Monday, December 29, 2014

More From the Helios-44

EOS5D, Helios-44, DxO Optics Pro, DxO Film Pack Agfa Ultra Color 100 Emulation
I thought some fans of the Helios-44 Lens might enjoy a little more "sunshine" today. It's cold here in Atlantic Canada, but a lot of us still have green grass. It's lovely, really.

What would be the value of using a manual focus / manual exposure lens on one of today's great 35mm (sensor size) DSLR, especially with this rather odd Focal Length of 58mm?? As I mentioned in my last Post, it would be a very good Portrait Lens, especially on a 24mm (APSC size) DSLR, where the Focal Length actually becomes 93mm (on a Canon). I personally use it for it's ability to zero in on the details of something bigger - like this:

EOS5D, Helios-44, DxO Optics Pro, DxO Film Pack Fuji Superia 200 Emulation
Or this:

EOS5D, Helios-44, DxO Optics Pro, DxO Film Pack Agfa Ultra Color 100 Emulation

Remember this - artsy photographers like what I'm trying to be, tend to prefer to walk around with a wide angle lens like a 28mm or 35mm; in fact you'll find that "Boutique" digital compacts, such as the Leica X2 are equipped with a non-removable 35mm, and Fuji, Sony, and Ricoh all produce some expensive pocket cameras with the same fixed wide angle formula, so there must be a good reason for it. And there is. Creative photography often is at it's best when a wide angle lens is used. Going through the normal vision range of 45mm to 60mm is boring, and gets to be more of a challenge to creativity, and finally, a Telephoto, or Long Zoom Lens of 100mm and up becomes less and less about creative photography, and more about technical, portrait, or Journalist photography. A long lens can be used to great effect taking a shoulders-up portrait, catching birds in flight, or zooming in on a ball game, but there's not much creativity in such things; rather, they lean toward the technical.

This brings me to some basic technical stuff. My lens is a 44-4 (meaning Version 4), Serial# 839021. It has the Aperture Stop Pin, which means it requires the flanged adapter (an M42 thread-mount adapter with an inner flange to hold the Stop Pin in. If this doesn't mean a thing to you, don't fret about it.) I prefer the earlier versions, up to the 44-2 which I had before, with the manually operated Stop Down Ring - I thought I wanted to get out of M42 and manually focussing, so I sold the whole lot. Now it's creeping back into my life; with this 44-4 basically given to me. All it amounts to is different ways of controlling the Aperture, but with the earlier ring-control, it behaves better on a DSLR, because you can pre-select the F-Stop you want to use, then have the second ring to turn between wide open (for a bright viewfinder) and stopped down to your selected aperture (the viewfinder darkens, sometimes to the point you can no longer see your Meter Setting).

Naturally, it's a manual focus lens, which can make life a lot easier if you want to use Hyper-focal Distance Focussing, which I did at f8 in the above shots. It's truly a "set and forget" method that is handy, unless you have a close subject and want a blurred background. This lens isn't the best at doing blurred backgrounds ("Bokeh"), as you'll see in the next shot:

EOS5D, Helios-44 at f2, DxO Optics Pro, DxO Film Pack Agfa Ultra Color 100 Emulation
The Bokeh is linear instead of circular, kind of a confused triple-vision blur, like when you forget your spectacles. However, on the plus side, this lens creates a kind of "visual vibration or buzz" in the background, I think. In some situations, people are reporting a "swirly" effect with this lens, again with the earlier models, which is well liked.

I also notice that the focus is happening a bit toward me when compared with what I'm seeing in the Viewfinder - you can see that the last two letters of "Squire St" are sharp, but the rest quickly recedes into blur - I thought I was focussing on the Stop Sign itself. This is almost certainly due to my Viewfinder Diopter adjustment being off by one step away from the camera - easily fixed.

Here's another one at f2:

EOS5D, Helios-44, DxO Optics Pro, DxO Film Pack Agfa Ultra Color 100 Emulation
This wasn't so obviously bad, as I was standing further away, but if you look closely, you'll notice the #8, which was what I was focussing on, is a but blurred compared with the big wooden box in the lower right foreground.

I do like using a "real" old school manual focus lens, and there is certainly a place for it. And while the Helios-44 isn't the sharpest lens in the drawer, it gives a unique look, and works well with software film emulations. I would highly recommend it for "walk-about" or street photography, with the lens set at hyper-focal, or if you really know what you want at wide open (f2), it makes a rather unique buzz-bokeh in the background.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Elusive "Film Look" ... Again

EOS 5D Classic, Helios-44 Lens, DxO optics Pro RAW Conversion, DxO Film Pack AgfaVista-200 Emulation
EOS 5D Classic, Helios-44 Lens, DxO optics Pro RAW Conversion, DxO Film Pack AgfaVista-200 Emulation

Once again, I'm trying to create the right mix of qualities which will emulate the look of colour film with a digital camera. This time, I've added a film-era lens to the mix, the Russian made Helios-44, which is a 58mm focal length f2 lens, with the M42 thread-mount. I had one of these years ago, but sold it, but what goes 'round comes 'round in my world, so I got a great deal on another one recently. These lenses typically came as the "high-end" kit on Zenit SLR cameras, and so, many would argue they range from "not remarkable" to "just plain bad", but in my world, being a bad lens isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Helios is a rather un-sharp lens IMHO, and we've gotten so accustomed to the super sharpness one gets with DSLR cameras nowadays, even the "kit lens" is more than adequately sharp. I would argue back - isn't there a place for an un-sharp lens in the tool-kit?

