Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Vivitar 500/8 Mirror Lens

I recently bought a Vivitar 500/8 mirror lens (also sold as Samyang, Phoenix, Opteka, Quantaray, and perhaps other brands). Although it's not a great lens, it's not nearly as bad as some say, once you figure out how to use it. So I thought I'd share some of my experiences. Here's a sample image:

First, though, some background.

If you use an SLR (digital or otherwise) and have ever tried shooting birds or other wildlife, you've probably thought about getting a longer lens. And chances are you've seen ads for "mirror" lenses (aka catadioptric, aka reflex) that seem too good to be true - under $100 for a brand new 500mm lens that's barely bigger or heavier than the "kit" zoom that came with your camera. If you've read up on the topic at all, though, you know that mirror lenses come with some major disadvantages: a small and fixed aperture (usually f/8), poor contrast and sharpness, and very odd-looking donut-shaped "bokeh" (the appearance of out of focus areas).

Now, every once in a while you come upon someone who manages to get good results from a mirror lens, and they'll often steer you toward the more expensive ones, saying the cheap ones are to be avoided. But if you're like me, you can't help but be curious. After borrowing one of the "good" ones (the Sigma 600/8) for a few weeks, I found that mirror lenses were not all bad, although they do take some work to get the hang of - both in use and in post-processing. Here's a sample image that I like from the Sigma:

I'm not going to try to convince you this image stands up to viewing at 100% on my 10MP Pentax K200D as well as an image from top quality glass telephoto lens. And if I'm able to get close enough to shoot with at 200mm or 300mm and still fill the frame the way I want, I can get better results with my 200m prime, or my 50-200 or 70-300 zoom. But if I end up needing a teleconverter and/or having to crop significantly in post-processing to get what I want with one of these shorter lenses, the Sigma mirror lens wins over any of the other options.

Unfortunately, this particular model was discontinued long ago and is kind of hard to find and relatively expensive when you do find it. Worse from my perspective, it is bulky for a mirror lens, and around three times the weight of one of the smaller models. It might seem petty to complain about the size and weight of a mirror lens, because at around 2 lbs even the heaviest are much smaller and lighter than a regular telephoto lens of that focal length would be. For me, though, that Sigma was in a bit of a no-man's land. If I'm going to carry a 2lb lens that doesn't fit in my camera bag, I might as well carry around something even bigger that will do the job with fewer compromises. But will I normally bother to carry any lens that big? I know I'm much more likely to actually use a lens that comes in at under a pound and fits in my bag.

There are other discontinued models from Tamron, Tokina, and others that are considered among the better mirror lenses and are probably worth seeking out, but they may also be harder to find, more expensive, and heavier than one might prefer. Frankly, my experience with the Sigma just made me that much more curious about the cheap models one sees advertised everywhere.

There are basically two 500mm mirror lenses currently on the market, although they are sold under a wide variety of different brand names. There is a 500/8 (normally black) made by Samyang and sold under that brand name as well as Phoenix, Opteka, Vivitar, Quantaray, and probably others. Then there is a 500/6.3 (normally white) that is usually sold under the name Pro-Optic but sometimes Kenko and perhaps others. Both are T-mount lenses, meaning that with a proper adapter, they can work with any camera mount. Usually, these lenses are sold with an adapter for a specific camera, but be aware that you can actually buy one for any camera brand if you don't mind picking up an adapter for your own camera separately (only $15 or so at your local camera store), and you might get a better deal on a used one that way.

I thought for a while about which of these lenses to try. Although the f/6.3 sounds better than f/8, one thing I learned from the Sigma is that DOF is so shallow at extreme focal lengths that a fixed f/6.3 as opposed to f/8 could create more problems than it solves. Plus the f/6.3 version is twice the weight of the f/8, and somewhat more expensive to boot. So I became fixated on the Samyang-made 500/8.

Unfortunately, as you also may have discovered in the search process that presumably brought you to this article, there just aren't many detailed reviews or even sample images from this lens, under any of its various names. What I managed to find didn't seem to resolve anything for me - some folks who hated the lens, others who thought it was surprisingly good, and only a small handful of sample images to support either opinion. Most of the references to the lenses came from people who never used either but dismissed them out of hand. Which left me still wondering how one of the Samyang-made 500/8 lenses would work for me.

