The “Girl Watcher” lens

•March 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The word came this month that Popular Photography, the venerable American magazine, would be closing its doors.
No doubt a victim of both the declining interest in enthusiast photography equipment, and the preference for many consumers to get their information more rapidly, and for free, on-line.
Still, it’s a sad thing to digest, especially since, for me, photography and magazines were inseparable – at least in the beginning.
Before buying my first 35mm SLR, eons ago, I pored through articles, test reports, and advertisements in magazines, and I think Popular Photography was my favourite.
A year or so later, after I’d gone through more than a few rolls in my shiny new Minolta, I happened upon the mother-lode: a big box of old photography magazines being sold at a neighbour’s yard sale. I can’t remember if I paid $5 or $10 for the box, but it was worth every penny. The magazines all dated from about 1967 through 1973, with most being from ’69 to ’71. And most were either Popular Photography or Modern Photography.
I devoured them all. It took me months to read each and every one, but read I did.
While they were really only about 10-12 years old at the time, to my young eyes they were from an earlier era – before cameras had LED displays, beepers, or program modes. Automatic flash was still in its infancy, and automatic exposure was the new kid on the block and regarded with suspicion.
There was also a bit more of the “Popular Mechanics” ethos still around: technical articles telling you how to build your own this or that, or how to modify a military surplus lens into something useful. Fun stuff like that was mostly gone by the ‘80s. As responsible camera consumers we were expected to buy only the officially sanctioned accessories and lenses described in the official test reports.

Girl Watcher001

Yes, the “Famous Girl Watcher Lens”, complete with a snapshot of a supposedly unsuspecting bathing beauty. I guess that sounded better than “Lothario Lens”.

And then there were those 1960’s ads. Wow, did they look out of date when viewed through the eyes of a 1980s teen (of course, looking at ‘80s ads today is equally cringe-worthy). Those late ‘60s, early ‘70s ads drew inspiration heavily from the ‘60s counter-culture, hippie movement.
But one ad I remember seeing again and again, and it seems every other photographer who read those magazines back then remembers it too, was the “Girl Watcher” lens ad.
The big New York mail-order houses were at their peak back then, offering insane deals on items of questionable quality, along with recognized brands. I had thought the “girl watcher” ad came from Cambridge or Spiratone, two of the big advertisers at the time. But a check of some old magazines on hand quickly found that it was the Sterling Howard Corp. of Yonkers, NY who ran those ads with their completely pervey hook. Did it seem that creepy and inappropriate at the time? Dunno, but they ran the ads for years, so they couldn’t have been crushed under the complaints.
What was the “girl watcher” lens, you ask? Well, it was simply a 400mm f6.3 telephoto, which offered apparently enough magnification to snap pictures of unsuspecting bathing beauties at the local beach. It sold for only $34.95 in the late ‘60s.
The other mail order ads offered similar lenses, at similar prices, but with less creepy descriptions.

Girl Watcher002

Still 34.95, and still called the “Girl Watcher” a couple of years later. Notice you could buy, for a lot more cash, a 600mm f8, or a 800mm f8.

And it’s not like $35 was chump change back in those days. I recall seeing mid-‘60s ads for bachelor apartments going for $35 a month in a new building. Of course, real-estate and rents have soared more than most other things in the following decades.
So, you plunked down your $35 plus shipping, and maybe spent a bit more to get a leather case, a hood (good idea), maybe a filter – what did you get? Well, I’ve handled and tried out more than a few of these type lenses over the years, and I have to conclude they were pretty good fun for the money.
The 400mm lenses were typically f6.3, which looks a little dim through the finder of the standard SLR, film or digital. The 500mm f8 versions (which is what I’m picturing here) were even dimmer and trickier to focus accurately. The apertures were pre-set – meaning you have to remember to manually close them down before shooting. With the right T-2 adapter on the back of the lens, you could fit your “girl watcher” to just about any interchangeable lens camera, from the fanciest Leica reflex, to the crappiest Petri.

Kimunor A

No doubt many of these lenses were sold just for bragging rights: “I’ve got a 500mm!!”

The lens design is modest, despite the advertising hype, and you can’t expect results to compete with multi-kilobuck high-end lenses of today. But if you focused carefully, stopped down to f11, or f16, and kept the thing steady at a decent shutter speed, the results weren’t dreadful – and probably not all that far behind the long telephotos offered by the camera makers at the time – before high-grade coatings, and exotic super-low dispersion glasses came along.

Kimunor 8

Wide open at F8, and even after some digital sharpening, you can see the Kimunor is a bit lacking.

Kimunor 16

Still, stopped down to F16, it’s pretty decent. But how easy is it to live with a 500mm lens at f16?

But even today’s photographers, armed with newer-spec lenses, know that long telephoto photography is never easy. Atmospheric haze, loss of contrast from light-scatter, and the struggle to avoid high-magnification shake are always an issue, and the buyer of the $34.95 lens faced all that and a bit less overall sharpness, and some more chromatic aberration to boot.
As I said, the results aren’t dreadful, but many bargain hunters quickly learned their bargain was difficult to use well. The $34.95 either whetted your appetite for something better, or more likely got stashed away in the closet as a constant reminder that the 200mm telephoto or zoom was really plenty of lens for most situations.
So what happened to the cheapie pre-set long telephoto lens? Did they fade away along with bell-bottom pants and Neanderthal-era sexist advertising? Actually, no, they are still alive, well and with us today.

Kimunor B

Long and skinny, and lightweight, they’re no threat to the big boys offered by the major makers. Add in a manual aperture, and tricky manual focus, you can see the pre-set telephoto spent more time in the closet than out in the wild.

Kimunor C

It doesn’t take much to unscrew the basic parts of the pre-set budget telephoto. There’s only optics at the very front of the front barrel (top left), and in the group front centre.

