Mirror Lenses: Quirky? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely!

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I first discovered mirror lenses when I came across photographs taken by legendary photographer Art Kane. The pictures had a look about them I had never seen in photographs before.

Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

The photographs had a great deal of what I would later learn is called “compression.” The plane of focus was extremely narrow, and the out-of-focus highlights resembled what I called them at the time—“rhinestone donuts.” Not long afterward, I learned the photographs were taken with a mirror lens, specifically, a 500mm f/5 Reflex-NIKKOR. I ultimately tracked one down, bought it, and over the years captured a number of “keepers” while out on assignments, including each of the photographs that appear in this post.

Though tricky to handhold on dry land, handholding a mirror lens in the midst of a yachting regatta is doable but no less a challenge. The trick is to shoot with your camera set to high-speed continuous mode, steady yourself, and hope for the best.

What Is a Mirror Lens?

Long story short is that a mirror lens is a compact telescope. Unlike conventional, or refractive, camera lenses, which use formulated clusters of glass elements to gather light and transmit a focused image to the camera sensor (or film surface), mirror lenses contain a series of angled circular mirrors that gather the light and, rather than transmit a focused image directly to the camera sensor (or film plane), reflect the incoming light back and forth, each time reflecting a narrower portion of the image until a highly magnified portion of the original image reaches the camera’s imaging sensor.

An early morning street scene as viewed through a 500mm mirror lens

Mirror lenses are also known as catadioptric lenses, or “cats.” In place of mirrors, some catadioptric lenses contain glass elements clustered together with no air between the elements. These are called “solid cats” and are shorter though notably heavier than their mirrored counterparts. The advantage of solid cats is that, unlike mirror optical systems, in which the mirrors can sometimes be jarred out of alignment, the glass elements in solid cats are cemented together into a single solid unit, which makes them far more resistant to misalignment due to impact or heavy vibrations.

This grab shot of a goose playing chicken with an old tractor illustrates how shallow the depth of focus is with a 500mm f/5 lens at relatively close range to the subject. The swirling detail in the lower edges of the frame, the slight darkening of the corners, and the roundish out-of-focus specular highlights in the distant trees are all visual signatures unique to mirror lenses.

The Pros of Mirror Lenses

  • Weight—Thin sheets of polished mirrored glass are far lighter than glass lens elements.
  • Size—Because mirror lenses “fold” the image by bouncing light back and forth between successive layers of mirrors, they are not as long as refractive telephoto lenses.
  • Cost—Mirrors are less expensive and less costly to produce compared to glass lens elements, which is why mirror lenses cost less than their conventionally designed counterparts.
  • Aberration-Free Image Files—A major positive attribute of mirror lenses is that, due to their design, the image files produced by mirror lenses are free from chromatic and off-axis aberrations, which are common with traditional refractive telephoto lenses.
The distance afforded by the long focal length of my lens enabled me to capture a series of photographs of these swans and their cygnet without having to ruffle their feathers.

The Cons of Mirror Lenses

  • Fixed Apertures—Mirror lenses have fixed apertures, which by itself shouldn’t be a deterrent from considering a mirror lens. The downside of fixed-aperture lenses is that you have little control over depth of field.
  • Speed—Mirror lenses are slow. The average 300mm mirror lens has a fixed f/6.3 aperture. 800mm mirror lenses are typically f/8, and 1000mm mirror lenses are f/11. It should be noted that, depending on the make and model of the lens, the effective aperture speed of many mirror lenses can be up to a half-stop slower than indicated. It’s also worth noting that the smaller apertures of mirror lenses are not as big a problem as they were back in the film days. Today we have image stabilization, 6-digit ISO sensitivities, and EVFs that compensate for the lower levels of image brightness.
  • Vignetting—Because of the optical design of mirror lenses, there is an inherent degree of vignetting, which when I do find it to be troubling, can be corrected post-capture when necessary.
  • “Donuts”—Due to the nature of their design, the out-of-focus specular highlights produced by mirror lenses (aka bokeh) are donut shaped, which to many shooters are visually jarring and aesthetically undesirable. These are subjective observations but common observations nonetheless.
Focusing upon a narrow sliver of detail in this springtime scene in a forest has an unusually ethereal mood about it, all attributable to the way mirror lenses render their subjects.

The attributes and benefits of mirror lenses have long been bandied about by photographers. Generally speaking, photographers either hate them (or don’t really like them), love them (at least when they nail a shot with one), or love them with reservations.

The picture on the left is one of three sharp frames I was able to capture with a 500mm f/5 lens handheld at 1/15-second moments before the sun dropped from view from a floating dock. The image on the right, which was captured a moment later, is the one that made it to the cover.

Though I’ve managed to capture some truly impressive photographs with mirror lenses under extremely challenging shooting conditions, I’ll be the first to tell you mirror lenses are not as sharp as their conventional telephoto counterparts. Are they sharp? Yes, they are, but compared to their faster counterparts containing glass elements, they come in a close second. With that in mind, one of the most advanced pieces of combined technologies ever created by human beings is the Hubble Telescope, which happens to be a mirror lens. It’s a big one, but it’s a mirror lens, nonetheless.

An old cemetery on the side of a country road was the perfect subject for a mirror lens.

Mirror lenses are readily available new and used in focal lengths ranging from 300mm to 800mm, and as mentioned above, they are quite affordable by any standard.

The Rokinon Reflex 300mm f/6.3 UMC CS Lens for Canon EF (APS-C, 480mm equivalent) (left) and Bower 500mm f/8.0 Manual Focus Telephoto T-Mount Lens (full-frame, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds) (right).

Do you have any experience with mirror lenses? If so, what do you think of them, and—more importantly—what are your thoughts on donuts? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

33 Comments

I have been using mirror lenses since 1968 when I got my Nikkor 500 f/8 lens. It's been a love-hate relationship for all those years because the magnification was so great the lens and camera needed to be locked down securely for the image to be reasonably sharp or at least exposed at a very high shutter speed.

I shot an annual report in 1984 with a mirror lens because the client liked the look. The only way I got through the assignment with reproducible images was to use a large cine tripod with a board attached to the head and a sandbag atop that. I would nestle the lens into it and be able to get vibration-free images but what a chore. This was a compact, lightweight lens that needed a massive, stable base to be locked down to for high quality images.

Years later I tried the Vivitar 600mm mirror lens which was more rugged - it had solid glass mirror in place of the air space between the front and rear mirrors, the theory being it is much less easily knocked out of alignment - It was a nice lens, designed by former NASA optical engineers, but it weighed a ton.

I also shot with the Minolta 500mm mirror lens while reviewing Minolta cameras for "The Photography Catalog" and Photomethods Magazine. It was similar to the Nikkor. My mirror lens shots of a 747 landing at Kennedy Airport shot with the Minolta were widely published.

Years later I owned a Tamron 500 f/8 lens with the 2X extender and it performed well when anchored down. I used a bean bag to stabilize the lens and it worked very well. But not being able to hand hold it was, as in the past, what made me put it aside. 

One of my photography students loaned me his Tokina 500mm f/8 lens a few years ago and it produced wonderful photographs...at high shutter speeds or when mounted to a tripod. I bought one on Ebay but it didn't come into its own until I mounted it on a Sony full frame body with image stabilizatio. Soddenly I was able to hand hold the mirror lens at slower shutter speeds and I am getting great images with this very compact and reasonably sharp lens with its wonderful bokeh. 

Then I got the Olympus system and the Tokina 300mm f/6.3 lens that was, but, sadly, is no longer made for M43. What a great little lens! I conducted a mirror lens workshop at the New York Botanical Gardens. Several of my students were and are still using this really great *tiny* mirror lens, as am I. I heartily recommend it. I've successfully hand held the Olympus EM1 Mark II with the Tokina 300mm mirror lens at 1/10th of a second. Now that we have in body image stabilization the best days of the mirror lens may still be before us.

Hank,

Sounds like you have far more experience than I do with Cats - not too shabby! I had an opportunity to shoot with the Elmer-Perkins version of your 600mm f/8 Vivitar Series 1 lens. Tiny & heavy but interesting to shoot with. It sure looks good on a camera though... Thanks for sharing!

Memories ... Yes, many years ago I got me the Tamron 500mm with the Adaptall adaptor for Canon FD. Loved it. Got me the 2x teleconverter as well - the special one for the Adaptall mount. But the 500mm or even the 1000mm are not that easy to handle. Between that and the single f-stop issue I didn't get to use it as much as I thought I would. And as for the donut bokeh ... it isn't often that it is noticeable n my pictures, and even then, most of the time it doesn't matter too much. But every once in a while I got that "frizzled" feeling, like in that picture with the swans above, which I am not too keen about.

And still, when I stumbled across the smaller brother of this lens, the 350mm, I couldn't resist. And at the end of the day, between the 350, 500, 700 and 1000 mm options, I did take quite a few photos.

And then Canon became Canon-incompatible, moving on to the EF lenses, and we all went digital. For a while I was really unhappy about all my wonderful FD lenses  sitting idly ... until I bought a Micro Four Third camera and an adapter. Now all my lenses are effectively twice as long (100mm f1.2, 170 mm f1.2 and so on.) And my mirror lenses now give me 700, 1000 1400 and 2000 mm - effectively. And, as is normal with digital cameras, I can change the "film speed" for each photo, not once per roll of film.

Another thing that I like is that the viewfinder image is brighter than the SLR viewfinder. And - with my other lenses that can actually be stopped down - the viewfinder brightness stays the same at any f-stop.

But for my mirror lenses I now need a solid tripod more than ever.

(I have never missed autofocus, even though I now admit that it is a nice feature. And now that Canon makes full frame mirrorless bodies that might be able to hold FD lenses and allow them to focus to infinity - who knows, I might one day still send a letter to Santa Clause ... don't these bodies have sensor-based stabilization?)

You sound like somebody who appreciates solid tripods and image-stabilization. Good comments about shooting digital, especially with the higher ISOs and the advantages of EVFs for brightening up the scene when working at f/8.

Thanks Gerd!

I bought the Minolta AF Reflex 500mm f/8 for use with the LA-EA4 adapter on the Sony a6000. Decent autofocus, small and light. I used to have a mirror Sigma 600mm but after too many fuzzy shots I decided to spend the money for the lens and adapter; a decision I do not regret. These lenses really shine at Jet air shows. My favorite photo I've taken with it is of the moon rising over snow topped mountains, slightly obscured with a very light cloud cover. With modern cellphone cameras I find that this is the lens that's always attached to the camera these days. 

Thanks for sharing Mike. I imaging focusing mirror lenses at air shows is tougher than covering a powerboat race - boats usually don't suddenly peel off and do barrel rolls. They're also a bit slower and more predictable.

I have the Samyang (Rokinon) 300mm F6.3 Catadioptric mirror lens in x-mount for my Fuji cameras.  It is very small and very light, can easily pass for a tourist lens, does not telescope out since it is not a zoom, making it the perfect stealth street tele.  Fuji supports manual focus lenses very well, with peaking etc, but the focus is very critical.  If you can focus, then just use a high ISO and a very fast shutter speed and you can get clear shots.  Vignetting mentioned in the article above is always here with this lens, but so is the lack of color aberration.  Both are artistic advantages in many situations.  You can do some great work with it, shooting portraits from across the street, and bystanders don't suspect a thing.  I've made large prints from images taken with this lens, and they look great.  Unfortunately your effective resolution is going to be less than 16mp, but I have not found this to be a limitation.

Keep in mind it is fully manual, always at F6.3 (no aperture adjustment possible), and almost impossible to focus hand-held because of the equivalent 450mm focal length.  It's a lot of work to shoot with.  I have not tried this with Fuji's internally stabilized bodies such as the X-T4.  It is possible to use a protector filter with it but filter thread size is not published (I think it is 62mm).

Hey Thomas,

The Samyang/Rokinon 300mm f/6.3 doesn't take front-mounted filters. If I'm not mistaken, no mirror lenses accept front threaded filters - only rear threaded filters. If you are using the current version of this lens you need 25.5mm filters, which screw onto the rear of the lens.

I have an old Vivitar 500mm mirror lens with Canon FD mount.  I use it on my EOS DSLRs cameras (manually of course) with a Fotodiox FD-to-EOS adapter which came with a removable lens element to provide for infinity focus. Years ago I read, and confirmed myself, that even with the removable element taken out the lens STILL DOES focus to infinity. This is because mirrors by themselves focus PAST the infinity point, so infinity is not lost with the slight extension of the adapter.

Hi Norman,

Thanks for sharing this little nugget of mirror lens info. It should also be noted many mirror lenses incorporate the rear filter as part of the optical system. That was the case with my NIKKOR 500mm f/5 and is certainly true about others. You can shoot without it but the IQ might suffer as a result.

As an amateur, two of the best pics I ever took were with a 500mm Zuiko mirror lens on an OM2 in the late 1990s; one of a brown pelican, the other a white heron in molt, each at the Santa Barbara harbor. It was the film days and getting those pics in perfect focus was a real challenge, but the focus gods were with me. The donut boka has never bothered me. I'm a Nikon guy now, currently hunkered down in Honolulu having brought only my D750 and a kit lens. When B&H put on sale the 300mm Rokinon mirror lens, effectively 450mm in DX mode, I decided to send off for it. Its still a challenge to focus, but it's slowed my picture taking down, forced me to be more thoughtful of what I'm doing, returned me to my early days of photography where everything required manual adjustment in anticipation of the perfect shot. I think I got a very good shot of egrets buffeted in the wind yesterday. Need to get it into Lightroom!

