Tag: gear review (page 1 of 1)

DXO Deep Prime

Software powered by AI or machine learning appears to be the coming wave in image processing. Skylum – makers of Aurora and Luminar – Topaz Labs and Corel all emphasise the role of AI in their recent advertising and Adobe, with rather less fanfare, is developing and expanding its library of ‘neural filters’ for Photoshop.

My knowledge of how this technology works is close to zero but as far as my limited understanding goes what makes these apps different from ‘traditional’ approaches to processing is that they are ‘trained’ through analysis of vast numbers of images – Adobe claims their Super Resolution feature is trained on millions of images. (As an aside, this suggest to me that the only ‘intelligence’ at work here is the human intelligence of those creating this technology and that ‘machine learning’ is a much more apposite term.)

Many of the AI powered features highlighted in recent advertising appear to function like slightly more sophisticated versions of existing filters, or are designed to process images in ways that I have no interest in – creating flawless skin, replacing or reshaping eyes, or dropping in a completely new sky. Beyond the headline features, though, machine learning is creating some genuinely interesting and useful capabilities. I’ve already assessed one of these in two previous posts on Adobe’s Super Resolution, and a couple of days ago I downloaded a trial version of DXO’s Deep Prime, an AI powered denoising utility which is part of their PureRAW stand alone program. Here are my impressions.

First, I found a nice noisy photograph. The picture was taken in the evening by the B&O canal in Georgetown in Washington DC. While I intended to work from the original untouched RAW file I did eventually decide to boost the exposure because the original was very dark. The picture was taken with a Sony Rx100 at 1/6th of a second and f4 while stabilised on the handrail of the bridge I was standing on to get the shot. ISO was 3200. The image below is a JPEG exported from the Sony ARW file with no adjustments other than the boost to the exposure and Lightroom’s default colour noise and sharpening settings turned off. As you can see there is plenty of noise in the image. (For a closer look in each case right click on the image and ‘open image in new tab’.)

From the original Sony RAW file

Bringing the file (or multiple files) into DXO PureRAW is straightforward though you can’t do it directly from within Lightroom. Either open PureRAW and click on ‘add photos’ or right click directly on any photo in File Explorer and select ‘open with’ DXO PureRAW. The interface is extremely simple:

Once the photo is loaded click to select the photo/s to be processed, click on ‘process photos’ and choose some basic options from the dialogue box. There are two other denoising options available but I can’t think of any reason why you would choose them over Deep Prime. You can also choose to output the processed file as a JPEG rather than DNG, but again I don’t know why you would do that since the whole point of the feature is that you can denoise using DXO technology and still complete the rest of your processing in Lightroom. Choose your detination folder and click on ‘process’. On my laptop (6th gen. i7 2.6Ghz, 16GB RAM, GTX 960M GPU) processing took around 1 minute and 50 seconds and the original 20MB ARW file ended up as a near 72MB DNG file. (I believe the size increase is down to the output file being a linear DNG file, but needless to say I don’t understand what that means.) Once processing is complete you have an ‘export to…’ option which brings up a list of installed compatible editing software.

Make your choice, click on ‘export’ and DXO will launch Lightroom and take you to the import dialogue.

The key question of course is whether it is any good. My answer is a qualified ‘yes’, but I will let you judge for yourself. Below is a JPEG from the DNG created by Deep Prime after processing. I think the programme does an excellent job of removing noise, though it does introduce some softness. That said, I don’t think I could get close to this level of denoising with Lightroom, and certainly not without introducing considerably more softness in the image.

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

Fortunately, PureRAW has another trick up its sleeve which draws on DXO’s more conventional processing for lens correction. The programme downloads DXO lens correction modules and applies these to the image when processing. If you don’t have the appropriate lens module installed you will be asked if you want to download it when you add a new image. In my sample image, applying both the lens module and the denoising produces a largely noise free image which retains, or in this case exceeds, the sharpness of the original. The difference between the images with and without lens correction is clearly visible, particularly in the structure of the crane and the text on the banners attached to it. That said, further editing in Lightroom does require careful use of the sharpening, texture and clarity sliders after lens correction has been applied since I think the lens correction is something of an over-correction. (Again, right click and select ‘open image in new tab’ for a closer look.)

From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime with lens module corrections

So, why a qualified yes? Two reasons – one minor, one major. The minor one is cost. In the current offer period which runs until the end of May you can get DXO PureRAW for $89.99 / €89.99 / £79.99 but after that it reverts to the full price of $129 / €129 / £115. That’s quite expensive. For comparison, Topaz Labs standalone AI tools are mostly between $80-100 full price. Given that PureRAW is clearly aimed at the vast number of Lightroom users I suspect they could drop the price and sell many more licences than they will at the current price.

The major reason is that DXO PureRAW does not work with Fujifilm X-Trans sensors. It is possible to add a Fujifilm RAF X-Trans file and run the programme but the result is an image that looks like it was taken with a lens smeared with grease, as with the image below shot with a Fujifilm X-E2 at ISO 6400. Since processing this file – which is more than 50 percent bigger than the RX100 file – only takes around ten seconds I imagine it is just running it through some bog standard, default noise reduction process.

I have seen some reviews expressing a preference for more control over how the denoising is applied. I can understand why, but I’m happy to have something that doesn’t require yet more choices and decisions from me before I run it. If anything, I would prefer to have an option to dial back the impact of the lens correction which seems (in this module for the Sony RX100) to be a little aggressive.

From the original Fujifilm RAF file
From DNG after processing in DXO Deep Prime

If you don’t use Fujifilm cameras with X-Trans sensors, or if you have a lot of images shot on older less capable sensors, then DXO PureRAW might be worth it for you, despite the price. For people like me, who mostly shoot Fujifilm X-Trans, the calculation is different. Do I have enough noisy images from older non-Fuji sensors I want to clean up? Do I shoot enough with non-Fujifilm cameras? I like the program but I’m not quite convinced I need it.

Finally, here is the first image after processing in Deep Prime and some further processing in Lightroom.

Backblaze to iDrive

I’ve been using Backblaze to backup my images (and everything else) for around three years now. For $60 a year I get unlimited backup via an app that runs quietly in the background with a relatively light footprint. Unfortunately, in the last week to ten days Backblaze started acting up. I contacted support – who got back to me within one day as promised – but despite following their suggested fixes it is still not working.

Out of curiosity I did a little online searching for alternatives and came across iDrive which is not only highly recommended by multiple reputable reviewers, but has a great offer for users of competing products. Simply provide proof that you have a current paid account with a competitor and you get the first year on iDrive for $6.95! The only downside is that there is an upper storage limit of 5 TB, though at the moment I’m only at 4TB so should be good for a while. After the first year the subscription reverts to the normal price of around $70 – slightly more than Backblaze, but close enough.

One advantage of iDrive is that you control whether files deleted from your drives are also deleted from the backup. With Backblaze, delete a file on your drive and it is automatically deleted on the back up, though these are recoverable for 30 days, or longer if you pay a little extra. With iDrive deleted files on your drives remain in your backup until you decide to remove them. You can do so with one click of the ‘Archive Cleanup’ button. Unfortunately, this does not work for external drives so these have to be tidied up manually. Since almost all my data is on external drives this is a little annoying. Another advantage is that the iDrive account allows you to back up from multiple computers and mobile devices, while the Backblaze account is restricted to one computer. Right now I only use it with one computer but I can see the benefit of this for people who use more than one computer or do a lot of work on mobile.

Switching means that all your data has to be uploaded to the new provider which, depending on how much data you have to backup and the speed of your connection, could end up taking weeks. iDrive offers a one-time free service allowing you to send your data to them on a drive which they then upload for you. This would certainly be convenient but I’m not clear how this affects the security of your data. Any additional uploads this way carry a fee.

I’m still working with Backblaze to see if I can solve the current problems and if I can, I plan to keep it and run both in parallel since my current Backblaze subscription is good until September. At that point I’ll decide which I prefer.

Nikon F2A

I have now gone an entire year without buying a camera – impressive. My last purchase, almost a year ago to the day, was something of an impulse buy. We had visitors in town at the time and I and some of my colleagues were assigned as their minders. On the agenda was a courtesy call with some VIPs. Naturally, we were not in the room and as time passed it became clear that the VIPs and and our guests were getting along nicely. We drank coffee and played with our phones. I happened to take a look at the Used Photo Pro website, something I do most days.