The 400mm versions are gone, understandably, as many zooms these days achieve 300mm. But you can still find brand-new 500mm f8.0 pre-set lenses being peddled on line – where the disappointed customers are less likely to expect their money back. They are no longer made in Japan, but now come from Korea. There are more plastic parts here and there, but they’re still basically the same thing as the old Tele-Astranar, Albinar, Spiratone, Promaster, Rexatar, and the one I share with you here: a Kimunor. Current names include Bower, Samyang, Rokinon, Phoenix, and Vivitar. No doubt there are others. You can even see them with cosmetic upgrades, like white painted finishes and red trim lines, meant to make you think “Canon L”. You can find all you want for $150 or less, usually including the t-mount of your choice (but I don’t think they’ll get you a Petri mount these days). Accessories include cases, filters, and cheap 2x converters in case you have a hankering for a super-dim 1000mm f16 (I dare anyone to get a sharp picture that way).
What they don’t come with is a big floppy sandbag to drape over the lens while bolted onto your biggest, sturdiest tripod. These things are still lightweight, and those tripod collars are still bendy, and the lightest breeze will still conspire to wiggle your pixels into a blur if you aren’t super careful.
I’ll wager they are still better optically than the budget 500mm mirror lenses offered by the same outfits these days, so take a chance on one if you must, and have some fun.
But, please, stay away from the beach.

The one that got away… returns

•February 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Every hobby seems to inspire tales of “ones that got away”.
There’s the car enthusiast who sells off his old Mustang, only to see it rise up as a sought-after classic a decade or two (or three) later.
There’s the gun collector who gets talked out a favourite shotgun by his buddy, only to get a glimpse of it scratched and beaten up a few years later.
Or the watch collector who sold off his old dive watch for a hundred bucks years ago, and winces as they become valuable vintage pieces, with prices soaring into the four figures.
And photographers often part with beloved cameras they wish they’d kept. Usually it’s a Rolleiflex. I’ve had more than a few guys bemoan selling a Rollei, even if it was for a handsome price some years ago. While they could buy one back, it would cost the same, or maybe more today – and they likely won’t spend that kind of dough on a film camera again. But if they’d only kept that one….
For me, it’s not a Rolleiflex, at least not yet. No, some twenty years ago, I purposely bought a batch of cameras needing repair for the express purpose of selling them once fixed up. I think there were six in all, including a couple of well-worn screw mount Leicas, and a Braun Paxette that was beyond saving. I don’t recall the others, except for the one I wished I hadn’t let go.

vitessa-f

Stylish design. You could be forgiven for thinking this camera was made in the 1960’s.

It was a Voigtlander Vitessa, model N, and after I got its shutter going and the rangefinder fixed, I was captivated by its beauty, enough to run a test roll through it … before selling it to some ungrateful dealer who was going to flip it again for a few dollars more.
That one, I wish I’d kept.
Another couple have come across my repair bench in the years since. I think one had the fancier lens, and another had the built-in light meter. And like most vintage leaf-shutter rangefinders, they needed the same rangefinder repair and shutter cleaning and lubrication. But they already had owners and weren’t for sale.
Finally, a few months ago, I got a pleasant surprise when a nice lady promised to show me a “German camera, a Voigtlander”, if I was interested. I expected another Vito or Vitomatic model, as these seemed to be favourite models on the local market, back in the day. But, upon opening the case, I indeed beheld a Vitessa, model N.
She told me the sad story of how it had been owned by a friend of the family who left it behind when he went overseas to study. But he passed away over there, and it remained abandoned in her cupboard or drawer for some forty years. Sure enough, there was a roll of Kodachrome II still inside, so the story fit.
As expected, the rangefinder patch was dead, which seems to be the standard malady for a Vitessa, but the shutter clicked perfectly. Even the self timer purred steadily, which is amazing for a camera that likely hadn’t had its shutter wound and clicked since I was in grade school.
I bought the camera from her, with the promise I was not going to part with it. This is something I would do my best to treasure and keep for as long as I could.
So after twenty years, a Vitessa came back to me.

vitessa-e

What’s inside? There’s no separate button or latch to open up the Vitessa. Push the shutter button, and those thickly chromed front doors pop open.

Why the fuss and interest? Well, just take a look at it. That’s one sleek camera. Voigtlander always prided themselves on lovely materials and finish, and this Vitessa just does it for me. The combination of satin chrome on the top plate, and thick, shiny chrome on the barn doors scream quality. Soft rounded corners, and no exposed screws (except the three on the flash shoe) make for one supremely elegant design.
I’ve shown this camera to several camera buffs, and while a few pegged it as a 1960s model, one thought it early ’70s.

vitessa-d

Open wide: Once opened up it becomes apparent the Vitessa is a bit more old-fashioned than it first appears. Notice the frame counter/film reminder window below the viewfinder.

Incredibly, the Vitessa N showed up in 1951, when it must have looked like it came from the future. Remember, in 1951 the airliners at your local airport still had propellers.
However, the Vitessa hides its true vintage behind those barn doors. Press on the shutter button and the doors pop open a little. Ease them open and the lens extends into position on collapsible bellows. Ah yes, a 35mm rangefinder with bellows, just like an old Kodak Retina of similar vintage – just way more elegant.
But the other thing you notice right way when opening up the camera, is the large plunger/antenna thingy that pops up on the left side of the top cover. That is your wind lever. Give it a press and the film advances and the shutter cocks. Under your right thumb on the back you find the focus adjustment. It’s a very speedy arrangement if you plan on shooting several shots quickly. But of course vitesse, is French for speed.
Not that it’s all that speedy. This is a ’50s leaf shutter, folding camera after all. So you set the shutter and aperture with fiddly small dials around the top-grade Compur shutter. And if you didn’t own a fancy light meter at the time, you were making those settings by reading the recommended shutter/aperture combinations off the film package.
Still, it’s the thought that counts. And the drop-dead styling, of course.

vitessa-c

The cockpit: Using a big plunger to wind the film never really caught on, but the Vitessa certainly claimed to be quick to use. The thumbwheel was for focusing. Unfortunately, the viewfinder/rangefinder is smallish compared to what the Japanese brought along a decade or so later.