What I've re-discovered is that the Helios-44, when combined with Film Emulation software, creates photos remarkably similar to the Smena Symbol camera. Even though this lens looks well built, it belongs in the Lomography drawer, I think, where non-sharp gets described by words like "dreamy". In fact, the "low-end" option on Zenit SLR cameras was the Industar 50-2, which, in spite of it's almost silly appearance on a big Canon DSLR, is a super sharp lens, and manages to do everything well, except at f3.5, is not as good as the Helios in low light.

It's also important to note that "film-like" doesn't necessarily mean "not sharp". In the 1970's, if one were using a Takumar MC lens on a Pentax Spotmatic, there was oodles of sharpness to be had, which still looks right at home today.

As it turns out, having a Helios-44 lens is ideal if you want to distinguish yourself from the super-sharp photo crowd, and get into something that's a lot more retro, especially when combined with emulation software techniques. Also, at 58mm, as opposed to the far more common 50, it provides a bit more reach, and a narrower field of view, which with it's inherent softness, would make it a great portrait lens.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Little More About Sony's Xperia Phone Cameras

Silver Lake At Sunset

I had a lot of good things to say about Sony's Xperia Z2 in my last post. This time, it's still good, or at least as good as the above sunset photo I took with it. This time, the Phone-Cam was truly the only camera I had with me, in other words, the "camera of last resort". But I can now see why perhaps Phone-Cams have become so popular, and maybe deserving of being more than "this will have to do --- it's all I've got with me".

This made a good exposure for a sunset, and it was the colours in this scene that made me want to pull over to the side of the road and take the picture. I am not disappointed at all - the colour is very well captured here. In this case, the ultra-wide angle lens didn't let me down either, although if I wanted to capture a distant cormorant in flight, I would have been brutally out of luck.

While it's true that Phone-Cams keep getting better, and the Sony Xperia line is one of the top contenders in a very competitive field, the nature of the beast is what makes for the greatest limitations for this type of device. After all, the "Super Phone" is not built to be primarily a camera. Rather, they're the pinnacle of today's communication technology, capable of being a personal assistant in every direction, including GPS / Mapping, music and video streaming / storage, truly the only computer you might really need if you take the time to bother mastering it, and of course the more lowly telephone and texting device that started the whole thing many Decades ago. Cameras have been built into cellular phones for many years already, but it always has come down to one obvious problem - a device that is meant to be so many other things does not handle very well as a camera. With lens limitations aside, getting a smart phone up and running, and fitted into your hand ready to take a shot is usually a tricky business. I keep mine holstered to my belt, but turned off, because I'm still very suspicious of the harm that all the near-field radiation can do to my person (right or wrong, I am afraid about such things). So, unlike turning on a compact digital camera, a smart phone, like the full blown computer it really is has to be booted up before you can use the camera, and that's a process that could take up to a minute or even more.

The Sony Xperia phones are among the few with a dedicated three-way camera function button, which helps speed the process along, and provides a very convenient focus / shutter button, but the downside of this feature is that if you keep your phone turned on, every time you un-holster the phone for other than photographic reasons, you'll invariably turn the camera on as you accidentally hit this button. But again, it's a matter of learning the right moves, because Sony has provided lots of real-estate on the top and bottom, not to mention ample thickness and weight, to allow you to get a more goof-proof grasp on the device, unlike many other makes, especially Samsung.

To summarize, yes, smartphone cameras have come a long way when it comes to picture quality, and there seems to be a lot more attention being given to their own breed of the mega-pixel race. In particular, if you're into wide-angle photography, these truly amazing multi-devices will serve you very well. There's also a tremendous advantage when it comes to on-device picture editing, with hundreds, if not thousands of Apps now available to give you the most personalized shooting experience possible. But for me, handling the device is, and as far as I can tell always will be, the most challenging issue. A smartphone is just a small, very thin rectangular slab, which by necessity must throw a Century of good camera ergonomics to the wind - case in point - nothing can replace the feeling of confidence you get from shooting with a Canon EOS series SLR camera, whether film or digital. And if you're accustomed to Nikon, same goes. A camera must be able to get itself up and running very quickly (or, as I've often said here, many of my favourite film cameras are fully mechanical, and always ready to snap a picture in the blink of an eye). A camera must also have a bit of heft, body depth, and a good hand-grip, and many still legitimately insist on a good optical viewfinder, although I personally am finding this less important all the time - but that's a great subject to be left for another Blog Post.

But at least from what I can see, if a good scene presents itself to you, picture quality should no longer be an issue when it comes to your "camera of last resort. They're all good, if not great now, when it comes to image quality - just as long as you're able to handle the damn things.