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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blog News

What's New:

Century Precision Optics 1000mm f/5.6 Adapter Arrives!
Blog Improvements
Some Shooting with the "Bokina"

My CPO Adapter Has Arrived!

Finally, it has been an entire week since I ordered the adapter necessary to mount this behemoth lens onto my DSLR (and missing filter tray). Waiting for a package is about the only thing that makes weekends feel like they take forever! I am currently working on a thorough write-up detailing the deployment of the Tele-Athenar 1000mm f/5.6. I am also attempting to fabricate a DIY tripod foot/handle since the lens weighs 15+ lbs. and currently stands on two beefy "feet". I have no means to fasten it to a tripod. Enter PVC.

I took a couple preliminary shots today just before it got dark and I have to say, while I was seeing some prominent CA, this lens gets OUT there. If it wasn't such an overcast, rainy night, I would be out shooting the moon.

I'll keep you posted!

Blog Improvements

You may have noticed, if you poke around the blog, some things have changed/are changing. I have some time on my hands lately so I have been making an effort to go back into older posts and pages in an attempt to add more info, add more recent thoughts and opinions (now that I have used some of these lenses much more in practice), and improve site consistency overall.

As with anything new, I am still getting my feet regarding how I would like to organize my thoughts and get you the information you may be looking for. If you have any requests or recommendations please ask or let me know! I'd love to hear if there is anything else I can do. For example, sometimes I am looking for a lens and need to see a side not pictured anywhere for a number of reasons. Contact me, say, "Hey I'd like to see a close-up of that tripod mount on blahblahblah lens or whatever".

Some Changes to Note:
  1. The "Dedicated Macro Lens Index" page has been updated with a number of new lenses from many different manufacturers. There are so many out there but sometimes you just would like to see what is available to you (and your specific camera). This is a big undertaking and I certainly have missed quite a few but am working on building it up and eventually into a downloadable data sheet too.
  2. Some of the lens reviews have been shaped up. Eventually they will all look and feel pretty much the same in terms of layout and organization. Hopefully I can get all the same types data for each of them too (specs, etc).
  3. I have begun attempting to branch out in my HTML skills so you will see some better navigation hopefully. I have begun adding some quick links at the top of reviews if you just need to see, for example, the specs. Rather than scroll through the whole page just click the "Specifications" link at the top and go straight there.
  4. I have posted a couple new PDFs on the "Lens Reviews and PDFs" page for the Tamron SP 300mm f/2.8 107B and the Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A.
This is an ongoing process but hopefully it will make things easier and cleaner for you!

Savoring a Nontraditional, Warm Autumn

We have had an exceptionally warm beginning of autumn this year. It seems everything is a little bit confused. Can't say I have been complaining though. I've been trying to spend as much time outside as I can. Our leaves didn't change color in the same timeframe that they did last year, leaving me without any great fall color images. It seems the leaves went from green to brown, with sporadic coloring. Regardless, the bugs have been loving it. Caterpillars abound. Here are just a few images I made recently (mostly with the Tokina 90mm f/2.5 AT-X "Bokina").

The following were made with the Tamron SP 300mm f/2.8 107B @ f/2.8. This lens is so sharp wide open!

More to Come Soon!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A

While this lens isn't "rare", it isn't exactly in ready supply either. While exploring Tamron's Adaptall-2 line-up in effort to find an inexpensive alternative relative to the premium name-brand glass, I continually saw mention of the Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A but infrequently found any actual results. Mostly people just commented on how large of a lens it is. Having originally retailed for over $1000, I think it is time we had a little more info than this.


I have to say this lens was somewhat of an impulse buy. I have no idea what they typically cost since I haven't been on the lookout for one. I just saw one ending on eBay one day, in great condition with what looks to be nearly all of the original accouterments. After having sold another lens and having the money sitting in paypal I reasoned I would just pick it up and give it a try since I wasn't finding much online. Then resell it after I am finished, should it not turn out to be Tamron's best kept secret. Spoiler alert: it isn't.

That may sound harsher than I intend since this lens isn't a poor performer, just not amazing. But I am getting ahead of myself! We will get to performance.

First impressions of this lens are in agreement with what I have found online: this lens is a beast.
Being a non-IF (internal focus) zoom lens with such a broad range, this kind of size is inevitable. The built-in hood is great, though this adds another 4" to the length. The physical length of this lens goes from 14" fully compact, to 20" completely extended and hooded.

The overall look and feel of this lens is nothing short of Tamron's best Adaptall design. A solid 6 lbs. of metal and glass. I love the all-black semi-gloss finish. All lettering and info is engraved into the lens barrel. Hints of Tamron's signature turquoise color appear in the distance scale lettering. The barrel sports Infrared scales for 200, 300, and 500mm focal lengths. The 200-500mm f/5.6's front filter is a massive 95mms but the lens is also equipped with a rear 43mm filter tray. Due to the size, the lens was designed with a tripod foot which does rotate 360º. I have read, and do agree, the tripod mount is further back than it should be. Even with a camera mounted, the lens is pretty front-heavy.

Using this lens, I also quickly realized another drawback to the non-IF design of this particular lens. When focusing the lens, (Anywhere from 200-500mm, focal length doesn't matter because that action does occur internally) the front portion of the lens rotates. For one thing, if you were to use a polarizing filter, it would need to be adjusted accordingly as you focus. But secondly this means anytime you are focusing upward, holding the lens at a high angle (and I mean nearly verticle), the sheer weight of the front of the lens creeps back down (toward the infinity focus position). I will say however, this lens manages to stay in place to a pretty severe angle. I assume this will all be dependent on the condition of the lubricants in your particular lens.


Accessory-wise, this lens originally sold with a large faux-leather case (L-40) with a red fabric lined interior and foam inserts fitted to the lens. There is also an accessory compartment in the case to accommodate a teleconverter, strap, additional filters/trays, etc.. I do not have the original Tamron 95mm protective filter for the front of the lens and boy are they hard to come by! The lens also came with a cheap fake leather lens cover for the front which is black felt-lined on the inside (which I did get).


Focal length: 200-500mm
Filter thread: Front 95mm, Rear tray 43mm
Min. Aperture: f/5.6
Max. Aperture: f/32
Angular field of view (diagonal): 12º-5º
Elements/groups: 14/10
Maximum magnification ratio: 1:3.52 (500mm @ 8.2' [2.5m])
Multi-Coated: Yes, BBAR MC
Min. focusing distance: 8.2' (2.5 m)
Length at ∞: 14.4" (365 mm)
Maximum barrel diameter: 4.1 " (105mm)
Weight: 6.1 lbs. (2780 g)
Lens hood: Built-in
Mount: Adaptall-2
Manufacturer designation: 31A

Above, the optical diagram is from

While this lens is an SP (Super Performance) lens, it does not have any LD (low-dispersion) glass in it. This was to keep costs low since the lens was intended to compete with premium brand lenses but cost the consumer less. Also, regarding the "BBAR MC" designation. From what I am finding online, it seems BBAR may stand for "Broad-Band Anti-Reflection" and then MC obviously "Multi-Coating". Either way, all Tamron's Adaptall-2 line listed in the 200-500mm's brochure were BBAR.


So who cares about all that stuff. Is the lens any good optically? Well I'll tell you what, I care about all that other stuff. But agreed, I think it is important that we understand if this lens is worth its weight optically too.

Since the time I initially got this lens, I haven't had a whole lot of time to get out and use it for birding or various other long-range activities for which it was designed. But I did a fair amount of image comparison which should suffice to at least show what this lens is capable of.

Here I had the rig mounted on a sturdy tripod. I used a D700 @ ISO 800 to ensure high enough shutter speeds so I was not affected by camera shake. The sun was at my back to the left. I cropped these images and enlarged them by about 50% so that you can see the pixels. Only a hair of sharpening to combat the web softening images slightly when posted here. All images were made in RAW.

Below is the key image made of the Clark Bridge in Alton, IL @ 200mm.







Here is a key for that same Clark Bridge @ 500mm.





Beyond f/16 the wind began affecting the shots. Being out by the river, the winds can get pretty intense.


As always the lens shows slight softness wide open but is still pretty sharp! I am impressed with the sharpness of this lens at both 200 and 500mms. Center sharpness as well as corner sharpness with this lens is quite acceptable.

As far as contrast, I would say the lens again performs well. These shots aren't the best examples to show contrast but I assure you from other use with this lens, you will not be disappointed with the rendering of a scene!

Flare doesn't appear to be much of an issue, nor does any concern for stray light affecting the image. The built-in hood provides copious coverage.

Now to address the issue that plagues the Tamron SP line, Chromatic Aberration. CA seems to be the biggest downfall of even Tamron's best LD lenses. While this lens has no LD glass, it is designed to compensate for CA in other ways. Nevertheless, CA is quite visible even at f/8. The best way to handle this issue is either to avoid shooting in situations that produce CA (extreme high contrast) or deal with it in post.


Since the introduction of this lens in 1984, the industry has made leaps and bounds toward better zoom technology. The 31A is pleasantly sharp wide open and performs quite well beyond that. However the CA can be a bit much at early apertures and the effort to keep your zoom/focus in check can prove a bit of a challenge, especially in fast paced environments. While I love the build and look of this lens, the reality is that it isn't very practical by today's standards. The Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A is a great choice if you need sharpness and zoom for a low price. Also the adaptall feature allows you some portability in between systems if needed. I haven't tested the newer Tamron 200-500mm f/5-6.3 Di AF but I imagine it is a much more manageable lens (also nearly 3 times as expensive). There is a Tamron 200-400mm f/5.6 D AF that costs a little less than this adaptall actually (as of 10/2010) but I have heard nothing about it. The Tokina 400mm f/5.6 AT-X and the 80-400mm f/4-5.6 may be other options and can be had for around the same price as this adaptall ($300-400). Both of which have AF and are considerably lighter. But I know little about their performance at the long end which tends to be where these zooms struggle.

Plain and simple, the ability to get similar zoom, same f# or faster, and AF for the same price as the 31A makes buying this lens more about nostalgia for well-made Adaptall lenses than anything else. If you can afford to take your time and are just looking for a sharp 500mm that can double as a weapon, all for one low price, here it is! Optically, it's no slouch, but technology has moved quite a bit beyond this.


NEW!! - I received the owner's manual with this lens and have scanned it into a PDF document.
Click HERE to download the User's Manual for the Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A (mirror site of the previous adaptall-2 site) - Tamron SP 200-500mm f/5.6 31A

Here's link to Pentax Forum's profile on this lens.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Entrepreneurial Spirit = @#$çß@! Others

I typically don't post rants or raves but I have just had it with people in this world. And since this is completely relevant to the photo world, why not.

The new Nikon D7000 has just been released and while it is in high demand, it is also in short supply. Actually I have found they are available at my local stores but I have read people are having trouble getting them around the country. Amazon has reportedly sent out e-mails notifying pre-order customers of their delayed deliveries.

And as with so many other times in America, when demand goes up for anything, no matter how trivial, the "Land of Opportunity" becomes the "Land of Opportunists". People rush out to get their hands on whatever the craze is. Grown adults in a frenzy over 3-5 year old's toys, even when they themselves haven't any kids that age, or at all! Why? So they can turn around and rip the #%$#@ out of their neighbor. I'm sick of it. It is this attitude of greed and selfishness that permeates throughout our society and ultimately will be the end of us.

After having EARNed money to acquire and create with these wonderful new tools of the trade photographers, artists, creators now sit empty-handed and waiting because people who literally have NO interest in photography are snatching the inventory and marking up the prices to get their "piece" of the sale. Scum. Really, these people are scum. I can understand vintage items and antiques having ambiguous values due to sentiment and rarity. But to see something come off the line, with a clear MSRP, be sold for hundreds more simply because people may pay it...That is awful. I feel like personally messaging each and every seller of these cameras just to tell them they are sick opportunists who give humanity a bad name. It's that big of a deal to me. This would be a totally different story if the prices on eBay were the same as MSRP. Then we can talk about "turns out I don't need this camera". But we all know what's going on.

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.