Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bournemouth Air Festival 2015: Infrared

Off to the Bournemouth Air Festival with an infrared camera. The festival takes place by the beach and runs for four days. Day one was cancelled because of poor weather, but luckily day three had some bright sunshine, which is unusual for Britain in August or indeed any month.

And so for several hours I stood on the sand, eating fish and chips with one hand, and with the other hand I laughed at some uproariously saucy postcards - I laughed with my hand - whilst wearing a knotted handkerchief on my head. Because that's what British people do at the beach. They wear ill-fitting bathing costumes and parade around with their stomachs hanging out, and I am one of them.

On the train home I learned that there had been a crash at the Shoreham Air Show earlier in the day. A Hawker Hunter pilot appears to have misjudged a loop and bottomed-out directly on the A27 highway, killing several motorists. He was pulled alive from the wreckage and assuming he survives - there is no guarantee of this - he will be haunted for life. A split-second either way and there might have been no casualties at all. Such is fate.

Bournemouth Air Festival is perhaps the most inherently safe festival in the UK. The action takes place in front of a beach, over the water, and although there are numerous small boats dotted around it's overwhelmingly likely that any accident would result in the aircraft ditching, and hopefully the pilot parachuting out onto the deck of a passing yacht, a la the opening sequence of The Living Daylights.

On a technological level I used a 720nm infrared Canon 10D - ancient technology from a bygone age - with the 70-200mm f/2.8 IS + 2x extender combo featured in the previous post. 200mm times two equals 400mm times one point six equals 640mm, which would have been extraordinary in the days of film. Sadly it's still not enough for really tight close-ups of fighter jets and Spitfires without lots of cropping, and would be even less not enough if I had been using a full-frame camera.

Twenty years separate the early B-17 prototypes and the first Vulcans. The Vulcan cruised at twice the B-17's unladen top speed and had a ceiling 20,000 feet higher; its bomb payload was five times greater by weight, but - in the case of the 1.1 megaton Blue Steel nuclear missile - over eighteen million times more powerful, if my calculations are correct (assuming that only a third of the B-17's payload was actually TNT, and not e.g. bomb cases and fusing).

The Red Arrows fly a missing man formation. Four years ago one of their number was killed in a crash after performing at Bournemouth.

Air show photography is one of the few photographic fields where a visual mind and a clear artistic vision are not particularly important. What matters is persistence, money, and physical skill; it's one of the few photographic fields that can be taught, that has objective performance criteria. You do not, and cannot have control over the lighting, unless you bring a bag of magnesium flares, or a big laser, in which case you'll probably be arrested...

I've lost my train of thought. Dot dot dot and you're limited in your choice of shooting locations, and there are only so many ways to frame aircraft in flight. Furthermore the audience doesn't particularly care how it was made or what point you were trying to make, they want to see planes, and why not?

From a photographer's point of view it helps if you live in the United States, because there are many more airshows over there. The flip side of this is that the competition is much more fierce. You're competing with people who have access to chase planes.

The extender I wrote about really needs to be stopped down a couple of stops before it makes sense. For almost all of these shots I used f/11 and focused manually, because infrared requires a slightly different focus point. At an airshow, f/2.8 is pointless, but if you're using a 2x extender f/2.8 becomes f/5.6, and two stops down is f/11. In this respect a 70-200mm f/2.8 has a slight edge over a 70-200mm f/4.

If I did this full-time I would of course use a longer lens. One problem is that a 400mm, 500mm fixed prime would have been awkward for the B-17 and Vulcan, and although I can understand why some photographers carry several entire camera setups, it strikes me as trying too hard. My impression of airshow, landscape, and wildlife photography is that there's a huge amount of one-upmanship involved, which is silly. It's an unwinnable game. There will always be an SR-71 flying above you at one thousand eight hundred and forty-two knots, and above them astronauts whizzing around the Earth at five miles a second.

Canon's recent 200-400mm f/4 is by all accounts superb; Sigma makes a 150-600mm zoom that is also apparently very good, although it's f/6.3 at the long end. With a 1.4x teleconverter this becomes an 840mm f/9 on a full-frame camera, which - with a mixture of higher ISOs, image stabilisation, and good technique - doesn't sound too bad in daylight. Sigma also makes a 200-500mm f/2.8 which is far too heavy to be a practical airshow lens, and a 300-800mm that is also very heavy. I am not convinced that airshow photography and monopods are a good fit, given that the subjects are flying around above the photographer's head.

And you have to ask yourself what value there is in stills photography in 2015; but that's an entirely different philosophical argument.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Yongnuo Extender EF 2X III

Last month I went off to the Yeovilton Air Show, where I photographed the last Vulcan as it swooped and dived and climbed and banked and yawed and oscillated and rolled and tacked and eddied and wafted and roared and fluttered and flitted and flipped and flopped and wiggled through the air like a great green greasy greasel. The longest lens I own is a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, which is fine as far as it goes - but 200m isn't really long enough for aeroplanes.

