Olli Thomson
Photography

Minolta XD

The Minolta XD-7 is another of those late 1970’s SLR’s that I was much taken with as a teenager, and another I could never afford. In my recent quest for an aperture priority SLR to complement my resolutely old school Nikon FM2n I hadn’t really considered the Minolta since they so rarely came up for sale. Then, a couple of weeks ago, shortly after having returned a non-functioning FE2, this camera popped up on Used Photo Pro in excellent condition for a little more than $100. Another $50 got me the Minolta 50mm f1.7 lens. After putting a roll of film through it I sent it off to Garry’s Camera Repair for a CLA. Since mine is an earlier version of the camera it was suffering from the common problem of shrinking leatherette, so I also had that replaced with the dark blue version shown in the image above.

Design

My first impression? I like it. Size is ideal for me, not too big or heavy like the earlier generations of SLR’s, but not so small it feels awkward or fragile. It’s a little smaller than the FM2, but not by much, and a few grams heavier. That weightiness is a result of the metal body, something that disappeared with the next generation of cameras. The Minolta MD lens, while not having the same reassuring heft of my Nikon 50mm f1.8 AI, still feels like a well made, quality product.

The camera both looks well and works well. The designers produced what, to my eye, is a very clean, purposeful look. In particular, by locating the shutter button within the shutter speed selector dial they simultaneously reduced the clutter on the top plate while creating extra space to make that dial and the mode selector switch bigger and therefore easier to operate. (Pentax did something similar with the ME Super, but without the same benefit since the ME Super was already significantly smaller than most of its peers. Canon combined the shutter speed selector dial with the film wind lever but this arrangement, for me, is less successful). The low profile of the Minolta’s shutter speed selector dial and the film speed selector dial also helps the overall look.

Controls

All of the XD’s controls are well located and easy to operate. The film advance is smooth and even, the shutter speed dial is easy to grip and has an ideal degree of resistance. The three position mode selector clicks cleanly into place for each setting. The shutter release requires some getting used to. That low profile that I mentioned earlier means that there is very little travel in the shutter release, which also happens to be quite sensitive, and since a soft press is necessary to operate the meter, on a couple of occasions I have accidentally fired the shutter. I expect with increasing familiarity this will resolve itself; at the moment, having been used to the much longer travel, and greater resistance, of the shutter release of the FM2n, I’m still a little heavy handed. From using the FM2n I’m also used to having a shutter lock so I was surprised to find that the XD lacks this basic but valuable feature. Combine this with the sensitive, short travelling shutter release and there is a risk of wasting a few frames if your not careful.

On the other side of the top plate the film speed selector dial turns very smoothly, once unlocked with a sensibly sized button. A small lever on the same dial offers + or – two stops of exposure compensation. Mine is one of the older model XD’s where this lever faces forward and left. In later models it was re positioned to face right instead, ostensibly to prevent accidental engagement. However, the lever has to pushed in in order to move and I feel that the resistance is sufficient that it would be difficult to move it without realising.

What else? A self timer in the usual location, depth of field preview button, and a viewfinder shutter. There is no separate multiple exposure button; instead, depress the film advance release button on the base of the camera and wind on. Finally, there is the ‘Safe Load Signal’ a red vertical bar that appears in a small window when film is loaded correctly and moves gradually across that window as the film is advanced. Simple, but useful.

XD or XD-7 or XD-11

I understand why the branding experts sometimes give products different names in different markets. A word that sounds good in one language might have very different connotations in another. I can even see how a combination of numbers and letters could also be problematic. Even so, I can’t for the life of me understand why Minolta launched so many of their cameras with multiple identities.

Not that Minolta was the only camera company doing this. Canon was another culprit, particular with their consumer grade DSLR’s; Nikon’s consumer level F models became N models in the US; Panasonic still do it with many of their cameras. But no-one opted for multiple naming with the same enthusiasm as Minolta. Generally there were three names: one for North America, another for Japan and the far east, and a third for Europe and the rest of the world. My camera is an XD, which is also an XD-7 which is also an XD-11. Why? Who knows? Only ‘the mind of Minolta’.

XD was the designation for the Japanese market, while XD-11 was used in North America. I’m not entirely sure how my Japanese market camera ended up in the US, where I bought it, but, if nothing else, it gives it a little extra distinctiveness.

Exposure

Discussions of Minolta often point to the company’s history of innovation (a tradition that Minolta’s successor, Sony, has maintained) and the XD was, indeed, an innovative camera when it was launched in 1977. The shutter priority semi automatic exposure system first appeared in a mainstream SLR camera in 1965 with the launch of the Konica Auto-Reflex. Some years later, in 1971, Pentax launched the first aperture priority SLR, the Electro Spotmatic. Minolta’s innovation with the XD was to create the first SLR with both shutter and aperture priority modes. While Canon is credited with introducing the first programme mode in 1978 with the A-1, the XD also had a rudimentary kind of programme mode linked to the shutter priority mode. There is also of course a fully metered manual mode available.

Metering on the XD is through the lens, full aperture centre weighted using an a Silicon Photo Diode — the first Minolta to use this type of cell. Neither the brochure nor the manual offer more specific information regarding the weighting of the metering, though it is presumably similar to the typical 60–40 pattern found on most other SLR’s of the time. The XD also introduced another new Minolta feature, ‘Final Check Metering’. As well as taking a reading with the aperture fully open, another reading was taken when the aperture stopped down just before the shutter opened. Minolta described this as providing ‘maximum fail-safe accuracy’.

All the information you need for each exposure mode is displayed clearly in the viewfinder. In aperture priority mode the chosen aperture is displayed at the bottom centre with the shutter speed range displayed on the right. LED’s indicate the selected shutter speed or, where appropriate, under- or over-exposure indicators.

The viewfinder display for (left to right) aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode

In shutter priority mode the aperture is still displayed bottom centre since it is read directly off the lens via a small window in the prism. Beside this the chosen shutter speed is shown and the display on the right now shows the aperture range with the camera’s selection indicated by the LED’s. That rudimentary programme mode I mentioned earlier takes effect if the chosen shutter speed requires an aperture setting beyond the limits of the attached lens. In this instance the over- or under- exposure indicator will light up, but if you do not make the necessary adjustment then the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to ensure proper exposure. It’s clearly a very basic function and one one that would not be regularly required (assuming a minimally competent photographer), but it was interesting in its time as a pointer to the ongoing development of automatic exposure control.

It’s also worth noting that use of the shutter priority mode requires the use of MD lenses. While older lenses can still be used with the XD in manual or aperture priority mode, they will not work in shutter priority. This is because the shutter priority mode requires the attached lens to be set at its minimum aperture in order to function correctly and the earlier lenses lacked any means of communicating that information to the camera. The MD lenses added a small tab that fulfills that function. MD lenses also had new light weight aperture blades designed to work with the ‘Final Check Metering’ function.

Exposure compensation of + or – two stops is available. Even though the adjustment lever only offers click stops at each full stop setting (that is, -1, -2, +1, +2) the manual does say that ‘the index may be set at intermediate positions’.

Viewfinder

The viewfinder feels big and bright and offers the usual split image and microprism focusing aids. According to the XD brochure the camera ‘incorporates a newly developed focusing screen which is unsurpassed for brightness’ offering ‘an edge-to-edge, and top-to-bottom brightness and consistency not found in any other SLR.’ I don’t have a battery of SLR’s to compare it with, just my Nikon FM2n. I don’t see a huge difference between the two but then the FM2n did not appear until 1982, some years after the XD, and a brighter focusing screen was one of the distinguishing features of that camera compared to the FM2. Suffice it to say both are excellent.

I have already mentioned the viewfinder information that is displayed in each mode above. This is what Minolta called the ‘Total Information Viewfinder’. The strength of the display is not just the amount of information but also the manner in which it is organised. Everything is displayed clearly in the bottom centre (aperture), bottom right (shutter speed) or right (LED scale) of the viewfinder which means everything can be checked at a glance.

