Welcome to the first system overview in our "Choosing a Vintage SLR System" series! We will proceed through the Big 5 Japanese SLR makers, first looking at manual focus (MF) systems and then auto focus (AF). We will now take an in-depth look at the manual focus "mind of Minolta". Following a brief introduction we will use our usual format of 1) Lenses, 2) Bodies, 3) Flash, 4) Accessories, 5) Reliability & Servicing to break things down.
Minolta was the second major Japanese manufacturer to offer a pentaprism SLR with an instant-return mirror behind Asahi Optical Company and their Pentax (1957) model. They introduced their SR & Auto Rokkor (the "auto" stood for the automatic opening/closing of the lens diaphragm) lenses and the SR-2 camera body in 1958. Minolta quickly became the sales leader among the SLR makers and dominated the amateur market in the early 1960's. There was a strong engineering mindset at Minolta and they were not afraid to innovate throughout the next four decades. Various attempts to break into the professional market over the years always seemed to fail market-wise, but Minolta's attempts served to push the boundaries of what a professional SLR could be. The amateur market seemed to be the place where Minolta found its sweet spot. Minolta was also one of the two major manufacturers that made their own glass (the other was Nikon) for their lenses, thus exercising control over the entire lens-making process. Sadly, by 2006, strategic missteps brought about the end of Minolta as a major player in the SLR world, with the camera division being sold to Sony. But there are still treasures to be found in the old Minolta Mine. Let's get digging!
The SR system would end up covering focal lengths from 7.5mm fisheye to 1600mm supertelephoto. There are four major generations of Minolta manual focus lenses with several sub-genres in each generation. The best explanation of these is to be found here (keep scrolling down to LENS CLASSIFICATION) on Dennis Lohmann's excellent website. The most basic delineations are: 1) SR (with preset aperture); 2) Auto Rokkor (AR) featuring automatic aperture, which were produced concurrently with the SRs from 1958-66; 3) MC Rokkor (Meter-Coupled) produced from 1966-76; and 4) MD Rokkor (Minimum Diaphragm) produced from 1977 and on, dropping the "Rokkor" part of the designation in 1981. Many MD lenses (particularly zooms) produced from 1985 and on were sub-contracted out and are of inferior quality and not worth your time or money. Rokkor-X simply designates lenses for the North American market. There is no difference in quality or specification from Rokkor. MD Rokkors often have slightly better coatings than MC's but the difference is not a big deal. You may also come across Celtic lenses, which Minolta offered as lower-cost alternatives to Rokkors from 1972-80. They used cheaper, more modular construction (although still excellent) and used single coatings as opposed to the superior multi coatings of the Rokkors. However, most of them used the same optical formulas and, therefore, are capable of excellent performance. They were available in the following: 28/3.5, 28/2.8, 35/2.8, 50/3.5 Macro, 135/3.5, 135/2.8, 200/4.5 & 200/4, and the 100-200/5.6 zoom. Be careful on Celtic prices, as nowadays they are often priced the same as or higher than Rokkors. But, if the price is right, there's nothing wrong with a Celtic.
Features. So, what are some unique features of the Minolta lens lineup? For starters, Minolta was one of the first Japanese lens manufacturers to adopt multi coating (Achromatic Coating in Minolta-speak) in the early-to-mid '60s. Multi coating improves light transmission, contrast, and reduces flare and ghosting. But Minolta did something unique with their coatings: they used them to color balance their entire lens lineup. So you could change focal lengths and the colors would look the same. This was not something pursued to the same degree by the other lens makers, who often optimized their coatings for contrast or flare/ghosting resistance, meaning that one lens could have a warmer or cooler look than another. Whether that is important to you depends on what priority you place on color rendition. If you like to use older MF lenses to shoot digital video, having that color consistency can be appealing. The sacrifice Minolta was willing to make for color balance was less-than-ultimate flare and ghosting control compared to say, Pentax and Nikon. Shooting with lens hoods is always a good idea, but with Minoltas, it's of utmost importance to suppress flare and maintain contrast. Shooting into the sun is not their forte. Minolta also tended to emphasize high resolution with medium contrast, versus the higher contrast, punchier look of Pentax, and to a lesser extent, Nikon. Contrast, as always, increases as you close down the aperture. Minolta bokeh (out-of-focus rendering) is generally neutral, with certain lenses (like the legendary and expensive 58/1.2, 85/1.7, and 100/2 lenses) having a reputation for superb bokeh. Minolta's (and the other companies') multi coating improved over time, with the final MD generation boasting the best that Minolta had in the manual focus line. A word of caution: don't get too hung up on coatings, unless shooting into the sun is a high priority. The gains get smaller and smaller from generation to generation, and you can get wonderful results, even with single coated lenses, if you play to their strengths and are mindful of their limitations. There are lots of other lens characteristics to take into consideration.
