Mirror Lenses: Lightweight Super-Telephotos that Are Affordable

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When it comes to travel, landscape, and seascape photography, I always try to keep at least one long focal length lens in my bag for photographing subjects to which I either cannot get closer or—in the case of a Siberian tiger guarding her cubs—to which I have no business getting closer.

Photographs Ó Allan Weitz 2020

The definition of a long telephoto lens depends on whom you ask, not to mention what format camera they are using. For some, a 105mm lens is long. For others, it’s anything beyond 200mm or 300mm. For me, 300mm has always been the gateway lens for serious telephotos, and unless you choose a lens with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3, telephotos can start getting pricey—especially the ones with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or wider.

Are there longer lens options available that won’t require you to go from three meals a day down to two for the next six months? The answer is yes, and they’re called mirror lenses.

One of the benefits of using long focal length lenses is that you’re less likely to scare off your subject before pressing the shutter release.
One of the benefits of using long focal length lenses is that you’re less likely to scare off your subject before pressing the shutter release.

What Is a Mirror Lens?

In a nutshell, a mirror lens is a compact telescope. Conventional, or refractive, camera lenses use formulated clusters of glass elements to gather light and transmit the focused image to the camera sensor (or film surface). Mirror lenses contain a series of angled circular mirrors that gather the light and, rather than transmit a focused image directly to the camera sensor (or film plane), reflect the incoming light back and forth, each time reflecting a narrower portion of the image until a highly magnified portion of the original image reaches the camera’s imaging sensor.

Scrapyards for old ships can be amazing places to take pictures but are difficult to access. The solution? A 500mm lens and a step stool to peer over the fence.
Scrapyards for old ships can be amazing places to take pictures but are difficult to access. The solution? A 500mm lens and a step stool to peer over the fence.

Also known as catadioptric lenses, or “cats,” some mirror lenses contain glass elements clustered together with no air between the elements. These are called “solid cats” and are shorter though notably heavier than their mirrored counterparts. The advantage of solid cats is that, unlike mirror optical systems, in which the mirrors can sometimes be jarred out of alignment, the glass elements in solid cats are cemented together into a single solid unit, making them far more resistant to misalignment due to impact or heavy vibrations.

All of the accompanying photographs were taken with Nikon F3s, Nikon FM2s, and a 500mm f/5 Reflex-NIKKOR on Kodachrome 64 slide film. The resulting images were scanned using my Franken-Scanner outfitted with a Sony a7R III and a 55mm f/2.8 Micro-NIKKOR Ai-S macro lens.

Fall colors surround a lone fisherman out on a lake.
Fall colors surround a lone fisherman out on a lake.

The Pros of Mirror Lenses

Let’s keep it simple—they are lightweight, they are small, and they are affordable. The most expensive telephoto lens currently sold at B&H (the Sony FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS) costs $12,995. The most expensive mirror lens sold at B&H (the Rokinon Reflex 300mm f/6.3 ED UMC CS) costs $299. The 600mm Sony is 17.68" long and weighs 6.7 lb. The 300mm Rokinon is 2.9" long and weighs 11.2 ounces. The 500mm mirror lenses aren’t much larger (about 4.7" or less) and they typically weigh less than 1.5 lb.

Part of the reason mirror lenses are less costly is that glass lens elements require far more production time and expensive equipment to produce, compared to cutting circles into flat sheets of mirrored glass. A big advantage of mirror lenses is that, due to their design, image files produced by mirror lenses are free from chromatic and off-axis aberrations, which are common with traditional refractive telephoto lenses.

A traditional 600mm lens and a 500mm mirror lens side-by-side. Need I say more?

The Cons of Mirror Lenses

When it comes to mirror lenses, the cons come with a one-two punch. The first punch is that they have a single fixed aperture. The sucker-punch is that mirror lenses are slow. How slow? Well, f/6.3 is considered fast, and most are f/8. Nikon made a super-fast 500mm f/5 Reflex-NIKKOR back in the early ’70s, and if you can find a clean used one—bully for you—snag it before I do! Nikon also used to produce a 1000mm f/11 Reflex-NIKKOR, which was a bear of a lens to shoot with, even when mounted on a tripod.

