Minolta made plenty of unusual lenses in their time. The STF 135mm F/2.8 T/4.5 (Smooth Trans Focus) portrait lens used an apodization filter to create the creamiest bokeh the world had ever seen. The MC Rokkor X 40-80mm Gearbox lens was a tiny zoom lens with incredible image quality in a time when zooms were pretty terrible. The 24mm F/2.8 VFC (Variable Field Curvature) was a lens whose field of focus could be curved around a subject. And I’ve spent the past few weeks shooting another rare and wild Minolta lens – the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4.
This is the widest lens I’ve ever used, and it’s utterly hilarious. I can take a photo of my feet with the lens pointed at the horizon. I can shoot a full-body portrait of my daughter with the lens’ front element five inches away from her nose. I can make photos look like a Virtual Boy game (the lens has six built-in filters, including red). The Minolta 7.5mm is absurd and extreme, and it makes me smile every time I use it.
What is the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4
To start, let’s define the fisheye lens. A fisheye lens is any ultra wide-angle lens that presents heavy visual distortion in order to create a wide panoramic or even hemispherical image. They tend to achieve extremely wide angles of view, but the trade-off for doing so is that straight lines appear as convex (non-rectilinear) lines. This results in the characteristic distorted images for which fisheye lenses have become known.
There are two types of fisheye lenses; circular and full frame. Circular fisheye lenses project a 180º circular image onto the film or digital sensor. This results in a circular image area with surrounding edges which remain unexposed (the Minolta lens reviewed here is a circular fisheye). Conversely, full frame fisheye lenses enlarge the circular image so that it covers the entire photographic frame. These project a 180º image from corner to corner.
Released in 1972 and produced until its replacement in 1977 by the optically identical MD version, the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4 lens is the widest lens that Minolta ever made. It uses Minolta’s SR mount (commonly called MC/MD) and naturally fits any Minolta SR mount 35mm film SLR camera (any of their manual focus SLRs). The lens was never offered in Minolta’s autofocus A mount, unlike the 16mm Fisheye that was produced contemporaneously with the 7.5mm featured here.
It uses an optical formula made of twelve elements in eight groups to create images with an uncorrected and astounding 180º angle of view. This exposes a 22mm diameter circular image on 35mm film or a full frame digital sensor (when mounted to one using an adapter). This is, in fact, the largest possible circular image that can be projected completely onto a film frame or full frame sensor (these measure 24x36mm).
Unlike almost every other lens in Minolta’s SR mount lineup, the 7.5mm doesn’t allow focusing. It is a fixed focus lens, with focus locked at four feet from the image plane. This isn’t the liability it might seem to be on paper, since in practice the lens render such extreme depth-of-field. At its maximum aperture of F/4, depth-of-field extends from 1.5 feet all the way to infinity. When we stop the lens down to its minimum aperture of F/22, depth-of-field extends from an astounding seven inches to infinity.
Like all early Minolta Rokkor lenses, build quality is excellent. The entire lens body and internal mechanisms are made of metal. This includes the aperture ring and the filter selection ring. This filter selection ring is an ingenious mechanism – it allows the user to pull back on the ring and rotate it to select one of six available light filters. This innovation was made in order to solve the problem of the large front element, which protrudes so far from the barrel of the lens that mounting filters becomes impossible. Another provision made for this large front element is a screw-in lens cap made specifically for this lens. It too is made of metal.
The characteristic fisheye perspective is polarizing amongst photographers and photo viewers. Some people love it, some people don’t. Either way, fisheye lenses are not mass-market lenses. The result is that they tend to be produced in limited quantities. It’s no different for the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4, the most extreme wide-angle lens in Minolta’s history. It’s a very specialized lens and is consequently quite rare and relatively expensive. After using it for a month I understand the high price. Amongst classic fisheye lenses, and for those who enjoy the fisheye perspective, this lens is pretty great.
Shooting and Image Samples
Using the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4 is surprisingly simple. Its extreme depth-of-field and its pure fisheye aesthetic make it perform more like a point-and-shoot lens and less like a traditional SLR lens. There’s no methodical focusing needed, and there’s no need to adjust aperture since depth-of-field is fairly universal at any f-stop. Instead, we use aperture to control light only. In low light situations, for example, we’ll want to shoot wide open, or stop the lens down in bright sun to mitigate the mild optical aberrations that can occur at wider apertures. When using an aperture priority camera there’s no need to ever twist the aperture ring off of F/8. With this methodology, shooting the 7.5mm really does come down to pointing and shooting.
As mentioned, the lens’ bulbous front element can’t accept traditional lens filters, so the built-in filter ring is an imaginative solution to a necessarily problematic lens design. By pulling back and twisting the filter ring we’re able to select one of six filters. The ring is a beautifully knurled piece of metal, and when it’s not locked into position it displays a bright red warning indicator surrounding the entire lens barrel. It’s a smart user experience implementation.
The included filters and their uses follow; 1A UV filter for enhancing blue light for use in overcast or rainy days or when there’s obscuring atmospheric haze; FL D filter for using daylight film under indoor fluorescent lighting; Y 52 yellow filter for black-and-white photography increases overall contrast, especially in light subjects; R 60 red filter for panchromatic black-and-white film greatly lightens red light, produces strong contrast and can exaggerate cloud effects, and when used with infrared film produces outstanding contrast; 80 B blue filter for shooting with daylight color film indoors with artificial light of 3500º K color temp; 85 orange filter for black-and-white photography greatly increases contrast and in color photography produces accurate colors with tungsten film used in daylight.
