Minolta MC W Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 Classic Lens Review

Minolta MC W Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 Classic Lens Review

2200 1237 Sean McCullough

Our hobby is filled with “buried treasure” moments, but they don’t come in equal measure. The Minolta MC W. Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8, came to me during one such moment, but more on that later. First, a hypothesis: Minolta, because the brand is long gone, conjures the peculiar romanticism one only really feels toward lost causes. Jeb Inge, writing for this site, expressed something similar at the beginning of his Guide to the Best of Minolta’s Camera Systems. Social Media, that necessary evil of photographers in the 21st Century, seems to back this up. At the time of writing, the (Instagram) hashtag #minoltagang populates 225,000 posts. By contrast, #canongang is just over 100,000 strong, and #olympusgang clocks in at a paltry 3,500.

You see the point. Death makes you a hero. Now, back to my buried treasure moment. You’ve been waiting patiently.

The moment in question came from an inheritance from my late grandfather, as unexpected as it was sizable. In one fell swoop, I became the owner of a Minolta SRT-101 camera body, carrying case, flash, and five lenses (including the MC W Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 with which this article is concerned). The gear came heavy with the weight of legacy.

The year was 2016. I had grown up with a deep respect for my grandparents, and it was very important to do right by them. At that time, it was my solemn duty to decorate my grandmother’s house for Christmas. That year, poring over a forgotten corner of her attic, I came to a soft-sided nylon case inscribed with “GWM” and tore open the zipper. The chrome contraption within was obviously an old camera, but the name Minolta meant nothing to me. I hunted on, until I reached a more recognizable machine. It turned out to be a Canon EX Auto. Putting it gently, brand recognition was probably that camera’s only virtue. My grandmother, excited simply to see them after more than a decade in storage, offered me the whole lot as a Christmas gift.

Some of you may now be shouting at the screen about life’s unfairness. Let it all out.

Though the Canon’s aperture blades were stuck and its light seals quickly disintegrating, it managed to whet my appetite. After a brief love affair, it perished during Winter Storm Stella, and I was forced to move on. As the proverb says, “a single reprimand does more for a discerning person than a hundred lashes for a fool.” Though I’ll make no claims about my own foolishness, this single reprimand was definitely enough to teach me a thing or two. First, that brand recognition will only get you so far. Second, that research will always pay off. And research I did.

Forum after forum and page after page began to impress upon me that a veritable treasure trove had been bequeathed to me. The way people used that name, Minolta, began to intrigue me. These had been my grandfather’s companions through graduations, family trips, and even on assignment for the United States Air Force. Combing through negatives and prints, I found pictures which range from the sentimental to the spectacular. Then came that nagging tug of legacy.

I have to use this stuff.

So I did, and in the years since, I’ve formed some opinions. Here they are.

History and Technical Specifications

The Minolta MC W. Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 is a moderate wide-angle lens. Just what is all that gobbledegook on the lens bezel? MC stands for “Meter Coupled,” W stands for “Wide,” Rokkor was Minolta’s name for their best lenses at the time, and HG refers to the optical formula. Hexa means six in Greek and G is the seventh letter of the English alphabet, so HG gives us seven elements in six groups. The reasons for this system are, I think, because Ancient Greece is cool, and America has a lot of money. A better explanation might be found elsewhere on the internet, but I’m an artist, not a historian.

This lens has a pretty old design. Not quite Ancient Greece old, but it predates Watergate, the Lunar Landing, and Yellow Submarine. Seems Minolta introduced it in 1958, gradually revising the ergonomics, coatings, and aesthetics through my version and beyond. Seven elements in six groups is actually a lot of glass to cram into a lens of this size, but Minolta hung onto this formula in one version or another until 1975. My copy cannot be older than 1966. It therefore comes pretty much in the middle of this lens’ production run, and “middle option” is perhaps an apt description.

As James and others on this site have opined, the general perception of “standard lens” may be shifting wider than 50mm. As far as standard lenses are concerned, I own two fifties, a 35-70 zoom, a 35-105 zoom, and even the mighty 55mm f/1.2 Nikkor. All fine lenses, yet seldom is any of them my go-to for film travel photos. More often, I pack the humble 35. Thus we can say that it’s my de facto standard. Some folks will tell you the standard has crept all the way out to 28mm. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. My standard apparently is a little wider than 50mm, so the point must be conceded. Very long justification simply to admit that I agree with something somebody else said.

Contrarian much?

What to Expect from the Minolta MC W Rokkor HG 35mm F/2.8

So, my Rokkor is a middle option between the old standard of fifty and the new standard, if you will, of twenty-eight. The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is also a middle option between the slow f/4 and hotshot f/1.8 thirty-fives which Minolta offered contemporaneously. Fast enough for walk-around photography, particularly if you’re loaded up with a 400 speed film. After the sun goes down, however, reach for your tripod, your flash, or a faster lens.

The minimum aperture also presents its own limitation, albeit not an obvious one. The Minolta MC W. Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 stops down only as far as f/16, and the shutters of the Minolta cameras with which it was designed to work generally top out at 1/1000s. That takes you all the way out to EV 18 at 100 ISO, but it simply cannot yield a proper exposure in such conditions if shooting, say, Portra 800 or the trusty Tri-X at 1600. It may behoove us here to recall that in the 1960s, 200 was considered high-speed for color film. Thirdly, it’s a middle option in terms of recommended shooting conditions, being poorly-suited to extremes of both dim and bright light.

