I sometimes forget how much I love old lenses. And then something like the Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7 comes through the shop and I’m instantly reminded. With its enormous front element, full metal construction, and undeniable imaging character, it encapsulates everything that I love about classic photography gear.
I’ve spent a couple of months shooting the lens intermittently, and I think I understand why this lens had such a strong reputation in its day, and why that reputation still exists with modern photographers. Whether mounted to a classic film camera or today’s modern mirrorless digital cameras, this lens is capable of making beautiful and interesting images. It’s not the “best” portrait lens I’ve ever used. But it is a special lens worthy of consideration.
What is the Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7
Minolta made a total of four different 85mm manual focus lenses in their history. This one, the MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7, was the first, the fastest, and possibly the finest of them all. For contemporary Minolta shooters back in the day, it was the portrait lens to own on account of its impressive specs. Today, its rarity (and that enormous and beautiful front element) make it a covetous lens that even the most conservative Minolta (and classic lens) fans lust after. Everyone, after all, loves fast glass.
Its optical formula is made of six elements in five groups, some of which are multicoated. It’s meter-coupled to all compatible Minolta manual focus SLRs. Its body is entirely metal, with a metal aperture ring, metal focus ring, metal lens barrel and mount, and a metal focusing helicoid. This means that it’s heavy, weighty, and that all actuations are smooth and precise. The aperture ring clicks from F/1.7 to F/22 in single stop increments and is connected to an aperture assembly comprised of six curved blades. Its filter thread diameter is 55mm and its minimum focus distance is one meter. It can be easily adapted to any digital mirrorless camera via one of the many high quality and inexpensive adapters being made today.
It’s not a clinically perfect lens, by any count. More modern lenses from Canon, Nikon, and others will produce sharper and more predictable images. The era of autofocus introduced numerous portrait lenses that make the act of portraiture easier and faster. More expensive lenses from Zeiss and Leica will outpace this old grey mare in every test of objective image quality. No matter. We love this lens today because it’s special in an unquantifiable way – it has character.
Image Quality and Characteristics of the Minolta 85mm F/1.7 MC Rokkor X
When it comes to image quality, the Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7 is similar in many ways to most other fast prime lenses of its era. And photo geeks with experience shooting fifty-year-old lenses will likely be able to predict the outcome of the image quality segment of this review. But let’s look closely and walk newcomers through.
Beginning with the most predictable metric, image sharpness, the 85mm does what we’d expect it to do. Shot wide open there’s a general lack of contrast compared to smaller apertures. Center sharpness is quite good, not best-ever, but sharper than most users will ever desire. This sharpness fades quickly, however, as we move toward the edges of the image, where the extreme edges of the image are very soft when shot wide open.
Stopping the aperture down just one stop (a slightly greater-than-most-lenses jump from F/1.7 to F/2.8) sharpens up the central image area by a great degree, and this sharpness creeps out toward the edge more abruptly than I expected. In addition, contrast improves thoroughly and we’ve likely found the lens’ sweet spot for close work (a balance of excellent sharpness, shallow DOF, and high contrast that’s perfect for portraiture, still-life photography, etc.). Continuing to stop down the aperture continues to improve sharpness through F/4 and F/5.6, and by F/8 we’re reaching peak sharpness throughout the entirety of the frame. After F/11 we’re going to see a loss of sharpness due to diffraction.
There’s also (and again, this is predictable) significant vignetting when shot wide open. This light fall-off presents as darkness around the edges of the frame. It’s more pronounced with digital cameras than it is when we shoot this lens on film, and it’s also a much more correctible problem when shooting digital (a simple slider in Lightroom will eliminate much of the vignetting). Stopping the lens down also improves light fall-off, until we reach even illumination somewhere around F/5.6.