Build Quality. Minolta was heavily influenced by Leitz when it came to their optical and mechanical philosophy. The MC Rokkor generation is my pick for the ultimate in Minolta BQ. They had been steadily improving the Auto Rokkors and when they introduced the MCs in 1966, you could see the crisper knurling on the focus grips, the sharper engraving of the numbers, better paint quality, and the nicer, matte finish of the aperture blades. Aperture rings used a smooth and positive ball-bearing/detent system for setting f/ stops. Minolta utilized the Leitz-style focusing helicoid construction of aluminum-on-brass. The use of dissimilar metals contributes to a smoother focusing feel that is maintained even when lubricants break down or dry out over time. You can often pick up a 50 year old MC Rokkor and the focusing is still silky-smooth, not something you can say necessarily with an equivalent Nikkor or even most MD Rokkors, which used aluminum-on-aluminum helicoids. Aluminium-on-aluminum focusing mechanisms can suffer from grittier or seized focusing rings because the particles that become suspended in the lubricant due to wear are attracted to one another, causing greater friction, along with the breakdown of the lubricant itself. (This can be remedied, by the way, by having the helicoid cleaned and re-lubricated.) Of the three sub-genres of MC Rokkor ("flat" metal grip, "hill and valley" metal grip, and rubber grip), I would rank their desirability as:
Rubber grip (or MC-X; 1973-76). Rubber grips are really nice in cold weather :-).They offer improved functionality with or without gloves on. Many RGs featured new, improved optical constructions, the latest in multi coatings, and with no compromises in BQ. Minolta brought out the superb 24/2.8, 28/2, 50/1.4 - PG, 50/1.7, new versions of the 100/2.5 & 135/2.8, and the seriously underrated 200/4 lenses in this series. Some of these new lenses adopted aluminum-on-aluminum focusing helicoids, which carried over into the MD Rokkors.
"Hill & Valley" metal grip (or MC-II; 1967-72). This "bumpier", for lack of a better term, focus ring is easier to grip than the original "flat" MC Rokkor. Most of these lenses were introduced from 1969 and onward. Minolta also got their first big lens computer at this time and recalculated the optical constructions of some lenses (such as the 55/1.7, and the 58/1.4), improving image quality. Classic designs such as the 16/2.8 fisheye, 21/2.8, and 85/1.7 were introduced at this time. Multi coatings were improved, too.
"Flat" metal grip (or MC-I; 1966-69). Being last in this list definitely does not mean "undesirable". The first MCs are wonderful lenses, with such excellent designs as the 28/2.5, 35/1.8, and the 58/1.2 appearing. This was also the last generation for the rare 100/2. The newer MCs may offer a little more ergonomically and improvements performance-wise, but you can often pick up flat-grips for less money :-).
Next in line would be the first edition MD Rokkors (1977). Most of these featured nearly identical construction to the last MCs, shaving a few grams of weight on a few lenses. The biggest change was the redesigned aperture with "dynamic" blades, being lighter and faster-acting than previous versions to provide more accurate exposures with the new XD camera's auto exposure system. The MD "tab" also debuted on the aperture ring, signalling the minimum aperture (now marked in green) of the lens to the XD body for shutter-priority (and Program on the later X-700) operation. Almost all lenses maintained the same optical design, with the 85/1.7 being slightly revised according to some sources. Multi coatings were improved again. Being in production for only about a year makes the first-version MD Rokkors rarer and they tend to have the strongest prices of any generation of Minolta MF lenses. The only first-edition MD lenses to really depart from the MC paradigm were the 50s. Both the 1.4 & 1.7 had a nearly 20% weight loss, new optical designs (although keeping the same number of elements & groups), more modular construction, and a plastic aperture ring, setting the pattern for the next generation of MD Rokkors that debuted in 1978. Cost cutting was now beginning to enter the picture. Optical quality was as good or better than the MCs. Overall build quality remained quite high. The standard filter ring diameter held at 55mm.
With the version-two MD Rokkors, the cost cutting really started to take effect. Weight loss from the last of the MCs generally ran from 20 - 40%. Tapered lens barrels became common, as Minolta tried to shave every extra gram it could (the standard filter ring size shrunk to 49mm), engraving and painting were reduced to cut down on labour costs, lens blocks could no longer be disassembled down to the individual elements, and construction was simplified wherever possible. On third-edition (or plain) MDs, more plastic began to be used internally and externally, reducing the need for machining of precision metal parts. A minimum aperture lock for use with program or shutter-priority modes was added. Compared to an auto focus lens, these MDs still feel very good, though they are a drop from the MC/MD Rokkor peak in the mid-'70s. Multi coatings were about the only thing to keep improving. Only for a few of the lower production, and more specialized lenses did construction remain unchanged from the late-MC, early-MD Rokkor eras. On some lenses, Minolta reduced the number of elements, sometimes with a concurrent loss of performance. Ironically, when Minolta introduced the Alpha-mount (AF) in 1985, they returned to the earlier designs to restore the lost performance in a few cases. The reduction in build quality came about basically because of market pressure from third-party lenses and the consumer SLR trend started by Canon with the AE-1 (1976). After 1985, MD lens development didn't just stagnate - it regressed - as Minolta put its resources into AF. Post-'85 lenses are not worth your time or trouble.
