Photography is a fluid craft. The light, our subjects, and even our interests are always in flux. So it helps when our gear can keep up. And it’s this uncommon versatility (combined with amazing image quality) that makes the lens I’ve used for the past few weeks so valuable. It’s Minolta’s AF Macro 100mm F/2.8 for A mount cameras, and though macro lenses aren’t what we typically describe as multi-talented, this one is.
Its optics produce nothing but amazing images, its autofocus design allows rapid operation, it fits a massive range of both digital and film cameras, and its low price makes it a no-brainer no matter the buyer’s budget. Yeah, this is a pretty amazing lens.
The Minolta AF Macro 100mm F/2.8 was designed and produced way back in 1986, and yet it’s so optically perfect that Sony, who acquired Minolta’s camera business back in 2006, are still making and selling this very lens today (under their brand name, of course). The main difference between the offerings from the old brand and the new is price – Sony’s 100mm macro costs close to $800, while the Minolta version can be found for under $150. Bonus!
The lens was initially designed to be the perfect macro solution for Minolta’s then new autofocus camera, the Maxxum 7000 (which was the first successful autofocus SLR, no less). And this lofty goal was achieved. It was able to produce true 1:1 macro images (that’s life-size) without the use of an extension tube, and capable of doubling down as a rather incredible portrait lens as well.
In 2017, it works as well as it always has on classic film machines, and fitted to today’s DSLR or mirror-less cameras it’s an even more capable assemblage of glass and metal.
Construction is typical Minolta quality, which is to say it’s dense, solid, and precise. The lens barrel, aperture ring, filter threads, focus ring, and lens mount (essentially accounting for every surface of this lens) are made of metal. It’s a weighty lens, at 520 grams (18 ounces, or 1.14 lbs), but compact and tight. It feels like, and is, a solid precision tool.
The eight elements in eight groups design employs a double floating element system, with three different groups moving in conjunction to effectively eliminate any and all distortion throughout its entire range of magnification. It works perfectly, and the result of all this tech is a lens that simply will not make a distorted image throughout its entire range of magnification.
Minolta’s optical coatings can match anyone in the business, and those found on this lens are no different. Chromatic aberration is non-existent. Bokeh color fringing is minimal and only appears (so mildly as to be nearly unnoticed) at wider apertures. Flares and ghosting can occur when shooting directly into sunlight, but in normal shooting situations we’ll see zero unwanted flares.
And let’s not forget that Minolta was the only major Japanese manufacturer dedicated to fully-integrated lens manufacturing. That means they made their own glass. This is rare.
The result of all this excellent design and engineering is consistently stunning images. This lens is extremely sharp, punchy, and offers incredible color rendition. Depth-of-field and bokeh change dramatically at different magnifications. Shooting close-up subjects results in bokeh that is extremely well blended, and even with distant subjects we’re capable of strong subject isolation and creamy backgrounds. Stopped down things stay really well-blended, and at lower magnifications we’re able to make some nice, characterful blur. Highlight bokeh at smaller apertures remains well rounded thanks to the lens’ nine curved aperture blades, creating gorgeous pinpricks of light.
There’s a focus range limiter that does well to speed up what can be a slow focus motor. When doing close up macro work, flipping the range limiter has the lens only attempt to achieve focus from 1.75 feet to the lens’ minimum focus distance of approximately 12 inches. The inverse limitation is also possible. By flicking the same switch at further focus distance the lens will only attempt to achieve focus from 2 feet to infinity. We’re also treated to a distance scale in feet and meters, depth-of-field scale, infrared index mark, and a magnification index on the focus ring. Essentially, this comprises everything you’ll ever need and more.
But all these technical accolades really pale in comparison to the lens’ true strength, which as mentioned, is its ability to fill multiple needs.
I was out in the back yard, admittedly not the most exciting locale for a photo shoot, but I needed some sample shots made with the lens. I was snapping some boring photos of dandelions in their fruiting phase of life, which interestingly (or not) are called “clocks” in the United Kingdom. Who knew. Anyway, I was dialed into this one particular dandelion, shooting at about half life-size and carefully focusing when I realized my daughter had let herself out of the house (father of the year?). As she ran toward me, I wheeled around, half-pressed the shutter button, and made a handful of portraits. They came out well, and so did the dandelion macros.
Later, I’d spend a day shooting this lens at the beach. It vacillated handily between family photos, portraits and headshots, and macro shots of interesting shells.
These experiences showcase the lens’ versatility. It’s a lens that can take stunningly close photos, true macro photos at 1:1 magnification, but can also spontaneously act as a telephoto or portrait lens. And while it’s true that there are a number of macro lenses capable of operating in this way, very few do so with such aplomb (which is an absurd word, but I’m leaving it in there). This is a lens that does everything it’s supposed to do extremely well, while also being of exceptional physical quality. It’s the real deal, the full package, and a lens that continuously topped its rivals over a span of more than 20 years. Impressive.
What’s also wonderful about Minolta’s AF Macro 100mm F/2.8, is that it’s a lens that will work for a large number of people, and one that can be effectively rolled into lots of kits without any difficulty. If you’re a shooter who shoots an A mount camera (any Minolta autofocus camera ever made, or any Sony DSLR) this lens will be plug and play. If you’re a mirror-less Sony user, there’s a beautiful quality adapter that allows for full use of in-lens features and transference of EXIF data. And if you’re someone just entering the world of film photography and have yet to choose a camera, you can pick up a cheap Minolta A mount film body for under $30 and mount one of the best macro lenses in the world. Of course, if you’re serious about having the best Minolta AF film camera in the world you’ll want the Minolta a7, which is the film camera I use when I want nothing but perfect photos and perfect ergonomics.
Optional accessories include Minolta’s rather wonderful Macro Flash 1200AF, which is a lens-mounted ring light with four separately controlled flash tubes. These can be shot in a number of combinations or individually to achieve numerous looks, and it works great.
The Minolta AF Macro 100mm F/2.8 is a rare creation, one that’s resistant to the usual writeup. Typically we’ll chat about a lens, list its strengths and its weaknesses, and nitpick image quality. That’s a real challenge with this one. It’s about as close to perfect (in its class) as a legacy lens can be. There’s little to dissect, little to nitpick. It’s just a technically excellent lens capable of making images that are gorgeous and full of character.
If you’re a Minolta A mount film shooter or a Sony DSLR user, this is a lens that has to be in your arsenal. If your daily tool is a Sony mirror-less camera, get the adapter and this lens for about one-tenth the price of the new FE mount macro. And if you’re someone just jumping into the world of photography and think macro shooting may be in your future, consider starting with a Minolta A mount film camera or Sony DSLR. This macro lens is worth building a system around. It’s simply that good.