Tokina SZX 400mm f/8 MF Mirror Lens: Sports Photography on a Budget

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Common sense says if you’re going to take sharp, dramatic photographs at a fast-action sporting event, make sure you have an autofocus lens that is at least 300mm or longer, and fast (f/2.8 or f/4) and, IMHO, preferably a zoom. As part of our coverage of Sports Week, I thought it might be fun to photograph the opening night of the 2021 racing season at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl using a lens that falls seriously short on all but one of those critical points of common sense.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2021

The Tokina SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF lens, which is available for a half-dozen camera mounts, is longer than 300mm but it’s a manual focus lens and it’s slow as heck; it’s only f/8… period. That’s the downside. The upside of this little gem of a lens is that it’s tiny (2.9 x 3"), lightweight (12.5oz), and it focuses down to 3' 9", which for a 400mm mirror lens, is simply amazing. Oh… did I mention the lens costs a smidgeon under $250?

 Tokina’s SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF mirror lens is ridiculously small, light, and focuses as close as 3’9”, which is amazingly close for a lens of this design.
Tokina’s SZX 400mm f/8 Reflex MF mirror lens is ridiculously small, light, and focuses as close as 3' 9", which is amazingly close for a lens of this design.

In a bid to truly push my luck, Tokina’s tiny 400mm mirror lens was the only lens I packed for the occasion. No wide-angle lenses, no normal lenses, not even a short telephoto. It was going to be a sink or swim situation.

The New London-Waterford Speedbowl is a 1/3-mile oval racetrack that opened in April 1951. The original track consisted of crushed blue stone, which created clouds of dust every time the cars rounded the corners and blasted down the straightaways. Although the dust added greatly to the drama on the track, the neighbors weren’t too pleased about having to dust their shelves and windowsills after every race. In a bid to make nice with the township, the track shut down and reopened three weeks later with a far-tidier asphalt track that is used to this very day.

An old postcard of the New London-Waterford Speedbowl from back in the 1950s. Not much has changed over the 70 years it’s been in operation.
An old postcard of the New London-Waterford Speedbowl from the 1950s. Not much has changed over the 70 years it’s been in operation.

Something I noticed early on was how evenly lit the image was, corner to corner. Due to design limitations, most mirror lenses tend to get dark toward the corners. Not so with this lens—the exposures were uniformly lit edge to edge.

The ability to focus as close as 3' 9" with a super-compact 400mm lens made it possible to shoot tight portraits of the drivers from safe distances as they lined up in the pits before each race.

The Speedbowl is a downhome family-oriented event with racing on Wednesday and Saturday nights during the summer-fall months. The drivers and cars that compete on the track are regular folk, though several NASCAR American Series National Champions can be counted among past competitors.

A $25 pit pass gets you within easy shooting distance of the drivers and their support crews at New London-Waterford. The donut-shaped specular highlights visible in the center of the frame in the photo on the right are typical of mirror lenses.

It’s not unusual to see father-son teams, and more than a few grandfathers can be seen tinkering around the pits and shouting from the sidelines as younger family members blast around the track as they did back in their heydays. Not restricted to adults, there are competitions for younger drivers as young as six years old. Regardless, they all seem to know what they’re doing when they get the green flag.

The competitors and fans at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl are down-home, family-oriented folks who take amateur racing seriously. And yes – they all seem to enjoy themselves win or lose.
The competitors and fans at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl are downhome, family-oriented folk who take amateur racing seriously. And yes, they all seem to enjoy themselves, win or lose.

The trick of shooting fast action with a lens that is not designed for quick response times is to find a good vantage point and pre-focus on the area you want to shoot. I did this from several camera positions during the warm-up sessions. When the races began, I already knew my focus points. From there it was a matter of hitting the shutter at the right moment. Though I typically prefer to shoot in Single frame mode, for these types of occasions I shoot at High-Speed Continuous to better the chances of taking home a high number of keepers.

Racers lined up to enter the track.
Racers lined up to enter the track

To guarantee going home with enough images to illustrate this article, I shot in High-Speed Continuous mode on my Sony a7R III. I also made sure the camera’s SteadyShot system was set to 400mm and, rather than using a tripod, I used my Leica tabletop tripod with mini ball head as a chest-pod, which offers a nice balance of steadiness and mobility.

One of the tricks to shooting auto races with long focal length manual-focus lenses is to pre-focus on the spot at which you want to capture the action and wait, finger on shutter, until the cars enter the zone of focus. If your camera has a High-Speed Continuous mode, this is a good time to engage it.

Luckily, the sky was clear when the track opened at 5:30 p.m. The sun was still relatively high in the sky. I set the camera’s ISO to 1000 to maintain a decent balance of higher shutter speeds and image quality. These parameters worked fine until dark clouds put the kibosh on the light quality about a half hour before sunset.

Shooting at racetracks often involves shooting through fences. Fortunately, even at f/8, the long focal length of the lens shoots through most of the shadowy fence lines in the final image.
I was able to shift focus quickly as this car came around the bend closest to me and capture both the car coming around the bend (left) followed by a close-up of the driver as he whizzed by (right).

There are several car divisions that have competed past and present at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl. Included among them are the new SK Modified Fast Five Series, Open Street Stocks, SK Modified, Late Model, Strictly Stocks, Mini Stocks, X-Cars, Super-X Cars, Street Stocks, Bandoleros’, and Legends.

When shooting at close range with longer telephoto lenses, it’s difficult to maintain ‘nose-to-tail’ focus even at f/8.
When shooting at close range with long telephoto lenses, it’s difficult to maintain "nose-to-tail" focus, even at f/8.
I won’t lie – I tossed hundreds of out-of-focus photos captured while covering this event, but despite the limitations of this lens, I managed to make it work and came home with plenty of sharp photos.
I won’t lie. I tossed hundreds of out-of-focus photos captured while covering this event, but despite the limitations of this lens, I managed to make it work and came home with plenty of sharp photos.

The photographs that accompany this story were taken on the opening “Wild N’ Wacky Wednesday” series of the 2021 race season. Divisions racing on this particular evening included Super-X Cars, X-Cars, Bandoleros, and Legend cars.

My shutter speed (1/1000th-sec) wasn’t fast enough to totally freeze the action during this near-miss spinout, but I did manage to hold focus on the lead car.
My shutter speed (1/1000-second) wasn’t fast enough to freeze the action totally during this near-miss spinout, but I did manage to hold focus on the lead car.

There are dozens of amateur and semi-pro racetracks located in the US and, no doubt, hundreds more around the world. These smaller-scale racing events are ideal for honing one’s shooting skills in a fast-action environment. The tickets are reasonably priced, and—as the accompanying photographs prove—with the proper mindset, it’s possible to capture dramatic sports event photographs even when using “slow-poke lenses” that cost a few hundred dollars. It’s all about having fun with a camera, a lens, and something you enjoy photographing.

Share your own experiences with fast-action shooting in the Comments section, below.

For more sports-related news, tips, and reviews, be sure to check out the Sports Photography section of B&H Explora.

2 Comments

Can you explain the tripod setup / chest pod 

Hi Daniel,

I often mount my camera with a long lens a table tripod - specifically a Leica Table Tripod with a small ballhead. I place the legs of the tripod against my chest and lock the head into place after positioning the camera in a way where I can see through the finder. I have 1 hand under the lens, another on the camera and shutter button, while resting the camera against my brow for a total of 6 point of contact with my upper body.

It's not a stable as an earthbound tripod but I've hand-held 500mm lenses at 1/15th-second and nailed cover photos at slower speeds using this method.

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