they appeared in the image. This is a 6MP camera; these frames are basically 1/16 full size. That is a lot of digital zooming for such a low resolution imager. Notice the sky colour changes as the bird moves from being front-lit to back-lit flying into the light.

Mystery Camera Revealed!

Pentax K100D Super!

Yes that’s the camera I’ve been using to make all those fuzzy, spotty pictures with. At long last I’ve got an adapter to put the old Super Takumar lenses (specifically the 35mm which is a ‘normal’ FL on this camera) on it in place of the truly awful 18-55mm Pentax DA that came with it. Of course it can only be used on manual with the old lenses, but the auto exposure is usually wrong and the autofocus doesn’t work anyway so …

A raven, of course.
Rich colours. Finding camera settings that worked well took some experimentation.
Fallen ice.
Snow gnome’s hat.
Bleak tree.
Testing with the Vivitar 135mm.

There are still a few spots on the sensor:

Most noticeable spots.

Some of these images have been post-processed a bit beyond size adjusting, including sharpening, white balance, exposure correction, and cropping. This was about getting the best out of it, as the worst it can do is easy to achieve: out of 400+ images I’ve taken with this since the start, about 20 are any good at all. It’s been getting better as I managed to get a lot of the dirt off the sensor and switch to a lens that isn’t fuzzier than a bear, but still not a good record (we’re talking image quality only here, not composition issues).

I’m not sure if I’ll try another cleaning or not. The camera has some good aspects, but it has a lot of flaws as well. These are mostly due to age and misuse although some are design issues. On the whole I prefer slightly more MP resolution even though a shrink shots way down all the time. Plus it seems a shame to have automatic features and not be able to use them. Overall the Olympus E-410 was a better buy.

I am now holding out for a full-frame Canon as that is a camera which will actually add to my repertoire (low-light and landscape images).

Collecting Cheap Cameras?

After playing with my inexpensively acquired Canon PowerShot A70, I got to wondering about the viability of cheap digital cameras and how they might fare as collectors’ items. Thus I did a bit trolling on Amazon and came up with a little information, some of which is presented here.

First of all, there is a huge number of brand new low-dollar not-really-brand-name and not-named-at-all offerings starting at about $12. With prices like that and specifications that can only be called “suspect” you can readily understand why you probably shouldn’t put your trust or dollars in something called “YTGOOD” or “Cobra” or “TEXXIS”. Many of these cameras are cookie-cutter copies of one another, and there’s no reason to expect any of them to work at all, much less work well.

However, a few old familiar names popped up too.

Argus

Argus. The name that brought us the venerable C3 35mm camera that every film photographer must have had at some point in their lives. Of course the company that built those cameras went bankrupt and obviously the name got passed along. The name, but not the quality. No matter how much lipstick you put on a pig it will never look like a horse.

Bell

Bell & Howell. In the days of film this name was best known for projectors found in schools, movie cameras, and a few clunky still cameras. Industrial strength and styling, and tractor-like quality – in a world that wanted sports cars. I had a few myself and they were not overly impressive in operation or image quality. Here we see the fine old name hung on more of those cookie-cutter cameras. They kept the worst aspects, and threw out the best.

Poloroid

Polaroid. Edwin Land must be spinning in his grave. The first self-developing cameras were quality units that worked. As years went by efforts to maximize profits saw metal bodies and glass lenses replaced with plastic everything, to the detriment of quality in both cameras and images. (Side note: while the instant camera market was clearly dying, Kodak saw fit to introduce their own. That was a not-smart move that didn’t help them at all.) Again we have a familiar name attached to regurgitated industrial rubbish. Besides, I can’t help but read that second model name as “Sociopathic”.

Vivitar

Vivitar. A company that used to make top-quality and reasonably priced photographic accessories such as lenses, filters, and electronic flash units. I’m sure I have one of their flashes in a box around here, and it probably still works. I know my 135mm M42 lens with their brand on it does! But alas, here is another great house that has sunk to the level of street beggar.

Should you buy any of these? In my opinion, no. The fact is even when they don’t look identical the specifications are so bland that there’s nothing really interesting about them. Largely these are the basic “Instamatics” of the digital world. Some may claim to be waterproof, some of the weirder ones come in odd shapes or colours, but on the whole they are quite frankly cheap plastic crap. Not even Diana F quality.

What should you look for instead? A name brand like Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Nikon, Olympus, or Pentax. But beware of the odd image storage methods like xD cards, Sony¬† sticks, and Compact Flash as they can be difficult or expensive to obtain if not included with the camera. Even then you are up against the “Plain Jane” aspect for most of these cameras: the same X MP and Y zoom capacity without much else to say for themselves. Also, trolling through Amazon shows a large number of such cameras available for what we can only call ridiculous prices, as they meet and in some cases exceed the cost of brand new offerings that are better cameras. Look around a lot, and be careful with your money.

Here’s an example of something I would buy, albeit I’d prefer a lower price than the $106 it’s being offered for:

NikonS4

I wouldn’t expect it to be a great IQ performer, but the unique design configuration makes it collectible. The one used camera I did buy off Amazon, the Fuji F80 EXR, is unusual and collectible because of the different way it operates – the EXR function.

P1000268

I don’t think I’ll be getting back into camera collecting. At least not per se, but I seem to be acquiring them anyway as I try to fulfill my photographic wishes.

What would I buy to fulfill those wishes if I could? I’m not keen on mirrorless cameras, as some experiments with the DSLR I have show how easy it is to get sensors dirty on anything with a removable lens and mirrorless doesn’t have the extra ‘protection’ of the flip-up mirror, nevertheless some of the things I’m interested in come only that way.

Assuming money were no object, the ‘Holy Grail’ would be a Fujifilm X-Pro3. I seriously would like to try one of those because it is so ‘film-like’ in design and function. Using the EXR has really piqued my curiosity about Fuji’s X series.

Otherwise, for my own purposes it would be nice to try a high-MP (at least 24 to have a 1/3 advantage over my current Canon) camera just to see the difference. I know it wouldn’t be much, but just how much it would be intrigues me.

I’d like to have a full-frame sensor for the same reason; not that I expect either to make any spectacular difference in the pictures I take, but to see the subtle effects I expect to find.

Another addition would be something with a flip-up LCD (despite my constantly iterated objections to them) so I could do waist-level view pictures. None of these are great reasons to shell out hundreds of dollars for a camera.

Especially not when you can have fun for a few dollars with a little patience and searching.