Tamron 55BB 500mm f/8 mirror lens review

The Tamron 55BB 500mm f/8 mirror lens is an unusual optic. Perhaps the best website for its history is on adaptall-2.com, but to be brief, it was released in 1983 before I was born.

The 55BB is a mirror or catadiotropic lens, which means it has an actual mirror inside to allow the lens to be made much smaller than a typical 500mm lens. It’s also quite cheap at a couple hundred dollars, which makes it much more affordable than a serious 500mm lens.

Unfortunately, this also means that this lens has serious compromises. Aside from its doughnut bokeh that bothers some people, it’s just not that sharp. But does this lens have any redeeming features? Let’s find out in this review!

Build quality

There are few things going for this lens, like the fact that it’s constructed well. The focus ring is very smooth and it feels sturdy. It has a metal Adaptall-2 mount, which means you need a mount adapter for the specific camera you are using it on. In my case, I tested this lens on the Pentax K50 and the Panasonic G9.

Pentax K50 + 55BB @ 500mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 800

The lens itself is very light at 595g. Believe it or not, that’s exactly the same weight as the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, a classic portrait lens. Not only that, but it’s not much longer than the Nikon without the hood. Not bad for a 500mm lens.

This lens will probably last a long time. Considering it’s older than me and still works, I’d say it has something going for it.

Usability

The Tamron 55BB f/8 is hard to use for several reasons. First, it doesn’t have any kind of image stabilization built in. That means if you’re using it on a DSLR, your viewfinder is going to shake like crazy and you will have trouble getting a good framing. It’s not impossible, but tricky. If I compare this lens to my Nikon 500mm PF lens, it’s night and day. With the Nikon, the viewfinder is very smooth and very easy to compose with.

Pentax K50 + 55BB @ 500mm, f/8, 1/3200, ISO 400

The Tamron is also f/8. That means it will have a greater depth of field and hence be harder to focus. Lenses with shallower depth of field give a more pronounced difference between in and out of focus areas and that makes manual focus easier. But the f/8 aperture causes another problem: it makes the viewfinder very dark. That’s more of a problem on DSLRs, whereas mirrorless cameras can amplify the brightness somewhat.

Finally, the focus throw at typical distances is a little short. With all these problems, the Tamron 55BB will take some effort to focus.

Image quality

The image quality coming from the Tamron 55BB suffers in three different ways.

The first way is simply its low resolving power: it’s just not that sharp. So, with wildlife subjects, the lens has problems with fine detail at medium distances. Even budget lenses like the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary will easily out-resolve it. In the real world, that means you can crop less. If you crop too much, your shots will fall apart.

The second problem with this lens in terms of image quality is its doughnut bokeh: in other words, its out-of-focus specular highlight rendering looks like doughnuts such as in the following shot:

Pentax K50 + 55BB @ 500mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 400

But is doughnut bokeh really a bad thing? Kenko actually recently produced a 400mm f/8 mirror lens and described it as a “compact and lightweight super tele lens, suitable for macro photography, performing a unique ‘donut’ bokeh.”

I tend to feel that the doughnut bokeh of mirror lenses is not all bad and sometimes can add charm to an image, especially of the doughnuts aren’t too close to the main subject as in the above shot of the Rainbow Lorikeet.

The final image quality difficulty with the 55BB is its f/8 aperture again: in lower light it just won’t have enough light, especially since the lack of VR means even higher shutter speeds. Yes, this lens really needs specific conditions to work.

Of course, I think the shots I presented in this review are pretty decent. But these are a few shots out of many more that were horrible and pretty much unusable. That is much different than my Nikon 500mm PF lens, which can handle almost any situation thrown at it.

Tips on using it

All the basics of wildlife photography still apply with the Tamron 55BB. But there are some more specific tips that I should tell you about this lens. The first is that your subjects should be really close. Unlike sharper lenses, there is little room for cropping with the 55BB.

Panasonic G9 + 55BB @ 500mm, f/8, 1/1300, ISO 1000

Actually, the Tamron has one trick up it’s sleeve that can help create unique perspectives: it has an unusually close minimum focus distance of 1.7 meters. This translates to a 1:3 reproduction ratio, which is fairly high for such a long focal length. Therefore, you can get closer and produce lesser-used perspectives like headshots of animals, as long as those animals aren’t too timid.

Minimum focus distances of three 500mm lenses

Using a tripod is another great idea. While modern supertelephotos don’t really need tripods to get sharper images, this lens definitely benefits from tripod use. If you can’t use a tripod, using a high shutter speed like 1/800 or higher will also help, assuming you have enough light.

Finally, I would strongly suggest using this lens on a mirrorlesss camera, both for the increased ability to focus using an EVF, and for the brighter viewfinder, which can help composing.

Due to the lower demands of video on resolving power, this lens could be good for video, and I took some sample footage you can see in this short video:

Final thoughts

The Tamron 55BB 500mm f/8 lens is too limited to function as a general wildlife lens. It’s lack of sharpness and quirky handling will further impede its utility.

However, on the rare occasions that it does work, it can produce very nice images. Also, it’s compact size and light weight make it interesting for situations where bringing a huge supertelephoto is not practical. I can certainly see myself bringing this lens when wildlife photography is not my main objective, but where I might want to capture a shot or two. No matter how bad this lens is, it will still destroy a smartphone when it comes to resolving details of birds.

Should you get this lens? I think it’s a great idea if you want to try some experimental wildlife or if you need one of the most compact 500mm lenses in existence. Just don’t expect it to consistently deliver.

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