I knew from the Sigma that one shouldn't expect stellar results right out of the box. Many people have little experience with manual focus, and the small fixed aperture of most mirror lenses means the viewfinder is quite dim, making focus harder than usual. Many do not realize that long telephoto lenses will create very shallow depth of field (DOF), and that avoiding camera shake at those focal lengths can be very difficult too. Many people don't realize they really need to use a hood with these lenses, or that they are supposed to always use the small clear filter that can be inserted in the rear of most mirror lenses. Many are put off by the donut bokeh that is inherent in all mirror lenses. Many see the low contrast and sharpness on the images straight from the camera and don't realize just how much this can be improved via post-processing.

Therefore, it doesn't surprise me that some think even the better mirror lenses are "junk". But more importantly, if someone reports a bad experience with one of the cheaper models, I take that with a grain of salt.

So as I said in the beginning of this article, I did finally pick up a Vivitar-branded version of the lens. I bought it used, as even the $99 brand-new price tag seemed like too much of a gamble. My assumption was that there are a lot of these lenses on the used market that are perfectly fine but are being being sold by people who just don't "get" it.

I'd say the lens has pretty much met my expectations. Not as good out of the box as the Sigma, but capable with a little work of producing results "almost" as good. As with the Sigma, the results are not nearly as sharp as they would be if I were able to shoot from closer with one of my other telephoto lenses. But depending on the resolution of your camera and the quality of your other telephoto lenses, you may still find that mirror wins if you'd need a teleconverter or heavy cropping to get the composition you want at 200mm or 300mm. Here's an (appropriately post-processed!) example I like from one of my first outings with the Vivitar:

But unless you're careful, it's just as easy to get terrible results that would make you assume the lens was not capable of anything like that. So let's look at some of the things that can make the difference.

As I alluded to earlier, technique is a big part of it if you are not used to manual focus or extreme telephoto lenses in general. Depth of field at 500mm and f/8 is very shallow, so you have to really nail the focus or the image will be out of focus. Fortunately, the focus ring on the Vivitar is very smooth, with good resistance and a long throw. If your experience with manual focus is limited to the "kit" zoom lens that came with your camera, you will probably find the actual mechanics of it easier with the Vivitar, even if the viewfinder is dimmer because of the fixed f/8 aperture.

Holding a camera steady with a 500mm lens can be more difficult than you might imagine. The old "1 / focal length" rule is probably on the optimistic side in this case, especially when used with a "cropped" sensor that makes the field of view narrower than it would have been on the 35mm cameras for which that rule was invented. A good tripod helps a lot. But one of the advantages of a relatively small and light lens like this is portability. And many people wanting that in a lens would be reluctant to use a tripod or even a monopod, even though the fixed f/8 aperture means you may often be looking at shutter speeds below 1/500".

For those wanting to handhold the camera with this lens, systems like Pentax, Sony, or Olympus that employ camera-based stabilization provide a significant advantage over Canon or Nikon. This is true even though camera-based stabilization might not be as effective as lens-based stabilization in general, and even though camera-based stabilization systems tend to be less effective at longer focal lengths. But any stabilization is better than none. I find it awkward, imprecise, and often misleading to express the effectiveness of stabilization as being "X" number of stops better, but I'd say that without stabilization, shutter speeds slower than 1/500" are very likely to be noticeably blurry for me; with stabilization, I have a fair chance at a decently sharp picture at 1/90".

If you don't have camera-based stabilization but still wish to handhold the camera, see if you can find a rock, table, or other surface to rest the camera on, as this can control shake at least as well as a monopod. Otherwise, you will need to increase ISO to get shutter speeds above 1/250" (and preferably to 1/750"). You will want to experiment for yourself to find what shutter speeds you need to get get the results you want. Unfortunately, while the aperture is technically f/8, you will find the lens absorbs so much light that shutter speeds are more consistent with what you'd expect of f/11. I find that on a typical sunny day, ISO 400 can give me shutter speeds of 1/500" or better in direct sun but not in the in the shade, and shooting on an overcast day is similar to shooting in the shade. So you might often be looking at ISO 800 or even 1600, depending on how steady your hands are.

Some mirror lenses come with hoods, but this one did not. When shooting anywhere near the direction of the sun, lens flare is pretty unmistakable - simply using your hand to shield the lens from the sun yields an improvement that is obvious just looking through the viewfinder. I bought a cheap 72mm collapsible rubber hood that might not eliminate as much flare as a hood designed specifically for the lens, but it works better than nothing. Still, it is better to avoid shooting in the general direction of the sun.

