Silk pulled taught – A long term report on the MS Optical 28mm f/2 Apoqualia
It has been a while since we have had a piece by Daniel Schaefer on the site, but he is back again after playing with one of the famed MS-Optics lenses, the Apoqualia 28mm. Here are Daniel’s thoughts on the tiniest of 28mm lenses.
It’s a rare gem to find a modern lens that sings the sort of song oft reserved for older optics made in mounts long abandoned by modern camera makers. Even lenses with a classic heritage tend to run stale coming from modern makers. However Mr. Miyazaki at MS Optical is a maker in a different class, and the MSO 28mm f/2 Apoqualia is a lens that shows all his skills at their finest.
Jokingly, a year or so ago a friend of mine asked me what my dream lens was, I answered him with a diagram I had found in a lens compendium from the late sixties, a theoretical design penned sometime in the 1920s, only mathematics, never made, of a particularly compact 28mm, an f/3.5 but with a curious side note, that the f/# was potentially expandable but at the cost of certain typically key things such as focus field curvature and distortion patterns. I adored a solid 28mm lens, and the concept of one compact enough to pocket made me drool.
When Mr. Miyazaki first released the 28mm f/2 Apoqualia, my appetite for the lens was immediate. Upon receiving the elegant little box from Japan, I instantly slid the sliver of an optic onto one of my M’s and proceeded to giggle. An f/2 body cap. The lens set on a table, even with the hood attached isn’t even as tall as an M mount rear cap. The focus was smooth, with the signature tension of a fresh, handmade lens. The quirks of the tactile design made immediately apparent by details like the f/stop adjustment being controlled by a careful twist of the lens hood, or the little pin which you roll the focus with being tooled to rest softly on a single fingertip, out of the way of an optic so shallow set against the camera body, I had a hard time keeping my knuckles clear for the first few days of shooting.
The lens lends itself incredibly well to the arsenal of a street or documentary shooter, offering incredible clarity for the
“f/8 and be there” sort of shooter. Just as sharp and steady as any other comparable width optic, sharing many similarities in the tonality it offers with optics like the classic, but newly re-issued Leica 28mm f/5.6 Summaron once the two optics are stopped down similarly.
However, the real song of this lens comes with its aperture wide, f/2 offers images unlike near any lens I’ve ever handled, at close focus with a semi central subject, the subject pops energetically, as if the details were carved into the glass itself. The bokeh breaths with an almost Petzval swirl, leafy trees a tornado of light and shadow behind a subject that frames faces wonderfully.
The real wonder however, comes from the focus field itself, unlike any lens made in the past 50+ years, the focus does not move like a wall, sliding evenly from center to edge as it moves from infinity to close focus. Instead, like a hook at the center of a sheet of elastic, the field of focus pulls forward from infinity at the center, but stays taught and sharp at the edges, like a sloped cone, or bell the edges remain sharp at most distant points, while the center moves drastically too and fro.
This lens offers a flavor not for the mild of palette, but for those who enjoy the fermented funk of the exceptionally unique and understand the potentially bitter bits of such fascinating and handmade items. Like most handmade items, this lens does require a degree of maintenance and attention that other modern optics never would. Since the lens has a classically open design in regards to the helical, it does breathe slightly as it is focused, meaning in a dusty setting, it has the definite potential to inhale particles into the camera.
After shooting this digitally on my Sony A7s for a week, the additional dust was noticeable, but I had been shooting in an abandoned aluminum foundry in northern Washington, where lovingly a local said: “This is where America makes its dust.”
The most troubling downside is one that is common to most Miyazaki lenses over time, and one that for the most part is easily avoidable with standard maintenance. Since this is a handmade lens, the parts aren’t necessarily as permanently sealed to one another as a standard production modern optic, meaning that pieces can loosen over time unless carefully tightened during regular cleanings. In the case of most Miyazaki lenses, the piece that sees the most loosening is somewhat hazardously, the bezel around the rear element.
The reason this is troubling is mainly that in the case of the element coming off altogether, it’s rattling around inside the body of a camera can cause serious and lasting damage to both lens and camera, leading to a truly annoying potential expense. That being said, as long as the operator of this optic knows that this is a potential factor, a simple careful twist during a monthly cleaning should be enough to prevent the lens from shifting at all in use.
Overall, this lens is a spectacularly quirky addition to any photographers kit. Especially those who are drawn to the aesthetics of traditional Japanese tonality set against the sort of swirl to be expected from the large format European lenses of the early 1900s.
Shooting this lens does take skill, the initial images it offers are often breathy, lacking immediately obvious contrast. But anyone skilled in either basic Darkroom technique or simple Lightroom workflow can easily bring out the tune that this stunning optic offers. The tonality is there, truly more so than most lenses you might compare it to, and it can be tuned and toned to create something truly special if one is to take the time.
In many ways, I would compare this lens in its color and clarity to classic Cinema optics like Angenieux or Cooke, soft and simple sheet tones that have an open evenness that allows a skilled color corrector to snap the initial capture into something truly special.
There are few reasons I can preach against buying this lens, for those looking to purchase it, the price is right, the character is clear, and the qualities while quirky and requiring occasional maintenance, are well worth the effort. Adding this lens to your kit it will become a welcome member of your optical family, as long as you don’t mind the occasional red headed relative.
With the clearly Japanese rendering, the handmade subtleties and definite quirks paired with the enjoyably pocketable petite piece of gear, you’re sure to find this optic on your camera more often than not once you’ve added it to your arsenal.
Daniel Schaefer is a Photographer and Writer, based either in the rhythmic chaos of New York City, or off in the Zombie Apocalypse somewhere deep in Easter Washington. Lacing his images with as much inherent narrative as he can sew, making the most of a genetic pre-disposition for storytelling.