The last time I went out with a group of Boston-area film photography friends, I brought a few cameras. The Leica CL, which I was reviewing for B&H Photo, a Leidolf Lordomat, which I was shooting for fun, and the most interesting camera of the day, a Minolta V2, which I brought because my friend Anthony wanted to try shooting a rangefinder. Now, a year later, I’m finally writing about the Minolta V2.
And as I’m writing, with the V2 perched on the desk next to my keyboard, I find myself continuously wondering why it took me so long to pen an article about such an interesting camera. It’s an early machine from one of my favorite brands. It’s rare, or at least uncommon. It’s excellent as a photographic tool. And it’s easy on the eyes. It’s a perfect camera for Casual Photophile. Let’s take a look.
What is the Minolta V2
Minolta’s V2 is a 35mm film camera with a fixed 45mm f/2 lens. It’s an all-mechanical camera with full manual control of aperture and shutter speed. Focus is achieved manually via a knurled and tabbed focusing ring surrounding the lens, the action of which is coupled to a rangefinder patch in the viewfinder (with parallax corrected framelines). Film advance and rewind are also manual.
A product of its time, the camera is heavy and made entirely of metal and glass. This becomes obvious when we lift it to the eye – it weighs 780 grams (27.5 ounces, nearly 2 pounds). That’s about the same as a Leica M3 with a 50mm lens. With dimensions of 137 x 85 x 77mm, it’s about ten millimeters taller and thicker than an M3.
Beyond this, there’s seemingly not much else to write. A fast prime lens with advanced optical coatings, a metal body, manual controls for everything, and a rangefinder focusing mechanism. Seems like a very capable, yet very typical, 1950s rangefinder. Dig just a bit deeper, however, and we find the V2’s hook.
The Minolta V2 occupies an interesting place on the camera design timeline. It was produced in the innovate-or-die environment of the late 1950s, during which camera companies were leapfrogging each other with technological advancements seemingly every six months. Just four years before the V2 debuted, Leica’s M3 had cemented the compact rangefinder camera as the machine of choice for working photographers, and a year after the V2 Nikon would overturn this notion with the release of their first professional Single Lens Reflex camera, the Nikon F in 1959.
One result of this stiff competition was that many Japanese companies of the time emphasized that their machines should offer at least one feature that no other maker could match. In the case of the V2, what would be the camera’s special feature is made possible by the Citizen-built leaf shutter, which was able to reach an as-yet-unmatched maximum shutter speed. Capable of reaching speeds of 1/2000th of a second, the V2 did in fact offer something no other contemporary rangefinder could offer (though this did come with an asterisk that we’ll examine later).
But it seems that this fast shutter just wasn’t enough in the competitive environment of the time, and Minolta quickly felt the need to release a new camera. The V2 was thus replaced by the Minolta V3. This camera continued the core ethos of the V2, but added a faster 45mm F/1.8 lens, a faster maximum shutter speed of 1/3000th of a second, and an uncoupled selenium light meter. The new V3 camera replaced the old V2 after just eighteen months.
But this short production run doesn’t mean that the V2 was a bad camera. The V2 was and remains a very good camera. And had it been released in 1953, to pick a random year, I suspect it would have found much more success in the marketplace. Whether or not this hypothesis is valid, one thing is definitely true – the V2’s short production run makes this very good camera something of a rarity today.
Shooting the Minolta V2 Today
With no light meter and full manual control of aperture and shutter speed, the V2 is ostensibly a camera made for experienced photographers. It may also be a good tool for those who are dedicated to learning the ways of manual photography. For those of us who know our way around more complicated cameras and find ourselves tiring of the bells and whistles, the V2 will be a breath of purified air.
All of the camera’s controls are placed effectively. The shutter release button is raised to sit flush with the top of the camera, while the film advance sits slightly proud of the body on a tiny, plastic puck. The film rewind knob allows for quick and comfortable rewind when we’re done with a roll.
Film advance is achieved via the traditional thumb lever, the slightly-too-long-for-comfort 220º actuation of which also cocks the camera’s leaf shutter. Shutter speed and aperture value are both controlled via rings surrounding the lens, like many leaf shutter cameras. There’s a convenient Exposure Value window on the lens barrel placed between the shutter speed and aperture values. Photographers who were using a light meter with EV readout in the past could make a reading (using ISO 100) and then simply adjust shutter speed, aperture, or both, until the correct EV number appeared in the window. This method is still usable today, though most new shooters won’t understand what these mysterious numbers mean.
The viewfinder is truly enormous and extremely bright. Simple frame lines show our image area, and these correct automatically for parallax as we rotate through the focus range. The rangefinder patch in the center of the frame is fairly contrasty in well-kept models, though not as vivid or defined as the rangefinder patch in the Leica M3 or rangefinders which came in later decades. In low-light situations it becomes more difficult to focus, as with all rangefinders of the time.
Focusing is smooth and fluid, and the focusing ring presents both knurled areas for SLR style focusing action as well as a focusing tab which will feel familiar to rangefinder users. This tab is large and comfortable, and paired with the camera’s rather concise focusing action allows for rapid focusing. There’s also an adequate focus scale on the base of the lens for scale or zone focusing.
