I admire risk-takers in any industry because I feel that visionaries are the ones who urge everyone forward to a better future. The camera industry is no different. When I began shooting photos in college, a professor urged me to try a brand I’d never heard of, Minolta. His recommendation came from the assertion that the brand engaged in an uncommon pursuit of engineering excellence. I gave it a shot, bought my first DSLR (a Minolta Maxxum 5D), and fell in love.
My professor was right. Minolta was one of the more innovative companies making cameras in Japan, less afraid to take risks compared with the popular outfits of Canon and Nikon. So it follows that years later, when I decided to delve into the now novel world of 35mm film, I would remember Minolta’s long-standing reputation for innovation, remarkably well-built cameras, and exceptional glass. Brand loyalty firmly embedded, I struck out to discover the very best camera Minolta had to offer.
Coming from digital, this brave, old world of photography was totally foreign to me, and my first big decision was whether to choose an SLR, or Rangefinder camera. My familiarity with DSLRs weighed heavily in favor of these machines’ analog predecessors, but the retro appeal and trend in adopting rangefinder cameras had me curious. It became quickly apparent that, while rangefinders have it in the style department, finding a high quality, functional example would be incredibly difficult or incredibly expensive. Most are just so old that they lack reliability and features, or so exotic that the price becomes difficult to justify. Placing my interest in rangefinders on the back burner, I instead focused on finding a high quality and fully functional vintage SLR.
I wanted a manual camera with available auto-exposure, depth-of-field preview, multiple exposure ability, and exceptional build quality. This last trait became the most important for me, as I am just a sucker for anything with a high fit-and-finish. I began investigating the mechanical SRT line, but these were a bit too archaic, lacking some of the key features I desired, such as exposure compensation. The more modern and automatic XG series was interesting, but once held in the hand it lacked the solidity in build quality that I sought. The more electronic models, such as the X700, were interesting and retro in their own way (think 1980’s), but they didn’t invoke that feeling of mechanicalness that I was looking for. It took some time, but eventually I was introduced to the XE-7, and the search was over.
The XE-7 was produced by Minolta starting in 1974, and featured some of the most advanced camera technology of the era. This manual focus camera was produced in cooperation with Leica during a period of shared patents, technology, and product development. This cooperation is seemingly evident in all aspects of the camera, the most outwardly noticeable being in the aesthetic design of the machine. The XE-7 looks strikingly German. There is a pure mechanical quality about it that is very compelling. The no-nonsense design puts everything you need exactly where you need it, and discards anything superfluous or unnecessary. It is stark, strong, and purposeful.
When finished admiring its looks, the next thing one will discover when picking up an XE-7 is the sheer heft of the camera. With a body weighing in at 775g, this thing is a tank, and the build quality is of a standard unfound on any other Japanese camera I’ve experienced. Some will surely take issue with this machine’s weight, but for me, the solid weightiness feels great in the hand; not too large and not too small, the XE-7 just feels right. Vintage, Japanese cameras tend to value compactness, so perhaps what we see in the XE-7 is the German influence. In any case, I find smaller SLRs can be fidgety when shooting one-handed. Operating the controls of a tiny SLR with Western sausage-fingers is no fun. Because of its larger size, the XE-7 lends itself well to these kind of acrobatics due in part to it being so holdable.
Of course two-handed operation is perfectly balanced, with ample space even for those with large mittens. Simple and intuitive, all of the camera’s controls are intelligently placed exactly where you’d expect them to be. Operation of this camera is second-nature, and within minutes of loading my first roll of film I could’ve used it blindfolded. Dials, levers, and switches all click into place with satisfying stiffness and a feeling of real durability. Additionally, the ability to adjust all of these well-placed controls without removing your eye from the finder shows the thoughtfulness of Minolta’s designers, and marks this camera as one of Minolta’s best machines for people who are serious about photography.
The viewfinder is excellent for a camera of this era. Extremely bright and full-featured, it allows the photographer awareness of all pertinent settings without taking his or her eye from the finder. The selected F number of lens aperture is displayed in an ingenious window at the top of the frame, sitting next to a second window which displays the selected shutter speed. Shutter speed scale is shown on the far right along with an indicator needle which rises and falls in correlation with available light. The center of the finder includes a split image rangefinder for excellent ease of focusing, and an additional microprism focusing spot. In extremely low light situations the viewfinder suffers, with the exposure needle and aperture windows becoming harder to read, but this is typical of nearly all vintage SLRs.
The top of the camera features a locking selector for shutter speed, film-advance lever, shutter-release button with threaded cable release, multiple exposure lever, locking ASA/ISO selector, locking exposure compensation dial (+/-1,2), and film rewind lever / film compartment release. The back features a dedicated On/Off switch, safe load signal window, frame counter, and an eyepiece shutter lever for taking photos when your eye isn’t held to the finder. On the front of the camera is found the self-timer lever with two increments, lens release button, flash sync terminal and sync selector switch. The bottom of the camera features the usual battery compartment, tripod socket, and rewind release button. An additional feature is found on the side of the body, and this is a battery check lever which lights when the camera is receiving proper voltage.
The XE-7 benefitted further from the deal between Minolta and the Germans through the inclusion of a Leitz-Copal vertically traveling, electronic, metal-bladed shutter. This mechanism is faster and more reliable than competitors’ shutters, and capable of exposures between 1/1000 of a second to four seconds, including Bulb mode. When switched to Auto mode the camera operates under aperture-priority and varies the shutter speed steplessly, while Manual mode makes for a selectable shutter speed in whole stop increments. This shutter is more reliable than the cloth plane shutters commonly found in most Japanese SLRs, and it has an exceptionally quick lag speed of 38ms, which is among the very best of any manufacturer.
The exposure system of the XE-7 is also among the best of its time, using two overlapping CdS cells mounted on the pentaprism to take separate readings. The reading of each cell affects the value of the other to automatically yield optimum exposure in every situation. Minolta was the first camera maker to employ this method of metering, a technology subsequently adopted by virtually every manufacturer in some form or another. Meter readings are taken at wide-open aperture, which means that the viewfinder remains at its maximum brightness regardless of the lens’ aperture setting. This makes composing your shot and focusing incredibly easy, with the lens only stopping down at the moment of shutter release.
Lenses are plentiful, as the XE-7 uses Minolta’s ubiquitous SR bayonet mount, meaning all vintage MC / MD lenses will mount directly. These interchangeable lenses are some of the best lenses by any manufacturer, both vintage and modern. Optically the lenses are wonderful, with most examples producing fantastic crispness across the entire frame, excellent contrast, and superb bokeh. Add to this the full metal construction of most MC/MD Rokkor lenses, perfectly weighted and smooth focusing rings, and a minimal instance of oily aperture blades, and its easy to understand why those who “know” typically covet this old glass. Minolta produced over 35 models ranging from 7.5mm circular fisheye to the extreme telephoto 1600mm, the longest focal length ever made available for purchase by any of the major manufacturers.
A less tangible but no less impactful benefit of buying Minolta is the relative lack of brand awareness. In 2006 Sony purchased the Minolta camera-making operation, and subsequently the name has faded from the public eye. While still incredibly popular and respected in the photographic community, this lack of brand awareness in the mainstream has created a heavily biased buyer’s market for vintage Minolta cameras and gear. Surprisingly, one can find the XE-7 for under $100 on popular shopping sites, and incredible lenses can be purchased for under $75. The availability and price of Minolta’s fast primes, for example, is just unbelievable. Recently I purchased an MD Rokkor-X 50mm ƒ/1.4, an incredible lens, for $50. Compare this to more popular brands like Canon and Nikon, or to any modern 50mm ƒ/1.4, and the value is instantly recognized.
It should be mentioned that this ignorance will not last, and even now it seems Minolta’s popularity is climbing. While certainly not a scientific method of data collection, I’ve anecdotally noticed an increasing frequency of Minolta gear and hashtags splashed across photo sites, Facebook, and Instagram. People are starting to remember film and remember the Minolta name, and soon they’ll likely recognize the XE-7 as one of the brand’s best.
Beyond the value, the good looks, and the impressive glass pairings, this machine’s biggest selling point is the simple fact that it was made for people who are deeply interested in photography. It’s one of the most full-featured cameras of its era, and even in the modern age, the XE-7 is a camera that will deliver everything a photographer asks of it. There’s very little this machine can’t do. If you’re looking for a vintage SLR with massive functionality, impressive build quality, and stunning retro looks, the XE-7 is the camera for you.
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Minolta are awesome.