A couple of cute kids running through a field appear sharp against ethereally blurred trees in the background and tall grass in the foreground when captured with a 500mm mirror lens.
A couple of cute kids running through a field appear sharp against ethereally blurred trees in the background and tall grass in the foreground when captured with a 500mm mirror lens.

I should also warn you, mirror lenses tend to be about a half-stop slower than advertised and they vignette slightly toward the corners, but—IMHO—the vignetting invariably works in favor of the pictures these lenses capture.

The only other so-called downside of mirror lenses is an aesthetic issue having to do with donuts. Not the kind you dip in coffee, but the hollow circular twirls of light formed by out-of-focus specular highlights in the foreground and background of photographs taken with mirror lenses. These donuts are common to photographs taken with mirror lenses, which has to do with the way the light travels into and around the mirror system inside the lens barrel. Depending on one’s tastes, some find these circular highlights to be disturbing, but these are subjective qualifiers. From my experience the donuts usually work fine, sometimes they don’t, and in many cases they aren’t even an issue—they don’t exist.

Circular specular highlights, aka donuts, are a trademark of mirror lenses. Sometimes they work sometimes they don’t work, but the criteria for making these calls is subjective according to one’s personal aesthetics.
Circular specular highlights, aka donuts, are a trademark of mirror lenses. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work, but the criteria for making these calls is subjective according to one’s personal aesthetics.
When used thoughtfully—and preferably on a tripod—mirror lenses can be used to capture bold landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, or any other genre of photography requiring longer focal length lenses.

Who Makes Mirror Lenses?

Back in the day, every camera manufacturer produced at least one mirror lens, usually in the 500mm range. These days there are only five manufacturers of mirror lenses, and three of these are one-and-the-same lens sold under different labels. Though most manufacturers have focused their R&D budgets on conventional telephoto lenses, the recently introduced Tokina SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF lens is available for most popular lens mounts, including T-mounts. What makes this lens so cool—aside from the fact it’s small enough to fit it in your coat pocket and costs less than $300, is that it can focus down to 45.3" (a 0.4x magnification ratio!), which is amazingly close for a 400mm lens.

Tokina’s recently introduced SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF is less than 3" long and focuses down to 0.4x magnification. It’s also extremely affordable.
Tokina’s recently introduced SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF is less than 3" long and focuses down to 0.4x magnification. It’s also extremely affordable.

Other manufacturers of mirror lenses include Bower, which produces a 500mm f/6.3 mirror lens in dedicated mounts, as well as a T-mount version for most major brands. Opteka produces a 500mm f/6.3 and a slightly slower 500mm f/8 mirror lens in a choice of lens mounts.

Bower 500mm f/6.3 DX Mirror Lens
Bower 500mm f/6.3 DX Mirror Lens

If you prefer a shorter focal length, Rokinon’s Reflex 300mm f/6.3 ED UMC CS is available in a wide choice of lens mounts, as is its kissing cousin—the Samyang Reflex 300mm f/6.3 ED UMCV CS mirror lens.

An old fishing shack on the north shore of Long Island, NY
An old fishing shack on the North Shore of Long Island, NY.
Morning sunlight glistens off the hull of a cherry-red schooner, in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Morning sunlight glistens off the hull of a cherry-red ketch, in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Though I’ve managed to capture some truly impressive photographs with mirror lenses under extremely challenging shooting conditions, I’ll be the first to tell you mirror lenses are not as sharp as their conventional telephoto counterparts. Are they sharp? Yes, they are, but they come in a close second to their faster counterparts containing glass elements. With that in mind, one of the most advanced pieces of combined technologies ever created by human beings is the Hubble Telescope, which happens to be a mirror lens. It’s a big one, but it’s a mirror lens, nonetheless.

