The Nikon F-mount is basically the same since 1959. You can get some classic Nikkor SLR lenses and just mount it on your latest Nikon DSLR and shoot straight away!
The Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 lens is one of those classic lens from the film age.
Reflex lens (or catadioptric lenses or mirror lens) has quite a distinctive look. There is a small circular plate at the center of the front element. If you are wondering how it works, basically, incoming light first gets reflected by the main mirror located at the back of the lens, then goes towards the secondary mirror at the front (that’s the small circle plate you see from outside). Then it finally reflects back towards the image sensor. If you are interested, you can read more about mirror reflex lens on wikipedia:
Nikon has made a number of reflex lenses in the past. The first 500mm reflex lenses was made back in 1960s and the latest version, the 500mm f/8 N was still in production until 2005.
Not surprisingly, the latest 500mm f/8 N is the best of them. It is not only the smallest and with the best optical quality, it also allow you to focus as close as 1.5m (which gives you a very good magnification ratio of 1:2.5). Unfortunately they are extremely rare and when one finally pops up, it also comes with a very high price tag.
The one we are reviewing here is the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 C. The “C” version is one of the later model, just before the latest “N” version. It has multi-coating, but is not as compact as the “N” and the minimum focus distance is around 4m.
Like most of the old Nikkor lenses, the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 C is made of metal and it feels like a tank, yes it’s very solid! Obviously, being such an old lens, it has no autofocus, no VR or any fancy features like Nano coating.
The metal focus ring is pretty smooth and the tension is just about right, with quite a long travel. The long focus ring travel is essential as the 500mm lens has a very narrow depth of field so you’ll need to adjust the manual focus ring very carefully and precisely. With the small f/8 aperture, the camera’s viewfinder is quite dim even during the day and that makes it hard to see if you object is in focus or not especially if you are shooting it with a DX camera. Good luck if you want to shoot under low light as you will have a very hard time just trying to locate your target through the very dim viewfinder. If you are like me shooting with a full frame DSLR like the D800, the larger viewfinder with the AF arrow indicators together would make the manual focus a bit easier and quicker. But still, I got a large number of shots that were out of focus. Using the liveview to zoom in would be a good way to improve the focus accurarcy. Unfortunately when you are shooting in liveview mode, it is really tricky to keep the camera steady. I have to use a tripod or monopod if I’m shooting in liveview mode.
Because of it’s long focal length and lack of VR, it’s also quite hard to keep the camera steady without help from a tripod or monopod. I need to keep the shutter speed above 1/500s when I’m not using a tripod/monopod. As a result, I am regularly shooting at ISO 800-1600 or above during a bright day.
Since it’s not easy to have the focus 100% correct and have virtually no camera shake, a large number of photos I took with this lens were blurry (either camera shake, or misfocus). But if I manage to nail the focus and keep the camera shake to minimal, the photos can be pretty sharp. Just don’t expect every single photo to be tack sharp unless you are shooting static objecct with a solid tripod.
The CAT design means the aperture is fixed. It means two things:
1. We can’t use the aperture to adjust the exposure. Since we have to keep the shutter speed quite high to reduce camera shake, most of the time we can only use ISO to control exposure.
2. We can’t control the depth of field and the depth of field is always very shallow. This is a bigger limitation than #1 as it greatly limits our photo composition and also what kind of photo we can take. For example, you cannot take photos of a group of people and have everyone in focus unless they all line up in a straight line perpendicular to you.
The lens comes with a pair of beautifully made metal lens cap and lens hood. The metal lens cap screws onto the metal lens hood, which can then screws onto the lens. So you can either just remove the flat lens cap and leave the lens hood on, or remove both together. I quite like this design but I can see the disadvantage is that the lens hood were made shorter than it should to minimse the lens’s overall length. There are really a lot of interesting designs in the older generation Nikkor lenses, for example, the Nikkor AF 135mm f/2DC has a built-in retractable metal lens hood which i quite like as well.
One of the biggest advantage of the reflex lenses is that they are a lot smaller and lighter than the traditional lenses with the same focal length. For example, the Nikkor AFS 500 f/4VR lens is nearly 4kg and 400mm long, while the Reflex-Nikkor 500mm is less than 1kg and the length is about 150mm. So the Reflex-Nikkor 500 f/8 is not really a small lens, but it’s small and light enough for me to carry and walk around and shoot handheld whole day. Don’t think I can say the same thing if I’m carrying the AFS 500mm f/4VR.
The lens also comes with a set of 39mm rear filters. If you are shooting digital, the L37C UV filter is probably the one you’ll use. I remember reading somewhere saying you have to install one of the rear filter as it’s part of the optical design. Personally I haven’t take off the L37C and check if that is true or not. But if you are looking at buying a second hand one, it’s safest to make sure the 39mm filter is included as well.
The most special characteristic of this lens, or any mirror reflex lens in general, is it’s bokeh. The bokeh matches the shape of the front element, looks like a donut ring. If you have any bright light source in the background, you can easily get that funny looking O ring bokeh in your photos which look very very busy. So if you don’t want a distracting background, you need to try find a smooth low contrast background when shooting with this lens.
But the funny bokeh is actually a double-edged sword. Try to be creative and the unique bokeh can help you create some interesting photos.
Be creative, and turn the enemy into your best friend
Most of the photos from this lens has low contrast, and the colour doesn’t seem to be as vibrant as well, especially when compared to the photos from the latest nano coating lenses. Fortunately, with DSLRs, this can be fixed easily by increasing the contrast/saturation settings either in camera or in post processing. You also have to be careful and try avoid any bright light source in front the camera as it’ll lower the contrast even more. The contrast can become so low that you can’t even fix it in photoshop. But if you are looking for that “artistic low contrast film” look, then you may see the low contrast as a good thing.
There is a hot-spot near the center of the image due to the catadioptric optical design, fortunately this is not really visible in most of the photos.
On the positive side, I didn’t notice any chromatic aberration at all, even when i was shooting some high contrast scenes.
The lens has an integrated metal lens mount that can be rotated but cannot be removed.
The reflex-Nikkor 500mm f/8 is a very special lens. It’s not suitable for everyone as it has a lot of limitations and it’s not easy to create nice and sharp photos. You will probably be frustrated if you are trying to use it to shoot a evening sports game. But if you understand what are the limitations and be careful and creative, this 500mm lens can become one great, low cost telephoto lens.
– A lightweight, small and affordable 500mm lens
– no chromatic aberration
– Decent sharpness, but only if you got everything right.
– Funny bokeh
– Solid build quality and interesting lens hood/cap design
– Manual focus, with very narrow depth of field
– Fixed aperture, which means you cannot increase the depth of field by stopping down.
– No VR, tripod/monopod is essential to keep the camera steady under low light.
– Low contrast, especially when there is strong light source in front of the camera
– Funny Bokeh
Feel free to discuss or add your comments on our forum:
(Edited to taste with Adobe Lightroom, click to enlarge)
Reviewer: Richard Wong
Richard is an award winning wedding/portrait Photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Photo-by-Richard/113755425305636
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