Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fast Prime Lenses - You Need One!

At least one, if not a couple.  Really.  While the zoom and super-zoom lenses may garner the lion's share of attention these days, a fixed focal length fast prime lens of f2.8 or larger can do absolutely wonderful things!  You zoom with your feet, obviously, but the low-light capability and paper-thin depth of field give you an extra advantage composing those awesome shots we all want.

AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 fast prime lens on Nikon D300 DSLR.
Note the big window into the camera by way of that lens.  An aperture of f1.8 lets in a LOT of light, and that's what makes this special.  The large aperture, when run wide open, narrows the depth of field to something that's exceptionally shallow, allowing you the photographer to blur out everything but the subject of interest you intend to keep in focus.  Note the mold cavities compared to the book they're sitting on here:

Razor-sharp where you want it to be, soft where you don't.
The out-of-focus areas, called bokeh, have a soft, creamy composition without distracting edges.  Fast prime lenses are good for this, and as such are often called into use as dedicated portrait lenses.  You can selectively dial in or dial out the depth of field by varying the aperture of these lenses, to any degree you see fit.  Here's a view from inside my local camera shop as I tested out a 50mm f1.8 fast prime before buying it somewhere else.  (I might discuss that character flaw of mine later, we'll see...)

Focused at the computer monitors. 
Some shots lend themselves to a shallow depth of field.  That's always going to be a judgement call, based on what you're trying to convey for a theme in the finished product.  Experiment with that in mind, and don't be afraid to stop the lens down a bit for a few frames, then compare which of the images you like better.  Note how shallow the depth of field is in this one, but it seems to work ok:

Just the hammer and breechblock.
What's also not obvious about the above photo of the Sharps 1874 rifle is that the image was taken in fairly low light.  Fast prime lenses as shot wide open funnel a lot of light to the camera's sensor, and can make a big difference when there isn't a lot of available light illuminating your subject to begin with.  You can certainly enable the camera's flash, or bump up the ISO to get that proper exposure, but they'll change the dynamic of the image in different ways themselves.  A fast prime will give you the creative latitude to capture those images when you'd otherwise thought it was a lost cause. Case in point - this photo of a cluttered nightstand was taken with just the night light.

Low light, no problem.
 Since we're talking about fast prime lenses and portrait photography, a good use of said lenses is for capturing outdoor scenery.  Again, you have to be selective when it comes to your aperture settings, because that shallow depth of field can either make or break the composition.  Sunsets can be especially nice, playing the colors off the contrasts.  Here's a bitterly cold Wisconsin sunset, viewed from my front yard. I think it was -5 degrees ambient - a good test of the unheated camera's shutter!

It would have to warm up to snow!
As I alluded to earlier, a paper-thin depth of field can sometimes wreck a composition.  Likewise, optimal sharpness of images isn't always found at the widest aperture of a given lens.  You'll read many lens reviews out there that say a given lens is sharp wide open, but even better when closed down a stop or two.  I suppose it has to do with the intricacies of designing and manufacturing quality optics, but I've seen some flaws in imagery that did indeed improve when I went from f1.8 to say, f2.8 or smaller.  This bowl of my famous Chinese Stir-Fried Green Beans wasn't so great when captured wide open.  Stopped down a smidgen, and it's downright yummy!

Hungry?
Of course, I'm a Nikon kind of guy, but the other camera folks are also well-served by a nice assortment of fast prime lenses.  Prices of said lenses can range from dirt-cheap to ohmygawd, depending on focal length, autofocus, brand, and maximum aperture.  The AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8 used in this blog essay?  It retails for $130.00 new at my local camera shop.  While I spend a goodly amount of time and money there, I found the same lens at Goodwill for less than $50.00.  That's my character flaw, and you'll see it's also a recurring theme when it comes to my camera optics.  ;-)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

It hit 40 degrees outside today!

This would normally make me happy, a brief taste of spring in the middle of winter.