The famous donut bokeh is going to be more troublesome in some situations than others, and that requires some experimentation to figure out. Small bright highlights create the most obvious donuts. But the prominence of the donuts also has to do with how far you are from your subject relative to the out of focus areas. In a lot of shots - such as most of the ones I've posted here - I am barely aware of it. It gets more prominent the closer the background is to your subject. A very distant background will be so blurred you will probably not notice. And my impression is, the Vivitar seems less prone to donuts than the Sigma in any situation.

Even if you are careful about all of this while shooting, you will probably be disappointed with how the images look straight out of the camera. Contrast, sharpness, and saturation are all relatively low, and your camera probably doesn't have strong enough settings to fully address this. You will almost certainly be needing post-processing to improve this - and you will be needing to increase these parameters far more than you are probably accustomed to. Also, when using high ISO and then increasing contrast and sharpening in PP, noise becomes even more visible than usual for that ISO. You may need to experiment with both the noise reduction and sharpening settings in your PP software to combat this. I find that doing NR as usual for the ISO but setting a higher than usual threshold for sharpening and being relatively aggressive with amount and to a lesser extent with radius works well for me.

When applying this much adjustment in PP, you can get much better results from RAW than from JPEG. I have created a preset that increases contrast and sharpness while adding a bit more vibrance too. By making this a preset, I can easily apply the same settings to all images shot with this lens in one click. In a matter of seconds, the results improve dramatically. Of course, I can also custom process images after applying the preset - there are adjustments that are best made on a per-image basis using levels and curves adjustments, local contrast enhancement, hue adjustment (color is often cooler than I would like), and so forth. But just applying my basic preset instantly makes the results from the Vivitar much more impressive than they would otherwise be.

When you are careful to observe this advice about shooting and post-processing, the Vivitar can definitely beat the results you might get using a 50-200, 70-300, or another similar telephoto lens, and then cropping to yield the same field of view as a 500mm lens. Of course, you'd hope this would be so, or there wouldn't seem to be any reason to use the Vivitar if you already own another telephoto lens. On the other hand, there is something to be said for actually seeing your subject large in viewfinder - particularly if you enjoy just looking at wildlife. And in situations - like with birds in trees, or birds in flight, even - where you might find yourself focusing manually even with an autofocus lens, having the subject appear large in the viewfinder can help. So even if the Vivitar did not actually beat the results from cropping an image from a shorter focal length, it wouldn't be without its appeal.

But if you need to be convinced, here is a comparison. First is a 100% crop of an image from my 50-200 at 200mm. That means it is blown up as big as it can be without getting "pixelation". Following that is a corresponding crop from the Vivitar, resized to match. The original image is the one shown at the top of this article:

If you look closely, you will see the Vivitar image clearly contains more detail. I should point out, though, that this is apparent only in cases where you need to crop beyond the field of view of a 500mm lens as I did above, or in cases where you wish to print the full image larger than 4x6". If I crop the image from the 50-200 to exactly match the full image from the Vivitar and then print both at 4x6", the results are practically indistinguishable. So don't completely discount the value of cropping. It's only on larger prints or heavier crops where the Vivitar wins.

Still, there is no denying the fact that the Vivitar is capturing more detail, or the fact that it provides a much larger viewfinder image, which is nice in itself. And mirror lenses can be surprisingly versatile. Here's a portrait made at that same location (Arches National Park) minutes earlier:

I imagine the most common use for this lens will be for wildlife, though, and birds in particular. I don't think I have quite reached the potential of this lens for that purpose yet. But here is a shot that came out reasonably well considering it was handheld at 1/180":

I don't particularly recommend this lens for concert photography. 500mm is usually far more than you want, and f/8 (more like f/11 in practice) is usually much too small an aperture to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop subject motion. But I have observed that in most venues where you might need very long focal lengths (200mm or more), the stage lighting is often good enough that you can get away with smaller apertures than one needs in smaller clubs. I tested this idea recently with the Vivitar at a concert in a 300-seat recital hall, shooting from the rear balcony. At ISO 1600, all I could manage was a shutter speed of 1/45". But I'm used to shooting at that speed with my shorter lenses, so I know that stopping subject motion is possible with good timing. By resting the camera on the balcony railing, I was able to get the camera steady enough to take this shot:

For large outdoor concerts, I could see this lens being quite useful.

