When Christopher Columbus, returning from his second voyage to the Americas, brought a pineapple back to Europe, it caused an instant sensation. “The most invincible King Ferdinand relates that he has eaten another fruit brought from those countries,” reported the historian Peter Martyr. “Its flavour excels all other fruits.”
It took nearly two centuries before European gardeners learned to cultivate the prized fruit in hothouses, and even then, they were rare, difficult to grow, and fiendishly expensive. Inevitably, pineapples became a symbol of wealth and status. As this BBC article relates, “Concerned about wasting such high-value fruit by eating it, owners displayed pineapples as dinnertime ornaments […] to be seen and admired but surrounded by other, cheaper, fruit for eating.” There’s an almost irresistible parallel here with how some people treat expensive lenses – but this article is not about that. Let’s resist that unworthy temptation, and press on.
As cultivation and transport became easier and less expensive, pineapples became cheaper. Today, you can buy a “medium pineapple” for £1 at Sainsbury’s. Indeed, you could argue that the modern pineapple is so ubiquitous that it is actually under-priced, and consequently under-appreciated. Much like the Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8, the excellent but rather unglamorous lens which I’ve been using for the past three years.
Minolta 28mm lenses in SR-mount
The Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 is a manual-focus lens for the SR-mount (colloquially called “MC/MD mount”). There are multiple versions of this lens; mine is the late-model MD-III introduced in 1983.
Minolta’s earliest 28mm was the Auto W.Rokkor-SG 28mm f/3.5 (1963). The SG in the lens name was a code, further explained here, for the number of groups and elements in the lens construction: ‘S’ denotes 7 groups (septem in Latin) and ‘G’ denotes 7 elements (7th letter of the alphabet). A nice system for naming lenses!
Subsequently, faster 28mm lenses were introduced with maximum apertures of f/2.8 (my lens), f/2.5 and even f/2. Each of these had multiple variants, known to collectors by esoteric codes like AR-II, MC-X, MD-III and so forth. In some cases the variations are merely cosmetic, while in others they are more significant – like differences in the minimum focus distance, filter size or lens construction. I won’t go into that level of detail, but if you’re interested in the minutiae, knock yourself out with the SR Lens Chart on eazypix, Ad Dieleman’s page on SR mount 28mm lenses, or minman’s pages on the f/3.5, f/2.8, f2.5 and f/2 versions.
The f/2 was one of Minolta’s premium offerings, with nine lens groups and a highly-corrected, floating element design. It is a full stop faster than the f/2.8, and image quality is reputedly better. At least, that’s what the internet says; I’ve not tested it myself, so I can’t say if the difference is practically significant. Anyhow, used prices for the f/2 are four to five times higher, and as such, it was outside my budget.
The f/2.5 is only one-third stop faster than the f/2.8, but significantly more expensive. It also has an older lens formula and coatings, and contains mildly radioactive rare-earth elements.
The f/3.5, on the other hand, is cheaper than the f/2.8, but only by a few pounds. So unless you get a cracking deal, I don’t see a good reason to give up a half-stop of speed (and remember that with an SLR, you’ll also be looking at a dimmer viewfinder).
That brings us to the f/2.8 28mm, the subject of this review.
Minolta 28mm f/2.8 versions
There are multiple versions of the Minolta 28/2.8, the main ones being the MC W.Rokkor, MD W.Rokkor and MD (sometimes called the MD-III or “plain MD”). These designations appear on the front of the lens, which helps with identification. Other variants include the Celtic (budget line, usually with the same optical formula but cheaper construction and coatings) and the Rokkor-X versions with orange lettering (identical to the corresponding Rokkor versions without the X, but produced for the North American market).
In general, later models are slightly smaller and lighter, but also have more plastic in their construction. The filter ring changed from 55mm in the earlier versions to 49mm in the later ones – this may be a factor if you sometimes use the same filters on different lenses, as I tend to do. All versions focus down to just 0.3 meters (1 foot) which is a nice feature to have.
