Gear of the Year: Barney’s choice (part 2) – Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11

Dan Bracaglia

In Part 1 of my Gear of the Year for 2020 I mentioned that the Fujifilm X100V has been in my hands almost all of this year. This article is about a very different piece of photographic equipment in my collection, which has also seen heavy usage this year. And an item which – while much less practical for the kind of day-to-day documentation to which the X100V is so well-suited – is no less enjoyable (in its own way) to use.

The story of how I ended up with a Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is a bit complicated, and starts with a very different kind of product: the Coolpix P950, which I reviewed earlier this year, at the height of the Washington state quarantine. Those several weeks of shooting with the P950 turned me on to the potential for a proper super-telephoto photography project, once non-essential travel restrictions were lifted.

And I knew exactly where to start – by the sea.

Re-reading WG.S Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn this summer (yes, sorry, this is going to one of those kinds of articles), one line really resonated with me. It’s a description of fishermen on the Norfolk coast, in England. Wondering about their motivation at a time when it is ‘almost impossible to catch anything from the beach’ Sebald concludes that they ‘just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness’.

I’ve always found it calming to look out at the ocean, and amid the seemingly never-ending chaos of this year, I’ve been bolting down to the Washington coast whenever time and local regulations allow, to put the world at my back for a little while.

The long telephoto project I originally had in mind was to be centered on the fishing boats that ply up and down the Washington coast. Unfortunately, it turned out that even with its excellent image stabilization, accurate framing with the Coolpix P950 was too difficult with such distant, bobbing targets, and the 16MP resolution was too unforgiving when it came to cropping. That’s where the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 came in.

The vignetting in this shot, and the others in this article, is optical. I don’t mind it (and haven’t corrected it) in images like these, but it’s one more thing that limits the usefulness of long mirror lenses for more conventional work.

1/2000sec|F11|ISO 800

The Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is a catadioptric lens, which works by ‘folding’ the light that comes into it using mirrors. This provides a long focal length without the need for a physically long lens barrel. The light travels the same distance inside a mirror lens as it would in a conventional telephoto, it just moves in a zigzag.

The biggest downside to mirror lenses in general is manual focus (in almost all cases – more on that in a minute) and a fixed, slow aperture, usually F8 or F11. This severely reduces the range of conditions in which they can be used. Typically, mirror lenses are also less sharp than conventional lenses, as well as being an absolute pain to focus through an optical viewfinder. They have a tendency to throw off AWB too, and let’s not forget the highly distracting ‘donut’ bokeh, created by the annular mirror.

In a world of high-resolution electronic viewfinders, magnified focus modes and fully electronic shutters, mirror lenses are more practical now than they’ve ever been

For all that, mirror lenses have a dedicated fanbase (and if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get into lunar photography, look no further). But there are a lot of good reasons why this lens costs $3,200 and this one can be found on the second-hand market for less than $500. And that’s an unusually expensive example of the type – most bog-standard 500mm F8 mirror lenses can be picked up used for around $100-200.

This image is a combination of two exposures taken from the same position, moments apart: one exposed for the moon, and one for the wispy clouds.

F11| ISO 1600 (multi-exposure)

Catadioptric lens technology hasn’t evolved significantly in decades (with the honorable exception of the Minolta AF Reflex 500mm F8, which remains unique among mirror lenses for offering autofocus) but camera technology over those decades has come on in leaps and bounds. And it turns out that in a world of high-resolution electronic viewfinders, magnified focus modes and fully electronic shutters, mirror lenses are more practical now than they’ve ever been. Which is why when a ‘Like New -‘ condition example of the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 popped up on KEH earlier this year I jumped on it immediately.

The British are famous for our sentimental attachment to the coast, maybe just because of its constant proximity – nowhere in the UK are you more than 70 miles from the sea. In the time it takes for me to get to Long Beach Washington from Seattle, I could drive almost the entire length of England.

1/3000sec|F11|ISO 1000

That last paragraph, by the way, was going to form the basis of an opinion article I was planning over the summer. Provisionally entitled ‘Thanks to Mirrorless Technology, There’s Still a Place For Slow Telephoto Lenses’, the air was taken out of the idea by Canon’s surprise release of the RF 600mm and 800mm F11 STM. But hey – I was right. It turns out that there is a market for lenses like that.

Earlier in this article I implied that the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 is ‘enjoyable’ to use. That needs some qualification: I enjoy using it in the same way as I enjoy hiking up really steep hills. It makes me feel good afterwards, but often, when I’m actually engaged in the task, it’s a bloody nightmare. Oh, let me count the ways…

The Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 lets me get a perspective that would be impossible with any of my other lenses

First, the massive 108mm filter thread is non-standard, which means that there’s no simple replacement option for the fiddly threaded metal (!) cap, which takes ages to get on and off. Then there’s the enormously long focus ring. This is both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, depth of field is so shallow at 1000mm you really do need a good, positive manual focus ring with fine-grained control. On the other hand, if you nudge the barrel of the lens (or the massive integral hood, which rotates with the focusing ring) or breath on it, or look at it wrong, you’ll throw off critical focus. And because the focusing ring makes up 70% of the length of the entire barrel (even more when the hood is extended) it’s almost impossible not to nudge it when handling or repositioning the lens. Finally, although smaller than a conventional 1000mm F11 would be, it’s still a big, fat lump of glass and metal that doesn’t fit into a camera bag alongside my other gear.

Ultimately though I don’t really care about any of those issues, because the Reflex-Nikkor 1000mm F11 lets me get a perspective that would be impossible with any of my other lenses and, yes, it’s a lot of fun.

From my favorite spot near Long Beach, looking out over the Pacific, the horizon line is roughly 10-12 miles away. Twelve miles is the official limit of territorial and international waters.

1/1000sec|F11|ISO 3200

I shoot my 1000mm F11 lens adapted on a Nikon Z7, with electronic shutter and a cable release, and always clamped to a sturdy tripod with a 10lb weight slung under it. I tried mechanical shutter and electronic first-curtain, but after a lot of experimentation I found that the former can create vibration issues at such a long focal length, and the latter can lead to uneven exposures at the shortest exposures.

With the setup I just described, I can get away with shutter speeds of around 1/200sec in still conditions. If it’s breezy, I’ll increase the ISO and decrease the exposure time accordingly. If the fully-electronic shutter introduces any distortion, I can’t tell. The subject matter would render it unnoticeable anyway.

Water spouts, created by whales breaching in the Pacific close to sunset. These little puffs of water were invisibly small to my naked eye.

1/500sec|F11|ISO 4000

The project I’m currently working on with my 1000mm is a little different to the one I’d originally planned, and a lot more abstract. it’s shot mostly from a single overlook about 100 feet up over the Pacific coast near Long Beach WA, looking out roughly 10-12 miles to the clouds and patches of light which line the horizon, approximately at the boundary of International waters. Since I started working on this project I’ve added a Tamron SP 500mm F8 and a second tripod to my collection for those times when 1000mm is just slightly too long.

Maybe I’ll look back at the whole effort in a couple of years and think ‘well that was a waste of time’ (maybe you think so already – and I’m sure you’ll let me know) but if nothing else, turning my back on the world and concentrating on 1.3 degrees of distant, hazy somewhere else for a few days here and there has provided a much-needed exercise in creative meditation.

Next year’s post-vaccine project: A closeup look at crowds, all shot on a 14mm lens.