Recently, I got an e-mail from my grandfather, a former employee of the Perkin-Elmer company. The company, while he was with them, developed the gold-colored masks astronauts wore on the moon and, later, developed the optical parts of the Hubble Space Telescope.
These days, the company has “re-aligned” to focus on “human and environmental health.” Once, though, during less health-conscious times, the company designed unique lenses for 35mm cameras. The e-mail from my grandfather was to let me know that one such lens was being sent to me and that it should be very interesting.
So what type of camera lens would come from the inventor of the spectrophotometer? The company, according to their Web page, was awarded a United States Medal of Honor in 1944 for designing a flash that allowed spy photos to be taken at night, from a plane. This lens, too, was designed with the Spy in mind.
Perkin-Elmer 600mm Solid Cat
It’s less than 5 inches long and a bit more than 4 inches in circumference, yet achieves an astonishing 600mm focal length. Nikon, today, makes a 600mm lens. It’s 17.5” long, 6.5” in circumference and weighs 11.2 pounds. It’s 2 stops faster than the old Perkin-Elmer, has autofocus and stabilization. It has a bit of astonish-factor too, as it costs more than $10,000. So a lens 1/3 the size and made by The Hubble People, is a pretty interesting tool.
Perkin-Elmer designed this lens as one solid piece of glass. I’ve described before the solid feeling of a Nikon prime, but I’ll have to re-adjust my scale of solidity. This lens really is “solid.” I suppose entry of dust and mold will be less an issue as the decades go by. The lens operates, in my non-scientific understanding of things, by reflecting the incoming image between a set of mirrors, essentially folding the path of light into a three-way bounce. Perhaps that explains the 1:3.5 difference in length between this and the astonishing Nikon.
It is fitted with a screw-style T-mount, a common mount, I believe, among telescopes (which certainly makes sense at this focal length.) In fact, many online references to the lens are from astronomers. For my use, it was an easy find to track down a T-mount to Nikon adaptor. With it screwed firmly to back of the Solid Cat, the lens is a handsome fit to Nikon’s D3.
The beefy D3 dwarfs my go-to lens, a Nikkor 50mm f1.4, not the case here. It’s a chunky combination that’s heavy, but sits comfortably on the palm of my left hand. It’s worth noting, however, that this combination is best used on a tripod, as 600mm is enough focal length to amplify any hand-holding jitters into noticeable image blur. The focus ring is beefy, slow-turning, and beautiful. Its precise to use and completely free of drift. One ergonomic complaint with the D3/Solid Cat combo: the hefty tripod mounting collar is solidly designed but too closely-spaced with the camera body to allow connection to my tripod (using a Bogen pistol grip and standard plate). The D3’s built in battery grip is perhaps to blame and, to be fair, my 80-200mm f2.8 Nikkor has the same issue. Both lenses can be mounted to a tripod by first rotating the mounting collar to the top of the camera.
A significant limitation of this lens is a permanent f8 aperture setting. For many lenses, f8 falls nicely into the “sweet spot” for image clarity, for this lens, it’s all you get. If I had to pick one aperture to use at all times, it might be f8, as it’s a nice compromise between a sharp, strobe-appropriate exposure, and a bit of subject isolation. Also, at 600mm, a fast aperture is not necessary to completely blur the background. As lens blur is a factor of both focal length and aperture, it’s not hard to obliterate all background detail with the Solid Cat.
And that blur, by far, is this lens’s strongest artistic merit. The background not only blurs to a hazy tapestry, but also forms into distinct rings at every highlight. Very cool. The mirror’s donut shape repeats throughout the background texture, creating a mysterious and unique blur effect. Take a look at this out-of-focus image of backlit tree branches.
I shoot mostly portraits and love the soft effect and hazy-ring bokeh of this lens. It is complicated to use, however. The aperture can’t be changed from f8, the viewfinder, therefore, is considerably darker than with modern lenses, making focusing a bit more subjective than scientific, and there is not autofocus. Also, a tripod is necessary unless you have unusually stable hands. Without one, I have trouble even finding the subject in the first place. Another complicating factor is that I have to be very far from my subject, often communicating posing suggestions using crazy arm gestures. The minimum focusing distance, as indicated on the lens and verified in my back yard is 23 feet.
Its an interesting historic conversation piece, but also a unique imaging tool, even in the digital age. It isn’t sharp enough, fast enough, or easy enough to focus to replace a $10,000 modern lens for those who need the focal length for wildlife or sports photography, but it is a very novel tool to have around for a portrait or wedding shooter. It’s too heavy to carry around on a daily basis, but a capture or two might add an engaging image to a portfolio. This is, and it’s easy to forget given its solidity and high-tech design, a very old lens. It is still, though, a relevant artistic tool. Good work, Hubble People… How cool would it be if they were making lenses today?