But not today.  We had a ton of freezing rain two days ago, leaving a 1/4" to 3/8" sheet of pure ice on my driveway, walkway to the house, sidewalks out front, and the street.  I wasted 40 pounds of rock salt making my sloped driveway barely navigable to foot traffic, let alone our vehicles.  The sidewalk was a lost cause.  Taking the dogs out for their periodic walk was an exercise in sliding.  Even the dogs knew what was going on, and walked in the snow alongside the sidewalk.  I was just waiting to fall down on my busted shoulder again...

So the temperature spikes to 40 degrees F, but only for about 6 hours today.  The melting commenced, which made me happy.  And then it stopped as darkness fell, with those rushing meltwaters freezing solid again tonight, particularly on the sidewalks and the front walkway of the house.  Great.  It was basically a solar Zamboni, polishing the ice and making it even more perfect and glass-like in composition, while washing away any of the salt and brine I had already put down.

Screw this.  We're supposed to get a couple inches of snow by morning.  I'll go into town and get two more 40lb bags of salt tomorrow, and see if I can keep from getting sued by pedestrians falling down on my sidewalks.  In the meantime, I'm diluting my aspirin heavily tonight.


Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's resolutions - such fleeting things!

I am loathe to even make them, but this year I resolve to make them more of a to-do list, instead.

Some are especially nagging, and need my attention sooner rather than later.  I fried the motherboard on my water-cooled 8 core Xeon IBM workstation during the heat of summer.  That left me doing everything on a dual-core Dell Inspiron laptop.  Luckily, the new $290.00 motherboard has arrived, and I've got the old one out.  Order of business #1!
Thankfully, no Lucas electrics inside.


During the long winters up here, projects left unfinished have a real chance of being completed.  Actually listing them out might give me a better success rate for getting them done this year.  Sometimes I do finish them - note the repurposed milk can. 
We have lots of these big metal things in Wisconsin!
The winery has about 60 gallons to be bottled from the 2013 season.  Then the season begins anew, right around Dandelion Wine time.  So I need to make the pilgramage to my source for about 300 bottles, and get everything cleaned, sanitized, and ready to go.  Strawberry season follows right behind Dandelion, so timing is everything.  I've been told by fans that I need to at least double my production, so that's another thing for The List of 2014.
More wine!

The reloading bench sat idle after the move to our new house out here in the countryside.  I remedied that with a batch of .30-06 for my nephew and his "new" M1903 Springfield.  The Dillon 550 is now set up for 7.62x39,  so some of my neglected friends will see range time this spring.  

 
Am I the only one who reloads 7.62x39?
Likewise, with the dislocation and fracture of my left shoulder a short time ago, I'm plodding along through physical therapy with every intention of regaining 100% function - another thing for The List. I sat down with an old friend the other day, because rehab isn't all about pulleys and rubber straps.  My fretwork seems rusty but mostly intact, so that's a good sign. My range of motion seems good, with little pain.  Woo-hoo!
Paul Bigsby - of Crocker Motorcycle fame, too...
For the calm days of spring and summer, I fully intend to get more stick and rudder time.  My small fleet sits dejected, waiting to be challenged by the resident starlings outside again.  I've got a surprise for those damned birds this year, with 12" rotors!
Part of the 65th Rotary Air Wing
This is but a fraction of the items that are going on The List of 2014.  Maybe if I don't call them "resolutions", they'll become reality! 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Good glass is ageless.

That's a hell of a blanket statement, isn't it?  I find it to be true, in at least one circumstance - namely, Nikon camera lenses.  They've been making some pretty darned good lenses for many, many years.  What's neat is that any Nikon autofocus lens from 1986 forward will work perfectly in newer Nikon DSLR cameras that have their focus motor in the camera body. Those older autofocus lenses, intended for use in Nikon's AF film cameras, are known as "screw-drive" lenses, since the camera body engages and adjusts the lens focus by means of a small slotted screw head attached to the lens internal focus gearing. 

