Recently, I bought a Soligor 300mm 1:5.5. It’s over half a century old, built in 1971 by Tokina. I picked it up for a song and decided to put it through its paces.
Across the UK there are Car Boot Sales. (Here, we call the trunk of the car the "boot.") Traditionally, people would turn up with their cars and sell the stuff they no longer needed. Increasingly, they are dominated by traders who make a living from selling secondhand goods they acquired from house clearances and job lots at auctions. You can buy bootleg cosmetics, cheap plastic toys that don’t comply with safety standards, old Pat Boone and Jim Reeves CDs, used DVDs, and nearly out-of-date confectionary. Nevertheless, you can still find people who are selling their old and unwanted clutter that they found hidden in the back of a cupboard.
On one such stall was a guy selling old film camera gear. Between the ubiquitous Practika cameras and Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 lenses that litter these sales, I saw a long, thin lens case. Looking inside, it contained an old 300mm prime lens. The seller wanted £30 for it, which is about $38.
It’s traditional to haggle over the prices, so I offered him £20, and we settled on £25. It was a fair deal for both of us, as I got the lens for slightly less than I would find it on eBay, and I was taking the risk that it would be okay. Meanwhile, he covered three times the cost of his table at the sale with something that had previously been using up space in his house.
What Is a Soligor 300mm 1:5.5?
Soligor sold third-party lenses and other camera equipment. It was originally a brand name belonging to the US-based Allied Impex Corporation (AIC) way back in 1938. In 1968, the company formed a German subsidiary, and it was that which commissioned the manufacture of various Japanese lenses under the Soligor and other brand names. It became a prominent lens, camera, and accessory supplier but, sadly, became bankrupt twelve years ago. This particular lens was manufactured by Tokina in 1971 and sold under the Soligor name.
The lens has an all-metal construction, with a good, solid feel to it. It shows little wear. It has an integral rotating tripod mounting collar and an M42 screw mount. It weighs a reasonable 869 g, lighter than most modern 300mm primes.
The front element is coated. It has 5 lens elements in 4 groups.
Its widest aperture is f/5.5 and the smallest is f/32. There are 15 rounded aperture blades, so should give pleasing bokeh.
The lens has two aperture rings. The first sets the desired aperture, while the second stops the lens down. When using the lens, you set the shooting aperture with the first ring. Meanwhile, the second ring can be opened to f/5.5, giving a brighter image through the viewfinder, thus making focusing easier. After achieving focus, you rotate the second ring back to where it stops at the previously set aperture, and you then shoot the image. It was quite a faff back then, wasn’t it?
The focusing ring has a good, smooth action with just the right amount of resistance. However, from its closest shooting distance to infinity takes around 300° of turning; this isn’t a quick lens to focus. The shortest marked distance is 25 ft, but I could achieve around 20 ft.
The Lens in Use
I attached the lens to my OM-1 using an M42 to MFT adapter. One of the advantages of using a Micro Four Thirds with legacy 35mm lenses is that the adapter can position the lens at the correct distance from the sensor. With 35mm cameras, when you add an adapter, it moves the lens farther away from the sensor than it was designed to operate. Consequently, it becomes unable to focus on more distant subjects. But with my camera, this would not be an issue.
In the following image, the subject is ¼ mile from the camera. On the left, the image is uncropped. The picture has not been developed. It was shot at ISO 1,200, f/5.5, and 1/2,500 second.
The following is the same cropped image, and it has been developed in Lightroom.
The lens sat firmly on the mount with no unpleasant movement. I found it most comfortable to attach one of the Peak Design Leash strap’s anchor points to the tripod collar.
Compared with modern-day lenses, even standard-grade ones, glass technology has come a long way. One thing that was evident looking through the viewfinder was that there was significantly less contrast than I get from contemporary glass. This is due to the improved coatings and light transmission of modern lenses compared to 50 years ago.
One of the things I shoot are abstract images of birds in flight, and high-quality glass isn’t necessary for that. However, as I suspected, being able to focus on fast-moving subjects was nigh on impossible unless I pre-empted the bird’s distance from me and focused on that.
Although it brings advantages in size and weight, f/5.5 isn’t particularly fast. For my first test shots, it wasn’t a very bright day either, so I increased the ISO.
Saying that, I was able to get shake-free shots at relatively slow shutter speeds because of the 7-stops of in-body image stabilization offered by my camera. 300mm on a Micro Four Thirds gives the equivalent reach of 600mm on a 35mm camera, and yet, I was still sometimes able to handhold it at under 1/100th second. However, my hit rate was better when I increased the ISO.
The Lens' Image Quality
As I mentioned above, the contrast using this lens is far less than I achieve with any of my OM System M.Zuiko lenses.
To demonstrate, this first shot of an oystercatcher is heavily cropped with no adjustments applied. ISO 200, f/5.5. As you can see, there is quite heavy fringing along the high-contrast edges. The image isn’t pin-sharp, but I’ve seen worse from cheap modern lenses.
Nevertheless, raw files are adjustable. With the image developed in DxO PhotoLab 6, the images could be hugely improved. At f/5.5 the images were acceptably sharp, and the information stored in the OM-1’s raw files allowed the photos to be adjusted.
I tested the lenses at the other apertures. Unsurprisingly, it performed best at f/8. At f/11, the sharpness was slightly better than f/5.5, but at smaller apertures than f/11, it was too soft for my taste when viewed at 100%. I can envisage some situations where a photographer would take advantage of that softness.
The following cropped but otherwise undeveloped images were shot at f/5.5 on the left and f/11 on the right. At f/11, the image seems sharper, but there are more chromatic aberrations visible.
What I Liked and What Would Have Improved This Lens
There are a few of these floating around on the market, and there will be one more soon, as I will probably either sell it or give it away. That’s not because it’s a bad lens, but I have had fun with it, and it’s time for me to move on. There are things that I liked about this lens that made me glad I bought it.
It was in excellent condition with no signs of wear and no fungus growing inside. For something that is over 50 years old, that’s a boon. If you are buying vintage lenses, fungus growing in the glass is something to look out for.
- The lens is well-made.
- The tripod collar is solid.
- It was possible to handhold the lens using a higher ISO.
- The lens has a long reach, magnifying distant objects through the viewfinder by about twelve times compared to what the human eye sees.
- Some photographers might like to use its low-fi, retro look creatively.
- Surprisingly little distortion or vignetting.
- It works with the focus assistance setting on mirrorless cameras that outline the in-focus areas.
- It was inexpensive.
There are, of course, things about this lens that won’t appeal to some photographers:
- It’s slow.
- The image quality doesn’t stand up to even some cheap modern lenses. They are soft and exhibit heavy chromatic aberrations.
- It’s slow with a maximum aperture of f/5.5.
- The aperture adjustment method is long-winded and unnecessary with mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that show the image’s exposure through the viewfinder.
- Focusing on fast-moving subjects is nigh-on impossible.
My Conclusion About This Lens
I can envisage this appealing to three types of photographers: those with next to no budget who want to try a telephoto lens, artists for whom image quality is not essential, and lens collectors.
Old lenses are fun to play with, and I hope this article is a useful introduction to those who wonder about vintage glass. For the equivalent of under $40, it’s worth a try.
There are far better old lenses out there, and I’ll write an article in the near future about some better-quality vintage model that's attached to a film camera in my drawer.
Have you any vintage lenses that you use? It would be great to hear about your experiences with them.