I have a chambray button-down shirt that everyone seems to love. There’s nothing special about it and I bought it at the Bass outlet for less than $10. But every time I wear it out someone compliments me on it. It delivers every time, even though I don’t really understand how or why it does.
The Rokkor 45mm f/2 pancake lens is my optical chambray shirt. It’s not flashy, it’s not a work of art, and it’s certainly not pricey – but time and time again this lens delivers the sharpest, most reliable images of any piece of glass I have. And at roughly $25-50, it’s one of the best values anywhere on the manual-focus market.
It says a lot about the inconspicuous nature of this glass that I can’t remember precisely how it came into my posession, but it probably arrived as an unintended hanger-on with either a Minolta XD or an SRT-202, both of which are fantastic cameras. But I bought these cameras without much thought to the lenses that came with them, the proverbial gravy on the mashed potato mountain of my dreams.
I can’t even say I was really excited about shooting the 45mm for a long time after acquiring it. Maybe it was because the seller had all but given it away, or that I wasn’t finding much information about it online. But after running a few rolls through it, the 45mm quickly started to show itself as a perennial overachiever, and it quickly became my favorite lens.
I guess when you’re the cheapest, smallest lens in a family named Rokkor, and with all the reputation that comes with such a name, overachieving is a necessity if you want to get noticed.
Its spec sheet is pretty standard for the MD Rokkor-X lenses that would come to be Minolta’s final manual focus lens lineup in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. With a maximum aperture of F/2, it’s relatively quick while falling a bit short of “fast prime” status. Its minimum focus distance of 0.6 meters (almost two feet) is nothing to write home about. And with an aperture that only stops down to F/16, and construction that’s more plasticky than its predecessors, it seems this lens might be one to be forgotten. But it’s sophisticated design (six elements in five groups) is so incredibly compact that the ho-hum spec sheet is quickly forgotten once we hold it in the hands.
At only 1.6 inches long and weighing 4.4 ounces, this lens is small. Really small. And while it’s not quite a pancake lens, that hasn’t stopped most people from bunching it with this minuscule class of lenses. Attach it to any of Minolta’s manual focus cameras and you’ll soon see why.
I’ve used the 45mm F/2 on all of my Minolta bodies, but it seems most at home attached to one of the brand’s smaller bodies, like the XD. On this machine, it fits. With its undeniably inconspicuous profile, it’s a lens that’s far from intimidating, and this coupled with it’s interesting focal length of 45mm makes it an ideal lens for street photography. Subjects may glance your way, but expect to be dismissed as just an inoffensive tourist.
And if you happen to be a tourist, like I frequently am, it’s hard to not take this lens with you. I’ve taken the 45mm to five different countries and chosen it many times over arguably better lenses. The well-regarded 50mm/1.4 stayed home because I preferred the 45’s size and weight. The wider 35mm/2.8 stayed home because it was slightly slower and nowhere near as sharp. Even when I have other lenses with me packed just inside the bag on my back, it’s rare that the 45 comes off of my XD.
I’ll admit that the technical aspects of a lens rarely interest me. When it comes right down to it, I don’t really care how many groups and how many elements are in a lens (even though I know I probably should.) Vignetting seems more like personality than liability, and flares and ghosts sound more like things to be avoided rather than lens descriptors.
I know these things are important, but I just can’t seem to make myself care about them. When it comes to my lens, the things I care about are what sort of photos it makes, and how fast its aperture is – in that order. Toward those ends, I’ve never been disappointed by the 45mm.
I’ve always found color reproduction to be accurate, and contrast might not be described as muted, but it’s also not oozing with saturation. It sits somewhere between the two in a really pleasing way. When shot wide open, its bokeh is pleasing but not distracting and I imagine that’s helped by the short focus distance. If you’re someone who believes the adage that you have to get close to your subject, the 45mm will help you do that.
In short, this is a great lens with which to document things. It sees the world as we do, both from its field of view and the way it captures the subject. That’s very important if you’re traveling, shooting on the street, or even taking pictures of a hot dog at a state fair, (that’s right, pictures of food aren’t solely the duty of cell phones).
All this gushing really leaves me at a loss when searching for things I don’t like about it.
Some people wish it were faster, but I’ve never shot it thinking “I could really use a 1.7 or 1.4.” Some people prefer the wider 35mm for street, but I’ve been on enough street shoots to know that 10mm doesn’t change photos as much as some might say. And the pre-mentioned ghosts and flares do crop up in certain lighting situations. But again, I don’t care.
If I’m honest with myself, I just wish the lens was sexier. Maybe with more metal, or higher-end build quality. But that’s about it, and to be honest, this is really a dumb thing to fault a lens for and an even dumber thing to care about as a photographer. And in the end, that complaint just fades away.
If Minolta’s Rokkor lenses were the band members of Fleetwood Mac, the 45mm would be John McVie – the quiet, unassuming man slappin’ the basslines that helped define rock music for a generation of listeners. Even through the insane amount of drama Fleetwood Mac produced on and off of albums, McVie is most remembered for riffing the bassline that eventually became The Chain. He’s never had the manic genius of a Lindsey Buckingham or the cultish mysticism of a Stevie Nicks, but McVie has been the backbone of the band for decades. Even into his seventies, the dude continues to produce top-notch work without the overhead of hype.
The 45mm is Minolta’s quiet performer. Unassuming, under-appreciated, but capable of producing solid, exceptional images time and time again. It’s light in both the wallet and in the camera bag, and whether it’s found attached to a relatively cheap Minolta body or not, the cost should be negligible.