There’s nothing quite like the stress of packing for a vacation. Except maybe packing for a vacation as a photographer. And then maybe packing for a vacation as a photographer who shoots film. And then imagine all of that, plus being a photographer who only uses prime lenses. As someone who perseverates over packing decisions for weeks, this scenario is my own personal hell.
But in case I needed to add any extra pressure, the trip I was packing for in spring 2016 was my first outside of the United States (and Ontario, which is basically a friendlier, bi-lingual New England.) I was dipping my toe into the world of international tourism, with two weeks driving around Germany, France and Austria. As someone who overpacks for weekend trips, this one was going to be a doozy.
And so it was. My kit included a few SLRs, four lenses, two point and shoots, and a studio tripod. And sure enough, I learned the lesson that I generally use and/or need about twenty percent of what ends up in my bag. (I packed a full suit for Tristan and Isolde at the Berlin Philharmonic.) Just as the suit was way over the top, so too were most of my lenses and all but one or two of the cameras.
As it happened, I’d arrive back at home with a lot less stuff than I’d left with. The airline and I had a disagreement about whether or not I’d checked a bag for the return voyage.
I stressed to the gentleman behind the counter just how illogical it would be for me to only pay for a checked bag on the outbound leg of a transatlantic flight. He inferred that I was a liar and informed me that it would cost 300 euros to bring my bag back. (The whole flight round-trip had cost me only $50 more than that.) My reaction is on brand for an obstinate bastard like myself – I laughed at the price and abandoned the bag to the Germans.
The options were to pay the money or lose the bag, and suffice it to say there’s a reason my friend and I chose March to visit Germany: The weather kind of sucks and the airfare is dirt cheap. We were not rich men. It’s surprising in hindsight that I so willingly abandoned my belongings, and downright unbelievable that I didn’t make sure any camera gear was packed with my clothing in the lost bag.
As it turned out there was – the heaviest tripod ever forged was one casualty. But what really hurt was the discovery that I had “lost” my Minolta Hi-Matic AF2. This was one of the two superfluous point and shoots I took with me, and though it only shot one roll of Kodak Tri-X throughout the entire trip, I did love that camera. While I would eventually give away the other point and shoot I’d brought (an Olympus Mju) it was the loss of the Minolta Hi-Matic that continued to burn for years later.
Maybe it was because of the uniqueness of the camera – a creation between eras of camera technology, not belonging to any one period entirely, stuck in limbo like Tom Hanks in Terminal. Maybe it was the few photos that I did take with the camera to which I felt a unique attachment. And yes, maybe it was that Minolta badging on the front of the camera. It’s no secret we love Minolta on this site. The erstwhile brand’s well earned reputation for under-appreciated excellence does still carry a certain amount of cachet.
So I bided my time and watched from the bushes for another Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 to cross my path, which it finally did earlier this year. Reunited with a Hi-Matic, I was eager to find out whether the camera was truly as great as memory served or if nostalgia was painting a rosier picture than reality.
What is the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2
The Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 is one of the final entries in a long line of “Hi-Matic” cameras produced by Minolta. Starting in the early-1960s, the Hi-Matic line comprised a number of small rangefinders with lots of automation and a normal lens. The first Hi-Matic was Minolta’s first camera to offer auto-exposure. This first model achieved fame when one of its ranks (re-branded as an Ansco Autoset) was purchased in a drug store by John Glenn and eventually taken into space.
Over the next twenty years, Minolta would release a plethora of Hi-Matic cameras of various capability and quality. Following the release of the Hi-Matic E, the Hi-Matic line became increasingly inexpensive, including the Hi-Matic F, G and G2, each of which used the same “Electro” exposure system found in Yashica’s camera line of the same name.
But not every camera was geared toward beginners on a budget, such as the Hi-Matic 7sII, which is still considered a high-point of Minolta rangefinders. Dustin reviewed this camera, and I think he would agree with the sentiment that the 7sII remains a good option for rangefinder fans thanks to its lens, but still sits below the top of Minolta rangefinder mountain, where the CLE reigns as king.
A lot of changes were brewing in the camera industry in the two years between the release of the manual-focus, photographer-oriented Minolta Hi-Matic 7sII and the Hi-Matic AF. Most notable was the tidal wave of autofocus technology, which was so momentous a creation that it gave the newer camera its name. Second, but also notable, was the widespread shift from metals to plastics in camera design. The new Hi-Matic AF also eschewed almost all of the creative control function found on the 7sII. The photographer was still able to set the film’s ISO, but the camera controlled the rest from there, automatically calculating shutter speed, aperture and, of course, focus.
Two years later the second iteration was released as the Hi-Matic AF2. Owners of the AF who “upgraded” to the AF2 now enjoyed Minolta’s newly updated branding, the famed Rising Sun logo. More practically, they lost the focus lock button found on the earlier Hi-Matic AF. There’s little else to differentiate either camera from the other.
In 1981 the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 sold for $248, and while it hasn’t quite returned to those price figures, it’s been steadily rising in popularity and price. Back in 2015, Hi-Matics were almost free, but my personal experience aptly illustrates how much the film camera market has shifted in the last five years. I bought my first AF2 online as part of a package that included an Olympus Mju for a grand total of 30 dollars. Today you could easily sell that package deal for more than $200. The second time around, I spent more for my AF2 (about 60 euros), and getting one for that price required months of patient watching and waiting.
