Donut Heaven: Photos with the Nikon 500mm Mirror Lens – by Nic Coury

Nic Coury

 

Nic Coury is a photojournalist based in Monterey, Calif. He has had work published in Sports Illustrated, Cycle World and Bicycling magazines, and has shot commercial jobs for Specialized Bicycles, Ferrari and Bugatti. He also covers crime for a local newspaper. In his free time, he drinks too many espressos and wins mustache competitions.

Easily one of the best sub-$200 camera purchases I've ever made.

Easily one of the best sub-$200 camera purchases I’ve ever made.

I love donuts and not just the breakfast food.

Specifically I love the donuts made with the 1970s Nikon 500mm f/8 mirror lens I bought. After wanting an inexpensive alternative to longer glass, I found one of the Nikkor lenses on eBay for around $170 shipped to me and it has been one of the funnest photo purchases I have ever made.

If you Google the mirror lens, there is a definite love/hate relationship amongst photographers. Some see the lens as a cheap gimmick similar to fisheyes, but others see it as a legitimate alternative to longer, much more expensive lenses. I’m in the latter group.

A California Brown Pelican sits on the wharf in Monterey, Calif.

A California Brown Pelican sits on the wharf in Monterey, Calif.

One of the things I have always liked about Nikon digital cameras is their backwards compatibility with how older, manual focus lenses dating back to the 1960s can be mounted and metered. Some of the older glass is stupidly sharp and the colors are great. I have a handful of those lenses too, like an older 55mm f/1.2.

I happened to get a very sharp version of the 500mm mirror and I use it for all kinds of photos, although it took some squinting and precise practice to get used to manually focusing in faster action situations, but if photographers for decades could shoot surfing and other sports manually focused, I can too.

A surfer is backlit from mid-day sun at Moss Landing State Beach near Monterey, Calif.

A surfer is backlit from mid-day sun at Moss Landing State Beach near Monterey, Calif.

There have a been a few articles out there on using the mirror for pro sports. Photographer Darren Carroll wrote about using it for golf and baseball, which inspired me to track one down. Recently Associated Press photographer Mark J. Terrill used one in the 2016 Rose Bowl in Los Angeles.

Actor Bill Murray chips out of the sand on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Actor Bill Murray chips out of the sand on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links during the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

It’s a super fun lens to play around and compose photos with, but like any lens, it can be overused with the donut effect. Fortunately, it can also be used as a regular telephoto, albeit slow at f/8. It fits in my camera bag very small as well, using about the same space as a 24-70 f/2.8, but a smidge longer.

Even in bad light, like last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, I was able to produce usable images, but had to kick up my ISO and use a monopod. As the saying goes: if it’s stupid, but it works, it ain’t stupid.

Trombone Shorty plays at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Trombone Shorty plays at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Drummer Brian Blade plays with Chick Corea at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Drummer Brian Blade plays with Chick Corea at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

I get some laughs from colleagues who used similar mirror lenses when they were first released and they just shake their head, but enjoy seeing the photos, even proclaiming they too love the donuts.

A Marbled Godwit searches for lunch on Moss Landing State Beach near Monterey, Calif.

A Marbled Godwit searches for lunch on Moss Landing State Beach near Monterey, Calif.

If you find one at a swap meet or a clean version on eBay, it’s a fun purchase. I’d also love to find a copy of the 1000mm f/11 mirror, but it’s a quite a bit bigger.

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