The fast maximum aperture of F/2 couples well with the leaf shutter to allow for making clear and sharp images when shooting handheld in low-light conditions. Even at shutter speeds of 1/4th of a second or slower, the virtually vibration-free nature of leaf shutters allows us to handhold slow speed shots which would be impossible to make in an SLR and even some rangefinder bodies equipped with a focal plane shutter. Leaf shutters are simply smooth as silk. The limit to slow speed shooting will be how long and how steady we can hold the camera.
All of this should indicate to experienced camera likers that the Minolta V2 is truly a solid, capable, classic rangefinder film camera. And we’ve not even dived into that whole “fastest shutter ever” gimmick. This may lead one to ask why I didn’t lead the article with the camera’s single unique feature, the feature that differentiates it from many other cameras of its type? In short, because it’s not very important or useful. At least, not to me.
The super fast leaf shutter fitted into the lens of the Minolta V2 is capable, famously or not, of reaching speeds as fast as 1/1000th of a second and 1/2000th of a second. This is in addition to the more common high speed of 1/500th which most leaf shutter cameras offer. Minolta claimed in their manual that there was no better camera for taking pictures of jets in mid-flight, or speedboats ripping across the water. Interesting claims, for sure. But the reason this otherwise exciting high speed shutter from the 1950s isn’t exactly exciting today, is that in order to achieve such high speeds Minolta engineers had to get a little bit sneaky.
When shooting at the camera’s two fastest shutter speeds, the shutter doesn’t open completely. More accurately, it doesn’t travel through its entire range as it does when shooting at slower speeds. The byproduct of this necessary design limitation is that we aren’t able to use the shutter’s two highest speeds unless we’ve selected a stopped-down aperture. In the case of the 1/1000th of a second setting, we are only able to use apertures between F/4 and F/22, while at 1/2000th of a second only apertures between F/8 and F/22 are available. We’re reminded of these limitations by colorfully painted engravings on the lens barrel.
The limiting of available aperture values may seem counterintuitive today, a time when shallow depth-of-field and bokeh are prized (by some) above all other photographic styles. Viewed through the prism of the 1950s, when the Minolta V2 was made, it makes a little bit more sense. Camera makers of the time were more concerned with creating sharp images with high clarity and deep depth-of-field. People rarely intentionally opened their aperture without being forced to do so by low light conditions. In these situations most people would be using slow shutter speeds. While the maximum speeds are still useful for stopping motion in 2019, most users aren’t going to use their Minolta V2 for high-stakes sport photography or documenting professional motoring races.
Whatever the background and technological limitations that influenced the many design choices that made the V2 what it is, they don’t much matter today. Nobody is going to buy the V2 because it can shoot at 1/1000th or 1/2000th of a second at apertures between F/4 and F/22, and F/8 and F/22 respectively. Seventy years after this camera was invented, its dominant gimmick is irrelevant beyond being of interest to camera nerds, like me, who enjoy pointless trivia in the style of “this was the first camera in the world to do such-and-such.” Mostly we’ll leave the thing at F/8 or wider and guess our speed, probably landing between 1/500th and 1/30th every time.
Image Quality and Samples
In the early days of post-war Japanese industry, Minolta was one of the only camera companies that manufactured their own glass lens elements in-house. The marketing material of the day liked to claim that by making their own glass elements, Minolta was able to optimize the performance of their lens elements in a systemic way that no other Japanese camera-maker of the time could. It’s good marketing copy and probably holds some truth, but I can’t speak to the total legitimacy of the claim because I wasn’t in Japan in 1958, nor was I an optical engineer, nor was I a living creature. What I can say, is that the 45mm F/2 Rokkor – PF that Minolta installed in the V2 is a very good lens.
Indicated by the “PF” nomenclature, the 45mm here is made of six lens elements in five groups. All glass-to-air surfaces are optically coated. Images made through this excellent assemblage of glass are sharp and punchy, with beautiful color rendition and excellent micro-contrast (as long as we’ve nailed our focus). The lens pops.
[Sample shots in the article were made by my friend Anthony Retournard]
The Minolta V2 is an interesting camera for nerds who enjoy old cameras because it’s got some truly unique features. It’s also interesting for fans of Minolta, in that it’s one of the least-common production models by that company. And it should also be of interest to anyone whose simply looking for a good film camera. The ergonomics are strong, the viewfinder is big and beautiful, and the lens makes beautiful images. Pack all of this into a classically beautiful package and it’s undeniable that the Minolta V2, beyond the rarity and the trivia of its special features, also happens to be a high quality camera.
These positives noted, it’s worth remembering that the fast shutter speeds aren’t the selling point today that they may have been in the past. Or at least, they won’t be a selling point for more than a small percentage of film shooters (a demographic that’s already quite niche in the larger photography community). And for those who (for some reason) do need the fastest leaf-shutter rangefinder camera, it might be wiser to hunt out a later Minolta V3. And if you’re someone who’s simply looking for a capable 35mm film rangefinder camera, there may be less expensive and easier-to-find choices in 2019. The choice, as always, is yours.
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