I started shooting film with Minolta’s SRT-101, a historical camera that decades after its creation remains an outstanding machine capable of withstanding severe conditions. My personal SRT had clearly seen a lot of these — the film door had to be coaxed into closing, the viewfinder had a crack in it, and the meter needle drooped in depression. It had done the job of getting me hooked on film, but it wasn’t going to follow me much further down the road of my analog journey.
As I researched what camera would replace the SRT, the XD continued to ping my radar. It was smaller and lighter than the SRT, had a much improved meter and a variety of metering modes. Best of all, this one-time flagship camera was now available for a song, and could often be found for about a hundred dollars.
There’s truth to those stories involving online camera auctions and highway robbery. I found myself in such a situation after winning a batch of cameras for less than thirty dollars. The majority of the cameras were run-of-the-mill, and today I can’t even remember what they were. I bought the lot just to get at the gem hidden within, a Minolta XD. I’d scored my SRT’s replacement for less money than a good case of beer.
When the camera arrived, I sent it off for a full tune up without delay. I had an upcoming trip to Europe and was planning to take the XD as my main shooter. It arrived freshly rebuilt with just enough time to shoot a test roll and see what the meter would do. Those first photos of Virginia cherry blossoms in the spring hinted at good things to come. Three years and a few thousand photos later, there’s no other way to put it; the Minolta XD is a magical camera.
It’s rare to see people flaunting the Minolta XD in Instagram camera porn posts, and that’s a good thing for those of us in the know. This lack of exposure means that for a few hundred dollars, you can have one of the greatest SLRs ever made, the swan song of Minolta metal cameras and a testament to the company’s dedication to craftsmanship and innovation.
But though the Minolta XD may be rarely flaunted, it’s equally rare to read or hear anything bad about it. In the uncommon instance that it is discussed, it’s always accompanied by rave reviews. It has somehow become that guy from high school who everyone fondly remembers, even if no one seems to remember his name.
In 1974 Minolta had found success with its XE. That camera’s new electronic Copal shutter and automatic exposure system were a hit with shooters looking for a robust camera with semi-auto shooting. Around the same time, Olympus, Canon, and Pentax began releasing much smaller yet no less capable cameras in the OM series, A series, and ME series respectively. Almost overnight, the rather muscular XE became too damn big. After just three years Minolta ceased production of the XE and released the XD (known as the XD11 in the USA and XD7 in European markets).
The XD is a camera that combines all the bells and whistles available in the late seventies. It has an electronically-controlled, vertically-traveling metal blade focal plane shutter with step-less speeds from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second in automatic mode. If the batteries run out, the “O” setting operates mechanically at 1/100th of a second. It boasted a highly improved silicon photocell and through-the-lens centre-weighted light meter with an automatic exposure range of EV 1 to 18 at ISO 100. It has exposure compensation in single stops from -2 to +2, a depth-of-field preview device, PC flash connection, a “safe-load” indicator, interchangeable focusing screens, a self timer from two to ten seconds, and a viewfinder blind. Its acute-matte viewfinder offered remarkably bright composing with aperture and shutter information built in.
With this overflowing list of features, and weighing in at just 560 grams, the XD instantly competes with any other SLR of the era. But what sets it apart from the rest is its metering systems and versatile shooting modes.
The XD was the first camera to offer both aperture- and shutter-priority shooting modes in addition to fully manual operation. Switching to the green shutter priority only required that the photographer switch the aperture on the new MD Rokkor lenses to the minimum aperture, which was also in green on the lens barrel. The camera would then choose the aperture based on the selected shutter speed. But Minolta designed its shutter priority system so that if the photographer’s selected speed wasn’t slow enough, the camera would reduce the speed itself until an acceptable exposure was found. While many cameras operated with an unofficial shutter priority system, the XD was the first to put it as a selectable mode along with aperture-priority mode.
But the XD also had its own “unofficial” program mode. Minolta engineers had given the camera a “final check” metering system by which the camera would check the exposure by gauging light intensity immediately before the shutter fires and make any shutter adjustments it deems necessary. Anyone noticing a slight shutter lag has heard the “final check” system in action.
It’s this feature, and the perceived shutter lag that it brings, that takes the most getting used to when first shooting with the XD. But it’s precisely this feature that sets the XD apart from its contemporaries. It’s a camera built primarily for reliability and automated precision. It offers complete manual control, more automation with other exposure modes, and even further control with exposure compensation. If all of this can’t make a proper exposure, the camera still has a trick up its sleeve. Between the time you push the shutter button and it takes the photo, the final check system essentially makes making an improperly exposed shot impossible. Pick the amount of hand holding desired, and simply enjoy the heck out of shooting this camera.
It seems ridiculous to say that the XD begs to be used. After all, it would be a pretty terrible camera that looks better on a shelf than shooting in the streets. That said, the Minolta XD is well-suited to both. Minolta designers and engineers were clearly locked in step throughout the camera’s creation process.
From an aesthetic perspective, the XD exudes class and sophistication. It’s all metal and cow hide, and buttons are as flush to the top plate as seems possible. For a camera boasting so many features, it doesn’t look superfluous or gimmicky. The exposure compensation lever is tucked in close to the ASA dial and as little real estate is given to the exposure mode selector as possible. The XD isn’t a showboat, but a precision tool, and its taut, meaningful design says as much.
Fortunately it’s even more enjoyable to use. It’s perfectly balanced and with the later (and often smaller) MD Rokkor-X lenses, it’s no trouble to carry it all day or throw it in a travel bag. Its film advance lever operates like a hot knife through butter — it’s unbelievably smooth, and with its short throw I find myself burning through film at breakneck speed, even without an autowinder (the made-to-fit Autowinder D adds stability with bigger lenses like the MD Rokkor 80-200mm f/4.5). And while the slight shutter lag does take some getting used to, the sound it makes won’t. The XD’s shutter is one of the quietest of any reflex camera ever made. It’s almost rangefinder-esque.
While the XD is certainly a high-end camera (or was, in its day) it can also take its share of punches. Mine has traveled thousands of miles through a handful of countries and climates and has produced thousands of images, all while being dropped and jostled, having lenses roughly and hastily swapped, and other unmentionable abuses. Not once has it malfunctioned, jammed up, or given me any cause for concern. In fact, I’ve never had to replace the original set of SR44 batteries I had in the camera. Only using the batteries while a finger is on the shutter button saves power, and while batteries shouldn’t be left in for ten years, it’s easy to imagine that they could be with this camera.
It’s hard to find fault with the XD. I might wish it had auto-exposure lock, but what camera had that in 1977? The exposure compensation lever can be stubborn, and I suppose the shutter speed dial isn’t as smooth as the advance lever. But I’m really fishing for things to complain about, because the XD is a stellar camera, and should be in any conversation about the best cameras made during the manual focus era.
It’s not a “professional” grade camera, but does that really matter in 2018? Certainly it was Minolta’s flagship camera until it spearheaded the autofocus revolution in the eighties. Even with cameras packed with additional features, like the X-700 and X-570, Minolta still listed the XD as its top dog.
Today, the Minolta XD is available in mint condition for a few hundred dollars and often less than that if you’re patient. If you’re especially cost sensitive, consider the XD-5, the budget friendly little brother. One of those can be had for less than $50 and all you’re sacrificing from the XD is aperture information in the viewfinder, the viewfinder blind and the film loading indicator. For a camera this good — and with a lens system so legendary — to cost so little is good for consumers, but seems an insult to the people that created it.
My time with the XD has made me a die-hard believer, both in that camera and in the Minolta brand. That doesn’t come from any sense of nostalgia or romanticism. It’s the loyalty that any object deserves when it proves to be unfailingly reliable. If you’re someone that scoffs at the concept of “they don’t make them like they used to,” then give the XD a shot. From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Bavarian Alps, the XD has delivered for me every single time.
While moving overseas, I shed most of my belongings out of necessity. That included some cameras and lenses. Those that survived the purge were delicately packaged with a generous amount of bubble wrapped before being ensconced in packing peanuts and shipped to Europe. When I received the boxes I was devastated to find that the shipping company and/or German customs had taken the box that contained the XD out behind the proverbial woodshed. The mirror was shattered, leather covering ripped apart, and its film advance lever totally torn off.
I don’t know what was more shocking, that it had happened, or the fact that I found myself feeling very real emotions about the death of an inanimate object. I sat on the floor holding the camera like Forrest Gump holding Bubba on a riverbank in Vietnam. It was the loss of a camera, but also the loss of a companion. Even more, I felt a determination to replace the XD even though I owned other Minolta cameras.
Almost four years after I purchased my first XD, I bought my second. Completely refurbished and outfitted in a desert orange skin with matching Autowinder, Auto 320X flash and straps, this “cowboy Minolta” was mine. For a paltry 160 Euros I once again owned one of the greatest SLRs ever made – a legendary camera built as the sun was setting on the era of high-quality, manual-focus masterpieces. I may have paid a bit more for my second XD, but even at that price it was highway robbery all over again.