Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.
Photographers today are very demanding. But in the 1950s, the CIA presented a plan for an even more demanding lens. Let’s get one big fact out of the way first: telephoto lenses are large. If you look at the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8, then you’ll know how true that is. However, the CIA didn’t want big telephoto lenses: they wanted a lens that telescoped. What’s more, they wanted lenses that were at least f8. This isn’t unreasonable if you consider the kinds of clandestine operations they did. Sometimes they’d need to hide in a car, a building, etc. and shoot photos outside of a window. This was combined with high-speed film, which the CIA loved in black and white. Three specific documents detail the CIA’s needs for such telescoping telephoto lenses.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Well, it should. Some old school film lenses used the telescoping mechanism. The push-pull seemed steadier for many than turning a focus ring. A prolific one is the Nikon 80-200mm f2.8. The most moderns lenses to do this are the Canon RF 80mm F11 and the Canon EF 600mm f11. These lenses have fixed apertures, image stabilization, and autofocus. That design isn’t unlike a few reflex lenses like the Tokina 300mm f6.3. However, Canon’s is far more updated. What’s more, it demonstrates that folks want compact telephoto lenses.
To understand why the CIA needed these a bit deeper, we should look at history. According to the company’s own timeline located on their website, the CIA had interests in Russia, Guatemala, and Iran. Any interest in Korea was mostly over at this point. But in 1953, the Soviets secretly tested a Hydrogen Bomb. And of course, Uncle Sam got paranoid. The telescoping telephoto lenses were for agents in the field. And they were backed up by things like bird cameras and airplanes.
The CIA explicitly describes three lenses. The first is in June 1955, where they request a 48-inch telescoping lens. It’s got pretty much everything you’d want in a telephoto lens. But what’s really different about this is how they describe it. The document specifically relates to the telescoping legs of a tripod. It even talks about how to possibly keep each section securely in place. Other specifications included:
- At least an aperture f8
- An Apo-Tessar lens element
- Overall telephoto length when fully telescoped to be 15 inches
- An exterior made of a black magnesium
- Exacta mount
The greener photographers among us probably know nothing about the Exacta mount. For many years, it was considered the most versatile option. Several Carl Zeiss Jena lenses were made in Exacta mount. They vary too, as some were made in West Germany while others in the Eastern part. A few even had 17 aperture blades. Those were, of course, more for aesthetic purposes, but the CIA just needed something to do a job.
In October of 1955, things became more demanding. A declassified document states that the CIA wanted a 40-inch lens, which is over 1,000mm. They required an f5.6 aperture, a maximum collapsed length of 15 inches, a diameter of 7.5 inches, focusing from 500 feet to infinity, made of aluminum alloy construction. This lens also needed to be used with either an Exacta camera or a Leica III F with a reflex housing. They were willing to pay $2,592. According to the info in an inflation calculator, $100 is the equivalent of around $1,078 today. So they’d pay approximately $30,000 today. Even by today’s standards, that would probably give engineers nightmares. But in January of the next year, they got it! What’s more, they liked it but asked for more changes, one of which was a better way to do critical focusing.
Today, long telephoto lenses are still used. There is the legendary Canon 1200mm f5.6 L lens that only a few folks had. And with mirrorless cameras, there is a whole culture of adapting these older lenses to the newer, higher-resolution digital cameras. But, it all really started in the 1950s.
Screenshots taken from the CIA documents. Lead photo used with Creative Commons Permission by MostlyDross.