Monday, May 24, 2010

A brief look at old zooms

I wrote previously about single-focal length lenses (primes) and how they'd gone from ubiquitous to specialized, while at the same time zooms had changed places with them, going from specialized to ubiquitous. I still have two zooms in my collection from the period I shot film; the Tamron 70-210mm f/3.5 BBAR and the S Zuiko 35-70mm f/4 zoom.

Sitting side-by-side, the OM-4 T and the E-P2 aren't that much different in practical size. Add the VF-2 electronic viewfinder to the E-P2, and the E-P2 stands taller than the OM-4. But again, it's nothing to make a fuss over.

Two Generations of Olympus

Looking down from above, it appears that the E-P2 is thinner than the OM-4, but that's due to the black top plate of the E-P2. The actual depth of the E-P2 is the silver metal secondary plate on which the black top plate sits. For all practical purposes the depth of the two bodies is the same, except at the mirror box on the OM-4 T; the E-P2 is mirrorless, and this much shallower depth allows the E-P2 to mount and use the S Zuiko with a simple mechanical adapter.

Where the two cameras noticeably differ in size is their lenses. The M.Zuiko 14-42mm (28-82mm equivalent) f/4-5.6 is far smaller and lighter than the S Zuiko 35-70mm f/4 lens. The S Zuiko has the advantage of being a fixed aperture through its zoom range, and in spite of its so-called slow maximum aperture, it's remarkably bright and easy to focus with. The M.Zuiko has a wider zoom range, but the 35-70mm covers the practical work-a-day range of medium wide-angle to short telephoto.

Top Comparison - Two Generations

What we have next is a comparison between the Tamron on the right and the ZD 50-200mm on the left. The ZD is bigger and heavier than the Tamron, but it covers a 4:1 zoom range vs the Tamron's 3:1 range. What's more the ZD is dust- and moisture-proof, where the Tamron is not. Finally, the ZD has autofocus, while the Tamron doesn't.

Optically, the ZD is better than the Tarmron, but then you're comparing a lens manufactured in the mid-1980's (the Tamron) with a lens that's 20 years its junior; you'd expect a little progress. Regardless, with the right kind of film, subject, and lighting, the Tamron produces results that satisfy every bit as much as the ZD on an Olympus 4/3rds body.

Olympus Digital vs Tamron Film

Over the years I've had many wonderful opportunities to own and work with a number of superb camera systems, both film and digital. There is no such thing as a 'bad' camera. It's purely a matter of personal taste, technique, and capability which camera you decide to own and use.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Where have all the fast primes gone?

A questioner asked on the Flickr Olympus E-System, "where had all the fast primes gone?" It turns out this person had purchased a Konica SLR film camera with a matching 50mm f/1.7 lens. 'Back in the day' that's what you usually purchased with any SLR film camera, an inexpensive, utilitarian 50mm that ranged in speed (and cost) from f/2 up to f/1.4. There were some that were faster, up to f/1, but at that point you were talking serious glass, physical size, and money. Lots of money.

The heyday of the 1970s had far more SLR manufacturers, and thus more prime, or single focal length lenses. Every manufacture spent the 1960's learning how to manufacture a lens that provided quite reasonably affordable image quality. The typical SLR 'kit' consisted of the body and a 50mm (or normal) lens, between f/2 to f/1.4, typically around f/1.8. So, with all the manufacturers in the market and with the standard lens being 50mm, market forces combined with economies of scale drove the price of the general 50mm down to $100 or less (in 1970 dollars). The cost of a 50mm was usually 1/5th to 1/3rd the total cost of the kit.

Two other popular focal lengths that also benefited from economies of scale were 35mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/2.8. Prices were more competitive for those lenses due to the fact that second tier manufactures also made lenses in those focal lengths and speeds. It was thus very easy to build up a film SLR system out of a body and three lenses that would cover the majority of the shooting situations that most photographers were interested in.

The 1970's also saw the beginning of the zoom lens. In the beginning they had, at best, 2:1 zoom ranges (35mm to 70mm was quite popular, as was 100mm to 200mm). Unfortunately they were either cheap and bad, or very expensive and very big. It was far cheaper, and the results far better, to use primes.

It continued that way until the mid-80's, when companies like Vivitar and Tamron began to manufacture reasonably good zooms at affordable prices. I purchased a Tamron SP 70mm-210mm one-touch constant f/3.5 BBAR (Tamron II Adaptal mount) for what I would have spent on an equivalent Minolta or Olympus 200mm prime at the same speed. It sported a macro capability (1:2.6 magnification) at all focal lengths. Finally, to add a little icing to the cake, all lettering was engraved instead of silk-screened. It is a sweet lens with great performance for its price.

