Rear Window – the 400mm lens

In a previous article, I discussed the Exakta VX camera used in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, suggesting that photojournalists of the period likely didn’t use super-telephoto lenses all that often (or at all). My view on this is based largely on articles I have read in magazines like Popular Photography during the 1950s.

The telephoto lens used by Jefferies in the movie is the Kilfitt Fern-Kilar f/5.6 400mm lens. The lens fits into the category of super-telephoto lenses with focal lengths in the range of 300-600mm. A number of manufacturers produced these lenses, although in all likelihood they had a narrow market. One of the earliest ads for Kilfitt lenses in Popular Photography appears in 1953, advertising their KILAR lenses for “medium and long tele shots” – it includes the 300mm and 400mm lenses. A review of the ads section of Popular Photography in 1954 reveals that the Kilfitt 400mm was being sold alongside the f/5.5 Hugo Meyer-Goerlitz Tele-Megor (which was the lens promoted by Exakta as well), and the Astro f/5.

The Kilfitt-Fern-Kilar 400mm f/5.6

Literature from Heinz Kilfitt Optische Fabrik suggests the lens could be used for “nature and expedition photography“, and also for “special press and feature assignments“. It is then likely that these long lenses were used in situations where a large kit could be carried. Some may argue that Jeff used the lens for sports photography, but that is unlikely, as many photojournalists tended to focus their careers on a particular genre of photography. For example Robert Capa, upon who Jefferies character is loosely based, worked predominantly in war zones: the Spanish Civil War, WWII, Palestine, and the war in Indochina (where he was killed by a landmine). In 1951 Bruce Downes wrote an article in Popular Photography, describing David Douglas Duncan’s photo coverage of the Korean War [2]. He photographed the carnage of war using two Leica IIIc’s, “practical combat cameras” that were “…light, compact and could stand a beating.”. From the perspective of lenses, he used Nikkor lenses: a 50mm f/1.5, a 85mm f/2 and a 135mm f/3.5. No large telephoto lenses in sight.

A steady telescope

In addition, even sports-photojournalists did not generally use long-tele lenses. Jesse Alexander (1929-2021), a motor-sports photographer, reportedly did not use long telephotos lenses. At the start of his career in early 1950s (his first photographic assignment was the 1953 La Carrera road race in Mexico), he used a Leica with 35mm and 135mm lenses, and a Rolleiflex for close-ups and portraits. I would suggest that the 400mm lens was either something Jefferies used occasionally, perhaps for some hobby photography, or merely something added to meet the needs of film. The only real evidence of Jefferies taking sports shots is the motor racing shot that ended up with Jefferies stuck in his apartment with a broken leg. The camera used there was a large format camera (most likely a Graflex), as evidenced by the photo hanging on the wall, taken in the middle of the racetrack.

Identifying the lens

The biggest elephant in the room with these telephoto lenses is their weight. The f/5.6 400mm lens weighed 62oz, or 1.76kg in weight. The faster Sport-Fern-Kilar f/4 400mm lens was even heavier, at 3.1kg. These lenses were just too heavy for a photojournalist to carry and use effectively in an active situation, e.g. a war zone. Even in everyday settings, the length of the telephoto would require the use of a tripod, otherwise shake will be greatly exaggerated – “A slight jiggle that would not be noticed if the scene were filmed with a standard lens will look like something shot on a pogo stick when you use a long telephoto lens.” [1]. It might be okay to use as a de facto telescope and prop up on your knee.

The interesting thing about Exakta is that their literature touted the idea of attaching a telephoto lens to a camera and turning it into a telescope – “a telescope that gives you long-range viewing with high magnification“. A 400mm telephoto lens would provide an eight-power photo-telescope.

NB: Sometimes it is speculated that the lens was actually an Astro-Berlin, a German company that made some pretty cool lenses, especially for the super-super telephoto (we’re talking 2000mm, f/10). These telephotos were often seen on Exakta cameras, hence the association.

  1. Herb A. Lightman, “Choosing and using lenses”, Popular Photography, 35(3), pp.107-117 (1954)
  2. Bruce Downes, “Assignment: Korea”, Popular Photography, 28(3), pp.42-51, March (1951)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s