It’s time for another look at a fantastic piece of vintage glass, and today we’re talking about a truly versatile lens. It’s the Minolta MC Macro Rokkor QF 50mm ƒ/3.5, and it provides one of the easiest and most affordable ways to get into macro photography.
What is it about this lens that makes it perfect for those looking to dip their toes into the world of macro shooting? Practicality; Not only does this wonderful assemblage of glass and aluminum allow you to shoot the hell out of tiny bugs, flowers, coins, and all the usual macro subjects, it can also work as an everyday standard lens. It’s compact, relatively lightweight, and fairly capable as a 50mm standard. Sure, it’s not perfect, but that’s what we’re here to talk about.
So let’s get to work sussing out where the lens excels and where it suffers. Not long from now we’ll have discovered if this macro lens should have a home in your camera bag, or if it’s best passed over.
To begin let’s talk about build quality. People who know of Minolta’s Rokkor lenses expect nothing but the best in terms of construction and materials, and this lens doesn’t disappoint. This thing is solid, dense, and impressive. Holding it in the hand one has a tough time locating anything that isn’t totally metallic. Okay, the elements are made of glass, but let’s not pick nits.
The aperture ring is knurled aluminum and contrasts beautifully with the black, alloy lens barrel to which it’s mounted, while the machined focus ring boasts complex chamfers, knurls, and scallops that are all both ornamental and functionally relevant. When one begins to actuate these rings it becomes clear just how deep the quality runs, as both rings are pure bliss to use. The aperture ring clicks into its detents with mechanical precision and the focus ring spins with a weighted fluidity that’s virtually perfect. This lens, like all of the MC Rokkors, is a shooter’s lens through and through.
The lens offers a six-bladed automatic iris with barrel-mounted stop down lever, apertures from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/22, six lens elements in four groups, and single-coating for optical fidelity. It should be mentioned that the coating on this lens isn’t the best in the world, and flares and ghosts are possible. But the front element sits so deeply within the recess of the lens that you’d really have to try to make these aberrations happen. In normal use this lens will not produce an anomaly.
The lens is fairly compact, especially for a macro lens. Weighing only 330g, it’s not much heavier than many comparable 50mm standard lenses, and when retracted to infinity focus it’s not much longer than those other lenses either.
But hold on. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get much further we should probably clarify something. We’ve been calling this lens a macro lens, and it is, but there’s a caveat.
When originally sold back in the days of yore, this lens was accompanied by a 1:1 adapter. This adapter fit between the lens and the body of the camera and enabled the lens to reach life-size ratios of 1:1. Without fitment of this adapter the lens can still function perfectly, though it will only reach ratios of 1:2, or 1/2 lifesize. That’s still pretty damn close, but if we’re being honest it’s not true macro. Then again, if you’re shooting on a crop-sensor camera…
Okay, things are getting too complicated. Remember the name of the site?
The take-away here is that if you’re hunting for one of these lenses, it’s best to look for a version that comes with the original adapter. By finding a version that comes with the original adapter you’ll be ensuring that you’ll be able to reach maximum magnification, while still retaining the ability to remove the adapter and have a portable, compact macro that’s completely capable of getting very, very close.
If you’re not totally obsessed with macro photography and feel that this lens alone will get you close enough without the adapter, by all means purchase one as a standalone unit. We just want to be as clear as possible so you know what you’re in for. For reference, all of the sample shots taken here were taken without the adapter.
It should also be mentioned that there’s a 4:1 adapter that mounts the lens backwards to the camera body… But again, we digress.
Out in the field the lens performs beautifully, with a few small issues. The biggest of these issues is likely the heavy vignetting seen when shot wide open. It’s fairly pronounced, and while this can be easily solved in post-processing with digital photography, it warrants mentioning. The lens stops down from ƒ/3.5 to 5.6 in a single increment and the correction of light fall-off is almost instantaneous. By ƒ/8 things are as close to resolved as they’re ever going to get.
Sharpness wide open is also a minor weak point, though we’re really being finicky here since the center of the frame is pretty damn crisp with sponginess being found only at the corners of the frame. Similar to the behavior of the lens regarding wide-open vignetting, stop it down just a single stop and things are almost completely resolved. At ƒ/8 images are at their maximum sharpness with resolution staying incredible until it falls off somewhere around ƒ/16. For almost everyone, this lens will certainly be sharp enough.
Using the lens as a standard 50mm yields a capable yet flawed experience. With its maximum aperture of ƒ/3.5, low-light performance and bokeh will naturally be a little lackluster. When shooting close subjects wide open it’s possible to get some reasonably attractive blended areas in the frame, and bokeh highlights look about as good as any we’ve seen from a lens of this speed. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you shouldn’t buy this lens with the expectation of making glorious bokeh-balls. For that you’ll need a truly dedicated fast, prime standard.
But even with the lackluster low-light performance, somewhat impotent subject isolation, and less-than stunning bokeh, this lens performs pretty well as a standard lens. If you’re not obsessed with bokeh or need a super-fast aperture for something like night-time street photography, this thing will do the job. While the extremely long focus throw of 320 degrees may make missing your shot a sadly common occurrence in pressure situations, for slow, casual shooting it will mostly work.
Take it out for a stroll in the park. Shoot some trees, shoot some rocks, shoot some other things that don’t move very fast and just enjoy the lens. The added bonus being that when you see an earwig you can take a disgustingly close-up shot of its ass-pincers. That’s a big bonus.
Using the lens for video work is a pleasure due to its exceedingly buttery focus ring. The precision and feel of the focus is just masterful, with accurate, pin-point focus effortlessly achieved. Shot wide open we get beautifully blended backgrounds, and stopped down to ƒ/8 we’re treated to the versatility provided by the lens’ reasonable depth-of-field capabilities.
Where the Macro Rokkor QF 50mm ƒ/3.5 truly shines is in its practical approach to macro photography. The relatively short focal length allows greater depth-of-field compared with some of the more specialized lenses, such as Minolta’s other macro, the 100mm ƒ/3.5. This means that it’s easier to get more of the subject in focus, which is pretty important when shooting such minuscule subjects. The previously mentioned ability to use the lens as a standard 50mm adds to its overall practicality. Add to this functional prudence the fact that this lens usually costs under $70 and it’s clear to see why we think this is one of the best lenses for anyone, but especially for the new macro shooter.
So whether you’re shooting an old Minolta film camera or a modern mirror-less marvel like our Sony a7, this macro lens is a nearly unbeatable mix of performance and value. Its build quality is unmatched, its performance is perfectly acceptable, and it costs next to nothing. If you’re interested in macro photography and you’re a quality-obsessive working within a budget, this is the best macro lens you’ll find. And if you’re an experienced macro shooter looking to grow your macro capabilities, with its 1:1 and 4:1 adapters this is a lens that can happily grow with you.
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