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.
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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