With the 70-210mm and a 35-70mm I had the ability to continuously cover every focal length from 35mm to 200mm. I shot primarily in normal light (and still do) so that both zooms were quite fast enough for what I wanted, and they were well-behaved wide open. I discovered, like so many others, that I didn't need to carry a bag full of primes around any more. Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, fixed-focal length lenses became the niche lens, while the zooms came to dominate, including as the default lens in standard SLR kit. The last film camera I bought, a Nikon N90 in 1989, came with a Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AF zoom.

I purchased my first DSLR in 2006, the Olympus E-300 two-lens kit with a 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens and a 40-150mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens. The two digital zooms covered a 35mm film equivalent of 28mm to 300mm, a good deal more than the 35mm to 200mm I had with film.

Since picking up the E-300 I've purchased two more Olympus DSLRs, along with some additional zoom and fixed focal-length lenses. I wanted a greater focal length range, which was satisfied with the 9-18mm, 12-60mm, and 50-200mm. This gives me an effective continuous focal length equivalent of 18mm to 400mm. All with three zoom lenses. The two fixed lenses are now my specialty lenses.

Olympus E-P2, FT ZD 50mm Macro, mFT 14-42mm

Olympus E-P2, FT Sigma 30mm, mFT 14-42 mm

There's no going back to fast cheap primes unless you buy an adapter and purchase film primes on eBay. If you want modern fast primes for digital use then expect to pay a goodly price for them. The two I currently own, the ZD 50mm f/2 and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, were both around $450 when I purchased them new. And that's pushing the upper affordability bound, even factoring in inflation between 1970 and now. In the two photos above, I compare the physical size of the two fast primes with the E-P2's 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. The kit lens give a 35mm equivalent of 28-82mm.

What has happened over the last 40 years is that the primes and the zooms have changed places; the primes have gone from utility to specialty tool while the zooms have switched from specialty tool to must-have utility lens. There is no getting around the fact that today's zooms will take the place of any number of fixed focal-length primes, for a fraction of the combined cost of the primes the zoom replaces. And don't forget the size differential. That little M.Zuiko in those photos is a fraction of the size and weight of either prime. It's fun to shoot with those primes, but if I had to pick only one, I'd always go with the M.Zuiko because of it's diminutive size, light weight, and the fact that in practice it produces photographs of high image quality that are, in practice, indistinguishable from photos produced with either prime.

Why have prime lenses? For their narrow depth of field wide open. Right now bokeh is all the rage in the various photography fora. These lenses provide a reasonably inexpensive way to experience the joys of out-of-focus areas. I've seen far too many expensive fast primes costing thousands of dollars (Canon's an Nikon's 50mm f/1.2, or Lieca's even faster f/1 and the $11,000 f/0.95). After watching the remaining camera manufacturers struggle to produce we have now (continuous focal lengths, light weight, superb contrast and sharpness) over the last four decades, I thought I'd never see the day where out-of-focus blur has become the new sharpness.

Mid-year Personal Assessment

Final Launch - AtlantisI made a number of New Year's resolutions back in January. At the top of my list, at #1, was to get rid of my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I'm in the process of deleting the Facebook account. I say "in the process" because when I went to explicitly ask that the account be deleted, I was informed that they would wait two weeks before deleting the account, in case I had a change of heart.

I had a Facebook account for nearly five years, with the majority of the activity in the last two. The first three years of inactivity were due to the fact I signed up and then essentially forgot about it. Then, in 2008, the current company I work for started to make something of a fuss over social networking in general and Twitter and Facebook specifically. So I signed up to Twitter and found an excuse to do something on Facebook.

The sad thing is, I didn't accomplish much of anything on either except waste a lot of my time. At first I tried to tweet/post what little mundane thing I was doing at the time, only to discover how embarrassing that can be; so embarrassing that I've made my tweets private. I wound up deleting them on Facebook. As time wore on I started to post headlines on stories that I cared about, turning both Twitter and Facebook into a kind of running digital scrapbook.

Then I wound up embarrassing my poor daughters by friending them on Facebook, followed by liking their posts and adding my own comments. This, of course, was a great source of hilarity to the girl's twenty-something friends and further embarrassment to the girls. I got more than one lecture from the younger daughter about how she loved me, but would I not make comments on her wall?

Worst of all was getting tangled up in a number of the games, such as Farmville, Farm Town (yes, both), Mafia Wars, and several others for a limited time I've since forgotten about. Talk about an absolute time sink. In the end all of the games turned out to be the same; repetitive tasking to accumulate points in order to move endlessly from level to level. And the games constantly dunned you to purchase, with real money, more points in order to purchase more items to increase your strength and further advance in the game. And onward and onward and so-on and so-forth. Nobody held a gun to my head and forced me to play these games, which makes it all the more embarrassing.