And there is a nice lens up front: a modest f3.5 50mm Color-Skopar. The “color” in the name reflected the new growth in colour photography, and the lens presumably had better coatings to prevent the overly bluish flares seen in lesser optics at the time.
So while the model N got the basic f3.5 lens, the higher-up Vitessas could be had with f2.8, even f2.0 beauties. But I’ve learned that modest aperture optics outperform their bored-out big brothers sometimes. And even though upgrade models could be had with light meters, many of those have pooped out over the years. Even if found working, their days may be numbered. The meterless N is just fine by me, and looks sleeker and prettier for it.

vitessa-003

Sharp and flare free, the Color Skopar lens doesn’t disappoint

Another quirk of the 1950s design is that the whole back/bottom comes off for loading film, and that front mounted frame counter (now that’s an odd spot) has to be manually re-set each time. But hey, this is 35mm, and with 36 exposure film, you only have to re-load four or five times a year anyway, right?
The last Vitessas from Voigtlander did away with the collapsible lens behind the barn doors. The rigidly-mounted lens may have been a more precise build, but not only did you need a lens cap, you lost all the Vitessa’s sleekness.

vitessa-b

There was never any denying that Voigtlander were masters of materials, fit and finish – both inside and out.

The Voigtlander company was around at the birth of photography in 1839 and developed the earliest useful lenses for the Daguerrotype process, but Voigtlander eventually disappeared, absorbed into the Zeiss group in the 1960’s. The name lives on today in lovely lenses and cameras made under license by Cosina in Japan.
But back to my Vitessa. As I said, the shutter worked perfectly, but the rangefinder needed repair, since they all seem to suffer the reflective mirror falling off and rattling around inside the top cover. It can be glued back where it belongs, but getting the whole shebang correctly adjusted is a bigger nightmare than just about any other rangefinder I’ve encountered.
I got it going eventually, and tried it out with a roll of film. The lens was wonderfully sharp, but the focus was off. Sure enough, a double check showed I’d somehow missed proper alignment, or it drifted a bit during final assembly.
Since I had other things on the boil, it took me some months before I got it back on the bench, and then spent way too long getting it to perfection. But perfect it is now, and ready for its next roll of 35mm black and white.
I share it with you now, hoping you understand why I felt the first one had “got away”. Of course, there aren’t as many Voigtlander collectors around these days, and the values of these Vitessa treasures has sagged a bit. Still, if you see one, snag it, and don’t let it get away so easy.

vitessa-a

While upgrade Vitessas could be had with f2.8 or f2.0 lenses (the Ultron!!) even the basic f3.5 Color Skopar was highly regarded.

Collector madness

•June 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The other day I came across something that reminded me I have a light meter collection.
The item in question was a Weston Master III light meter – but in a less common black body with a white dial configuration I hadn’t seen before. Aha, something new to acquire!
Then I realized I should share with you the rest of the collection, and my fascination with the darn things.
I don’t remember which light meter started off my Weston collection – the only brand I collect. All I know is that 20 years ago, they were common fodder at camera shows, and often came in with older traded-in equipment.
Basically, Weston kicked off the whole light meter thing. The first viable electrical light meter with a light-sensitive cell was the Electophot of 1931- but it was bulky and needed a battery to get readings off the selenium cell. It wasn’t a success – which makes it a super rare and valuable collector’s item today.

Model 650

The Model 650 Weston meter had distinctive Art Deco styling. Notice that the Pierce extinction meter sitting below it copies the 650’s style. The Exophot (styled after the Weston Master) and Wirgin are also extinction types.

Weston, the same company that made those big dials and meters that adorned the walls and control panels of hydro electric plants in the 1920’s, jumped into the photographic market by making a light meter with two selenium cells and a gauge in the middle: the model Universal 617 of 1932. These too are pretty rare, and I’ve never seen one in person. The last time I saw one up for sale on eBay, the price tag was too rich for my blood.
Soon, however, Weston was able to run with just one selenium cell with the model 617 type 2. We did have a nice working one here years ago, but I never put my claim on it, and it went to some other collector. A more common model is the Model 650, with its octagonal bakelite case with 1935 art deco styling.

Master

This original Master is the one that got it all going.

Master flipside

The secret of the Master series was the flip open door that set up the low light range.The white cap is the “Invercone” incident attachment.

But I think the breakthrough meter for Weston was the original “Master” of 1939. The cell was now sensitive enough to have a pinhole cover over it for bright light. Flipping it open changed the meter scale to the low range, and you could make accurate light readings indoors. Gasp!
You can’t really discount the importance of such advances like this in the 1940s. Now the serious photographer could measure the real, actual light available in most settings. Film could be exposed reliably, not wasted. If you could afford a good meter like the Weston, you were king of the photographic world.
Before the invention of the solar/electric light meter, knowing how to set your shutter speeds and apertures was a lot fuzzier process. There were charts and tables to cross reference your film with lighting conditions. There were little bits of paper that you timed to see how long it took to turn dark. And there were “extinction” meters, that you peered into to see which letter or numeral you could clearly see in the light you had. All methods were very subjective and
prone to error. Electric meters were the way to go, if you could afford one.

