Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Craigslist Mystery Lens - Century Tele-Athenar 1000mm f/5.6

Just when I thought it was safe and told myself, "You have all the lenses you need for right now", THIS comes along. LBA is indeed a formidable foe. Forgive these photos as they were made in haste!

This mystery lens showed up on my local craigslist the other day along with some very ambiguous images depicting the behemoth towering beside a drawn out tape measure. "3 foot lens" the ad stated with no real details as to the brand or focal length of the lens. Fortunately the location of the post was in my city (as opposed to the entire St. Louis Metro area)! Being the camera junkie that I am, I quickly contacted the gentleman and arranged to meet. So we met up at a local gas station and as I pulled up and parked he was already walking over to my car with this massive 3 foot beast! I just about gasped at the actual sight of the thing.

He had no idea what this thing was, and neither did I! The optic had inscribed on the side, "Century Tele-Athenar U.S.A." Elsewhere on the lens was a distance scale that went from ∞ to 125' (just learned how to make the ∞ symbol on a mac ALT+5, heyo!) You read correctly, minimum focus of 125'. A large aperture ring also was inscribed with f/5.6 down to f/45. Then I found it, the focal length. 1000mm. A 1000mm f/5.6!

I had a tough time managing to hold the lens at the right angle with the sun in order to peer down into the gaping bolted-on hood. But when I did, I saw a finely crafted, silvery 20-bladed aperture.

I could tell this was a rare find! I did have some reservations though. I get excited at the sight of older, more heavy-duty made lenses. But reality is they are often optically inferior to the new glass. While I like to consider myself something of a collector (though my funds hardly allow me to buy many of the items on my dream list haha), I am also a fairly practical person. I can't spend a ton of money on an old inferior lens just because it has my favorite metal crinkle-finish covering the entire outer barrel... when for the same amount, I could get brand new optical designs that are actually portable, weather-resistant, flare-resistant, sharp to the corners, etc.

So the bad/practical: I found some gunk on the rear element. There was no mount aside from what appeared to be an arbitrarily sized thread and the filter holder was missing. The thing is huge! There was no discernible tripod mount. Merely two large bolted-on stands or feet with large deep threads indicating some mount was at one time installed but no longer. I will need to fabricate something just to be able to mount this lens onto a tripod. Yes the reality of this lens was that I still have no idea what it was capable of, or if I could even use it at all!

Seeing as how I had more of an idea of what this lens was than the gentleman selling it, and that was next to no idea, I made an offer. We agreed he could probably make more by selling it elsewhere and I offered he do so since my price was modest relative to the shear size of this thing. But he needed the money and seemed happy I was more interested in making the thing work instead of trying to make a profit off of it. So the deal was made!

I have the lens next to the Panasonic GF1 in the title image but here is another comparison to give you some scale of this behemoth.

Now that I have this unknown beast lying in my room I began scouring the web and posting questions on Flickr pages of people who have other Tele-Athenars. I posed a query on the Manual Focus Lenses Forum. And I even e-mailed Schneider-Kreuznach, the company that now owns Century Precision Optics. Here is what I learned:

Century Precision Optics used to make these optics for the motion picture industry. These large and unwieldy pieces of glass were mounted with motion picture cameras on the big camera rigs, which makes complete sense given their size. Often contracted by film studios or the U.S. military, Century did not deal a whole lot with the general consumer. So these lenses were often high-grade optics. Following the first line of Tele-Athenars, Century produced a Tele-Athenar II line after gaining some more interest among the still photographers who were trying to adapt some of these original optics for still photography. The Tele-Athenar II line was apparently more manageable with better focusing mechanisms that photographers were more familiar with.

Also, in regards to the mount. These lenses typically had a Century-made adapter that went from the seemingly arbitrary thread size I noted at the rear of my lens, to a C-mount or a T-mount. These universal mounts allowed the lenses to be utilized on a wide range of recording devices. Schneider got back to me with an e-mail response stating that while the Tele-Athenar line has since been discontinued, they have maintained the rear thread mount and still carry the necessary part which I could use to get the lens down to a T-mount, and then a T-mount to Nikon F for use with my DSLR. They have the parts!

So it will be a bit before I get this up and running but the future is optimistic for this lens. I am thrilled to have it and will keep everyone posted on the results so that in the off-chance you come across something similar in your pursuit to quench the pangs of LBA, you will know more about just what it is you are looking at!


Here is a snippet from a book about some of the Tele-Athenar II line and Century Precision Optics.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with me... I found your blog via Google search as I just got your lenses little brother the 650mm f6.8! I will return with my impressions of the CP - Tele-Athenar after the lens arrives and I snap some frames.

  2. I got a 650mm f/6.8 as a gift in 1979. My mom drove me up to Century Optics and we waited while they put it together for me. I remember being so thrilled with it, as I was a surf photography enthusiast at the time and had seen most of the pros shooting surf magazine shots from the beach with this lens. I put it away after a while and dug it out of storage 30 years later. Some fungus had formed between the two bits of glass making up the front element, so I had Schneider Optics refurbish it. I used it then mainly for lunar photography. The clarity, brilliance, and sharpness of this lens are amazing! I love these old lenses, and they definitely don't make them like they used to.

  3. I have a Century Precision f5.6 1000 mm Tele Athenar, and, a very similar story on my acquisition. Schneider (Hollywood) refurbished it inside and out. I use a Nikon T mount to attach my digital camera for astro photography. It's a great lens.