What’s under the hood?
Prepare to be underwhelmed, or maybe it’s more fair to say “brace yourself for the average.” As far as what’s under the hood, the AF2 is more Pontiac Grand Am than Audi R8.
The spec sheet is filled with uniquely specific numbers and reads as follows:
- Lens – 38mm f/2.8 lens with an aperture range of f/2.8-17
- Shutter – Leaf shutter with a range from 1/8 to 1/430 of a second
- Metering and Exposure – CdS sensor-governed autoexposure with a range of EV 6 to 17 controlled by the ISO range of 25-400
- Focus – Automatic focus from 1 meter to infinity, with parallax correction in the viewfinder and icons indicating the zone of focus
Above the hood is what looks like a stylized classic rangefinder. The all-black, minimal rectangle design that lends the feeling of seriousness to countless other cameras is also employed here.
“You know Leica, right? Well this camera is also a rectangle.”
The Hi-Matic AF2’s design is classic all the way down to the fake leather accents. It even came with a protective case designed to look like the classic, two-piece ever-ready cases that protected the cameras of yesteryear (from the perspective of the 1980s). Those cases were necessary for carrying cameras without strap lugs. But the AF2 has the lugs for the camera strap directly on the body thereby negating the practicality of the case. What we’re left with is window dressing masquerading as classical sophistication. It’s nostalgia bait that would make the porthole windows on a 2003 Thunderbird proud.
But minimalism does reign, all the way from the self-timer to the film advance system. The AF2 still has manual film advance and rewind in spite of automation everywhere else. This gives it that extra classic-camera cred, even if it slows down a camera that’s singly designed to be thoughtless and quick. Minolta would eventually release the AF2-M, which had motorized film transport. Considering the problems that plague cameras with early-era motor systems, I think the manual version is infinitely more reliable [Editor’s note – Jeb is right.]
The camera itself is a monument to plastic, even down to the faux-chrome filter ring on the front of the lens. It’s super light, but it doesn’t feel completely cheap like so many others of its breed. On the spectrum of ‘80s point and shoots, it’s somewhere between an Olympus Trip 35 and the Nikon L35AF.
Which is as good a time as any to mention that this camera wasn’t designed for the discerning professional. No camera from that era with automatic zone focusing and a maximum shutter speed of 1/430 of a second would have been the everyday carry of a National Geographic photographer, nor the stringer at your local newspaper.
This was a camera with just enough bells, whistles and automation to animate the attention of the layman uninterested in the exposure triangle. It was a camera that made it easy to take lots of photos of the Moments that Matter, the memories that would make up the centerfold of the annual Christmas card. It hung around the necks of people who told the group to “pile in” and who’d soon threaten to “turn this thing around” if those in the back didn’t stop horsing around.
It’s a Clark Griswold camera. If it was an album it would be Huey Lewis’ Sports. It’s the spouse in the marriage that schedules date nights.
Do you get what I’m saying? Verstehen Sie das?
If you’re still not catching on, consider this: on the back of the camera, between the viewfinder and the film advance indicator, is a proportionally gargantuan sticker that tells you how to know if you’re in focus or if the camera will underexpose the image. (Don’t worry, it will underexpose anyway, but more on that later.)
The camera makes a beeping sound to let the user know what’s going wrong. Rather than have that information in the manual, it also plasters it on the camera in a hilariously literal way. On top, next to the phrase “Out of focus or flash range” are the written words BEEP BEEP BEEP. And next to “Low light use flash” it says BEEEEEEP. (And yes I counted the number of letters.) It’s not hard to imagine there would also be stickers saying “Avoid eating the urinal cakes” and “Don’t hold the wrong end of chainsaw” were the camera body just a bit bigger.
Okay, so we know who the camera was designed for, but does it actually do the job the customer expects?
Performance and Image Quality
After getting my second Hi-Matic AF2, I went through a few weeks of misery during which I would load an inconvenient roll of film I had laying around, only to later prematurely rewind and discard it to put in something different. It wasn’t until I had a week off in Vienna that I was able to really dedicate some time to using the camera.
I wanted the true experience, so I only fed the camera consumer films, including Kodak Pro Image 100 and UltraMax 400. These films were the breadbasket of cameras like the AF2, so it felt natural to continue the tradition. Loading the camera is easy. Unscrew the bottom half of the case, pull up the rewind knob and pop the back open. Film loading is typical, standard and manual. Set the ISO using the wheel on the front of the lens. Wind until the film counter says one, and snap away.
Composing is typical to any point and shoot camera with parallax correction. Frame lines are bright and clear, and secondary lines indicate the field of view for close-up shots. Pushing the shutter button halfway locks in the focus, which is indicated by two icons; a face for portraits, and mountains for infinity focus. Holding the button in place keeps the focus locked, after which it’s possible to either recompose or push all the way down to take a photo. And then enjoy the whimpering sound of the shutter snapping.
