Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft – MDIII – review

Published by Tony on

Minolta Varisoft 85mm 1:2.8 lens review

  • Official classification: MD/New-MD
  • Collector’s classification: MD III

Quite a rare specialized lens from Minolta. It is rather difficult to find it due to its high demand among collectors. The review uses one of its versions – MD3, according to the generally accepted classification, let’s say – the latest and the rarest. Let’s see what it can do.

I thank Andrea Aprà for his collaboration on my work

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft specifications

# in minolta.eazypix.de index142
Name engraved on the lensVARISOFT
f[mm]85
A max [1/f]2,8
A min[1/f]16
Lens design [el.]6
Lens design [gr.]5
Filter thread Ø front(rear)[mm]55
Lens Shadeclip-in
closefocus[m/ft]0.8/2.75
Dimension Ø x length [mm]70×80
Weight[g]430
Year1984
StyleMD III
Code No. (ROKKOR-X) or Order No.
Notesrelabeled MD II lens with MD III style front ring engraving


Floating elements by design
Aperture blades number8
Confidence in the test results of reviewed copiesEnough High
Reviewed Lens SN:1405194

What is it for?

The main idea of this lens: 85mm portrait lens with user-controlled softness by modification of the lens’s spherical aberrations. The lens creates a dream-soft effect that does not lose its base of sharp focus. The softness is adjusted by a control ring with for positions: from 0 (regular lens) up to 3 (very soft).

A few important quotes from the manual of “Minolta 85MM F2.8 Varisoft ROKKOR/ROKKOR-X”:

  • Your 85mm f/2.8 Varisoft Rokkor (Rokkor-X) Lens incorporates a special control system which enables you to vary images continuously from critical sharpness to hazy softness. This exceptional design allows the ideal amount of diffusion to be introduced while retaining the ability of the lens to record fine detail. Coating is by Minolta’s exclusive process utilizing latest techniques. Besides being perfect for standard and “soft-focus” portraits, landscapes and other subjects, this unique Rokkor (-X) lens can also be used as a general-purpose short-telephoto.

 

  • Your Varisoft Rokkor (Rokkor-X) lens diffuses light passing through it by intentionally introducing a controlled amount of spherical aberration. This causes every point on the subject to be imaged as a sharp point surrounded by a diffuse halo. The diameter of the halo controls the degree of diffusion and varies in accordance with the softness control and aperture settings. The effect of diffusion can be observed through the camera’s viewfinder as the softness control ring is turned.
    Softness control is greatest with the lens set at f/2.8. Turning the softness control ring to the next higher setting graduation i.e., “O” to “1,” “1” to “2,” or “2” to “3,” at this aperture will approximately double the effect until the maximum amount of diffusion is produced at “3.” The softness control ring may be set at one of these positions or at any point between for an easily repeatable amount of diffusion.
    At any given combination of softness setting and f-number near maximum aperture, closing the diaphragm a half stop to the next smaller aperture or moving the softness-control ring to the next smaller graduation will reduce the diffusion effect by approximately the same degree.

 

  • When the diaphragm is set for apertures of f/5.6 of smaller, the diffusion-causing spherical aberration will be eliminated regardless of the softness setting and turning the softness control ring will not effect the image. Thus, it is advisable to judge the effect at taking aperture when making softness settings and diffused exposures. This can be done by pushing the stop-down button at apertures other than f/2.8

As such, it is important to know that the aperture size of this lens directly affects the amount of diffusion. This means that the lens should not operate in auto aperture modes – P and S, as this takes over control of softness from the photographer.

A little curious consequence:

Regardless of the fact that this lens is classified by collectors as an MD, and it is listed as an MD in some catalogs – in fact, it is not an MD lens. The lens is auto-diaphragm and meter-coupled but does not have an MD pin because of the reasons mentioned above. The ‘MD’ is Minolta’s trademark denoting the ability of SR-mount lenses to work in modes S and P. But this Varisoft cannot do that – photographers can use M or A modes only.

