Saturday, October 30, 2010

Century Precision Optics Tele-Athenar 1000mm f/5.6 - Part I

The Century Precision Optics Tele-Athenar 1000mm f/5.6

You may recall I found this lens a few weeks back via an ambiguous, local Craigslist ad. This lens is huge. Measuring 38" from the tip of the hood to the camera mount, the lens weighs over 15 lbs. (Some of that weight can be attributed to the heavy metal brackets on which this lens was originally mounted.). Although I didn't initially know anything about the lens and had no idea if I could do anything with it, as Rick from Pawn Stars often enthusiastically declares, "I wanted it!" A couple text messages and less than an hour after discovering the ad, I was driving home with this thing in my backseat! I took the gamble and now I needed to know 3 main things:

  1. Some History - Where did this lens come from? What was it used for?
  2. Optical Capabilities - How can I adapt this for use with my DSLR? Is it possible?
  3. How to Mount - If use with a DSLR is optically possible, I need a means to mount this lens on a tripod.

The Search for Info on Century Tele-Athenar Lenses

I contacted Schneider Optics, the company who purchased Century Precision Optics and asked them for some information on this lens. Schneider was surprisingly prompt in responding (A stark contrast to my attempts at getting info from the Tokina corporation) however, they had very little info to give. Even what the rep did have to tell me seemed more like speculation than fact. I also asked around on the Manual Focus Lenses Forum and one user, cooltouch (Michael), seemed to have more info and be much more confident than the rep from Schneider.

The rep basically said:

The Century Tele-Athenar 1000/5.6 was most likely contracted by the military and probably about 10-15 years old putting it around 1995-2000. Originally it probably sold for more than $4k and was a special order lens.

That's it. Despite my numerous questions, that's all I got.

Michael on the other hand had quite a bit more to help me out. He says:

"If the lens is white, it was military-contracted. If it's black, it probably wasn't. But it probably was used in the movie industry. CPO sold most of their optics to the movie industry and the military. Back in the 60s, photographers got wind of their optics and began requesting a line for 35mm still photography. CPO came out with the Tele-Athenar II line for still photographers. The main difference is the TA II's barrel does not rotate when the focusing ring is turned. The lens should also say it's a TA II if it is indeed one.

As far as its age, 10- 15 years ago is probably too young. I got the impression from talking to Bill Turner that, even though they still showed the TA lines in their catalog, they rarely sold one anymore, and this was the early 90s. So it's possible, but not all that likely that your lens is that young.

Anyway, according to my records, the 1000mm f/5.6 is a Tele Athenar and not a Tele Athenar II. It was made for movie work primarily and not specifically for 35mm photography. However, I don't see why it wouldn't work. I imagine it will take killer photos of the moon, for one thing."

Thanks Michael! Essentially this is good news! This lens can be used on modern DSLRs since they were used for cinema, a similar application. I have heard stories about some of these old large lenses being discovered but turning out to be very special purpose lenses. One user from MFL, nemesis101, was telling me of a lens he found long ago that turned out to be for aerial spotting duties with a minimum focusing distance of 3 miles!

As always, I will keep this section updated as more information surfaces.

Adapting The Lens For Use With A DSLR

Optically it's possible to use the lens. Now I need to figure out what parts are necessary for that adaptation. The lens was handed off to me with a rear mount that looked like this:

A seemingly arbitrary sized thread and an empty filter slot. In contacting Schneider, I found out this thread is a proprietary mount that was utilized by CPO on their Tele-Athenar lenses. Fortunately, the mount is still used today on some of their newer products! So the company had the parts for me to order. To use this lens on a DSLR, you need the following part:

(those are zeros) - Century Interchangeable to T-mount Adapter

Then you just need the correct T-mount for the camera with which you want to use this lens. They even had the 2"x 2" filter tray.

Issue #2 down. At this point I was leaning the lens on a deck post, while awkwardly attempting to support the back end and focus at the same time with an extremely narrow field of view. I think I'm going to need a tripod mount...

Mounting the Century 1000/5.6

The lens originally had two large metal brackets attached this to whatever rig it had been designed for. Structurally, it seems to me, it makes the most sense to start from these for a sturdy tripod mount. I began by gluing several 8" x 12" PVC boards together.

Next, I trimmed the boards to an even block.

Then the shaping began.

The process was pretty much just a lot of cutting, drilling, and sanding. Eventually I hope to really smooth everything out and paint it black. For now though, I was too anxious to use it. There's no sense in taking it to the final product if it doesn't work so I had to test it!

Objective 3 complete. Finally time for testing!


Focal length: 1000mm
Angle of view:
Max. aperture:
Min. aperture:
38" L
Aperture blades:


Click here for the performance review of this lens: Century Tele-Athenar Part II!

A Second 1000/5.6 Found! John Maycock shares his experience with this behemoth.


  1. Have to add this to my DIY directory. Not that I suppose someone could need a How To Mount A Century Precision Optics Tele-Athenar 1000mm f/5.6 On DSLR - but it is extremly interessting stuff here!
    Not the usual Canon EF 70-200/2.8 IS USM talk

  2. Haha wtf. Nice report here indeed. Congrats to make the deal for this gem and even get it going!
    I noticed an inconsistancy to the first article though. It said f/45 would be min aperture, here you say it's f/64? How long its this lens without the lenshood attached?

  3. Btw ... any chance of seeing this lens reviewed here?

  4. Oops! The aperture closes down to f45. So I will make that change! Thanks for catching that. To your second inquiry, the lens hood adds 8 inches to the length, taking the lens down from approx. 38" including the mount, to a still-inconvenient size of 30" long.

    Also, a performance review can be found here:

    I will add the link up top. Thanks for reading!

  5. Hello all

    I am in Jeffreys Bay South Africa and have been using a Tele-Athenar Century 1000mm f8 for the past 25 years, I had it on an FE2 film body and now on a D70. I wish I had bucks for a better body with more image detail as the lens is great when the light is full on. I had to send it to Schneider in the USA once for a refurb, they did a good job although it cost me for the freighting. I have it on the heaviest Manfrotto tripod I could find, still battle to iron out the wind shake as I shoot mainly surfing related stuff on the beach. Great lens, lots of history in the surfing scene, this lens started many surfing magazines including my own one (African Soul Surfer, 1990's). Regards to all from deepest Africa.

  6. Garth, thanks so much for the info! I can't even imagine how great it would be to try this lens out in a place like south africa. Very cool. Do you have any of your images made with your century tele athenar on the web? If so, send a link and I'll include it in the article as a space to see some more examples!

  7. Just another note on the history. Surfer magazine owned one from the early 60's. It was used by Ron Stoner, then Jeff Divine. Also, LeRoy Grannis (respected pioneer of surf photography) owned a Century 1000mm from 1963. You could perhaps chase info from The Surfers Journal, or Surfer magazine. Steven

  8. Thank you for the write-up. I've got a 1,200mm version of this same lens I've been trying to adapt to Canon for awhile now.

  9. The Century Lenses were prized among surfing photographers throughout the seventies and early eighties. The 650mm F6.8 was a standard work horse for many surf photographers. I purchased a 1000mm F8 from the Century factory in North Hollywood in 1985 and used it for around eight years with great success. Unfortunately during the eighties Canon and Nikon launched their 800/5.6 lenses and these became the standard lenses for surfing photography with those owning them usually driving a car worth a fraction of the lens' price. I still have the Century Tele Athena lens brochure for these 35mm lenses. Great lenses and a great era in photography.