2011-11-27

Nikon 35mm f/2 AF-D


Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: No, I didn't inadvertently use one photo twice.

The Long Version: I've never really liked the Nikkor 35/2 AF-D lens, but I bought it anyway. Simply for the sake of versatility I wanted something wider than my 50/1.8D for my F-mount cameras. As always with SLR lenses, price ramps up very quickly as the focal length and apertures decrease, and the 35/2D was as far as I could bring myself to go. Nikon wide lenses simply aren't as good as my Zeiss or computer-assisted Panasonics, so I knew I would need to lower my standards a bit.

This is the point where I should be saying that I've changed my mind and now have glowing opinions of the lens, but that just isn't how it's worked out. It's the best 35mm "FX format" lens – a term nearly a decade away when it was designed – that costs less than a thousand dollars, but as it stands there's a very big gap between the f/2D and the new f/1.4G 35mm lenses. It would be nice to have an option in between the functional and the phenomenally expensive.


All Nikon AF-D lenses need a camera with a screw drive to autofocus, making them duds on the cheapest bodies but they can be screaming fast on the higher-end cameras. The 35/2's focusing is very quick and has an excellent minimum distance of 25cm, or about a handspan from the camera body to the subject. There is some focusing noise, but if anyone thinks that it's objectionable then they'll probably be knocked over by the ensuing thunderclap from the shutter. Optically the results are decent, with strong centre sharpness that peters out toward the corners, but the big sin for me is its strong barrel distortion.

The salvation of the 35/2D is that digital redemption is possible with software lens profiles. Lightroom/ACR has this built in, and other programs are also capable of fixing some optical flaws. There's a lot to be said for lenses that don't need to be fixed in photoshop, but as the Panasonic in-camera processing demonstrates, it's an increasingly viable way to solve problems.


The 35/2D is a midrange film-era lens, and it shows. With film vignetting isn't as strong; sharpness and distortion is less significant on film than on those unforgivingly flat and flawless digital chips. As a lens of only minor personal importance, the performance of the 35/2D is adequate but leaves me uninspired. As a result this lens normally lives on my F100, where it's comfortable and not often disturbed by needing to be moved to my D700.

I've never really liked the Nikon 35/2 AF-D lens, but I'm glad that I bought it anyway. I almost exclusively use the 85/1.8, 85/2.8, or 105/2.8VR on my Nikons, but without the 35/2D, there are times when I would have had to leave the big SLRs at home. So even though the 35/2 is in third place – at best – on the list of wide-angle lenses that I reach for, it's the enabler lens that completes the Nikon set. And when the cameras are that good, sometimes it's okay for the optics to just be good enough.


last updated 27 nov 2011

2011-11-24

Rain Alarm (Extended) for iPhone


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Chicken Little eat your heart out.

The Long Version: I enjoy planning. I like to know what to expect, and I like to have some idea what to do if that's not what happens. One manifestation of this is that I really want to know if it's likely to rain.

Rain Alarm is a useful little application for iOS. It taps into publicly-available weather radar and watches for precipitation around the phone's location; both the radius and the excitability of the program can be selected from its settings menu. It then ties into the Notification Center in iOS5 for messages that read "Precipitation about 5.2 km away (strength 30 of 100, area 4 of 100)". The application also shows the weather radar, and can animate the maps, making it easy to see exactly what's coming and how far away it is.


So it's goodbye to that charming forecast "50% chance of scattered showers" that sounds significant but is short on specifics. By using Rain Alarm for the past month I've been able to make better choices about when to bike to and from work, and when I'll need an umbrella versus getting by with a hat. By paying attention to the program as well as the actual weather outside my window, I've learned how to interpret the programs's strength ratings and choose the gear that I need to cope with it. Yes, I'm still caught unprepared sometimes, but that's really just part of the fun of being obsessive.

The reason why I bought an iPhone – aside from all of the accessories to dress it up in – is because I wanted a portable computer. Clever applications like Rain Alarm, that can use the phone's on-board sensors to pull useful information out of a data stream, are exactly what these things are good for. It's a fairly simple task, but it's done well.


last updated 24 nov 2011

2011-11-19

RoboSport


Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Mario, schmario.

