The end of a tiresome week found me weary, disheartened, and worn out. It also found me stuffed into a small, German sedan with my wife, our one-year-old daughter, and enough bags, totes, and rucksacks to brave it for three weeks in Patagonia. But we weren’t going to Patagonia. We were going to Chatham, a coastal town protruding like a ganglion cyst from the elbow of Cape Cod, to see eroding beaches and million-dollar homes and lighthouses and fog. And seals. And coffee, I hoped.
It was right smack in mid-morning, prime time for being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as the old men say. But contrary to my usual habits I was not bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed. In fact, I was exhausted (a state for which the responsibility rested with the mentioned one-year-old now occupying her carseat in cherubic slumber). As we careened down the highway that was at one point made of four lanes, then two, and now one, I vacantly ruminated about the uniqueness of the small, scraggly conifer trees that dominated this odd, sandy landmass that so grotesquely jutted from the mainland. They looked downright prehistoric, though I’d no idea why the aesthetics of a tree would put me in mind of prehistory. No doubt some synthetic memory compiled from a lifetime of movies, museums, and elementary school books.
I was about to mention the uncommon looking trees to my wife when she broke in on my admittedly useless meditation, “Was that the exit?” she asked.
“Was it?” I replied fruitlessly.
“I think it was, right?” She asked again, with equal futility.
And so it was. What can I say? I was tired and we missed the exit. A mistake, but no big deal. There’s really only two directions one can drive on Cape Cod, and we were still going in the right direction. We’d hit Chatham for sure, as long as I made a righthand turn at some point before we hit the Atlantic. And hell, I was so sleepy that if I never turned and we plunged into the ocean I think it likely that I’d have kept on driving in silent, somber resignation. We’d keep on going and eventually emerge upon the rolling hills of Ireland, which are supposed to be nice this time of year.
Lack of sleep, an intense workload at the day job, and the crushing weight of running both a camera shop and a content-based website had resulted in serious burnout. So serious, in fact, that I’d actually thought of leaving home without a camera. But as I packed my bag that morning I felt the ever-present pull to make the most of my time, to pack a camera for a future review, to bring a lens that I needed to write about. In the end, deadlines and obligation won, but I knew I couldn’t go overboard.
I needed something simple, compact, and above all, fun. Something that would help me engage with photography again without weighing me down. To this end, I chose the smallest lens in my inventory, Minolta’s M-Rokkor 28mm F/2.8, and paired it to Sony’s a7 via a Fotodiox M-mount to E-mount adapter. I also managed to pack a super-compact film camera, the Olympus XA, but that’s a story for another time.
Yes, despite my whining I packed two cameras. What can I say? I love cameras even when I’m sick of cameras.
Less than half an hour after missing our turn the family and I were casually bebopping along the streets of Chatham. The kid was awake, the wife was ready to shop, and I was on the hunt for caffeine. Chatham is nice. It’s the kind of idyllic seaside town that many people dream of living in and that even more vacation to in the summer, when the population more than triples. All along the main street, pristine white clapboards gleam in the spring sunshine, granite masonry accentuates noble colonial woodwork, and brilliant hydrangeas burst like fireworks aside the doorsteps of every shop and home. It’s a pretty place. Almost as pretty as the Minolta lens mounted to my camera.
Pretty good segue, don’t you think?
But before we get too hot and heavy, let’s get through the basics. The Minolta M-Rokkors make up a concise collection of five prime lenses covering three focal lengths, these being 28mm, 40mm, and 90mm. While many commentators will say there are only three M-Rokkors, this isn’t the case, as the 40mm and 90mm lenses come in two versions each. The two earlier versions were made for the Leica CL and are single-coated lenses, while the later two versions were made for the Minolta CLE and feature multi-coating. Hunt out the later versions for their better performance, and tell the difference via placement of the serial numbers on the lenses. Early single-coated versions have the number on the nameplate bezel while the multi-coated lenses wear their serials on the lens barrel. My 28mm F/2.8 lens was never available for the CL as that camera lacked the CLE’s 28mm framelines, thus it is the only version available.
As we strolled, I did what I normally do and snapped some pictures. I learned pretty quickly that the M-Rokkor is something of a mixed bag. It’s a lens at odds with itself, and it’s equal parts superb and confusing.
