My Introduction to Pincushion Distortion

When I began looking for Minolta Maxxum lenses, I came across a now-defunct site (MaxxumEyes.com) that made specific recommendations. The site recommended the classic 35-105mm AF (1985), particularly pointing out its sharpness. At the time, the only AF Minolta lenses I owned were the 50mm f1.7, 100mm f2.8 macro, and a 70-210mm “beer can.” Intrigued by the praise, I searched for a 35-105mm and finally obtained one as part of a camera set with three other lenses. I couldn’t wait to shoot it.  

Pincushion 35-105mm; FL 75mm

I used the 35-105mm multiple times before using it to test a new Minolta a7 (Japanese market Maxxum 7). Looking at the images, I was shocked—there was significant bowing along the vertical sides of the images from 50mm on!  

35-105mm lens in macro mode

After learning about pincushion distortion, I became wary of the 35-105mm lens even though it is very sharp and renders images with good color and saturation. Shots without immediately adjacent parallel lines look fine as do those taken with the macro feature. However, whenever I consider using the lens, I spend too much time worrying about ruining a shot. Ultimately, I resolved my dilemma with the Maxxum AF 28-105mm [1994 version, not the RS (1997) or xi (1981)]. Yes, I know the distortion could be corrected in Photoshop or LightRoom, but I own neither and don’t wish to. I like darkroom printing, so I need usable negatives.  

Early morning sun; 35-105mm


Trying to figure out what happened to my new lens, I loaded a roll into a different camera and took a few shots. On looking at the second set of negatives, the distortion was barely noticeable, if noticeable at all. Baffled, I did some research and found the distortion in my images was called “pincushion” distortion, and it is always most apparent when viewing parallel lines. Now, thinking that the degree of distortion seen in the images should be visible in the viewfinder of an SLR, I attached the lens to a camera without film and aimed at a set of four-feet tall bookshelves. Sure enough, I could see it clearly in the viewfinder– the bowing was quite evident, especially from 90mm on! Yikes!!! Then I panicked, realizing any of my lenses could be affected (I had about ten at the time). Fortunately, only the 35-105mm and an old Tamron 28-200mm showed any significant distortion. Oddly, I later obtained the same Tamron lens with a Canon EF Mount, and it did not have any distortion. The 35-80mm Canon lens for my EOS 7 and the Sigma 28-80 lens for my Nikon N80 were also fine.  

Given the praise the 35-105mm has received, I wonder if my copy is an outlier, or do most people ignore the distortion? I’d appreciate hearing what others have experienced.

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