Meeting the legendary Minolta 58mm/1.2 Rokkor...
58mm/1.2 Rokkor - a hidden gem
This once forgotten lens is now one of the darlings in the "alt lens" movement and DSLR video arena. There are countless photographers who dabble with alternative lenses. Some warrant more attention than others.
Some lenses have become rock stars in this movement. A few good detailed web reports have sent used prices skyrocketing for certain "it" lenses. One of these is the 58mm/1.2 Rokkor made by Minolta in the 1970's. The film bodies from this era are practically worthless but some of these lenses are now very much in high demand. Fans of these lenses are making a side business in buying, adapting and reselling them to an enthusiastic customer base.
What is so special about the 58/1.2 Rokkor? After all its a heavy, manual focus only lens from an abandoned film era mount. First lets look at some background details.
The 58mm/1.2 Rokkor is a classic lens made in the manual focus/film era by Minolta. Most mid range primes came in familiar offerings: 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Some expensive (some very expensive at the time) boutique lenses came in oddball focal lengths like the 55mm, 57mm and 58mm. The maximum aperture offerings were all over the map as well, 2.8, 2.0, 1.8, 1.7, 1.4 and 1.2. The 1.2 samples were heavy, bright, fast and expensive.
The ultra rare Nikon Noct-Nikkor 58mm/f1.2 AIS goes for around $2600 to $3200 used depending on condition. The Leica 50mm f/.095 is listed at $9,995 at B&H. Canon's current speed darlings, the EF 50/1.2L and the EF 85/1.2 L go for $1600 and $2000 respectively. All great lenses if you can afford them.
This is a heavy (for its size) lens that just delivers outstanding sharpness, bokeh, and character rendering with minimal distortion or chromatic aberrations. They can be found for as little as $100 all the way up to $900 and higher. The slower f/1.4 version has far less value and appeal. The 58mm Rokkor f/1.2 has become sort of cult favorite among the "alt lens" movement. There are endless threads and swooning reviews on web forums like the Alternative Lens section at FredMiranda.com.
These Minolta lenses are orphaned: the cameras are no longer made and there are no modern camera options to pair them with. If you want to use these lenses you need a manual film era Minolta camera. But you can adapt them to fit other cameras, like the modern Canon digital line of SLRs. Adapting other brand lenses is a huge topic all on its own. The work involved ranges from slapping on a cheap lens adapter (like Olympus Zuikos or Pentax M42 screwmounts) to major dismantling and precision machine work surgery. The work required to convert Minolta lenses changes from lens to lens.
Adapting the 58mm Rokkor takes only a few steps. The old lens mount has to be removed, and the mount drill holes become the template guide that the new M42 to EOS EF adapter uses. Below the old lens mount is a lens retaining ring. That has to be sanded down to reduce its thickness to get you into the infinity focus ballpark. The M42 to EOS EF adapter opening needs to be widened to allow the rear lens element to protrude through. The rear lens element ring needs to be reduced and painted black to avoid hitting the mirror on certain Canon bodies. And finally the M42 to EOS EF adapter needs four holes drilled into it (using the old mount holes as a guide) to secure it to the lens. Sounds like a lot of work but its pretty easy. The only time consuming thing is the sanding required to reduce that lens retaining ring thickness.
This lens has become enticing to enough people that a cottage industry has popped up: folks will do this adaption for you for a fee. Some have even machined custom parts and sell conversion kits that greatly simplify the whole process. One of these guys is Jim Buchanan
I did my own conversion work on my early sample of the 58mm Rokkor. The early ones had the old school metal focus rings. The newer ones have the rubberized waffle style grips. I like the old metal grip. If I had to do this again I would buy one of Jim's kits. The end result is a lot cleaner. The process is a lot quicker.
The color, rendering, bokeh, 3D character and sharpness of this lens is simply outstanding. Its pretty sharp wide open at f/1.2 with some interesting narrow DOF pattern. It gets very sharp by f/2.0. The focus ring is silky smooth and the lens is very bright wide open. You have to use stop down metering of course. Some of the EF adapters can include electrical contacts that trigger the "in focus" signal from the camera, but remember this is a manual focus lens.
The big issue for some is that one of the best bodies to mount this lens on, namely the 5D series, can present issues with mirror clearance. On some converted lens and 5D combinations there might be mirror clearance issues when focused at infinity. Some owners will reduce the rear metal ring around the rear element and some will carefully sand a small amount of material from the bottom of the mirror. This takes planning and care but many have done this with no ill effects. Doing so might impact the resale value of the camera though. Some conversions have no mirror issues. The tolerances for the mirror movement is so slight here. Some just get lucky. Others do very little focusing at infinity and are not bothered with the issue and some live with it by focusing just short of infinity while stopping down the lens to compensate.
The other issue is manual focus accuracy. When I converted my Rokkor I noticed that my 5D MkI was back focusing slightly. It took a fast f/1.2 lens to realize this. Also the stock focusing screens do a lousy job at giving focus accuracy feedback. I swapped in a slightly darker matt EeS screen that gives better accuracy with fast lenses. Keep in mind that the AF and manual focus systems are completely separate functions. There is also considerable sample variation in the Canon bodies. I also changed the thickness of the washer/shim that my focus screen rests on. I did a lot of testing before picking the correct washer/shim ( I bought the entire kit of 12 different washer thicknesses from Canon), but I can now accurately focus on the head of a pencil at f/1.2. The 5D MkII has Live View which is a huge plus in getting accurate manual focus but its nice to achieve good focus with the real viewfinder if you are moving the camera around or are shooting moving subjects.
There are a lot of fans and detractors of the Canon EF 50/1.2L lens. Some say its hard to focus, or is not that great near wide open, has some CA and that the bokeh is harsh. Its also $1600 new. Many users who have jumped on the 58mm/1.2 Rokkor bandwagon find that the Rokkor outperforms the 50L. I paid $100 (with camera) for mine along with $25 for the adapter and quality sand paper. It is one of my best lenses. Its not always the best lens for every situation but the brightness, feel, and amazing image quality is very, very satisfying.
With any lens there is sample variation. Some buyers of new L lenses will test several before choosing a "good copy." There was sample variation back in the day as well. Add the fact that a decades old lens might have lived through all kinds of "adventures" and its a decent bet that your hunt for a Rokkor might yield a less than stellar sample.
Here is a brief manufacture history:
Version 1 (1968-1969) Serial# Range 200-257
58mm MC Rokkor-PG F/1.2 (Introduced on September 16th 1968
- Radioactive Coatings
- Metal Focus Ring
- Silver Aperture Ring
- Flathead Screws
Version 2 (1969-1973) Serial# Range 258-259
58mm MC Rokkor-PG F/1.2
- Improved (Non-Radioactive Coatings)
- Rubber Focus Ring
- Black Aperture Ring
- Philips Screws
Version 3 (1973-1978) Serial# Range 271-277
58mm MC Rokkor-X (in orange) PG F/1.2 (Designated Rokkor-X only in the USA & Canada)
- In the rest of the world it was labeled Rokkor (with white lettering)
- It debuted in March 1973 (Other Rokkor-X lenses arrived earlier in 1972)
- Improved Coatings from Version 2
Which vintage is the best? That is hard to say. Good samples have been found from all groups. There is evidence that the older radioactive, metal focus ring copies are the best. Some fans who have purchased a dozen or more samples really prefer the older copies. There is that sample variation factor though. My copy is the old style with the so called coveted serial number that is in the 250XXXX range.
Your mileage may vary but in my book the 58mm/1.2 Rokkor definitely deserves its underground cult status (its becoming more well known now though.) It really is one of the finest lenses ever made...