From time to time a camera shows up there that I’m convinced I must have. I’m sure I’ve hit the ‘buy’ button and started filling in my details half a dozen times before talking myself back from the edge. This time I jumped. A Nikon F2A, black, and in great condition. Who could resist?

Nico van Dijk’s F2 serial number matrix dates my camera to 1974, between August and October. This would imply that the head that came with the camera is  not the original, since the DP-11 head that makes this an F2A was designed to work with AI lenses which only appeared in 1977. The DP-11 uses CdS cells for metering and has a simple swinging needle display. I had read, while waiting impatiently for the camera to arrive, that the needle in these heads can sometimes be quite jumpy but on mine it moves very smoothly. I also noticed that the light seals, while not perfect, are in better condition than I would have expected for a 45 year old camera. I suspect that either the camera has been very well looked after or has been serviced at some point. I didn’t need another camera but sitting next to my FM2n and collection of Nikkor lenses it looks rather well.

Unfortunately the dark nights, work and then COVID-19 conspired to keep the camera on the shelf most of the time, but here are some shots from the first roll I put through it back in March last year. I happened to have a couple of rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400, a film I had never previously used, so it was also an opportunity to try it out. I brought my 24 and 105 Nikkors, starting with the former and swapping half way through.

With limited time and a primary goal of ensuring that my F2 was in full working order I chose to visit familiar and favourite sites in downtown Sofia. First, the former Royal Palace, now the National Gallery. I managed to forget that I was shooting with a manual camera, so put the camera to my eye, framed and pressed the button. Once it dawned on my what I had done and I finished cursing my own stupidity I reframed, adjusted exposure and took another shot.

Just past the National Gallery is the Russian Orthodox Church, properly known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker. It’s highly photogenic but I have yet to get a picture of it that I think does it justice. The first one below was taken with the 24mm lens, the second one with the 105mm.

Next up is the spectacular Alexander Nevsky Cathedral of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. This is another building I photograph a lot with out ever being entirely happy with the results, but I keep trying. I used around one third of the roll shooting the cathedral. Here is a wide shot of the whole building and some detail from the beautifully elaborate roof.

This sculpture below commemorates Stefan Stambolov who fought for Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Empire and went on to become the country’s ninth Prime Minister. The cleavage in the upper part of the sculpture references Stambolov’s assassination when his killers, knowing that Stambolov wore an armoured vest, struck his head repeatedly with knives and fractured his skull. Stambolov died a few days later.

Probably my favourite building in the city is the Ivan Vazov National Theatre which stands in a pedestrianised square by a small park known as the City Garden – a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. I took six pictures of the theatre. Here they are.

On to the City Museum, formerly the public baths, and the nearby mineral springs. This is the point at which I switched from the 24 to the 105 with the first two shots taken with the former. I used the 105 for a closer look at the beautiful detail on the exterior of the building and for the two candid shots.

And finally, this is the head of a large sculpture of a lion at the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier which is visible in the background. This is quite a tricky shot to get because normally Sofia’s kids are clambering all over the lion. I think I waited about fifteen minutes before there was a brief lull. I wasn’t convinced at the time that it was worth the wait but I’m quite pleased with the way it turned out.

The F2 performed perfectly throughout and the results suggest the metering and shutter speeds are accurate. While it is a big, heavy camera I did not find it to be uncomfortable to carry or handle. I appreciated the large, clear viewfinder and the simple but functional and uncluttered display – shutter speed, aperture and simple swinging needle.

As for Kodak Ultramax, this film was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not nearly as grainy as I expected and the colours are nicely saturated without being excessive. It does have a tendency towards a certain ‘creaminess’, particularly with white tones, but it’s not unpleasant. I tend to view white balance as an aesthetic rather than a technical criterion being primarily a matter of taste. My own personal taste tends towards a more neutral rendering so the only real adjustments I made to these images in Lightroom was to tweak the white balance. Most of the images above got a minus adjustment on temperature (mostly in the -4 to -8 range) and a plus adjustment on tint (between +6 and +12). Overall, though, for a consumer grade and very affordable film it delivered impressive results. This is definitely one I will use again.

For more on the F2 here are a few reviews from Casual Photophile, Emulsive, Dan Schneider and Jim Grey. And here is a video walk through with Travis Mortz. Finally, here is Nikon’s own brief history of the F2’s development and launch.

Fujinon XF 55–200

I think of it as my panda lens. Out of the 171 images I shot with this lens while I owned it no fewer than 72 of them are of pandas, specifically Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Bao Bao at the National Zoo in Washington DC.

To some photographers 171 images many not sound like a lot and since I had the lens for a couple of years that’s a reasonable conclusion but I’m not really a telephoto user. That said it’s nice to have a little bit of extra reach from time to time when the occasion calls for it, an occasion for example like a visit to Washington DC to see the pandas.

So I’m never going to be in the market for one of those fast 70–200 drainpipes but I’ve always ended up whatever the system with one of the cheap(ish) 55–200 type lenses. I had the Sony A and E mount versions when I was a Sony user and it seemed an obvious choice when I switched to Fujifilm.

Like most Fuji lenses this one is a cut above what’s on offer from most of the other camera and lens manufacturers. The quality of construction is much better (something confirmed by the people at Lens Rentals recently when they took one apart). It feels much more solid and substantial than the lightweight and somewhat creaky competitors. It’s also a little bit faster than the opposition — f3.5–4.8 compared to the usual f4–5.6. It’s not a lot but at the longer focal lengths every little helps. It also helps that this lens comes with Fuji’s OIS system.

Image quality is excellent, vastly better than either of the Sony’s I’ve owned and on the basis of what I’ve read and heard better than anything else out there in this sector. Previous lenses I’ve used were generally fine until around 160–170mm when the image quality took a real hit. They were also noticeably weaker wide open. By contrast the Fuji is good all the way to 200mm and at all apertures. The only weakness I’ve found is at 200mm wide open in the corners where it’s not great, but it’s the corners so it’s usually no big deal.

Also gratifying is the degree of resistance while zooming. Sometimes it almost seems like it’s a little too much but this for me is preferable to too little resistance. The one dislike I have with this lens is that unlike the zoom ring the aperture ring is far too easily rotated and I do find myself shooting at entirely unexpected apertures because the lens gently brushed my shirt and shifted from f4 to f16. Perhaps it’s just my copy but it is noticeably looser than the aperture rings on my other Fuji lenses.

All of this goodness does come at a price. The Fuji lens is more expensive that the typical 55–200 lenses which tend to come in at around $350 at most and are often much less. The Fuji’s recommended retail price is $700 — not exactly a bargain — but it usually goes for $500 during Fuji’s regular sales. For an occasional user like me $500 is an acceptable price given that this is in every respect a better lens than anything from the competition.

If you are a regular telephoto shooter or need the extra speed you will undoubtedly prefer the XF50–140 f2.8, but for the occasional user this lens is definitely worth getting hold of, particularly if you wait for the price drop.

A lens review without pictures is a bit pointless so here are a few images from my very small collection taken with this lens including of course some pandas.

These first two shots were taken at Manila American Cemetery, the first at 110mm and f8 and the second at 55mm and also f8.

The next two shots are looking across the Pasig River from the Makati side towards the Pasig side. Both were shot at 200mm and f5.6. The third image is a crop from the top left of the second shot showing how well the lens performs at this focal length.

This next one of a rapidly moving boat was taken from the back of somewhat slower moving boat. I was impressed with both the sharpness and the ability of my X-E2’s rather rudimentary focus tracking together with the lens’s less than state-of-the-art autofocus capabilities to keep up. This one was taken at 55mm and f8.

Now for the zoo. First up is Mei Xiang relaxing in her yard. Considering that this was shot at 200mm wide open I was impressed by the detail and sharpness in her fur and whiskers.

Next, it’s Tian Tian relaxing in his yard — pandas do a lot of relaxing. I thought this was a great pose, propped up on one elbow leaning on a tree trunk. Again this is at 200mm and wide open and again there is decent sharpness and detail throughout even down to the fly that has landed on his back.

Finally just to prove that pandas aren’t the only inhabitants of the zoo here is one of the male lions relaxing while keeping an eye out and one of the tigers having fun in the pool. Both were shot at 200mm wide open and both also cropped a little because you can’t get that close.

So a good lens which is well worth the higher cost for the superior mechanical and optical quality and the extra half stop. In the end I sold this lens because I didn’t feel I was putting it to use enough but I still do keep an eye out from time to time for Fujifilm sales or used deals. I suspect I may own it again at some point.