To be honest, these particular lenses have been pushed to the sidelines by the arrival of Nikon's newer IF series of autofocus lenses.  The latter have internal focus motors in the lens body, enabling the cheaper Nikon DSLRs like the D40, D3000, and D5000 to have autofocus without having dedicated focus motors inside the camera body.  If you have one of these cameras, you can still use the older film lenses, but you'll be forced to focus your images manually via the lens focus ring. 

My usual DSLR is a 2008-vintage Nikon D300.  It's technically obsolete, but the camera's ability to produce awesome images with a minimum of fuss endears it to me.  I also have a Nikon D200 as a backup, with a Nikon D70 owned by other family members floating around somewhere in the house.  All 3 of these cameras have the internal focus motors, so when it's time to find optics, I gravitate to those older screw-drive lenses.

Film-era Nikon autofocus lenses




These are all orphans.  They were donated to Goodwill, and subsequently grabbed by Yours Truly to continue their service attached to a DSLR. From left to right, there's an AF Nikkor 50mm F1.8 prime, an AF Nikkor 35-70mm F3.3-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 35-105 f3.5-4.5 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4-5.6 D zoom, an AF Nikkor 70-210mm f4 fixed aperture zoom, and an AF Nikkor 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 zoom.  The oldest dates to 1986, while the newest dates to 1992. 

Were one to compare these older film-era lenses with their new digital counterparts, you'd find some obvious differences, both in appearance and construction.  These are heavy, metal and glass lenses, with metal bayonet mounts.  You'll know that immediately.  You'll see aperture rings, and depth of field scales on a few of the above older lenses.  The manual focus ring is also quite prominent on these older lenses, ostensibly because autofocus was a new concept to many photographers of the time, and probably not trusted 100% back then. 

Newer Nikon AF lenses dispense with the aperture ring, are mostly plastic in body construction, have no depth of field scales, are much lighter in weight, and some even sport plastic bayonet mounts.  Depending on the version, the newer lenses may also have internal focus (IF) motors built in, so they can be used on Nikon DSLR bodies sans that function.

While Nikon's engineers have designed these new lightweight, internal-focus lenses to have optical qualities as good as or better than their older film-era predecessors, they come with a price - especially if they have VR (Vibration Reduction) or a fast maximum aperture like f2.8 or larger.  I actually own a couple of the IF lenses, and they work just fine, albeit you have to be very careful with those plastic lens mounts.  I bought these at Goodwill, where they were donated as parts lenses with broken lens mounts.  (Something you can fix with replacement parts at home for just a few dollars, thankfully...) 

Late-model Nikon IF lenses in back row

The AF-S Nikkor DX lenses seen above in the back row are an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6G VR zoom, and a 55-200mm f4-5.6G VR zoom.  They're lightweight, fast-focusing, quiet, and both have Vibration Reduction to minimize the effects of camera shake.  As dedicated Nikon DX lenses, they have a smaller image circle compared to their film and FX counterparts. Had I not purchased them as broken salvage lenses, they would have commanded fairly high prices.  While the image quality produced by these lenses is good, they seem lackluster compared to my older film-era lenses.  Maybe it's my bias, maybe there's actual data that shows why.  Not that I discriminate against them, because I'll use them for those instances when I need the VR or wide-angle view of the 18-55mm lens. 

My catalog of Nikon lenses is by no means complete, and is conspicuous in the absence of high-end models.  Unfortunately, lenses like the Nikkor 80-200 f2.8 zoom and the Nikkor 105mm f2.8 prime don't show up too often at Goodwill, although I do keep an eye open for them.  Maybe someday I'll get lucky, but in the meantime I'll enjoy what I've found so far.  Stay tuned, I'll post about these useful "relics" as we enter 2014.  




Sunday, November 10, 2013

My faithful old friend and companion, also known as the wheelgun...

As family and close friends already know, I had a bit of a bad (ok, totally stupid) accident a few weeks ago.

Long story short, I slid barefoot on wet concrete one rainy morning, went down hard while trying to stop my noggin from hitting the floor with extended left hand, and simultaneously dislocated and (avulsion) fractured my left shoulder.

My own successful garage door frame relocation of the upper humerus back into the socket further compounded the soft tissue injuries, but there was no way in hell I was gonna go to the hospital with the shoulder still dislocated. The relocation effort took little thought on my part, because my USAF aircrew survival medicine training kicked in automatically, just like the school's commandant said it would.

The pain was humbling, and still jabs sharply even with the current Vicodin prescription if I don't keep the elbow tucked into my ribs. 

The cool thing is that the VA doctors here think I can completely recover as long as I don't dislocate/fracture again, and I continue to make progress in the next 3 months of physical therapy.

However, simple tasks that one doesn't think about normally hurt like hell.  Turning the steering wheel while shifting a 5-speed truck, for example.  Picking up a bucket of wheel weights, oddly enough, wasn't too bad.  

Other mundane examples include rolling over onto my left side at bedtime (scaring my wife when I yip after doing so), or reaching up to put clean dishes in the kitchen cupboards. 

Or, for that matter, racking the slide on my Caspian Officer's ACP, my 5" 1911 Bancroft Special, or even my little Kahr K9. 

The VA doc and charge nurse said to wear an issued sling when things got sore, and that the appearance of the sling would signal a "buffer zone" for people to give me a wide berth.

That doesn't do it for me.  It's hard to drive around in a sling, and if that sling telegraphs anything, it's "EASY TARGET!"  The sling gets worn at home, period.

I'm optimistic that I can regain 100% function, but there's that nagging CCW aspect.  While I carry my 1911 variants and K9 with one in the chamber, it's still difficult for me to rack those slides.  Slapping a magazine home ain't a whole lot of fun, either.

What to do?





 It's getting down into the freezing temps at night here.  My winter coat can cover something a smidgen wider, as long as it's not too excessive.

There's this cool cellphone pocket near the zipper, which I can open and retrieve spare ammo with the right hand.

Gotta be able to reload right-handed.  Hmmm...


 I don't need to rack a slide that's not there to jam, and there's no magazine to ram home.  Were it summer, I'd go with my S&W Model 36 Chief's Special.

Since it's fall/winter clothing time, and I've always been a fan of calibers that start with ".4", my decision was made just a wee bit easier.


 I practiced reloads. Pop cylinder release with right thumb while left hand swings cylinder open from underneath.  Left thumb ejects rounds.  Right hand inserts speed loader and loads cylinder.  Left thumb snaps cylinder shut.  5+5 rounds of Federal 200 grain Lead Semi-Wad Cutter Hollow Point goodness, ready to rock & roll. Hell, I might even pack a second speedloader for giggles!

I'm good. I can do this until I've recovered.  Screw the sling while I'm not home, but even one-winged I'm not defenseless. Thank you for being my faithful little companion, Mr. S&W 696!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

11 September, 2001

We all have ways of remembering that day in American history, and how it may have changed our lives.

Mine changed, but not for the obvious reasons.

I was on leave, doing paperwork to accept a 15-year retirement option that the Air Force was offering to get their manpower numbers down.  (This was during a drawdown phase)

My leave was cancelled, and I was recalled to base, which by the time I arrived was in FPCON Delta per the installation commander.  He chose Delta because of the base's primary role as HQ for the USAF Space Program and Shuttle support, and also because the biggest and most sensitive tenant unit was within feet of the Atlantic Ocean and US Highway A1A.

I was assigned to that tenant unit, but we also did everything by the FPCON Delta book.  24 hour security operations (for an organization that was already TS/SCI) became the norm, with lookouts doing patrols, and others stationed on the roof with NVGs. I pulled NVG duty a few nights, it was fun, especially when we spotted an amorous couple sans clothing on the beach and sent a Humvee with .50 caliber turret to investigate.  A1A was completely closed, and huge sand-filled barricades were positioned between the highway and the building in the event an explosives-laden semi truck managed to get close enough.