Do you have any experience with mirror lenses? If so, what do you think of them, and—more importantly—what are your thoughts on donuts? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

57 Comments

     I too have a 500mm f5 Nikkor that I purchased about 25 years ago. Love it. On film it was very sharp, (I could see the threads on a quarterback's socks running on the opposite sideline!) a little low in contrast, but using it with my D700 Nikon or my D750 I can bump the contrast a bit and it is a terrific lens to use. Heavy, should use a tripod, (I usually do) but bracing on a wall or tree works wonders. Used on my DX format D7100 it is equivalent to a 750mm f5. 
     As far as the donuts are concerned I am not really a fan so I tend to shoot subjects without too many specular highlights and I generally like the results. I will not part with this lens. Sure it has some scratches on the barrel but the glass is pristine. All of my film and digital cameras look and function as "user" cameras. I still consider this 500 f5 every bit as useful as my 300mm 2.8 Nikkor.
     Mirror lenses are another useful option to have in your optical arsenal.
     

Thanks for your input, David W., with which we agree and appreciate. Sometimes the old gear still works best.

Great article on mirror lens! Thanks for that. Oh and fyi the shot of the sailboat is a ketch not schooner. Still cherry red though 😉

Brian P.! Yes, indeed. We have edited the egregious error and hope that Davey Jones and the United States Sailing Association forgive us. Thanks for your kind words and eagle eye.

Some photographers frown on mirror lenses' 'do-nut' bokeh but it does not always show up. Of more concern is mirror lenses' reputation for lack of image sharpness and image softness. Astronomers who use mirror optics extensively produce wonderfully sharp photographic images - but astronomers, unlike most terrestrial photographers, understand mirror lenses idiosyncrasies and how to optimise imaging quality. Fact is, a reflex optic's primary mirror (the main rear mirror) absorbs heat which is 'radiated' when the lens is moved from e.g. a warm location to a cooler operating environment. The lens will continue to radiate heat until thermal equilibrium is achieved. Acclimation to ambient temperature results in thermal currents inside the lens which compromise image sharpness ... just as looking through thermals rising off a bonfire distorts our vision. But radiated heat is not the only factor causing image distortion; the lens' optics are also acclimating and changing shape very slightly and at different rates ... thus further distorting the image until all elements (both mirror and refractor optics) have reached equilibrium temperature. Astronomers allow at least 30 minutes for telescope acclimation but some mirror designs can require several hours to 'settle down' before imaging optimises ... which is why it's not prudent to store telescopes or long lenses indoors immediately prior to use. Larger astronomical telescopes often have built-in electric fans to shorten acclimation times. Mirror lenses' reviewers and testers seldom mention or understand lens acclimation especially when e.g. testing several lenses. The first lens tested might have acclimated for a much shorter time than the second, third or fourth ... testing conditions are thus not homogeneous and unreliable results can ensue. Please do not 'write off' you new or s/h mirror lens if it appears to give poor results straight out the box; allow it some acclimation time. Longer focal lengths with larger mirrors will require more time to reach thermal equilibrium. Another factor influencing mirror lenses sharpness is camera shake but this can be alleviated by use of a firm tripod and decent quality tripod head ... preferably a gimbal head. And turn off the camera's IBIS when using a mirror lens on a tripod ... the IBIS correction will not work optimally with a mounted lens. 

BW from dunk in Peterborough UK 

Thanks for the physics lesson, Duncan K. We hope our other readers benefit from your experience, and we appreciate you sharing this information.

PS ... Forgot to mention: Mirror lenses' lens hoods are inadequate ... compare them to the long hoods offered with 500mm telephoto refractor lenses. Mirror lenses' image contrast can be improved by fitting a longer hood. The flexible wrap-round hoods with Velcro fasteners sold by astro telescope dealers will improve image contrast. Another tweak worth considering if the mirror lens' focus helicoid is too highly geared is to add a hard foam extension to the focusing ring.  Place the lens front on a sheet of recycled hard packaging foam and draw around the circumference to obtain the correct profile to fit the focusing ring. Cut the hard foam with a bread knife and secure to the extension with rubber bands. The resultant extra leverage will greatly improve fine focus. 

Hey, we appreciate the tip! Thanks for sharing.

I have an old manual focus Nikkor 500mm F8 mirror lens. I teamed it up with an N9006 film camera, and it did pretty well. I found it got great shots at concerts, when all the light was coming from straight ahead. I got pretty bad vignetting in strong sunlight. It's been sitting in a closet since my eyes lost the ability to get decent results with manual focus lenses.

We're sorry your Nikkor mirror lens isn't more useful to you now. Sometimes it makes sense to move forward technologically, depending on the circumstances. Thanks for your comments.

Hi,

As the old film guy, we thought this type of mirror lens was used in spy satellites in the 1960s.

The first spy satellites used film and sent film back via Film Bucket (Google Corona_(satellite) has more info.)
These lens are built by lower tech polishing a mirror vs higher tech  glass lens design., which allows then to be less costly.

I have know idea what lens was used on the Corona....

Cannon recently built (and launched one OK, 2nd one ...) a mini satellites: The CE-SAT-1 includes a Canon 5D Mark III DSLR which captures imagery through a Canon 40cm Cassegrain-type (mirror) 3720mm telescope. Canon states that the satellite offers a 3' ground resolution within a 3x2 mile frame size. The satellite also includes a Canon PowerShot S110 camera for wide shots.

The fixed aperture makes for interesting pre-thinking of photos.

Best regards,

William H., we'll keep watching the skies! Thanks for the interesting background information.

Also I may be late to the party but isn't the photo of the Elvira G. Tucker, a Beetle Cat?  (and the first photo is that a cat boat  or just close to one?) Regardless... the nautical/photographic sense of humor is not lost on all...  Best wishes 

John B., they both appear to be catboats, but we're not certain which class. By the way, you know there's a song about a sloop that's your namesake, yes?

Great article but the last picture is a red Ketch not a Schooner. The mizzen mast is thinner than the main mast and is likely shorter. That makes it a Ketch or a Yawl but as it’s forward of the cockpit, it’s a Ketch.

Absolutely correct. The relative lengths of the booms confirms that it’s a ketch.

Very helpful article, though, sail rigs aside!

Thank you, William S. and Raymond R. We have been advised and have fixed the misnomer. Glad you enjoyed the article!

I currently own a Tamron 500mm catadioptric lens. Living as I do in the south of New Zealand, my game is wildlife photography or rather video, although selected individual frames at 1920x1080 px, filmed in AVC-intra do produce pretty presentable digital stills. The attraction of this lens was its light-weight when being carried substantial distances to secure shots or video sequences. The lens works well on a 'Fotodiox' adaptor in place of the original 'Adaptall 2' and used in conjunction with a Lumix GH5 camera, but used on MFT at an equivalent 1000mm in 35mm DSLR terms, depth of field was a constant challenge, making manual focus an absolute necessity. (But since I never use anything else, not a real problem). However, using the lens with a 2X Tamron converter was a bit much of an 'ask', especially since city transport and buses pass one of my favourite, and most accessible photographic sites, and the earth tremors set up by such vehicles has a tendency to spoil shots due to camera-shake. As for the 'bokeh'. It limited my choice of subjects to those in which do-nut encrusted backgrounds made minimal difference to shots. Surprisingly, it made a great close-up lens when videoing insect life etc.

 The reason I retired this lens from active use, was that I obtained a Tamron 70 to 210mm '46a' lens, some time ago, which covered pretty much the same 'territory'. Despite this lens not being part of Tamron's SP 'Premium' series, when coupled with a Tamron '01' 2x converter, its performance is phenomenal, especially when pulling in 'action' from in excess of 100m away. I also blow-up shots which will 'stand' it, but for practical purposes I try to make 1.5x my limit with that exercise. But, I still carry my 500mm Tamron f8 in the car, to be trotted out when I have to walk some distance to a shot, and back again, and am prepared to 'take-my-chances' quality-wise.  

Hi Ian,

For what it's worth, I used to get extremely good photographs from an old 300mm f/5.6 Tamron lens that had a piece of electrical tape holding the rear element in place. (Don't share this bit of info with anybody... it's between you and me only...)

If you have gear that does what it is designed to do and it does the job well - go with it.

-AW

Great article and equally interesting comments.  I'm not as easily motivated to spend money as I once was.  At 74 I've had two reflecting telescopes, three SLR cameras, and my wife and I between us (mostly her), have five DSLRs and one mirrorless Canon M50.  Long lenses, too.  Heavy stuff.  Now suddenly you guys have me interested again in a piece of gear.  I bought the Metabones Speedbooster adapter from B&H the day it was announced.  The .71 reverse crop factor has changed a lot of lenses for me.  The 50/1.4, for example, is effectively a 57mm F1.0.  The idea of a $300 lens that effectively, in field of view on the M50, is a 565mm F5.6, has a real appeal.  The compact carrying size is a plus.  Many thanks to the author and commenters for sharing your observations and experience.

Let's see, between you have 2 telescopes, 3 SLRs, 5 DSLRs, an M50, and some long lenses. I'm younger than you guys and the list alone exhausts me. And yes - the 0.71 reverse crop with amplified aperture speed is a tasty and efficient combination. 

Happy shooting for years to come!

-AW 

I have been using mirror lenses since 1968 when I got my Nikkor 500 f/8 lens. It's been a love-hate relationship for all those years because the magnification was so great the lens and camera needed to be locked down securely for the image to be reasonably sharp or at least exposed at a very high shutter speed.

I shot an annual report in 1984 with a mirror lens because the client liked the look. The only way I got through the assignment with reproducible images was to use a large cine tripod with a board attached to the head and a sandbag atop that. I would nestle the lens into it and be able to get vibration-free images but what a chore. This was a compact, lightweight lens that needed a massive, stable base to be locked down to for high quality images.

Years later I tried the Vivitar 600mm mirror lens which was more rugged - it had solid glass mirror in place of the air space between the front and rear mirrors, the theory being it is much less easily knocked out of alignment - It was a nice lens, designed by former NASA optical engineers, but it weighed a ton.

I also shot with the Minolta 500mm mirror lens while reviewing Minolta cameras for "The Photography Catalog" and Photomethods Magazine. It was similar to the Nikkor. My mirror lens shots of a 747 landing at Kennedy Airport shot with the Minolta were widely published.

Years later I owned a Tamron 500 f/8 lens with the 2X extender and it performed well when anchored down. I used a bean bag to stabilize the lens and it worked very well. But not being able to hand hold it was, as in the past, what made me put it aside. 

One of my photography students loaned me his Tokina 500mm f/8 lens a few years ago and it produced wonderful photographs...at high shutter speeds or when mounted to a tripod. I bought one on Ebay but it didn't come into its own until I mounted it on a Sony full frame body with image stabilizatio. Soddenly I was able to hand hold the mirror lens at slower shutter speeds and I am getting great images with this very compact and reasonably sharp lens with its wonderful bokeh. 

Then I got the Olympus system and the Tokina 300mm f/6.3 lens that was, but, sadly, is no longer made for M43. What a great little lens! I conducted a mirror lens workshop at the New York Botanical Gardens. Several of my students were and are still using this really great *tiny* mirror lens, as am I. I heartily recommend it. I've successfully hand held the Olympus EM1 Mark II with the Tokina 300mm mirror lens at 1/10th of a second. Now that we have in body image stabilization the best days of the mirror lens may still be before us.

Hank,

Sounds like you have far more experience than I do with Cats - not too shabby! I had an opportunity to shoot with the Elmer-Perkins version of your 600mm f/8 Vivitar Series 1 lens. Tiny & heavy but interesting to shoot with. It sure looks good on a camera though... Thanks for sharing!

Memories ... Yes, many years ago I got me the Tamron 500mm with the Adaptall adaptor for Canon FD. Loved it. Got me the 2x teleconverter as well - the special one for the Adaptall mount. But the 500mm or even the 1000mm are not that easy to handle. Between that and the single f-stop issue I didn't get to use it as much as I thought I would. And as for the donut bokeh ... it isn't often that it is noticeable n my pictures, and even then, most of the time it doesn't matter too much. But every once in a while I got that "frizzled" feeling, like in that picture with the swans above, which I am not too keen about.

And still, when I stumbled across the smaller brother of this lens, the 350mm, I couldn't resist. And at the end of the day, between the 350, 500, 700 and 1000 mm options, I did take quite a few photos.

And then Canon became Canon-incompatible, moving on to the EF lenses, and we all went digital. For a while I was really unhappy about all my wonderful FD lenses  sitting idly ... until I bought a Micro Four Third camera and an adapter. Now all my lenses are effectively twice as long (100mm f1.2, 170 mm f1.2 and so on.) And my mirror lenses now give me 700, 1000 1400 and 2000 mm - effectively. And, as is normal with digital cameras, I can change the "film speed" for each photo, not once per roll of film.

