500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

By Simon

I sometimes feel a fear of falling off. It once occurred to me that looking up at the moon was like looking over the edge of a chasm except that while there may be an edge of some kind preventing me from falling, there is no such safety net outdoors between me and the moon. Maybe silly written down, but long lenses magnifying very far away and bringing them closer, right to my eye, can feel like falling towards them in a way. So while I enjoy long lens photography, and use a longer-than-most (90mm) as my standard go-to, I have to really have an intent in mind before photographing with a telescope.

Expired Ilford FP4+

Mirror lenses are effectively tiny mountable telescopes, using curved mirrors to reflect light, as opposed to conventional refracting lenses. There are a few options for most lens mounts (most of which are easily adaptable to mirrorless), with the most common being 300mm, 500mm, and 800mm. As well as the fixed/prime focal length the design of these lenses the aperture is also fixed, which means that there is more than one compromise involved in deciding to work with one of these. On a digital camera the restriction of ISO goes away, as you can accommodate against the aperture with two settings in the moment rather than just shutter speed with film (and ISO separately after every roll).

I don’t often need to work with longer than 200mm, but it’s good to know what options are available when I need them, so I decided to try a 500mm f/8. I don’t think the brand really matters, as the image quality seems to be fairly universal across all the available mirror lenses I’ve seen. I don’t require clinical sharpness from any of my gear, and for this lens it’s more about the reach than specific rendering. If rendering were a factor then some may be put off by the bubbly bokeh which is a result of the centre of the lens being blocked by the reflective elements – but as I said, it isn’t a factor for me.

Ilford HP5

At 600ish grams the lens is relatively light and small compared with using my existing telephoto lenses with teleconverters. I think it’s actually lighter than my telephoto lenses even without teleconverters. The fixed aperture means either a tripod or very careful handling. The extreme telephoto is very sensitive to slight movements, so handheld compositions will always be at least very slightly imprecise due to even fractional vibrations from pressing the shutter. I wouldn’t want to use this lens below 1/250ths, and in an ideal world I would stay above this.

However in practical use there are sometimes clouds even on the sunniest of days, so I have to be prepared to work very slow, even sitting down to brace against myself/the ground, or to use any structure myself to lean or rest against for stability. For slower photography, like landscape work, this lens is a fantastic value proposition, especially as it weighs so little! I can imagine hiking with this easily, where some of my other lenses would be much harder to justify carrying.

The fixed aperture can also be a limitation on the other end of the spectrum – too much light. Many film cameras max out their shutter speeds at 1/1000, with some being able to reach 1/2000 and 1/4000ths like the Nikon FM2. The Nikon F4 doubles this offering 1/8000ths, but if this still isn’t enough then an ND filter may be required (although with appropriate advance planning with film choice this will be a rare occurrence). The Nikon F4 is a really great camera to work with in combination with this lens. It balances nicely in hand, has a clear screen for focusing, and the versatile shutter speed range as mentioned. The dampened shutter also means a tiny bit of leeway when working at lower speeds.

Sunny day, handheld uses have been my most common scenario with this lens, which means really knowing in advance that it will be appropriate and necessary to do so. It certainly isn’t an every day carry, but in some situations it offers something that no other lens I own can.

My compositions with this lens so far have been very simple compared with my 35/50/90mm work. The restrictions of these lenses mean you have to think a bit more creatively and pay attention to the full viewfinder when composing, not just the subject, although they will almost certainly be the most prominent element of the image almost by default of how tight the field of view allows, combined with the narrow depth of field.

Layers are harder to incorporate, as foreground and background are sure to be very much out of focus, although it’s still possible to include them in the form of “vibes”. Focus is a razor thin margin of error, so critically focusing is essential – but not really that much more tricky than with a 180mm f/2.8. If the prism shows it’s in focus then it’s most probably in, and if not then it won’t be. You’ll have to trust yourself, your eyesight, and the calibration of your ground glass, but you have to do the same working with most other lenses too.

This portrait has the focus on the near eye, made with HP5+ at around 250th/s handheld, and you can see how slim the depth of field is from the falloff in front of and behind that line of focus, in the hair and flowers in her hair.

Ilford HP5+

In this image I focused through the strands of hair in front of the woman’s face, which render like a fine mist. You can see that I missed her eye, and instead focused on her nose which is very clear, while everything else is out. You can see the effect of the central mirror blockage in the almost sort of bubbly double image in the out of focus elements.

Ilford HP5

Both of these were made at very close distances, only a few paces away. You can close focus to what feels like macro distances, as with this image of fingers holding a rope, which was made from about two-meters distance.

Ilford HP5+

Combining this lens with teleconverters (and stacks of teleconverters) makes it very accessible to work at 2000mm and upwards, and in a much lighter overall package than adding teleconverters to wider aperture standard zooms. However, teleconverters reduce light by a significant factor, so you have to be sure that you have a bright environment to work with in order to be able to even see through your viewfinder, let alone focus.

This kind of lens is a special piece of equipment, not at all versatile or a do-everything lens, but something you have to plan ahead to use and even then be mindful at all times. Results from the lens will be difficult to replicate with anything else in the same way, and certainly not at the same price point. My copy of this lens cost me around £110, but they can be found much cheaper, some even lower than £50, which makes it easy to justify if you want to try one out and resell it later at likely not much of a loss.

Thank you for reading! Please consider following me on Instagram if you enjoyed my work here 🙂 and check out my winter zine bundle, two zines and an 8×10 darkroom print for only £20!

