The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Minolta’s Camera Systems

The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Minolta’s Camera Systems

2400 1350 Jeb Inge

If you’ve chosen Minolta, welcome to The Cause. You’ve done some research and learned about the company that pioneered many of photography’s most important innovations. Autofocus, shutter-priority, in-body image stabilization, the list of now-common features that were invented or successfully implemented by Minolta goes on and on. You likely also know that while this company produced incredible and innovative cameras and lenses, they had difficulty in shifting to digital imaging products, and in 2006 were acquired by Sony. 

Shooting Minolta today means you carry a small torch for a fallen comrade. But deciding which camera to use and what glass to put on it can be daunting with a product line as diverse and decades-spanning as Minolta’s. Here is one Minolta fanboy’s nominations.

Best Professional Camera – a9

For as groundbreaking a company as Minolta was, its professional-grade camera bodies never achieved the unanimously high reputation enjoyed by Nikon and Canon’s top models. This divide widened further in the autofocus era — an era that ironically began when Minolta unveiled its Maxxum 7000. But that doesn’t mean its highest-end cameras weren’t as good as Canon’s or Nikons. They were just a bit odd.

That said, Minolta did create the greatest professional-grade film SLR camera of all time. The a9 (Maxxum 9, Dynax 9) goes beyond any camera made by the other big camera companies. It sweats perfection and durability.

Its spec sheet speaks for itself; a maximum shutter speed of 1/12,000 of a second, stainless steel chassis, weather-proof construction, EV range from -1 to 18, eye start, function dials rather than wheels. Most importantly, a metering system that will not be defeated by even the most inept of users.

The a9 is the Bjorn Borg of professional grade SLR cameras. It’s saturated with ability and talent, but isn’t superfluous or gaudy. It stands and delivers, doing the job better than anything else. Unfortunately like Borg, the a9 wouldn’t enjoy a long career. Released in 1999, it was only four years into its lifecycle when Minolta merged with Konica, and seven before Konica-Minolta’s photography operations were sold to Sony.

Best Enthusiasts Camera – Minolta XD and CLE

In the 1970s Minolta and Leitz teamed up in a partnership that would see the two powerhouses share patents, technology, and product development. Two cameras that resulted from this partnership would become two of Minolta’s best ever.

The XD would be the last high-grade, metal-bodied manual focus camera made by Minolta before the calendar changed to 1980 and the company switched to plastics. The XD was the first ever SLR camera equipped with aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full, metered manual mode. When it debuted in 1977, it gave the photographer a new level of creative control, ease of use, and reliability. It also had a final check metering system that would perform a second exposure reading after the shutter was engaged to ensure accurate exposures. This is the cause of what some claim to be a shutter lag, but the quietness of the XD’s shutter will have you thinking it’s a rangefinder. Leica would use the chassis of the XD as it built its R-series SLR cameras.

The XD is all class and sophistication. It’s superbly built with compact size and technical precision. If you could only buy one camera from this list, the XD should be the frontrunner. 

Unless you prefer rangefinders. If that’s the case, then the camera for you is undoubtably the Minolta CLE. Another product of the partnership with Leitz, the CLE was Minolta’s vision of what a “Compact Leica Electronic” camera should be. It uses Leica’s M mount, and its large viewfinder is equipped with frame lines for 28mm, 40mm, and 90mm lenses (a series of lenses in these focal lengths was made by Minolta, their M Rokkors, and they are phenomenal). It operates in full manual and aperture-priority modes and uses an advanced through-the-lens and off-the-film flash and exposure system that Leica cameras wouldn’t match in effectiveness until more than two decades later. And it’s all packed into a compact and beautifully minimal design.

The CLE was good enough for James to claim he would take it over any of Leica’s M cameras. I’m quite sure that I would have been expelled from CP had this camera not made the list. Fortunately, the CLE deserves to be here on its own merits.

Best Entry Level Camera – X-570

There’s a case to be made that for those starting out, a bare-bones, purely mechanical body like the SRT-101 would be the way to go. That’s what I started out with, along with thousands of other new shooters. But if you’re unfamiliar with photography, or maybe someone considering adding film to a digital repertoire, I can think of no better camera to help bridge the gap than the X-570.

As the successor to the hugely popular X-700, the X-570 debuted in 1983 and quickly established itself as Minolta’s sleeper camera. It has the bare bones you would expect, such as a shutter range from 1/1000 to 1 second in manual mode, ISO range from 12 to 3200 and a depth-of-field preview. It has a more sophisticated viewfinder than the X-700 and a dual exposure lock and self timer button. 

