For every camera maker there exists a following of fans who are passionate about that particular brand’s creations, and those collectors always lust after the very best lenses of the marque in question. Call them fanboys or whatever you like, but for those collectors, only the best and most interesting lenses will do. These “holy grails” come in many forms; the Nikon 6mm ƒ/5.6 Fisheye, Canon’s 50mm ƒ/.95, or the Minolta 1000mm ƒ/6.3 come to mind.
From image quality to build quality, these lenses are truly special, so we’re creating a new segment in which we’ll take a detailed look at noteworthy lenses. We’ll cut through the hype, examine the lens’ construction, and explore each specimen’s historical importance, as well as their relevance in the age of digital photography.
First on the agenda is an exceptional and relatively affordable lens from Minolta; the highly coveted MD Fish-Eye Rokkor-X 16mm ƒ/2.8. Does this rare and unique lens deserve its reputation as one of Minolta’s finest lenses?
The first thing to know about the 16mm ƒ/2.8 is that it’s a non-corrected wide-angle lens. That means that the barrel distortion naturally present in wide-angle lenses is allowed to exist without optical rectilinear correction. This can be both a liability and an asset depending on subject, framing, and personal preference. Some people love the look of a distorted wide-angle, while others regard it as gimmicky. Personal taste aside, the distortion is less of an issue in the modern age since it’s so easily correctible in post-processing using readily available software. If the images from non-corrected lenses usually aren’t your thing, the 16mm on a crop-sensor camera may be the lens to convert your way of thinking.
Shooting vintage glass on a modern camera is a joy, and the 16mm Fish-eye is no exception. On a mirror-less camera with a 1.5x crop factor, the 16mm lens becomes the equivalent of a 24mm lens. This creates a decently wide image, one that may be more reasonable than the lens’ native 16mm. Distortion is less severe due to the crop sensor using only the central portion of the lens, and by keeping straight lines more toward the center of the frame it can be minimized even further. Getting extremely close to your subject can effectively suck them into the lens while pushing away the background. Landscape shots are rendered with high drama, and architectural shots can be extremely captivating as buildings and alleys bend away into the distance. Magical things happen when a shot is framed so as to have long, uninterrupted lines shoot from the foreground into the background.
The images here represent the perspective created by this lens as seen through the viewfinders of both a full-frame Minolta camera, and a mirror-less camera with a 1.5x crop factor (Fujifilm X-E1). It’s easy to see how the crop factor influences the end result, with the extremity of the frame (and the worst of the distortion) simply falling off the edge of the sensor. Shooting the 16mm Fish-eye with film or a full-frame camera yields more dramatic images, though as stated this can be polarizing due to personal taste.
As for build quality, this lens is second to very few. It’s immediately apparent when held that this is a serious piece of glass. It was created as a professional lens (and priced accordingly), and even as its contemporary MD lenses were being converted to plastic aperture rings and plastic bezels, this lens retained its full metal construction. The focus ring is nice and solid, and focus action is perfectly weighted. The aperture ring clicks into place wonderfully in half-stop increments. A focus scale is present to let you know what’s what when it comes to shooting from the hip.
An interesting feature of this lens that certainly sets it apart from your average wide-angle or fish-eye is the integrated filter ring. This ingenious mechanism is located internally, with a fully rotational ring surrounding the barrel. When rotated, this ring slides one of four optical filters into place inside the lens. These filters include the standard UV filter, plus orange, yellow, and blue filters. A later version of the lens substitutes the orange filter for red. These filters are fantastic for creating color effects, saturating a certain color in a shot, or for bringing out the best results when shooting black and white photography.
Image quality is certainly this lens’ strong point. Shot wide-open the lens is pretty damn sharp with only minor softness in the corners. Stop it down to ƒ/4 or higher and the sharpness across the entire frame becomes unbelievable. This sharpness is somewhat expected in wide-angle lenses, but what makes this lens a “holy grail” to collectors is a certain indefinable quality of the image. The sharpness couples with Minolta’s legendary contrast and color to create images that are just perfect. An additional bonus is that when used with a crop factor camera the softness wide-open becomes a non-issue, as the edges of the frame aren’t visible in the final shot. Bonus!
Chromatic aberration, or “color-fringing”, does not exist with this lens. For those unfamiliar, chromatic aberration is that colorful (often purple) bleed-out at the edges of high-contrast points in the image. This can be corrected with software in post-processing, but it’s nice that the lens is so optically exceptional that the photographer doesn’t even have to worry about it. This asset is especially exciting in architectural shooting, where often dark buildings contrast against a bright sky.
The lens can suffer flaring when pointing directly at the sun. This often-undesirable artifact can enhance certain images, but there are definitely people who will rail against any visual anomaly in their photos. I, for one, don’t mind it at all.
Bokeh is not really a common concern with wide-angle lenses, but it can be made to happen with this lens if the conditions are right. It’s not the creamy bokeh everyone dreams about, but in certain situations it can be used to isolate a subject. The subject needs to be virtually touching the front element to make it work, but it should be mentioned for prudence.
If this lens has a weakness, and this is a stretch, that weakness is most certainly its weight. It’s a heavy lens at 460g. This puts it heftier than some camera bodies of the same period. When you couple this to an adapter, such as the Fotodiox (which is full metal as well) it becomes nearly 500g. This is one of the heavier lenses to lug around in a camera bag, or to balance on the front of a smaller, mirror-less camera. Still, for what it offers this is a fair trade. I’ll gladly carry this lens in my mirror-less bag every day for the shots it can capture.
Interestingly this lens was adapted to the Leica R-Bayonet mount and rebadged for that company. Constructed by Minolta, the Leica 16mm ƒ/2.8 Fish-eye Elmarit-R is essentially identical to its Minolta branded counterpart. These days one will pay around 40% more for the Leica inscription on the bezel. That’s marketing!
The MD Fish-Eye Rokkor-X 16mm ƒ/2.8 is an excellent lens. It creates images that are out of the ordinary, and it does so with brilliant clarity. The proof is in the pudding, so take a look through some Flickr photo pools to see what this lens is capable of in the hands of a good shooter. For me, it’s certainly one of those lenses that comes out when the time is right. It’s great fun to shoot, and it deserves its reputation as one of the best Minolta wide angles of the Rokkor era.
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If the lens weight is a weakness, you’ve never held the MD Rokkor-X 85mm f1.7. It’s beefy, and just slightly heavier than the Rokkor-X 16mm. I own both and they are both beautiful, perfect pieces of Minolta Glass.