The Long Version: I don't usually review things that I haven't used for almost twenty years, but one of the lingering injustices of electronic gaming is that the 1991 Mac/PC/Amiga classic RoboSport has never been reissued for a modern platform.

I started to play Robosport on a friend's Mac SE, long before I had a computer of my own. It and Spaceward Ho! were our favourite two-payer games, because they're both turn-based and would calculate the outcomes of everyone's actions without needing to be played on two computers or a fast network. The premise of RoboSport was a near-future televised sporting event that had teams of combat robots competing in special arenas. Not too shabby an idea, especially considering that this predated the radio-controlled cars of BattleBots or reality TV.

A team could be as many as eight robots, and each one could be armed with a rifle, machine gun, heavy machine gun, or missile launcher. The rifle robot had the best armour and long-range accuracy, the heavy machine gun had the most close-in firepower but the least armour, and the missileer had much better accuracy than the grenades that anyone could throw. While the game arenas had a top-down view, it wasn't necessarily omniscient – robots had distinct fields of view, cones of fire, and can't see past walls or obstructions. There were different maps, some laid out as ruins, others as suburbs, and some as computer circuitry. I mostly played capture the flag, hostage rescue, and last robot standing, but other modes included treasure hunt, where the robots need to hunt coins as well as each other, and "baseball" where they have to run bases by reaching certain waypoints.


So far it's just a basic-but-quirky squad-infantry game, but the fun comes from needing to pre-program each robot's moves. Stand here, look there; wait fifteen seconds and then throw a grenade before rushing into the next room; call shots on specific targets or just wait for targets to appear: it became a complicated dance with everyone reacting to what happened in the last round. Sometimes it worked out the way I'd expect, but usually the results were amusing and unintended. Opponents rushing past each other in doorways to take up defensive positions in the room that the other just left, a complicated outlay of firepower aimed at nothing while a lone rifleman plinks away from an unexpected direction, obliterating your own team with some badly thrown grenades – there's nothing to do but watch the results and choose your actions to program for the next round.

Computer games don't need great graphics, just good ideas. The computer that once ran Robosport had less power than a pre-WebOS Palmpilot, and my current phone has a higher-resolution screen. If some modern advances could be brought to the same game concept – better AI, network multiplayer, colour, not crashing all the time – I would buy it in a heartbeat. What's more, if it ran on a platform that I don't own, I would buy one just to play Robosport with. The irony of having it on an Android tablet would capture some of the inherent sense of humour of the game, so that would be just about perfect. Fingers crossed.


postscript: as often happens, in writing this review I've found something else. Looking for background on Robosport led me to the contemporary game Frozen Synapse, and playing it has been enough to keep me from Twitter for almost two days. There may be a review of it in the future, but for now I can say that no matter how good it is, it's still not Robosport.


last updated 19 nov 2011

2011-11-16

Twelve South BookBook for iPhone


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Perhaps PhoneBook is too obvious a name.

The Long Version: It's a clever gag – a classic-looking leather book-shaped object that actually houses an iPhone. Twelve South – the makers of my BookArc laptop holder – have been making their BookBook laptop cases for a while now, but the iPhone model is the first one that includes the ability to hold other things. It's intended to double as a small wallet, and is equipped with slots for credit cards and a section to hold bit of cash.


But you know there's trouble when Twelve South's own promotional video makes it look a little foolish: really, it's designed as a wallet, but it's too narrow to hold cash without it sticking out and being bent over when the case is closed? And to make a phone call I need to fold the case over on itself, which means I'm flashing my ID, credit cards, and money at everyone who walks past me on the street? It blocks the rear camera, and popping the phone partially out of the case to take a photo means that the case obscures part of the screen? Nifty, sign me up.


Despite some reservations, I bought the iPhoneBook; despite how entertaining it is, it's not the most practical product. It's a good case, if somewhat bulky, with the necessary cutouts to access all of the important bits of the phone with the sole exception of the camera. It won't block the extra sensor on the white iPhone, and the mute/vibrate switch on the 4S is accessible with a carefully placed fingernail.

The problems come with the wallet function, as the narrow width of the iPhone hurts its ability to hold cash, and adding more than the approved three cards impedes the cases' ability to close. The result is that my iPhone stays in its Ultraslim case whenever I expect to make phone calls or need more than a double-folded $20 bill and a couple of cards to get me through the day; that turns out to be most of the time. The BookBook case is funny, yes, but its $60 price makes for an expensive sense of humour.


Where the BookBook case really excels is when I need to treat the phone as a small computer. Its hard cover lets me quickly use the phone and then put it away without needing to lock the screen, so it's perfect for checking maps or other quick activities, and its added size makes the phone much easier to hold. It's great to have if I'm out with a camera, commuting via subway, or just listening to music. When I spend a weekend in a different city I'll use the BookBook case along with a normal wallet – well, a Mighty Wallet, actually – to keep cards and cash in separate places. So the BookBook can be very useful, and it is nice to have as an alternative. I wouldn't want to have only one pair of shoes, so why should my iPhone make do with only one case?


last updated 16 nov 2011

2011-11-11

Canon PIXMA Pro9000mkII


Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's meant to be low-end.

The Long Version: First of all, I'd love to meet the person who came up with the name "PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II". It's a gem. And naturally there's another printer that takes completely different inks but with a name that's only different by one character. For the purpose of this review, I'll simply be calling it the "9000", which is not to be confused with the Canon 9000F, which is the flatbed scanner that I use for documents and medium format negatives. They sit side-by-side next to my desk and make a cute couple.

The 9000 is a 13" photo printer, able to handle cut sheets of paper 19" long. It uses high-end dye inks, which are supposed to offer the same longevity as midrange pigments. I have no way of testing that, but there are a couple of lingering dye-printer problems that the ChromaLife100 inks don't solve. One is that the ink needs time to dry: prints stacking up in the printer's output tray can stick together, and they shouldn't be judged for colour accuracy for a solid day. Handy. The other problem is that, once they dry, they really don't like getting wet. The fizz from an open can of soda can cause them to spot, and forget about handling a print with damp hands. For framed photos that stay in the house this isn't a big deal, but I'd never consider selling a print with that kind of weakness. Barnett Newman may get away with applying paint directly on top of masking tape, but I am not Barnett Newman.


The shame of it is that the Pro9000 is actually a very good photo printer. The output is visibly better than the Epson R1800 that mine replaced, with very good colour output, and I've been satisfied with its ability to slowly produce monochrome prints using only its black tank. It even has the ability to print in black when a colour cartridge has run out, so even though I'm currently out of everything except for black and cyan, it continues to print email confirmations without complaint.

I have to admit that I find the 9000 quite endearing. Canon's website, and many sympathetic reviews, have mentioned how quiet the printer is when it's working. They're absolutely right – often I won't realize when the print job is finished. It's harder to miss the beginning of the run, though, since it feeds paper with a pronounced "whirrr-THWACK!" It'll make me jump if I'm not expecting it.

With the exception of the logistical issues around ink drying, I've been very happy with my 9000; it has done what I wanted it for and should have many good years of service ahead of it. It will need to find somewhere else to do it, though, since I've decided to move on to the Canon PIXMA Pro-1 when it's released. What can I say? I like its simpler name.


last updated 11 nov 2011

2011-11-08

Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 C Sonnar


Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: There's no middle ground on this one.

The Long Version: Carl Zeiss makes good lenses. In the same way that exceptional photographers can create wonderful photographs that would look like mistakes if they came from a novice, Zeiss has intentionally broken the rules. They could have created a technically perfect 50mm lens, but instead they chose to let this Sonnar be a different kind of beast.

This isn't just another lens. The M-mount C Sonnar T* 1,5/50 ZM is almost the exact opposite of the Zeiss 2/35 Biogon that I reviewed last month. The 35 is descriptive and impartial, while the 50 is stylish and opinionated. The Biogon's crisp technical abilities are normally reserved for telephotos, but the only 'mainstream' lens that I can compare the arty C-Sonnar to is Canon's 50/1.2L. It's fussy, temperamental, and demands a lot from the photographer. This isn't just another version of the typical 50mm lens any more than a fiddle is just a sexy version of a banjo. It needs to be used a different way.

