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Solutions: Mirror Lens Scenics

For the occasional extreme telephoto shooter, an inexpensive mirror lens gives you a lot of reach for a low cost
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This Article Features Photo Zoom

At 9.5 miles from the camera, the sawtooth rocks on the flank of 14,495-foot Mount Whitney are veiled in the snow clouds of a clearing storm and the light of a setting sun—a formidable photographic challenge of low light, weather and miles of atmosphere for the Pro-Optic 500mm ƒ/6.3 Mirror Lens. The 1⁄500 sec. shutter speed at ISO 400 and the resolution of an 18-megapixel Rebel T3i all contribute to the satisfactory results.

As photographers, much of our struggle is to capture what our eyes see better than the camera. The excitement of macrophotography is its window on the miniature world that’s less accessible to the naked eye—burrowing into the petals of a flower, going eye to eye with the Martian face of a dragonfly. I feel much the same way about the opposite end of the magnification spectrum: the extreme telephoto.

The 19th-century painter Gustav Klimt, famous for his sensual portraits of women of the wealthy class in Vienna, was much lesser known for his experiments with telephoto perspective, or compression. I’m told he used binoculars to paint his village and lake scenes around the Attersee. As a photographer, I’m fascinated by this use of optical inspiration, as I’m often fascinated by the effect of scanning the landscape with my 10X binoculars. The mystery of distant details is brought into view. Grand landscape features are compressed and rendered more imposing. I ponder this magnified viewpoint every time I drive south on U.S. 395, never bored by the Karakorum-like Sierras on Sunday evenings after a ski weekend or the clarity and distance of the Mojave Desert.

Alas, extreme telephotos are expensive, especially for most of us who would find their use limited in comparison to their outsized price. Most common zooms only extend to 200mm or 300mm, and all but the more expensive pro lenses aren’t adaptable to quality teleconverters (see “Telephotos For Landscapes” in this issue). Historically, most major camera and lens manufacturers offered mirror, or reflex, lenses, but to the best of my knowledge, all have fallen out of production due to their limitations and the insults from perfectionists who always emphasize the minutia over the practical. Every time I spot a raptor on a high branch or focus on a mountaintop, I’m not trying to shoot a magazine cover.

I recall fondly my 500mm Reflex Nikkor, but I can’t remember what happened to it. Recently, a Pro-Optic 500mm mirror lens came to our office. It must be the last of the breed, yet so much has happened in terms of lens manufacture and digital camera quality since the days when this breed of lens became an endangered species.

Some points to consider when contemplating or using super magnification:

 How often do you need 800mm, and what do you want to spend? The Pro-Optic is $159 for 500mm that serves an effective 800mm crop on an APS-C camera sensor. For one alternative example, Canon users could get nearly there with the EF 300mm ƒ/4 IS USM and the Extender EF 1.4X III for a bit under $2,000. All the pros and cons of maximum aperture, reflex vs. teleconverter, etc., are too much to debate here. Suffice it to say that the quality of the mirror lens is much better than we expected, but it needs to be handled with care as camera shake is highly critical at this level.

 Don’t let mm’s sneak up on you. Even the innocuous 18-200mm or 70-300mm can surprise you with disappointing results as they quickly act like a 320mm or 480mm in your hands with an APS-C camera. That’s a lot to steady at slow shutter speeds. It’s easy to be fooled by the snappy images on your LCD that reveal the defects of camera or subject motion when viewed on the much larger computer screen. Multiply that by the power of the 500mm mirror lens; plus, its relatively compact size (4.7 inches, 24.9 ounces) makes it appear deceptively user-friendly.

 Tripods are essential for all telephoto work (for most of us). Only George Lepp can handhold 1000mm from a kayak (pictured). But even on a tripod, there are challenges. A strong wind may be enough to unsettle your camera. It may not be convenient to use a device like a cable release or remote trigger, or to lock up your mirror. You may not have the patience to activate the camera’s self-timer for each shot. Or, your subject may not be standing still. One hit-and-miss technique can be to mount your camera on a tripod, press down firmly on the body to steady it, then fire your camera in high-speed bursts, counting on at least one in five shots to be sharp enough for your needs, especially the second or third in the series. There’s virtually no expense to this sort of trial and error. Be extravagant and exuberant.