The MD Varisoft Rokkor 85 mm f/2.8 is a rare specialized lens which was designed as a portraiture-friendly companion of the extremely sharp MD 85 mm f/2.0. The Varisoft features eight aperture blades and a three-stage mechanism which introduces spherical aberrations into the picture. This results in a loss of sharpness and – depending on the setting and aperture – a mild to extreme haze/glow which reduces contrast. Used prices for this lens are quite high today because of it’s rareness.
The Varisoft has a strongly recessed front element, which makes the use of a lens hood optional in most conditions. The lens has a solid weight to it, but doesn’t feel heavy as it is quite long when set to zero softness. Focus is buttery smooth and handling on a NEX-5T is very good. Focusing is a little harder than expected, as focus peaking only starts to work well at f/4. I would recommend using a tripod when shooting wide open. These characteristics combined with the effective focal length of 130 mm on APS-C make the Varisoft an interesting lens for creative shooting and portraiture. But it’s total lack of vignetting and distortion on the NEX also make it a very capable lens for other applications.
For further details on the lens like weight and dimensions, have a look at its entry in the Minolta SR mount lens database.
Condition of my copy
Optics: Very good. Very slight scratches in the front element due to cleaning. A handful of lonely dust particles inside.
Mechanics: Very good. Uniform and very smooth focus, Varisoft-selector slightly scratchy with light clicks at each setting. Aperture clean and fast.
Exterior: Very good. Slight scratches in the finishing here and there, otherwise excellent.
Optical performance on NEX-5N / 5T
Regular (-> jump to test charts)
At f/2.8, the lens shows a minimal haze and medium sharpness with consistent performance across the frame. f/4 shows no signs of haze anymore, but sharpness doesn’t improve much. That changes at f/5.6 where the center reaches a good rating but the corners stay behind. Sharpness further improves at f/8, reaching close to very good levels in the center. Stopping down to f/11 doesn’t affect central sharpness but finally brings the corners to the same level. Diffraction slightly softens the image at f/16.
The Varisoft has a minimal multicolored glow in the corners at f/2.8 and f/4. From f/5.6 on, tiny cyan/red CAs appear that do not show on the left side of the picture in my copy. Therefore you cannot see them in the test chart crops below. An excellent performance for a short tele, nonetheless.
Vignetting is non-existent at all apertures on the NEX. The effective T-stop at f/2.8 is approximately T2.9 (-0.1 EV), which is very good. Further, the MD Varisoft 85 mm shows no measurable distortion.
Varisoft feature (-> jump to test charts)
As described before, the “SOFT” function introduces colorless spherical aberrations into the image in three levels (+1 to +3), resulting in a subtle to extreme haze or glow and softness “dreamyfying” the picture. It also slightly shortens the focal length by 7.8% to about 78 mm at the highest setting. The SOFT function was designed as a creative tool and can for example be used to give portraits a very special look. As this can be simulated in post-processing, today, and the lack of contrast restricts your options once the picture is taken, there are no professional Varisoft lenses in production anymore. One recent exception from the rule is the Lensbaby Velvet 56 mm f/1.6. This lens intentionally shows strong spherical aberrations when shot at small f-numbers and therefore offers an image characteristic close to the Minolta Varisoft Rokkor. The Lensbaby is no true Varisoft lens, though, because you cannot control the softness independently from the aperture.
Looking at the Minolta’s charts, it becomes clear that the SOFT effect can be well controlled at f/5.6. SOFT +1 introduces a very slight haze that only softens contrasty edges. Increasing to +2 and +3 subjectively really doubles and triples the impact of the aberrations, giving you plenty of range to decide whether the image should be tack sharp or nicely soft.
That is not the case at f/2.8. Setting SOFT to +1 is enough to turn the test chart into a blurry and foggy mess. Since the first setting hits the image that hard, increasing to +2 and +3 doesn’t give you the impression of tripling the effect although that actually seems to be the case. On +3, there is very little contrast left in the picture and the glow from bright areas reaches anywhere.
Please keep in mind, that this evaluation is based on photographing boring, high-contrast test charts with a lens that was designed for creative portraiture. There are certainly better motifs to demonstrate the characteristic and usefulness of such a lens.
In Conclusion, the 85 mm f/2.8 Varisoft does not impress as a short tele. It’s neither outstandingly sharp nor does it offer especially fast f-stops. It is well corrected concerning CAs, vignetting and distortion, but that’s about it – if there wouldn’t be this second control ring with the “SOFT” inscription. This lens was designed for dreamy pictures. That’s where it shines, where very few modern lenses can compete and that’s how it should be used. And if you happen to long for a regular 85 mm while shooting, the Varisoft sure is good enough to serve as one when needed.
The following images are pixel-level crops from the test chart. They may appear scaled in your browser window. Click on them to view the crops in full size and cycle through them easily. For more info on the test setup, visit the details page.
f/2.8, SOFT +1
f/2.8, SOFT +2
f/2.8, SOFT +3
f/5.6, SOFT +1
f/5.6, SOFT +2
f/5.6, SOFT +3