The Minolta 24mm…

…or to give it its full designation the Minolta MD W.Rokkor-X 24mm 1:2.8.

This is an SR mount lens. The SR mount was introduced with Minolta’s first SLR, the SR-2, in 1958. (Strangely there was an SR-1 but it was released after the SR-2). All manual focus Minolta SLRs used the SR mount but when Minolta switched to autofocus cameras the company developed a new mount. This mount known as the Alpha mount is still in use on Sony’s DSLRs. The MD designation identifies this as a lens specifically designed to work with the Minolta XD camera introduced in 1977.

The XD offered both aperture priority and shutter priority semi automatic exposure modes and required the use of MD lenses to make use of the shutter priority option. While earlier generations of SR lenses could be used on the XD in manual or aperture priority mode they would not work properly in shutter speed mode. The ‘W’ indicates that this is a wide angle lens. With a handful of exceptions all Rokkor lenses between 17mm and 35mm had the W.Rokkor designation. Those over 100mm were known as Tele Rokkors, while zooms, obviously enough, were Zoom Rokkors.

I believe Minolta was the first of the major Japanese companies to give their lenses an additional brand identity when they introduced the first ‘Rokkor’ lens in 1940. Others followed suit and gave us Nikkors, Hexanons, Fujinons and the rest. More recently South Korean lens maker Samyang has sold lenses under its Rokinon brand which sounds like an attempt to associate its lenses with the Rokkor name and identity.

Supposedly the name is derived from the Rokko mountain range near Osaka where the company was founded and maintained its headquarters until the merger with Konica. Minolta’s founder Kazuo Tashima was an admirer of German photographic equipment and the company was initially known as Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shoten (Japan-Germany Camera Company). Given this perhaps Tashima was influenced by the practice of German companies like Zeiss and Leica who gave their lenses additional branding — the Zeiss Planar and Tessar or the Leica Elmar for example. The Rokkor branding finally disappeared around 1980. My 50mm f1.7, for example, is simply a Minolta. Despite this, ‘Rokkor’ is still often used as a generic name for all Minolta lenses. The ‘X’ seems to be largely a marketing exercise. There appears to be no difference between Rokkor and Rokkor-X other than the X.

The MD lenses were modified from time to time during the years of production and based on the information provided in Dennis Lohmann’s very detailed database my copy is a late example of the MD series II from around 1980. Like most Minolta lenses of that era it’s well made, solid and mostly of metal construction. Both the focus ring and the aperture ring are smooth and consistent with appropriate resistance. The lens elements appear clean and the aperture blades operate smoothly.

I wasn’t planning to buy this lens. It’s among the more expensive Minolta lenses ($220–250 in good condition from reputable dealers) and I only occasionally go wider than 35mm. Besides, I already had a 24mm lens for my Nikon FM2n if I needed one. However, while making my near daily check of a couple of online dealers recently this lens appeared on one of them for only $149. I assumed at that price it would be in very poor shape but it was listed as ‘Excellent’ and the reason given for the low price was some damage to the front filter ring which you can see in the photograph at the top. Since I don’t use filters a damaged filter ring makes no odds to me so I ended up with a bargain.

The pictures were taken around Washington DC with the XD and 24mm combination on Kodak Ektar. Everything is nice and sharp and the colours look good to me. The only downside is that it is susceptible to flare though I was shooting on a very bright and sunny day. I think I’ll need to pick up a push on lens hood for this one. Overall though, this is a very nice lens and it’s well worth the bargain price.

Nikkor AI-S 105 f2.5

I recently picked up the Nikon AI-S 105mm f2.5 lens. I attached it to my FM2n and over the last couple of weeks I have been out and about around Sofia shooting with it. I got the developed film back yesterday and scanned the negatives last night. So here are some thoughts on the lens and some sample shots.

First, the lens itself. Having already bought a 24mm, 35mm and 50mm for my Nikon I was looking for something a little longer for occasional use. The obvious option was one of the various AI or AI-S 85mm lenses but for some reason these do tend to be expensive even by Nikon standards. I was aware of the 105mm/f2.5 having read many good things about it but considered the focal length to be a little more that I wanted.

However, when one showed up for just under $200 in very good condition I decided to try it. The AI-S version of this lens was introduced in 1981 and continued in production until 2005. From the serial number mine appears to be a very early copy. As far as I can ascertain the optical design of this lens goes back much further having been introduced in 1971. That in turn was an optically redesigned version of the original 105mm/f2.5 introduced in 1954. Over time the 1971 version added Nikon’s integrated coating and was adapted mechanically for Nikon’s new automatic indexing system.

The 1971 lens was designed by Yoshiyuki Shimizu who was responsible for many of Nikon’s most famous lenses. The lens has five elements in four groups and is sometimes described as a Gauss type design, though Nikon’s website describes it as a Xenotar type lens. The Xenotar itself is described as a hybrid between the Gauss type and the Topogon type. Confused? Me too. I’ll leave those of you interested in these matters to do your own research. You might start with the Nikon’s own history page for the lens and take it from there.

As with most lenses of this vintage the 105mm/f2.5 is a solid piece of kit made mostly of metal and glass and weighing in at 435g or just under 1lb. The focus ring turns smoothly and evenly and rotates through roughly 150°. Closest focus is 1 metre or just over 3 feet. The aperture ring is similarly smooth and even with well defined clicks at each full stop. This lens has a maximum aperture of f2.5 which is marked on the lens body and while there is no mark for f2.8 there is a click stop for it. Minimum aperture is f22. Everything is engraved as you would expect and the aperture markings have Nikon’s traditional depth of field colour coding. Up front the lens takes 52mm filters, like every other AI and AI-S lens I own. In short, if you have ever owned or used an AI or AI-S lens you will know exactly what to expect.

It’s actually quite a compact lens — 2.5″ wide and just over 3″ long — and feels very well balanced on my FM2. It is shortest at infinity and extends around half an inch as you focus in closer. The AI-S version added a retractable built in lens hood which blends in very well with the overall design. It slides out smoothly and snaps into place with a distinctive click. I rarely use a lens hood but it is nice to have it available without having to carry it as an extra.

I could try and describe the results this lens produces but I believe that this is largely a subjective matter so instead I will add some images and let you decide for yourself. The images were shot on three separate days around Sofia using the lens on my FM2n. All were shot on Kodak Ektar.

First, a couple of shots taken in the colonnades that surround the building housing the Council of Ministers and the Constitutional Court, and a view over the rooftop and domes of the Sofia History Museum, formerly the public bathhouse.

Next a couple of pictures taken at the ‘Zhenski Pazar’ – the Women’s Market – in downtown Sofia. This is the place to buy cheap, fresh produce. Unlike the supermarkets everything here is sold in season so while you may not be able to get everything you want all year round what you can get it is always fresh.

Some sculpture next. The first picture is of a bust of Ronald Reagan that stands in Yuzhen Park. This picture was shot with the lens wide open at f2.5 and gives some idea of the rendering of the out of focus areas. The two following images are of a statue of Patriarch Euthymius of Tarnovo, a 14th century Bulgarian saint. The first was taken at f8 and the second at f2.5 so you can compare the way in which the lens presents the background.

Now a couple of shots from one of my favourite places in Sofia. These are the mineral water fountains that deliver year round hot spring water.

Three more shots to go. These are some of my favourite shots from this roll. The first is one of those shots that appeal for no obvious reason. It could be the combination of strong vertical and horizontal lines. Or perhaps the echo of the pedestrian crossing sign in the actual pedestrian crossing the street. Or maybe the street on the right of the image receding into the distance which adds some depth. Or possibly the light and shadow. Or perhaps some combination of all of these elements.

Next is a shot taken outside the Saint Nedelya Church in central Sofia. I spotted the two men framed by the sun shining through the archway and waited for someone else to enter the frame. Eventually the woman, who had just left the church, did so and I got this shot. I liked the grouping of the people in the image and the way in which they are all framed by the sunlight through the arch.

Finally, this shot was taken near the mineral water springs where there is a tram stop. I pre-focused and waited for a passing tram. When one stopped in front of me I took a couple of shots of which this was the best.

So that is the Nikon Nikkor 105mm f2.5 AI-S lens. If you are a Nikon shooter using manual focus lenses the 105mm/f2.5 is worth your consideration even if it is not a focal length you typically use. The combination of compact size and optical quality is hard to beat.

Minolta XD

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.

Design

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.

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 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.

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 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.

From left to right the viewfinder display in aperture priority, shutter priority and manual

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’.

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 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.

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 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.

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.