A Yongnuo 2X III, yesterday

There is a point when every man ponders the question of how to go longer than 200mm. Buy a good lens and put a teleconverter on it? Buy a crap lens, and put a teleconverter on it? Buy an old manual focus 300mm lens (and put a teleconverter on it)? Splash out on a 400mm f/2.8 that you'll never use, teleconverter? Buy one of those big long Sigmas?

Buy an APS-C camera and do lots of cropping? Buy an old manual focus 300mm lens and put it on a Micro Four Thirds body? Move closer to the subject? SELECT solution || ' and put a teleconverter on it' FROM options;

I call it "Lupita"

As I contemplated these options I cast my mind back to Roy Batty in Bladerunner, desperately pleading with the man who designed him, trading scientific-sounding gobbledegook about genetics in the hope of living for a few more years only to be told that his predicament was hopeless.

Some barriers cannot be surmounted with guile or trickery, you really have to spend a fortune or admit defeat or settle for second-best. Even billionaires are unsatisfied with their yachts, and when an ordinary man such as myself looks at his car or his wife he sees the Lamborghini Huracán he does not own, and also the pile of letters from Rachel Weisz' solicitor threatening legal action if he continues to hang around outside her house.

It won't fit a 50mm f/1.4, or any lens that has a protruding rear element. The extender comes with a compatibility chart which essentially lists all of Canon's posher telephoto primes and zooms from 135mm f/2 up.

Extenders also multiply the f-stop. The 135mm f/2 becomes a 270mm f/4, the 70-200mm f/4 becomes a 140-400mm f/8. Some of Canon's cameras have trouble autofocusing at this smaller aperture. On an APS-C camera the 70-200mm f/4 becomes a 224-640mm f/8 that might not autofocus any more.

The EXIF data recognises the 400mm focal length, but I'm not sure if the Yongnuo extender is transparent to the camera's electronic brain.

Yongnuo is based in Shenzhen, just across the border with Hong Kong. A long time ago neither you nor I would have heard of Yongnuo; the company's products would be imported by a made-up brand like Palinar or Rokinon or Hanimex or Prinz or whatever, but Yongnuo appears to be very confident and sells products under its own name via the internet. A few years back it made a splash with its manual flash guns, and recently it has branched out into lenses; copies of the old Canon 50mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/2, and the 2x extender that I'm writing about now. Or at least physical copies, the optical designs appear to be original.

Physically the extender resembles the modern Canon 2x III, fiscally it's half the price. It seems to be made out of tough plastic, although I'm not sure. It could be some kind of polycarbonate. The surface has a mild version of the speckled texture that Canon uses. The body doesn't rattle or creak and it's held together firmly with screws; there's a rubber weather gasket on the camera-facing end. The O in YONGNUO is made to look like aperture blades, so plus one for trying to establish a brand identity.

On a vintage 5D MkII. Handholding the stack is tricky but not too awkward - the extender doesn't weigh very much, the overall length is similar to a 400mm f/5.6 or the 100-400mm extended out a bit. If the oxygen tanks in the camera blow up my plan is to retreat into the lens, and then use its thrusters to put me on a trajectory back to Earth.

The serial number suggests that they haven't made very many. Mine is #479, the only other photographs I can find that show the serial number are on shopping sites in China and Poland, #223 and #396 respectively, so perhaps Yongnuo has only sold five hundred extenders. You could probably use this to work out how much money Yongnuo has made from selling them; you can work out a lot by studying serial numbers. The extender emerged at the beginning of 2015. It doesn't have an official UK importer. I can find very little about it on the internet so I was curious to see how it performed, in the middle, stopped-down. Airshows are all about centre sharpness stopped-down, because you're photographing aeroplanes outdoors in bright daylight.

Here's the difference between 200mm and 400mm, wide open:

The extender introduces a teeny-tiny amount of barrel distortion.

Now, I could spend hours of my life testing the extender at different focal lengths and apertures and distances and so on. Hours of my life that I should really spend boning up on SQLite. I bought a 2x extender so I could have 400mm, so for the purposes of this test I'm only looking at 400mm. What I want to know is whether the image quality at 400mm with an extender is better than simply doubling the size of a 200mm image with Photoshop.

So, in each of the following comparisons the image at the top was shot at 200mm and then doubled in size with Photoshop; the image at the bottom was shot at 400mm with the extender.

First, wide-open, f/2.8 at the top and f/5.6 at the bottom:

The 70-200mm f/2.8 IS is really good - the MkII version is apparently even better, but the original is no slouch - and even wide open at f/2.8 the image quality is great in the middle. You can see that the grain is larger but otherwise the extender is pointless at f/5.6. You get a tiny amount of extra detail but the image has a soft glow.