Another thing that I like is that the viewfinder image is brighter than the SLR viewfinder. And - with my other lenses that can actually be stopped down - the viewfinder brightness stays the same at any f-stop.

But for my mirror lenses I now need a solid tripod more than ever.

(I have never missed autofocus, even though I now admit that it is a nice feature. And now that Canon makes full frame mirrorless bodies that might be able to hold FD lenses and allow them to focus to infinity - who knows, I might one day still send a letter to Santa Clause ... don't these bodies have sensor-based stabilization?)

You sound like somebody who appreciates solid tripods and image-stabilization. Good comments about shooting digital, especially with the higher ISOs and the advantages of EVFs for brightening up the scene when working at f/8.

Thanks Gerd!

I bought the Minolta AF Reflex 500mm f/8 for use with the LA-EA4 adapter on the Sony a6000. Decent autofocus, small and light. I used to have a mirror Sigma 600mm but after too many fuzzy shots I decided to spend the money for the lens and adapter; a decision I do not regret. These lenses really shine at Jet air shows. My favorite photo I've taken with it is of the moon rising over snow topped mountains, slightly obscured with a very light cloud cover. With modern cellphone cameras I find that this is the lens that's always attached to the camera these days. 

Thanks for sharing Mike. I imaging focusing mirror lenses at air shows is tougher than covering a powerboat race - boats usually don't suddenly peel off and do barrel rolls. They're also a bit slower and more predictable.

I have the Samyang (Rokinon) 300mm F6.3 Catadioptric mirror lens in x-mount for my Fuji cameras.  It is very small and very light, can easily pass for a tourist lens, does not telescope out since it is not a zoom, making it the perfect stealth street tele.  Fuji supports manual focus lenses very well, with peaking etc, but the focus is very critical.  If you can focus, then just use a high ISO and a very fast shutter speed and you can get clear shots.  Vignetting mentioned in the article above is always here with this lens, but so is the lack of color aberration.  Both are artistic advantages in many situations.  You can do some great work with it, shooting portraits from across the street, and bystanders don't suspect a thing.  I've made large prints from images taken with this lens, and they look great.  Unfortunately your effective resolution is going to be less than 16mp, but I have not found this to be a limitation.

Keep in mind it is fully manual, always at F6.3 (no aperture adjustment possible), and almost impossible to focus hand-held because of the equivalent 450mm focal length.  It's a lot of work to shoot with.  I have not tried this with Fuji's internally stabilized bodies such as the X-T4.  It is possible to use a protector filter with it but filter thread size is not published (I think it is 62mm).

Hey Thomas,

The Samyang/Rokinon 300mm f/6.3 doesn't take front-mounted filters. If I'm not mistaken, no mirror lenses accept front threaded filters - only rear threaded filters. If you are using the current version of this lens you need 25.5mm filters, which screw onto the rear of the lens.

Hey Allan, 

Thanks for the nice write-up. Actually, there are mirror lenses that accept front-mounted filters. Among these are the Tamron 500mm 55B/55BB Adaptall-2 mirrors. I own a copy of the 55B and can confirm that the lens accepts a front-mounted/threaded filter. Were you referring to currently-available mirror lenses by any chance? 

I have an old Vivitar 500mm mirror lens with Canon FD mount.  I use it on my EOS DSLRs cameras (manually of course) with a Fotodiox FD-to-EOS adapter which came with a removable lens element to provide for infinity focus. Years ago I read, and confirmed myself, that even with the removable element taken out the lens STILL DOES focus to infinity. This is because mirrors by themselves focus PAST the infinity point, so infinity is not lost with the slight extension of the adapter.

Hi Norman,

Thanks for sharing this little nugget of mirror lens info. It should also be noted many mirror lenses incorporate the rear filter as part of the optical system. That was the case with my NIKKOR 500mm f/5 and is certainly true about others. You can shoot without it but the IQ might suffer as a result.