What finally pushed me out are the screwy privacy policies (we essentially have none and never did) that Facebook and Twitter have, especially Facebook. I'd been stripping out all personal information from those accounts for months (birth date, home address, etc). In the end, before I asked to have the Facebook account deleted, I "un-friended" everyone I had a link to, "un-liked" all the groups and pages I had a link to, and then went in and deleted a good chunk of my posts back six months into the past. I tried to disassemble as much as possible the pile of information junk I'd accumulated on Facebook.

The problem with Twitter is you can't delete it. You can deactivate it (I have), and you can hide your tweets (I've done that too). But deactivating the account does not delete the account; it's still there. I took advantage of that "feature" to enable the account a second time, so that I could hide my tweets before deactivating the account yet again, just to make sure nothing was left to find and read.

The older I get the more I find I want to build a buffer between me and the rest of the digital world. Social networking as it's currently setup and practiced crowds far too closely. I need my space and my privacy.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

At Work with Linux

It's been a long time since I've bothered with Linux, at least for home use. Work use is a different story. At MITRE we use Linux extensively because our customers and partners use it. The MITRE office is essentially OS agnostic; we don't care what they use, as long as it's the right tool for the job. So far Linux, specifically Redhat Linux, has proven itself fit for the tasks it is called upon to perform.

The local MITRE lab in Orlando is organized around six Dell 690 workstations (no longer manufactured), each outfitted with one quad-core Intel Xeon 5140 and 32 Gb of memory. Two of those machines have Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) 64-bit Server 5.5 installed while the other four have RHEL 64-bit Client 5.5. Because of the wealth of memory on each workstation I've also installed VirtualBox on every one. Through VirtualBox I've been able to install additional Linux and Windows XP virtual machines across all of them. As a consequence I've been able to build complex networks for test and evaluation.

The guest operating systems installed to date are CentOS 5.4 64-bit, Fedora 12 64-bit, OpenSUSE 11.2 64-bit, RHEL 5.5 Client and Server 64-bit, Ubuntu 9.10 and 10.04 64-bit, and Windows XP 64, SP2. In the case of Windows XP, each Dell came with a licensed copy of Windows XP 64. When the decision was made to install RHEL as the host OS, then the Windows instances were re-hosted on each box as a virtual machine, based on the license attached to each chassis. This is far more flexible than trying to install RHEL as part of a dual-boot system; we seldom use Windows XP 64, and when we do we can run the WinXp 64 VM, do what needs to be done, and then just shut it down when finished without having to reboot the box.

Of all the VMs that I've installed to date, the easiest to install and work with are the RHEL/CentOS-based VMs. Fedora comes in a very close second, while the others show a few more quirks executing as a VM as opposed to a native install.

I'd like to draw special attention to OpenSUSE with regards to behaving as a VirtualBox VM. OpenSUSE 11.2 (and 11.3 M6) have VirtualBox Guest Additions installed by default. This is sweet because after OpenSUSE is installed and restarted, OpenSUSE is already in seamless mouse support and automatic screen resolution adjust when you resize the VM window. That's a very nice feature. All other VMs (including RHEL) require a second step where, as root, you install the VirtualBox Guest Additions and restart the VM one more time for them to take effect.

My reasons are varied as to why I install and use other Linux distributions.
  • First and foremost, there are times we need more than six systems. The Dell machines can easily run three VMs plus the host OS, giving me up to 24 different logical machines.
  • There are times where a given application that demands its own machine must be installed and run. The easiest solution is to pick a generic Linux distribution VM, clone it, and install the application. That VM can then be hosted on any of the six boxes, and when finished put back on the shelf until the next time it's needed.
  • We only have six official paid-for RHEL licenses. While I have other RHEL instances installed for testing, for general use CentOS 5.4 is used as a VM surrogate for RHEL 5.4/5.5. So far CentOS appears to behave identically to RHEL, which it should, considering it is built from the RHEL sources. If I need to test something critical that specifically requires RHEL then I'll fire up a RHEL VM and test. But for general work I'd rather use CentOS and remain on the conservative side of licensing interpretation. RHEL/CentOS also supports Google Earth 5.0 (not 5.1) which we sometimes need.
  • As noted above we have six WinXP 64 licenses, one/box. As a consequence I only run one Win VM/box, and that's based on the license attached to that box. No clones of the VMs. We seldom have use for Windows XP 64, running our tools and applications primarily on Linux. And before anyone asks, no, Wine is totally inadequate for running any substantive Windows applications.
  • Ubuntu 10.04 is so far the best version of Ubuntu to run as a VM. The primary reason to have it installed is to host a decent version Google Chrome for Linux.
  • Fedora 12 supports some tools and processes that were specifically developed for that distribution.
  • OpenSUSE 11.2 is my alternative distribution in case something goes weird. The fact it installs out-of-the-box as a full-blown VirtualBox VM makes it a keeper. I wish all the distributions were that way, but I won't hold my breath.
The following screenshots show Ubuntu 10.04 running Google Chrome 5 beta, hosted on RHEL Client 5.5. Ubuntu 10.04 installed without any issues. I changed the background, based on the Ars Technica review of 10.04. The theme looks a lot better with the Ars Technica-recommended wallpaper than the Ubuntu-supplied stock wallpaper.

Here's where some of the quirks of working with Ubuntu 10.04 as a VirtualBox VM come into play. The version of Chrome running in the Ubuntu VM was downloaded form Google's download page, not installed via the Ubuntu software manager. The biggest reason is that Ubuntu wants to install supporting DEBs from the DVD from which Ubuntu was originally installed. And that's great, except Ubuntu insists on seeing the DVD in /media/cdrom, instead of where it shows up when the DVD is placed in the host machine's player, /media/Ubuntu 10.04... I'm sure there's some sort of configuration buried in Ubuntu to point to the correct mount, and I'll get to it eventually, but the fact it shows up at all is annoying, and no other distribution has this issue when running as a VM.

Another gotcha occurred when Ubuntu automatically updated itself. One of the updates was the kernel, and sure enough, I had to re-install the VirtualBox Guest Additions in order to get seamless mouse and automatic screen resolution adjust.

I started Firefox along side Chrome to do a cursory comparison. Right off the bat you'll see that Chrome 5 beta ignores the window decorations, placing the window controls in the right-hand corner. Other than certian operational differences they operate pretty similarly, with the notable exception that Chrome runs faster. I've made no decision as to whether I like the new Ubuntu theming; it's different but not radically so from any other distribution.

Some have asked why I didn't use VMWare or take advantage of the VM framework built into RHEL. The answer, simply put, is that VirtualBox is a lot simpler to acquire, install, and operate than either VMWare or RHEL's solution. Cloning VMs and transporting running VMs between machines are easy tasks; I've just gotten into the habit of turning to VirtualBox for what needs to be done. Unfortunately one of the other engineers who uses VirtualBox quite heavily in the lab has complained of instability issues, which I need to investigate and resolve. Just because it's good for me doesn't mean it's the best long-term solution for the lab. If I'm forced to migrate from VirtualBox due to performance issues, I'll investigate RHEL's built-in VM solution next.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Lucy the Guard Cat

AttentiveLucy might be all of just eight pounds sopping wet, but Lucy is not one to be pushed about, at least not easily. She's a proud little thing who takes her many responsibilities quite seriously, such as guarding our house, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

She woke me at 2:30am with a constant meowing in the middle of the house. I was sleeping in my La-Z-Boy recliner in the TV room because I'd been snoring pretty badly earlier in the evening and was keeping the wife awake. I'd finally fallen asleep and was deep in slumber when I started to dream about Lucy. I dreamed she was calling to me. The calling was very persistent, so persistent that I woke up to hear her meowing.

For a minute I thought it might have been one of my daughter's cats, but it became clear it was coming from where Lucy normally sleeps.

I got up, grabbed the flashlight, and went stumbling into the front of the house. At first I saw Lucy sitting in the middle of the floor with her hackles up. As I swung the light onto Lucy I saw something white on the floor in front of her. As I got closer, it turned out to be a (now dead) Florida gecko. I don't know how it got in (I have to occasionally trap and release the critters), but Lucy had found this one and had dispatched it to where ever geckos go when killed by cats.

Lucy stopped calling as soon as she saw me, and a minute later the wife came out and took in the scene as well. I picked up Lucy and took her back, while the wife disposed of the gecko's body. I stumbled back to bed, while Lucy sat at the foot of the bed waiting for her mistress. The last thing I saw before falling asleep again was Lucy curled up next to the wife, content that she'd protected the household against an unknown invader.

Update and Corrections

Talked to the wife after getting home, and she clued me in to what Lucy actually did last night (or so she believes).
  1. The gecko wasn't dead. Apparently my bright flashlight 'stunned' it into immobility. In any event, it was still alive, and she put it out the front door to scurry off to where ever it is stunned-by-flash-light geckos scurry off to.
  2. Lucy was so scared she was hyperventilating. I've never seen a cat hyperventilate before, so I have no idea if Lucy was scared or not. But it was 2:30 am, I was still half asleep, so I guess anything is possible.
  3. Later in the day Lucy found another gecko in the house and let the wife know about it. The gecko was dutifully trapped and released outdoors.
I still think Lucy is brave. There's no denying she found something and let us know about it, and waited for some person to get rid of it. Maybe she senses something sinister about geckos that mere humans can't detect. Perhaps she'll clue me in one day.