Every photo geek should have a wide-angle lens in their bag. With a dedicated wide-angle prime we’re able to make images that are simply impossible to make with any other lens. For me, there’s no better way to add instant dynamism and visual interest to photography than by shooting the world through a wide piece of glass.
I’ve spent the past few weeks with a legacy lens that offers a near-perfect blend of optical ability, build quality, and price. It’s Minolta’s MD W. Rokkor 24mm F/2.8, and it might just be the best value in legacy wides today. With prices hovering right around $200 and instances of perfect examples selling below $100 at auction, this lens is a truly exceptional value proposition. What’s even better than the price are the images it can make.
For those who may be totally new to the wide-angle conversation, check out this piece we published detailing why you need to be shooting wide. And for those who may not know what a wide-angle lens is, lets get you up to speed real quick.
A wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length smaller than the long side of any given film plane or sensor. Since focal length is relative to the size of a camera’s film or sensor, what constitutes a wide-angle lens will vary according to camera type. But since many photo geeks and new shooters will recognize the 35mm format used by classic film cameras and newer digital cameras as a point of reference, we’ll use this format to illustrate.
Following our definition above and assuming we’re using a 35mm film or full-frame digital camera, which has an image area of 36 x 24mm, a wide-angle lens will be any lens that has a focal length of 36mm or less. Going wider still, an ultra wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length that’s shorter than the short side of a film plane or sensor. Again assuming a 35mm or full-frame film or sensor, an ultra wide-angle lens is any lens with a focal length shorter than 24mm. The shorter the focal length in millimeters, the wider the lens will be, and the larger field of view one will be able to achieve.
Speaking specifically to our Rokkor, the 24mm focal length puts this lens on the line separating wides and ultra-wides, making it something of a “goldilocks” choice. It’s restrained enough that we get all the benefits of an ultra-wide without the caricature-ish hyperbole that ultra-wides sometimes bring. Again, a nice balance.
The 24mm F/2.8 came in a number of variations over the course of its production, but only one iteration is appreciably different from the rest. Still, that doesn’t stop people from nitpicking, so get ready for a handful of paragraphs that address those nits and the reasons they’re (foolishly) picked.
Original MC models and MD models are optically identical (9 elements in 7 groups) and practically identical in terms of construction. These models are easily identified by their 55mm diameter filter threads, and their build quality is phenomenal. Full metal construction (with plastic aperture rings), delectably tight focus action, mechanically precise aperture actuation, and excellent durability all combine to mark this lens as a truly noteworthy piece of engineering.
The later version is distinguished by its 49mm diameter filter threads, and is popularly regarded as slightly inferior to the earlier models in build. This isn’t really the case, and we won’t see any difference in image quality between the two lenses. If you prefer the more compact 49mm filter lenses, don’t let random forum posts dissuade you from seeking out the lens.
There’s also no meaningful difference between lenses bearing the “Rokkor” and “Rokkor-X” nomenclature, as some people say. This is just branding for different markets. Japanese companies of the ’60s and ’70s assumed that breaking into the American market demanded products have Xs and Zs in the name, so lenses destined for America received the extra letter embellishment while other lenses did not. That X doesn’t mean anything special.
I should also mention some other little foibles that excruciatingly fussy photo geeks typically bemoan regarding Minolta lenses. For one, the MC version lacks the dynamically-balanced aperture blades found in the MD version. This is important to know for people who want their aperture blades to be balanced dynamically, I suppose, even if no one actually knows why or how or to what end an aperture blade should dynamically be balanced. If you can’t stand non-dynamically-balanced blades (wretched things), search for the MD version and take comfort in knowing your blades are indeed balanced. Dynamically.
Another thing people complain about is the infamous “rotating filter thread,” which is a simple byproduct of the filter threads being built into the focus ring. As one turns the focus rings, so too turn the filter threads and any filters attached. This can be a massive problem for people who have never had anything remotely bad (or even slightly inconvenient) happen in their lives. But don’t worry- the rest of us normal people won’t even notice, or will quietly readjust our polarizing filters the required seventy degrees.
And now that we’ve talked a lot about a bunch of stuff that really matters very little, what’s it like to shoot this lens?
As mentioned, this lens allows us to make images that simply can’t be made with any other focal length. Most notably the borderline ultra wide-angle lets us push away the background and emphasize space and distance. This is excellent in landscape and cityscape shots where we want to showcase the incredible vistas made by both nature and man. Modern architecture is rendered beautifully on account of this lens’ excellent optical formula, which almost completely mitigates distortion. Straight lines are actually straight, even at the extremes of the frame. While vertical objects tend to fall away (as with all tilt- and shift-less lenses), horizontal lines suffer none of the squiggly stuff.
This is mostly thanks to the lens’ floating elements, which in addition to across-the-range distortion control, provide incredible close-focusing ability. Capable of resolving as close as one foot, the 24/2.8 allows us to really exaggerate close-up subjects and emphasize a feeling of being up in the action. Obviously subjects this close will suffer the elongation that comes with a wide-angle lens being shot at the extreme of its focus distance, an effect that’s often used intentionally.
Sharpness is quite excellent in the center of the frame at any aperture, and very good in the corners wide open. Shooting at F/2.8 there’s some real softening at the very edges of the frame, but it’s not too bad considering we’re shooting such a wide lens. When we stop the lens down even one stop the sharpness becomes nearly uniform throughout, and once stopped down to F/5.6 and beyond, sharpness is pretty perfect.
There’s pretty moderate light fall-off when shooting wide open, but this too corrects rapidly and completely when we stop the lens down. Chromatic aberration (color-fringing) is only evident in areas of the frame that show the most extreme contrast. Flares and ghosts are handled well enough in real-world shooting, though these will present when you really subject that front element to some serious sunlight.
No one buys a wide-angle or ultra wide-angle lens for its bokeh, but when a wide lens can make smooth blur we count it as a bonus. When focusing very closely, this lens can do that. While it’s not the best bokeh around, it’s decent. We’re seeing some rough edges and a bit of unpleasant blending, but it’s not too bad. Highlight bokeh is pretty geometric on account of the lens’ six-bladed aperture. When it comes to bokeh, a Nikkor 1.2 this is not.
The relatively fast maximum aperture of F/2.8 allows for adequate performance in low-light situations. Especially on a modern digital camera, and on account of the recent rapid advancement in ISO capability, it’s a lens that will do whatever you ask of it at any time of day or night. On film, you’re a bit more limited, but even here we’re seeing the benefits of modern high-ISO film. Load some Portra 800 or high speed Ilford and there’s little to limit this lens’ versatility.
More important than sharpness, bokeh, or anything else really, the lens is simply fun to use. It has a balance of performance, size, weight, and quality that makes one happy to mount it to their camera and shoot it all day. And while this can be said about any ultra-wide lens, Minolta’s 24mm lets us see the world in a way that makes even the most mundane subjects interesting. When our vision passes through an ultra-wide lens, there’s no telling what kind of images we’ll be able to make. And when that ultra-wide lens is as exceptional as this one, things are even sweeter.
This is the kind of lens that will, more often than not, find its way onto your camera. Even if you’ve no intention of shooting a wide-angle lens you might find yourself suddenly wondering what the scene would look like at 24mm. And two hours later you’ll still be shooting the 24. It’s just that fun.
It’s also a lens that makes us rethink a lot of what we know about photography. Composing shots with this lens is a totally different experience compared with the more common street standard 50mm. Shots that we’d normally take without a second’s thought require us to reinterpret our vision, or select subjects we’d not normally choose, or shoot them in a way that’s just a bit foreign to us. This sort of exercise is invigorating in a way that many photographers need. Falling into a rut is dangerous to our craft, and shooting a focal length we’ve not yet tried is usually a good way to jolt us out of that rut.
Compatibility is nearly universal in today’s environment. Originally designed for use on Minolta’s 35mm film SLRs, users of those classic cameras will have no worries mounting the 24, and shooters using today’s countless mirrorless and DSLR machines needn’t fret either. A number of inexpensive adapters exist that allow effortless mounting of Minolta’s legacy glass to full-frame and crop-sensor cameras alike. Just choose a glass-less adapter for best image quality, and get shooting.
If you’re a classic Minolta film shooter, a digital-only mirror-less fan, this is a wide-angle lens that shouldn’t be missed. At current prices, it’s a steal, and even if the price were to rise over the next few years it’s still an excellent example of legacy value in the modern age. Superb image quality, impeccable build, and a low price; what more could you ask for?