While this may be of little importance for some photographers I have been discovering that the quality of the viewfinder layout and presentation is almost a make or break issue for me. I bought and then sold a Nikon F3 — a superb camera in almost every respect — because I could not get used to the poor viewfinder, specifically the terrible LCD display. When I took my FM2 out yesterday I was struck by how bad the viewfinder display is. The FM2 displays exposure information on the left (shutter speed), right (LED display) and top (aperture) of the viewfinder. The result is that I have to scan round the entire viewfinder to check the information. I had noticed this previously but I’m now much more conscious of it — and more irritated by it — having spent the last two weeks shooting with the Minolta and its excellent viewfinder.

Odds and Ends

The shutter speed range is from 1 – 1/1000. The shutter itself is metal bladed, vertical travel and electronically controlled. Flash synchronisation is at 1/100, while there is also a 1/100 mechanical setting, marked ‘O’ on the shutter speed dial in case your battery dies.

The viewfinder has a magnification of 0.87 and displays 94% of the film frame area.

Film speed runs from ASA 12 – 3200. The camera uses two SR44 type batteries, easily available and very cheap. There is no separate battery check feature, but the LED’s will start to dim as the batteries reach exhaustion.

Lenses

The XD takes Minolta SR mount lenses. There were a number of different incarnations of this mount with the most common being the MC series and MD series. Both can be used on the XD but, as noted above, while the MC lenses will work on the XD cameras, full functioning on the shutter priority option requires the use of MD lenses.

Minolta, over the years, created an extensive set of MD lenses ranging from a 7.5mm fisheye up to a 600mm telephoto. There were also plenty of zooms with a 24-35mm at one end and a 100-500mm at the other. Many of these lenses are very affordable compared to other major systems so it is possible to build up a reasonable collection without spending a fortune. So far my collection consists of the 24/2.8, 35/2.8 and 50/1.7.

When Minolta introduced the world’s first SLR with integrated autofocus in 1985 the company also introduced a new lens mount, the Alpha mount, which is still in use today on Sony A-mount cameras. Consequently, Minolta autofocus lenses are incompatible with all Minolta manual focus cameras.

Accessories

At its launch the XD could be used with the already extensive Minolta system, but Minolta added new items to the system to take full advantage of the XD’s capabilities. In addition to the MD lenses that were necessary for the proper operation of the shutter priority mode, Minolta announced the Auto Winder D and the Auto Electroflash 200X.

The Autowinder D is a simple device that does exactly what it says and no more. Install four AAA batteries and attach the winder to the XD and you can choose either single frame advance or continuous advance at a relatively modest two frames per second. A flashing LED indicates that the device is working properly, while a steady light shows that the roll is finished. Given the relatively small size of the XD attaching the winder might also improve the handling for those with bigger hands. According to the Minolta brochure the motor in the winder was designed to be reasonably quiet in use. I don’t have one - yet - so I don’t know how true this is. These winders are available for less than $20 from the usual sources.

The Auto Electroflash 200X was the first in a range of new automatic flash units for the XD and later X series cameras. Attach it to the camera, set it on automatic and the unit will set the sync speed on the camera (1/100th). The flash can also be used in manual mode and has the ability to sync with the autowinder when used this way, though why you would want to do this I’m not sure. It lacks any bounce or swivel capability so in some ways it’s quite limited, but it is relatively compact and, like the winder, is cheap to buy. Minolta expanded the range of ‘X’ flashes over time so there are other options available. I think think the last time I used a flash was in 2010 so this is not something I’ll be adding to my system.

Conclusion

Perhaps Minolta lacks a little brand recognition among a new generation of photographers encountering film photography for the first time, but those of us who are a little older can remember when Minolta was not only one of the big beasts in the world of photography, but also had a reputation for innovation. Sadly, Minolta struggled to make the transition to digital. The company merged with Konica – another failing photographic giant – in 2003 and the new company, Konica Minolta, got out the photography business entirely in 2006 when the camera division was sold to Sony. (Konica Minolta survived and today is a 5 billion dollar multinational with more than 40,000 employees with business units focused on office equipment, digital printing, optical measuring devices and medical imaging technology.)

By now you will have worked out that I like this camera, so naturally I’m going to recommend it. If you are in the market for a well made, relatively compact, sophisticated yet traditional SLR the XD is well worth consideration.

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