The Battle of the 85mm's
Minolta's Top Portrait Lenses Compared

Minolta produced four different optical formulas of 85mm manual focus lenses during it's history, and all of these lenses have subsequently proven to be extremely popular with Minolta users. Still expensive today, they are often the most prized of a user's kit, and accordingly there is a great deal of interest in the performance of one versus another.

In this review, we will thoroughly test an example of each of the lenses, and see which are the best performers. Through testing resolution, resistance to flare, and all important bokeh we will be able to draw conclusions about the strengths of these legendary lenses. But first, here is an introduction to each of the lenses.

85mm f/1.7 MC Rokkor
Minolta's classic 85mm portrait lens. Fast, well made, and an impressive piece of glass. Still highly sought after by pfotographers, it commands a high price in the used market. Photo: Robert Hoehne

When I first started building my kit of Minolta manual focus lenses I dreamed of owning this lens. With a similar design and appearance to the famous 58mm f/1.2, it is an impressive piece of glass. Constructed of 6 elements in 5 groups, it weighs in at 460gm and is a lovely heavy lens that is a delight to use.

With a minimum focus distance of only one metre, the lens is an outstanding portrait lens, and was the first 85mm made by Minolta.

85mm f/1.7 MD Rokkor
Even after the new MD lenses were introduced, Minolta continued producing the MC model for some time. When it was finally updated to an MD design, it was only available for a short time before being withdrawn from sale in favour of the new and much smaller 85mm f/2. As a result, it is a rare lens and commands a premium price over the more common MC version. Photo: Robert Hoehne

Despite it's similar appearance to the MC lens, the MD lens actually has a slightly different optical formula to most of the 85mm MC lenses in existence. The change in optical construction occured in 1978, immediately prior to the commencement of the MD production which began in 1979. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine if a MC lens is of the earlier construction or the later, as both are identical in appearance.

The MD version of this lens was in fact only manufactured for one year before being superceded by the new f/2 design. As a result, it is highly sought after. It will certainly be interesting to determine if the change in optical formula contributed to a noticeable improvement in performance.

85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X
The 85mm f/2 was a completely new design, and was considerably smaller than the previous models. It's lighter weight made for good balance on the new (and more compact) XD and XG series cameras being sold by Minolta.

After a short period of producing the 85mm f/1.7 in MD format Minolta introduced an entirely new lens to take its place. The 85mm f/2 was considerably smaller and lighter, weighing in at 276 gm, and surpisingly despite its fast speed, it had a 49mm filter size, compared to the 55mm of the previous model.

This was the lens that eventually went on to become the late MD version, with only very minor design changes such as the inclusion of the MD lock lug and the other cosmetic variations of the late MD series. Accordingly, we can use the performance of this lens to also assess that on the "plain MD" model that followed it.

85mm f/2.8 Varisoft
The 85mm f/2.8 Varisoft was the world's first 35mm SLR lens to offer continuous normal to soft focus control. Extraordinarily expensive new, the lens is very rare today and accordingly commands a high price. Together with the 24mm VFC lens and the 35mm Shift CA lens, it is one of the Minolta collector's most sought after lenses.

The 85mm Varisoft was a portrait photographer's dream lens when it was released in the early 1980's. The lens had a softness control ring that introduced varying amounts of spherical aberration to create soft focus effects. At the "0" setting, the lens functions as a normal short telephoto lens. However, as the control ring is turned, the soft focus effect is introduced creating beautiful and romantic images.

The effect of the Varisoft lens is very different from the other softening options available to photographers. This is because while most softening filters tend to blur the image, with the Varisoft every image point has a sharp image core, and a soft halo component surrounding the core on the film plane. Thus, subject details are recorded on the film even when covered by the broad halo.

Due to its rarity it can be extraordinarily expensive, as it is highly sought after by users and collectors alike. I would expect to pay between US$450 and $600 if I needed to replace my Varisoft.

Optical Construction Diagrams
The above image demonstrates the different optical designs of the various Minolta 85mm lenses.

As can be seen above, there was a real difference between the 85mm f/1.7 MC and MD, despite their similar appearance. It is noted, however, that since first publishing this page it has been brought to my attention that Minolta literature exists from late in the MC era that shows the MC lens having the same structure as the MD. Accordingly, we can reach the conclusion that this change was made as a progressive upgrade actually during the production of the MC lens.

I would like to thank Robert Hoehne for his provision of the 85mm f/1.7 MC and MD examples that have made this review possible.

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