It’s easy to become a numbers-junkie. Whether it’s cameras, cars, watches, or tech toys, it seems that someone’s always shouting about the superiority of one machine over another based on intangible and often unappreciable figures.
In the world of photography, this phenomenon is especially difficult to avoid. So it’s nice when after a spell of specification over-saturation you stumble onto a camera that never intended to be the best, shoots excellently, and makes you wonder how we ever became so obsessed with stats. The Minolta X-7A is just such a camera. One of the lower-end cameras by that brand, it still manages to pack a lot of features into an incredibly affordable body.
Introduced in 1985, the X-7A is an exceedingly easy-to-use micro-computerized SLR camera using quartz controlled mechanical shutter speeds. Do we know what this means? Good lord, no. In short, it’s Minolta’s way of saying “this camera will not operate without a battery.” Luckily, batteries are readily available.
The design is acutely focused on aperture-priority auto-exposure shooting, though the camera is capable of operating under manually selectable shutter speeds as well. While this would lead one to assume they’re holding an exceptionally well-equipped camera, this machine can’t escape its low-end billing. It lacks many things found in the higher-end Minoltas such as a depth of field preview lever, mirror lock-up, and the generally high build standards for which the brand is known.
At 470g the camera is a lightweight with lackluster build quality. It doesn’t feel cheap per se, it just doesn’t feel as solid as other Minoltas. But this cheaper build doesn’t mean it’s not a nicely proportioned camera. The front waffle-grid grip is comfortable and well-textured, and the rubbery body covering remains soft and grippy after all these years. Metal strap lugs instill confidence, and switches click into place well enough. Okay, it’s not a Leica, but it’s only going to cost you nineteen U.S. dollars. At that price, lesser quality is forgivable.
So what does a photographer get for nineteen bucks? Some nice features, actually. The X-7A has a self-timer with triple-rate blinking LED, and AE lock (something often lacking in Minolta’s higher end cameras). Shutter speeds range from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second and Bulb mode, which is pretty standard for the times. There’s a shutter release cable socket, tripod mount, and a contact-sensitive shutter release button so that power is only drawn from the batteries when the photographer’s finger is placed on the button. The X-7A is also able to accept Minolta’s Motor Drive 1 (3.5 FPS) and the Auto Winder G (2 FPS).
These features are nice, but the most important feature of the X-7A is unquestionably the ability of the camera to use Minolta’s ubiquitous and fantastic SR mount lens range. The MC/MD lenses made by Minolta for more than three decades are well-known in the photography world for their excellent build quality and fantastic optic coatings. Couple this low-end camera with any number of Rokkor lenses and it changes things dramatically. Even using the most common of standard focal length lenses, a Rokkor 50mm F/1.7, for example, turns the X-7A from an ugly duckling to the belle of the ball (mixed metaphor intended).
Availability of glass ranges from 7.5mm fisheye lenses, to super-telephoto, to zooms, and even an incredibly rare tilt-shift lens, so creative options abound.
The viewfinder of the X-7A is a pleasant surprise. The exceptionally bright example uses the typical matte focus screen with split-image rangefinder surrounded by micro prism focusing band. Visible around the frame is a very ’80s “hi-tech” LED array, showing in red lights the selected mode (“A” or “M”), the metered shutter-speed, selected shutter-speed, and battery check light. Additionally there is a “flash-ready” light whenever an X-series flash unit is mounted to the camera’s hot shoe.
Conspicuously absent is the ever-popular aperture window, so that aperture setting can only be ascertained by removing one’s eye from the finder and looking to the aperture ring on the lens. Not a deal-breaker, but more informative displays are always a welcome addition to any camera’s viewfinder. Again, low-end camera.
Internally, things are predictably mediocre. The shutter is the very old-fashioned horizontally-traveling cloth shutter. It does the job, but isn’t nearly as snappy or reliable as metal, vertically-traveling, or leaf shutters. The mirror noise is very loud, making street photography an exercise in futility. Only those who have no problem getting in the face of potentially irritable subjects will enjoy the X-7A’s decibel output.
Another issue worth mentioning is the cameras tendency to suffer degradation to internal circuits, causing the shutter to lock and rendering the camera useless without repairs that require some pretty adept soldering skills. This makes it especially important to ensure proper operation before purchasing an X-7A (or really, any X-series Minolta). If the shutter functions with batteries installed, the camera should be fine.
Out in the field the X-7A is nice to use. It’s a good size, comfortable to carry around all day, and looks pretty damn good. The compatible Rokkor lenses are among the best lenses in the world, and the camera’s AE lock is a real blessing. The viewfinder is one of the better examples found in older SLRs, enabling very fast focusing and allowing the shooter to very quickly ascertain the most important (and basic) parameters of the shot. In practice, the metering is as accurate as any other Minolta (very accurate), and the addition of a cable release will be a welcome bonus for low-light tripod shooters.
For most people (and especially new shooters) this camera is going to do everything asked of it. While the build quality is certainly not as high as some other Minolta SLRs, the price isn’t either. The X-7A is one of those special bargains in the photographic world. An acceptably capable box to hold your film and attach a lens to, it’s a no-frills machine for anyone who cares more about shooting than specifications.
It reminds one that the machine you shoot with isn’t the most important thing in photography, and it helps one remember that it’s better to stop picking nits, pick a camera, and shoot.