Aside from usage limitations, which are simply the consequences of design and construction, the Rokkor’s age affords a fair share of weaknesses. How severe and how numerous are more than I can say. Lens sharpness is tricky to define. If by saying “sharp,” we mean to say “resolves fine detail,” then it is sharp at every f-stop. At f/2.8 and f/4, it exhibits spherical aberration, which reduces contrast, but makes for flattering people-photos and dreamy landscapes. Similarly to the spherical aberration issue, at wider apertures, the corners and edges of the frame darken from vignetting. I don’t know by how many stops they darken, but I’d estimate one-and-one-third stops at max aperture and a half-stop at f/4. Having never made a darkroom print from a negative, the inevitable dodging and burning headaches are not a cross I’ve had to bear. Consequently, these defects have never stopped me from shooting at the larger f-stops.

One bona fide weakness of this lens is its tendency to ghost. Upon the Sun’s least intrusion into frame, ghosts are conjured with alarming ease. Given the emotional significance I’ve imparted to all of my grandfather’s gear, perhaps the frequency of ghosts should come as no surprise. Hamlet comes to mind, as he steps onto the parapets of Elsinore. Like him, I dialog with these spectral visitors, rather than balk at them.

Color rendition is an entirely different case. The Rokkor’s consistency in this area, regardless of lighting conditions, was a welcome surprise. Its blue-tinted optical coatings produce images with a uniformly (but not excessively) cool cast. Contrast tests yielded another welcome surprise. Stopped-down, the lens showed an almost-Nikonian reluctance to surrender contrast, even when I deliberately sought out flares and ghosts.

The last word on this lens’ optical performance takes us back to the very basics of photography. If the light is favorable, expect good performance. In adverse conditions, the Rokkor begins to misbehave. Of what classic lens is that statement untrue, though? I even have a zoom made in 2017 that flares in high sun. This one is simply less adept at compensating for poor light than  those which have come since. This is actually a good thing for those who wish to learn photography, because they won’t be pampered when mistakes are made.

Ergonomically, the Minolta MC W. Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 is a joy, as anybody who’s used an old Minolta lens could tell you.

The aluminum aperture ring turns smoothly and clicks in half-stops from f/4 to f/16. The all-metal focus ring is likewise very smooth, and the engraved depth-of-field scale is usable. Here, a nitpicker could point out that the Rokkor falls short of Nikon lenses from the same era. The latter possess focusing scales which extend all the way up the lens barrel, while this one does not. If that meaningfully impacts your shooting style, beware.

At 6.3×4.5cm, it’s roughly the same dimensions as an espresso cup in the trendy cafes we film shooters seem drawn to. Weight is a miniscule 210 grams, exactly half that of its big brother, the MC Rokkor 35mm f/1.8. For those of us committed to Minolta, weight savings are a worthy goal wherever they may be had. My own SRT-101 (hardly the grossest offender among Minolta’s stable) weighs in at a hefty 675g. On that camera, this little lens looks quite at home. Its tiny size comes with a drawback that Minolta shooters need to know ahead of time. The MC W. Rokkor HG 35mm f/2.8 sports a 52mm filter thread, not Minolta’s standard 55mm.

I primarily shot this lens on my Minolta SRT-101, where its meter coupling (the “MC” in MC Rokkor) gave me good exposures with the convenience of open-aperture viewing. I also mounted it to my Nikon Z5 via the Urth MD-Z adapter. With that setup, I was still able to use the camera’s “Non-CPU lens data” function for purposes of vibration reduction and exposure, which surprised me. I had expected that feature to be locked if the camera couldn’t detect Nikon’s FTZ adapter. For those who like to review their EXIF data, however, there is a drawback. The adapter I used has no CPU contacts whatsoever, so the camera does not record any information about which focal length or aperture were used. Since not even the proprietary FTZ adapter records set aperture, I can scarcely call this a major flaw. Again, if this meaningfully impacts you, beware.

Final Thoughts

It would be easy to write disparagingly about this lens, and imply that its limitations or weaknesses would lead to bad photos. While I could write such a thing, I could never believe it, because it smacks of a certain shortsighted materialism, and is therefore nonsense. Still, the Rokkor has got shortcomings, and quite clear ones at that. What’s to be made of them?

For starters, it means that this lens does not merit a universal recommendation. Shooters with exacting standards would probably be happier elsewhere. Beginners and travel shooters are the best fit. It is quite small and unassuming, focuses smoothly, and works well for both color and B/W. The images it produces are consistent enough and sharp enough. Beginners will like its low price-point, while travel shooters will enjoy its small footprint.

We Minolta aficionados tend to have quite the chip on our shoulders, and I’d like to speak to that. Put aside any notions of competing with the Wetzlar folks just this once, and you’ll have a wonderful time. Thankfully, the Rokkor 35 is still entirely worth using, but even if it weren’t, I’d be in for the long haul. Utility, it would seem, is outweighed by legacy.

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Sean McCullough

Sean is a Brooklyn-based photographer, actor, and playwright. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Stockton University in 2017. More of his work can be seen at www.seanthethingdoer.com

All stories by:Sean McCullough

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Sean McCullough

Sean is a Brooklyn-based photographer, actor, and playwright. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Stockton University in 2017. More of his work can be seen at www.seanthethingdoer.com

All stories by:Sean McCullough