It was after climbing 2,000 feet above sea level, with several hundred more to hike, that I decided to hate Minolta’s XK. I stood hunched and panting over a tangle of evergreen roots attempting to relieve for the hundredth time the throttling grip of the camera strap that clawed the back of my sunburnt neck. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes with the back of an equally moist hand, squinted against the sun, and managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of my friends as they disappeared behind a bend in the trail ahead. It was there that I decided to hate them, too.
Mere hours before I’d been peacefully relaxing in a humble but well-appointed cabin on the shores of Lake Sunapee, smack in the middle of the second day of a weekend away to celebrate the last gasps of my pal’s prenuptial existence. I’d brought rare, Japanese whiskey, a novelty flying disc, and a bag full of classic film cameras. Things were going great- and then someone suggested climbing a mountain.
With a forecast in which temps were predicted to reach the high nineties, I knew it was a bad idea, but the ambitious part of my brain anticipated scenic views, interesting backdrops for product shots, and ample opportunities for further testing the pro-spec Minolta SLR that had thus far impressed me to a greater degree than any Minolta SLR I’d ever shot. The XK had made amazing images for me in Boston the week before, and throughout the first day of our retreat I was loving it. But that was before it had well and truly demonstrated its most egregious failing, a failing that’s impossible to remedy. While the XK is one of the best 35mm SLRs I’ve ever shot, in the end it’s simply far too big and much too heavy to call it a perfect camera.
That said, no camera is perfect. What does the XK get right? A lot of things. It’s strong and reliable, technically proficient, customizable, and grants access to one of the best ranges of vintage glass in the world. To be fair, it’s only major misstep is its exceptional heft. But let’s break this thing down properly.
Unveiled at Photokina in 1972, the XK was an unlikely showstopper. Soundly outperforming the professional camera offerings from Canon and Nikon (which offered no auto-exposure shooting modes), and completely trumping competitors Pentax and Olympus in the areas of modularity and professional-level interchangeability, Minolta again demonstrated an uncommon understanding of how to create amazing and unexpected machines. But why didn’t Minolta find the same kind of success with their professional model that Canon and Nikon enjoyed with theirs? The XK was a real pro’s camera. It could do everything any shooter could ask of it- with one crippling exception.
This camera (called X1 in Japan and XM in Europe) was the best Minolta that money could buy, and it required quite a bit of money to do so. With a price around $710 USD (with 50mm 1.7 lens and finder), it was clear Minolta was courting real professionals. But when the camera hit store shelves many pros were disappointed by its inability to accept a motor drive. This was a real problem, and Minolta was slow to react. Though they released a motorized version in 1976, it was late to the party (Nikon’s F2 and Canon’s F-1 both offered detachable motor drives), and while the integrated and non-detachable motor of the XK Motor (as it was called) meant improved durability and reliability, the camera was regarded by most as obese and pricey (with an MSRP of $1,800 in 1977). The ten AA batteries that the motor required meant cost and weight continued to get out of hand. And it was all these factors, inevitably, that kept the XK out of the hands of most pro shooters.
All this said, those professional photographers and well-heeled enthusiasts who did adopt Minolta’s new system camera were rarely disappointed with their machine. The XK was one of the best pro-grade cameras ever made, and even today it’s spoken of with reverence. What are some of the features shooters enjoyed back in the glory days? And what can shooters expect of the XK in today’s digital world? In a word; lots.
The heart of the machine is its advanced electronically-controlled focal plane shutter. Horizontally-traveling titanium foils pair with a series of removable viewfinders (more on these later) to produce sets of speeds that cover 1/2000th of a second (fast enough today and super speedy in the ‘70s) down to long exposures of up to 8 seconds (16 seconds in electronic Bulb mode). Mechanical modes are included in the form of a dedicated mechanical speed (marked as X) of 1/100th of a second, and Bulb mode for those interminably long shots.
And if the shutter is the camera’s heart, then its brain is certainly whichever of the six available viewfinder prisms is fitted on top. Available finders include a meter-less pentaprism finder, waist-level finder, high magnification finder, match-needle metering finder, auto-exposure (AE) CdS cell finder, and AE-S Silicon cell finder, and while the first three finders listed here are somewhat unsophisticated, the latter three offer varying degrees of high-tech capability.
Beginning with the least advanced of the three metering-prisms, the match-needle finder simply displays a light-meter reading in the viewfinder via a small, analog needle. A second needle indicates how the current settings will expose a shot relative to the available light reading. The user watches the movement of these two needles while adjusting shutter-speed and aperture, and when the two needles align the resultant photo will be exposed properly. Light readings are taken via two CdS cells mounted at two different points inside the pentaprism, a system that Minolta trademarked as “Contrast Light Compensation” and first implemented in their amazingly popular SRT series. It works remarkably well, especially in tricky situations of high contrast and intense backlighting.
