• Tom Lee

Samyang 800mm Mirror Lens

In these days where #travel to far off exotic lands is becoming much more affordable but #restrictions by the airlines on the amount of baggage you can take becomes ever more contentious, the choice of #equipment we take either on assignment or on holiday, becomes crucial to our overall budgets. Do we opt for low grade lightweight gear and stay within restrictions, or do we opt for the heavyweight but more quality option that inevitably lands us with additional fees for heavy baggage?

The answer lies with whoever pays the bills, but also in the reason of the need for the equipment in the first place. I aimed to explore some of these issues by taking a new lens with me on a recent trip to the #Seychelles.

The Lens

#Mirror lenses, (or catadioptric lenses as they are collectively known) are not a new phenomenon but are rarely used by professionals. #Samyang are one of the few companies that still make them and are available in two variants, either 500mm or 800mm focal lengths. I opted to push the boat out and test the 800mm version as I already have a 400mm option available to me in my existing kit and was too close to the 500mm alternative.

The #benefits of such a lens are several and include:

Cost – around £190, well within the cost of an equivalent refractive lens of the same focal length (£9,000 - 13,000 for my Nikon), you will of course need a T2 mount adding around £35. Weight – at approximately 0.9k, should keep you well within the #airline weight restrictions and won’t break your shoulder when carrying it.Short physical length – takes up far less room in your kitbag. 160mm long with the T2 mount attached.Chromatic #aberration is almost non-existent – this is due to the lack of additional glass elements in the design, which contribute to it’s light weight, smaller size and lower cost.

It’s not all rosey however, as with every benefit there is a #downside…..

The secondary mirror (at the front element) obstructs what would be the position of the diaphragm enabling the user to change depth of field. This results in a fixed #aperture of f8 which cannot be changed.The requirement of a T mount to attach the lens means that all focussing and electronic data is disabled. Manual focussing at this focal length is critical and requires good eyesight and steady hands due to the very short plane of focus. The #reflective #design reduces overall sharpness and contrast making exposure and focussing even more critical, although this can be compensated for in post processing.

Slightly soft due to critical focussing over a long distance

In Use

Now that all the techy bit is out of the way, the proof of any lens is how easy it is to deal with in use.

The first test was to get through airport security. The light weight and small size allowed me to take a much reduced #backpack with me keeping the weight to 7.5k (less than the 10K limit for hand luggage). The strain on my shoulders from a #lighter bag was also a relief. An unexpected drawback was the hand search (both ways). Apparently the short but wide shape of the lens looks like a small compressed gas bottle when viewed under the x-ray.

Given that focussing is disabled due to the need for a T2 mount, #metering was surprisingly #accurate and easy in Aperture Priority mode. The aperture takes care of itself (f8) and setting the ISO will vary the available speed for that aperture. All I had to do was make sure that the speed indicated was suitable for hand holding or monopod support. This was usually in excess of 1-2000/s to allow for some camera #movement. A useful technique when handholding long or slow lenses, is to take a short burst, 3-5 frames in succession. The first or second frame may be a bit dodgy but subsequent frames should be sharper as there is no jerking of the shutter and breathing is steadier.

Full frame image hand held

A characteristic of mirror lenses is the doughnut shaped highlights (bokeh) produced by the reflective design. Some photographers find them a distraction although I personally find them distinctive and quirky. The low contrast provided by the ‘as shot’ images did not bother me in the slightest, as most professionals prefer this due to the amount of post processing we tend to do on raw capture originals.

Typical Bokeh in the Highlights

The major concern for me personally is the uncertainty of focussing, particularly with moving subjects. Whilst with shorter lenses, manual focussing is relatively easy, using a lens of this size with such a shallow field of view, accuracy is essential. This is probably the main reason that this type of lens is not favoured by professionals. However, in optimal conditions and with good focussing, results are impressive.


Given the low cost of this lens, although it has some deficiencies for professional use, under certain circumstances in bright, well lit conditions and fast shutter speeds, it produces some outstanding results. OK, you’re never going to use it at the British Grand Prix on a rainy Sunday, but when weight is an issue and ambience is not a problem, there is no reason why this piece of kit shouldn’t have a place in your arsenal.

The Seychelles was an ideal proving ground and may have a place on a game drive in Africa where subjects seldom come close to your lens. For my purposes I was probably a bit greedy going for the 800mm lens and the 500mm lens would have been more practical with the added benefit of slightly easier focussing and more critical sharpness. But definately gets a thumbs up from me.


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