It does lack the Program mode found on the X-700. Some might say that feature is a must for an entry-level camera, but I would argue that it’s a crutch to entry-level photographers. The camera’s aperture priority mode is both more practical and more instructive for those dipping their toes in film photography. The X-570 provides enough of a learning curve to budding photophiles to grow their interest while also allowing for full creative control when they’re ready for it.

Best Collectors Camera – Minolta XK

If you’re someone that collects Minoltas it’s hard not to covet the XK. As Nikon and Canon vied to have the best professional system in the early seventies, Minolta jumped into the race with it’s own “full choice system.” Unlike their competitors, Minolta’s system boasted aperture-priority and a solid state electronic shutter. It also had six interchangeable viewfinders, 11 focusing screens, and manual shutter speeds from 1/2000 of a second to as slow as 16 seconds.

It’s admittedly strange to choose a pro-spec camera as a collectors item. You wouldn’t see Nikon’s F3 or Canon’s F-1 on too many serious collectors’ lists. That’s because both of those cameras were as commercially successful as they were well built. The XK was extremely well built, and was                   pioneering as Minolta cameras typically are, but they just didn’t sell. Call it a case of the misappropriation of marketing funds if you like (or chalk it up to the lack of a motor drive and a rather high price-point), but the XK didn’t catch on with professionals.

Manual focus fans would have this as Minolta’s must-have professional camera, but they would be wrong. The XK is a great camera, but who would choose it for paid professional work over something like the a9? 

Collectors can rest assured of the XK’s potential for endless spending. Minolta went absolutely hog wild with stuff you could attach to this camera. A vast ocean of viewfinders, focusing screens, detachable hot shoes, and even a diopter checker will be more than enough to keep completists busy (and poor) for years to come.

Essential Lenses

Picking essential glass from Minolta’s lineup is even harder than choosing camera bodies. The brand was among the only lens makers in the world to own their own glass factory and make their own glass. This lineage continues today, as some of Minolta’s AF lenses continue to be made by Sony for their A mount cameras.

For those on a tight budget, the 45mm f/2 Rokkor-X pancake lens produces images well above its price tag, with high contrast, brilliant color, and razor sharpness. And the value proposition with this lens can’t be overstated. Many Minolta bodies come with a 45mm f/2 fitted as a kit lens, and sold individually I’ve seen them listed for as little as $15.

Going wider, both the 28mm f/2.8 MC Rokkor-X and 35mm f/2.8 Rokkor-X are both outstanding options. The 35mm lens specifically performs better than any $50 lens should. It’s also been shown to perform better than Minolta’s faster and more expensive 35mm lenses.

The 50mm f/1.4 MD can go toe-to-toe with any standard lens ever made. With seven elements in six groups, it has terrific resolution and contrast across the f-stop range. A hefty boy, weighing in at 235g, it’s a balanced, sturdy lens that blurs lines between craftsmanship and art. It’s the first Minolta lens you should have and it’s good enough to be the only one you need; the Alpha and Omega of any Minolta lens collection.

Shooting Minolta’s autofocus line of lenses can do double duty for some shooters, as they’re compatible with all Sony A-mount DSLRs. While they get less street cred than their manual focus Rokkor siblings, these are excellent lenses in their own right. Excellent is just one word to describe the 100mm f/2.8 Macro. James used a different descriptor when he called it perfect. Not only does this lens get close to the action, providing macro photos at 1:1 magnification, it’s also an excellent portrait lens. 

There are no shortage of options for the photographer with deeper pockets. The manual focus 85mm f/2 MD Rokkor-X has incredible sharpness and resistance to flare that makes it ideal for outdoor portraits. And if you seek the holy grail — Minolta’s pièce de résistance — grab the 135mm f/2 MD. With stunning contrast wide open, remarkable performance at all corners even at f/2 and with a 1.3 meter minimum focusing distance, this lens makes other telephotos blush. With a price tag hovering around $1,400 it will make some photographers blush as well. 

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge
  • As a long time Nikon shooter, the XD really turned my head around with regards to Minolta cameras. I loved it even more after I had it CLA’d. Fine camera!

    • I’m always glad to see another XD fan. Mine recently broke during a move and I just had to replace it!

      • Might also add the XE-7. One of the nicest film advances of any camera I have shot!

        • I can’t agree more. This is the smoothest film advance lever! No Leica can compete.

        • Christopher Hobel (Hobes) November 15, 2018 at 9:21 am

          Based on your review of XE-7 I bought one for $47 w shipping. This camera A+ condition. Everything about it is smooth. 2weeks before thrifted a srt100 for $10.49.
          I’m now solidly a Huge Minolta Fan. Just rec’d pics back on both cameras. Crisp images. Highly underrated system. Shhhh keep those prices low so I can get more lenses

  • vintagefilmhacker July 20, 2018 at 1:30 pm

    I’m in full agreement on the XD as a wonderfully crafted machine that is quite nice to use, and which delivers some great results with little fuss.

    One Minolta model that I also love a great deal is one that I’m at a loss to succinctly describe. It has definite elements of enthusiast, entry level, and even professional cameras, yet it overall seems to fall into a difficult to describe class of its own – the Maxxum 600si/650si/507si. Offering straight forward controls and actual switches in dials in place of the all-too-common button menus of the era, it’s a camera that acts and feels surprisingly nice. And though it’s not hugely common in relation to the usual camp of Maxxum bodies, it can readily be found under $35.

    Surprised you didn’t also have some entries that would encompass the best compact and best fixed lens rangefinder to fully include more of what could come from the mind of Minolta.

    • Traeton Janssens July 20, 2018 at 6:30 pm

      Best compact would definitely be the TC-1, but I think that their best point-and-shoot was the Minolta Freedom III (or AF-Z). Small, stylish and had a very competitive feature set (a much wider EV range than most other point-and-shoots at the time, among other things). Interestingly, it’s roughly the same size as an XA with the A11 flash, so as a no-brainer point-and-shoot I really like it (it also goes for like $10 if you’re lucky…).

      Fixed lens rangefinder? Probably the HiMatic 7S-ii, if the internet is anything to go by.

    • There’s no shortage of awesome options to pick from. But the fixed lens stuff, compact P&S’s, etc. don’t really stand above everything else as “essentials” of the brand. I saw them more as the cameras you look for after you have the essentials. I haven’t really ventured into too much of the Maxxum stuff, but I’ll check those out!

  • No mention of the TC-1, perhaps the ultimate compact luxury P&S?
    The Minolta Autocord TLRs..
    And my favourite, the 58mm 1.2 lens which not only has the smoothest rendering (making it a great portrait lens) but just looks fantastic hanging off the end of an XK!

    • All of that is great equipment! The problem with Minolta is picking from such a deep lineup. That 58mm is a sweet lens.

  • Minolta? More like Mehnolta…

  • I just really enjoy this site! My X570 brought me into photography… I still have it, it still works like a charm (uh, I think). I shot a few portraits last year with the 58 1.4 and wondered why I spent $1600 on a Sony Zeiss 50 1.4 Planar (oh, I know why I purchased the Planar and it is amazing… my point is that I got some select results with that 58 1.4 that turned heads). A few shots at 2.0 were micronic in their clarity. Two weeks ago, I photographed a USTA tourney and for grins pulled out my 135 2.8 MD; I actually got a photo of a kid with Downs at the moment of raising his fist in ecstasy having scored a point that is worthy of inclusion in a magazine (the 2.8 does not compare to the 100 and 135 2.0 cited; but the image will still be in a local publication). Thank you, Minolta and Casualphotophile for good times and good images.

  • Good list, but bodies are just light-tight boxes with some fancy buttons. The thing that sets Minolta apart from the crowd and makes the bodies worthwhile are the lenses. Leica licensed many of their designs. I can’t speak to their autofocus lenses, but I am a firm advocate for SR mount as possibly the best lens system ever devised. Most standard lenses from that era are more or less identical. The build quality of Minolta is on par with the best Canon or Nikon ever put out. Image quality is Leica levels of fantastic, but so are the others. What Minolta gives you are quirky and beautiful options. The 85mm Varisoft, with it’s variable softmess (clever name), is an ideal portrait lens. The VFC (Variable Field Curvature) lenses, 24 and 35mm are truly wild. The effect is difficult to describe, but amazing to behold. The 35 even has shift capability which, used in conjunction with the VFC can produce results that no other combination of lens and fancy mount adapter can ever hope to replicate. They had (for a time) the widest rectilinear prime available, and extremely high quality telephotos (as you mentioned). While never quite as fast as Canon’s telephotos, Minolta’s we’re generally more compact and easier for the hobby photographer to carry around while still producing amazing results.

    I’ll end my rambling love letter to Minolta with a nod to Sony for keeping the torch going. I became one of the enlightened Minolta acolytes by chance, but I would have it no other way. Except maybe some of those shiny voigtlanders… 😉

  • And here I am, thinking when will anybody make ‘essentials’ for Olympus. And thrn I remember that pretty much every second Olympus is essential.

  • Admittedly, Minolta is my least favorite of the “big five” manufacturers. I think the Maxxum and the resulting autofocus revolution left a bad taste in my mouth. Having said that, some of Minolta’s earlier cameras, most notably the SR-T 101, were quite good. Their lenses also had a good reputation and they must have been doing something right for Leica to team up with them. This article has helped me overcome some of my bias.

  • I own five different XD7/11/s bodies and one CLE. I’d always choose the XD over the CLE. It’s more durable, only slightly bigger and heavier and a lot easier to use. Also, the variety of lens options available simply blows the CLE out of the water.

  • Great choices all. I must put my 2 cents in and choose the XE-7 over the XD’s. It seemed a much more substantial camera although very heavy. I also love the 24mm f2.8 MD and of course the impressive 58mm f1.2. I almost purchased an XK from a customer at the camera shop where I work but it failed after a few shots. What a disappointment.

  • There are three general types of film cameras: SLRs, compacts, and rangefinders. The type you should pick depends on lots of variables including your budget, shooting style, and even aesthetic preferences

  • Having been a Nikon F2 Photomic guy for a few years, I succumbed to a Leicaflex SL body with non working meter for £65 last September. I started buying lenses for it. I got a 28-70mm f3.5-4.5 and a 75-200mm f4.5 both say made in Japan underneath. My research indicates that the 28-70 is a Sigma lens, tweaked by Leica, and the 75-200 is a Minolta lens. I tried the zooms against the 35-90-135 f2.8 Elmarits and the 250mm f4 Telyt lens. Slides blown up on the screen show the two zooms to be every bit as good as the straights (as I call non-zooms).

  • A SRT-101 was my first real camera back in 1971. It was that or Miranda and after weeks researching them I chose Minolta. To this day Minolta is what I came to the dance with and what I leave the dance with. Granted, till the year 2001, I had not used any other camera other than Minolta. The early years of eBay afforded the chance to obtain film cameras much cheaper than it does today. It gave me the chance to collect and use Minolta from the Autocord, early rangefinders, and SR-1 all the way to the Maxxum 9000 not to mention all of the Rokkor lenses except the 85mm and 100mm f2.

    Actually when you get down to it the camera body is just a box with controls on it. The biggest factor is the photographer and the lenses used. I myself, shoot in manual 95% of the time. Consequently I have obtained Nikon, Pentax, Miranda, Yashica and Topcon of the modern era and they do fine also despite quirks in attaching lenses to a Nikon and Miranda camera to sync. However, sentimentality is a strong emotion so I always fall to Minolta just like I keep my first car in the garage. As an addendum to the list the excellent XE-7 was already mentioned but I would add the a7. While the a9 is fabulous the a7 also has a lot going for it.

  • Awww, Minolta CLE!! Simply love it! Got a XD7 (aka XD11 on the European market) not so long ago, and I’m really impressed by what this camera can do!

  • Christopher Hobel June 30, 2019 at 9:19 pm

    Which 35mm lens are you referencing? MC rokkor-X 35mm f2.8 or MD Rokkor-X 35mm or is this the MD W rokkor-X????

  • I have to agree with Jeb Inge the difficulty is choosing. I have a collection of Minoltas and it is very difficult to choose between them. I started with a SR-T 101 in about 1979 and still regard this as a fine camera, the XD is a fine instrument as is the XE but the manual focus model that i use most is the X570 with a motor drive.

    The auto focus selection is almost as confusing. The AF7000 that I started with is OK but I prefer the AF9000 despite the manual frame advance. of the later models I favour the 600si is does everything that I need it to without resorting to multi button selection methods.

    I have never had an iffy manual focus minolta lens, I even had an early 28mm that I stuck a tab on with Araldite to move the aperture peg. The same can’t be said for the later AF lenses namely the ones with “AF” instead of “AF LENS” above the Focal length designation and the rubber focusing ring, some of these are subject to sample variation, particularly the zoom lenses. Two or three of these I’ve had to trade until I acquired a decent copy.

  • Heather Hamilton Metcalfe February 28, 2021 at 3:16 am

    I love Minolta cameras (who doesn’t?). I have had both the XD 2 and the XD 7. Both were great to work with, both sadly lost in a fire. I remember reading years ago of a model that took filmbacks holding more than the canisters but I can’t remember the model. Could anyone help?

  • A wonderful brand, I have used a few years ago and despite I am a Leica, Nikon and Contax user, I think Minolta is as good these brands, sometimes not far better.

  • Im Großen und Ganzen ist das eine gute Vorstellung der Minolta – Kameras.
    Ich würde noch ergänzen, die X-500 / X-570 sind sehr gute Einsteigerkameras, die aber auch dem langjährigen Amateur Spass machen. Als Einsteiger kann man auch alle XG – Minoltas empfehlen, besonders gut ausgestattet sind die XG 9 und die XG – M. Leichte und schnelle Spiegelreflexkameras !

  • Minolta dynax 9 paired with 85mm f1.4 one word , Awesome!

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge