No Compromise Zoom Lens

Most experienced photographers would share the opinion that zoom lenses are a compromise of quality for convenience.  Optical designs can become very complex and bulky when building a lens that replaces a bag full of primes.  Every decision that goes into its making must balance out many factors that ultimately determine size, capability, and quality.  To expect prime-like quality from a zoom would be folly… or would it?

A few weeks ago I was researching Minolta’s lens history hoping to come across something of interest to add to my growing collection.  I came across a number of forums with dialog about a Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5.  First iterations of the Minolta lens came to market in 1972 and continued in various versions through to the 1980’s.  One of the last versions made had the addition of macro capabilities; 1:4 reproduction ratio.  While not near as close as a dedicated macro lens, it is useful.  It is understood that Minolta achieved something so magical with this optical design that Leica wound up using it in their own-branded version call the Vario Elmar R 35-70mm.

Ebay had a few different versions of the Minolta.  I bought the one I believed to be in the best condition with all the original caps and hood.  I paid $149.99 it.

Here is a photo I shot of the one I bought.  It looks brand new and functions as such.

Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5

It’s small and impressively built.  You don’t see lenses made like this anymore.  I’ve owned the new Zeiss ($$$$) lenses made for the E-mount Sony and they all felt cheaply made by comparison.  Additionally, the Zeiss 24-70mm is bigger, heavier, and not as sharp.

Now having some time to use it, I’d like to share the results of my experience.  Let me start out by saying, “In-freakin-credible!”  Even with the aperture wide open, it’s sharp and gorgeous at all focal lengths.  I’m not one of those guys who subjects a lens to test charts and 800% views to find its flaws.  I look for the total image quality.  Does it make images with excellent dimensionality, color, contrast, character, and non-distracting out-of-focus areas?  If  I’m happy with all those things, then I don’t care about what weaknesses might be found under lab scrutiny because they obviously didn’t distract me in the first place.

Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5
Minolta MD 35-70mm f/3.5

I think I’ve found my favorite walk around lens.  The only reason I can see swapping this out for a prime would be if I needed less depth of field, more light from a larger aperture, or a focal length outside the range of this lens.  I solidly recommend this lens to anyone with a full-frame Sony Mirrorless.  I adapt the lens to my body using an inexpensive Neewer Lens MD/MC Lens Adapter I purchased from Amazon for about $12.

Soon, I’ll be posting the results from two new/old lenses I recently bought.

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19 thoughts on “No Compromise Zoom Lens

  1. Hello, Tom! Considering I can get 50mm 1.7 ($70) and 35-70 3.5 ($110)—which one do you think would be a better deal? I just can’t justify getting both, because the focal length difference is negligible. Thank you. 🙂

    p.s. I have SEL 16-50 kit now.

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  2. Hey Phil,

    Good question. I have several versions of the 50mm f/1.7 (Rokkor and AF). Unless you plan on shooting in some extremely dark conditions, I’d recommend getting a good copy of the 35-70mm f/3.5. It really is as good as everyone says. I’m out traveling now and it’s the only lens I brought with me and so far I have no regrets. There are 4 versions of the lens. I have the last version which has the closer minimum focus distance and the macro function at 70mm. That’s the one I would recommend you find. I hope that helps you out. Feel free to shoot over any further questions you might have.

    Cheers,
    Tom Leonard

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  3. I can get the 35-70 f3.5 Macro too!

    Do you think the 15mm range difference is that versatile? What about the image quality between both? I still can’t justify it, because there’s only 2 step difference between 35 to 50 and 50 to 70.

    Thanks a lot! 🙂

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  4. I think the reason why I like this 35-70mm so much is that it doesn’t feel like a compromise to my primes in sharpness, contrast, or color. Naturally, there is the difference in maximum aperture to consider for both light gathering and depth of focus but it is not very often I shoot my primes wide open anyway. In my case, the 35-70mm is an enabler rather than a hinderance. Regarding your question on the range difference from 35mm to 50mm and 50mm to 70mm, it is noticeable but not what I’d call dramatic. What it does provide you is some flexibility. I travelled all over Brazil using only a Nikon D600 and 50mm f1/.4 lens and from that experience I took away two things: First, limitations benefit creativity. Second, sometimes you just can’t back up enough with a 50mm lens. There were shots in a forest I hiked through that I just could not get back far enough because of the terrain. Had I a wider lens, I could have included all the things I wanted in my composition. I don’t point this out as a fatal flaw to shooting with a 50mm because I did still walk away with shots that I’m pleased with but they did require I be more creative to find them. This in turn required more time be spent to make each shot. Had I been alone, I would have actually appreciated that, but I was not alone on these treks and so that meant my non-photography friends standing around longer, waiting “for Tom to get his shot…” This 35-70mm f/3.5 seems to me the perfect balance of constraint for creativity and flexibility for convenience. Either way you decide to go, you won’t be wrong for choosing. They both are excellent choices and, when handled properly, will yield outstanding results.
    If you shoot landscapes, I would also recommend picking up a 24mm or 28mm as well. Wide open, the 28mm is not quite as good as the 24mm but it costs only $40-60 and once you’ve stopped it down enough for a landscape, the differences are really only slight.