Historical notes

For any normal person, it looks like Minolta produced only one Varisoft lens model. But not for collectors.

For an explanation, I need to turn to the history of the company. In 1981, the company launched a huge rebranding, which affected the appearance of almost all of its products. As for the lenses, in addition to the changes in appearance, there was a rejection of the Rokkor trademark. Simply put, until 1981 all the lenses of the company were called like “Minolta Rokkor”, after 1981 – “Minolta”. This is a very simplified explanation, just enough for context, because It is necessary to write a separate article about that rebranding, but for now, it is only important for us that optically and mechanically the lenses remain the same (or mostly the same) – only the exterior and labeling are changed.

So, if to speak about Minolta’s regular lenses, the external differences between the old MD-Rokkor lenses and the new New-MD lenses are very noticeable. The example 50mm lens Rokkor MD (MD-II) vs. New MD (MD-III):

You can see the differences in every element of the exterior – from the inscriptions and the pattern of waffle rubber to the shape of the barrel.

So, every Minolta’s lens was renewed around 1981… Except for two lenses – Varisoft (the hero of this review) and APO TELE 600mm 1:6.3. For these two exclusions, Minolta didn’t make hardware changes – just remove the “Rokkor” word from the front ring.

And now we are returning to the object of this review – the Minolta Varisoft lens.

So, this lens didn’t get the New-MD exterior – which is so unique fact that I decided to figure out the reasons.

Here are three possible texts engravings of two possible reincarnations by collectors classifications:

 

The first and the second can have “ROKKOR” or “ROKKOR-X”. The difference is in the availability of marking for the diameter of the thread for the filter – “Ø55mm”

ROKKOR-X – (usually in orange color but later also in white in other lenses) is a mark for the North American market, but there is an agreement among collectors not to consider such lenses as separate editions.

The MD-III on the third position – is the currently reviewed object. This is why I talk about it so much because the very exclusive version got to the review, which remained unchanged even after the total redesign, only having lost the word “Rokkor” in the inscription.

If you already have a headache from all these abbreviations, then this is normal, this lens really breaks any attempts to make a unified classification system for Minolta lenses and falls into exceptions everywhere.

The question is – Why Minolta didn’t update Varisoft accordingly to the New-MD design?

Perhaps, it was a simple saving. The lens was very expensive (at least $300 in 1983) and highly specialized – so I can assume that the unit sales were not too high. As result – there is no need to rebuild production for such a product just for a few hundreds of photographers. This is just my opinion and why I think so:

  • The company kept in mind an updating of the body of this lens but decided to don’t do it. The evidence is a fairly well-known image among collectors. This is the only known image. Perhaps just a sketch. Such a lens was not only never sold, but even its prototypes were not seen anywhere. (Brochure code: 532 820/7.83 (01205) Printed in West-Germany. So July 1983. ):

  • As for the standard Varisoft lenses that were produced and sold (all possible reincarnations – MD-II and MD-III) – the serial numbers that were collected by enthusiasts indirectly show that about 5500 copies were produced in total. This is a very approximate figure, since there may be spaces in serial numbers, however, such data can be taken as a basis.
  • Again, according to the data collected by enthusiasts, it turns out that only about 500 copies with a new inscription (MD-III) were produced. If we assume that the first version – Rokkor (MD-II) is a very rare lens, then the latest version (MD-III) is 10 times rarer. (attention! – this information is not confirmed, these are my guesses based on bits of data that I was able to get). The main idea: after the rebranding Minolta has produced just 500 copies, versus 5000 copies before the rebranding.
  • Concurrently with the 1981 rebranding, Minolta launched a new technology, a fully automatic shooting mode – “P”. So, the minimal aperture position retainer has been added on the barrel just for this mode – it was a part of lenses redesign. As mentioned above – the lens cannot work in P mode, thus, updating this lens became even less necessary.
  • And one more fact – old Rokkor Varisoft has been produced since 1978, the redesign of the most of lenses took place in 1981, but the updated (MD-III) Varisoft was made up only in 1983. And as mentioned above, perhaps in very small quantities. It looks like old stocks were on sale from 1978 to 1983-1984, but in 1985 the first autofocus camera (Minolta a-7000) appeared, and the renewal of old lenses became pointless.

If my conclusions turned out to be correct in at least half of the cases, then indeed, updating this lens would be too unprofitable for the company. But for collectors, the Varisoft lens without the word Rokkor in the inscription is a very interesting object.

 

 

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft lens exterior

Minolta MD85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft mounted on camera Minolta X-700

The very authentic set – camera and lens could be purchased at the same time

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft lens – Modes

The lens has four softness modes from 0 to 3. At zero mode, softness is absent (or tries to be so), on the other three it increases from slight to maximum. Accordingly, all tests, the results of which depend on softness, were performed in four modes. Strongly recommended opening test diagrams in different tabs for more convenient watching and comparison. Or even save them locally. 

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft sharpness

Сlose-distance resolution test, minimal distance

Testing methods description

  • Target: 10-15 cm picture, printed on glossy photo paper
  • Distance: 1.7m
  • Camera: Sony A7II (24mpx, full-frame, tripod, remote control). M-mode, ISO fixed, WB fixed, SteadyShot – OFF.
  • The test was repeated for every F-stop on every focus position with manual focus adjustment for each shot. That is to avoid the effect of field curvature.
  • RAW processing: Capture One, default settings. All quality settings – 100%. Crops – 300×200 px

Original target image (printed in horizontal orientation on 10cm X 15cm glossy photo paper)

Scene preview

Test results

Long-distance resolution test

Testing methods description

  • Target: cityscape
  • Distance: > 200 meters to center focus point
  • Camera: Sony A7II (24mpx, full-frame, tripod, remote control). M-mode, ISO fixed, WB fixed, SteadyShot – OFF. The focus point is on the center only.
  • RAW processing: Capture One, default settings. All quality settings – 100%. Crops – 300×200 px

Scene previews and tests results

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft aberrations

Vignetting

Vignetting is absent on any Modes and Apertures. Surprise, by the way, I haven’t seen other lenses with such possibility.

Geometric distortion

Coma aberrations

 

Chromatic aberrations

Long-distance bokeh

Test #1

Test conditions: the lens was focused on minimal distance on the scale (0.8m), buildings are on “infinity”-distance.

Test#2:

Test conditions: lens was focused on 2.0m

Light bubbles bokeh – long distance

Test #1

The lens is on the minimal focusing distance 0.8m, lights are on infinity (cityscape)

Test #2

Test conditions: lens was focused on 2.0m

Minolta 85mm 1:2.8 Varisoft – final conclusion

Everything is clear with collectors – this lens in any version is a necessary element of any collection of photographic equipment, even without being tied to the Minolta company. And those who are fond of Minolta and so hunt for him, if they have not yet got it. Therefore, let’s turn to the photographer’s side and start with the features to consider when choosing this lens specifically for taking photos, and not storing the lens on a shelf.

Before starting the tests, I was skeptical about the soft effect of this lens, it seemed to me that in modern conditions it can be replaced with Photoshop without any problems. Partly I was right, partly wrong. Yes, Photoshop allows you to do a lot of all kinds of soft-effect options, but I didn’t manage to do it perfectly for about an hour. I think that repeating the effect of this lens in Photoshop is quite possible, but for an inexperienced person, it may take too long and without a guarantee of the result. On the other hand, the photographer may not need the totally perfect soft effect, and then Photoshop will certainly win.

(Yes, the soft effect is not as fashionable now as it was in the youth of this lens, but as you know, history is cyclical, and perhaps soon everyone will need photos with romantic halos.)

