Sometimes when we see an old tractor, a restored antique firearm, or even a beautiful old house, an aphorism that sometimes comes to mind is, “They don’t make them like they used to.”
Such a phrase came to my mind when I opened box from eBay recently to find the Mamiya Sekor SX 200mm f/3.5 I ordered. As soon as I pulled it out of the bubble wrap, I was amazed by its smooth, slow, well-oiled focus mechanism, it’s heavy-checkered focus ring, and the fact that it didn’t make any sound when I shook it.
I bought this lens as part of an ongoing effort to open a new avenue of photographic creativity and mastery that started with the purchase of a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera in July, for the expressed purpose of bringing old lenses back to life using various adaptors.
If you are trying to find a lens that that makes pictures with a retro look, this one does the trick. It’s just a teensy bit soft wide open, and has that slightly-ratty bokeh of a lens designed an built by humans, in this case in Japan.
Most of the lenses of this era were mechanically sturdy, heavy, all-metal tools that weren’t as good optically as today’s hardware, which, since the early 2000s, have been getting optically better but mechanically more and more plasticky. This helps hold down cost and weight.
We are, however, seeing a reverse in this trend in the latest lenses coming from Sigma, Sony, Nikon, and Fuji, who have discovered a new market for craftsmanship.
The Mamiya Sekor 200mm f/3.5 is an M42 screw-mount lens, and I use it with a cheap pass-through adaptor to mount it on my Fuji. Focus and exposure are entirely manual. Because the M42 mount isn’t very precise, when the Sekor is mounted, the focus scale and the aperture ring face down, and the aperture pin strikes a rim on the adaptor, locking it to the f/stop you pick before mounting it. This is fine with me, since I don’t use the focus scale much, and I got this lens intending to mostly shoot with it wide open, at f/3.5.
F/3.5 seemed to be a tipping point for lenses made in the 1970s, presumably due to manufacturing limits that resulted in diminishing results with larger apertures, as well as a photographic community that is far less obsessed with selective focus and bokeh as it is today.
Being able to focus a lens is a rarer commodity than it was 25 years ago, but it seems to be making a little bit of a comeback with the retro film scene. I look forward to grabbing this lens for all kinds of creative endeavors.