Beginning in 1959 with the Nikon F, Japanese camera makers would spend the next few decades perfecting the SLR camera. As rangefinders and larger format cameras gave way to this new wave of machines, more and more Japanese manufacturers would get in on the single-lens-reflex action. This explosion of innovation coupled with old-fashioned mechanics would yield a bevy of machines that would make up some of the best photographic tools in the world. Thanks to their bulletproof designs many of these machines are still shooting today, and one of the standout ranges of the era is the long-lived Minolta SR-T series.
Combining the highest standard in build quality with completely capable tech specs for every budget, the cameras of Minolta’s SR-T lineup would comprise their best-selling machines for an impressive 15 years. From 1966 to 1981, this series of cameras would satisfy amateurs and professionals alike. From the basic SR-T100 to the flagship model 202, Minolta created a series of outstanding machines to fill every price-point. A few weeks ago I got my hands on the big-boy of the bunch, the SR-T202, and it wasn’t long before I was out on the street seeing what Minolta’s engineers had come up with nearly 40 years earlier.
Like many SLR cameras of its era, the SR-T202 is a heavy beast. At 700g (body only) it’s nearly as heavy as a full-frame DSLR (Nikon’s D610 comes in at 760g). For those shooters who are accustomed to the heft of a DSLR this won’t demand much of an adjustment, but if you’re coming from a mirror-less or micro 4/3rds system you may be unpleasantly surprised. Achy wrists aside, the SR-T’s full-metal construction feels as solid as a brick. Minolta was founded by a man obsessed with “German” standards of quality and construction, and the SR-T series showcases this better than any other model. The 202, in particular, is the most robust of the range.
Aesthetically the SR-T can be a polarizing camera, since it looks the same way it feels, like a brick. Some will find it sparse and bulky, while others will appreciate it for these same traits. The general shape is rectangular with nothing superfluous to admire, such as grips or curvaceous contours. Abrupt right angles dominate; there’s not a bevel to be seen anywhere. The pentaprism and lens-mount are off-center which, while being a bit awkward, helps to break up the visual monotony and give the camera some shape. The “SR-T” and “Minolta” badging is deeply engraved and painted to contrast with the body. The brand’s minimalist logo (lower-case lettering only) stands as a philosophical demonstration; this machine is no-nonsense, effective, and to-the-point. It won’t win any beauty competitions, but the SRT is a purpose-built tool; a professional’s machine.
It comes in black and chrome, with the black version being the more rare of the two. Both are finished to a high standard, so which color is best will be up to personal preference. If street photography is the goal, the black version is probably preferential, though honestly this camera is so loud that it may not be the best choice for street shooting. Mirror slap is pronounced, and the noise is just about the loudest of any camera, so good luck getting those sneaky candids.
With the top-of-the-line SR-T, Minolta wanted to develop a camera that would meet the requirements of professionals in the field. They favored a control system that’s extremely basic, but entirely effective. Even without batteries, this fully-mechanical camera is still able to complete whatever task is thrown at it. The top plate features the film advance lever, shutter release with threaded cable-release socket, rewind lever, frame counter, hot shoe, and ASA/shutter speed selector. The front features the self-timer lever, lens-release, depth-of-field preview button, and flash sync selector (X/FP). Turning the camera upside-down reveals a tripod mount, film rewind button, battery port, and ON/OFF/BC switch.
The 202 sports the most full-featured viewfinder in the SR-T range. But while it’s true that everything the shooter needs to know is displayed, things are far from perfect. A window at the top of the frame displays the selected aperture, while the bottom of the frame shows the selected shutter speed. The problem is that these windows are lit by ambient light, so easy reading will be hampered in low-light situations. In fact, anything but outside, daytime shooting will leave the photographer cursing the viewfinder for its lack of brightness. Later decades would see this problem solved through the use of LED lighting, but for SLRs of the SR-Ts era this issue is sadly common.
The right side of the viewfinder shows the light-meter needle and match needle. This metering system constantly adjusts to show a value based on the amount of light in the frame. The photographer adjusts shutter speed and aperture until a matching needle aligns with the meter needle. When the two needles are aligned a proper exposure will result. Additonally there’s a battery check mechanism. By switching the ON/OFF/BC switch on the bottom of the camera to “BC”, it’s possibly to see if the batteries in the camera are good or bad. When the battery is providing the proper voltage the light-meter needle hovers over a small, black square in the viewfinder. Focusing is aided through use of a micro prism band surrounding a split-image spot window. This center spot works like a rangefinder; adjust focus until the vertical lines are aligned, and shoot.
Even though Minolta would eventually develop the first successful autofocus system in the Maxxum 7000, this was still decades away. SR-Ts use manual focus lenses only, and these cameras are built for the illustrious Minolta SR mount lenses. These lenses are labeled MC, MD, Rokkor, or Celtic, and comprise one of the best and largest lens lineups in all of photography. Without exaggerating, these lenses are among the best in the world. Minolta was one of the only camera companies to produce their own glass elements in-house, a process that included hand-grinding, polishing, and applying advanced optical coatings. These guys knew their craft, and as a result, Minolta lenses offer some of the best sharpness, bokeh, contrast, color, and distortion control of any vintage lens. Build quality is second to none, and with a lens for every situation from macro bellows to super telephoto, it’s difficult to argue against using Minolta glass.
Affordability is also a big factor in what makes these machines so attractive. For about the same cost as a single modern lens, it’s possible to collect a full-featured lens package for Minolta SLRs. Hop over to eBay or Amazon and one can easily find a wide, standard, telephoto, and even macro lens solution for less than $60 each. This price isn’t indicative of inferiority, only a market that’s less aware of the Minolta name, and less educated about their value. The 50mm ƒ/1.4 is one of the best standard manual focus lenses ever tested, with outstanding bokeh, color, and contrast. On the wide end, the 24mm ƒ/2.8 shows unparalleled sharpness and no distortion whatsoever. For portraits, the 85mm ƒ/1.7 creates gorgeous images, though this particular lens is fairly expensive, actually. It’s also worth noting that Minolta created some of the best specialized lenses, like the 16mm fisheye, and one of the best vintage tilt-shift lenses in the world. The brand is less renowned than its Japanese contemporaries, and that’s a shame.
As for practical operation, the 202 is very nice. A tighter overall package than comparable machines from the likes of Canon and Olympus, Minolta’s SR-T is one of the most solid cameras available from the Japanese. Attention to detail abounds, such as a metal film rewind lever, dimpled metal battery cover, and metal film back door. Yes, many parts are made of metal. Unfortunately, the shutter is not. Instead, the SR-T uses the cheaper (and less accurate) horizontally-traveling cloth shutter, which is capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second to 1 second, as well as Bulb mode. The maximum speed of 1/1000th of a second is respectable, and this is one of the features of the 202 that sets it apart from the low end SR-Ts, such as the SR-T100, which only reached a maximum speed of 1/500th of a second.
Loading film is fairly simple, though not as easy as Canon’s QL system. Insert the film leader into one of the grooves in the take up spool and wind the lever. Rewind any slack, close the film door, shoot, wind, and it’s ready for action. The camera features a “film safe load” window on the back of the top plate that tells the photographer the film has been loaded correctly, and a memo holder stands to remind which type of film was loaded into the camera.
The entire SR-T line uses through the lens metering at full aperture. This means that the camera compensates in real time for adjustments the photographer makes to the aperture setting without diminishing the amount of light reaching the viewfinder. Instead of the aperture stopping down whenever the aperture ring is adjusted, it closes momentarily at the instant of shutter release. This allows for bright, clear viewfinders that allow easy composition.
The most noteworthy feature of the SR-T line is certainly the implementation of Minolta’s then new CLC metering technology. The “Contrast Light Compensator” system was the first of its kind in the world, and allowed the camera to meter from two separate metering cells mounted on different areas of the pentaprism. CLC allows for more accurate exposures, as it takes into account both the brightest and darkest areas of the frame and compensates accordingly. