■ 3. Hexanon AR lenses
Lenses made by Konica gained wide recognition for their solid construction and, above all, for their optical quality almost as soon as Konica cameras appeared on the American market at the end of the 1940s. The lenses mounted on Konica’s first post-WWII rangefinders, its TLRs and its later medium format cameras, the interchangeable lenses for its two SLR lines (the “F” and the “AR” series) and those for the celebrated Hexar RF rangefinder of 1999 all sustained Konica's enviable reputation as one of Japan’s finest makers of optical equipment.
A number of Hexanon lenses from the second half of the 1970s
Photographers, critics and testing labs were astounded by the performance of Hexanon lenses. It was such that, for many years, the company's main sales slogan in America – created by Nat Kameny of the Kameny & Associates advertising agency – was The Lens Alone is Worth the Price. And this was no empty boast: In the middle 1950s, the Konica Camera Company – Konica’s agent for North and South America, established by Henry and Marian Froehlich in 1951 – asked the US Department of Commerce’s National Bureau of Standards to test a batch of Hexanon lenses. Their resolution was found to be such that many German lens manufacturers asked the Konica Camera Company not to publicize the figures as they were being “swamped with requests for lens resolution numbers which had never before been questioned.”
Back in Japan, for many years the Japanese Camera Inspection Institute (JCII) – the institution whose “passed” sticker adorns every camera and lens exported from Japan from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s – used testing apparatus outfitted with Konica-made P-Hexanon optical comparator lenses to assess the quality of photographic equipment made by all Japanese camera and lens makers. There can arguably be no greater testimony to Konica’s expertise as a maker of first-rate optics: Comparator lenses are expected to project the image of an object on a flat field of view with a magnification factor of 50x, 100x, or 200x, with the same dimensional accuracy at the edges as in the center, after which this magnified image is measured in microns.
Even though Konica was Japan's oldest lens maker (it manufactured Japan's first photographic lens – the Konishiroku Hexar 10.5cm f4.5 – in 1931), the excellence of Konica-made optics is due primarily to the company’s exacting quality-control standards, both at the raw materials sourcing stage and during production. Following careful inspection, small portions of each batch of optical glass were selected for further spectrophotometric and stress testing. Only glass which passed this testing was accepted for the making of lens elements. In the end, only about 30% of the raw glass supplied to the factory was deemed acceptable for further processing, while the usual rejection rate in the industry as a whole was about 40-50%.
In the manufacturing of Hexanon AR lenses, Konica used different varieties of optical glass, some of which contained rare earths, to produce the refractive properties needed in various lens designs and focal lengths. Once cut and polished, such lens elements were treated with Konica's Color Dynamic Coating technology, and received repeated magnesium fluoride and cryolite coatings in combinations that depended on the lens type. These coatings, first introduced in the late 1960s and improved over the following decade, contributed to the flare control and color rendition Hexanons are renowned for.
Mechanically, the build of Hexanon AR lenses is typical of the best professional lenses available at the time. They have sturdy and precisely machined all-metal barrels, a wide and comfortable focusing ring, and a mounting flange made of hardened steel to provide long-lasting stability and correct alignment. The aperture actuating mechanism is mounted on hard-steel ball bearings to ensure a precise, responsive and reduced-friction aperture transfer in a wide range of temperatures..
For its SLR line, Konica didn’t manufacture parallel lines of “consumer” and “professional” lenses, with the exception of the 3 Hexars and the 5 UC lenses. The great majority of Hexanon lenses were made to the same exacting optical and mechanical standards. Konica’s rather impressive achievement is to have produced lenses of consistent quality and superior performance from one end of the range to the other, with relatively little variation between samples. Many of them are stellar, most are simply excellent, a few are merely very good, but there truly isn’t a dog among them. While Konica’s main competitors made excellent quality lenses, to the best of my knowledge not one of them has managed to attain a comparable degree of uniformity between samples and across the range. This uniformity can be seen on the photo below, which is a superimposition of 9 photos of the same courtyard taken with different Hexanon lenses, from 24mm to 200mm.
Photo: Christophe Esperado. Used with permission
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The information in this section is of a strictly descriptive sort and is based on my 35-year adventure with Hexanon lenses. I used most of the lenses featured here at one time or another during this period. Consequently, my descriptions of each lens are based on a combination of first-hand experience, the experience of other Konica users, and on those lenses’ reputation in the Konica community. Lenses I have used are indicated by a yellow dot in the comments box.
For more information on Hexanon lenses, see Section 5, and 'Time of production" in this section.
● KONICA ●