A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone

Started Sep 30, 2018 | Discussions
ProfHankD
ProfHankD Veteran Member • Posts: 8,245
A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone
6

There seems to be an infinite supply of old 400mm f/6.3 telephoto lenses. The good news is that they're all cheap. The bad news is that they act like it.

One of the most common 400mm f/6.3 lenses, at least in the USA, is the Spiratone. I already had a Tele-Astranar and a Soligor, but I've never tried one of the Spiratones, so when I had the opportunity to get two of the Spiratones and another Tele-Astranar for $10 + $26 shipping, I figured it was worth bidding... and three days later, I had the lenses.

These lenses were not really in the condition advertised. The only defects mentioned were a few scuffs and a dent in the front of one of the Spiratones, but it turns out that all three had dirty rear elements and the dented Spiratone's rear element is a bit milky looking even after cleaning. It's not total junk, but that element definitely hurts contrast, so we'll just ignore that one in testing here. The other Spiratone wasn't perfect either; there is a small bubble in the front element and it wobbled in the middle until I tightened some set screws. Anyway, here are the two that cleaned-up nicely:

The two lenses have surprisingly different internal construction. The Tele-Astranar is shorter and has an element at the rear where the T-adapter fits; the Spiratone's rear element is a few inches further from the sensor, where the tripod mount is (according to an old ad, it's a Petzval design with four elements). While we're talking about things that appeared in old Modern Photography magazines, it turns out both these lenses were tested, producing the following little tables assessing sharpness:

In fact, that matches what I see perfectly... well, assuming you accept the best I'm seeing from the Astranar as "Excellent." I don't think I share their definition of excellent. In fact, I don't think I'd rate either of these as an "A" in IQ. However, let's look at some shots....

First, from the Spiratone on my A7RII:

Spiratone @ f/11

Spiratone @ f/6.3

Spiratone @ f/6.3

Spiratone @ f/6.3

Spiratone @ f/11

Overall, really not a bad showing looking at the final images. In the EVF, however, it was a very different story. Focusing wide open showed peaking at normal magnification, but not in magnified views. In fact, fully magnified, everything looked a bit smeary. Spiratone liked to call this lens "pin sharp" in their adds: well, it turns out pins can be pretty dull.

The Tele-Astranar didn't have that problem. I'm not saying full magnification looked sharp wide open, but it didn't look smeary, and there was some peaking at middle magnification. It also shows some vignetting wide open that the Spiratone didn't:

Astranar @ f/6.3 -- fairly obvious, but correctable, vignetting

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/6.3

Astranar @ f/11

It's probably obvious from the above that I found the Astranar a lot more appealing than the Spiratone... which honestly was a big surprise.

You see, this is my second Tele-Astranar 400mm f/6.3. The first one I rated a "B" in build quality and a "C" in IQ, primarily because of 6-9 pixels of CA and a color shift toward blue on stopping down. Well, I don't see anything that bad here -- transverse CA is corrected with only about +1.5 Red in GIMP's Chromatic Aberration tool. So, what gives? Well, a few things:

  1. The earlier tests were using 24MP APS-C (as opposed to 42MP FF here), and not with a backside-illuminated sensor. The smaller pixels and deeper path to the photodiodes may have enhanced CA and also contributed to the color shift.
  2. Although transverse CA isn't bad, axial CA is fairly terrible. Things a little out of focus easily get Red or Cyan fringing around them that is indeed 6-9 pixels across. Still, that fringing tapers off smoothly enough to not kill apparent sharpness if these shots were rendered as monochrome images -- which is probably most of what these lenses were expected to be used for.
  3. That was in 2010. I'm older and wiser now.

Ok. If #1 is a problem, MFT performance should be even worse. Is it? Well, here's the Astranar on my MFT GX-850:

Astranar @ f/6.3 on MFT GX850

Nailed it. I count up to 25 pixels of axial CA! Now that's impressive. Despite that, I also see fine detail down to about 2 pixels wide -- which really is excellent resolution.

So, here are my very informal ratings:

I'll say both lenses deserve a "B-" for build quality -- actually, all my 400mm f/6.3 lenses do -- but we'll round that up to "B." Despite being light and easily broken-down into a series of tubes, they're solid and really fairly well made. However, none of these lenses can focus close enough. Image quality is where we get more of a difference.

The Spiratone is a better behaved lens overall, with almost no vignetting, consistently smooth bokeh, and slightly more natural, if less saturated, colors. It has some transverse CA, but it's not a sharp enough edge to be very annoying. Unfortunately, focus is just smeary enough wide open to be annoying, and stopping down from f/6.3 usually forces high ISOs that destroy the same detail smear killed wide open. Still, it does get sharp enough stopped down and is probably a "B-" on FF, but a "C+" on APS-C.

The Astranar is plenty sharp wide open, but less well behaved overall. Axial CA is pretty terrible and vignetting is correctable, but obvious, wide open. Bokeh are not as reliably smooth as for the Spiratone, but when you don't have specular highlights, it still looks pretty good. My 2010 rating of IQ of my other Astranar was "C" on APS-C, but sharpness is in solid "B" territory even on MFT. As a single score, I think "C+" rounded down to "C" is the best overall summary of APS-C IQ. On FF, I think it's actually a pretty clear "B" with sharpness in the "A-" range but other defects lowering the score.

Would I recommend one over the other? It depends on what you want. The Spiratone's consistency is a great feature, and it makes nicer images if you miss focus a little. On the other hand, the Astranar has the resolution wide open. For monochrome images, I'd go with the Astranar every time. My Tokina-built Soligor 400mm f/6.3 seemed to be the best back in 2010, but IQ was still just a "B" on APS-C, it's less common than the other two, and I didn't test it on FF back then....

In sum, none of these are great lenses, nor even solid "A" lenses. However, for $15 or so, you are getting more goodness than you paid for. Stopped down, they are capable of making images that look better than scaling-up an image from a modestly-priced 300mm fixed or zoom lens.

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kelstertx Veteran Member • Posts: 5,271
Re: A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone

I appreciate the work you put into this.  I have the Tele-Astranar, picked it up a couple of years ago for around $25 too.  Mine looks to be in perfect condition.  The included case must have helped with that.  Now that I've switched to M43, I don't have an adapter for mine.  That's my reason for posting : are they T mount, or T2 mount, or are those the same?  Not sure about which $13 is right for M43.

Anyway, I was pretty impressed with my Panasonic 45-175 on vacation last week, and my adapted MD 200 f4 seems to keep up with it within a hair or two, based on quick testing out my bathroom window at cars parked on the street.  I was just curious if the 400mm Tele-Astranar might give more detail despite the wheels falling off the IQ, so to speak, so my search for reviews turned up your thread.  Odd nobody else replied for 6 months... I guess you and I are the only ones curious enough to sink $25 into one of these little 400mm teles.

-Kelly

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Sittatunga Veteran Member • Posts: 3,866
Re: A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone

kelstertx wrote:

I appreciate the work you put into this. I have the Tele-Astranar, picked it up a couple of years ago for around $25 too. Mine looks to be in perfect condition. The included case must have helped with that. Now that I've switched to M43, I don't have an adapter for mine. That's my reason for posting : are they T mount, or T2 mount, or are those the same? Not sure about which $13 is right for M43.

Anyway, I was pretty impressed with my Panasonic 45-175 on vacation last week, and my adapted MD 200 f4 seems to keep up with it within a hair or two, based on quick testing out my bathroom window at cars parked on the street. I was just curious if the 400mm Tele-Astranar might give more detail despite the wheels falling off the IQ, so to speak, so my search for reviews turned up your thread. Odd nobody else replied for 6 months... I guess you and I are the only ones curious enough to sink $25 into one of these little 400mm teles.

-Kelly

The T2 mount has grub screws which can be slackened so that the lens can be rotated to line up its focus index and (more importantly) the tripod foot, if it has one, square to the camera body. The T mount is solid so it's stronger, more rigid and precise.  The thread and the register are the same for both.

rodriguezPhoto
rodriguezPhoto Veteran Member • Posts: 3,700
Re: A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone

I'm pretty sure I had the Tele-Astranar. I remember the price though, it was $39. I found it very hard to use. I suspect that I always shot it wide open so I didn't get to see the improvement from stopping down. In those days I would have been using Eastman 5254 which was ASA 100 tungsten so with the 85A filter it was even slower. I probably got it in 1974 and sold it within a year. Many of the flaws mentioned can be seen here.

Hang gliding at Pt. Fermin, August 1974

I've always liked the compression you get with a long lens, but outside of the Olympus 500 f/8 Reflex which is just as hard to use, even on modern cameras, I've never had anything like it since.

Back in those days of course, these were bargain basement lenses, so you got what you paid for.

Here's a link to a 1974 review of 400s.

-- hide signature --

~~~ Kim

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Joe Moche Regular Member • Posts: 157
Re: A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone
1

I remember visiting my cousin in New York back in 1971 or 72 and us both going to Spiratone's store.  I picked up some of their Psychobrome day glo paper and one of those 400mm lenses.  Honestly, it was never good for much more than getting a lot of attention at all the L.A. protest marches I used to shoot.

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Ching-Kuang Shene
Ching-Kuang Shene Veteran Member • Posts: 6,369
Re: A tale of two teles: 400mm Astranar & Spiratone
1

Well, on a NEX5 my Spiratone is perhaps a B- or even C.  I did a test of four 400mm lenses (i.e., Sigma 400mm f/5.6 Mirror, Tamron 400mm f/6.9, Tamron 400mm f/7.5, and Vivitar 400mm f/5.6) in 2012 with a NEX5 here: Sigma, Tamron and Vivitar 400mm Lenses.  This article was written in Chnises and I do not remember I published a short version here.  There is another old (1963) Tamron 400mm that could be in the same league: Tamron Nestar 400mm f/6.9.  Its lens barrel is retractable; but, it performance is similar to that of the Tamron 400mm f/6.9/  Current,ly, after many years playing with these small aperture 400mm lenses, I believe th best (on a APS-C body) is the CK's Lens Post: Leica Telyt-R 400mm f/6.8, a few images.   BUT, BUT, BUT, price difference is HUGE.

CK

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ProfHankD
OP ProfHankD Veteran Member • Posts: 8,245
Mediocrity of modestly-priced long lenses

Ching-Kuang Shene wrote:

Well, on a NEX5 my Spiratone is perhaps a B- or even C. I did a test of four 400mm lenses (i.e., Sigma 400mm f/5.6 Mirror, Tamron 400mm f/6.9, Tamron 400mm f/7.5, and Vivitar 400mm f/5.6) in 2012 with a NEX5 here: Sigma, Tamron and Vivitar 400mm Lenses. This article was written in Chnises and I do not remember I published a short version here. There is another old (1963) Tamron 400mm that could be in the same league: Tamron Nestar 400mm f/6.9. Its lens barrel is retractable; but, it performance is similar to that of the Tamron 400mm f/6.9/ Current,ly, after many years playing with these small aperture 400mm lenses, I believe th best (on a APS-C body) is the CK's Lens Post: Leica Telyt-R 400mm f/6.8, a few images. BUT, BUT, BUT, price difference is HUGE.

You have a lot more long teles than I do... but we agree on the Spiratone: in my post above, I called it a C+ on APS-C and B- on FF. The Astranar was less well-behaved, but resolves better; above I called it C on APS-C and B on FF, but strangely B on MFT because it actually has the sharpness.

The only fixed-focal-length teles I rate as "A" over 200mm are my C. P. Goerz Red-Dot Apochromat Artar 19" f/11 and my Meade DSX-90 1250mm f/13.8 -- both real pain-in-the-neck lenses to use. I also have a couple of zooms that are still "A" at 300mm, but nothing longer I'm impressed by.

I hate to say it, but it really seems that no cheap long lenses are great....

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Aoresteen Regular Member • Posts: 493
Re: Mediocrity of modestly-priced long lenses

In 1979 I bought a Tele-Astranar 400mm f/7.5 out of a pawn shop for $5.  I shot one roll of film with it then promptly got rid of it.  Not the best lens by a long shot.  In my journal I wrote "coke bottle".  I wonder if the f/6.3 version was better.

But If I stumble across one I'll buy it for a vintage camera display.

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