Noteworthy Lenses. Minolta was a major force in lens design. They were the first to patent a floating elements design for wide-angle lenses to improve image quality at close-focusing distances. They played a large role in a co-operative effort by Japanese manufacturers to develop new, high-performance glass types in the mid-'60s. And they brought out three unique specialty lenses in the 1970s:
MC/MD Rokkor 24mm f/2.8 VFC (Variable Field Curvature) - Minolta took its excellent 24/2.8 and added a control ring allowing the photographer to vary field curvature in a convex or concave direction. It enables them to "bend" the field of focus around an curved object. It takes a considerable amount of knowledge to get the most out of this lens, but in its neutral position it acts just like the normal 24/2.8, which is arguably one of the best wide angles from any manufacturer of the era. This was one of the lenses whose build quality remained the same right into the final MD era.
MC/MD Shift Rokkor 35mm f/2.8 VFC - This is the only shift lens ever made by any company to feature VFC instead of the more common "tilt" function associated with perspective control lenses. Useful for architectural photography and other genres where keeping a natural perspective is desirable. This was the most expensive of these three specialty lenses originally, and the same holds true on the used market today. It is the rarest of the three, as well.
MD Rokkor 85mm f/2.8 VARISOFT - The final word in portrait lenses in 1978 when it was introduced. Instead of control over field curvature, the Varisoft gave the photographer the ability to manipulate another lens aberration: spherical aberration. Spherical aberration (SA) robs sharpness in normal circumstances, so lens designers generally go to great lengths to correct it properly. However, in portraiture, sharpness is not usually the highest priority...making the subject look good is :-). So...sometimes a little more SA can come in handy to hide skin imperfections (remember, this was 1978 B.P. - Before Photoshop) and create creamy bokeh in backgrounds. The Varisoft enables the photographer to dial in the exact amount of SA for the situation. Use it sparingly, however, a little SA goes a long, long way ;-).
Miscellaneous. Minolta used filter sizes of 43, 46, 49, 52, 55, 62, 67, 72, and 77mm over the years. Of these, 55mm is the most common up to second-edition MD Rokkors when 49mm became the standard size. 55s are easily used with step up rings for 49 and 52mm-fitted lenses , making it the most versatile size. Minolta lenses with 43, 46, 67, and 77mm filter rings are very, very rare. Canon also used 55mm as a standard filter size on its FD lenses in the 1970s. Pentax used 49mm as standard on its M42 Takumars and SMC-M & -A series of K-mount lenses. Nikkors and Pentax SMC K-mount had 52mm as standard. Check out our picks for the best bargains in Minolta MF lenses in this article.
Mechanical SLR Bodies
1958 - With the SR-2 (2 was a favorite number of Minolta founder Kazuo Tashima) Minolta joined the Asahi Optical Co. (later Pentax) as the second of the major Japanese camera manufacturers to offer a pentaprism-equipped SLR system. The SR-2 was a very advanced camera for its day, offering a quick-return mirror, semi-automatic aperture operation (it re-opened the aperture when the film-advance was operated), a top shutter speed of 1/1000 sec., and a quick-change bayonet lens mount (versus Asahi's adoption of the common but more time-consuming Praktica M42 screwmount).
1959 - This year saw the debut of the SR-1, a slightly lower-specced (1/500 sec. top speed) version of the SR-2, which made it more affordable. The SR-1 would stay in production for 12 years and come in 7 variations over that time as the base model in the lineup.
1960 - The SR-2 (the rarest of the SRs) was replaced by the SR-3, with the inclusion of a bracket to mount an external selenium meter and a split-image focusing aid for the viewfinder.
1961 - Another improvement for the SR-3 and -1: the aperture now automatically re-opened after exposure instead of relying upon the film advance.
1962 - The SR-1 received the meter bracket of the SR-3 and a new cadmium sulfide (CdS) external meter became available for the SR-1. In July, Minolta introduced the first SLR with a built-in meter, the SR-7 (7 was also a favorite number of Tashima-san), which replaced the SR-3 at the top of the lineup. The SR-7 was the first Minolta to feature mirror lock up (MLU) to allow use of the 21mm f/4.5 wide angle lens that protrudes into the mirror box of the camera.
1963 - The film counter of the SR-1 was moved to match that of the SR-7. The SR-7 received an OFF/ON switch for the meter and a simplified MLU that no longer wasted a frame of film when activated.
1965 - Both the SR-7 and the SR-1 were restyled for a more modern, cleaner look. The Minolta logo was moved to the angled portion of the prism housing. Both models were designated "V", with a new rectangular viewfinder. The SR-1 also received the MLU function and a new SR-V external meter was made available.
1967 - The SR-1s, the final iteration of the SR-1, was introduced, now with a top speed of 1/1000 sec. The SR-Meter-V was renamed the SR-Meter-S. This last version of the SR-1 was produced until 1971, when it was replaced by the SRT-100. Which nicely brings us to the most famous series of mechanical Minoltas...