The autofocus system uses an infrared beam to determine distance to subject. Unfortunately this becomes less reliable in bright scenes. This is the biggest potential pitfall for the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2. The camera needs bright environments to get reasonable f-stops against its slow shutter and maximum setting of 400 ISO. So for all of that to be overcome and images to be out of focus would be very frustrating. On the bright side, this never happened to me, even on super sunny days shooting bright white statues in Vienna’s Innere Stadt.
After returning from Vienna, I shot a few more rolls in the neighborhood around my office in Berlin on various lunch breaks. Dropping the film at the lab, I had no idea what to expect. A few days later, after getting back my scans, my heart sank as I realized that nostalgia had indeed painted this camera in a slightly brighter light than reality.
I’ll start with the positives. Just as in Dustin’s review of the older, more enthusiast-spec Hi-Matic 7sII, the saving grace of this camera is its lens. The tiny 38mm f/2.8 lens, with its basic four elements in three groups optical design represents all the best characteristics of Minolta’s legendary engineering and dedication to fine glass production. Sharpness, color saturation and micro contrast are all fantastic. Color images boast vivid saturation and black and white shots benefit from the lens’ strong contrast.
There’s a good amount of vignetting, but that’s more a reflection of the metering system, and can even focus attention in an image. In my experience, the amount of sharpness seemed relative. The camera’s sweet spot feels like 1-5 meters. Get your subject in that range and it will be tack sharp, not because of the lens, but rather the camera’s “autofocus” system that is more realistically an automated zone-focus system.
Which brings us to the negatives. Like many cameras of the era, the Hi-Matic AF2’s exposure system is (more often than not) as reliable as a public bathroom’s hands-free soap dispenser. From the rolls I shot, about three quarters of the images were under-exposed, with washed out colors, muddy shadows and the ever-present vignetting. Fortunately the camera allows for setting ISO manually, which when the film is over-exposed, should increase the number of good exposures per roll. I shot everything at box speed, which my results testify is not the preferable method.
My natural point of comparison for the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 is the Nikon L35AF, which I’ve written about before. While the Nikon has a special, illogical place in my heart, I can also say with objective certitude that it’s a better, more reliable image maker than the Hi-Matic AF2. Both lenses are superb, but the gap forms between the shell surrounding the lens and the mechanisms that make the camera work. (However it must be said that the manual film advance of the AF2 is a distinct advantage over the motor of the Nikon.) Any great images taken with the Minolta are made in defiance of its technology and build quality, while the great images taken with the Nikon are made because of them.
There’s a scene in the final episode of the first season of “Mad Men” where Don Draper presents the agency’s work to the executives of Kodak. He’s pitching their campaign for Kodak’s Carousel, which in real life would go on to be one of the most popular slide projectors ever made. In his pitch, Draper talks about the concept of nostalgia, saying that its translation from the original Greek goes something like “the pain from an old wound.” Then in typical Draper fashion, he uses the duality of melodrama with mid-century manhood to sell Kodak on his campaign (and move one person in the room to tears so strong he had to run from the room.)
As is typical for Don Draper, his translation sold well but wasn’t entirely accurate. Nostalgia does come from Greek, but it actually means the suffering from an unappeased yearning to return.
I have no doubt that my years-long desire to buy another Minolta Hi-Matic was rooted in the pain I felt from giving my first one away so carelessly. I also associated it with a trip that changed my entire life, a tall order for any object to live up to. Add on top of that the built-in nostalgia surrounding a brand like Minolta, whose ethos of high quality and underdog overachievement is balanced by the pathos of the company’s demise.
So when that’s all taken into account, there’s almost no way this camera can meet my expectations, right?
There’s no denying that this is an interesting camera. It’s a quirky latchkey kid caught in the no-man’s land between two epochs of imaging technology. It focuses for you, but you have to advance the film yourself. It’s a compact camera that’s as big as some SLRs. It has a meter, but it’s usually drunk or at least a little depressed.
The yin and yang tango that the Hi-Matic performs isn’t a failure of the camera, just a reflection of its era and the relatively low demands placed on it by the Good Folks who’d buy it. And for the most part, I imagine the people buying this camera back in the day were happy with their purchase. It performed its job as well as they performed theirs. If the photos of their kid playing ball came out blurry, they’d proudly chalk that up to their son or daughter being “too darn fast!”
Today, the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 is a mildly novel camera that can produce sharp, saturated and interesting photos. But the majority of the time, it probably won’t. Most of the cameras we would say are “overvalued” on the market have some sort of hook to justify their exorbitant price tag. The cost of an AF2 might not be “exorbitant” but it’s certainly overvalued. And for what? The opportunity to advance the film yourself?
That’s just not enough for me. And it’s not enough for Clark Griswold either. He shakes his head when his grandkids shell out a hundred bucks for one of these. He probably says something like “Why use that when you have a camera on your phone?”
And for once, I think he has a point. But I still won’t pull his finger.
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I shot one of these once, and now that you mention it I guess it did underexpose slightly. But I shot in blazing sunlight and so the effect on consumer-grade film was to saturate the colors. I didn’t love the AF2 but I found it to be competent enough. My review: