Partial solar eclipse; Pinhole cameras and a new lens

Today South Africa was lucky enough to see a solar eclipse. I haven’t seen a solar eclipse for probably fifteen years. There was one at home a few years ago, but it was cloudy that day and I missed it. I was crushed then, but I didn’t think I had much to worry about here - I don’t think any Capetonian has ever seen an overcast sky.

The eclipse peaked around 8:15 in the morning when the moon covered 65% of the sun. It was dusk-like and the birds had started up their evening songs, but the peak didn’t last very long. We were out on the street nearly the whole time with our cameras and a makeshift pinhole camera made from a couple of sheets of printer paper. We’re both suckers for anything astronomical. Strangely though, nobody who passed us was looking up. We were enthusing about it and trying to call peoples’ attention to it, but the invariable reaction was a disinterested grunt. Two women jogging hadn’t even noticed and when we pointed at it, they still couldn’t figure out what we were talking about. I had to shake my head. At home the streets would be choked with people blinding themselves staring at the sun and traffic grinds to a halt. I can’t fathom such a complete lack of interest and curiosity.

Today my big mission was to head down to Cape Town’s only pro photo shop, Orms, and pick up a new lens for my camera. The one I’d left home with was on its last legs after having suffered every indignity Europe and Africa have to offer, from being dropped on the Paris pavement to blowing sand in the Namib Desert. It came through unbroken, but still barely usable. There were scratches on the filter and the front optics, it was full of dust and grit, and the zoom ring crunched when it moved. About one shot in fifteen the lens would seize up and freeze the camera completely until it was restarted. I wasn’t sad about the lens itself - it was a terrible lens in the first place. It’s the 18-55 zoom that ships with the XTi kit, and I think it may well be the worst lens that Canon has ever produced. But balancing the prospect of a nice new lens was the cost. After months of agonizing, I’d deliberately brought a lens on the world tour that I wouldn’t have to worry about in the case of damage or theft - much against my instincts which wanted me to bring the best lens I could afford. I had to fight that same battle again now - weighing the quality of the photos I’d get with a good lens versus the risk of damage or loss and the cost itself. I want this world tour to be as long as possible, and spending a thousand dollars on a lens isn’t the way to make that happen. But I did my agonizing and my research and finally settled on the EFS 18-55 IS - the next generation of the lens I was replacing. It wasn’t perfect but it was cheap, and all sources agreed that it was a decent little lens and a vast improvement on its predecessor. The price at Orms was R2695 - about CAD$335, which was (sadly) toward the upper limit of what I’d planned to allow myself to spend. As someone who has spent more than that on film in one day, that hurt, but I had no choice.

Naturally when I got to Orms I discovered that I had even less choice that I’d thought - they didn’t have the lens in stock. The only somewhat comparable lens they did have was the EFS 17-85 IS. It’s not as good a lens as I wanted, despite the extra length in the telephoto - the wide-angle suffers from some bad barrel distortion and chromatic aberration and it’s not as fast as I’d like (f/4-5.6). It was a lot heavier than the old lens, too - the lens itself is heavier than the camera body and my old lens together. That’s a good thing - it means better construction - a definite minus for a backpacker, though. But it was good in the telephoto range, it had image stabilization and Orms had a used one for R3500. That was significantly more than I wanted to spend, but after doing some comparative shots with the old lens and the new one I couldn’t justify turning it down, especially when I got the sales guy to throw in the R300 UV filter for free. I fought with myself for twenty minutes over it - it seemed like a no-win situation whatever I did - but in the end I bought it. What the heck, I reckoned, at least I can get the tax refunded, which would bring the price down 14% to R3010 - about CAD$375. I’ve shot a few hundred frames with it, and I’m fairly happy with it so far. The barrel distortion is definitely noticeable, but little worse than the old lens, and the chromatic aberration isn’t as bad as I was afraid of. You can see the difference for yourself - every later than this dispatch was shot with it.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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