I've had a lot of experience with 500mm mirrors, mostly on film, but some digital. Here is the short version. 1. Nikon 500mm "N" version. Compact, close focus, tripod foot. 2. Tamron. Very compact, close to or as good as Nikon N. No foot. 3. Nikon "C" version. Bigger, has a tripod foot. Not as sharp as the Tamron or Nikon N. On an F2/MD2 it was a hot setup in the 70's. 4. Tokina. Physically, similar to the Tamron. I had 2 copies-one was decent the other was bad.
Getting good results requires good technique. High shutter speeds and high iso is the order of the day. Use a tripod or monopod if possible. Remember, even though these lenses are pretty small, they are still 500mm, f8 AND NO VR! That said, the Tamron or Nikon N will give you the best results. The are a lot of just plain junk mirror lenses out there. Beware.
From most people's contributions here, third-party catadioptric (mirror) lenses rank from "not that good" to "simply laughable" with Tamron 500mm lens being one notable exception.
Nikkor 500mm Reflex-C f/8 is a very inexpensive lens (approx. $250-$300 used), hardly justifying looking into available third-party substitutes (Tamron lens is at least that expensive). Nikkor 500mm Reflex-N Macro is a better (closer focus), sharper and more expensive version of this lens (approx. $700 in good used condition these days).
I have a C version that I picked up from an old guy in BC and I love it more and more for its light weight and long reach. Once you get used to focusing it properly (it is a bit tricky due to the large ring diameter and shallow DOF), it is a very good and friendly lens. Not a pro-lens by any stretch, but a good walk-around tele.
These four shots are from my walk-around this past weekend with this lens mounted on a D800E, all from considerable (more than 200 ft) distances:
I have four mirror lenses, two of them are 500mm f8. Contrary to what everyone says the Tamron is not better than the Nikon 500mm f8 C. However the Tamrom is smaller, focuses closer and is pretty close to the Nikonin sharpness. It's the one I would look for. The newest Nikon with a macro setting is probably the best but it's expensive. To get the best from these lenses you'll want to use LiveView with the lens mounted on a Tripod.
Thanks for your opinions. I'm a Nikon geek so will look for a C or N model. I should have said that I'm using a Canon nFD 500 mirror with a Nikon adapter and get good results. Only problem is, I loose infinity focus with the adapter which is why I'm looking for a NIkon lens.
Mark, you might want to give more weight to the Nikon N lens with it's macro focus. The minimum focus distance of the C lens is 13 feet, the N is about 5 feet and the Tamron also about 5.
Here's a photo I generally don't take but this Iris was laying on the ground so I cut it and put it in a little vase in my kitchen. I still had the Tamron on my D800 so I decided to take a photo of it. It's not very bright in my kitchen so I used a SB-400 flash. I had to back up to 9 feet for the shot and only cropped a sliver off the right side to balance the photo. Considering it's a fixed f8 lens it not too bad as a macro. I'm surprised I was able to focus in the poor light. The focus confirmation dot didn't come on. I shot handheld.
A couple of questions. Which version of the Tamron lens do you have - 55B or 55BB? You wrote earlier that it is as sharp as the C version plus it has a closer focus. Understood. How does your Tamron compare to Nikon N version from your experience in terms of sharpness? Would you say they are also similar or is N version noticeably sharper than Tamron?
My Tamron is the 55B. I did a critical comparison test of the Tamron versus the Nikon C version and found the Nikon very slightly sharper. I have never used the Nikon N version but I would expect it to be at least as sharp as the C version and maybe sharper. If I can find one at a decent price I'd like to get it. The only other 500mm mirror lens I have is the f5 version which is clearly sharper than the C version but is difficult to use as the focus is via a bellows type arrangement between the body and the main lens barrel.
- Nikon Reflex-N (orange band around lens), about $450-$500 - Tamron SP (I have a 55BB), about $200 plus you need an Adaptall Mount, about $20. - Vivitar Series I Solid Cat 450/f4.5, about $1000 if you can find one.
I have owned a Reflex-N, a Reflex-C and have also tried a bunch of others including the Sigma 600/f8 and a $70 Vivitar non-Series I. I found the Reflex-N and Tamron equivalent until focus distance got short, in which case the tripod collar makes a BIG difference. I actually owned the Reflex-N and Reflex-C at the same time, and I sold both in favor of the Tamron, which I found essentially identical to the N and slightly better than the C. I am pretty certain that all three of mine were in good optical alignment - mirror lenses, other than the solid cats, are relatively sensitive to shock, more so than regular lenses.
If you're really serious about mirror lenses, the Series I Solid Cat 450/f4.5 is also about equal in performance but at f/4.5 is a LOT faster. It's also slightly smaller and a good bit heavier, as one might expect.
Here is a sample from the Tamron:
That was the whole frame - shot on a D3. Here's a 100% crop:
I posted these a couple of years ago before I learned how to do better post processing, but clearly the lens is revealing the pitcher's stubble and the buttonholes on his shirt - from the 39th row of the grandstand.
The Sigma 600/f8 is mediocre at best, and the $70 Vivitar was so bad as to not actually qualify for the term "lens." Really, it was not just soft, but coke bottle bad.
None of these are easy to focus on any DX viewfinders, and they aren't exactly a picnic on FX viewfinders either. If you can use LiveView, you're WAAAYYYY better off.
_____ Brian... a bicoastal Nikonian and Team Member
My gallery is online. Comments and critique welcomed any time!
I know the discussion was about 500 mm lenses but there is also a nice 350 5.6 mirror lens from Tamron. My idea is to combine it with a modified Nikon TC-16A to get an 500 8 with AF which possibly is leaving the subject of this forum! I know it will not be as sharp as the 350 itself, but with the viewfinders of the digital cameras and my eyesight, I need the AF. I have the lens and the converter, so now I just need the time to attempt the conversion.