The next feature that must be noted is that this lens cannot replace the usual 85mm lens in all cases. First, for normal mode without a soft effect, it has pretty lousy sharpness at open aperture. Secondly, the distribution of sharpness across the frame is also not performed well enough. Thus, in front of us is a strictly portrait lens. If the photographer is going to shoot something other than portraits, they should get a regular 85mm lens.

Incredibly, the lens has extremely low aberrations (in Mode 0 of course). The main surprise was the complete lack of vignetting. This is the first time I’ve seen a lens like this that doesn’t even have a hint of darkening in the corners at an open aperture. Also, chromatic aberration is completely absent. The coma is very small. Geometric distortion is also not worth mentioning.

The lens exterior and feel are close to perfect. It’s a pleasure to use it. It has the “right” weight, is built like a rock, all the rings rotate with a pleasant tight deceleration and distinct clicks.

Can this lens be recommended to photographers? If to remember about its modern cost, then no. There are enough other portrait lenses around us, and some kind of soft effect is available in Photoshop. But if you forget about the cost – yes, this is a highly specialized portrait monster, a true legend.


9 Comments

Vinicius B. · 2021-05-30 at 16:35

Sometimes I wonder, why is it that minolta seems to have such a cult following with very high quality comparisons of nearly every lens they’ve released when other “bigger” brands don’t. Or at least not to the extent that minolta seems to have.

    Tony · 2021-05-31 at 16:05

    I thought about it too. This is probably a combination of several reasons. I agree that Minolta attracts a lot of followers, perhaps it is in second place after Leica, despite the fact that Leica’s business model is designed to attract collectors

Stefan · 2021-08-02 at 13:02

I had no idea that Minolta had a “cult following.” Having first started shooting with used Minolta equipment, and having at one point owned a Varisoft lens which I bought (then re-sold) on eBay, I’m now wondering if this alleged “cult following” might have to do with a certain demographic? 🤔

    Tony · 2021-08-02 at 13:11

    I’m sure more than half of the collectors are over 50 years old. Actually, this often applies not only to collectors of photographic equipment but in general in any direction, even kid’s toys can be collected by very adult people. Nevertheless, there are also enough students and middle-aged people among Minolta’s followers, usually they are interested not so much in collecting as in practical application, at least it seemed to me so

Mohammad · 2021-08-03 at 05:51

Really great , fantastic and perfect review .
Thanks .

    Tony · 2021-08-03 at 18:15

    Thanks! And welcome

      Mohammad varzideh · 2021-08-06 at 13:26

      Hello again . I’m a nikon and minolta user . My minolta equipments are back to 20 years ago when i started photography . When i went to nikon dslr those equipments didn’t work for me any more . But now i started a film photography again and my minolta lenses and bodies are started to work . I have minolta xd7 and srt100x with md rokkor 20mm f 2.8 (rare lens ) , 35-70 f 3.5 , 28mm f2.8 , 45mm f2 , 50mm f1.7 and tokina 75-150 f3.8 . All of them are really good lenses and I’m really happy with them . On searching for a 85 mm lens for portrait i found a mint 85mm varisoft in store for 400$ .I have to say that I like to collect rare stuff and this is another reason that i like to buy varisoft but With this price and the limitation of using minolta lenses on new nikon digital bodies ( maybe I’m in the mistake) , I’m in a doubt that spend or not . Would you help me to take a right decision ?
      Thanks again

        Tony · 2021-08-06 at 15:43

        Hello, For me it is always difficult to give a such advices. If the lens in good condition and you like it – than price looks enough acceptable, especially in modern times. Why not? Anyway, this lens is mostly fot collection, it is a pleasure to get so rare item. But I’m doubting that it can be used in real photography today. It is always very personal choice )))

          Mohammad varzideh · 2021-08-06 at 17:26

          Thank you for your prompt answer and useful advice .

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