There’s chromatic aberration (color-fringing at high contrast areas of an image) when shot wide open (which can be seen outlining the swan’s neck in the F/1.7 sample photo below). This color fringing diminishes as we stop the lens down, disappearing entirely by F/8. Like the vignetting mentioned earlier, chromatic aberration is more pronounced when shooting this lens with a digital camera. Using it to expose film will yield almost no discernible color fringing at any aperture value.
Shot directly into sunlight (with sunlight hitting the front element of the lens) we see a great loss in contrast. This is common to lenses of the era. Flares also occur in this special circumstance. Minolta supplied this lens originally with a very robust screw-in metal lens hood. Buyers should look for one of these, or use a third party hood to protect against flares. Or do what they did in the old days and always make sure you’re shooting with your back to the sun (if you care about nothing except making “by-the-book photos”).
The Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7‘s bokeh characteristics are heavily dependent on multiple factors, including distance to subject, background, light source, and more. Definitively reviewing the lens’ bokeh (and any lens’ bokeh, truthfully) is disingenuous. I can say that at minimum focus distance, bokeh is creamy and smooth and highlight bokeh presents as almost perfectly round balls of light. However, at minimum focus distance and when shot wide open, depth of field becomes extremely shallow – so shallow, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for a subject’s eye to be in focus while their nose is not, for example. This is too shallow, and the reason that successful portraits are made not at the lens’ minimum focus distance, but with the subject at a comfortable distance. This noted, it’s very possible to shoot this lens at its minimum focus distance and with its aperture stopped down quite a bit and still achieve exceptional bokeh. I used this method in the sample image of the daffodil below, where the lens aperture was stopped down as small as F/8 (and just look at how nice that bokeh is, still!).
As we shoot subjects in the mid-ground, background bokeh can become swirly and pleasant in some situations, or busy and distracting in others. It depends on what’s in our background and how the light is hitting, and it’ll be up to the photographer to figure out how to manipulate his or her subjects and background in order to make an image with the desired effect.
These subjective bokeh characteristics, for me, don’t add up to a liability. The lens isn’t something to be avoided simply because it’s not one of those lenses whose designers intended to turn every background into a big blob of colorful blur. It makes gorgeous bokeh when I want it to, and okay bokeh when I’m not even trying. It’s a lens which can render many different styles of out-of-focus areas. And as our experience with the lens increases, so does our ability to get the type of subject isolation we’re looking for through creative application of distance-to-subject and aperture control.
Comparisons and Buyer’s Guide
The Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7 may have been the first 85mm that the brand made for their SR mount, but it wasn’t the last or maybe not even the objective best. This early MC lens was followed by an MD version. Though this newer MD Rokkor 85mm F/1.7 used a slightly altered optical formula, it is essentially identical in performance and external appearance. This similarity in performance isn’t too surprising, in that the MD version retained the same number of lens elements and groups as its predecessor.
Minolta rather quickly ceased production of the MD Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7 and instead focused their efforts on producing a new 85mm F/2 lens. This lens was radically different from the F/1.7 that came before it, with a brand new optical formula and a far smaller design. Image performance was identical in most parameters, and improved within certain others. In no way is the 85mm F/1.7 lens a better performer compared with this later F/2 lens.
It’s surprising then, at least in some ways, that the optically and ergonomically superior 85mm F/2 lens costs a fair amount less than the 85mm F/1.7. The value price of the 85mm F/2 is possibly explained by production numbers – they made more of the 85mm F/2 lenses than they did the 85mm F/1.7. But it could also be explained by the simple fact that the 85mm F/2 simply isn’t as pretty as the faster, earlier F/1.7 lens. There is, after all, nothing more enticing to a photo nerd than a giant chunk of beautiful glass encapsulated into a dramatic, metal-bodied lens.
Buyers today who are looking for the best value and highest performing portrait lens for their Minolta camera should consider the 85mm F/2 over the more expensive, larger, and heavier 85mm F/1.7. But for users who prize build quality and feel, lens character and collectibility, there are few Minolta lenses as enticing as the Minolta MC Rokkor X 85mm F/1.7.
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