But when it's wide open the ZM 50/1.5 lens looks like nothing else I own.


The key to the 1,5/50 C Sonnar is its uncorrected spherical aberration. Light from the periphery of the lens slightly misses focusing on the film plane, diffusing the peak crispness that photographers generally look for. Widely considered to be A Bad Thing, spherical aberrations are usually squashed by modern lens designs.

The spherical aberration of the "C-stands-for-Classic" Sonnar makes it behave radically differently when it's wide open versus the smaller apertures of f/5.6-16. Stopping down cuts out the light from the periphery of the optics, and turns the C-Sonnar into a typical lens with very good resolution and consistent sharpness. Wide open, or close to it, there's a gentleness to its images that becomes very apparent with high-contrast edges. The result is almost a mild soft-focus effect, giving images from the 50/1.5 a certain gentleness. That's one of two excellent reasons to use this the lens at f/1.5.

Another effect of spherical aberration is a darling trait called "focus shift". This means that the plane of sharpest focus moves farther away as the aperture is stopped down – the lens simply doesn't focus in the same place at f/1.5 as it does at f/8. So in addition to the margin of error within the rangefinder camera and user error – the typical source of focus issues – there's also a bit of willfulness in the lens to deal with. Naturally, focus shift is most significant at close distances in addition to changing its severity according to the aperture, so there's no automatic formula to compensate for it.


But in practice focus shift is easy enough to tame; I learned what I needed to know from the Photoschool review of this lens and about five minutes of practice. Simply focus at the first part of the subject that needs to be sharp(ish) and expect the DOF to fall behind that point, rather than depending on the usual 1/3-2/3 distribution to catch things in front of the focus point. While focus shift never goes away, it moves back more slowly than depth of field increases, so that trick's effective at any aperture.

My ratio of out-of-focus images is the same as with my 2/35mm. I don't use the 1,5/50mm at apertures between f1.5-5.6 unless I absolutely have to; I'm not exactly afraid of them, but within that range the lens is neither fish nor fowl. I know exactly what it looks like at f/1.5 or at 5.6 and smaller, and those two options have such distinct results that choosing between them isn't a tough decision. I also avoid using this lens at very close range, where the shift can be problematic, because the bokeh/OOF blur isn't particularly wonderful. Problem(s) solved.

But remember that focus shift isn't a defect, and there's no point complaining about it when the underlying spherical aberration is the raison d'être for the lens. There's no need for the nonsense of finding a "good copy" of a Zeiss 1,5/50 or Canon 50/1.2L. Would-be photographers who "test" these lenses by photographing internet printouts at close range – typically hand-held – simply don't understand what they're buying, and should look elsewhere for something to spend their money on. There are plenty of more suitable options: The Zeiss 2/50 Planar, Canon 50/1.4, or perhaps a nice collection of fancy goldfish.


One historical characteristic of the Sonnar design is flare resistance, and the addition of modern coatings doesn't hurt. This photo (larger) is stopped down to f/16, the C-Sonnar's minimum, while the first photo in this review (larger) was wide open. While the f/1.5 shot looks like it has veiling flare, I suspect that the effect is actually the bright sun being diffused by spherical aberration. The photo that's fully stopped down lets us count the aperture blades (ten, two lost in the bright sky) but doesn't show any ghosting. I would love to hear the thoughts of the many people who know more about this than I do, but for my purposes I won't hesitate to include a bright light within the image as long as the lens is clean.

Using the Sonnar as a low-light lens would make excellent use of its flare resistance, but all of its wide-open aperture considerations still apply. Sometimes the extra 'sonnar glow' is helpful, and can have wonderful results, but the fast aperture isn't enough to make it an automatic choice for available-light photography. I'm just as likely to choose the 35/2 Biogon, which can be hand-held in the same light, but starts with the presumption of sharpness. As with every occasion to deploy the 50/1.5, it's important to use it for the things that it will be good at. Just because Carl Zeiss's marketing department calls this a "Fast and Compact Photojournalist" lens doesn't make it true. They also say that the "C" designation simultaneously stands for Classic and Compact, and by rangefinder standards only one of those is true.