Now, I won't lie - I have taken sharper landscapes, portraits, wildlife pictures, and concert shots with my 200mm and 300mm telephoto lenses. But I cannot stress enough that in order to get those results, I had to be much closer to my subject. If I tried shooting from the distances I was dealing with in these examples, I would need to crop the image very heavily in PP to get the same field of view. And as the comparison I posted above suggests, the Vivitar is capable of giving better results than simply cropping an image from a shorter lens. BTW, I find teleconverters usually give results that are not even as good as cropping, although this depends on the specific lens and TC involved.

On the other hand, if you don't have enough light to get a fast enough shutter speed to stop subject motion or camera shake, a mirror lens is not the best answer. Again, neither is a teleconverter, since they will reduce most telephoto lenses to f/8 or worse as well. Cropping a shot taken at 200mm or 300mm can be a very viable way to get a usable image as long as you don't need to print too large. But mirror lenses like the Vivitar are a fun and effective way to get the shot without cropping.

In conclusion, I hope I have set your expectations for what this inexpensive mirror lens can and cannot do, and how to get the most out of it. A lot of people are extremely disappointed by this lens, and of course, it does not come close to matching a high quality 500mm glass telephoto lens. But I do think most of the naysayers are not taking full advantage of the potential of the lens - shooting with questionable focus and stability, without a hood, and not enhancing for contrast or sharpness or color. It is capable of taking pictures you are not likely to get any other way from a lens of this price, size, or weight.


অরূপ (Arup) said...

Great review Mark..

yaboo said...

mark good eview, thinking of buying the 800 f8 version for static sports. Would you recommend the lense in bright daylight.

justus said...

nice article, I wish I had read your article before I bought my own Mirror Lens.

I do like my f/6.3, but if I had known that the f/8 is half the weight, I may well have been willing to trade the extra speed for the larger dof (cause it is exceedingly tight on on the f/6.3) and the $$ savings.

Marc Sabatella said...

The only mirror lens I've used other than the Vivitar-Samyang 500/8 is the Sigma 600/8 I mentioned. Results I've seen from the 500/6.3 suggest it is perhaps slightly better (contrastier, sharper when focusing relatively close up) than the 500/8. DOF might be shallower, but going to f/8 doens't work miracles in that department. The 800/8 appears to be of the same basic design as the 500/6.3, so I might expect similar performance.

Kevin and Seri said...

well balanced comment on an interesfing subject area. Thank you :-)

bradvance said...

Thanks, Marc for the excellent discussion. It settles for me giving the 500mm a try. It's available from Adorama new for ~ $120.

Arijit said...

Great post Marc as always. Thanx for clearing up most of the queries I had at the back of my mind.

How does it (if it does fit) work on a Kx?

Harvey said...

Great article Mark, and well balanced. My first use of mirrors was in about '83 on SLR (of course!)

I have come across the same type of anti-mirror brigade everywhere I've looked as you did. Yes there are some real el cheapos and I agree each mnf has their own quality criteria as you mentioned. There's a Sigma 170-500mm f/5-6.3 APO Aspherical in my stable but the Vivitar Series 1 DX 500mm f/6.3 performs very well indeed for its weight and price. Most photographers I know post-process even their $1000-$6000 USD Glass taken images! Yet they rubbish mirrors. So why not post-process a mirror image? I have some shots and a review of my Vivitar f/6.3 and if I may be so bold for the benefit of your readers, I'll add the link here...and yes, focusing at f/6.3 is indeed an art! But rewarding. More shots on my Flickr page and there are Mirror Groups there if your readers are interested.

Voicu said...

Thanks to your review I finally decided to buy this lens and after trying it out I found out its pretty good. The construction is peaty solid and its aluminum considering that my stock lenses for my Olympus E410 are plastic. Also the price of this 500mm lens is perfectly compatible with my budget (I got my E-410 at sale from a store that was going out of business). The manual focus does take some time to master after using AF, luckily I had some training with manual focus using my dad’s old Russian Zenit film camera.
For those who think that mirror type lenses are good for nothing, just think about astronomical telescopes those are also based on mirrors and have been chosen as standard for viewing objects at great distances. Besides a photo should be viewed as a whole, you could have the most expensive gear in the world and it wouldn’t help you one bit if you can’t get your composition right.

