A while ago, I had discussed the advantages of mirror lenses as cheap long focus lenses, and more importantly, the fact that they could be used in hand held photography. In the same post, I had explored alternative lens configurations that were available at reasonable cost, which would enable an amateur photographer like myself the opportunity to experiment with super-telephoto lenses.

The choices I had that were available in Olympus mounts were considerably varied, and although all the lens and teleconverter combinations would provide a reasonably fast, cheap lens in the super telephoto range, none of them were suitable for hand-held photography. There are some other alternatives I had not really explored since they involved even older lenses, from the 60’s and early 70’s, specifically, universal thread T mount lenses.

These were the old days, before the development of modern multi-coated optical glass and computer aided design. The long focus lenses from back then are really something – they are solidly built, heavy, and have come fitted with a tripod ring so as not to damage the camera mountings. These lenses were made by Cambron, Tele-Astranar, Lentar, Spiratone, and of course more familiar companies such as Tamron, Vivitar etc. Some of them were sold with a particular manufacturer’s mounts, but since camera mounts changed a lot back then, many lenses were made with something called a “T mount”.

Tamron introduced the T mount back in the late 1950’s as a potential “Universal” lens mount. The reasoning was very simple… The T mount is a threaded screw mount, similar to the Pentax M42 screw mount, but with finer pitched threads. The Pentax screw mount is a 42mm diameter screw with a 1mm pitch (M42x1), while the T mount has a 42mm diameter 0.75mm pitch (M42x0.75). The lenses were threaded at the back to take an adapter for a specific camera mount – Nikon, Canon, Olympus, whatever – once a customer bought a lens, it would be fitted with the adapter of their choice and that was it. There was no need to stock many lenses with different mounts – the dealer only needed to stock up on different mounts. If a camera manufacturer introduced a new model with a different mount, a new adapter became available. In fact, some lenses were only released with a T mount – a good example is the famous Vivitar Series 1 600mm Solid Cat (Solid Catadiotropic Mirror lens – what a mouthful)

Theoretically, if you had the right adapter, a lens could be fitted to any camera. The T mount also became the standard for bellows, enlargers, telescope adapters, microscope adapters etc. This happy state of affairs existed for many years, until variations of the T mount started appearing that were incompatible with one or the other lens ie, T2, T4, TX and pretty soon, everyone went back to making their own proprietary mounts. But the story does not end here… Due to the huge number of lenses that were made for the T mount, and the easy availability of adapters for different makes of cameras, T mounts never went out of favor – they are still widely available cheaply on Ebay and elsewhere.

What of the lenses? The big issue with older 3rd party lenses was that they were usually built cheaply, and that the lens elements would shake loose in their mountings after a while. Like everything else, not all 3rd party lenses were built the same, there are lots of solidly built ones as well, We just have to be choosy. There’s plenty of choices, and we don’t have to settle for one with a hazy element or fungus or even bad cosmetics. Back in the days when the T mount was common, everyone shot color slide film. Slide film is very finicky and not as forgiving as color print film (common negative film) and does not have as wide a range, so the lenses had to be good (at least fairly so), or they would never sell.

Even the cheapest lenses had a large sweet spot in the center of the lens, and when stopped down, they could provide excellent results. Now, I am not advocating that we compare it against a razor sharp professional Nikon OEM lens which probably costs 10 times as much. Rather, we should judge the lens on its own merits, and the low cost. Also, sometimes, razor sharp may not be necessary, especially if we are just planning on a small print, or just to post online – besides, when did film resolution ever match the resolutions possible with a lens? If we are not satisfied with the edge resolution, we can always crop it out. It should not be an issue at f/11 or smaller anyway.

T mount lenses are available in every focal length, but since this post is about super-telephoto lenses, I will discuss 2 famous representatives of cheap super-telephoto lenses from the T mount days – the widely available Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 and the Vivitar 300mm f/5.6. Both still easily available all over the place.

Spiratone was a camera dealership very much like Ponder & Best (Vivitar) and the brainchild of S.F (Fred) Spira. He ran a store in NYC, and they were famous for a wide range of affordable equipment. Fred Spira is also the author of the well regarded “The History of Photography: As seen through the Spira Collection.”

The Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 lens was most probably made for them by Tamron. There were several labels of this particular 400mm f6.3 lens, all identical, which implies they came from the same production line. They were branded as Spiratone, Tamron, Tele-Astranar, Cambron, Howard Sterling and probably a few others. I guess Tamron was trying to break into the US market back then, and didn’t mind having their brand diluted by all the other 3rd party names. This lens has an aperture range from f/6.3 to f/32, and is pretty sharp stopped down to f/11 or smaller. Of course, for smaller apertures, the exposure would make a sturdy tripod a necessity. On a bright sunny day, a hand held shot at 1/500 and f11 using 400 ASA or faster film is a distinct possibility.

