Or Thoughts on Buying an Autofocus Film SLR in 2021
My fascination with Minolta cameras and lenses began by accident when I bought a Sony digital camera in 2014 rather than a Canon or Nikon. Sony acquired what had been Minolta in 2005, and much of what was a Sony camera directly descended from this Minolta heritage. My first “real” digital camera, meaning I suppose an interchangeable lens camera (ILC in Sony jargon), was a Sony a58 with the “a” being a Greek letter alpha. It was one of the last of Sony’s DSLR-style cameras, which still used the A-mount originally developed by Minolta in the early 1980s for use with the first-ever autofocus system that debuted in the Minolta Maxxum 7000 camera.
I knew none of this when I bought the Sony a58; I bought it because I had read an article that recommended the a58 as the best entry-level DSLR and it fit my budget of $450. But after I had owned that camera for a couple of years, I discovered the world of vintage Minolta A-mount lenses-30 years’ worth of used glass with all but a handful of the highest-end optics now available for a steal on eBay.
The first vintage lens that I bought was the Minolta AF 28-135 f/4-4.5, known on the internet as the “secret handshake.” I paid around $100 for it in May 2016. It is a truly fantastic lens, the drawbacks being that it is really heavy and the minimum focusing distance is something like 5 feet. I thought I would use it more at the time I bought it, but I picked up the Sony Zeiss 16-80mm shortly afterwards and that became my primary lens for my serious landscape photography. Reviewing the images in my catalog for this blog post made me realize just how great this lens is and also how little I have used it.
My first Minolta camera was the original Maxxum 7000, but I only bought it to get the lenses that came with it. At the time, I just thought the camera looked cool, so it was displayed on my shelf. I was a little bit disappointed when it arrived because I thought I was getting the 50mm f/1.7 and the 70-210mm f/4 “Beercan”, but when it arrived I realized that it was the 35-70mm f/4 instead of the prime. Oh well, for $28 in November 2016 I think it was still a good deal. I picked up the 50mm the following month for $36.
Up to that point, I had been buying these lenses for their vintage character and using them with an autofocus adapter on my Sony a6000 mirrorless camera. But in 2017, I bought a Yashica-Mat TLR from the 1960s and immediately fell in love with film. A month later I inherited a 1970s Yashica Electro 35 rangefinder in perfect condition, and my enchantment with old film cameras was cemented.
I had never really grown to love the 50mm f/1.7 on my Sony camera; the focal length just is not great on APS-C for indoor use, and the lens doesn’t hold up well enough for serious landscape use (although as for the 28-135, reviewing my images has given me a new appreciation for that lens). But when I attached it to the Minolta 7000 body, it was magical. In fact, I liked that combination so well that I never used the other Maxxum lenses on that camera.
My most recent lens purchase was the 100 mm f/2.8 macro which I picked up for $150 in May 2020 shipped from Japan. This lens immediately became my absolute favorite. James Tocchio of causalphotophile.com describes it as a “technically excellent lens capable of making images that are gorgeous and full of character.” Ken Rockwell describes it simply as “optical perfection.”
The downside of vintage photography equipment, especially cameras from the 1980s, is that eventually they wear out. I discovered some type of power problem recently with my Minolta Maxxum 7000 camera-for whatever reason the camera just loses all power, and when it comes back it has lost track of any settings including the film counter. I have tried cleaning the contacts for the battery door, and it does seem to have something to do with the way the camera is held, but despite my best efforts it will shut off randomly anytime I try to use it. So I think it is time to retire the Maxxum 7000 back to the shelf.
Which brings me to the topic of this post-the replacement for the Maxxum 7000. The 7000 was the first camera ever to feature in-body autofocus, so it is a special camera. In fact, some have said that Minolta’s design for the 7000 established the design paradigm for every autofocus SLR and DSLR to follow. But being the first of a new breed, it has some shortcomings. Aside from the power failure, the early Maxxums also commonly suffer from a failure of the magnets that control the aperture. It also features only a single autofocus point, focus is fairly slow, and the controls are a bit clumsy.
