It's damn near impossible to read any photo magazine article on shooting sports, animals, or birds without learning that many of the best shots required a huge, heavy, 500mm- or-longer lens, which few of us own. And many of you, I suspect, have attended professional sporting events and seen those poor photojournalists on the sidelines sweating under the burden of monster lenses.
Amateurs are often advised that they can closely duplicate pro results with shorter-focal-length lenses and a teleconverter or two. Well, maybe, but don't count on sharp corners and edges or wide apertures. Even the main subject may not have snap.
Now picture this: You're sitting in the back row at some grand sports event, too far away to see much. Your friends are sitting on their hands with useless cameras in their laps. Oh, for a long tele lens to bring back a great shot! With that, you pull from your coat pocket a lens about 19 percent smaller than a can of dog food, attach it to your camera, and fire away.
"What the devil is that?" you are asked. "Why, it's a 500mm mirror lens," you explain. "I just bought it for $69." Then, to get a close-up, you slip a 2X converter between lens and camera body and shoot, handheld, with a 1000mm lens.
Daydream? Not a bit. Keep reading, and you shall know all.
Now that I've left you hanging there, let's go back to the 1950s, when photojournalists were just beginning to throw away their rangefinder cameras for SLRs. Many of these photographers were covering uprisings, miniwars, and civil-rights skirmishes, complete with ferocious police dogs and water cannons. They needed tele lenses to keep them out of the line of fire but still close to the action. We called these 400- and 600mm lenses "giant stovepipes," for obvious reasons: The bulky things were long on millimeters and short on portability.
Help came along from the unlikeliest place-the U.S.S.R.
In 1944, Russian scientist Dmitri Maksutov perfected a small, reflecting, 500mm f/8 telephoto mirror lens, based on a telescope design. It was but 5 1⁄2 inches long, and weighed 2 pounds, 9 ounces.
The Maksutov lenses, each packaged neatly in a beautiful wooden case with red, orange, yellow, and neutral-density filters, were discovered by photojournalists traveling through Moscow. Most bought one for themselves, and one to sell in the U.S. Later, a Russian trading company began importing them. At under $200, they were scarce, but highly desirable.
U.S. photographers snapped up the lenses, attached them to their cameras with screw-thread adapters, and added a 2X converter when action got too tight for the 500mm alone. This combo produced a 1000mm f/16 lens. Using high-speed (ISO 400) film with their MTO (Maksutov Tele-Optic) lenses, leading U.S. photojournalists were able to take great news pictures. The compact, lightweight lenses were easy to handhold. Photographers became accustomed to using speeds of 1/250 sec or even slower, with a bit of elbow bracing on floors, chairs, tables, car-window ledges, and roads.
Japanese lensmakers quickly hopped on the mirror lens bandwagon, and soon 500mm f/8 mirror lenses in all forms, shapes, and sizes were available from major and off-brand lensmakers. Amateurs had an optical field day with them. Besides being highly useful teles, many also focused extremely close-to 1:4; some, even closer. Warning: These lenses often came up fuzzy when macrofocusing. Called catadioptric (or simply CATs) based on their optical formulas, the lenses started at about $80, and had a great run among pros and amateurs alike. Then, just as suddenly as they had multiplied, they virtually vanished in the 1980s.