Bad Lenses of the Past: Bad then, bad now! 

This is obvious to many veteran (film) photographers, but is new to so many younger photographers. How often have we seen posts like “Are Sun Optics any good?”  or “can I mount that Soligor on my D810”?   The questions should have been more like “should I even mount that Soligor on my Nikon?” or better “Should I even pick up this piece of junk?”

With an affluent export market, the Japanese optics industry flourished during the 1960s and remained strong through the 1970s and the 1980s.  This was so for major quality brands as well as second rate, low quality manufacturers.

It is difficult to know who built what brands as second rate manufacturers were making lenses (on contract) under various names. To complicate matters, these companies purchased and sold components and glass to each other. Some of these lenses were true Frankensteins of the Japanese optics industry, sourced by various manufacturers, often at the lowest price, and assembled under one or other brand or trade name.

 

Their target audience were budget-minded amateurs who were looking to add desirable focal lengths. Their advertising lured those consumers into believing that their affordable products were just as good as those from the leading brands. The reality however was that these affordable lenses were in fact inferior in all aspects.
 

Some of the obvious differences compared to period Nikkors:

  • Thin aluminum barrel, that rarely survived a serious impact

  • Questionable aluminum alloy, soft compared to Nikkors

  • Thin lens mount, usually chrome plated

  • Few mount securing screws, usually three

  • Plastic and nylon internal components

  • Average glass, although multi-coated.

  • No efforts were made to improve known and basic lens formulas.

  • Affordable front elements with softer coatings. Resulting in 49, 52 or 55mm filter sizes

 

The entire second rate industry focused on popular add-on lenses, in the 1960s we see them focusing on the 28, 35, 135, and even 200mm focal lengths.  In the 1970s the industry exploded into offering zoom lenses in predictable ranges like 80-200 and 80-250 focal lengths. 


Quality and lens speed even deteriorated more with offerings of extreme focal lengths like 300, 400, 500, 600, and even 1000mm.  Other popular accessories included macro accessories, extension rings as well as focal length doublers.

 

There has been a recent interest in the lesser known brands.  This is predominantly propelled by young photographers seeking lenses that generate a vintage look or select effects like Bokeh.

So here is a list of brands/marketing names that may help you from wasting money on below average performers:   

 

  • Access, distributed by  Magnum Optics & Research (Low quality prime lenses: 28 and 135mm)

  • Accura Formula V - Miyake (Low quality prime lenses including 28 and 135mm)

  • Cavalier (Low quality prime lenses including 135mm)

  • Chelsea (Low quality prime lenses including 135mm)

  • Coligon (Known for low-quality zoom lenses like their 80-205mm)

  • Diramic (Korean competitor to the second-rate Japanese manufacturers)

  • Elicar (Low quality prime lenses)

  • Focal (Trade name of K-Mart, lenses from various/unknown manufacturers)

  • Five Star (Low quality prime lenses including 50mm)

  • Hanimex (Trade name: Lenses sourced from various/unknown manufacturers as well as Sun)

  • Imado (Low-quality prime lenses including 28mm)

  • Kaligar (Low quality prime lenses including 28mm)

  • Kiron (Known for low-quality zoom lenses like their 70-210mm)

  • Komura > See the Sankyo Kohki Komura note below! 

  • Lentar (Trade name of U.S. distributor’s name, sourced from various/unknown manufacturers

  • Marexar (Low-quality prime lenses including 24mm)

  • Miranda (Trade name: Sourced from various manufacturers including Tokina’s low-end line)

  • Miyaki > see Accura Formula V

  • Promaster (Generic brand offering multiple lenses and accessories. Some lenses manufactured by Sigma)

  • Promatic (Low-quality prime lenses including 28mm)

  • Quantaray (Second rate component assembler and manufacturer)

  • Rexatar (Low-quality prime lenses including 135mm)

  • Rikenon, not to be confused with Rokinon! (Second rate component assembler and manufacturer)

  • Robinson (Known for low quality zoom lenses like their 80-250mm)

  • Samigon

  • Sankyo Kohki Komura (See the Sankyo Kohki Komura note below!)

  • Soligor (Trade name: Soligor tops my personal list as some of the worst constructed zoom lenses, sourced from various manufacturers including Tokina’s low-end quality line)

  • Star (Known for low-quality zoom lenses like their 28-70mm)

  • Sun (Sun Optical) which also made lenses under the Hanimex trade name

  • Telemore

  • Vemar (Low quality prime lenses including 200mm)

  • Zykkor
     

  • Note on the Sankyo Kohki brand of lenses:  The lenses were named Komura or variants of the word.  Sankyo Kohki may well have been the first manufacturer to attempt making after-market professional lenses or fast lenses including their early 200mm f1.8 lens.  The color rendering and contrast of these lenses were excellent with distinctively rich and vivid colors.  The company obviously invested in developing quality glass but many of their lenses did not do well over time with many having problems with stiff focus or aperture rings, while the optics were excellent, the mechanical parts of the lens can be problematic. 

 

One commonality all these brand or trade names share was their mediocre quality.  This stands in contrast with some manufacturers that did work towards developing better and faster lenses while offering these below the big brands’ prices.  Ultimately these manufacturers became serious competitors with quality optics geared towards serious amateurs what people today refer to as prosumers. 

 

Sigma went from producing average lenses to building quality optics while offering more and more fast lenses, competing with fast Nikkors. Sigma also pushed the boundaries by developing advanced zoom lenses like the 15-30mm and 50-500mm in the late 1990s.  This manufacturer has now evolved to selling pro level lenses including a selection of fast prime lenses.

Vivitar developed the Series 1 lenses, geared towards professionals. The flagship of the Series 1 lenses was initially the 70-210mm f2.8-4.  This lens was widely accepted by amateurs and pros alike for its fast aperture.  (Nikon had nothing comparable in this price range).  The Series 1 main competitor was the Tokina’s ATX line (below).

 

Tokina and Vivitar pursued the fast 70-210 / 80-200 zoom development and competed with each other. Tokina introduced the ATX line of lenses with the fast 80-200mm f2.8. This lens was widely accepted just as the Vivitar Series 1. Both brands developed a following of loyal costumers.  The ATX 80-200mm f2.8 lens utilized Tokina’s SD glass, their version of Nikon’s ED glass.   From my recollection it was one of the first pro-grade lenses that was made by a Japanese after-market manufacturer. (I specify “Japanese”, as Angenieux was in a quality class of its own)

Tamron solved a great logistical problem and marketed it as a benefit to consumers.  Instead of manufacturing lenses in each camera mount, creating large inventory and supply needs, they manufactured the lenses with interchangeable mounts (by the consumer) known as the Adaptall and Adaptall 2 system. Consumers could buy into a brand system and switch to another while retaining their Tamron lenses.  Dealers promoted and liked the system as they did not need to stock much inventory, only the Adaptall adaptors/mounts.  The lenses also retained a better resale value as they were flexible and easy to resell by dealers.  Tamron found an innovative way to deal with logistical problems.  The Adaptall system worked well and the lenses performed well for their time, although these were not fast or optically innovative, they did provide acceptable/good photographic results.

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