1966 - With the introduction of the SRT-101, Minolta created one of the most successful model families in SLR history, one that remained in production for 15 years. The SRT-101 took all of the advances made by the SR Series, added full-aperture TTL (through-the-lens) metering (meaning that focusing and metering were all done with a bright viewfinder) all in a simple, clean, easy-to-use package. Build quality was improved over the SRs with a DOF (depth-of-field) preview button now on the camera body and shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder. The -101 also featured Minolta's newly developed CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) metering, which proved accurate and user-friendly over the years.
1969 - There was a slight restyling of the -101, with a coarser knurled shutter speed dial and cross-head instead of slotted-head screws, along with a few internal changes that improved reliability.
1970 - The rarest SRT-era model, the SR-M, debuted with an integrated motor drive capable of 3 fps (frames per second) film advance, and a hand grip that held 8 AA batteries. It was designed for professional use and was available with a 250-frame back; the meter and DOF preview button were deleted; and it only came in black. Not so practical for use today, SR-Ms are highly prized by collectors.
1971 - The SRT-100 replaced the SR-1s as the base model in the SLR line. Though it incorporated the TTL meter of the -101, the DOF preview button, self timer, viewfinder shutter speed display, and 1/1000 sec. top shutter speed were all deleted to lower the cost of the camera.
1973 - The -101 was bumped to a middle position in the lineup by a new model, the SRT-102. Featuring an aperture readout in the viewfinder to go along with the shutter speed display, a dedicated provision for multiple exposures using the film rewind button, a split image rangefinder with microprism collar focusing aid, and a hot shoe for flash, the -102 was the most capable SRT ever made. Minolta began its somewhat confusing practice of using different model numbers for the same camera in different global markets: they had the SRT-102 in North America; the SRT-303 in Europe; and the SRT Super in Asia-Pacific.
1974 - At some point, MLU was deleted from the SRT-101 & -102. With the introduction of the retrofocus MC Rokkor 21mm f/2.8 lens in 1971, Minolta now felt that there was little need for MLU on its newest cameras. (Many landscape & macro photographers would beg to differ ;-). MLU is very helpful in cutting down vibration in the speed range of 1/30 - 1 sec., enabling sharper results.) No manual focus Minolta came with MLU after this.
1975 - Minolta's new regional nomenclature spread to the rest of the SRT line. The 102/303/Super became the -202 in North America, the -303b in Europe/Asia, and the SR505 in Japan. New features included a new film Safe Load Signal window in the top right corner below the film advance lever, a film memo holder on the back, and the aperture follower was now plastic instead of metal. The -101 now became the -201 in North America, the -101b in Europe/Asia, and the SR101 in Japan and it got the film memo holder, plastic aperture follower, and a hot shoe. The base model SRT-100 was replaced by the new -200 (N.A.)/-100b (Europe/Asia), which brought back the 1/1000 sec. top shutter speed and also got the plastic aperture follower.
1977 - Major changes for the middle and bottom-of-the-line SRTs were introduced as cost pressures began to mount with the explosion of cheaper electronic plastic-bodied SLRs in the market. CLC metering was the big thing to go, being replaced by a single cell meter. FP flash sync was also eliminated, which was not too much of a loss, as electronic flash had made huge strides in the 1970s. One welcome addition was an improved focusing screen
1981 - The SRT-201, the final SRT and Minolta's last mechanical SLR for sale, was discontinued. In 16 years, around 3.6 million SRTs had been sold, making it one of the most successful mechanical SLRs of all time.
Recommendations. If you are looking for a mechanical manual focus SLR, you can do a lot worse than an SRT. Easily obtainable for under $50 USD, and often with a lens at that price, an SRT is a sweet gateway to the excellent Rokkor lens system. The top-of-the-line -102/-303/Supers with MLU will cost a bit more, but can be had for $125 USD fully CLA'd (Cleaned, Lubed, Adjusted) and with the meter recalibrated for modern silver-oxide 357 batteries. MLU-equipped SRTs make great long-exposure bodies due to their ability to minimize vibration (the only source of vibration being the shutter, as you can shoot with the aperture already stopped down with the lockable DOF button and the mirror locked up. The next most desirable models are the -202/-303b/SR505, followed by -101 with MLU and then the -201/-101b/SR101. You can often get an SRT body basically for nothing when a decent lens is attached, often an MC Rokkor PF 50/1.7 or even on occasion the delectable MC Rokkor PG 50/1.4. Even the lowly SRT-200 is the equal of a Pentax K1000 that people will pay over a $100 USD for and you can nab one for $40 USD with a 50/2 kit lens, no problem.
The only trick with SRTs, along with most other mechanical cameras of their era, is batteries for the meter. Because they used a 1.35 volt mercury battery that has since been banned for toxicity, the meter will not give correct readings with modern 1.55 volt silver-oxide batteries. However, there are a few simple workarounds. The first, and most expensive, is the C.R.I.S. adapter, which sells for $40 USD and is a drop in solution that uses a 386 silver-oxide battery with the voltage dropping circuitry built in to the adapter. The second, and cheaper alternative, is to install a Schottky diode into the power circuit which is easily accessed in the base of the camera. You then can use a 357 cell with an o-ring to center it in the battery chamber. My personal -102 has this modification and its meter is dead on. If that's still too much for you, a handheld meter or Sunny 16 is always there. Spending the $125 for a CLA'd & recalibrated SRT looks pretty good, all things considered and will give years of service. SRTs also make great cold-weather cameras, if you are climate-challenged like me :-).