All but one of these versions have an optical formula of 7 elements in 7 groups (7/7). But the plain MD has two variants. The first, introduced in 1981, is a 7/7 formula like its predecessors, while the second – my version, 1983 – has a 5/5 design.
Externally, the plain MD 7/7 and 5/5 are almost indistinguishable. There is a tiny cosmetic difference in the front ring which you can see on Ad Dieleman’s page (the 5/5 has an extra inner ring). And on the 7/7, the red IR dot on the depth-of-focus scale is slightly closer to the 4, while on the 5/5, it’s slightly closer to the 8.
Come to think of it, I have no idea why I know this stuff, because the difference in image quality between the 7/7 and 5/5 (which I will come to in a later section) is negligible. I need to get out more.
The specifications given below are for the lens I own, the plain MD with a 5/5 construction. For other versions, please see the eazypix chart and Ad Dieleman’s page.
- Mount – Minolta SR mount (MC/MD)
- Year introduced – 1983
- Focal length – 28mm
- Angle of View – 75°
- Aperture range – f/2.8–22 (half-stop detents)
- Aperture blades – 6
- Lens construction – 5 elements in 5 groups
- Minimum focus distance – 0.3 meters
- Dimensions (L×D) – 40×64mm
- Weight – 170 grams
- Filter thread diameter – 49mm
Look and feel
The lens is compact, not much bigger than a golf ball. Like other MD series lenses, it has a rubber waffle grip for the focus ring, and mostly white lettering (orange for feet, and green for the smallest aperture, f/22). It also has the “MD lock” designed to be used on the Minolta X-700 in Program mode, so that the lens does not accidentally switch away from minimum aperture. A clip-on hood (screw-on in the older versions) was sold separately, but I don’t have one.
Build quality and “feel” are on par with MD series lenses – not necessarily mind-blowing, but perfectly acceptable. On my copy the focus ring turns smoothly, with a throw of a little under 180° from 0.3 metres to infinity. The aperture ring is snappy, with half-stop detents except at the two extremes (i.e. no detents between f/2.8-4 and f/16-22).
Lens design and optical quality
The 28mm focal length is significantly shorter than the Minolta SR-mount’s flange focal distance, that is, the distance from the mount to the film-plane (43.5mm). So like almost all wide-angle SLR lenses, the Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 is a retrofocus (aka inverted telephoto) design. This ensures that the rear element is sufficiently far from the film plane, leaving enough space for the SLR mirror.
As I mentioned, my lens is a 5/5 design (5 elements in 5 groups) while earlier versions have a 7/7 formula. Vintage lens reviews claims that the 5/5 is slightly inferior. On the other hand, Tony at Lens QA Works did a side-by-side comparison and found that the 5/5 is “definitely better”. However, as you can see from his comparison, these differences are really only visible at wide apertures, at the corner of the frame, and at high magnification.
Moreover, bear in mind we’re talking about vintage lenses, used or stored in all sorts of conditions. Three decades after their manufacture, there are a host of reasons why there could be sample variation between copies. If you’re in the market for a Minolta 28/2.8, I would not lose sleep over whether to get the 5/5 or the 7/7. For normal photography, I think the differences are practically irrelevant.
Distortion and vignetting
Most wide-angle lenses exhibit two types of distortion: perspective distortion where objects closer to the camera appear disproportionately bigger, and radial distortion where straight lines appear curved.
Perspective distortion is not a lens aberration, but a consequence of the wide-angle perspective. If you don’t like it, don’t blame the lens; take a few steps back and use a longer focal length. Radial distortion, on the other hand, is a lens aberration, often manifesting as barrel distortion on wide-angle lenses.
A while back I did some “tests” with this lens, taking photos of optical charts and so on. (I do these tests for my own amusement, but I don’t reproduce them in reviews because I think “real-world photos” are more informative and fun. But I wonder if some readers might be interested after all?) Anyhow, in these tests I noticed a bit of barrel distortion, nothing extreme, and filed this information away for future reference.
More recently, I was shooting a series of building facades in my hometown, Kolkata – taking photos straight on with lots of horizontal lines in the frame. I was using the MD 28/2.8, so I thought barrel distortion might be an issue, and I was all set to correct it in post. But the (uncorrected) photos look just fine, as you can see below. If an aberration is mainly visible in test charts and not in real-world photos, I can live with that.
All sample photos, by the way, are taken on film, using a Minolta X-370s or Minolta X-700.
Likewise, my tests showed a bit of vignetting wide open, practically gone at f/5.6. Again, this is not something I notice in real-world photos. If anything, it can add some visual interest to portraits and night scenes – the most common situations where I shoot at f/2.8.
Bokeh and flare
A wide-angle lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will never be a bokeh monster, but wide open and up close the lens does produce pleasing bokeh. The photo of the sunflowers below shows both near and far bokeh, and you can see other examples in the portraits. Stopped down, background bokeh is only really visible if you focus quite close. The lens has six aperture blades, so out-of-focus highlights appear hexagonal.
Although I use the lens without a hood, flare resistance is surprisingly good. I know this because I kind of stress-tested the lens, shooting in situations most likely to produce flare. In the photo of the single sunflower, the sun was in the frame, partially obscured by the flower. In the photo with the monkey, the sun was just outside the frame at top left. In both photos, there is good contrast and very little veiling flare. There is a hint of ghosting (you can see it on the monkey’s left hand) but again, far less than I expected.
Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 in use
50mm (or its full-frame equivalent) is my favorite focal length, but 28mm is not far behind. This is obviously subjective, but to my eyes, 28mm is a nice balance – wide enough to look interesting but not so wide that perspective distortion becomes the defining feature of an image. I use (and love) wider lenses too, some of which I hope to review later. But the 28mm focal length is really versatile. I especially like it for street photography where it allows me to get close to the action and still capture a lot of the scene.
With faster film, the maximum aperture of f/2.8 is wide enough (just about) for handheld night photography. A good rule of thumb is that the slowest shutter-speed at which a lens can be safely handheld is the reciprocal of its focal length (so around 1/30 sec for a 28mm lens). This effectively makes it almost one stop “faster” than a 50mm lens which, according to our rule of thumb, has a slowest safe speed of 1/60 sec.
I also use it for portraits, though on photo-forums and Facebook groups you often hear “rules” like “Never take portraits with a wide-angle lens.” But I think wide-angle portraits have their own charm – the unusual perspective, and the fact that you can include a good deal of the subject environment, thanks to the wider angle of view and greater depth-of-field.
I started this review with a story about pineapples, and also about economics. Rare objects tend to be valuable, and conversely, commonplace things are cheap. In 1986, the Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 sold new for $140, almost $360 in today’s money. Even at that price it must have been a worthwhile investment, because Minolta sold thousands of copies. As a result, the lens is widely available today, and at the time of writing used copies in good condition sell for around £30–50 on eBay UK auctions.
Here’s another economics anecdote. In 2017, scientists at the University of Bonn found that the same wine apparently tastes better when it’s labelled with a higher price tag – a phenomenon which has come to be known as the “marketing placebo effect.” Participants were given two wine samples with price tags of 6 euro and 18 euro. Most participants rated the 18-euro wine higher, but in fact, both samples came from the same 12-euro bottle.
There’s a lesson in this too – sometimes, instead of being guided by our senses, we allow ourselves to be swayed by price. Online reviews of the Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 often damn the lens with faint praise. “A very good, but not stellar performer,” says Rokkorfiles. “An ok lens for the money,” says a user on the MFlenses forum.
Now I’m not sure if this is the flip side of the marketing placebo effect – thinking that if something is cheap it must therefore be average – or whether these users are checking corner-sharpness at wide-open apertures and 5x magnification. But in scans viewed at full-screen on my laptop, or 8×10″ darkroom prints I don’t notice image quality issues. The limiting factor, as usual, is not the lens, but my own ability.
Having used the lens for over three years in a variety of situations, here is what I think. The Minolta MD 28mm f/2.8 is not merely “an ok lens for the money”, not even “a very good lens for the money.” It is just a very good lens, period.
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