Along with the runaway success of today’s mirrorless digital cameras, another segment of the photo gear market has seen a big rise. And while the products in question are neither new nor novel, they’re essential and seem almost tailor-made to the mirrorless machine. We’re talking about legacy lenses. With impressive performance and unbeatable value, legacy lenses have become a real passion for more and more in-the-know shooters.
It’s easy to see why. Cameras like Sony’s A7 and Fujifilm’s X-Series have never looked better than when fitted with a classic, manual-focus lens. These modern, mirror-less marvels provide a perfect platform for the stylish and technically masterful lenses of yesteryear. But with so many brands and models stretching back more than fifty years, which is the lens to choose? Especially in the standard 50mm focal length, the sheer quantity of available glass can be pretty overwhelming.
Today we’ll make a case for what may just be the very best standard focal length legacy lens. With an ideally balanced combination of performance, build quality, versatility, and price, this lens is the perfect complement to your new mirror-less camera or classic film SLR. It’s Minolta’s MD 50mm f/1.4, and if you’ve been looking for the best legacy fifty available today, you may have met your match.
For those unfamiliar with the Minolta name, check out some of our earlier articless on the brand’s many products. In those, we’ve delved into the history of the brand (inclduing their start as the Japanese-German camera shop), their operating ethos, and the company’s former and continued relevance. For those already familiar with Minolta or for those who just want the dirt on the lens in question, let’s get to it.
The first thing any shooter is likely to notice when grabbing hold of the MD 50/1.4 is just how excellent it feels in the hand. Minolta lenses are known for being solid, and the 50/1.4 does not disappoint. It’s a hearty lens that feels delightfully hefty. While lenses from other brands might feel loose, fragile, or squeak and rattle when squeezed, the Minolta does not. It feels tight, compact, and strong. Were the nameplate removed, one could be forgiven for thinking it a German lens (Minolta did, in fact, design and build lenses for Leica). It weighs a healthy 235g, putting it right in the middle of the pack when compared to other 50mm lenses, but it’s compact in a way that many of its contemporaries simply aren’t. Measuring only 40mm in length and 64mm in diameter, it gives Olympus’ lenses a run for their money. Filter threads are 49mm in the later models, 55mm in earlier 50/1.4s.
The lens barrel, helicoid, lens mount, and filter threads are solid metal, which feels great on the fingertips. Compromises in truly bulletproof build quality are few, though the aperture ring is one such compromise. In later models it’s made of plastic, while in earlier versions it’s aluminum. Still, the plastic ring of this MD version is strong and durable, though admittedly not as nice (or heavy) as its metal predecessor. The aperture ring clicks nicely into its detents with deliberate precision, making viewless aperture adjustments easily trackable. The focus ring spins smoothly with a perfectly weighted fluidity, with just enough resistance to enable pinpoint precise focusing with classic cameras and with new electronic viewfinders.
Close focus distance is great for a 50mm, at 1.5 ft. This allows for excellent subject isolation in up-close shooting, excellent bokeh, and makes the lens a natural at product photography. Focus touch is further aided by a diamond-patterned rubber grip that stands up well against the test of time. We’ve not encountered any MD or Rokkor lenses in which the focus ring’s rubber has degraded.
Operationally, the lens feels much better than the equivalent offering from Canon. Though that brand’s lenses perform great optically, they’re a bit too fragile for our liking. With their over-reliance on plastic, they often feel hollow and loose, with spongey focus throws and jittery aperture rings. Another contemporary, the Olympus Zuikos have shown a proclivity for longevity issues. In our dealings through our camera shop, compared with Minolta, Olympus’ lenses show higher frequency of frozen apertures and elements afflicted with fungus. Not good. Minolta’s lenses, in contrast, are nearly always as functionally perfect as the day they were made (anecdotal information, I know, but that’s the way it is).
Optically, the MD50/1.4 is second-to-none in its class. Minolta’s engineers knew what they were doing when they carried over the optical formula used in the much more expensive MD 50mm f/1.2. This seven element in six group design offers ample correction of optical aberrations, and provides exceptional resolution and contrast.
Many fast lenses suffer severe softness in the corners when shot wide open, which really hamstrings the capabilities of the lens. Not so with Minolta’s MD. Sharpness is fantastic, even when shot wide-open. Corners suffer a bit of softness, naturally, but it’s nothing in comparison to some other fast primes we’ve shot. The Minolta performs among the best we’ve tested in this regard.
The ability of the lens to resolve sharp images at f/1.4 opens up a whole new world of low-light shooting possibilities. When light conditions allow, and when sharpness is valued, stop the lens down to f/2 or f/4 and things become outstandingly sharp across the entire frame. At f/8 we’re seeing sharpness to rival many higher spec (and higher cost) lenses.