For black-and-white film photographers, these filters will be heavily used and rotated depending on shooting conditions. For me, they’re a fun novelty. I enjoy the different results that I can get, but I also pragmatically know that I can replicate any and all of these effects in Lightroom after scanning my film, or when using the lens digitally.
The Minolta SR mount was used by cameras spanning from 1958’s Minolta SR all the way to the X-300 made in 1990, with dozens of models released in this thirty year span. As such, the functional use of this lens will vary greatly depending upon which camera it’s mounted. For example, older manual cameras that use Minolta’s analog match-needle metering system, which display a swinging needle in the viewfinder to indicate exposure, present a great challenge. When using the 7.5mm circular fisheye, the blacked-out edges of the frame as seen through the viewfinder totally obscure the needle system, making it impossible to tell whether or not we’ve chosen the shutter speed and aperture that will result in a correct exposure. For this reason, it’s best to use this lens with a Minolta film camera that offers either some degree of automation (preferably aperture-priority semi-auto exposure) or at least one which uses an electronic metering system with LEDs in the viewfinder. When using the lens adapted to a digital camera, there’s no compromise – it works perfectly.
Image quality is astonishingly good. Shooting with film, sharpness is superb across the entire frame. In some cases, it’s almost too sharp. On digital and with color images we see more noticeable flaws, but these only present on the extreme edges of the circular image area. For example, the edge of the circular image shows color fringing shot wide open. This improves by stopping the lens down to F/5.6, and by F/8 there are essentially zero optical aberrations of which to complain. And complaining about optical aberrations with a fisheye lens sort of misses the point. The lens, if you like the fisheye perspective, is virtually flawless.
The circular images that this lens produces can, of course, be cropped in post. Using Lightroom or virtually any other photo editing program, it’s possible to turn these circular images into full frame images. While this naturally eliminates some of the incredible 180º angle of view that the lens natively produces, cropping can in some cases further emphasize the fisheye perspective more so than a circular image can. In shots where a subject is close to the edge of the frame, for example, we get a decidedly three-dimensional look that only fisheye lenses can produce.
The star of the show is naturally that extreme angle of view. At 180º, I’m able to shoot a photo of my entire family from the passenger seat of my wife’s car. That’s absurd. When we went to the beach on a rainy day last week, I tried to get a compelling shot of the sea and the rocks and the crashing waves (which were alarmingly high). I scrambled onto a rocky outcropping and shot some photos. With the camera and lens hovering mere inches from the waves, I thought I’d come back with exciting photos of towering splashes. I was surprised that my subject, the crashing waves, looked so incredibly distant in my final shots. I have to stress this – I was close enough that I got doused and yet in the final image it looks as though I’m safely shooting from the sea wall.
So, yes, to make the most of this lens you need to get close. Extremely close. You need to be nearly touching your subject with the lens’ front element, or be content to make vacuous photos where the landscape stretches far, far away.
Distortion is obviously heavy. It’s an uncorrected fisheye lens, after all. Subjects and lines will bow and stretch around the edges of the frame. Pointing the lens at even a 90º angle from the ground can often result in feet or tripod legs intruding into the bottom of the image circle. Cropping to a full frame image, as mentioned earlier, will eliminate these concerns. I chose to mostly embrace them. I just think it’s hilarious that I can center the horizon and still see my feet.
[Image samples in the gallery below were shot with Kodak Tri-X and a Minolta SRT. They have been provided by Victoria Leonardi, who also graciously supplied us with the lens used in our review. Many thanks, Victoria (Insta / website).]
Final Thoughts and Buyer’s Guide
The Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4 isn’t a lens for everyone. The specialty images that it makes and the high price it commands will see to that. But it is a fun lens, and very well built, and it does offer excellent image quality compared with other lenses of its kind. It’s an extreme lens from a meticulous maker operating at the height of their powers, and it’s a joy to use, if only for a little while.
Buyers searching for a fisheye lens for use on their classic Minolta film cameras, there are few alternatives to the 7.5mm. For less money we can buy the full frame Minolta 16mm fisheye, but images made with this lens are far less dramatic. And there’s the SR mount Sigma 8mm F/4, which is close in all specifications and tends to cost less, but its performance isn’t as strong as the Minolta 7.5mm.
When we search for a fisheye lens to use adapted to a modern mirrorless camera, more options present themselves. Classic fisheye lenses from Nikon are available, though they’ll cost just as much (if not more) than this Minolta. Canon made a 7.5mm F/5.6 FD mount lens which tends to cost much less (though its slower aperture hints at lesser performance). And then there’s a slew of modern fisheye lenses available from a number of 3rd party brands like Rokinon, and numerous fisheye adapters from Chinese lens companies. They’re cheap and good, but the quality may not match what Minolta was doing even forty years ago.
I suspect that the most likely buyer of the Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4 will be someone like me, someone who not only appreciates finely built and capable things, but someone who also appreciates rarity and values originality in collectible things. The Minolta MC Fisheye Rokkor X 7.5mm F/4 is rare, and it’s certainly finely built. Add that it’s also a very capable image-making device and we’re looking at a very interesting lens indeed.
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