I’ve wanted the Alpha 7 camera for a couple of years-it was released in 2000 and was the pinnacle of Minolta camera design. (I call it by its proper Alpha moniker although it was sold in North America under the Maxxum name and as a Dynax in Europe). The 7 was a prosumer camera marketed a step beneath the pro-grade Alpha 9, but it came out two years later so incorporated two year’s worth of technical advancements. Here in 2021, 7’s in excellent condition are available from Japan starting at $200; the 9 is about $90 more. The Alpha 7 is about 15 years newer than my Maxxum 7000, so it should have quite a few years left. But still, it is a 20+ year old camera with sophisticated electronics, and $200 isn’t pocket change.
I’ve been researching other options. Minolta released the Maxxum 9000 in 1985 alongside the 7000. It is a beautiful piece of machinery and features a manual film advance with autofocus. But it is plagued by the same problem with the aperture magnet and has the same drawbacks with the first-gen autofocus system (and the 7000 did miss focus on more than a few images). I wouldn’t mind having one to use on occasion, but they are harder to find in good condition and not cheap.
In between the first generation Maxxum AFs and the Alphas, Minolta released a string of consumer-grade and semi-professional cameras. The autofocus and metering systems improved with each new generation, along with other “improvements” to the user interface and camera controls. For the most part, the Minolta autofocus camera bodies of the later 80s through the mid-90s are plastics chunks with quirky controls-it was a period of experimentation in camera design. Some of the cameras were really innovative-the 7, 8, and 9-series cameras of the early 90s had the ability to save the exposure data on removable cards, and the xi cameras were released with power zoom lenses. It wasn’t until the 1995 release of the 600si that Minolta figured out a design logic that provided intuitive control of the camera, and subsequent bodies featured a similar control set with a main mode dial and a second dial to adjust aperture, shutter speed, or other settings.
Minolta released a lot of different camera bodies in the late 90s culminating with the release of their last two SLR bodies in 2004, the Maxxum 70 and the stripped-down Maxxum 50. Quality consumer digital cameras were mainstream by then; I got my first digital camera in 2003, a 4-megapixel Olympus zoom. Minolta’s best film SLR was either the Alpha 9 or 7, depending on how much you value those additional technological improvements that were added to the 7. But coming on the heels of the 7, the Maxxum 5 was released a year later in 2001 and incorporates many of the advancements of the Alpha 7 in a consumer-grade body. The Maxxum 5 has a better spec of features across the board than 2004’s Maxxum 50, and is a toss-up with the Maxxum 70 (the real benefit of the 70 is the ability to use SSM lenses).
So when shopping for second-hand film SLRs in 2021, you have the option of spending $200 or more for a pro-grade Alpha 7 or 9, or you can pick up a top-level consumer body for $50 or less (I almost bought a batch of 6 untested Maxxum 5s for $20). Using the same lens and same film, will there be a difference in the captured image? Probably not. So unless you need 1/8000 second (or 1/12000 for the Alpha 9!) over the Maxxum 5’s 1/4000 second shutter, or 8 autofocus points rather than 6, or just really want a true pentaprism viewfinder, the Maxxum 5 or 70 might be a better choice. The consumer-level cameras are smaller and lighter, they can capture just as good images, and if the film door latch breaks, you can replace it at least four times over, probably closer to ten times over, for the same price as a 7.
You know from the title image for this post that I chose the Maxxum 5 over the Alpha 7. More specifically, I bought an Alpha Sweet II from Japan on the recommendation of David Hancock because it includes a pano mode switch (mostly useless) and a light baffle on the mirror to prevent light leaks in bright sunlight. Plus the name. I did spend a bit more for the Japanese version-I paid $50 for a kit with 2 kit zooms and a Minolta camera bag, plus another $30 in shipping. My first roll of images turned out great, and I love using the camera. It has fast autofocus, responsive controls, and is lightweight. My only complaint is I wish it was all black, and I would really like having a data back to record exposure data. But for the money I saved not buying a 7, I was able to pick up an estate sale find on eBay that included two primo classic Minolta manual focus bodies, an X-570 and XD11, three MD lenses, and an awesome Tenba messenger bag from the 80s! (But that’s a subject for another day.) And no matter how cool I might have felt carrying an Alpha 7 on my shoulder, in the end it looks like just another DSLR, but that X-570 just oozes with ’80s style and is way cooler.
I would like to thank Michael Hohner for his Sony/Minolta Alpha camera spec comparison table. It has been a great help not only in writing this post but also in making sense of 20 years’ worth of camera bodies as I was trying to decide what to buy.