As an amateur, two of the best pics I ever took were with a 500mm Zuiko mirror lens on an OM2 in the late 1990s; one of a brown pelican, the other a white heron in molt, each at the Santa Barbara harbor. It was the film days and getting those pics in perfect focus was a real challenge, but the focus gods were with me. The donut boka has never bothered me. I'm a Nikon guy now, currently hunkered down in Honolulu having brought only my D750 and a kit lens. When B&H put on sale the 300mm Rokinon mirror lens, effectively 450mm in DX mode, I decided to send off for it. Its still a challenge to focus, but it's slowed my picture taking down, forced me to be more thoughtful of what I'm doing, returned me to my early days of photography where everything required manual adjustment in anticipation of the perfect shot. I think I got a very good shot of egrets buffeted in the wind yesterday. Need to get it into Lightroom!

These lenses do indeed present challenges, but as you say they also slow you down and make you delve more thoughtfully into the process, and that works for me.

Thanks Dan!

I used, for a time, a "Leica" 500 mm mirror lens, adapted I believe from Minolta.  The advantage was that it was indeed light, but that advantage was more than offset by slightly soft focus.  That softness would not be a problem for most print media uses - where 300 dpi is the norm, and thus hi resolution is only occasionally required.  But for higher quality usage, or display prints, the softness proved bothersome at best, and often precluded use of the image.  I returned to lugging far heavier glass - my 250 mm, with or without a 2X convertor, and now a 350 mm with the same 2X convertor, and find my images far sharper.  (My back is stronger, too...)  As for the circular bokeh?  I kinda miss it.  

Hey Dan

No doubt somebody is going to read your comment about 'missing the donuts' and come up with an app that fakes it... mark my words.

I had a 500mm f8 Nikkor mirror lens during the 80's and I would highly NOT recommend a catadioptric (mirror) lens at all. I figure that my Nikkor would be as good as any so my experience is with a brand name lens not something cheaper.

My problems with the lens starts with the lack of even exposure across the frame. If you were to point this lens at blue sky you could easily see about a stop drop off of exposure from centre to edge. I like to vignette or “burn in” my edges, but not this much!

Then there’s the speed of the lens at f8. First off, I’m really not sure if it had an aperture of f8. Nikon said it was f8, but it was pretty dark in there and I did no tests to confirm this suspicion one way or the other!

Well f8 is f8 and there’s never any lens that’s fast enough, so deal with it eh? But I rapidly discovered that while not being able to go to f5.6 for certain shots was not fun, it was equally painful to not be able to go to f11. With a lens of that focal length I often was crying for more depth of field and that was impossible.

I could knock down the exposure with ND filters – 39mm if I remember. At least one ND came with the lens along with a yellow, red and an orange, and there was a UV already in place. The filters screwed into the back of the lens, and I seem to remember that Nikon insisted that some kind of filter needed to be in place, hence the UV. In any case f8 was hard enough to see through, never mind adding a ND, and it was a pretty slow chore to swap these filters out. In the six or seven years I owned the lens I don’t think that I ever used the ND filter although the coloured filters did get some use.

At first the donut shaped specular highlights were kind of cool. Later I didn’t hate them but they did announce that the lens being was a mirror and I think that in many images the donuts were distracting. I have no idea as to what the bokeh was like in that lens because there was no bokeh in the 80’s. Back then there was “in focus” which people paid attention too, and “out-of-focus stuff “ that no one paid attention too, and something that I hope makes a comeback!

The advantages of the mirror were that it was very small for its focal length, and therefore you’d be much more likely to have it with you. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t SMALL lens but it was for a 500. It was also fairly cheap, which may not be the case these days. I finally had an opportunity to get a Nikkor 300mm f4.5 conventional lens which was shorter than the 500 (duh!), but it was also sharper; could go to f8, f11, et al, and produced more even exposures. So with joy in my heart I sold the 500 and I have to say that I haven’t missed it a bit since.

Hi Dave,

If you're referring to the NIKKOR 300mm f/4.5 ED-IF I agree - it's a spectacular lens and it handles wonderfully - it's one of the best-balanced lenses I've worked with. BTW you cracked me up with your comment about bokeh not existing yet back in the 80's. I still have a copy of the magazine article I read around 1995 about bokeh. I hadn't heard about it either back then - it was mostly Japanese Leica enthusiasts who 'got it' back then. (The word 'bokeh' is actually a phonetic pronunciation of the Japanese word that describes bokeh.)