Electronic SLR Bodies
1973 - Introduced at Photokina in September 1972, the XK/X-1/XM (North America/Europe/Japan) was Minolta's first attempt at a professional SLR. Styling-wise, there was an unmistakable resemblance to Nikon's F2. But the XK wasn't just a knockoff, it was the first pro body to feature aperture-priority auto exposure and an electronically-controlled shutter. In this respect it was ahead of its time, as was its innovative Senswitch which powered up the camera as soon as you gripped it with your right hand and powered it down when not in use. Unfortunately for the XK, the reliability of the Senswitch was not so hot (many users had the switch bypassed, losing the power-conserving feature). The other major flaw was the initial lack of provision for a motor drive with the XK . That was a major omission as far as pros were concerned and was one of the best features of the F2 and Canon F-1. The XK was beautifully crafted and HEAVY! The MC Rokkor-X generation lenses with rubber grips also debuted with the XK, making for a formidable system. The XK also featured interchangeable finders, focusing screens, a 1/2000 - 16 sec. titanium shutter, all pro-level stuff in that era.
1976 - Minolta finally got around to providing motor drive capability to the market, although they had announced it back in '72. To keep up with the speed of the drive, a new, faster-responding silicon blue cell-equipped finder (AE-S) replaced the original CdS-equipped AE unit. It was too little, too late to make any real impact in the pro market. The F2 was at the height of its dominance. But the impact of the XK would be seen in the next pro Nikon. Early prototypes for the F3 show the influence of the XK on Nikon's decision-making for its next-gen pro SLR: aperture-priority, an electronically-controlled shutter, a very similar control layout, especially with the film advance lever being concentric to the shutter release (a layout never seen before or since on an F-body). The XK served as the test-bed for Minolta's entry into the electronic SLR arena, and is one of the most influential cameras of its time, a fact not lost on collectors today.
1974 - Both Minolta and Canon adopted a similar strategy in the early 1970s when they targeted Nikon's position in the professional and advanced amateur markets. They both introduced top-end modular pro systems to battle the F2 and very sophisticated (for the time), electronically-controlled auto exposure SLRs to compete with the Nikkormat/Nikomat EL. Canon had the F-1 and EF as its entrants and Minolta had the XK and XE slotted in to its lineup. The XE turned out to be far more successful than the XK and it outsold both the EL and the EF. The XE was the epitome of build quality in a Minolta amateur body, sporting lots of brass and operating with a smoothness unequaled by any succeeding model (the XD comes close, though :-)). Much of the refinement of the XE was due to Minolta's collaboration with Leitz starting in 1972. Leitz worked with Copal to develop the XE's vertical-travel shutter, a first for a Minolta. It is noticeably quieter than the EL's Copal Square shutter. The film advance is the smoothest ever found on a Minolta, with a very convenient multiple exposure lever incorporated with it. The XE would serve as the chassis for the Leica R3 of 1976. The all-black XE-7 was the North American version, with XE-1 being the European designation and is most common in a chrome finish, although there are a few rare all-black specimens. The Japanese edition was simply the XE, again mostly in chrome, with a few black ones slipping out of the factory. The body is a great match with MC-X lenses, both ergonomically and visually, although it will mount every Minolta MF lens ever made, excepting those that protrude into the mirror box (like the old, non-retrofocus wide angle 21mm lenses). This is because the XE lacks MLU, which is about the only thing it's missing. The XE also boasts one of the shortest shutter lags of any film SLR, at 38 milliseconds, only 0.001 second slower than a modern Nikon F6. One nice feature of the XEs is their use of the common 357 silver-oxide battery to power the meter and shutter (no messing around with diodes or adapters ;-)). With CLC metering married to the quartz-timed shutter, accurate exposures are easy-peasy.
1975 - The XE was so successful that Minolta brought out a slightly de-contented version in 1975. Known as the XE-5 in North America and Europe and the XEb in Japan, it lost the full information viewfinder of the -7 (only displaying the recommended shutter speed of the meter), the built-in eyepiece shutter, the film Safe Load Signal, and multiple exposure capability on the -5 (strangely, the XEb retained ME, it must have been more of a thing in Japan :-)). But all of the other goodies were there in a chrome body with a distinctive black prism housing.