Phil said...

Hey, Mark, yes, this is very useful.

My lens is 95mm ... Saw you got a "cheap" 72mm hood. I'm hunting around for a collapsible rubber 95. Not really seeing any.

Lots of non-collapsibles from anywhere from about $80 to $570 (and what the heck are THOSE made out of???)

How far out of the way horizontally do these things have to be? I've seen some that look like they basically just extend the outer diameter of the lens casing. Seems like you'd want it to flare out a bit, but maybe with that long focal length it's really not necessary?

How far "out" does your hood extend?

Stas Davydov said...

Thank you a lot for review!

Mark M. Fredrickson said...

You could print a custom lens hood:

Garry Jones said...

Great Review

Garry Jones
Photo Studio Equipment
Green Screen Chromakey

Robert Petkus said...

Thanks for writing this review. As you say, there is a dearth of valid reviews for this item. I also recommend Harvey's excellent review (link is at the end of Harvey's comments).

Dan Banici said...

Mirror telephoto Rokinon 500mm f1:6.3
Also going around as Samiyang and Vivitar with minor cosmetic differences.

This is a very affordable lens that comes with a 2x adapter, effectively making it 1000mm. After looking at some existing reviews, I see most issues experienced by users are not "lens" but "user" specific. You must know how to properly use a lens that is almost a telescope.

I think we can help some folks overcome some of their telephoto / telescope lens issues. So let's begin:

First remember you're working with a mirror lens, so very little light comes through it. You further reduce that light when you add the 2x adapter. The lens is not stabilized, you're working handheld because you want to look good doing it, and to catch sufficient light based on what you see, you will probably use a shutter speed of 250. WRONG! Stop doing that and blaming the results on the lens please...

Here is how to get great results every time.

Use the "reciprocal rule" as follows:
Your shutter speed must match your focal length for a 35mm camera, or with an ASP-C cropped sensor, multiply by 1.6. So to be able to capture a good handheld shot with a 500mm lens (no 2x converter attached) your shutter speed on a Canon Rebel camera should be 500x1.6 = 800 (at least 800). Compensate by raising your ISO as needed, but no more than necessary. You will want to capture a higher quality image so here is what you do further: don't be ashamed to carry the heaviest tripod in your arsenal. Use it. Click the shutter with the wired remote control when using this lens. Install Magic Lantern to get focus help on screen.

When on a tripod you can cheat the reciprocal rule significantly and still take great telephoto / telescope pictures. If you use the wired remote shutter, on heavy tripod, you can easily take continuous ISO 800 shutter speed 160 pictures indoors in moderate lighting (concerts, sporting events, etc) in TV (shutter priority) mode.

And remember, even touching the lens to focus it will move what you see by at least a third of the frame, so compose your shot like a film director, have it focused on a spot, and get your hands completely off the body and off the lens. No touching. That is why you're using that wired shutter. Ignore this and you'll get blurry images.

Rock-V- said...

Hi Mark,

i have dillema.
Tamron 500mm f8 for $364 CAD dollars
Vivitar 500mm f8 for $120 CAD dollars

which would you get ?

thank you. i bookmark your page. its a gem of explanation. thanks.

leodp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
leodp said...

Thanks! Your review was exactly what I needed to convince me.
I'll get one of those used mirror lenses.

Javier Arguello said...

Thank you for taking the time and write a an explanation on the strengths and weakness of the mirror lens.
It is a peace of mind knowing that when used properly, we can obtain good images.

chanakya cholan said...

Brilliant review, Mark!! I kinda smiled when i read that part where you said about not finding any good reviews or sample images by the time we go to your review. That is EXACTLY what happened with me. :-)

Thanks for a super detailed review, research and analysis!

Bob Carlson said...

That is quite a review. I bought one just to learn to be a better photographer. I was frustrated at first but really got the feel for it.

David Rapant said...

Wow! Great information!! Its nice to have this type of info before getting a lens and having to high of expectations. Sounds like its a matter of technique more than anything. I think I might try using one of these cheaper lens now that I know how to deal with them and what to expect. Thank you so much! Who can afford thousands of dollars on a lens anyway? This is a hobby for me, not my lifeblood.

Kaos o Kram said...


new at these lenses...

Would you recommend it for brand new mirrorless Olympus Em-1? with which adapter?