I originally posted the following in 2017 shortly after I bought a Nikon FM2n, my first film camera in many years. When my old blog crashed and burned last year I lost a lot of posts but some were preserved on Medium. This is one of them.
Despite the promises of the Marxist-Leninist cheerleaders, the average Soviet citizen of the 1970’s still couldn’t afford a Leica. So the Soviets built their own Leica ‘tribute’ — the Zorki 4K. Then, for the benefit of those of us who, despite the promises of the capitalist cheerleaders, couldn’t afford a Leica they exported it to the West. And so the Zorki 4K became the first camera I ever bought back when I was around 14 years old. I didn’t know much about it at the time; its most appealing feature for me was the price. I think it might have been around £30. I also acquired a hand held light meter since the Zorki dispensed with such unnecessary fripperies (as did the Leicas of the time).
My first SLR — the Canon EOS 1000
What I really wanted was an SLR, but they were beyond my financial reach. A year or two later Nikon introduced their new SLRs, the FM (1977) and the FE (1978). I really, really wanted one or the other of these, but their introduction coincided with my own introduction to the world of casual work and unemployment and so they too were unattainable.
Time passed and my initial interest in photography faded. By the time it returned, while still the era of film, electronic technologies — autofocus and autoexposure — were the norm. And so I bought my first SLR, a Canon EOS 1000. I felt a bit of a traitor doing so even though I had never actually owned any of the Nikons I had once admired. I followed that somewhere around 2000–2001 with the EOS 30 holding out against the gathering digital tide until 2005.
I went digital with yet another Canon but along the way have also had cameras from Sony, Panasonic and Fujifilm. Despite my early hankerings I had never owned a Nikon — until today. I am now officially a ‘Nikonian’.
And this is not just any old Nikon, not one of your showy all singing, all dancing, auto everything mini computers bedecked with buttons, knobs, dials and a dashboard’s worth of blinking and flashing lights. This is an honest to goodness, built like a tank, manual everything, mechanical, film Nikon. Finally, after forty years, I have my FM —specifically, a pristine late model FM2n.
My first Nikon — the FM2n
The FM and its variants were in continuous production from 1977 to 2001. Mine appears to have been manufactured in 1999. An FM3a appeared in 2001 for a brief and glorious last hurrah before succumbing to the inevitable triumph of digital photography, though the FM3a was more a hybrid of the FM2 and the FE2.
I had been considering acquiring a film camera for a while and in the last month had been watching a few used camera sites. Then on Thursday of last week this camera appeared on KEH.com. The only problem — it was expensive. No, it wasn’t. It was expensive relative to other FM series cameras I had seen. But it cost more because it was newer and in excellent condition. I should have bought it instead of prevaricating but prevaricate I did. Which was just as well because the next morning I got an email from KEH offering 15% off film cameras and 20% off lenses. On Thursday it was expensive. On Friday it was a bargain. I ordered it. This morning it arrived together with an equally nice 50mm f1.8 AI Nikkor.
In preparation I acquired some film — HP5 and Tri-X — and a battery (only needed to power the built in light meter). I also downloaded one of the many online copies of the orginal FM2 instruction manual — all 50 pages of it. (For comparison, the manual for the current digital Nikon D500 runs to 438 pages). I even found an FM2 repair manual with wonderful exploded diagrams of every part of the camera, though I’m hoping I won’t need to consult that any time soon. Tonight I installed the battery and attached a strap. Tomorrow morning I’ll load some film and hit the streets.
Maybe. A little.
It’s more about taking control. I’ve never been inclined to take hundreds — or thousands — of images when I go photographing, or to shoot at ten frames per second. I prefer one frame at a time, trying to be a little more deliberate, resisting the temptation to fire away and sort it all out later. This camera is just a way of taking that deliberative approach one stage further. Manual metering and manual focus force me to take more time, to think about what I’m trying to photograph. So in one sense there is more to think about. At the same time there is less to think about. So many of the options that digital cameras offer simply aren’t available on a film camera, particularly on a film camera as basic as the FM2. Fewer choices but more time spent on the choices that matter is a recipe, I hope, for better photographs.
There is also the small matter of cost. I have 36 exposures to work with. It will cost me money to buy the film and cost me more to process it. Once a frame is used, that’s it. There is no delete option. And so it becomes more important to try to get it right in camera.
Of course, it may be that six months from now I’ll wonder why I bothered and rush back to the comforting ways of digital. If I do I suspect I’ll be able to sell the camera on Ebay and make a profit. Or it may be that I will decide to sell all my digital gear and go all in with film. I’m looking forward to finding out.
The Minolta XD-7 is another of those late 1970’s SLRs that I was much taken with as a teenager, and another I could never afford. In my 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 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 a dark blue version.
My first impression? I like it. Size is ideal for me, not too big or heavy like the earlier generations of SLRs, but not so small that it feels awkward or fragile. It’s a little smaller than the FM2n, 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 SLRs. 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.
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 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 but at the moment having got used to the much longer travel, and greater resistance, of the shutter release on 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 XDs where this lever faces forward and left. In later models it was repositioned to face right ostensibly to prevent accidental engagement. However, the lever has to be 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 on the rear of the camera below the wind lever when film is loaded correctly and moves gradually across that window as the film is advanced. Simple, but useful.
XD, 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 DSLRs. 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.
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 program mode in 1978 with the A-1, the XD also had a rudimentary kind of program mode linked to the shutter priority mode. There is of course a fully metered manual mode available.
Metering on the XD is through the lens, full aperture, centre-weighted using 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 metering, though it is presumably similar to the typical 60–40 pattern found on most other SLRs 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 is taken when the aperture stops down just before the shutter opens. 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. LEDs indicate the camera selected shutter speed or, where appropriate, the under- or over-exposure markers.
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. Next to 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 LEDs. That rudimentary program mode I mentioned earlier takes effect if the chosen shutter speed requires an aperture settings beyond the limits of the attached lens. In this instance the over- or under- exposure indicator will light up, but if you don’t make the necessary adjustment the camera will automatically adjust the shutter speed to ensure proper exposure. It’s clearly a very basic function and 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 have 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’.
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 SLRs to compare it with, just my Nikon FM2n. I don’t see a huge difference between the two but 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 side (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 discovered 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 FM2n out recently I was struck by how poor the viewfinder display is compared to the Minolta. The FM2n 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 time shooting with the Minolta and its excellent viewfinder.
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 AA batteries, 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. 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.
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.