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|| News Item: Posted 2012-06-08

Going Retro
f/5 and be there

By Keith Birmingham

I was talking to a friend of mine recently, we were hanging out at Dodger Stadium, waiting for that night's game to start. During our conversation, he pulled out this old 500mm f/5 mirror reflex lens that he had recently bought from a friend of his. The lens looked brand new, like something that had just come out of a showcase at a camera shop; like something that had never been used.

Photo by Keith Birmingham

Photo by Keith Birmingham

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Dan Haren throws to the plate against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning of a baseball game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., on Sunday, April 22, 2012.Orioles won the game 3-2 in 10 innings.
Seeing that lens in pristine condition made my mind wander back several years. OK, it was more than several years. But I remembered having a lens like that sitting in a closet at home. This lens at home was made sometime in the 1960s, so there is a pretty good chance that it was older than me.

I hadn't used the lens in about 15 years so I thought that this might be a good time to bring it out of retirement. I learned my trade before autofocus was a common among photography equipment. My early years in this business were spent with this relic of a lens at my side. I had a feeling that it could still serve its purpose.

What the heck, I figured. We're beholden to the technical advances of the day…until something goes wrong. Reporters used typewriters, pens and paper before they started relying on computers and tape recorders, digital ones. Photographers used to rely on their eyesight, quickness and the ability to process film. Now they let their auto-focus armed lenses do a lot of the work, along with their memory cards and laptops.

I went home that night, pulled my old, trusty, forgotten friend out of the closet and went to work at getting it back in shape. It didn't take much effort. It's not as if it had been gathering dust under a forgotten project in my garage.

I wanted to see what my old friend could do, so I packed him up and took him to my next trip to Dodger Stadium. In a world of sports photography, where everyone seems to have the same equipment, while trying to shoot the same things, from the same spots, at the same time, why not?

Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was pitching for the Dodgers, so I figured it was already bound to be a pretty good day. Add the shining sun, the lush green grass of the field, the Dodger-shade of blue around me, the buzz of the fans, and the smell of grilling Dodger Dogs in the air. That was going to make this a perfect day in Los Angeles.

I set it up as a one of two remotes for myself at my usual spots. I put the 500mm mirror lens on the first base side, aiming it at pitcher's mound. I asked one of the guys on the ground crew to stand at the mound and go through the pitching motion, just so I could get a tight focus. Sandy Koufax, he wasn't. But in this case, he was good enough. Focusing was a bit stiff, but I managed to get the lens right where I needed it.

It turned out to be a good game, with a dramatic ending. Dee Gordon won it for the Dodgers with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth inning. Juan Rivera scored the game-winning run against the Padres.

I squeezed off about 60 shots with that lens, and found a few that I liked. Some were even in focus. I felt good about the reunion, so I decided to take it out again. This time to the Mt. Sac Relays.

It was obviously tougher. While Kershaw pitched from the same spot during the entire Dodger game, track and field athletes tend to move around. Without autofocus, that meant I had to be faster. Considerably faster. I basically focused on the one part of the track where I knew the runners would eventually be. Then all I had to do was wait for them to come my way. I focused on world-class sprinter Walter Dix in the 100 meters.

The key with this lens is the contrast. The lower you can get, the better. When the subject is separated from the background, the colors really tend to pop out. If you look at the picture of Kershaw, the shot is good. But the shot of Orioles pitcher Darren O'Day, with the sun behind him gives it sharper separation and the picture looks that much better.

Heck, my goal was simply to go out and have fun. If it didn't work, there was always the closet where my old lens could spend the next 15-plus years.

I had a great time shooting with the 500mm, F5 mirror lens (or cadiotropic long-focus). Better yet, it did exactly what it was supposed to do. In addition to coming up with some shots I was satisfied with, it gave me the inspiration to try something different. It also gave me the idea to not be afraid of looking outside of the box, to try new things, to change my approach to taking pictures. Who knows what I'll pull out of my bag or closet next time. Maybe it will be the 8mm fisheye lens, or my Speed Graphic. You never know. At this point, neither do I.

Keith Birmingham is a staff photographer at the Pasadena Star-News. You can see his work at his Sports Shooter member page:

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