These lenses do indeed present challenges, but as you say they also slow you down and make you delve more thoughtfully into the process, and that works for me.

Thanks Dan!

I used, for a time, a "Leica" 500 mm mirror lens, adapted I believe from Minolta.  The advantage was that it was indeed light, but that advantage was more than offset by slightly soft focus.  That softness would not be a problem for most print media uses - where 300 dpi is the norm, and thus hi resolution is only occasionally required.  But for higher quality usage, or display prints, the softness proved bothersome at best, and often precluded use of the image.  I returned to lugging far heavier glass - my 250 mm, with or without a 2X convertor, and now a 350 mm with the same 2X convertor, and find my images far sharper.  (My back is stronger, too...)  As for the circular bokeh?  I kinda miss it.  

Hey Dan

No doubt somebody is going to read your comment about 'missing the donuts' and come up with an app that fakes it... mark my words.

I had a 500mm f8 Nikkor mirror lens during the 80's and I would highly NOT recommend a catadioptric (mirror) lens at all. I figure that my Nikkor would be as good as any so my experience is with a brand name lens not something cheaper.

My problems with the lens starts with the lack of even exposure across the frame. If you were to point this lens at blue sky you could easily see about a stop drop off of exposure from centre to edge. I like to vignette or “burn in” my edges, but not this much!

Then there’s the speed of the lens at f8. First off, I’m really not sure if it had an aperture of f8. Nikon said it was f8, but it was pretty dark in there and I did no tests to confirm this suspicion one way or the other!

Well f8 is f8 and there’s never any lens that’s fast enough, so deal with it eh? But I rapidly discovered that while not being able to go to f5.6 for certain shots was not fun, it was equally painful to not be able to go to f11. With a lens of that focal length I often was crying for more depth of field and that was impossible.

I could knock down the exposure with ND filters – 39mm if I remember. At least one ND came with the lens along with a yellow, red and an orange, and there was a UV already in place. The filters screwed into the back of the lens, and I seem to remember that Nikon insisted that some kind of filter needed to be in place, hence the UV. In any case f8 was hard enough to see through, never mind adding a ND, and it was a pretty slow chore to swap these filters out. In the six or seven years I owned the lens I don’t think that I ever used the ND filter although the coloured filters did get some use.

At first the donut shaped specular highlights were kind of cool. Later I didn’t hate them but they did announce that the lens being was a mirror and I think that in many images the donuts were distracting. I have no idea as to what the bokeh was like in that lens because there was no bokeh in the 80’s. Back then there was “in focus” which people paid attention too, and “out-of-focus stuff “ that no one paid attention too, and something that I hope makes a comeback!

The advantages of the mirror were that it was very small for its focal length, and therefore you’d be much more likely to have it with you. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t SMALL lens but it was for a 500. It was also fairly cheap, which may not be the case these days. I finally had an opportunity to get a Nikkor 300mm f4.5 conventional lens which was shorter than the 500 (duh!), but it was also sharper; could go to f8, f11, et al, and produced more even exposures. So with joy in my heart I sold the 500 and I have to say that I haven’t missed it a bit since.

Hi Dave,

If you're referring to the NIKKOR 300mm f/4.5 ED-IF I agree - it's a spectacular lens and it handles wonderfully - it's one of the best-balanced lenses I've worked with. BTW you cracked me up with your comment about bokeh not existing yet back in the 80's. I still have a copy of the magazine article I read around 1995 about bokeh. I hadn't heard about it either back then - it was mostly Japanese Leica enthusiasts who 'got it' back then. (The word 'bokeh' is actually a phonetic pronunciation of the Japanese word that describes bokeh.)

Back in the pre-autofocus late 70's I owned a Vivitar "solid cat" 600mm f8 mirror, it was an awesome lens. It's short compact design made it easy to hand hold. As implied by its name, the solid glass construction made it heavy - but not so heavy that I couldn't backpack with it. (I was younger then ;-) The spectacular wildlife shots I was able to achieve more than offset the unusual bokeh. Unfortunately, the lens was stolen many years ago and I've always regretted the loss. However, today my wildlife photography usually involves birds in flight and animals on the move; manual focus simply isn't an option.