Share this post:

Find more similar content on 35mmc

Use the tags below to search for more posts on related topics:

Contribute to 35mmc for an ad-free experience.

There are two ways to contribute to 35mmc and experience it without the adverts:

Paid Subscription – £2.99 per month and you’ll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).

Subscribe here.

Content contributor – become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.

Sign up here.

About The Author

By Simon
Simon is a documentary photographer. This means narrative projects, told via long form photo-essays, and publications. Follow him on Instagram for a rolling feed of his work: www.instagram.com/simonking_v. His personal blog can be found at: streetdances.wordpress.com
View Profile

Comments

Wes Hall on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

Some great portraits here Simon, and for candid ones I'm a big fan of these lenses, particularly the Tamron 500SP. Have you tried using the different screw-in filters with the black and white films? I've been curious how they affect the rendering on these lenses and not had the chance myself. Really good to see more praise for them.
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Simon replied:

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

Thank you! I haven't used any filters with this lens, and rarely do aside from occasionally a red filter when at the beach. I'm sure they would affect the rendering of these lenses just as they do with any other?

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lee replied:

Comment posted: 30/11/2023

Did you know that Tamron made 2 different versions of the Adaptall 2 SP 500mm f/8 mirror lens? The first verson (55B) was optimized more for sharpness at longer focusing distances up to infinity, while the second version (55BB) was optimized more for sharpness at minimum focusing distances for telephoto macro-type photos. My copy of this excellent lens is the first (55B) version, because I'm less interested in taking macro shots and because the 55B version has a built in tripod collar. Much more convenient.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Dave Powell on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

Oh my, Simon. Based on my comparative experiences, I'd say you got some wonderful images there. The one of the moon is especially fine! I really need to put my old Soligor 500mm on (say) an X-Pro1... and a tripod. Two fun stories about mine: * When I bought it, we lived in Winchester, MA. It's rumored that the town is actually in the bowl of an ancient meteor crater. Mahoney's Rocky Ledge garden center is supposedly at one rim... and our house was atop the opposite rim (several miles away). I slapped the Soligor on a Nikon FE, pointed it at cars parked on the ledge above Mahoney's... and could read license-plate numbers in the photos. * And later, when a brother-in-law (who once commanded SAC Stratofortress Nuclear Bombers) gave us tickets to a military-only air show, I took the Soligor along. I spent most of the show practicing hand-held panning shots(!)... and when a Stealth bomber blasted low over our heads at show's end, I grabbed four images. There was something on the plane's belly that puzzled my brother-in-law, so he took the photo to show friends still in the Air Force. I never got the photo back... or heard anything about it. Ah well... Great work, my friend! Dave
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Michael Zwicky-Ross on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

Nice and informative article. By coincidence I've just received a 500mm Tamron, eBay £40, and am looking forward to trying it out
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lee on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

I have one of these 500mm f/8 mirror lenses and I really enjoy using it. Mine is a Tamron Adpatall 2 SP 500mm f/8, which is a very versatile, and quite good lens, so far as mirror lenses are concerned. Being an Adaptall lens, I can use it on any of my vintage film SLRs, and easily adapt it to my Fuji X-H1 mirrorless digital camera. I personally prefer using this lens with the aid of a monopod or tripod, especially when adapted to my APS-C mirrorless camera, since the 1.5x crop factor produces an effective focal length of 750mm. I've used this lens for shooting landscape, sports, and taking images of the moon. This lens accepts 30.5mm screw-in filters that go behind the rear element, so you don't have to buy expensive 82mm filters for the front of the lens. Another plus. I highly recommend this lens, which you can purchase for $100-200.
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Bob Janes on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

I like 'em. The bokeh can look a little 'wirery' in some cases, but is bearable. The two I use are a Vivitar (labelled as 'Made in Korea', so probably the same as the Samyang's) and a Minolta AF Reflex 500. You can get quite good 'Cats' at reasonable prices. Contrast tends to be lower (I wouldn't call it poor), but other optical qualities tend to be quite good. Notably, although both my lenses are supposed to be 500mm and f/8.0, the Minolta transmits far more light. One way around the lack of exposure variables due to fixed (and relatively slow) apertures could be to use stand development, which should give a decent result across a film of correctly exposed and under-exposed images.
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

MarcusG on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

I have a soligor 500mm CAT lens. I recently tried it with an adapter on to my recent purchase of OMD EM5 and it was a revelation, how much it does to 'pull in' the subject , previously I used the lens on my Pen FT & my OM4Ti using film 400asa rated at 800asa, mostly to take photos of animals in the Lions park,where you want to keep as much distance as possible from the pride. The lens has a separate mount for the tripod, so that the body does not suffer strain of the weight of the lens.Shutter speeds have to be relatively high and film fast.
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Erik Brammer on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

The people photographs are fantastic, Simon! The others somewhat underexposed and black and white point not adjusted - typical telephoto behavior of the range being very narrow. Did you leave that on purpose?
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Simon replied:

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

Exposure is subjective.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

William Watts on 500mm Mirror Lens with Film – by Simon King

Comment posted: 29/11/2023

A couple of points. Brand matters, Catadioptric lenses tend to have poorer contrast than their conventional brothers. there are only one or two brands that actually perform well, Maksutov, Olympus and Nikon in particular these are particularly pricey. Pointed anywhere near the sun will result in washed out photographs. and although they are given a prime focal length ie 500mm, the focal length varies with focusing. The barrel moves in and out to focus, altering the distance between the mirrors as it does, thus altering the focal length.
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *