Is this what I was missing? It was summer 2011, and at a small photo-lab in downtown Tokyo I was holding 6×4″ colour prints from the first roll of film I’d shot in over six years. 37 color prints with gorgeous saturation and a three-dimensional look which far exceeded the capabilities of the digital bridge camera I was using at the time. The camera I used to take these photographs was a Minolta X-370s – a manual-focus SLR from the early nineties.
Minolta never had quite the same cachet as Canon or Nikon, but they do have a cult following, and of course they get plenty of love here on Casual Photophile. However, even a die-hard Minolta fan is unlikely to get excited about the humble X-370s. You won’t catch reviewers describing the X-370s as exuding “class and sophistication” (as did Jeb in his review of the Minolta XD) or as a “technological marvel of its day” (James on the X-700). On the contrary – and notwithstanding my ‘glamour photo’ attempts above – the X-370s is a thoroughly un-glamorous, fully-electronic camera. It was Minolta’s low-end SLR, manufactured with liberal use of plastic parts, and not in Japan but – gasp! – in China. Nevertheless, the Minolta X-370s has a special place in my heart. It’s the camera which brought me back to film photography.
It’s also the camera which got me into photography in the first place. My dad bought the Minolta X-370s in the mid-nineties in Kolkata, the city where I grew up. He got it for his own use when I was barely old enough to operate a camera. Still, he taught me how to focus, and later, the basics of aperture and shutter speed. The first of the old photos below, taken by my dad, is from around that time. He took it with the Minolta, but you can see the camera case around my neck. The other two are some of my first ‘experiments,’ probably from the late nineties – night photography, and two separate slides of my brother sandwiched into the same mount.
By the early 2000s, I was an impressionable teenager, and digital photography was the next big thing. My parents bought me a digital compact, and a few years later I upgraded to a bridge camera (a Canon PowerShot, to be precise). By then, my dad too had gone digital, and the Minolta languished in a cupboard. Then in 2011, I moved to Tokyo for work, and we thought it would be a good idea to take the camera with me. Shoot a roll or two – you know, just to keep it going.
Now you’ve probably read enough misty-eyed accounts of discovering (or rediscovering) the magic of using a manual-focus film camera in the digital age to know what happens next. Using the X-370s was a lot of fun in itself – the bright optical viewfinder, the tactile controls, the delayed gratification. But in the end, it was the prints that sold me. Is this what I was missing?
The photos below are all from that first roll of film, all taken with an MD-Rokkor 50mm f/1.7 – the only lens I had at the time. Most are from Tokyo, a few from my travels in Okinawa and Hong Kong.
Now remember, it had been a while since I last used film – or since I last used a manual-focus camera, for that matter. But somehow, that first roll had a higher proportion of ‘keepers’ than I get even now, after several years of regularly using the camera. It’s like after all that time spent in a cupboard, the Minolta was trying especially hard to impress.
If so, its efforts were a resounding success. I’ve been using the camera for over nine years now, and I still recommend the Minolta X-370s and its variants (I’ll say more about ‘variants’ in a minute) to film newbies who are looking for a cheap starter camera.
But wait, you cry. Isn’t the Canon AE-1 the ultimate beginner camera? Isn’t it the Pentax K1000? Isn’t it Minolta’s own celebrated X-700? As it happens, I also own an X-700, and I’ve owned or used several other cameras. They all have pros and cons, and I could probably make a decent case for most of them. But if you’re looking for a perfectly good camera on an ultra-low budget, I believe there are few which can match up to the X-370s and its variants.
There’s that word again! Let’s define variants.
The Minolta X-370s Variants
When I say variants, I’m referring to three other models: the X-300 (1984), the X-370 (1984) and the X-7A (1985). Not included in my definition are the X-300s, X-370n and X-7; I mention them because they have confusingly similar names, but they differ in more significant ways.
Between the X-370s and its variants, there are only minor differences. For example, the X-370s (my model) has a film window on the back, while the other variants have a film-tab holder. Some, I believe, are only available in black, while others have both silver and black versions. But for all practical purposes, most of what I say in this article about the Minolta X-370s is also applicable to its variants.
Even more confusingly, sometimes there are small differences in the same model. For the most part, these differences only matter to collectors (someone recently told me that they are “collecting Minolta X-300 and its various clones, of which there are at least 49.”). But if you’re interested in the X-370s specifically, there are a couple of things which may be worth checking. First, I understand that not all X-370s cameras have a cable-release socket, which is important if you plan to shoot long exposures. Second, some appear to have a diagonal split-screen focusing aid, though mine has a more conventional horizontal one.
The Minolta X-370s was released in the early 1990s as Minolta’s entry-level SLR. Minolta were still producing manual-focus SLRs – the X-700 wasn’t discontinued until 1999 – but their priorities clearly lay in autofocus, the technology of the future. The X-370s, though a child of the nineties, was no more modern than the X-300 released way back in 1984.
Does that put you off? It shouldn’t. The reason is simple. If you’re in the market for a manual-focus SLR, I would argue that all the features which you (or 95% of you) really need were already incorporated in cameras made in the mid-1970s – fantastic devices like the Olympus OM-2n, Canon AE-1 and the Minolta XD. And if you can make do without auto-exposure – or indeed, if you prefer all-mechanical cameras, as some do – you can go even further back: the Minolta SRT series, for example, or the Pentax Spotmatic.
Features only matter if you use them, and this is how I use my X-370s. I mostly stick to aperture-priority mode. To take a photograph, I select the aperture and lightly touch the shutter button, activating the meter. Red LEDs light up inside the viewfinder. An ’A’ indicates Auto mode (aperture-priority). Another LED indicates the camera’s recommended selected shutter speed (up or down arrows warn me if it’s too fast or slow, and I adjust the aperture if needed). I focus through the bright viewfinder, using the ground glass, split-image spot or microprism ring. Compose and shoot. What more do you need?
A self-timer? The X-370s has you covered. Auto-exposure lock? It has that too (while the Minolta XD, an otherwise fantastic camera, doesn’t). Exposure compensation? Not as such, but you can instead adjust the ISO dial (e.g. to overexpose ISO 400 film by one stop, set the dial to 200), or just switch to manual mode instead. It is these additional features – especially the ability to shoot in manual – which make the X-370s a great camera not just for beginners, but for advanced amateurs too.
- Type – 35mm SLR
- Lens mount – Minolta SR mount (including MC and MD lenses)
- Focusing – Manual with Acute-Matte screen, microprism ring and split-image spot
- Viewfinder – 0.9x magnification; 95% coverage
- Exposure – Aperture-priority mode with AE lock option; Manual mode
- Shutter – Electronically-controlled, horizontal-traverse cloth shutter; 1/1000 to 4 sec, stepless (in aperture-priority); 1/1000 to 1 sec and Bulb (in manual)
- Meter – TTL centre-weighted; Range: EV 1–18
- ISO range – 12 to 3200 with ⅓-stop detents
- Batteries – Two LR44 (1.5v, alkaline-manganese) batteries. Alternatives: two 1.55v silver-oxide or one 3v lithium cell
- Dimensions (L x H x D) – 137 x 90 x 51.5mm
- Weight – 470g (excluding lens and battery)
The spec sheet for the Minolta X-370s is certainly impressive for such a low-end camera. But I would argue that its true appeal lies elsewhere: in its bargain-basement price, and the ability to mount Minolta Rokkor glass.
On eBay, the X-370s and its variants routinely sell for under $50 – sometimes for under $30. At that price, whether you’re a beginner looking for a ’taster’ camera to figure out if you like film photography, or a seasoned Minolta shooter looking for a back-up body, it is hard to go wrong. The price estimate, by the way, usually includes a lens – typically a nifty-fifty or a kit zoom.
Which brings me to glass. All the photos in this article, other than the ones of the camera itself, were taken with my MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.7. The lens is ubiquitous, and therefore cheap. It is, nonetheless, a wonderful, versatile optic. Should you wish to diversify, Minolta made a veritable smorgasbord of lenses in the compatible SR mount – exotic ultra-wides like the 7.5mm f/4 fisheye, superfast telephotos like the 135mm f/2, zoom lenses which offer ’prime like’ quality, and superb standard primes like the vaunted 50mm f/1.4 – to name just a few. Save on the camera, splurge on the lens.
A Deliberately Unfair Comparison
Or should you go for a higher-end camera instead – the Minolta X-700 for example?
Is the X-700 superior to the X-370s? I would say it is, and I think few would disagree. On the other hand, the X-700 currently sells for over $120 on eBay. Is it superior enough to justify the price difference? That’s a harder question with no clear-cut answer. So let’s compare the two.
Now you might say that this is an unfair comparison – which it is. I’ve chosen the X-700 as a benchmark for three reasons. First, it’s a popular camera, often recommended to beginners, and with plenty of online reviews and user experiences. Second, despite the difference in price point, the X-700, like the X-370s, is a manual-focus, auto-exposure SLR. So if you have your eye on one of these cameras, it’s also worth considering the other. Third, I’ve used both cameras extensively, so for what it’s worth, I can speak from personal experience.
The build quality of the X-370s is lower than that of the X-700 (which in turn lags behind older Minoltas like the mostly-metal XD). The X-370s has more plastic parts and generally feels less robust. But we’re definitely not talking plastic-fantastic point-and-shoot quality. I’ve carried the X-370s all over the world in my backpack, and so far, it has held up remarkably well.
What about looks? This perhaps should not matter, but does to me (I’m shallow). Here it’s a close call (again) but I prefer the X-700 (again). Both cameras, I believe, have plastic top plates, but the top plate of the X-700 looks… less plasticky. I also prefer the X-700’s more business-like film-advance lever. And I greatly prefer its shutter-speed dial – a classic design with all speeds visible.
The Minolta X-370s, by contrast, has a concealed dial just below the shutter release, with a little window showing only the selected shutter speed (or ‘Auto’ for aperture-priority). This was probably a cost-saving exercise by Minolta, but for me, it is visually and ergonomically less pleasant than the X-700’s more conventional dial. Maybe I’m nit-picking – did I just write 60 words comparing shutter-speed dials?! – but then again, one of the reasons I like using film cameras is because they look nice and feel nice.
Finally, we get to the features. This is where the gap between the two cameras is most apparent. But funnily enough, while I do prefer the X-700, it’s mainly for its build quality and looks; its extra features make little difference to me.
What sets the X-700 apart is its ‘Program’ mode – the green ‘P’ on the shutter-speed dial. In Program mode, the camera sets both aperture and shutter speed, turning it into a virtual point-and-shoot (of course, you still need to focus). But personally, I like having control over aperture and shutter speed, so I’ve literally never used the X-700 in Program mode.
The X-700 has some other features which are nice, but which I personally have little use for: flash sync and TTL flash metering (I hardly ever use flash), depth-of-field preview (I prefer to use the depth-of-field marks on lenses) and a beeping slow shutter-speed warning (I find it distracting, so it stays off). If these things matter to you, the Minolta X-370s might not cut it. But given the way I shoot, the X-370s has almost all the features I want in a film camera.
Did I say ‘almost’? The X-700 does have a couple of features I like. First, you can see the selected aperture in the viewfinder, a feature which the X-370s lacks. Second, the X-700 has an exposure compensation dial where, again, the X-370s does not. As I mentioned, there are ways around this shortcoming – using the ISO dial or switching to manual. But the truth is I find the compensation dial more intuitive, needing fewer mental gymnastics and freeing me up to focus (pun intended) on what really matters.
Interestingly, the humble Minolta X-370s has one feature which the higher-end X-700 doesn’t. In manual mode, the viewfinder LEDs indicate both the selected shutter speed and the metered speed; on the X-700, you only see the latter. Holding the X-370s to your eye, you can turn the shutter speed dial until the blinking LED (user-set shutter speed) joins up with the steady LED (metered speed). Or you can choose to set it a few stops higher or lower than the metered speed, to over- or under-expose. In this respect, the X-370s “beginner’s camera” is actually better for shooting in manual mode. You win some, you lose some.
For seven whole years, I owned just one film camera – the Minolta X-370s – and one lens – the MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.7. In the last two years I’ve acquired more cameras and lenses, including some, like the Leica M3, whose reputation puts the X-370s in the shade. But the X-370s – the camera with which I discovered and then re-discovered film photography – is still in regular use.
It’s true that the X-370s and its variants are electronically operated, which means they don’t work without batteries, and are more prone to failure than fully mechanical cameras. It’s also true that they don’t have the build quality or history as more famous models by Minolta and other brands.
But to me, the X-370s has just enough of the look and feel of older film cameras which makes them such a joy to use. It also has just enough features to suit my style of photography – easy to use in both aperture-priority and manual mode, and with auto-exposure lock and self-timer to boot. It’s a gateway to superlative Rokkor lenses. And then there’s an irrational, wholly personal, but (for me) crucial factor – sentimental value.
Finally, and inescapably, there’s the price. When James reviewed an X-370s variant, the X-7A, in 2014, he noted that it sells for the frankly incredible price of nineteen dollars. In the intervening years, the price has crept up, but only slightly. Personally, I think it’s still under-valued. In a way, I hope positive reviews like mine can change that. In a way, I hope they don’t.
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