When I first started in photography, I wanted nothing to do with plasticky SLRs. They were too similar to the Canon Rebel T3i that my sister used or the chunky DSLRs I saw around everyone’s necks. I wanted something different, something quirky, and honestly, I wanted something difficult.
The challenge of figuring things out and the journey of overcoming a camera to make good photos was enticing to me. I wanted to take good photos despite my gear, to have people say “You took this with that?” It feels a little childish now, but that’s how I felt when I was 19 years old.
But now, I look at plasticky 1990s and 2000s SLRs and I see potential. I see their incredibly long feature lists, I see their low weight, I see the consistency of the shots from their modern lenses. They have ironed out the kinks of older cameras. I see the best deals in film photography today. I see James’ iconic article on dorky AF SLRs about why we should all love them. I see a pile of gold photos waiting to happen, and on top of this pile I see the Minolta Dynax 9.
The Dynax 9 (known in Japan as the a9 and in North America as the Maxxum 9) was Minolta’s final attempt to capture the pro market after their Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha line sputtered a bit in the 1990s. The camera reviewed incredibly well, but never achieved the success of cameras like the Nikon F5 or Canon EOS-1 because Canon and Nikon did a better job of catering to professionals from the beginning.
Minolta’s other pro AF offerings, the 9000 and 9xi, failed entirely to capture the market. Despite Minolta pioneering practical AF SLRs, they had lost that edge and needed a home run to have any chance. Unfortunately, as we know now, Minolta didn’t do enough to stick around. That doesn’t mean they didn’t hit that home run, though.
From the moment I picked up the Dynax 9, I was convinced that I have never felt a more sturdy SLR in my life. The body has no play to it, doesn’t bend or make noises when stressed like other plasticky cameras. The Dynax is a truly professional camera, made to the highest standards.
Like its ’90s and ’00s SLR comrades, the Dynax comes with an incredibly long feature list. The standouts include a to-this-day unbeaten maximum shutter speed of 1/12,000th of a second, tangible dials for most functions, and continuous shooting of 5.5 frames per second.
It also incorporates a 14-segment honeycomb metering pattern that all but ensures correct exposure in any situation. It has flash sync at 1/300th, built-in double exposures, and a dust/moisture resistant body. It has a built-in flash with 4-zone metering pairing with Minolta’s flashes of the era.
The Minolta Dynax 9 could easily be a brand new camera. It doesn’t feel like a company’s last, desperate attempt to remain relevant to professionals in 1998. The dynax is more like a combination of Fuji’s physical dials and Sony’s button layout. The Sony connection makes sense, since Sony bought Minolta in 2006. You could say that the dominance of Sony mirrorless was built on the back of this camera.
Even compared to other Dynax cameras, the 9 is in a class of its own. I had owned and used a Maxxum 7000i with no issues for a long time before I used the Dynax 9, but it’s a toy by comparison. The plastics are lower quality, the viewfinder is smaller, and the entire package feels inferior. This feeling only continued when I put film in and used the camera. The autofocus is lightyears faster than my 7000i, and very confident. One complaint about SLRs of this era is focus hunting, but the Dynax confidently whirs into focus normally, on the first try.
Using the Camera
It was the end of May when I tested the Dynax 9, and people had begun to flock to outdoor spaces to enjoy the sun. After a long Finnish winter, people were excited to get out.
Along with the people, the plants and animals had gotten the warm weather memo and were out in force. In Finland, things can go from zero to one hundred like this at the flip of a switch. What had been a lonely, cold park two weeks ago was suddenly full of people on blankets, dogs on leashes, and fresh flowers. People were throwing frisbees, swimming, and playing volleyball. Watching the world spring back to life only strengthened my shooting itch. I wanted to capture it all, and the Dynax 9 was there to help.
From my normal landscapes to macro to sports, the Dynax handled everything I threw at it and begged for more. Despite being a bulky bear of a camera, the Minolta Dynax 9 is quite light on its feet.
I put the Minolta’s high shutter speeds to the test by watching some people play tennis. The 1/12000th max speed is genuinely impressive, but there’s a reason it hasn’t been beaten: it just isn’t necessary. Even for sports, you can get away with 1/4000th or even 1/1000th. 1/12000th only becomes necessary if you’re trying to shoot at f/1.2 in extremely bright sunlight.
Looking back, the Dynax delivered usable images even with the 100 ISO film I had in it.
I also tried my hand at some macro photography using the beercan lens. With my other autofocus SLRs, I’ve been very frustrated with close-up autofocus performance. I instinctively turned off the autofocus when I tried to get close, but decided to trust the camera. It wouldn’t be fair to hold the Dynax 9 responsible for the sins of its forefathers.
And it did great! Focusing an f/4 lens at 210mm is not an easy task, but the Dynax managed to do it capably and quickly. It did hunt a bit, but I’d chalk that up to me moving or light wind moving the subject rather than the camera.
After a day of shooting, though, I did notice the weight of the camera. Combined with a thick strap and the surprising heat of June in Finland, my neck was quite sweaty at the end of the day.
I used the Minolta Dynax 9 almost exclusively in aperture priority mode, and I felt a bit bad about it. It felt a bit like I was wasting this professional camera by not taking full control, but I felt confident in the camera’s metering capabilities and trusted it to get good exposure. If they didn’t want me to use aperture priority mode, they wouldn’t have put it in the camera!
That’s the beauty of an AF SLR like this, it just gets out of your way. More than any other camera I’ve used, the Minolta Dynax 9 just worked, and inspired confidence. I trusted the camera to nail focus and exposure, which allowed me to focus on framing and creativity.
People can talk all they want about the beauty of shooting manual or how metal cameras are better than plastic ones for whatever reason, but using the Dynax 9 let me be creative, and that’s what art is about for me.
Settling Up / Conclusions
And yet, I was conflicted. I had a dream camera in my hands, a pristine example of a company swinging for the fences to stay relevant. Minolta pulled out all the stops with the Dynax 9, and I had a chance to catch that home run ball and take it home. So why didn’t I?
Well, I was nagged the entire time by the thought that I wasn’t taking full advantage of the camera. I didn’t use the burst mode, I didn’t use the high shutter speeds, and I didn’t use the flash. I just wasn’t using all the features I had access to, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to.
The fanciest thing I did was turn down the exposure compensation for some shadowy forest shots. I like to capture light sliding gracefully through the holes in a forest canopy, and it looks nice to darken the shadows a bit.
After shooting for years, working in multiple camera stores, and testing hundreds of cameras, I know what I want from an SLR. I want a reliable, quick experience with good lenses and exposure compensation. I’m going to leave it in aperture priority mode exclusively, and hardly switch away from the 50mm. I don’t use flash unless I’m at a party, and I’d probably reach for a point & shoot rather than an SLR in that situation. Judge me if you will, I don’t care anymore.
What this no-compromises Minolta taught me, though, is what features matter to me and which are less important. I ended up buying a Minolta Dynax 600si Classic based on my experience with the Dynax 9, and I haven’t looked back.
Even if the 9 might be the most comfortable and capable SLR ever made, it feels good to admit that my GAS is under control and I’m satisfied with my AF SLR choices. Or perhaps I just saved some money on the body in order to spend it on nicer lenses. I’ll let you decide!
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