The building eventually got a kevlar/composite false wall constructed on the ocean and highway facing side, and Highway A1A reopened.  The lack of customer access killed a few businesses down the highway in the process, but things returned to normal for the most part.

I got Stop-Lossed, twice.  I wasn't released from Stop Loss until well into my 16th year of military service.  The early retirement option went away, as the DoD ramped up to fight terrorism.  I retired nearly 5 (very busy) years later, while the Global War on Terrorism continued.  I don't know if it will ever end, truthfully. 


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Italians call it "Nocino", but it predates them by quite a bit.

Back in the days of the Celts and Druids, many seasonal rituals were observed, coinciding with various solstices and equinoxes.  One special day in their calendar was the Summer Solstice on or about the 21st of June, the longest day of the year.  As part of the festivities they would harvest unripe green walnuts, and steep them in spirits with select spices to transform over time.  Transform it did, oxidizing to a dark greenish-black color as the oils in the green walnuts interacted with the liquid for the next several months.  I don't know how a given enterprising Druid figured out that sticky and pungent green walnuts were something worth mucking about with, but muck they did, and the recipe carried forward to this day.

When I say "carried forward", I mean that those nosy Roman types developed a taste for Celtic Walnut Liquor, and took the finished product and recipe back to Rome.  The tradition in the Italian peninsula took root, and now the concoction is produced and sold there as "Nocino".  You can buy the stuff, but it ain't particularly cheap.  You can also make it yourself, which is what I attempted about 14 months ago.

A ckeaver is a good idea!

Assuming you have a source of unripe walnuts, you should be in good shape.  You'll also need a stout cleaver, cutting board, neutral spirits (Vodka, Moonshine, Everclear), a vanilla bean or two, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and the zest of one orange or lemon.  The quartering of the unripe walnuts is the biggest physical challenge - wear gloves, or be prepared to have walnut oil on your person as you cleave them forcefully.  You'll want to pack your quart or larger Mason/Bell/Kerr jar to about the shoulder with quartered unripe walnuts, at which point you'll shift gears.  (See the photo below of today's fresh batch in the Kerr jar)

With the small bit of space left in the jar, add a cinnamon stick, and one or two whole vanilla beans.  Toss in 10-12 whole dried cloves, and the cut-up rind of an orange or lemon. Then you get to add the solvent.  I used 190-proof Everclear, which guarantees that all the components will release their goodness to the mix in delightful fashion.  Top the jar right up to the brim, then secure it all with a new lid and ring.  Give it a good shake, then let it sit for a bit to allow bubbles work their way to the top.  If there's a lot of new air space under the lid, go ahead and top it off.  Otherwise, every day or so give the jar some sunlight, and if you can, open the lid to allow oxygen to interact with the mix for better color.

After just a few months, you'll have something that looks like SAE30 - it's that dark.  This is a desired transformation, as all the flavors do their thing in that alcohol.  You can sample, but remember that it's 190-proof high octane, so be careful.  When the day comes that you want to complete the process, strain the walnuts, cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, and orange peel pieces out of the mix, then run the liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel to get the remaining small bits out.  You'll have a greenish-black high octane liquid that will require cutting to a drinkable proof, and some sweetening with either honey or sugar to taste.  I cut mine to 80-proof, and use just enough sugar to leave a slightly bitter finish.

Congratulations - you've made Celtic Walnut Liquor, also known as Nocino!  While the origins don't look particularly appealing, you will be absolutely delighted with the results.  I liken it to a coffee liqueur, with a very prominent holiday nose.  I suggest serving your ancient concotion as an aperitif or digestif.  Enjoy!

Bottled, with a fresh batch in between awaiting transformation...