For many photo-enthusiasts, the name Mamiya will evoke a long line of highly respected medium format cameras which for decades were the workhorse of professional photographers. However, during the 1960s and 1970s they also forayed into the 35mm market, producing film rangefinders and standard SLRs under the Mamiya-Sekor name that curiously used no fewer than six different mount types over time.
Most of the SLR cameras used the M42 universal screw mount and came with one of a series of compact high-quality standard focal length primes bearing the Mamiya-Sekor name, which ranged from a 50mm f/2 lens on the lower end to the premium 55mm f/1.4 at the higher end.
When I first felt the lure of adapting vintage lenses to my Nikon DSLR, the Mamiyas soon came under my radar thanks to the famous brand name, the unanimously effusive opinions I kept running across, and not least the reportedly modest prices. Great quality and cheap? I was sold. Unfortunately, a quick survey of the findings on ebay seemed to disabuse me of the reputed thriftiness, since all the decent copies were retailing for $90 at the cheapest. I also noticed that prices did not seem to change even if the lens came with a vintage camera. This made it clear: the lens was the driver of the price, not the camera. This situation was described by Prof. Hank Dietz as “lens with a camera-shaped rear lens cap.”
Finally, after a week of fruitless searches, I ran across a curious case: Someone was selling a shoddy-looking Mamiya-Sekor SLR accompanied by a ‘Vivitar’ 55mm lens per the title, and described as “dirty with dust and grime.” It had belonged to the seller’s grandfather and was sold as-is. Not exactly encouraging, and the zero bids in spite of the $15 price tag said it all.
Still, what grabbed my attention was the picture: It was small and dark, but I could swear the lens said Mamiya, not Vivitar. Looking at the seller’s further images it became clear that the brand of the lens wasn’t Vivitar, but rather the filter still attached to it, and while indeed grimy, one could clearly read Mamiya-Sekor 55mm f/1.4 underneath. What if the lens were fine, and the filter and camera had protected it over time? I decided to roll the dice, and made the single winning bid.
When it arrived a few days later I was rewarded beyond what I had a right to, since not only did the filter come off and clean nicely, but the lens’ glass was literally in mint condition. As I began to shoot with it and acquaint myself with its strengths and weaknesses, I grew to realize what an absolute gem this was. Had I known how good it was, I would have spent the $90-$100 others were asking in the blink of an eye. As such, beginner’s luck made my introduction to vintage lenses one of wonder and joy.
Mamiya did not actually manufacture the array of primes that came with their 35mm cameras, and instead outsourced this to a major player in the industry at the time, the Japanese optics firm Tomioka Optics. This wasn’t terribly unusual, and Tomioka was known for providing high quality lenses to a number of Japanese camera makers. In fact, the Tomioka plant also made Carl Zeiss licensed optics for use on some Japanese cameras, such as the Contax. These were made with at least some Zeiss tooling and personnel.
In fact, while there is no precise documentation to confirm it, there is compelling evidence to suggest the Mamiya-Sekor 55 f/1.4 is either a copy of, or based on, the optical design of the Carl Zeiss Planar 55 f/1.4 built for the Contarex SLR from 1961-1970. Here you can compare the two.
However, even if true there are at least two significant differences between the two: first, the Carl Zeiss Planar is sold for no less than $1,000-$2,000 on eBay, and second, the Mamiya is radioactive.
This was actually true of a number of top-of-the-line lenses at the time such as the Canon FL 58mm f/1.2, the SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4, the Konica Hexanon 57mm f/1.2 and many more. The source of radioactivity stems from the thorium added to the glass to improve the optical qualities while also keeping them smaller and lighter. Health concerns on extended use and exposure are well addressed in the 2013 thesis “An Analysis of Residual Radiation in Thoriated Camera Lenses” which concluded after calculating the result of carrying one for eight hours a day for 240 days a year, “These ratios are so close to zero that the conclusion drawn in this thesis is that there are no radiation related health hazards involved.”
So how does it handle? The lens itself makes a powerful impression on a few counts. This first is notably how small and lightweight it is. My favorite combination in normal day-to-day photography is the very sharp and well-balanced Tamron 35 f/1.8 VC on the Nikon D750. It is a combination of plastic and metal, and weighs in at 450g, or exactly 1 lb. The Mamiya-Sekor on the other hand is entirely metal, is a fast f/1.4 lens, and yet still weighs in at a mere 305g. It also looks almost diminutive in comparison.
As a manual focus lens, the focusing ring is very smooth with a fairly wide throw, and the aperture ring is pleasant with palpable and audible clicks at each half-stop. In spite of its slighter stature, it still instills a very solid feeling thanks to its all-metal body and the larger frontend glass gives it that promise of extra light and subject isolation.
Because I am not shooting with a mirrorless camera, I do not have infinity focus on it, but nor has this been a crippling hindrance in practice. The 55mm focal length isn’t really about wide-angle landscapes, and is more a shorter range portrait lens by nature. 50mm is already considered a decent starting point for headshots, losing much of the distortion that wider angle lenses cause, and the extra 5mm helps bring it down even more. Also, for reasons I cannot explain, the minimum focus distance I measured is only 30cm (one foot) instead of the 50cm described in the official specs. If this is the result of using it on a DSLR instead of a mirrorless, I’ll take it. This has the added benefit of allowing some fairly close shots with creamy background dissolution.
Wide open at f/1.4 the Mamiya Sekor 55mm F/1.4 is a bit soft, even in the center, though not criminally so. Already by f/1.7 (the half-stop click between f/1.4 and f/2) the center sharpens up enormously, and while some chronic pixel-peepers might still find reasons to object, I find it already immensely usable.
Below are a few images taken at f/1.7. These were taken in a variety of conditions, and while the edges do fall off a bit, it wasn’t a concern for the subject matter. I regularly shoot at f/1.7 and f/2, and won’t think twice about using either with this lens.
In busy backgrounds the bokeh can be a bit on the nervous side, but for the most part it is usually very smooth and enjoyable, and it can produce dreamy images combining admirable sharpness with nice isolation.
As a rule I don’t tend to worry too much about things such as contrast or colors straight out of the camera, unless they are problematic, since all my images will be filtered and undergo some light post-processing in software. Nevertheless, the colors do tend to gravitate towards a slightly warmer palette, and while contrast is only average at f/1.7, as of f/2 and higher it soon becomes good to excellent ‘out-of-the-box’. In fact, in all of the images no color was actually adjusted, and only a smidgen of contrast and some microcontrast were really added.
When I first got the Mamiya the images tended to be on the yellow side due to the yellowing the thorium causes on the glass over long periods of disuse, but this is easily corrected through UV light, and even if you don’t subject it to any special treatment, if you shoot it often enough in the day the sunlight alone will clear it up over time.
It is worth adding that there is a very respectable f/1.8 sibling, which some have claimed is equal to the 55mm F/1.4. I own both, and having both I can say that the two lenses are not closely matched. While the f/1.8 may be an excellent lens, the f/1.4 is a great one.
Though by now I have accumulated other vintage lenses sharing the same rough characteristics as this one, the Mamiya Sekor 55mm F/1.4 is still my favorite of the lot, possibly for being my first love, and is the one I keep reaching for time and time again. I heartily recommend it.
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