Master II

The Master II is the most commonly seen Weston, and was available in several variations, and Cine versions.

The main competitor to Weston in those early days was good old General Electric, who also made flashbulbs. There are those who concentrate on GE collections, but I’m partial to the Westons.

GE competition

General Electric also made excellent meters, but went on to make your fridge, and then jet engines.

1946 brought the Master II: a trimmed down version of the original, but in a tough metal case. Gaskets kept out moisture and dust. I’m always impressed how well-made these things are.
The very similar Master III updated the cosmetics a bit, and looked a bit more 1950s appropriate.

Master III

The Master III is probably the sleekest version of the series. I wasn’t aware there were any made in black, until I came across this English-made one just a few days ago.

The Master IV of 1960 or so, was further trimmed down, now in a stainless case, and a switch to lock the needle’s reading. It was also the first to go with proper ASA (now ISO) film speed settings. The earlier versions used “Weston” speed, which was only 1/3 stop off from ASA.
The IV also had a much cleaner, easier to read dial – so you’d be forgiven for thinking the V of the 1970s actually looked older as it reverted to the tiny, hard to read, markings of the earlier meters.

Master IV

The Master IV (English on left, Japanese on right) went with a smaller stainless case. Neater, but not quite as rugged.

Each generation seems to have benefited from more sensitive selenium cells, and I’ve found you can’t really interchange the cells between models. Oddly enough it’s common to come across an ancient Master II that works perfectly, but a IV or V will have a dead meter cell. I can only conclude that the older style varnish or coating put over the cell to stop it oxidizing and dying was longer lasting. The newer cells often get spider web cracks on them and no longer make voltage.

About 15 years ago I got ambitious about rescuing the old Master IV and V by replacing the selenium cells with silicon cells you could buy at Radio Shack. Yes, they put out more voltage, but I reasoned that with the right neutral density filter over top, I could dial them in. Well, they worked; sort of. With some tweaking I could get excellent accuracy in daylight, but indoors under tungsten light they would over-read by about 1.5 stops. I traced this to the stronger sensitivity of the silicon solar cell to infrared – which regular light bulbs pump out in abundance.Still, for outdoor work, they were fine. I marked these conversions with a little “si” on the dial, and used them often.But back to the collector’s items. There are quite a few variants of the Weston meters, even if you’ve got Masters I to V collected. For instance, the case and dial colours do vary, especially if comparing those made in the USA to those made in Great Britain (sometimes marked “England”). I don’t believe I’ve found a Master IV or V from the USA, but I recently found a IV marked “Japan”, which I didn’t know existed.My collection also has a Master 6, which I bought on an early eBay auction. I paid way, way too much, only to discover the 6 is not a true Weston, as it is lightweight plastic. Oh, and didn’t work either.

Master V and 6

The Master V was the last true Weston master. The Master 6 looks pretty, but it’s actually lightweight plastic.

The last true meter in the Master line was the “Euromaster” which was apparently made in England after Weston lost interest in the photo market. Pretty much identical to the V, it soldiered on for some years, bought by photographers who still wanted a no-battery, reliable meter.
There were other Westons over the years, including many less-costly models. But the only ones to challenge the Masters were the Rangers – a line of battery CDS celled models. I have admired them, but never bought one.
It appeared Weston was out of the photo market by the time silicon cells and digital readouts became the norm. Well, no, I suppose the “norm” by then was the in-camera meter, already hooked up to electronic controls of shutter speeds and/or apertures.
Those who did need a hand-held meter began to prefer something like the Gossen Lunasix with its near-darkness abilities and narrower measuring angle – even if it did need a battery. The sun had set on the Master series.
Still, I love to pull out the Westons from time to time, admire their build quality, look over the artwork of the instruction manuals, and think back to a time when a solar cell and a meter movement was honest-to-goodness state of the art.
It’s also nice when testing out a vintage camera to bring along the appropriate era Weston – say, a Master III when trying out a Leica M3, for instance.
I know, I really should seek help.

Teleconverter tests – Part 2

•March 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I thought I was done with lens testing for awhile, after that round of comparisons of four generations of 300mm Nikon optics. At least I thought the results were interesting. I think I can still hear you yawning.
If you recall (or scroll down to my earlier post) the results of the two different teleconverters I tested were interesting too. I had thought my ancient TC-200 converter was a perfectly good optic – until I put it up against the TC-301 that was supposed to be a better match for a 300mm lens. It’s no fun finding out that your earlier notions were all wrong.
Then just the other day, a third gizmo arrived on the scene, threatening the superiority of the TC-301. This is Nikon’s mighty TC-20E III, that not only boasts a hefty price, but also “aspherical” optics. How good would this be?
Well, if you can put something to the test, you must. And so out came the lens, test chart, and the two older converters.
But let’s have a short discussion about teleconverters first. Many of us recall when they were sold inexpensively as add-ons to our basic telephoto or zoom lenses. It was an easy up-sell to convince someone that the $229 aftermarket zoom lens they were buying (probably an 80-200mm, if this is 1980 or so) could be quickly transformed into a 160-400mm with an extra $50 gadget. Sold!
Trouble is, those converters got used once or twice, then got pushed to the back of the drawer after the results were, shall we say, a little disappointing? Stretching the limitations of a budget lens with a budget add-on wasn’t a recipe for sharpness. Often the exposure came out a little dark too.

Converters

The teleconverter add-on. Some were good. Most were bad.