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  5. Tom, really appreciate your answer for this! So to sum up is 35-70 offers little bit of flexibility compared to prime—but your main reason for that is the sharpness, contrast, and color charcater.

    I want to ask your expertise and opinion regarding the best—possible combo. I rarely travel, but plan to do it because I’m afraid I won’t get the time after graduated. I want to shoot portait mostly, product photography, street photography, and landscape. Which combo do you think suits those needs?

    A. Minolta MD Prime: 28mm f2.8, 50mm f1.7, and 100mm f2.5 / 135mm f2.8
    B. Minolta AF: (35-105 f3.5-4.5 Macro / 35-70 f3.5 Macro), 50mm f1.7, 135mm f2.8

    Reason A because three of them are generally smaller and offers prime quality.
    Reason B because it offers versatility, but unuseable indoor (due to 1.5m MFD of 35-105).

    Anyway, have you tried 35-105mm f3.5-4.5 (Hidden G)? It got a very good review from everyone—execept for the long MFD.

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  6. Phil,
    Another good question. One requiring some thought. My years of travel have taught me that less is more. I used to bear the weight of carrying a Nikon pro body, 28-70mm f/2.8, 80-200 f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, filters, tripod, at least one flash unit, spare batteries, charger, and a laptop with all its bits and bobs. I allowed myself to suffer the anxiety of being limited – not having the perfect tool on hand at all times. Carrying 30-40lbs worth of gear, I quickly grew tired of this because I knew I wasn’t using all of it and it often hindered me from exploring more than I’d have liked. Fortunately, my back convinced my mind that enough was enough. One day I sat down at my computer and sorted my images by focal length and counted the ratio of use. What I found was that the vast majority of my shots were between 28 and 50mm. I rarely used my longer lenses or flashes. I started removing things from my bag each time I left for the field and soon found that I could do more with less. In fact, I saw an improvement in my images because I was spending less time focusing on my equipment, accepting that I had what I had, and instead thought more about my compositions. I found, too, that the more committed I was to using a single lens, the more I appreciated its character and could thusly capitalize on it more intentionally.

    Now, having said all that and taken into consideration your intended scope of use, I would still recommend something like a 35-70mm or 24-70mm lens for your camera-rider. The 35-70mm we’ve been discussing really is sharp as a prime under common use, and cheap to boot. The fact that it has a 1:4 reproduction ratio macro, makes it handy for some close-up product and commercial work. If you carry a second lens for travel, I would have either a wide lens or a fast 50mm. I’d pass on the telephoto unless you have a specific reason for it. The other lenses are lighter and, in my opinion, more practical (low-light use, narrow DOF, wide angles, etc). I’m sure others might have a different opinion on that depending on their own experience but that is mine, based on 16 years of doing this.
    I would definitely recommend at least having a longer lens at home for portraiture. There is no replacement for focal length in capturing the human face. It’s understood that the mind remembers the perspective and details of a person’s face from about 15 feet away. A lens that allows you to put that distance, or more, between you and your subject while still filling the frame, will provide pleasing results to you and your subject.

    I hope this info helps you in making your decision. I’d be interested to know what you settle on.

    Tom

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  7. Thank you very much for the write-up, Tom. I’ve made my decision. For travel, I’ll get the 35-70 ($110) for day and fast 50 ($70) for night. If I can, I’ll get the 100 2.5 ($160) at home for portaiture.

    You really hit the nail when talks about the macro possibilities for close-up product photography! Really can’t wait to try them, and I will update you if I’ve made some nice photos!

    Regards,

    Philip Young

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  8. Hello again, Tom. Thanks for your recommendation weeks ago—it’s very helpful. I’ve got the 35-70 and tested it with my NEX-6. It’s unbelieveably good! The problem is it has no macro function—as the seller described. So I returned it with dissapointment. Regarding the longer lens for portaiture—I got rokkor MC PF 135mm 2.8 for $70. It’s good and sharp at f4, exceptional at f8.

    Other lens I got is 58mm 1.4 for $70. It’s very soft wide open, and reasonably sharp after f2.8. Here I tested the 58mm on my neighborhood yesterday https://www.flickr.com/photos/philipyoungg/sets/72157653187899676, and I’m really pleased with it.

    I’m still on a quest looking for 35-70 macro with low MFD. As for landscape, I think 16-50 lens kit can still deliver on f8—so it won’t matter for now.

    Really appreciate your thoughts and wisdoms on all these replies. Can’t wait to create beautiful photos with these classics!

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  9. Good to hear from you bud and I’m glad you’ve been able to find some of the good Rokkors. Bummer about that 35-70mm not having the closer focusing ability. I’d recommend staying after that lens if you can find it. It really is a special lens.
    I just went through your flickr set from the 58mm f/1.4. Talk about a lens with character! Beautiful images! I’ve had my eyes on the 58mm f/1.2 or the 58mm f/1.4. Judging from the looks of the photos you got with your f/1.4, I think I’d be perfectly satisfied with that lens instead of the f/1.2 that costs so much more. I’ve been checking out prices on eBay and I’m finding the f/1.4 in that same $70 range.
    I’ll be flying back home on Wednesday. While I’ve been gone, I purchased the Rokkor 24-50mm f/4 and had it shipped to the house. I can’t wait to try it out. I’ll share my images from it once I’ve had a chance to take it out.

    Keep up the excellent photos, and thanks for sharing them. I’d definitely like to see more from you as you continue shooting. I really liked that B&W photo of your brother. Good, moody lighting.

    Take care,

    Tom

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  10. Hi Tom, I have a very important question for you! I generally love both (58 and 135) that I have, but I really have a hard time fixing each lenses CA and distortion on post processing (especially the 135 purple fringing, very disturbing!) Would you be so very kind to share your workflow for this? Thanks!

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  11. I’m shooting in RAW and using Photoshop RAW to manually correct for CA. My corrections are dependent on the lens and the particular image. If you’re shooting in JPG, you can still use the RAW Editor: Open JPG photo in Photoshop –> Filters -> Camera Raw Filter.
    What, specifically, are you struggling to correct for. If you’d like, you can send me one of your files and I’ll see what I can do to correct it and then send it back to you with the values I used to correct it. If you want to do that, just let me know and I’ll send you my contact info for getting the image over to me.

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  12. Thanks a lot for your time replying my questions. After researching about this, I think I just got a bad lens. The CA is so severe wide open—that de-fringing purple / green color creates new purple and green fringe unto other part on the image. Even if it’s not, defringe the purple CA makes other part of image turns grey.

    This is really bugging me to the point I’m buying 2nd hand 100D with 50 1.8—on justification that “modern” lens will give a better result (also automatic CA, vignette, and distortion correction on LR).

    I’m interested in knowing how you usually resolve this issue. Say, you took 100 photo. How many photos do you usually correct CA manually? Is this common issue—or does my copy of lens have optical flaw?

    Thank you!

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  13. I don’t use Lightroom and I only edit those photos I think are keepers. So far I’ve not come across a lens that I couldn’t correct CA. It sounds like you may have an issue with the lens. I wonder if one of your element groups has been damaged or if it’s delaminating?

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  14. Sigh. After reading all your lens reviews/stories where you used the 35-70, I’m really having a tough time deciding what to bring on my trip to NZ (flying tomorrow night!). I’d already decided on my Rokinon 12/2, the SEL1650 kit lens, and my MD 135/3.5… should I bring the 35-70 as a 4th lens; or ditch the kit lens or the 135 in favour of it? Decisions, decisions…

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  15. It is my opinion that the fewer lenses you have with you the better your shots will be. Limitations can be a friend to creativity. Unless you know ahead of time a specific shot you’re going for and know what focal length you’ll need in order to get it, I suggest the freedom of fewer choices. Snap on a useful focal length lens and just work around its limits. The challenge itself will often result in images that had more thought put into it, often with more interesting perspective as a result of not being able to stand exactly where you wanted.
    From what I can tell in your lens list, you have an APS-C body. The 35-70mm would give you an equivalent 53mm-105mm focal length range. This makes it a medium telephoto zoom – perfect for close-ups, portraits, or any shot where you want some subject isolation. Also useful for distant-view landscapes. I shot all of The Brazil photos with a 50mm. Your 16-50 kit lens is no slacker. That lens and the 35-70mm would offer you an excellent range without the punishment of weight and too many options. The Rokinon 12mm does offer a bit of extra view angle over the 16-50mm but I think you’ll find it rare and especially difficult to get great (interesting) compositions with it and so it’ll spend 99% of the time in your bag as a sort of calorie burner.

    My two-cents: go light, go simple, focus on finding the details everyone else misses.

    Cheers,

    Tom

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  16. Much appreciated! You’re right, I’m using an APS-C cam. Now that I think of it, though, I’ll be using a rental car to get around, so the weight won’t really be much of an issue- changing lenses will be (tiresome when on the move). I think I’ll be shooting a bit of everything- landscapes, food (:p), and hopefully some nice candid portraits of my camera-shy travel companions.

    No objection from me in regard to the 1650- it’s given me some nice shots over the years, and yeah… I’ve hardly used the Rokinon since I got it. I think I’ll sacrifice the 135 for this trip in favour of the 35-70. Thanks for the advice!

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