Camera collector Jim Headley is putting up a one of a kind lens for sale and it is absolutely huge!
This beast is a NASA-made Birns and Sawyer 1000mm f/4.5 up for auction this Autumn. It was manufactured in Germany in 1964 by Astra and was meant for recording space launches from a safe distance. It’s 25 cm wide(10 inches), is 1.3 metres (4 1/2 feet) long, weighs around 32 kilos (72 pounds). Its lens shade alone is bigger than your average rubbish bin.
Headley, who works for his local paper in Nebraska, The Hastings Tribune, and operates a store ‘Old School Art and Camera’, has been collecting cameras for 34 years. His collection of over 1,000 cameras includes Leica and Zeiss kit among his many hidden gems. “I shoot mostly digital and love using old lenses on my Fuji X-E2. Bokeh matters!” he told DigitalRev.
It was through an odd chain of events that he got his hands on the Birns and Sawyer; “the lens was sold in a US Government surplus auction on June 6, 1986 and was purchased by a professional government auction buyer from Laramie, Wyoming USA. He sold it to a close friend of mine, the late Mike Stoesz, who owned Rainbow Photo in Laramie.” In 1998 when Stoesz decided to close the store, which had the lens on display, Headley leapt in with an offer: “I traded him several cameras for the lens, including two 6×9 view cameras which I had built from scratch.”
The monster lens was almost certainly attached to a motion picture camera for its original purpose but Headley built a custom mount to hook it up to his Canon EOS cameras. Unfortunately though the lens’s sheer power is undeniable it is apparently so specialised that it limits its functionality. “It’s really designed to be used at long distances,” Headley explained, “I tested it and found it excellent at about 7 miles distance but it suffers a lot of distortion from thermals when used at long range.”
What’s more it is completely unwieldy. Canon released a commercial 1000mm lens that doesn’t take a body-builder to operate but the Birns and Sawyer is horrendous. Even with the large steering wheel built into the structure of the lens it is a total hell to move and position. “It takes two to three people to use in the field”, Headley said, “As far as being good as a wildlife lens, forget it. It is far too large and hard to aim, focus and stop down – it is a preset lens.”
But does that really matter? It’s still absolutely magnificent piece of history. “It’s NASA connection is clearly is strength,” Headley agreed. “To think of where it has been and what it has photographed, gets my imagination stirring.” Headly hasn’t taken it out since 2008 but it has pride of place as a centrepiece display in his small antique camera store, ‘Old School Art and Camera’.
When asked what prompted him to sell the lens, Headley answered “I’m selling it now because after nearly 20 years, it is time for another collector to own it.” He also wants to use the funds to expand his small shop from part-time hobby into something grander. “I would like to someday open a larger store, complete with educational facilities so I could have classrooms and a ‘now old-fashioned’ wet darkroom,” he said. Headley reflects sadly that “unless the methods of film and film development are taught to a younger generation, the skill will be lost.”
Because of the rarity of the lens, there hasn’t been any price set on it yet but expect the price to be significant. If you have the cash to spare, be on the look out this Autumn, when R&R Auctions in New Hampshire will try to find a prospective buyer with exceptional upper body strength.
“I have been very proud to own this lens as long as I have,” Headley said, “Many of my friends can’t believe I’m selling it!”