Light falloff is visible at f/1.4, so be wary if you’re shooting film (especially slide film). For those who can’t abide vignetting, you’ll need to post-process your digital shots or your scanned film negatives. Once your shots are in the digital workflow, it’s easy to do away with unwanted fall-off. Alternately, stopping the lens down a single stop to f/2 eliminates much of the problem, while apertures of f/4 and above will eliminate it completely.
With its 49mm diameter filter threads, we’re enjoying filters and attachments that are just slightly less expensive than larger diameter offerings. Similarly beneficial to the traveling photographer, these smaller diameter filters, caps, and lens hoods provide a lighter load, and take up less room in the camera bag.
This lens fitted with a +10 close-up filter is a thing of beauty. By stowing a +10 filter in our bag we’re able to essentially carry a standard macro lens everywhere we go. See a bug? Screw on the filter and take incredible macro shots with ease. Screw off the filter and you’re right back to a standard. The MD’s high quality optics go a long way toward diminishing the negative impact a potentially less impeccably built filter may have on image quality. Good stuff.
It’s pretty remarkable to think that one can use this lens to shoot everything from portraits, to snapshots, to landscapes, to macro insect shots. It’s one of those rare bits of gear that works equally well for the photographer who loves nature, and the shooter who lives for low-light street photography. And this versatility is another reason the MD 50/1.4 is so easy to recommend.
Bokeh is phenomenal. Partly due to the close minimum focus distance, and partly due to the lens being simply exceptional, you won’t find better bokeh in a competing 50/1.4. When shot wide open, background blur is exceedingly smooth, creamy, and blended, and depth-of-field is super shallow. Bokeh curve is predictable and nicely modulated without any drastic changes through the aperture range. At its widest aperture the lens creates impossibly thin depth-of-field. While this value will change dependent on range to subject, at the minimum focus distance the DOF is razor thin. Some shooters will love this, others won’t care.
Shooting portraiture in bright light at f/4 results in perfect subject isolation and dreamy backgrounds. Even at f/8 it’s possible to get extremely organic looking bokeh behind up-close subjects. It’s not until the smallest apertures that we start to see jagged bokeh highlights in the contrasty points of an image. These appear as hexagonal blurs that, while not overly conspicuous, can be a bit distracting.
Chromatic aberration is nonexistent with the MD 50/1.4 thanks to Minolta’s exceptional optical coatings. Ghosting and flaring are incredibly rare, and one must be shooting directly at the sun to produce these unwanted affects. Even in this extreme situation, ghosts and flares are minimal. It’s pretty amazing, actually. The closest competing lens that’s as good at mitigating these kinds of aberrations is Nikon’s Nikkor 50mm f/1.4, a lens that’s perennially pricier than Minolta’s MD.
Which brings us to another big reason why the Minolta MD 50/1.4 may be the best legacy lens of standard focal length available right now. While it’s true that across the board prices for legacy lenses have been climbing, Minolta’s prices seem to be lagging behind the more recognizable names of Canon, Nikon, and Olympus. For those in-the-know, this presents an incredible opportunity to build a stunning collection of lenses for very little cost.
This is astounding since those other makers’ lenses, while excellent in their own right, are simply less of a complete package compared to the Minolta lens. Where other lenses may trump the MD 50/1.4 in certain individual categories, no single lens gets so much so right as the MD. It’s just the best all-rounder, and until more consumers catch on and drive the price up, Minolta’s MD 50/1.4 stands to be one of the best values in all of photography. At the moment, it’s almost criminally inexpensive. We might as well be stealing.
Compatibility for digital and film shooting is a non-issue. For shooters using Minolta film cameras, the MD 50/1.4 will work with quite literally every SLR the company made between the years 1958 through 1998. That’s pretty amazing, and offers a world of choice for us analog shooters. For photographers using today’s crop of mirror-less cameras and DSLR machines there are countless inexpensive adapters available. Make sure the adapter you buy allows infinity-focus and enjoy worry-free shooting with any Minolta SR mount lens (these include all lenses marked MC, MD, Rokkor, Celtic, and 3rd party lenses).
Are you convinced yet? You should be.
If you’re a mirror-less shooter who has yet to invest in legacy lenses, or a Minolta film shooter who’s looking for the perfect standard lens, now’s the time to buy. And there’s no better place to start than Minolta’s MD 50/1.4. It offers an unparalleled blend of quality, performance, and price. A lens that’s more robust than Canon’s, more reliable than Olympus’, and less expensive than Nikon’s, the Minolta MD 50mm f/1.4 may just be the best legacy 50mm out there.