Review: The Minolta MD 16mm f2.8 Fish-eye Lens
This is a short user-review of the Minolta MD 16mm f2.8 Fisheye lens, with a selection of images taken using both Minolta film and also Leica digital cameras.
This is the first time that I have used a fish-eye lens, with its immense barrel distortion creating unusually distorted images. This particular lens completely fills the full 35mm rectangular frame, with the image diagonal spanning a full 180 degree field of view.
The lens that I am using is the final iteration of Minolta’s 16mm fisheye series. Introduced in 1981, it is very much an “old school” lens design that has a mechanical quality comparable to Leica lenses from the same period – perhaps unsurprisingly given that a Leica branded version was released for the R-series SLR cameras. All controls and focussing are fully manual, although with a lens this wide there is almost no need to focus unless you are shooting close-up.
The front element is huge, and barely protected by the built-in (and non-removable) hood. When buying a lens make sure that it comes with its dedicated lens cap, as it will be near impossible to find a replacement.
There is no practical way to mount conventional filters in front of this lens, but fortunately there are four built-in filters which can be selected by turning a ring – something so convenient that I sometimes wish that all lenses could do this. These cover “normal” (clear), Y52 Yellow, R60 Red and B12 Blue (equivalent to 80B). Older versions of the lens have a slightly different filter types, so check the specifications if this is important to you.
As with pretty much any extremely wide-angle lens, the biggest challenge is to find appropriate subjects and framing where unwanted elements do not encroach. I think that it also helps to try to find subjects where the barrel distortion enhances rather than detracts from the image – the magic that this lens can make is only there when you make the best use of its characteristics.
Small changes in position can have a dramatic effect on the final image – so much so that when shooting that the viewfinder in my X700 it became clear that the focusing screen is very slightly mis-centered, causing a slight bias in framing. This is a non-issue with any digital camera that supports live-view.
This is definitely a lens suited to looking up:
Street photography is much harder, mainly because it is very difficult to get close enough to the subject and almost impossible to exclude unwanted elements from the scene:
Straight lines passing through the centre of the image are of course left undistorted, so with some subjects it is possible to use the fish-eye almost like a conventional wide-angle lens:
It is definitely possible to find subjects where I think that the barrel distortion works well as part of the composition:
Wide open, the lens is razor sharp in the centre with the corners reaching a similar level or sharpness around f5.6 to f8. In high contrast backlit subjects there is a tiny amount (~two pixels on a 24MP sensor) of purple-fringing at the extreme image edge, but this is well controlled and easily corrected if needed in Capture One or Lightroom. There was no chromatic aberration that I could otherwise see.
Overall, I am very happy: there is little to fault the lens optically and I think that the distortion can be used meaningfully. It works perfectly both on original Minolta mount bodies, and also when adapted to a digital camera.
Shooting with the fish-eye is also a refreshing change from the somewhat more stressful documentary images that I normally shoot, and the need to think differently about composition and light can only be a good thing.