Updated: April 9, 2016 (small update)
There are a number of great old Minolta (and 3rd party) lenses that will serve the Minolta and Sony dSLR owner well. Minolta was for years one of the finest lens making companies in the world. According to rumor, several lenses produced by Minolta were developed jointly with Leica. The best Minolta lenses have exceptional build quality, sharpness, bokeh (out-of-focus areas) and many feel some of most gorgeous color that photography has to offer.
Of these lenses, two stand out as “musts”.
- 50mm f/1.7 – The 50mm prime was once the “kit” lens that came on film based Minolta cameras. 50mm is classed as “normal” focal length, meaning that (more or less) what you see through the lens is what you see with the naked eye. On the current dSLRs with APS sized sensors (KM 5D/7D, Sony A100/700 + newer cameras) the effective focal length becomes ~75mm – a short telephoto. This puts it close to the focal length of the awesome Minolta 85mm f1.4 which many consider the ideal for portrait photography. The 50mm f1.7 is a “poorman’s” 85/1.4 portrait lens – overall good image quality, very good in low light situations, excellent central sharpness, decent corner sharpness and a great bargain at typical used prices.
- 70-210 f/4 aka the “Beercan”. Approximately a 100-300mm (105-315mm) telephoto on the current crop dSLRs. The beercan falls into the legendary category with fantastic image quality and bargain price. It is a bit heavy by modern plastic standards (solid metal construction) but this lens does not disappoint in use. To do better you would need to either make compromises and/or pay a lot more. The beercan’s shortfall is color fringing/chromatic aberration. This can usually be corrected in post processing and should absolutely not scare you away from the lens.
There are many ways to explore the available Minolta and 3rd party lenses.
Utility Zoom – Looking for something a little more flexible than the 50mm f1.7? There are several very affordable high quality old Minolta zoom lenses available. Most of these are from the film era so the wide end starts at 28mm or 35mm. 28/35mm results in an equivalent normal focal length so instead of a wide-telephoto zoom, you get a normal-telephoto. If you want to get something starting at about 17mm (~26mm eqv.), you will have to consider the more modern lenses which may not rival the best Minolta lenses, in what they do best, but can offer some modern improvements such as improved lens coatings, lighter weight and easier availability.
- 35-70mm f4 (Old version) This is a small, light lens with great optics. It is typically available and very affordable. The newer style 35-70mm f3.5-4.5 is not as well constructed and although good optically, not as nice as the old lens. The macro in the old lens can be fun to use, but generally easier to focus by moving the camera rather than turning the focus ring.
- 35-105mm f3.5-4.5 A bit bigger and a little heavier than the 35-70 f4, this lens has a little more range but similar quality and features. Also like the 35-70mm, there is an old and a new version of this lens. The old style lens is bigger/heavier but with a semi-useful macro function.
- 28-135mm f4-4.5 This is one of Minolta’s great old lenses. Rumor holds that this lens was co-developed with Leica. Although not in the professional “G” lens line up, some consider its image quality to rival them. Its shortcomings include; lack of close focusing, a fairly useless macro function and it is a bit heavy. However, the general consensus is that the outstanding optical qualities far outweigh the limitations. This lens has enjoyed a recent re-discovery and they can be a little hard to find. Prices have also risen with its newfound popularity.
Modern Zooms There are a few zoom lenses worth mentioning that will give the modern 1.5 crop dSLR shooter the wide angle back. Most of these are more expensive than the older classic Minolta lenses and some are hard to find. The Minolta 17-35mm f2.8-4 D, Tamron 17-50 f2.8, and Sigma 17-70 f2.8-4.5 are all worthy considerations.
Macros Lenses are designed to take close up photos of small objects (products, bugs, flowers etc). Minolta is well known for their exceptional macro lenses. 3rd party lens makers compliment the classics with some other wonderful options. These lenses can be used as normal lenses, but the focus is considerably slower than non-macro lenses.
- 50mm f2.8 A fantastic, flexible super sharp macro lens. This is one of Minolta’s gems. 1:1 magnification.
- 50mm f3.5 Very similar to the f2.8 version, but possibly a tiny bit sharper. Maximum magnification is only 1:2 – but a little cheaper.
- 100mm f2.8 One of the world’s best macro lenses. Longer focal length provides longer working distances. 1:1 magnification.
Other Great Lenses to Consider
- 16mm f/2.8 fisheye – Not quite the traditional fisheye look on a 1.5 crop camera but still very interesting.
- 20mm f/2.8
- 28mm f/2 – Like the 28mm f2.8 and 35mm f2, this lens is a “normal” ( ~42mm eqv.) focal length on a dSLR. The 28mm f2 is considered one of the great Minolta lenses
- 28mm f/2.8 – Not as good as the 28mm f2, but much more common and affordable than the 28mm f2 or 35mm f2
- 35mm f/2 – Expensive and worth it.
- 100mm f/2
- 135mm f/2.8
- 28-85mm f3.5-4.5
- 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 – Known as the “big beercan”. Basically the 70-210 f4 mentioned above but with a longer range and increased weight.
- 100-200mm f4.5 – Similar high quality optics as the 70-210 f4, but no “macro” i.e. minimum focusing distance is 1900mm (6.2 ft).
- 100-300mm f4.5-5.6 APO – A little expensive but very good optics, but no close focusing.
- 100-400mm f4.5-6.7 APO – Considered a very good telephoto zoom, but hard to find and reasonably expensive.
- Sigma 50mm and 90mm f2.8. Almost as good as the Minolta/Sony’s but at a lower cost. The older version and the newer EX version are all very good.
- Tamron 90mm f2.8 – Very well respected. More affordable and easier to find than the Minolta 100mm f2.8.
- Vivitar/Phoenix 100mm f3.5 Macro – A 1:2 macro or 1:1 with attachment. Usually fairly cheap with questionable build quality, very noisy focusing but excellent sharpness. (Sometimes can be found at less than $100)