1977 - The successor to the XE cuts a very different figure, due to the influence of Olympus. The most noticeable difference is size and weight. The XD is 28% lighter than the XE and almost matches the Olympus OM-1 millimeter for millimeter. You instantly feel the difference in your hands. It's a very dense little package. Film advance is almost as smooth as the XE's, but shutter lag is greater at 60 ms because of a new feature: Final Check metering. The XD sneaks a second meter reading just before exposure to make any adjustments if the aperture doesn't close down with in specs. The stepless electronic shutter can tweak the speed to ensure proper exposure. It's that double check that takes the extra milliseconds. For most people it is a worthwhile tradeoff. The XD was also the first multimode SLR offering manual, aperture-priority, and shutter-priority all in one body. The addition of shutter-priority and Final Check metering required changes to the Rokkor lens lineup, with the addition of the MD tab on aperture rings, and a faster-acting aperture assembly to provide sufficient exposure accuracy. Thus came the debut of MD Rokkors with the XD. Designations by region are: XD-11 (North America); XD-7 (Europe); XD (Japan). Bodies came in both chrome and black in all regions, with black XD-7s being very rare. XDs boast faster silicon meters than the CdS meters of the XE, brighter Acute Matte focusing screens, and an LED viewfinder instead of the analog needle of the XE. This can be helpful in low-light situations. The XDs are the last amateur MF Minoltas made to a higher build quality standard. Cost-cutting came in with a vengeance in the late '70s as Minolta strained to keep up (or is it get down?) with Canon's wild success with the AE-1.
1979 - With the XD-5 Minolta pulled the same trick as with the XE-7 and XE-5. Remove some convenient but non-essential features and move down a notch in the market to find more sales. The XD-5 sat squarely between the XD-11 and the definitely consumer-level XGs. You get XD build quality with XG capability, which is not too shabby. Speaking of the XGs...
1977 - With the tremendous sales success of the the consumer-targeted Canon AE-1 (1976), pressure was put on the remaining Big 4 manufacturers to respond. The XG series was Minolta's answer to Canon: following the same pattern of lighter, more modular construction that took less labor, more use of plastics, and substituting electronics for mechanical components whenever possible. Cheaper meters, shutters, and viewfinders were the order of the day. The so-called "race to the bottom" had begun. It was now about how close an SLR could be stripped to the margins while still offering acceptable performance. With the XG-7 (N.A.); XG-2 (Europe); and XG-E (Japan), and their descendants, Minolta sold as many XGs in 8 years as they sold SRTs in 16. Most XGs were intended to be used as aperture-priority cameras.
1979 - The XG-9/-SE/-S replaced the XG-7/-2/-E models. Improvements included: the better, brighter Acute Matte focusing screen of the XD series, a DOF preview button, and provision for interchangeable data backs. The XG-1 also debuted, stripped down even further losing the film memo holder, and using a less informative viewfinder.
1980 - The Japan-only X-7 was a further stripped-down XG-1, losing the Acute Matte screen but getting a warning beeper that activated when the shutter speed dropped below 1/60 sec.
1981 - The XG-A replaced the XG-1 again losing features as the price wars intensified. Now, manual override was deleted, making the lowest-specced XG an auto exposure camera entirely. By late 1981, Minolta was keen to consolidate the XG line, so they introduced the restyled XG-M/X70 in Japan ("M" signifying that the Motor Drive 1 that debuted with the X-700 could be used on this XG). It basically replaced the top and mid-grade XGs in one fell swoop. It was definitely the most capable XG body, having full manual mode, exposure compensation, and the best viewfinder of the bunch.
1982 - The X-7 received the Acute Matte focusing screen and detachable film back. A restyled XG-1 appeared, following the XG-M look, to round out the bottom of the XG line.
1981 - What happens when you cross and XD and an XG? The X-700. It's the XD's brains and meter, and the XG's guts, wrapped in an XG body. And a few new features like Program mode, TTL flash, and a true motor drive thrown in for good measure. The X-700 was the closest thing to a point & shoot SLR in the Minolta manual focus universe. At the root of this is Program mode, the final evolution of the XD's shutter-priority mode. All the user has to do is focus and press the shutter release and the camera does the rest...at least that's what the ads promised. One outstanding characteristic of the X-xxx models is their big, bright viewfinders with snappy second-gen Acute Matte focusing screens. The offerings from aftermarket focusing screen manufacturers could generally outperform OEM screens, but not these. The X-700 had the most extensive accessory system of any MF Minolta with wireless transmitters, TTL macro flash, multi-function backs, and lots more. It stayed in production the longest of all the Minolta MF models, right to the end of the SR system.
1983 - The middle-of-lineup X-570 (X-500 outside North America) debuted. It was actually better suited to amateurs rather than consumers because of its metered manual mode that shows not only the recommended setting but the actual setting for shutter speed (unlike the X-700, which only shows the meter's recommendation). The X-570 lacks Program mode, but does have aperture priority and takes all of the accessories that the X-700 does. It also offers slow-sync flash, which the X-700 has to be modified to do. This makes it the most desirable of all the X-xxx series bodies for more serious photographers
1984 - The X-370/-300/-7A was introduced as a replacement for the XG-M. It was basically a stripped-down X-570, with DOF preview, interchangeable focusing screens, TTL flash, and the PC socket all deleted. The shutter speed dial was now covered with a window revealing the set speed a la the Canon A-1.
The final Minolta MF models for sale were the X-700 & the X-370n/X-9. Both were made in China from around 1990 to 1999. Together with a very reduced lens lineup, they quietly disappeared from the shelves of camera stores and the mail order pages of photography magazines.
Recommendations. XEs and XDs are definitely the most desirable electronic Minoltas from the standpoint of build quality. XDs generally pull in higher prices than XEs due to their lower weight, excellent silicon-cell meter, brighter viewfinder, and because they are more well-known. If you prefer analog meter needles and brass, the XE will definitely fit the bill. If TTL flash is a big deal for you, X-570/500s and -700s are the only game in town. The -570 edges out the -700 with its better-executed manual mode and slow sync flash capability. Something to be aware of with any XG or X-xxx body is the poor quality of release capacitors, which fry with regularity. The upside is that it is an easy repair and by fitting a better quality capacitor, the problem can be eliminated. XGs or X-370s are capable enough cameras, and can be had for so little, that they are great candidates for taking into dodgier situations where you might not want to risk a more valuable camera. All Minolta electronic models take common and inexpensive 357 silver-oxide batteries.
TTL or non-TTL, that is the question. Minolta first introduced TTL flash with the X-700 body in 1981. It was the biggest step forward in flash metering and capability in the SR system, ever. If you have to have TTL flash, you will need an X-700 or -570/-500 body and you have 4 options in flash units:
AUTO 360PX - This was the top-of-the-line TTL flash for the SR line offering bounce, swivel, three auto settings and full manual operation for non-TTL bodies, with a guide number (or GN, the power rating) of 36 (meters). It also features variable power settings from full power to 1/16. It is definitely the most versatile flash ever offered for MF Minoltas, and was even more capable than the first AF flash units. There are a number of off-camera cables for the 360, but they are increasingly rare and expensive. If you find them, grab 'em.
AUTO 280PX - This was the smallest and most basic of the TTL-enabled flashes. It has a fixed head, and is TTL or manual, with no auto sensor for use on non-TTL bodies. It has a GN of 28 (meters). Much less versatile and capable than the 360PX.
AUTO 132PX - The least desirable of the PX standard flashes, although it does offer bounce capability and has a higher guide number of 32 (meters) than the 280PX. The reason is that it lacks the thyristor circuitry of the other two PX flashes. This means that is fully discharges the flash capacitor regardless of the actual amount of power needed, which means reduced battery life and longer recycle times and it is not capable of keeping up with a motor drive. TTL and manual are the two modes, as on the 280PX. A very basic bounce flash.
AUTO MACRO 80PX - A ring flash specifically designed for macro photography. It is TTL-only, with a GN of 8 (meters). It is a two-piece design, with the ring (obviously) mounted on the front of the lens, and the control unit on the hot shoe. It has four tiny flash heads that can individually be switched on or off for various lighting effects. Very specialized but very useful if your needs require. There are also 4 modelling lamps to preview the lighting look and assist in focusing.
For each TTL PX-series flash, there is an equivalent or near-equivalent non-TTL unit:
AUTO 320x - this was the top-end non-TTL flash. It's GN of 32 is slightly lower but layout, size, and capabilities are identical to the 360PX, aside from the TTL lamp and switch detent found on the 360. That makes the 320x a great deal if you don't need TTL or only use flash rarely. The AUTO x-series flashes were the first "dedicated" units (featuring another electrical pin that transmitted a flash ready signal to XD-and-newer bodies in the viewfinder) made by Minolta.
AUTO 200x - non-TTL precursor to the 280PX. The major differences are a dial-based control system versus the sliding scale of the 280 and a lower GN of 20 instead of 28. Instead of TTL it has two Auto sensor settings, along with High and Low manual settings it shares with the 280PX. No bounce or swivel capability. It also features thyristor circuitry.
AUTO 132x - direct ancestor of the 132PX, only lacking TTL. Specs are otherwise identical.
AUTO 118x - A stripped-down AUTO 200x, with slightly lower GN of 18 and no thyristor circuitry. The most basic Minolta Auto X flash.
Recommendations. If you are a regular flash user, buy a 360PX if you need TTL, or a 320x if you don't. You can save a few dollars with the 320x. Non-thyristor units are really not worth it, even though they can be had for very little. They eat batteries and take too long to recycle compared to thyristor-equipped models.
Minolta had a fairly extensive line of accessories from the 1960s onward. There were copy stands, bellows, and achromatic close-up lenses for macro and copy work. They had right-angle and magnifying viewfinder attachments along with slide-on eyesight correction eyepieces from -0.5 to +2.0 diopters. Lens hoods, underwater housings, filters, cases, and detachable and handheld meters for the SR-series were also available by the early-to-mid '60s. Minolta also made adapters for fitting Praktica (M42), Exakta, and Leica (M39 thread mount) lenses to their SLRs. The Praktica adapter allows for infinity focus without any corrective glass elements, while the M39 adapter does not. The early '70s brought automatic exposure and aperture control to bellows and extension tubes, and a wider range of corrective eyepieces.
