New Vintage – The Minolta XD-s Analogue SLR
In sudden burst of enthusiasm to try something slightly different, I have dusted-off the old Minolta XD-s and shot a roll of Ilford HP5. All the images here were taken using the Minolta MD 50mm f1.4 lens.
There were three aims:
- to check if the camera light seals are still good enough (the camera is more than 30 years old…)
to see if I can still figure out how to focus manually
to see of the effect of the smaller camera on subjects…
These images were shot in about an hour on a Saturday morning, all using a 50mm lens.
Surprisingly, there were no light-leaks. This is despite some slightly tacky foam seals and a little movement in the back of the camera. Also amazingly, the shutter control still seems to be working just fine, with consistent exposures at every shutter speed.
Unfortunately, the camera also consistently metered too slow a shutter speed. As a result the scans are significantly noisier and grainer than they might otherwise be.
Comparing the Minolta’s against the meter in a DSLR indicated an over-exposure of about 1-stop. But after some experimentation with the ISO dial and exposure compensation the two cameras seem to agree again. It is possible that the contacts in the Minolta ISO dial are suffering a little from age. Whatever the reason, the metering seems fine at the moment.
Aside from some exposure problems, the camera is surprisingly easy to use. It was the first SLR to support both manual, aperture-priority and shutter-priority shooting modes, with everything controlled from dials on the camera and aperture and focus rings on the lens.
The viewfinder is excellent, with LEDs to indicate the metered shutter speed and a small window that shows the selected aperture on the lens. Manual focussing is helped by the use of a split-screen surrounded by a ring of micro-prisms that shimmer if the focus is not quite correct. I obviously need to practise more to improve focus accuracy, but even for a first attempt this was much more successful than trying to manually focus the Canon camera.
The XD-s is also good if you wear glasses. It is functionally the same as the XD-7 / XD-11, but it replaces the eyepiece shutter with a diopter correction which makes focusing and framing easier for those with less than perfect eyesight. The XD-s was unsurprisingly introduced specifically for the Japanese market, although it seems to be widely available on the second-hand market here in Europe.
The camera is a delight to use. It is about the same size as a micro-4/3 camera with the Panasonic 25mm (50mm equivalent) lens, but the handling is infinitely better thanks to the completely uncluttered body and complete unambiguity of the controls. It is a reminder of how painful modern cameras have become to use, where buttons and dials change their function with the shooting mode and every few years the camera is replaced with something that has a completely different and transient system of controls.
There is also a very pleasant tactile feel to the camera. The design was the result of a collaboration between Minolta and Leica in the 1970s, and while not as sturdy as a Leica rangefinder it is substantially better constructed than most modern small cameras. This particular XD-s was bought on eBay a couple of years ago for next to nothing and is physically in almost new condition.
And it is definitely easier to shoot on the street than either the large Canon DSLR – which simply intimidates people, or the smaller Olympus E-M5 – which suffers from cramped controls and an electronic viewfinder and focus system that while excellent for stills, is not so good for anything which is moving.
The film and processing quality is mixed. There is quite a lot of scratching on the negatives from developing (I used Fotoprix – which is kind of like the Walmart of photography here in Spain…). There is also a lot of noise, which is the result of over-exposure leading to dark negatives and in turn a noisy scanning.
To digitise the negatives I used an old PlusTek 7600i scanner with Hamrick’s VueScan software. The images were digitised at 7200DPI and the down-sampled to 3600DPI to help reduce noise. The resulting images are about 15MP in size and were processed in Lightroom to increase contrast.
With the scanning software configured to run three passes – two for dynamic range and a third IR pass to reduce scratching/dust – it takes about 15 minutes to digitise a single photograph – or a staggering nine hours to scan a complete roll of 36 images. This plus the cost of the film means that you really really want to make every image count.
Overall, the camera is working well, and with the exposure problem corrected it should give good image quality. The main problem is re-learning to manually focus – which simply requires more practise.