There’s more pictures of the Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 along and the 60mm close-focusing extension tube here. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Here are some examples with the 400mm Spiratone

Spiratone 400mm f/6.3
Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 – Preset Aperture setting rings
Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 – T mount threaded end
Spiratone 400mm f/6.3

The Vivitar 300mm f/5.6 is an early Vivitar 35mm lens. As we all know, Vivitar (Ponder & Best) used to contract out their lens manufacturing as well. Everyone is familiar with the famous Series 1 makers – Komine and Kino Precision, but Vivitar contracted out with Tokina (aka Asanuma) and others — including OLYMPUS – yes, Olympus Optical Co. The Vivitar 300mm f/5.6 was one of the lenses made by Olympus (at least, the ones with serial numbers 6xxxxxx.

We certainly can’t fault the lens in construction – The Vivitar 300mm f5.6 is built like a M1A1 battletank. The Spiratone is solid too, but not as heavily built as the Vivitar 300mm. Mark Robert’s website has a list of the other manufacturers and the serial number codes. Check under the heading Photography. He has a bunch of lens mods and Pentax information as well.

Ever since I came across this bit of manufacturing information, I had been on the lookout for a Olympus made Vivitar lens. Common sense dictated that any such lens would have to be pre-1972, before Olympus entered the interchangeable lens SLR market in earnest with their OM series cameras. Any T mount lens that they would have made as a Vivitar contractor would have to be between 1965-1972, BEFORE they introduced the OM bayonet mount. Additionally, it made sense, as it would have been good practice for Olympus in getting their Zuiko OEM manufacturing processes worked out. The lens shouts “quality” as soon as you pick it up. It’s very heavy for it’s size, and takes a 62mm filter. The pre-set aperture rings are surprisingly easy to use.

Vivitar 300mm f/5.6
Vivitar 300mm f/5.6
Vivitar 300mm f/5.6 – preset focusing rings
Vivitar 300mm f/5.6 – T mount ring for OM

Here are some compelling reasons to jump in acquire a cheap USED long focus lens or two to play with and experiment with super-telephoto effects:

# I own a beautiful Olympus Zuiko 300mm f/4.5, I would not risk it in the field ie., while hiking in rough areas etc. There’s a lot to be said for having a cheaper 300mm or 400mm that we can throw in the backpack without hesitation. A far as sharpness goes, these lenses a a little sharper than the common 500mm f/8 mirror lens, but the mirror can easily be hand-held, while these long lenses need Tripods.

# Both the lenses are sold for between $25 and $50 on eBay regularly, sometimes going cheaper if they have some cosmetic issues. These lenses were single coated for the most part. Multi-coating of lenses was still a few years away, and they usually came with a generously sized screw-on or built-in sliding lens hood. At that price, they are a real bargain, since a T mount adapter can be had for another $10- $15, and sometimes the seller will include one for your specific mount if available. Either way, its no biggie, they are freely available.

# We have excellent fast film available to us these days – 400 ASA and 800 ASA film allow us generous exposure latitude, permitting the use of filters and even a few mistakes. Hand-held is possible, but only if the light conditions permit speeds of 1/500 sec and above (WITH a polarizing filter, the light would have to be very bright, so it would have to be a very sunny day). I would recommend a tripod with these lenses any day. They are just too darn big. They come with their own tripod mounts, so why fight it? besides, it saves stress on the camera mounting ring as well.

# So what if the images are soft towards the edges of the lens? The sweet spot in the center will produce a sharp image when stopped down, to f/11 of f/16, and we can always use Picasa or Photoshop to crop the photo if needed. Due to the lack of multi- coating, the bokeh on these lenses is not as pleasing as their more recent (and more expensive) cousins.

# They can be mounted to a digital SLR with the proper adapter. On a Olympus E series DSLR, and a T-mount to Four Thirds adapter, the humble Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 becomes an enormous 800mm f/6.3 and the 300mm Vivitar f/5.6 becomes a respectable 600mm f/5.6. Can you imagine buying a 800mm DSLR lens for less than $50?

#Lastly, here are some excellent examples of what a Spiratone 400mm f/6.3 lens can do on an Olympus E-500 DSLR. I don’t think that anyone can complain about Christine’s beautiful animal photographs!

Spiratone 400mm setup
Vivitar 300mm setup

Here are the related Posts:
Cheap Super Telephoto Lenses Part II
Cheap Super Telephoto Lenses Part III
Learning to love your Mirror Lens

text and images © 2007 ajoy muralidhar. all names, websites, brands and technical data referenced are the copyright or trademark of their respective owners.
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