With the introduction of the XD and XG cameras in 1977 came new accessories: detachable auto winders, a power grip for off-camera flash, and a quartz data back to record date settings on film. When the X-xxx series debuted in 1981, Minolta really went to town: their first motor drive for amateur bodies, wireless IR controller, and a multi function back with intervalometer (very reminiscent of Canon's approach with the A-series SLRs). Many other accessories were updated with each new generation of SLRs.
Recommendations. For close up work Minolta's achromatic (two-element) screw-on lenses are among the best deals in the category. Two-element close-up lenses offer far higher image quality than single element versions and are a fast, easy way to shorten the minimum focusing distance of standard lenses. Canon and Nikon also offered achromatic close-up lenses, but they are much more expensive than Minolta's and the performance is identical. Minolta made 49, 52, and 55mm versions in three strengths (#0, #1, and #2) which are suitable for different focal lengths of lenses. Getting the 55mm versions and using step down rings allows you the most versatility and also means you can use them on other systems, too. The 55s are a standard fit on most Minolta lenses from the early '60s to the late '70s and Canon's original FD lenses from the '70s. With a 55-52mm step-down ring, they can be used on many Nikkors (Nikon lenses), Pentax SMC K lenses, and Canon new FD lenses. With a 55-49 step-down ring, many Pentax M42, SMC-M, and SMC-A lenses, and Olympus OM lenses, along with later Minolta MD Rokkors will accept these underrated accessories. Minolta and good quality non-OEM auto extension tubes are another inexpensive way to improve close focusing performance (at the expense of infinity focusing and depth of field). If you are seriously into macro photography, a good set of bellows (Auto Bellows 1 is the most capable) is an excellent investment as would be the 80PX macro flash unit.
For the X-xxx and XG-M cameras, the Motor Drive 1 improves the ergonomics of these bodies immeasurably, even for manual winding (just leave it turned off). It offers a vertical shutter release (that can be turned off to prevent accidental activation) for portrait orientation and Minolta's very handy touch-switch metering (meaning you only have to rest your finger on the release to activate the meter, no half-press of the shutter release needed). It has three settings (plus OFF) of "S" (single shot), "Low" (continuous low: 2 frames/second), and "High" (continuous high: 3.5 fps). It is one of the best amateur motor drives of the '80s of any brand :-). Like all '80s motor drives, discretion is not it's strong point ;-).
Reliability & Servicing
Minolta was most successful with it's amateur and consumer level SLRs. They were known as being a good value for the money. The SRTs are definitely the most rugged and reliable of the bunch, with the XEs and XDs following closely behind. SRTs are pretty straightforward to work on and there are quite a few independent guys who still service them. Meter recalibration for modern batteries is fairly simple and easier to do than on many contemporary SLRs of other brands. A tip for potential SRT purchasers: look for bodies with coarse knurling on the shutter dial and cross-head body screws. The early bodies had a black dial with fine vertical knurling and slotted-head body screws. There were a few internal improvements on the later bodies that further enhanced reliability. With XG and X-xxx bodies, there are more possibilities for failure, due to cost-cutting, especially with the release capacitors. Fortunately, they can be repaired quite easily with modest soldering skills. (The capacitors are easily accessed, thankfully.)
Lenses are a strong point for Minolta, with MC/early MD and Auto Rokkors being very reliable and easily serviced if need be. There are a few lenses, such as the MC Rokkor-HG 35/2.8, that tend to get oily aperture blades which require cleaning. The good news is that this is not too difficult to do, and you can often score an oily lens for a song, if you have the capability to clean it yourself. Second and third version MD lenses are more modular in construction, and are therefore, a little less serviceable, but also are more quickly disassembled into their main components.
Minolta was one of the most innovative of the Big 5 in optics and ergonomics. They and Nikon were the only manufacturers to make their own glass for their lenses, giving them control over the entire lens making process. Their lens lineup was very solid from wide angle to medium telephoto (200-300mm). Minolta was big on catadioptric (think Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope) designs for their supertelephoto lenses. While these proved to be very compact for their focal lengths, they did have some drawbacks compared to standard refractive lenses. They are quite rare nowadays (especially the 1000 and 1600mm lenses). Minolta always tended to be strongest in the amateur and consumer categories with their SLRs, with their attempts at professional bodies coming up short, often because of being ahead of their time with features that could not be executed reliably (e.g. the Senswitch power system of the XK) with the technology of the day. Minoltas are a great option for the budget-minded film enthusiast because of the SR mount's orphan status. Also, most MC/MD lenses adapt very well to use on mirrorless digital bodies, making them a great value if that is a priority for you. Excellent resources for researching the SR system are: Antony Hands' website The Rokkor Files, Dennis Lohmann's Minolta website, and the Swiss site artaphot.ch (in German, but you can get the gist with Google Translate) for lens tests on modern mirrorless cameras. Fine hands-on user reviews of Minolta manual focus SLRs and lenses can be found at Casual Photophile.
Next up: the Canon FL/FD system
Suffers from an 18-year and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.