And because I can't let an entire lens review go by without mentioning it, I have to say that I can see barrel distortion in these street photos. Look at the building column on the right side, the one that has the 'don't walk' hand in front of it: the effect is subtle this far from the picture edge, but the top and base of the column aren't going in the same direction. Most reviewers would say this is "not field relevant" while I'd usually care quite a lot about it. But even for me, it seems churlish to love the 1,5/50 because of a huge uncorrected aberration but then fault it for another minor one. This is not a lens for technicians, it's for artists – both the lens and I are outside of our usual realms when we get together, so some accommodations need to be made.


Physically the 1,5/50 is similar enough to the 2/35 that I need to look at the numbers to know which lens is on the camera when I pick it up. The smaller frame through the viewfinder means that the 50 doesn't intrude much into the scene, but its slightly greater girth means that it takes a different bayonet-mount hood. Zeiss's lens caps remain their own corporate humility block, so I use a micro 'hood hat' to cover my lens when it's not in use. Following Lee's suggestion in a comment on my 2/35 review, I've also found that a Nikon 62mm lens cap clips onto the front of the hood quite nicely.

It's worth noting that the 50/1.5 has a Leica-friendly (and Rockwell-approved) 46mm filter thread, which also matches my Panasonic 20/1.7, rather than the 43mm that the 2/35 and 4/85 use. I don't use 'protective' filters – those who do shouldn't be switching them from lens to lens anyway – but it would have been nice to be able to use one set of colour contrast filters across all of my Zeiss lenses. Still, buying a 43mm yellow-orange for my architectural 2/35 and a 46mm red-orange for my pictorial 1,5/50 isn't a huge sacrifice in exchange for having the lens be exactly the size it needs to be.

As with all Zeiss lenses, aperture control is in thirds-stops, with the exception that there's only one intermediate stop between 1.5 and 2.0. The unusual f/1.5 aperture is really just a marketing echo of the 1930's design; the 2.4mm difference between the theoretical f/1.4 and f/1.5 is my opportunity to finally use the classic reviewers' phrase "not field relevant". The actual reduction in light transmission is less than what lenses with more elements or inferior coatings can lose, and only cinematographers really need to care about that.


I confess that I'm smitten by the 1,5/50, and I should be the last person to fall for such an intentionally 'artistic' lens. I'm clinical in my photos and cynical in my opinions, with no patience for mysticism and mystique with my dozen cameras. I don't do portraits. But I'm also not obsessive about sharpness and bought my film rangefinder specifically for its timeless character and exceptional lenses. With an optical design that's inspired by the best from eighty years ago, the Sonnar is the closest expression of that goal that doesn't need to be bought on eBay and then sent for a CLA.

While I'm generally opposed to the idea of needing a special effect validate a photo, using the Sonnar wide open can create an image worth taking. The effect isn't Flickr-obvious, and looks nothing like something smeared or stretched in front of the lens, but the gentle rounding of the photos adds a certain something in colour or monochrome. It's not suitable for every subject, of course, but stopping down to f/5.6 gives a lens that's as crisp as anyone could need. I'm guilty of using a three-stop ND filter in daylight, which lets me use the entire aperture range and choose which temperament I want the lens to display.


If the idea of buying a lens that's soft wide open and hard to focus accurately doesn't make much sense, don't do it. The Classic Sonnar is a lens that most photographers shouldn't buy, but there may be a few people whose eyes will be sparkling at the thought of having one of these to play with. Many of those people will already have rangefinder cameras, or at least I hope they do, because this is a rare and special gem that we're lucky to have. It's absolutely not a commodity lens and it's nowhere near the marketing dream of the minimum acceptable standard. Instead it's an example of the artistry within lens design, and must have been designed simply for the sake of creating something wonderful.

If the 2/35 Biogon was the reason why I bought the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder, then the 1,5/50 C-Sonnar is its ultimate justification. Like the 2/35, it gives me qualities and capabilities that simply aren't available elsewhere. Completely opposite capabilities, at that – how often can two similar-seeming lenses, that handle perfectly as a set, and have such well-suited focal lengths, provide such a range? The Carl Zeiss 50mm C-Sonnar is far from a perfect lens, and I wouldn't want it any other way.


last updated 8 nov 2011

2011-11-06

Xootr Ergo Pin

 Xootr Ergo Pin, somewhat exaggerated

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: Even the Mona Lisa's falling apart.

The Long Version: I've had a long and happy relationship with my Xootr kick scooter, with only one exception: the Ergonomic Locking Pin that holds locks the deck/handle joint in place.

The design of the Ergo Pin is quite elegant. There's a spring-loaded plunger that releases the pressure on two points on the far end of the shaft, which lets the pin be removed without needing to jerk it free. After all, nobody who rides a kick scooter wants to look like they're starting a two-stroke lawnmower; as Garfield once said, "cherish the pride."

The problem is that my Ergo Pin has jammed in its unlocked position. It's undoubtedly some combination of road dirt, airborne gunk, and the obvious corrosion, but despite persuasion and lubrication it's not letting go. And to make matters worse, this is a pin that I bought to replace the first one that had the exact same thing happen to it. I rode with that pin for a while despite its stickage, and just used my keys to push the plunger into place, but that's not nearly as good as having one that works properly.

So now it's the end of the riding season, and the time that I've spent on my bike – also a Xootr product – means that my Mg scooter hasn't seen much use. I'm left trying to decide if it's better to just sell the scooter as-is and be happy with the time that I've had with it, or if I should spend the twenty bucks to fix something that's become a tertiary form of transportation for me. Decisions, decisions…


last updated 6 nov 2011

2011-11-03

Sena Ultraslim iPhone Case

 Sena Ultraslim leather case, empty

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Sometimes a case is just a case.

The Long Version: Some things improve with use and time. Products that are designed to accept the patina of age gracefully can develop a wonderful character from scuffs and wear, and never really need to be replaced. Natural materials like wood, leather, and canvas are the best for this, but Leica has proven that even metal machines can acquire a certain charm after decades of use.

Absolutely none of this applies to cell phones.

While hardly timeless, the current version of Apple's iPhone is a beautiful example of industrial design. The layered edges where the metal meets the glass are meant to be touched and handled; the latest "4S" revision has removed the antenna problem that left the previous model wrapped in ugly plastic. But the phone certainly isn't something that will have its appearance improved by scratches, and those smooth surfaces that invite touching are also very slippery to hold.


The Sena Ultraslim case solves many of the iPhone's problems. On paper it's just a simple sleeve that's very closely tailored to the iPhone 4/S, and protects it from scratches and minor bumps. But in practice the supple textured leather is a sublime physical compliment to the iPhone. At the risk of running into dangerously yoni-and-lingam territory, the phone and case have all kinds of perfect opposite characteristics: soft/hard, warm/cold, textured/smooth, yielding/firm… and like the iPhone, it's hard to resist touching it even when it's not strictly necessary.

When it's brand new the Ultraslim pouch needs a certain technique to unwrap it from the phone, but it's easy enough to master. After just a few days the leather stretches out, and after two weeks of use mine is a perfect fit. It's showing a little smoothness on the bottom and sides, and a slight crease across the top from taking the phone in and out, but that really does just add to the leather's character.

I used RIM's leather case for my Blackberry, and like the device it housed, it was a rigid and substantial – but functional – accessory. So I already knew that I would like the Sena sleeve when I bought it, but I'm still surprised by just how much. No, it doesn't provide much protection from catastrophic damage, but if I really felt the need for an Otterbox then I would have just bought a Sonim instead. The Sena Ultraslim is easy to carry, protects against unsightly blemishes, and is one of very few cases that actually makes the iPhone 4S even better. Add in the luxurious feel of the leather, and that's a hard combination to beat.


last updated 3 nov 2011

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