Right from the outset it’s clear that the M-Rokkor 28mm F/2.8 is a beautiful and well-made lens. If you’re used to M mount lenses from German manufacturers you’ll consider the Rokkor to be status quo, but if you’ve never used a Leica or Zeiss lens prepare to be impressed. Fit and finish are just flawless. Knurling is laser sharp, and simply gorgeous. Markings for aperture, focus scale, and all the rest are engraved with impeccable precision. Every surface is made of metal. That includes even the nameplate bezel and the unique-to-this-lens vented lens hood. Importantly, the aperture ring (positioned on the end of the lens) and the focus ring are machined to a stunningly high level of quality. Functionally things are just as nice. The aperture ring yields to an ideal amount of directed force and clicks into its detents with mechanical certainty. The ten-bladed aperture is adjusted in half-stop increments, while focus actuation is precise, smooth, and nicely weighted.
It’s a tiny lens measuring 51 x 35.5mm, and at 135 grams it’s a relative featherweight. Compared to similar lenses in its class it’s nearly impossible to find a lighter and more compact 28mm. The last time I shot this lens it was mounted to the Minolta CLE, the second smallest M mount camera in the world. It performed beautifully on that machine, fitting its minuscule proportions with effortless grace. On the a7 it feels a bit too small, but that’s not the lens’ fault, and getting acclimated to the new dynamic happens pretty quickly.
All this sounds great, doesn’t it? A tiny, incredibly robust lens that’s not only capable of mounting to some of the absolute best film cameras of all time, but also capable of mounting to today’s most advanced mirror-less full-frame cameras? Yeah, seems amazing. And for the most part it is. But there are a couple of caveats.
The M-Rokkor lineup in general, but specifically the three multi-coated lenses, are said by many experienced voices to offer image quality that matches or outperforms their Leica equivalents. Whether this is objectively true or not I won’t venture to say, but in my experience with the 28mm I’m pretty impressed. This is easy to explain; in the right conditions the M-Rokkor 28mm produces some really incredible images, and that’s what’s important. In my stroll through town there were ample opportunities to test for sharpness, light fall-off, and other optical qualifiers. Let’s take a look.
Generally speaking, a lens is judged most harshly on the parameter that is most crucial to the style of photography for which that lens is typically used. With a wide angle lens, we’re likely shooting architectural shots, street photography, and landscapes, so above all else we’re looking for our 28mm lens to make sharp and detailed images. While the 28mm M-Rokkor has a strong reputation for sharpness, just how sharp is this little lens in practical use? I had this question in mind when I took my first shot with the lens paired to the a7. A slightly disturbing window display of a bunch of rubber ducks with soulless, vacant eyes offered a good test subject. I framed the shot, opened the aperture as wide as it would go, and fired away.
Chimping on the a7’s LCD showed that the Rokkor had mostly earned its reputation. Reviewing the shot later only confirmed that it really is a solid performer, even when shot wide open. At F/2.8 sharpness in the center of the frame is really quite impressive, though in the corners things are fairly squishy. As we close up that iris we see immense improvement immediately, with shots made at F/4 showing exceptional detail in the center and crisp corners. As expected, with smaller and smaller apertures we see continuous improvements in sharpness all over, and from F/8 on the lens is clearly demonstrating why it’s so often recommended as a clinically sharp tool. For most photo geeks this lens will be sharper than any other lens in the arsenal.
Satisfied that I was shooting a lens capable of working with the a7’s ginormous sensor without incurring some of the pitfalls associated with shooting some other wide angle lenses on a full-frame digital sensor, I moved on to testing Minolta’s coatings. As the capricious glowing sphere in the sky alternately ducked behind and then burst through the fast moving clouds overhead, I wondered if the coatings could handle a full-frontal blast of sunbeams. Here again the reputation of this glass preceded itself. The Rokkor name is well-known among classic and mirror-less camera shooters, and Minolta’s SLR lenses have always been at the top of the offerings from Japan, so I expected unwanted aberrations to be well controlled, and indeed they are. Many people claim that the lens suffers from egregious flaring, ghosting, and an overall lack of contrast when shot in direct sunlight. I never experienced this, which could be on account of my habit of leaving the lens hood on at all times. That is, after all, what it’s there for.
Chromatic aberration is nonexistent. For those unfamiliar with this term, chromatic aberration is also called “color fringing,” and it’s that disgusting, colorful double image effect that occurs on high contrast areas of a photo usually exhibited as purple or green outlines surrounding a dark subject. It’s a hallmark of cheap lenses and it’s the unwanted aberration that, for me, is most jarring. When a lens makes images with color fringing it just impresess me with the idea that I’m looking at an ugly photo.
The lens manages to avoid color shifts, for the most part. In images where the corners are very light or white you may see a tiny amount of magenta creep into the frame. But I should stress that you’ll really need to be shooting white corners for this to present. In practical use I’m not seeing the kind of color shift problems that are found in some other wide angle lenses when mounted to digital full frame machines.
Contrast and clarity are phenomenal with the M-Rokkor. Even without post-processing, things look beautiful. Images are clean with both digital and film images. Shadows and highlights retain a great level of detail. Color is beautifully balanced and on film the lens produces a nice, even shot in any light. Distortion is also well handled. That’s right, everything looks great and optical issues are essentially non-existent. And while we’re discussing things that don’t exist, don’t buy this lens for bokeh.
Usability as a runaround lens is quite excellent. Though the lens does have a rather lackluster minimum focus distance of 2.7 feet, it more than makes up for this by virtue of its impressively deep depth of field at smaller apertures. You won’t be using it to take product photos, but with the lens’ lovely focus scale it’s possible to set the camera’s aperture, set the focus distance, and accurately estimate your distance to subject. If we prescribe to the old adage “F/8 and be there,” shooting at F/8 allows us to capture in reasonably sharp detail any subject from infinity to five feet away. That’s a huge swathe of sharply focused stuff, perfect for creating street photos with unmatched depth and dimension.
While we don’t typically match wide angle lenses with portraiture, after playing around with the 28mm M-Rokkor I’m inclined to think that should change. Because this 28mm lens (and many wide angle lenses) actually provide a unique take on the craft of capturing people in portrait. Sure, we don’t get the subject isolation or bokeh that so many photo geeks lust after, but what we do get is context. Wide angle lenses used for portraits place the subject squarely in a scene. They push the background away and can help to create a story. Yes, in portraits we want the viewer’s focus to be the subject, front and center, but why can’t we have something in the background that’s just as important? We don’t live in a vacuum in which everything is a bokehed-out smear of blurry color, so don’t shoot portraits as if we do.
And much to my surprise, this was one of the most engaging aspects of using this lens. Making images of my wife and daughter with the M-Rokkor was a pure treat. Not only did I capture the people in my life, but I captured the life around them as well.
But not everything about the lens is quite so joyful. In past reviews I’ve talked about the way that vignetting doesn’t matter quite as much as it did in the past, since the issue is so easy to correct in today’s digital workflow. A simple slider in Lightroom, Aperture, Photos, and even the latest iPhone apps can all but eliminate vignetting as a photo woe. But it still bears telling, especially when the vignetting is especially pronounced. And this lens vignettes like crazy.
As the day lingered on and the struggling sun succumbed to an ever encroaching fog, my family and I headed to the Fish Market, a delightfully foul-smelling cess pool replete with dead and decaying fish parts, unlucky bird skeletons, and seals lazily waiting to be devoured by seasonally active Great White sharks. As the sky turned a muted grey and the clouds hung lower and lower, it was impossible to ignore just how badly this lens vignettes at maximum aperture. Shot wide open it’s actually pretty amazing how much light fall-off we’re seeing. As with many wide angle lenses, stop it down and it goes away, but it’s truly one of the worst performers in this regard that I’ve ever encountered.
But that’s not the worst of the lens’ troubles. What’s worse than the vignetting is the fact that this otherwise stunning lens is prone to a strange affliction in the form of infinitely small, white dots that coat the inside of the front lens element. Opinion varies as to what these dots actually are. Some say the dots are moisture trapped between the mated lens elements, some say they’re imperfections in the optical coatings, and still others claim they’re the stolen souls of every street photography subject captured in a moment of anger. But whatever they are, they’re ugly and it makes my skin crawl.
Keep in mind that not every example of this lens suffers from the malady, and there’s conflicting opinion about whether or not the affliction actually impacts image quality. For my part, I’ve shot both a perfect example and a heavily afflicted example and I can’t see any difference in image quality. But regardless of whether or not these annoying dots impact my photos, the fact that a lens that is so spectacular in every other way suffers from a manufacturing defect like this seems somehow criminal. Minolta must’ve felt the same way, because for quite some time they were repairing these lenses for everyone who requested the service, free of charge. That service is naturally no longer available, so if you’re in the market make sure to really inspect that front element.
I ended the day, if not invigorated, at least refocused. The 28mm M-Rokkor gave me a finely crafted toy to play with all day. It helped me see and photograph my loved ones in a new environment with effortless ease. It allowed me to make some really beautiful photographs and capture some charming moments that I’ll treasure for a long time. And I suppose it helped me remember that that’s what photography is all about.
All this said, is the M-Rokkor 28mm F/2.8 worth owning? If you shoot a Minolta CLE, yes it is. If you shoot with a Leica M and find the German wide angle lenses are just out of your budget you should also consider this lens. And if you’re running around with a brand new a7 and want a stunning and compact 28mm it will likely be a great fit. It’s amazingly compact, gorgeously crafted, and optically fantastic. Just find one with a clean front element and you’ll be a happy shooter.