I love my job. As one of KEH’s road buyers, I have to deal with a heavy traveling schedule where I am frequently out of town and away from my family. At road show events, I usually have a minimum ten-hour workday, usually without a lunch break. The company provided phone essentially puts me on call 24-7 to camera stores and individuals who have questions about trade-ins. None of these factors negate the fact that I get paid to play with camera gear.
When a customer sits down in front of me, I never know what interesting piece of gear will be placed on the table. What I really love is when an item is not only remarkable, but also sparks fond memories. Recently, in Columbus, OH, a gorgeous Sigma 600mm f8 mirror lens did just that. Usually, this lens has a mat white finish (like the one I owned back in the eighties) or professional black finish; however, this particular lens was the less common, but impressive, dark olive green.
For those unfamiliar with a mirror lens, the design combines optics with mirrors in order to reduce its size. Without the use of mirrors, the lens would be at least three times longer than its current 4.8 inches. Along with the effective 12x telephoto (based on 35mm full-frame), it made the Sigma 600mm f8 mirror lens a popular low-cost alternative to lenses such as Nikon’s 500mm f4 & 600mm f5.6 or Canon’s 500mm f4.5 & 600mm f4.5. It is worth noting that both Nikon and Canon made similar mirror lenses that were still more expensive than Sigma’s version.
I remember taking my newly acquired (purchased used) Sigma 600mm to Green Mountain Park in north Alabama to shoot the local wildlife. The high magnification makes use of a tripod mandatory, although some photographers chance only using a monopod. On my first foray, I mounted the lens on a Nikon FG. One quirk of a mirror lens is that it has a fixed aperture, so I loaded the FG with 400 ISO film under the assumption that the high film speed would provide me the range to shoot around the lake without any trouble. I had no problems initially, but soon discovered that the Nikon FG’s maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 was too slow when shooting in bright sunlight on the lake. I actually had more light than the camera could handle.
The issue was resolved by switching the lens onto my main camera, a Nikon FE2, which has a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. As an avid photographer, I always carried a backup camera (pre-digital), so I could readily shoot different films of the same subject. I swapped out the low-speed slide film already loaded in the camera for a high-speed print film. This day became the first time I actually used the FE2’s 1/2000 and 1/4000 of a second shutter speeds.
The lens quickly showed off its worth with tight shots of the brilliant mallards and wood ducks cruising on the lake. I was able to get up close and friendly with a hungry squirrel that was noshing on an ear of dried corn supplied by the park workers. The most pleasing images I captured with the 600mm that day were of the park’s gorgeous swans. These majestic birds rule the lake and are not shy about posing for any willing photographer.
One last quirk that is characteristic of a mirror lens is donuts. Not the delicious treats available at your favorite bakery, but donuts caused buy the donut shape of the mirror lens’s front element. Objects, particularly with bright spots, take on a donut shape when they are out of focus. The bright points of light reflecting off of the lake provided a great example of this phenomenon.
Using a mirror lens today can still be a fun adventure. Based on the design, a mirror lens cannot be autofocus, but a photographer could still take advantage of the high telephoto capability. Also, being able to adjust the ISO to compensate for changing light conditions is a tremendous bonus for digital photographers.
Checking out this familiar lens at the KEH road show reminded me of the many times I ventured out to shoot wildlife. My wife still remembers me chasing a black bear through Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains with that lens. While I do not advocate the same reckless behavior, using a mirror lens can be a great experience for any photographer, and I did get some interesting shots of the bear. My current top telephoto is only a 300mm zoom, as my current photography revolves around macro and snapshots of my kids. I may have to look out for this lens when it is posted online. That is, unless someone else beats me to it.
Floyd Seals has been a photographer since 1981, and has been in the photo industry since 1984. He currently travels across the United States buying camera gear as a road buyer for KEH Camera.