New Toy: Vintage Minolta Rokkor 50mm F1.2

So I was lucky enough to stumble across this little gem on the Fred Miranda photo forums…

Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm F1.2 converted to Canon EOS Mount by Jim Buchanan

A little background… these lenses were made back in Minolta’s glory days of manual focus lenses when they were competing with the best offerings from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Zeiss optics.  This particular one is capable of F1.2 which makes it great for low light and extremely shallow depth of field.  This comes at the cost of manual operation of everything – aperture is controlled on-lens and manual focus with no assist or confirmation.  The only real way to achieve focus at 1.2 is using the magnified live-view because depth of field is literally razor thin.  This small lens is a beast – heavy, all-metal, but velvety smooth operation! Even compared to all my Canon L lenses the build quality is astounding!

The natural focal length of this lens is 50mm but Ive been using it exclusively on my 50D (crop frame) which makes it more like a 80mm after the 1.6 crop sensor factor.  I personally prefer that focal length better as a portrait lens anyway. This is the first time I’ve shot with a manual focus lens since I had my Hasselblad some 8 years ago and man am I out of practice.  What makes it more challenging is that most digital SLRs do not have split focus screens like older cameras as they were all optimized for auto focus systems so its unnecessary.  Another thing… most modern auto focus lenses keep the aperture wide open until you shoot (for brighter image in viewfinder) and stop down when shot or if you use depth of field preview button.  Yeah, not with manual lenses like this (at least not when paired with modern camera bodies)… you’re stuck stopping down to focus and frame then stopping back up to shoot – yeah very unusual when you are used to modern equipment that does that for you.  However, this lens isnt meant for speed and shooting action – not why I bought it.  For most practical applications I’d be shooting at more like F2 or 2.8 for nice portrait bokeh but for the sake of showing off the dreamy signature of this lens our shots below were all at 1.2 (also no worries about stopping up/down to focus).

Our subject is a 1928 Singer sewing machine which has a lot of intricate sharp details and textures – shot in natural window light, ISO 400, handheld at 1/125 at F1.2.

And my cat…

And some commercial beauty images shot in-studio at the last Avalon Makeup Class:

Shot at F2 for soft specific focus on eyes and shallow depth of field

Shot at F16

Shot at F16, Great color rendition and clarity at hairline

Shot at F16, Edited to show Textures and Clarity

select 1 transport industry photo

Shot at 1.8 on Full frame body


About the Author:
Ryan holds a Bachelors in Marketing from Grand Canyon University, graduating on the dean's list. He has been providing professional photography services starting in 2003 and internet marketing services starting in 2007. His experience in specific industries including e-commerce gift/retail, aftermarket automotive industry, and Beauty/Cosmetology education and salon, and high-end designer fashion market provides him with unique insight for practical application of photography as it applies to modern advertising mediums and business needs.

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  1. Christopher Layne April 23, 2012 Reply

    Hey cool review man. I’d just like to offer a technical clarification on the stopping down part. Most lenses since the 60s have had automatic diaphragm control. That’s where the “auto” in many older manual focus lens designations come from. The only lenses which do not stop down automatically are called preset lenses. These are commonly pre-1960. So in closing, it’s not the fact that these lenses are manual focus, that dictates their diaphragm control. That’s purely up to the body to implement it. Since most DSLRes cannot deal with older lenses, other than raw light, this would be why it’s not automatically stopped down. Throw any Rokkor on any Minolta SR-series body and the lenses will wide-open focus but stop-down expose. All manufacturers had this 50 years ago.

    • Ryan April 23, 2012 Reply

      Hey Chris, thanks for the info! I was wondering if the Minolta’s did that. I always shot Nikon and Hasselblads before digital and knew they did but never had experience with the SR series, just assumed they did as well. Before purchasing the lens for use on digital I never even thought about that not functioning like it would on an old body but makes sense. Wasn’t that operated by some form of arm that would swing forward with the mirror and contact the mechanics on the lens to stop down?

  2. Christopher Layne April 24, 2012 Reply


    Basically, with pretty much all the typical manufacturers, the “auto” stop-down is accomplished by having the wide-open mode be the exception to the lens’ normal state. There are one or more springs which pull on the aperture linkage to stop the iris down to whatever the preset setting is (the aperture ring).

    You’ll probably notice that on a lot of the pure manual focus lenses there is a pin/shaft/tab like thing that protrudes from the rear of the lens. Well this pin is attached directly to the diaphragm control plate. When the lens is mounted to the body, there is a little control tab inside the body housing that explicitly pushes the pin to the side such that the diaphragm goes wide-open. When one trips the shutter, the body moves this little tab out of the way and the springs in the lens cause it to stop down to whatever it’s set to. If the lens is set wide-open, then no significant change happens. If it’s set to f/16, the springs in the lens pull until the diaphragm stops out at f/16 (the springs don’t know, just the cam in the diaphragm reaches a set limit).

    The way the DOF preview levers/buttons work on most of the manual bodies is that they just mechanically move the body’s make-it-wide-open tab out of the way so the lens stops down (which is why on some bodies one can partially depress the DOF preview button).

    The manual bodies themselves do not actually ever stop-down the lens, they instead make the lens wide-open and rely on the lens springs to do the stop-down work. This is preferred because each lens may require smaller or larger springs.

    This general construction also allows one to verify the health of the diaphragm with any random lens without needing a body. Just stop the lens down to f/16 and manually move the tab to wide-open with your fingertip and then let it go. If there is oil or the springs are tired it will be sluggish to stop-down. This is not an issue though if one is using the lens in preset style (no auto stop-down).

    The irony in all of this is that with all of this mechanical complexity (in actuality, it’s not all that bad), these manual focus lenses end up out-lasting their modern AF counterparts more often than not.

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