Back in the pre-autofocus late 70's I owned a Vivitar "solid cat" 600mm f8 mirror, it was an awesome lens. It's short compact design made it easy to hand hold. As implied by its name, the solid glass construction made it heavy - but not so heavy that I couldn't backpack with it. (I was younger then ;-) The spectacular wildlife shots I was able to achieve more than offset the unusual bokeh. Unfortunately, the lens was stolen many years ago and I've always regretted the loss. However, today my wildlife photography usually involves birds in flight and animals on the move; manual focus simply isn't an option.

Hey JC

Those solid cats are indeed dense. What's nice about them is that unlike mirror lenses, which can easily be knocked out of alignment, the solid cats contain what is essentially a giant compound lens in which the elements are cemented together with zero air between the elements. You can shatter the lens but the elements will NEVER go out of alignment.

Any years ago I worked as a photographer at a two-mile oval racetrack.  Carrying around a trio of Nikon lenses provided a workout (the 80 - 200 zoom, a 300mm prime lens, and the 500mm mirror).  On days of qualifying or practice, when I prowled the pit lane, I found the zoom to be my "go to" lens.  On race day, shooting from various locations outside the oval, I found the 300mm on my camera most of the time.  The 500mm could "pull in" an individual pit stop, but generally the photos of the pits were more interesting taken from the pit wall with a wider angle lens than outside the track with a telephoto.  For photos of cars racing, the 500mm field of vision was a bit too cramped, and the 300mm was much easier to pan with.

Recently had the 500mm mirror on a small cruise ship.  It was very useful in that situation, when scenery tended to be farther away, and I couldn't reduce the distance to my subjects.  Wouldn't want to try a cruise ship with Kodachrome-25, but as pointed out in this article, the higher ISO settings available today make shooting from a moving platform with a 500mm mirror possible.

Thanks for your perspective and thoughts, patrick b. Much appreciated.

Compression and a shallow plane of focus (depth of field) are features of all telephoto lenses and do not relate to the lens being of a mirror type. Given the narrow effective apertures of mirror lenses (e.g., f8 maximum), the depth of field would actually be greater than on with lenses of similar focal length set at wider f stops.

Hi Eric,

You are correct on all counts. The lens I used to take the photographs that accompany my article were all taken with a 500mm f/5 lens, which is noticeably more difficult to maintain focus with compared to an f/8 lens despite the brighter viewfinder, especially when tracking moving subjects while manually focusing. ( I kinda miss those days sometimes...)

Thanks so much for that! especially fit the images. I’m a booger eatin’ moron with a MFT, trying to get head shots of critters that are too far away. My wife (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would slit my throat if I bought a chunk of glass that could do the job well. I had been frightened off by the words describing the characteristics of reflex lenes, to the point that I wondered why they are still made if they are such pieces of ka-ka.

NOW I get it. i see the issues, not just read about them. i also see the amazing images that can be found and grabbed with them. 

Thank you for a big service to us silly dopes.

Hey - it takes a knucklehead to know a knucklehead - welcome to the club!

The doughnut surprised me for a second, then I realized that the bokeh reflects the aperture. The aperture, of course, is the front of the lens, less the shape of the secondary mirror at the front -- a doughnut. So now I'm used to it. Mainly, I found it difficult to aim, but that's a property of the 1 meter focal length. So I bought a 135mm focal length "spotting scope", mounted it with an aluminum bar and use it with my left eye to point the camera in the general direction. It's quirky.

You're not the first person to tell me they use a spotting scope to help aim their longer telephotos - it makes sense. I once shot with a 1200mm lens and it was near impossible to figure out where you were aiming the thing without peeking over the top of the viewfinder in order to get your bearings.

I had a 500mm Mirror back in the 80's and it produced the 'donuts' from the points of light reflecting on water which was the most unique aspect for the lens. It was a must for photographers covering sailing. I use a Lomography Art lens  for same reason today.

Yup, Robert S., sometimes the donuts are more than acceptable--they are de rigeur.

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