The word came this month that Popular Photography, the venerable American magazine, would be closing its doors.
No doubt a victim of both the declining interest in enthusiast photography equipment, and the preference for many consumers to get their information more rapidly, and for free, on-line.
Still, it’s a sad thing to digest, especially since, for me, photography and magazines were inseparable – at least in the beginning.
Before buying my first 35mm SLR, eons ago, I pored through articles, test reports, and advertisements in magazines, and I think Popular Photography was my favourite.
A year or so later, after I’d gone through more than a few rolls in my shiny new Minolta, I happened upon the mother-lode: a big box of old photography magazines being sold at a neighbour’s yard sale. I can’t remember if I paid $5 or $10 for the box, but it was worth every penny. The magazines all dated from about 1967 through 1973, with most being from ’69 to ’71. And most were either Popular Photography or Modern Photography.
I devoured them all. It took me months to read each and every one, but read I did.
While they were really only about 10-12 years old at the time, to my young eyes they were from an earlier era – before cameras had LED displays, beepers, or program modes. Automatic flash was still in its infancy, and automatic exposure was the new kid on the block and regarded with suspicion.
There was also a bit more of the “Popular Mechanics” ethos still around: technical articles telling you how to build your own this or that, or how to modify a military surplus lens into something useful. Fun stuff like that was mostly gone by the ‘80s. As responsible camera consumers we were expected to buy only the officially sanctioned accessories and lenses described in the official test reports.
And then there were those 1960’s ads. Wow, did they look out of date when viewed through the eyes of a 1980s teen (of course, looking at ‘80s ads today is equally cringe-worthy). Those late ‘60s, early ‘70s ads drew inspiration heavily from the ‘60s counter-culture, hippie movement.
But one ad I remember seeing again and again, and it seems every other photographer who read those magazines back then remembers it too, was the “Girl Watcher” lens ad.
The big New York mail-order houses were at their peak back then, offering insane deals on items of questionable quality, along with recognized brands. I had thought the “girl watcher” ad came from Cambridge or Spiratone, two of the big advertisers at the time. But a check of some old magazines on hand quickly found that it was the Sterling Howard Corp. of Yonkers, NY who ran those ads with their completely pervey hook. Did it seem that creepy and inappropriate at the time? Dunno, but they ran the ads for years, so they couldn’t have been crushed under the complaints.
What was the “girl watcher” lens, you ask? Well, it was simply a 400mm f6.3 telephoto, which offered apparently enough magnification to snap pictures of unsuspecting bathing beauties at the local beach. It sold for only $34.95 in the late ‘60s.
The other mail order ads offered similar lenses, at similar prices, but with less creepy descriptions.
And it’s not like $35 was chump change back in those days. I recall seeing mid-‘60s ads for bachelor apartments going for $35 a month in a new building. Of course, real-estate and rents have soared more than most other things in the following decades.
So, you plunked down your $35 plus shipping, and maybe spent a bit more to get a leather case, a hood (good idea), maybe a filter – what did you get? Well, I’ve handled and tried out more than a few of these type lenses over the years, and I have to conclude they were pretty good fun for the money.
The 400mm lenses were typically f6.3, which looks a little dim through the finder of the standard SLR, film or digital. The 500mm f8 versions (which is what I’m picturing here) were even dimmer and trickier to focus accurately. The apertures were pre-set – meaning you have to remember to manually close them down before shooting. With the right T-2 adapter on the back of the lens, you could fit your “girl watcher” to just about any interchangeable lens camera, from the fanciest Leica reflex, to the crappiest Petri.
The lens design is modest, despite the advertising hype, and you can’t expect results to compete with multi-kilobuck high-end lenses of today. But if you focused carefully, stopped down to f11, or f16, and kept the thing steady at a decent shutter speed, the results weren’t dreadful – and probably not all that far behind the long telephotos offered by the camera makers at the time – before high-grade coatings, and exotic super-low dispersion glasses came along.
But even today’s photographers, armed with newer-spec lenses, know that long telephoto photography is never easy. Atmospheric haze, loss of contrast from light-scatter, and the struggle to avoid high-magnification shake are always an issue, and the buyer of the $34.95 lens faced all that and a bit less overall sharpness, and some more chromatic aberration to boot.
As I said, the results aren’t dreadful, but many bargain hunters quickly learned their bargain was difficult to use well. The $34.95 either whetted your appetite for something better, or more likely got stashed away in the closet as a constant reminder that the 200mm telephoto or zoom was really plenty of lens for most situations.
So what happened to the cheapie pre-set long telephoto lens? Did they fade away along with bell-bottom pants and Neanderthal-era sexist advertising? Actually, no, they are still alive, well and with us today.
The 400mm versions are gone, understandably, as many zooms these days achieve 300mm. But you can still find brand-new 500mm f8.0 pre-set lenses being peddled on line – where the disappointed customers are less likely to expect their money back. They are no longer made in Japan, but now come from Korea. There are more plastic parts here and there, but they’re still basically the same thing as the old Tele-Astranar, Albinar, Spiratone, Promaster, Rexatar, and the one I share with you here: a Kimunor. Current names include Bower, Samyang, Rokinon, Phoenix, and Vivitar. No doubt there are others. You can even see them with cosmetic upgrades, like white painted finishes and red trim lines, meant to make you think “Canon L”. You can find all you want for $150 or less, usually including the t-mount of your choice (but I don’t think they’ll get you a Petri mount these days). Accessories include cases, filters, and cheap 2x converters in case you have a hankering for a super-dim 1000mm f16 (I dare anyone to get a sharp picture that way).
What they don’t come with is a big floppy sandbag to drape over the lens while bolted onto your biggest, sturdiest tripod. These things are still lightweight, and those tripod collars are still bendy, and the lightest breeze will still conspire to wiggle your pixels into a blur if you aren’t super careful.
I’ll wager they are still better optically than the budget 500mm mirror lenses offered by the same outfits these days, so take a chance on one if you must, and have some fun.
But, please, stay away from the beach.