Now let's try f/5.6, f/5.6:

Which again doesn't make the extender look very good. But let's try stopping down a bit, to f/8, f/8:

That's more like it. The difference is slight, but at f/8 the extender does indeed deliver more detail, at the expense of some colour fringing. How about f/11?

Even better. At f/11 the extender justifies its existence. I'm utterly uninterested in the corners of the image at 400mm but just for the heck of it the extender improves from bland to average, here at f/5.6, f/8, and f/11:

On the off chance I happen to be photographing the Earth from space, and I need extreme corner sharpness, I would use a different lens (or ask the pilot to get a bit closer). Autofocus performance on a dull day seemed to be no slower or less accurate on my 5D MkII, although on my ancient infrared 10D it needed a nudge before it went all the way to infinity.

So, what did I learn from this? The extender turns my super 70-200mm f/2.8 into a decent 400mm f/8, for one-half the price of a Canon 2x Extender, or one-sixth the price of a 400mm f/5.6. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and in this case the eating will be... pointing. It at some planes.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Fujica ST701: Birthing Scandal Pond-Pool

Ninety million years ago I had fun with some pre-flashed film, and although the Fujica ST605 that I used back then is long-gone I still have some M42 lenses. By chance a Fujica ST701 fell into my hands, so I decided to try it out.

Despite the number, the ST701 was actually the ST605's predecessor. Its posher, smaller, generally more sophisticated predecessor. The specification was typical of the period - top speed 1/1000th, uncoupled electronic TTL metering, manual everything - but the body was smaller than the competition and the meter was apparently more accurate. Alas for Fuji it was launched shortly before the Olympus OM, which was even smaller and smarter. On the whole Fuji's film SLRs didn't leave much of a mark, and nobody remembers them nowadays. They were, I imagine, tangential to the company's film business (the firm's digital SLRs, on the other hand, were frustratingly brilliant).

Unfortunately the ST701 uses long-discontinued mercury batteries, so I had to use a hand-held meter, which was a bother. The camera itself is all-manual, and the battery only powers the meter. Fujica's standard lens was a 55mm f/1.8, slightly narrower than the typical 50mm.

I also used a Unitor 28mm f/2.8 which I got for nothing. It's so soft in the corners at f/2.8 that it's almost endearing. I can't fault it for the massive vignetting - I used a polarising filter - but as a full-frame lens it was worth every penny I paid for it:

Here's what it looks like:

On the positive side the lens looks lovely, with a distinctively blue cast to the coating, and it's built solidly out of metal. The weight is such that if you wanted to drown your neighbour's pet tortoise for your own sexual gratification you could use it to weigh the bag down. Imagine a tortoise slowly drowning, kicking its legs futility as it sinks to the bottom of Hampstead Heath's ladies' pond; imagine tying its legs together or encasing it in a plastic bag so that it can't move. Imagine that. The things you find in the darker corners of LiveLeak.

It's Japanese, the lens is Japanese. It was also sold under the Uni, Photax-Paragon, Revue, Pentor, and Eyemik(!) names. It seems to have originally been built by a company called Mitake, which crumbled to dust long ago.

My ST701 has rusty spots and the light seals had fallen apart, and I don't trust the 1s setting, but otherwise it works just as it did in 1971. In 2015 ancient M42 match-needle SLRs are essentially junk, doubly so in ST701's case unless you happen to be a rabid Fuji collector. The 55mm f/1.8 standard lens is lovely but has a boring specification. Here's what it looks like:

I can't stop thinking about that tortoise. They don't feel pain; they're basically vegetables. Here's how the lens performs versus a modern Canon 50mm f/1.4, which is faster and just slightly wider. It's not really a fair comparison, because f/1.8 is wide open for the Fuji lens, stopped-down for the Canon, but life isn't fair. Life is in fact cruel. Large animals eat smaller animals; adult bears and hippos and rats kill their children whenever the watering hole becomes too crowded, and human beings are essentially animals.

In the middle of the frame the two lenses are soft but usable one stop down, reaching a peak at f/5.6, with the Canon lens generally better overall:

Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8

Canon 50mm f/1.4 EF at f/1.8, f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8

In the corner the Fuji lens isn't great at f/1.8 or f/2.8, but jumps up a notch at f/5.6 and essentially becomes sharp across the frame at that aperture, notably without any CA:

Whereas the Canon lens - bought brand-new earlier this year - isn't quite as consistent (again, f/1.8, f/2.8, f/5.6, f/8):

If this little test demonstrates anything, it's that standard 50mm-55mm lens design hasn't progressed all that much in half a century. Over the last few years there has been a mini-explosion of posh fast 50mm lenses, but even nowadays the best and most expensive 50mm - the Zeiss Otus seems to be the modern benchmark - are only incrementally better than their distant predecessors.

What film did I use? It was some long-expired Boots 200-speed film that appears to be rebadged Fuji Superia, judging by the code on the negative. It was a nice sunny day.