I have what amounts to a scrap heap of these old converters from the manual focus era. Take your pick of lens mounts; I think I have them all.
So what happened to inexpensive add-on teleconverters? Where’d they all go?
I think a few things conspired to make the budget converter a thing of the past. The first was autofocus. Since AF cameras worked with lenses as slow as f5.6, f5.6 became the standard for the inexpensive (or not-so-inexpensive) zoom lens. Putting a 2x teleconverter on such a lens drops its effective aperture down to f11 – where autofocus often hunts and searches, if it tries at all. Converters intended for autofocus also have to have extra couplings and/or electronic contacts, which makes them more costly than their 1980-spec predecessors.
And then, of course, inexpensive zoom lenses got stretched to the 300mm range, at which point most people are quite happy and realize they can’t make good use of more magnification, especially with a crop-sensor DSLR.
But don’t professionals use teleconverters, I am often asked? Yes, yes they do. But putting a $400 or so converter onto a $3,000 or more lens isn’t quite the same thing. When a lens is big, heavy, and made with premium optics, then adding a little gadget to the bag that can boost its range by 40%, 70%, or 100% can be worthwhile, even if it costs you a little sharpness.
This is where these three Nikon converters come in. All were/are pro-grade for their respective eras.

Three TC's

Up for testing: three top-notch teleconverters and a lens that is no slouch in the optical department.

The TC-200 (which was later made as a TC-201 with updated Ai-S couplings) is my old standard. As an old 2x manual converter, it means you have to put up with manual focusing on any newer AF lenses. G-type lenses without an aperture ring won’t work. But on the plus side, it was intended to work with and fit a wide variety of Nikon lenses, as its front element is nicely recessed. It has seven elements, which is a badge of a top-grade converter. Many companies, like Vivitar made both high-grade 7-element, and budget 4-element versions. Cheap converters were all 4-element, if you were lucky.
The TC-301 is an odd duck. No it’s not a 3x converter (Nikon never made one); it’s still 2x, but its name implied it was made for lenses 300mm and up. That big snout of a front element only fits lenses that will allow it inside. It has only five elements, but they’re obviously widely spaced out in a design optimized for big glass.
The newest one is the TC-20E III, and has one aspherical optic in its 7-element design. It’s noticeably heavy. The big thing, of course, is that it supports autofocus, and G-type lenses. The down side is the list of lenses it fits is quite small. A tab on the front mount physically blocks from fitting unapproved lenses, although some owners have resorted to modifying the mount to fit a few more.

Different designs

The three different designs up for review. All are pro-grade, and not to be confused with the cheap add-ons of yesteryear.

One of the least costly lenses on the approved list is the 300mm f4.0 AF-S I happen to own, so that’s what I used for testing this time round. One lens allows us to learn something, even if we can’t learn everything.
So, the lens was mounted on my big tripod, converter and camera on the back. Focusing was done carefully on magnified live view, and the flash exposure was made with the mirror locked up. Hopefully this gets rid of any notions of camera shake ruining the data.
Again, the results were interesting. And again, the TC-301 came out on top. Unless there’s something wrong with the new aspherical converter, and I doubt there is, the old design showed it up – except perhaps with the lens used wide open (effective F8) where the TC-20E III is a tad sharper. But again, the TC-301 was best in the corners, and added less chromatic aberration to the image.

TC200

The TC-200 again proved it is not up to the standard set by its big brothers. However, it was intended to be a doubler for lenses shorter than 300mm.

I didn’t bother testing how easy it would be to remove the chromatic aberrations in Lightroom or Photoshop, but rest assured, that might be helpful.
As you can hopefully see from the composited test shots, all three converters benefited mightily from stopping the lens down to an effective f11. Again, I didn’t bother stopping down further because I don’t think the world needs a 600mm f16 telephoto, sharp or not; f11 is dark enough.

TC-301

The odd-looking, and obsolete TC-301 delivered the best overall results, especially at f11 (one stop down). Note less chromatic aberration.

So does this mean we can write off Nikon’s latest top-dog teleconverter as not living up to its obsolete predecessor? Probably not. Obviously the new unit allows AF with its approved list of lenses, but we have to concede that testing just one AF-S 300mm lens might not tell the whole story. This TC-20E III was built mainly to double the range of some really big, and really pricey optics. How well does it perform on a 400mm f2.8, or a 600mm f4, compared to the TC-301? I can’t say. And if and when the stars align enough to allow me to play with one of those behemoth optics, I probably won’t have the suitable converters around to run more tests.

TC-20 E III

The TC-20E III had the best centre sharpness with the lens used wide open.

At the end of the day, am I ready to retire my venerable TC-200, given that it came up dead last again? Well, no. Don’t forget it was actually designed for shorter lenses than the 300mm. However, while it fits, it isn’t recommended for my 80-200mm f2.8 either (I do recall some noticeable light falloff last time I tried it).
No doubt there’s a lens or two in my collection where the TC-200 will shine. I’ll just have to get out the test chart again to find out for sure. This time, I promise not to bore you with the results.

The Magnificent Beast

•January 21, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The other day, I had not one, but two early versions of Canon’s F-1 film SLR on hand. One had come in for cleaning and service. The other I had purchased. But both were in spectacularly excellent condition, given their age.
Photographers these days take it for granted that Canon makes a wide range of camera equipment, from basic up to pro level. But it wasn’t always so.
Apparently, in the 1950s, as the 35mm format really took hold – mainly with the success of the Leica M3 and M2 – it was recognized that what was needed was a pro-grade 35mm SLR. The rangefinders were wonderful things, but were miserable to use with lenses over 90mm. There were SLR adapters for the rangefinders, such as Leica’s Visoflex, but it seemed the writing was on the wall to make the 35mm SLR turn pro.
Exakta brought out the first proper 35mm SLR back in the ‘30s, and by the ‘50s the Exakta had company from Pentacon, Asahiflex, and others – but none were rugged enough, elegant enough, or had bright enough viewfinders to go up against the rangefinder.
At least not until 1959 when Nikon introduced a truly pro-grade SLR. It took a beating (as many photojournalists delighted in proving), it was bright and easy to focus, and it took a motorized drive.
Nikon really had the 1960s to themselves, it seems. There were a few contenders from such as Topcon, Pentax, and even Leica – but basically, if it was 1967 and you shot 35mm professionally, you wanted a Nikon F.
Canon had soldiered on during this time with their very nice rangefinder 35mm’s. Sure, they had a few SLRs, but they never pretended they were pro-grade. But if you look at the steady improvement in Canon’s SLRs through the ’60’s, it was apparent something big was coming.
And in 1971, Canon dropped their bomb on the photo world. The F-1 was big, shiny black, very cleverly designed, and obviously tough.

Ready for the big time

The F-1 has a look that commands respect, even today.

Modern F-1

Launched in the early 1970s, Canon’s F-1 certainly looked more refined and modern than its SLR predecessors.

Canon definitely stuck it to Nikon in several ways – at least compared to the original F. The F-1’s finders slid in on well machined grooves. With the Nikon you had to mash them down and listen for a “click”, that sometimes never came. The Canon took a motor drive or winder, right out of the box. It didn’t have to be sent in to Nikon to get fitted and calibrated.
And it had accessories. Tons of them. For quite some time, Canon’s advertisement campaign for the new camera was a black and white ad that ran on the back of most photo magazines. It showed a sea of lenses, finders, focusing screens, backs, motor drives, and more. And almost hidden in the middle was the F-1 body itself. The message was clear, the F-1, like Canon, had fully arrived.
There’s a lot to admire on the original F-1. I love how the meter cell is positioned at the back edge of the focusing screen, siphoning off some light from the partial area metering rectangular patch you can see in the finder. It meant you had to use a new-fangled circular polarizer, but so did the Leica R3. Oh, and those focus screens have machined frames that perfectly snap into the body. So nice. On a Nikon you sort of push the release button and watch them rattle into place.

Titanium shutter

If one doubted the pro credentials, there’s always a titanium foil shutter to back you up.

A cut above

The prisms and focus screens were top-shelf to be sure. The meter was part of the camera (see that meter cell?). The only weak link proved to be the lens mount.

Funny thing is, the F-1 didn’t really take over the photo world at that time. It would take longer for Canon to truly take their position alongside Nikon at the top of the 35mm SLR heap. Why was that?
There’s no denying the allure of the F-1 body. It was definitely durable and tough. I’ve seen a few well worn examples over the years, but I’ve seen a lot more looking like the one in my photos here. It lived a pampered life in the soft-lined gadget bag of an amateur enthusiast. It didn’t get tossed around in a pro’s photo studio, and certainly didn’t get clattered around against other equipment in a press scrum.
Of course, Nikon had more than a decade’s head start over Canon in the pro SLR world, and many news rooms and photo studios already had a stock of Nikon lenses to put on the new F2 Nikon brought out around the same time. That was one obstacle.
It didn’t help either that just around the same time Olympus took a shot at the pro market with their OM-1 – and tried to convince journalists and the like that smaller cameras, not bigger, were the way forward.
But the biggest hurdle Canon had was the lens mount on the F-1. Newly updated, the FD lenses had all kinds of linkages and tabs that Nikon would take years to catch up with, but there was no denying Canon got their mount from those earlier lightweight SLRs. The breech-lock “R” mount was updated for open aperture metering with the “FL” mount, then came the “FD”. All shared that wonderful wear-resistant breech lock – but spend a few days with one, and you’ll realize that it was more fiddly to change lenses than with a traditional bayonet mount. You could get it wrong, especially in a dimly-lit room.
And then there was just the fact that the camera end of the mount was decidedly thin and wispy compared to the Leica R mount, or Nikon’s F mount. It worked fine for smaller lenses, but big long, heavy telephotos could work the mount loose on the body.
Also, at that time, Canon were ahead of the curve by using more plastic parts in their lens barrels. We’re used to it now, but at the time, professionals expected all their lenses to be all-aluminum barrelled, with maybe a rubber focus grip.
Well, and there’s that motor drive. The F-1 could accept either a nicely sculpted motorized “winder”, or a full-tilt beastly “motor drive”. To compete with the Nikon, you needed the big one, and my, it was big. The large grip actually stood off from the right side of the camera, and you held the grip, not the camera at all. Together, the rig weighed a ton, and took up several compartments of room in a camera bag. When I come across them, most look like they were never used at all. No surprise there. Jokes about boat anchors abound when old guys talk about that old Canon motor drive.

My that's big

Fighting over the same pro market in the early ’70s, the Canon F-1 dwarfed the smaller, lighter Olympus OM-1. Of course Olympus is trying the same again today, with their digital mirrorless bodies.

Canon wouldn’t make that mistake again, though. When they brought out the totally redesigned F-1 (dubbed “New F-1) ten years later in ’81, it had a smaller neater motor drive. Trying to listen to the whining of professional customers, Canon kept the new camera as a full-manual match needle SLR. But adding a winder or motor gained you shutter priority automation. Swapping out the prism could get you aperture priority auto as well. By fiddling with focusing screen choice, you could have partial area metering, averaging, or spot metering. Needless to say there were tons of focus screens in Canon’s catalogue, with three versions for each style.
But we can’t forget that only a few years later, Canon brought along the T90, that could switch meter patterns and exposure modes with the push of a button. It also had what Canon oddly left off the New F-1 – TTL flash exposure. Oh, and the T90 only needed four AA batteries to run it all.
Still, the T90 and the New F-1 continued with the shortcomings of the FD mount, and as a result never quite reached the top tier of pro acceptance.
With the coming of autofocus, Canon knew the gig was up on the FD mount, and went back to the drawing board, much to the gnashing of teeth from all those well-heeled amateurs who had invested heavily in some very nice FD lenses.
The new autofocus-capable EF mount was not compatible with FD cameras or lenses, but it was the way forward. And with just a couple of generations of pro-grade EOS camera bodies, Canon had achieved widespread acceptance among working pros.
And they haven’t looked back since.
I had plans to find some other nice FD lenses to go along with the pretty FD 50mm 1.4 SSC this F-1 came with. Well, I had plans, but a young fellow spotted it on my shelf and promised me he needed it more than I did. I had to agree, and so parted with it.
Maybe I’ll find a way to hang on to the next one longer.

Meet the K-iR – or is that K-Ir? Whatever.

•October 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

As promised, I took the plunge and bought a digital SLR camera, with the express purpose of converting it to infrared-only photography.
I settled on a Pentax K-r, mainly because the price was right, and I realized that my Nikon lenses were better suited to full-frame photography and I didn’t have the budget to go cannibalizing one of those.
My widest lens in the Nikon system is my 20mm, which isn’t all that wide on a 1.5x APS-C format body – and for some weird reason it’s not all that sharp on those bodies. For the Pentax crop format, I’ve got the sharp 21mm. Just about as wide, and maybe I need an excuse to buy something wider anyway.
Another bonus to using the K-r is it does have live view for more precise focusing of the infrared image, in case I can’t trust the focusing screen or AF. There’s also in-body stabilization – something we never dreamed of in Kodak infrared days gone by.
For the conversion filter, I decided on cutting down a spare Hoya R72 (720 nanometer) filter I already had on hand. There’s always the possibility I might go to the more colourful 665nm type at a later date.

This was the guinea pig for my latest infrared plans

This was the guinea pig for my latest infrared plans


Converting the Pentax is definitely more of a challenge than what I’ve tried before, as Pentax for some reason uses more soldered connections to its main circuit board than is typical. It’s not a problem doing it once, but since I ended up adjusting the focus three times, it got to be a bit of a chore.
After first installing the filter, I moved the sensor backwards on its spring-tensioned adjusters a precise amount, hoping to get in the ballpark for focus accuracy with AF and the finder. This is necessary because the combination of longer wavelength light and the thicker filter require the sensor to be slightly behind its stock position.
Sure enough, I fell short and needed to move it back further. In fact, it was way out – focusing on a target 2m away showed decent sharpness at about 4m. Whoa. I tried to get clever and carefully calculated the exact adjustment required and dialed it in on the second try. Nope, for some reason I was closer, but still short. On the third disassembly and reassembly I found I had perfect focus for my 21mm lens. The 40mm works well too.
The black thingy replaces the rainbow coloured one

The black thingy replaces the rainbow coloured one


The next challenge to converted infrared is colour. If all you want is black and white imagery with near black skies and white trees, you can simply switch the camera to B&W and have at it. With normal white balances you’re dealing with a red-and-white image.
But part of the fun of converted cameras is the delicate colours you can achieve by isolating the subtle tones between the sky and foliage. The trick is to get the right white balance. But since you’re essentially shooting through a near-black deep, deep red filter, that balance is way weirder and well outside the usual daylight-to-tungsten spectrum.
A custom pre-set balance is the easiest way to go, when you take a reading off green grass in sunlight. Unfortunately, the Nikons I converted refuse to read that far down the colour spectrum. But the K-r obliged and loading the raw files into Photoshop showed a colour temperature of 2000k, and a “tint” of -90. At this point, the sky looks deep sepia brown, and the trees light grey. I also found that raising the tint to around -75 puts a bit more colour in the foliage, if you want it.
Then you do a “channel swap” – I use Photoshop’s channel mixer for this to make the red channel 0% red and 100% blue, and the blue channel 100% red and 0% blue. I save it as an “action” to speed things up with multiple files. Now you’ve hopefully got a deep blue sky and ghostly trees. Monkeying with hue and saturation can also get you closer to your heart’s desire.
White balance and channel swapping makes a big difference

White balance and channel swapping makes a big difference


Now I can go snap happy in the world of infrared, just in time to see the leaves fall off the trees this season. Without foliage, infrared doesn’t have as much to say. I’ve still got time.
While the finder is perfectly normal, the sensor sees only in infrared

While the finder is perfectly normal, the sensor sees only in infrared


Gotta love those dramatic skies

Gotta love those dramatic skies


If pink trees aren't to your taste...

If pink trees aren’t to your taste…


Maybe this was the way infrared was meant to be done. No temperamental films or filters. I don’t even need a tripod as the camera’s effective ISO is just about the same as visible light, maybe even a tad more sensitive. And the images are much, much sharper than I’ve ever managed with any other IR material. So my old apologies for softness or grain are gone (“well, I shot it in infrared, so that’s what you get”). Where was this 20 years ago?
Since I’ve still got more than half a Hoya R72 filter left, and maybe you’ve got an older DSLR that could use a new lease on life … well, let’s talk.

Lens testing madness

•October 10, 2015 • Leave a Comment

There’s not much to get the photographic eyes rolling more than lens tests. We all want to know how well our lenses perform – but then again, do we really want to know? And the testing process is usually mind-numbing to boot.
Still, when an opportunity presents itself, you have to rise to the occasion – such as the other day when I realized I had access to four generations of one particular type of lens. This was the modest Nikon 300mm telephoto with apertures of f4.0 to f4.5. I say “modest” because such lenses are in reach of the stretched photographic budget – whereas the f2.8 “dream” 300mm’s are much more costly.

Four 300mm Nikkors

Four 300mm Nikkors


How they stack up

How they stack up


The old Ai versus the EDIF f4.5's

The old Ai versus the EDIF
f4.5’s


The f4.0 AF and the later AF-S in special order grey

The f4.0 AF and the later AF-S in special order grey


Back in 1964, Nikon introduced its first 300mm for the Nikon F mount cameras, with a maximum aperture of f4.5, and it sailed alone in the product line for apparently 13 years before it was joined by the luxury f4.5 ED and f2.8 ED versions – so long as you don’t count zooms like the 50-300mm which enjoyed limited popularity.
I happened to come across a late 1970s version of that original f4.5, so it not only had Ai coupling, but also likely benefitted from better coatings than those made in the 1960s.
Then I acquired a similar vintage f4.5 Ai, but with the ED (extra-low dispersion glass) and IF (internal focus) designation. This lens was introduced in 1978 and sold for quite a premium over the basic version, so both stayed in the catalogue side-by-side for a few years.
The next lens I was able to borrow – the late 1980s version of the autofocus f4.0 IF-ED, which probably qualifies as the most handsome of bunch with its black crinkle-finish barrel.
The last lens is my own f4.0 AF-S, which was introduced in 2000. Why my lens is the special order grey finish is a long story. You may admire the camo tape I added to the barrel, but be rest assured it peels of easily.
What I don’t have is an example of the latest version of the f4.0 AF-S, which now boasts a fresnel lens to reduce size, and also a VR stabilization system.
Here’s a small table to explain the four lenses, and their basic differences.
chart
So we see the newest lens is the biggest and heaviest, but does focus closer, and faster. Nice.
As I said before the AF lens is the prettiest. The EDIF f4.5 is noticeably skinnier and weighs much less than the rest. The original f4.5 Ai has stiffer “unit” focusing, but its tripod collar has nice click stops at 90 degrees, and is the only collar not removable. Okay, now what?
So let’s test them… ughh.
Out came the test target for the first round and I set it up around 5m from the camera and lit it with flash. I shot images at full aperture, f5.6 and f8.0, and then one shot with each teleconverter (more on that later). I didn’t bother with smaller apertures, as I don’t really care which 300mm lens is best at f16. I also only shot with the 2x teleconverters at f5.6 – an effective f11 – again because shooting at smaller apertures at an effective 600mm almost never comes up (well, see my eclipse shot for an exception to that).
I then took all the lenses outdoors for a distant “brick wall” test of a building under daylight, with some out of focus foliage in the foreground.
And then came the analysis… ughh, again. Click on the pictures to get a closer look.
Cropped from the very centre of the test chart

Cropped from the very centre of the test chart. All wide open.


1. Well, there’s no denying the earlier f4.5 Ai lens was at a definite disadvantage. It wasn’t as sharp as the rest, and its blacks on the test chart were green tinged. Sharpness improved clearly at f8.0, however. It also had slightly more magnification when focused down to 5m due to its unit-focusing design. The other three lenses have internal focus, and the image doesn’t “grow” as you focus closer.
2. It’s not hard to see why the f4.5 EDIF was sought after by those who could afford its premium price. Not only smaller and lighter, and closer focusing, it was sharper and more contrasty than its predecessor at the wider apertures. Shadow detail however, was purple tinted on this one.
3. The f4.0 AF lens is close in quality to the manual focus EDIF, but obviously offering a 1/3 stop brighter aperture through its much larger front objective – and autofocus, of course. Otherwise, the earlier MF version may have had a slight edge in contrast and colour.
4. What surprised me was how differently the newer AF-S lens performed. Evidently Nikon did more than just change the focus motor system. It was contrastier, and had no colour cast on the black parts of the test chart. There was less of the red-cyan fringing than the other lenses, but all four exhibited some. Fortunately, these days that can be readily corrected in Photoshop or Lightroom.
5. Outdoors, things were a little less obvious than on the test chart. You’d be hard pressed to tell most of the shots apart, at any of the apertures. A close look revealed the old Ai lens was a bit softer, but then it exhibited better “bokeh” on the out of focus tree leaves than did the internal focus lenses – again typical for the breed.
No doubt we could imagine other “real world” test scenarios to see where each lens passed or failed, but lens testing is tedious and annoying, and the weather’s getting colder.
6. However, the other test I performed was with two of Nikon’s old manual focus 2x teleconverters, since I also had both on hand. I’d done this test before, many years ago, and came to the conclusion that my 300mm AF-S did better with the “wrong” TC-200 converter than the more exotic T-300/301. The TC-301 can only be used with lenses that allow its nose to poke right inside the back of the lens’ mount – like all these 300mm’s.
I can only say that back then, I either had a defective TC-301 (unlikely) or I was mistaken in my conclusions, because in this test, every lens did better with the TC-301 than my old TC-200. Much better, I might add.
Crap, I’ve been using the wrong teleconverter all these years. Fortunately, I don’t use it all that often. Mind you, the TC-200 fits all the rest of my lenses, whereas the TC-301 only fits long teles.
Both are 2x, but are intended for different audiences (lenses)

Both are 2x, but are intended for different audiences (lenses)


Cropped centre of image

Cropped centre of image


So, in conclusion, I can say I was pleasantly surprised to find that newer, was indeed better. While we often fear that things “aren’t made like they used to” these lenses all showed steady improvement over the years. And yes, when Nikon said the TC-301 was the right teleconverter for the job, I should have believed them.
On the downside though, while this test is interesting, it plays to a small audience. Prime 300mm lenses are quite seldom seen in today’s marketplace. 300mm isn’t really long enough for wildlife, and besides, many budget zooms offer 300mm at f5.6 at their long end. Who wants to pay three or four times as much for a 300mm one stop brighter? You don’t see many Canon or Pentax 300mm 4.0’s either.
So, maybe I should be testing these prime 300mm’s against the popular zooms. Damn, out comes the test chart again.