I know that Konica fans will take exception to my labeling of this lens as “obscure”. It is certainly well known among the cognoscenti, but I am guessing that the same is not true of those who never got attacked by the Hexanon virus. I would hazard that many more people have heard of the outstanding 55mm macro Hexanon than of its longer focal length cousin. The production run of the 105mm lens was quite a bit shorter than that of the 55mm lens, perhaps ten times as many of the shorter focal length lenses were made (information kindly provided by Jean-Jacques Granas). There is also the additional complication that the 105mm lens is a “bellows ” lens. You have to attach it either to a bellows (which I always found to be rather unwieldy) or to the the very rare Hexanon helicoid
I used to own a 55mm macro Hexanon and came to appreciate that it is a superb lens – too sharp if a lens can be that!!! But I always found 50-60mm macro lenses somewhat frustrating to work with, at least for my style of photography. Not really long enough, or focus distance not really close enough (unless you use extension tubes), or I am too lazy and impatient. Whatever, both the 55mm Hexanon and the very sweet OM Zuiko 50mm f/3.5 which I also owned never quite worked for me. I sold them both, mostly because I was not really using them all that much, despite their outstanding image quality. I also used to own what may be one of the crowning glories of macro lenses, the Zuiko 90mm f/2. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, but again I tended not to use it all that much, largely because it is a very heavy lens but also because I was never quite sold on its out of focus rendition (“bokeh” always sounded cliquish to me), despite its marvelous sharpness, contrast and color. After much soul-searching I sold it too. After all, I am not really a macro photographer, I just like to get up close to a flower or a leaf or some fungi every now and then, so I don’t really need a macro lens. But…
… about a year ago I came across a set of a hardly used Hexanon 105mm f/4 lens with the corresponding helicoid, both in their original silver Konica boxes. The price was more than reasonable (about a fifth of what I got for the 90mm Zuiko) so I decided to try it. And I am happy I did. For my tastes in “macro” photography it is simply perfect. The exact combination of focal length and minimum focus distance (it can be focused much closer with extension rings, but I hardly ever use them). It is also noticeably lighter than the 90mm Zuiko (f/2 vs f/4 makes a big difference). And, although perhaps not optically better than the Zuiko (but this is debatable), it gives me all I want. This gallery may give you a feeling for what this lens is capable of. Take a look, draw your conclusions and then compare notes with my impressions, below.
In my view this lens is every bit as sharp as the 55mm macro Hexanon, but the rendition is much more pleasant, less harsh. Although the bokeh (there it goes) is not quite that of a fast 50mm lens, the out of focus areas blend very smoothly with areas in focus. The transition is natural, for lack of a better word. To me it resembles what one sees with the naked eye. Perhaps that is what gives the images that this lens produces a strong sense of “presence” (though I will be discussing in the near future another lens that is even more remarkable in that respect, this one from Germany – stay tuned). And the colors! They are pure Konica, especially the greens. This may be my own color perception, and color is something that is impossible to compare among individuals, but to me the greens produced by old Hexanon lenses are like no other. It is hard to describe, I would say that they have the perfect balance between being too yellowish or too bluish – they are green, period. But, again, this is subjective and impossible to compare with how anybody else sees that color. The reds too. This is probably a more universal observation: reds are the most difficult colors to render accurately. Hexanons in general do a great job, and the 105mm macro lens is no exception. And one more thing, the Hexanon helicoid allows infinity focus. As you can see from a few of the samples above, the lens also performs magnificently as a regular short telephoto lens.
Every once in a while I wonder whether I made the right decision in selling the 90mm Zuiko. At other times I get this urge of trying a Contax Makro Planar 100mm f/2, or some other insanely expensive rarity such as a Steinheil macro lens. I have the perfect cure for these attacks of equipment acquisition syndrome: I just go out and shoot with the 105mm Hexanon. The cure has never failed me. If you are considering this lens and come across a good one with its helicoid, do not give it a second thought. Buy it before somebody else does. There are not many of them around, and I suspect that very few people will want to part with them.