The other two brainy finders include the AE finder and the AE-S finder. The first is the most common finder available and will likely be included on most XKs bought today. It uses the same CLC metering system as the match-needle finder, but ditches the manual-only exposure control by adding an aperture-priority auto-exposure system similar to the one found in Minolta’s XE-7. By setting the shutter-speed selector to “A” it’s possible to simply set the lens aperture to achieve the desired depth-of-field, then point and shoot. The system is so adept that it never makes a bad exposure, and shooting in aperture-priority mode allows an incredible level of artistic freedom without the sometimes tedious methodology of full manual mode. With the AE finder, things are simply perfect.
But with the release of the motorized XK, this finder proved to be a bit too slow for burst shooting. By replacing the CdS metering cells of the original AE finder with advanced Silicon photo cells in the new AE-S finder, Minolta was able to speed up the metering of the XK so that it could shoot at the higher frame rates required by professionals. Additionally beneficial was that the new finder was more compact than the previous one, offered a bright LED readout to replace the earlier AE finder’s analog needles, and increased the slow-speed auto-exposure to 8 seconds (double the original finder’s 4 second limit). This finder is much more difficult to find today, but worth the hunt and the expense for what it offers.
But even with its technological superiority, the AE-S finder lacks something I find indispensable on the earlier AE finder- a feature Minolta calls “Auto Exposure Override Control”, which is essentially an exposure compensation adjuster. On paper, this would be a pretty standard feature and nothing to write about, but the way that Minolta engineered this exposure comp lever makes it something special. Found underneath the shutter-speed selector on the AE prism is a spring-loaded lever. This step-less adjustment lever can be swept to the right or left by the user’s thumb, and offers a way of quickly and efficiently adjusting exposure without removing one’s eye from the viewfinder. By pushing the lever to the right we’re able to over-expose by up to two stops, and by pushing the lever to the left we’re able to under-expose by up to two stops. Even the finest adjustments are shown in the viewfinder, so with a glance we can see the way in which our exposure will be modified, and when released, the lever springs back to its central rest position.
I recognize that it sounds like I’m overselling it, but the impact that this tiny lever has is immense. Unlike adjusting other cameras’ dedicated exposure compensation dials (which often have annoying locks and only operate in stepped increments) or pressing a dedicated plus-two backlight button (as found on many other cameras), the XK’s solution to exposure compensation offers speed, ease of use, and precision that is unmatched in classic cameras. Shooting in aperture-priority mode is my favorite way of shooting, and I constantly find myself tweaking exposures nearly every shot. The XK’s override lever is simply the best method I’ve ever encountered for fast, on-the-fly exposure adjustment. It matches my shooting style perfectly, and I love Minolta for inventing it. Unfortunately, the only prism that offers this godsend is the standard AE prism, as the later AE-S version opts for a more typical exposure compensation dial with fixed increments. This is a shame, as pairing this amazing functionality to the AE-S finder’s size, speed, and accuracy would result in a prism that’s literally faultless. Too bad.
Another unique feature found on the XK is what Minolta calls the “Senswitch”. Essentially a battery-saving device, the Senswitch is found on the front of the camera, precisely where a user’s hand will rest in normal operation. By holding the camera normally, the switch is pressed, which completes a circuit and activates the camera’s metering system (and in turn, the camera’s electronic shutter). Many people complain about this switch, saying that it’s annoying and unreliable. I don’t find this to be the case. There’s a dedicated On/Off switch on the metered prisms that, when turned on, bypasses the Senswitch and leaves the meter constantly running. In this way we’ve successfully mitigated any annoyance the Senswitch might cause.
Noteworthy among all these interesting features is the massive number of available focusing screens. No less than eleven comprise the range, and shooters are able to pick everything from diagonal split-image screens, to architectural grid screens, to screens specifically suited to macro and astrophotography shooting. These screens are all simple to install by even the most ham-handed amateur.
Other standard features include a self-timer, remote shutter release socket, film frame counter, film memo holder, shutter blind (in the AE prisms), multiple exposure capability (unlimited exposures), depth-of-field preview, battery check light, and X/FP flash modes.
Ergonomically the XK is a mixed bag. Its primary fault in this regard (and overall) is its size and weight, which I’ve mentioned, but it also offers sensations that are purely magnificent. Actuation of the film advance lever is a tactile joy, and hearing those titanium foil shutters slip sideways is an audible treat. Levers, dials, and knobs function with impeccable mechanical certainty. Detents are deep and robust, ensuring that with every adjustment we’re afforded the wonderful feeling that something delightfully mechanical just happened. It’s a dense camera, and well-made with copious quantities of brass and other metals.
Aesthetically the XK is a pleasure. It’s stoic and robust, and cuts a professional figure in its black livery. There’s no doubt to the photo geek or casual observer that this camera is a serious machine. It’s large and muscular, and with its numerous bulges, levers, and dials, it looks more complicated than it is. This is the kind of camera that would look right at home hanging from the neck of a grizzled photo journalist, and in the era of plastic-fantastic DSLRs, this quiet professionalism is even more impactful.
Most important of all, it uses Minolta’s SR mount, a lens mount capable of accepting some of the highest quality legacy lenses I’ve ever used. Minolta’s Rokkor lenses span the full range of focal lengths demanded by professionals and the most intense enthusiasts, who can find everything from ultra-wide fish-eyes to reflex-mirror telephotos, shift lenses to amazing macro glass. Ultra-fast primes are ready for low-light street shooters, and remarkably potent zooms are available, too. All SR mount lenses are easily adapted to today’s crop of mirror-less cameras, such as Sony’s a7 and Fujifilm’s X series, adding versatility for shooters who want to shoot 35mm, but also happen to own a modern digital camera.
Do the wonderful assets of the XK offset the undeniable pain incurred from strapping this camera around your neck and hoofing it up a hill? It’s hard to say. Fitted with the Minolta MD 50mm F/1.4, AE prism, and a leather strap, my kit weighed close to three pounds, and while that might not seem like a lot, compare it to Olympus’ OM2n, which weighs half that. Still, that camera doesn’t offer what the XK offers. And for that matter, neither did cameras from Nikon or Canon. It took the former until 1980 to offer a professional camera with auto-exposure (the F3), and the latter until 1981 (the New F-1). Once again Minolta was ahead of its time (in this instance ahead by more than five years), and once again their focus on quality, technology, and performance somehow mattered very little. The XK would never find the success of its competitors’ machines, and an XK2 was never developed.
Today we see how unfortunate this is. On balance, the XK is one of the best manual-focus 35mm SLRs around, and its struggles in the face of overwhelming competition make it a perfect camera for those who cherish the more-than-capable underdog. For serious photographers and those who value utmost quality in an SLR, it’s hard to find a better camera. It’s solid, specced to the hilt, and provides the photo geek with an unbeatable selection of lenses for every type of photography. It’s a reliable, beautiful camera that will last a lifetime, even in 2016. Just try not to carry it up a mountain and you’ll be a happy shooter. Or, do what I did- make sure the mountain you’re climbing has a chair lift, ditch your friends at the summit, and ride down in style.
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I use my Minolta XK with both the AE and AE-S heads. The AE one is the original CDS celled metered head that makes the camera look like Herman Munster. So ugly I love it, and so unique too.
The AE-S head was the ‘improved’ design using SPD cells. Physically it is less imposing, and thus IMO lost some of the original character. But the SPD cells allow it to react to light quicker thus making it “better”. It is also about a stop more sensitive. The AE-S head is much harder and more expensive to find.
So why do I prefer the old style Herman head? Several reasons:
1/ You see the entire shutter speed scale at the same time. Sounds simple enough, no? But the AE-S head shows about half of them at any time, you need to flip a switch between them.
2/ The AE head’s shutter speed scale is very legible and very easy to read in most lighting conditions. The AE-S head’s LEDs are invisible in bright light, and blind out the read out in dim light.
3/ Switching to manual exposure mode, the AE head uses simple and very effective match needle metering. The AE-S head shows a mechanical actual shutter speed read out in a tiny window in the top right corner of the vf, which you then need to match with the lit LED in the main read out.
4/ The AE head has an Auto Exposure Overide Control switch which allows you to seamlessly dial in exposure compensation while looking through the VF. Once you let go of it, it reverts back to the standard exposure. The AE-S head replaces that with an exposure compensation dial. Problem is there is no indication of it in the VF, so if you forget to change it back…
And now the advantages of the AE-S head:
1/ Film speed setting is harder to accidentally change.
2/ 3 position meter on switch – off, always on w/ no LEDs in VF (saves battery life), always on. The AE head has ON or OFF. Both use the sensor switch on the front of the camera.
For me, the advantages of the old AE head by far outway those of the AE-S head.