Hey JC

Those solid cats are indeed dense. What's nice about them is that unlike mirror lenses, which can easily be knocked out of alignment, the solid cats contain what is essentially a giant compound lens in which the elements are cemented together with zero air between the elements. You can shatter the lens but the elements will NEVER go out of alignment.

Any years ago I worked as a photographer at a two-mile oval racetrack.  Carrying around a trio of Nikon lenses provided a workout (the 80 - 200 zoom, a 300mm prime lens, and the 500mm mirror).  On days of qualifying or practice, when I prowled the pit lane, I found the zoom to be my "go to" lens.  On race day, shooting from various locations outside the oval, I found the 300mm on my camera most of the time.  The 500mm could "pull in" an individual pit stop, but generally the photos of the pits were more interesting taken from the pit wall with a wider angle lens than outside the track with a telephoto.  For photos of cars racing, the 500mm field of vision was a bit too cramped, and the 300mm was much easier to pan with.

Recently had the 500mm mirror on a small cruise ship.  It was very useful in that situation, when scenery tended to be farther away, and I couldn't reduce the distance to my subjects.  Wouldn't want to try a cruise ship with Kodachrome-25, but as pointed out in this article, the higher ISO settings available today make shooting from a moving platform with a 500mm mirror possible.

Compression and a shallow plane of focus (depth of field) are features of all telephoto lenses and do not relate to the lens being of a mirror type. Given the narrow effective apertures of mirror lenses (e.g., f8 maximum), the depth of field would actually be greater than on with lenses of similar focal length set at wider f stops.

Hi Eric,

You are correct on all counts. The lens I used to take the photographs that accompany my article were all taken with a 500mm f/5 lens, which is noticeably more difficult to maintain focus with compared to an f/8 lens despite the brighter viewfinder, especially when tracking moving subjects while manually focusing. ( I kinda miss those days sometimes...)

Thanks so much for that! especially fit the images. I’m a booger eatin’ moron with a MFT, trying to get head shots of critters that are too far away. My wife (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) would slit my throat if I bought a chunk of glass that could do the job well. I had been frightened off by the words describing the characteristics of reflex lenes, to the point that I wondered why they are still made if they are such pieces of ka-ka.

NOW I get it. i see the issues, not just read about them. i also see the amazing images that can be found and grabbed with them. 

Thank you for a big service to us silly dopes.

Hey - it takes a knucklehead to know a knucklehead - welcome to the club!

The doughnut surprised me for a second, then I realized that the bokeh reflects the aperture. The aperture, of course, is the front of the lens, less the shape of the secondary mirror at the front -- a doughnut. So now I'm used to it. Mainly, I found it difficult to aim, but that's a property of the 1 meter focal length. So I bought a 135mm focal length "spotting scope", mounted it with an aluminum bar and use it with my left eye to point the camera in the general direction. It's quirky.

You're not the first person to tell me they use a spotting scope to help aim their longer telephotos - it makes sense. I once shot with a 1200mm lens and it was near impossible to figure out where you were aiming the thing without peeking over the top of the viewfinder in order to get your bearings.

I had a 500mm Mirror back in the 80's and it produced the 'donuts' from the points of light reflecting on water which was the most unique aspect for the lens. It was a must for photographers covering sailing. I use a Lomography Art lens  for same reason today.

I had the Minolta 400mm mirror for their APS cameras and loved it.  Was amazed at the sharpness it could achieve, was auto focus which was nice and the light weight was great.  I do not mind the "donut" highlights, they are fine for me.

Hey Glenn,

Folks either love the donuts or hate them. Me? I don't mind them unless they are overbearing.

I had the Rokinon 300/6.3 lens for a while. I used it with a Sony a6000, and found it alternately frustrating and inspiring - when it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad, it was awful :)

I wish I’d persevered with it when I got my a6500 3 years ago - the IS would have helped a lot, but I ended up trading it for the 70-300 I now own.

Dave,

The trick is to be happy with what you have - take your 70-300 and enjoy the heck out of it. And look at it this way - nobody is going to be asking you what those weird donut shapes are when you show them the pix you take with it because your 70-300 doesn't make donuts..

I remember that Nikkor mirror--from back in the early 70s.  It was a cool lens.  It's good to know that one can still get mirror lenses.  Too bad that auto focus doesn't seem to be available and that none of the majors produce them anymore--at least to my limited knowledge.  I love the "circle" bokeh they produce.   My only issue with the article is that there's not pic of THAT lens! :(

Thanks for your feedback, Henry

I have an old 500mm F8 Nikkor. Awesome to a fault. Have shot many pix and videos with the glass. It took a while to learn how to shoot with it but it's worth it IMHO.

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