During this worldwide quarantine, as everyone was generally confined to their homes, I too was stuck inside but still had the desire to get out and shoot. When that wasn’t a possibility, I started to shoot from the inside looking out. I started documenting the city around me using a mirror reflex lens.
You may be thinking of a type of stubby lens known for its ‘donut’ bokeh, fixed apertures, manual focus, and super sensitivity to any camera shake…yes, it’s that kind of lens. I have a Nikon 500mm f/8 Reflex-NIKKOR mirror reflex lens, manufactured from roughly 1983-2005. The lens is simple in design and small and lightweight in size for a 500mm, which makes it easy to carry around.
A mirror-reflex lens is basically a compact telescope, where the optics are more similar to that of well, a telescope, in that they use angled circular mirrors that bounce the image back and forth until a highly magnified image reaches the film plane. Completely unlike a traditional lens that focuses one image directly towards the film plane, or sensor.
In the end, you get a very compact lens with a long focal length, but with a few tradeoffs:
- As mentioned above, it has a fixed aperture of f/8.
- It also tends to create little C-shaped bokeh in the out of focus zones of the image, my friend once called them ‘circles of confusion’.
- Due to the fat barrel-like design, you get a lens that will pick up the slightest amount of camera shake, probably the biggest hurdle to overcome.
For all of these reasons, reflex/mirror lenses are not very popular, which also makes them relatively cheap, you can usually pick one up for around $400, versus $4,000 or more for a standard 500mm lens. Therefore, for the film photographer willing to take chances and for those who might want to play around with a long lens occasionally, they are certainly worth a try.
I have had my 500mm Reflex-NIKKOR for almost 20 years, but I had not used it much in the past 10. Not because of all the tradeoffs listed above — well partly — but more so because I drifted away from the film world for a bit and at some point, fuzzy film images that were shot on a funky mirror lens went out of fashion. Some could argue that they never were in fashion in the first place (if you look you do an image search using the mirror lens tag you will probably find a lot of moon shots and kids soccer games).
Early on I used on to shoot the surf around Southern California and found some success using quality transparency films, such as Fujifilm’s Provia 400X, shot in bright sunny conditions with my tripod stuck in the sand. However, following the sun and the surf, and shooting all that slide film got expensive and eventually, I left film photography and I forgot about the mirror lens for some time.
I didn’t think too much about the lens until recently, when I moved to South America, and I didn’t even think about using it to take pictures at first. In 2018 I got married to a Chilean who lured me down to her wild and beautiful country. She had a nice apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean and as I was getting ready to move down there I was looking at my camera gear when I had remembered reading on Ken Rockwell’s site that 500mm reflex lenses are poor for photography, and he recommended to get a lens-to-scope converter and use if for that purpose. So I did, and it was kind of cool. We used it to watch the freighters come and go and to search for wildlife, but then my wife found better work in São Paulo, Brazil.
We landed in another pretty wild country and I was finding my film photography groove again. I had also just picked up a Nikon F100 during a trip to the States, mainly because I had all this great Nikon glass that I wanted to use (including the 500mm Reflex-NIKKOR). With the whole of Brazil in front of me, I had a lot of things I wanted to see and shoot, and I wanted to give the mirror lens another shot, this time to shoot photos with it!
I thought about some potential projects, I had visions of cruising along the Pantanal in a small boat with a monopod and the 500mm, focusing in on the jaguars and anacondas along the river bank, but then we had a baby, and Covid-19 showed up and changed just about everything. With nowhere to go, and a few rolls of film in the fridge — as well as some C-41 chemicals at my disposal — I got out the old lens and started exploring the sprawling city around me, from the relative safety of our apartment.
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We are privileged to have a great view of a part of São Paulo that contains many different types of urban landscapes. In one direction there is a huge park on the border a river, and in another, a large improvised housing tract full of colorful boxy structures stacked haphazardly on top of each other, all of which sits right next to a major heliport for the city, so there are various helicopters taking off and landing all of the time. There are also birds, thousands of other apartment towers, and giant trees interspersed among layers upon layers of urban development and craziness.
I set up the F100 with the Reflex-NIKKOR on a sturdy tripod and moved it around the apartment to various windows and vantage points as the light changed, and as I found new things to focus on. I had seen the scenes all around our apartment for more than a year, but once I started to photograph them with the 500mm I started to discover a lot more.
Shooting with this set up is also just a lot of fun. I feel as though I am wielding one big bad analog machine when I have this lens locked in and ready to go. I use a cable release and my Manfrotto tripod to minimize camera shake, which as mentioned early, is essential when using a mirror lens, especially when shooting in low light when longer shutter speeds are needed.
When I developed the first roll, I was pleased to see that the lens was well suited to capturing the scenes around me, and I really liked the fact that it wasn’t capturing crystal sharp images of the city. São Paulo, and Brazil, as you may have heard, are not easy places to understand and process, especially for a newcomer like myself.
What am I doing up here documenting all of this? I’m not really sure, but from our perch there is plenty to witness and capture, and I found that the F100 paired with the 500mm Reflex-NIKKOR lens was the perfect combo to document it all on film. This lens and others like them, don’t leave much room for error, therefore I don’t get my expectations too high when I use it.
Regardless of the results, it has been enjoyable to take a unique and odd piece of equipment and use it to create images during these exceptional times. So far I have shot primarily Kodak ColorPlus 200 rated at EI 100 (it is the most available and affordable film in these parts). I have also shot some Kodak Ektar 100 and in the future, I would like to try some faster ISO films like Portra 800, and try pushing the slower ISO films I usually use.
I process all of my film at home with the UniColor C-41 kit and scan it with an Epson V600. The first results have been encouraging enough, thus I have continued to shoot with this setup and look forward to perhaps creating a little zine one day based on these images shot during our bizarre quarantine experience here.
Thanks for reading,
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I too have a 500mm Reflex-Nikkor and I installed a Russian Dandelion CPU in it. The most important feature it adds is fire-on-focus: the camera fires when you turn the focusing ring and the focus sensor decides the image is in focus. You just need to find beforehand if you get better focus precision by turning from infinity or from nearest distance though I suspect it will be from nearest distance. The CPU is installed by epoxying it to the rear filter frame; it’s easy. More info at https://pindelski.org/Photography/2012/03/07/nikkor-50mm-f8n-ai-reflex/
Thanks for sharing your story, and the lovely images.i also own various nikkor lenses including a 500mm reflex.i hope to share my images at some near future point. I live in the heart of the U.K surrounded by urban skyline, city clutter and chaos, spiralling crime and a rapidly changing society afflicted by the corona plandemic.hope all is well with your new addition to your family.take care and keep snapping with that nikon.
Nice work! Reminds me of Andreas Feininger who used long lenses in urban landscapes to emphasise the true scale of structures. There’s a great interview with him here:
Thanks Tom! I was unaware of Feininger’s work with tele’s in the city. I am really digging this interview piece on him and his explanation of why the tele lens is the perfect lens for urban landscapes. It makes me want to get this lens out even more now.