Sunday, January 16, 2011

Message from Jim

I'm not usually one to get into equipment talk when speaking about my photographs. I feel there is typically too much emphasis upon the tools rather than the process. As amazing as the new technology is today, I recently tried something old that might be of value to share. This past week there were two different occasions when I went out with a camera with no particular idea of subject to shoot. I was doing something else but thought I might happen upon a photograph. Out of habit I just feel better with a camera near me, especially with the great snow forms hanging on the trees this winter.

I didn't care to be burdened with long telephoto lenses and the usual extra lenses I use when seriously looking for images. So I took one camera body and an old lens that I've had around for 30 years - a 500 mm f8 mirror or catadioptric lens - the one I’m holding in the accompanying photograph. In the past, I never did use this lens much because of its limitations with the slow ISO speed Kodachrome 64 that was usually my film of choice.  If I were in a serious shooting mood, I would usually bring a normal 500 or 600 mm lens with me.  The lens on the tripod next to me is a 600 mm for size comparison; a normal 500 mm is only slightly smaller. The mirror lens fits in my coat pocket. The normal long lenses are a major commitment in extra size and weight and will often be left behind. A large tripod adds to the mix.

With the new camera's ability to shoot with a very high ISO this slow lens now has a new potential. I am able to shoot with higher shutter speeds that were impossible with the slow speed films. The moose photographs were shot at 1250 ISO. The mirror lens has some limitations but I can live with them under the circumstances. It has a fixed non-adjustable aperture - f8 and no auto focus or stabilization feature; it also turns small highlights into donut shapes. The lens uses mirrors to bounce the light back and forth to save space. Celestial telescopes use the same principle.

I happened upon this moose pair bedded down; as soon as they saw me they ran into the forest. After tracking them some distance from the road, I tried an old technique of grunting like a lovesick bull to lure them back my way.  The waist deep snow was exhausting for me, as I didn't have snowshoes. My jeans were getting wet and rather uncomfortable as the snow melted and ran down into my boots. I felt a bit of a nervous thrill when they came my way to inspect the compelling (but out of season) sound. The deep snow was not a problem for them with their long legs. If they had decided to take me on, there was nothing I could do. The thrill one gets of being vulnerable to nature is a subject for another time but I will say moose are the most dangerous animal in the north woods.

As they contemplated my odd shape I shot away. The wind was in my favor. The resulting images I show here never would have been possible if I would not have stuck the old lens in my pocket. I used to see moose almost weekly here in their prime habitat on the edge of the BWCAW. Today it is rare to encounter them, only once or twice year. Scientists are now talking about the warmer summers as the cause of moose numbers to plummet. They have a very low tolerance for heat, plus their ever-present ticks have an added advantage in a warmer environment. The last decent moose photograph I made in Minnesota was years ago.

A few days previous to the moose encounter, I went to the Minnesota Zoo with my grandchildren for a fun day of animal watching. Again I wasn’t very serious about shooting anything in particular, but I stuck the 500 mm mirror lens in my pocket anyway. When I saw the woodland caribou bulls testing each other I put the lens on the camera and shot away casually. I was a bit surprised at the result when looking through my frames when I returned home. The antlers became a maze as to which belong to which animal - kind of a visual puzzle.  Again, an image resulted that would never have happened if I would not have brought the old out-of-production lens along.

The high ISO digital cameras have brought new life back to a lens that has sat on my shelf for many years. It will never be far from me now.


  1. I had that lens in the late '70's. I remember well the 'rings' that formed. Thanks for the memory reminder. :-)

  2. Nice. Very very nice.

  3. Jim, I remember the "platelet" effect of catadioptric 500s. Sorry to have to continue the equipment stream here, but what camera body did you use and did you have to adjust the mount to get the 500 to fit?

  4. Thanks for the great photo's and the story of how you took them.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thanks for sharing this information and great captures with us Jim.
    I've been been having second thoughts about mirror lenses myself, but after after reading this story I'll be thinking about one more seriously.

    Greetings from Holland, Nico

  7. Here I was looking for information that would help me make up my mind which one to buy - the D800 or the D800E - and learned that in the end all that matters is using the stuff you have. Thanks for that!


Thank you for your comment. To help us fight Spam, all comments are approved prior to posting. Thank you for your interest in Jim Brandenburg.