I shoot a lot of old cameras, archaic machines that in some cases recall a time when the United States was comprised of only forty-eight such distinct territories, and it’s not unusual to find a lens of similar vintage mated to my Sony a7. So it goes without saying that much of my experience in photography comes with considerable compromise. A slower-than-useful maximum shutter speed, poor optical coatings, or cumbersome weight and size, for example.
With one eye on the past and one firmly fixed on the present, I strive to show the ways these older technologies maintain relevance (or don’t) for today’s photo geek. Oftentimes, a lens or camera simply doesn’t make the cut, as was the case recently with an unnamed Nikkor that, when mounted to my mirror-less camera was simply too large and clumsy for use. That lens did not get featured. But for every oafish piece of glass or burdensome assemblage of metal that fails to impress, I shoot ten machines that are as amazing today as they were at the time of their release.
The lens I’ve been shooting for the past few weeks is just such a creation. A tiny, incredibly well-made and amazingly potent performer that produces consistently perfect images with both digital and film cameras, costs less than the competition, and offers an uncommon perspective, this lens is the kind of lens that real photo geeks dream of. It’s Minolta’s M-Rokkor 40mm F/2, and it displays an unlikely modernity that, while difficult to quantify, is impossible to ignore.
For those who may have missed it, I recently wrote a review of Minolta’s 28mm M-Rokkor, a lens that sprouts from the same bough in the family tree as the lens here featured. But while the 28mm M-Rokkor shares much of the same DNA as the 40mm F/2, there’s no confusion as to which is the more capable, more complete lens.
As with the 28mm, the 40mm lens was made in at least two variations. Early 40mm M-Rokkors were made for the Leitz Minolta CL (as it was called in its home market), are single coated, and sometimes bear the marking “QF” on the nameplate. Contrary to what some online commentators might say (reminding us always to consider the source), this nomenclature has nothing to do with the coating technology used on the lens, nothing to do with internal prototyping, and nothing to do with “Quality Failure” inspections. It’s simply a naming system that Minolta had used for years that denotes the optical formula of the lens. In this case, “Q” denotes that the lens is made of four groups, and “F” denotes these groups are made of six elements. Later lenses in the CL generation of lenses would lose the “QF” marking, but retain the lens’ serial number on the bezel. Again, online sources claim that later CL era lenses gained multi-coating, but nowhere in the Minolta literature is this supported.
When the Minolta CLE made its debut, with it came a new generation of M-Rokkors. These new lenses saw their serial number move from the nameplate to the lens barrel, and though their optical formula remained the same, the lenses now officially enjoyed the boost in contrast and flare resistance granted by multi-coating technology.
Boring history lesson concluded, what’s the takeaway? Simply this; if you’re in the market for an M-Rokkor, buy the newest version you can. In this case, newer is certainly better.
Construction quality, fit, and finish are simply marvelous. As with the 28mm before it, Minolta created in the M-Rokkor 40mm a product that simply oozes sophistication. Knurling is laser sharp. Markings for aperture and the convenient focus scale are engraved with impeccable precision. Every surface is made of metal. The aperture ring (positioned on the end of the lens) and the focus ring are machined to a stunningly high level of quality. The lens is tight, dense, and weighty, and 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 lens that’s easy on the eyes, and heavenly in the hand.
One of the tiniest M mount lenses ever produced, the 40mm M-Rokkor is an excellent choice for everyday carry. It’s super-compact and amazingly lightweight. Mounting the Rokkor to Minolta’s CLE or any other M-mount machine creates a kit that’s smaller than any combination of Leica M paired with any Leica lens, weighs less than sixteen ounces, and is ideal for travelers and street shooters. Mounted on a mirror-less camera such as Sony’s a7 or Fujifilm’s X-series it’s equally effectual (though on Fuji’s crop-sensor machines it’ll shoot as a 60mm lens). The 40mm focal length is among the most versatile primes around, and while this slightly odd standard poses potential problems for certain shooters (I’ll get into this momentarily), it’ll satisfy the needs of anyone who’s open to seeing things just a bit differently.
Optical performance is really quite stunning. Images are contrasty, rich, and above all else, sharp. This sharpness, which is among the most impressive of any lens I’ve ever shot, is surprisingly consistent across the entire frame even at F/2. Corners are crisp and clean, even wide open. As we stop down that aperture sharpness become even more exceptional, as expected. Chromatic aberration is completely absent, as is distortion of any kind, and flaring and ghosting are nearly impossible to produce with multi-coated examples unless we’re pointing directly at a brilliant sun. The dedicated, specific-to-this-lens rubber lens hood helps the situation (as does any hood made to fit the 40.5mm filter threads), but this piece is prone to deformation and warping as time marches on. And since time has marched on considerably since the little halo of rubber was new, most are deformed. Light falloff is virtually nonexistent, a time-saver in post-processing.
Bokeh is nothing to boast about, but since this 40mm lens is unlikely to be used as a serious portrait or product photography lens, I’m willing to forgive the somewhat harsh out-of-focus backgrounds that it renders. Highlight bokeh stays pretty round as the aperture closes, but there’s little blending to speak of. It’s safe to say that this is not a bokeh-lover’s lens. Minimum focus distance is not super close, typical of rangefinder lenses.
The relatively quick maximum aperture of F/2 is adequate in most low-light shooting situations. While there are faster prime 40s out there, none have such a strong blend of positive characteristics. For my needs, and I suspect most shooters’ needs, this lens is fast enough.
The admittedly terse profile above tells the tale of this lens adequately enough. It’s a lens that defies fluffy hyperbole. It does its job. It works. The little 40mm Rokkor performs more like modern glass than do most legacy lenses, and there’s just not much to say about that. It has a certain clinical perfection to it. It’s precise in a way that old lenses, broadly speaking, are not. It’s a lens that requires little attention and demands little compromise. Mount this lens to your mirror-less camera, focus, shoot, and you’re likely to make a keeper (if your skills are up to snuff). It’s the perfect “F8 and be there” companion. Use the focus scale, set your CLE to aperture-priority, and pay attention to the scene on the street. Your compositions will benefit, and you’ll enjoy easy fun.
If you’ve read my review of the 28mm M-Rokkor you’ll probably recall the sad affliction that besmirches the reputation of that otherwise-excellent glass. Happily, there are no such issues with the 40mm. No white dots cling persistently to the front element, no proclivity for fungus or oil seepage has developed, and no reputation for mechanical breakdowns have presented; these lenses seem, 30 years on, to be very reliable. Buy one today and you’re likely to still love it two decades later.
Potential stumbles come in the form of compatibility issues with certain rangefinder cameras that lack 40mm frame-lines. On the Leica CL and Minolta’s CLE this isn’t an issue, as mounting the lens automatically activates both cameras’ 40mm frame-lines. But with Leica’s M series cameras and on other M mount machines, mounting the 40mm M-Rokkor will activate either the 50mm or 35mm frame lines (depending on the camera). This naturally requires a certain degree of faith and guesswork, and precise framing becomes difficult for some shooters and nearly impossible for others. The solution is, of course, to use this lens on a CLE (which is an upgrade over the M series anyway) or get comfortable guessing. Of course another big stumble will occur if you simply can’t get excited about the 40mm focal length. If you’ve tried 40mm lenses and prefer 35mm or 50mm, there’s nothing about this lens that’s going to change that.
If you’re looking for a no-nonsense, modern M-mount 40mm prime for your CL, CLE, or new mirror-less camera, it’s hard to recommend another over Minolta’s M-Rokkor. It’s undeniably gorgeous, amazingly compact, and creates images that are simply perfect. In the 40mm focal length, this one’s hard to top.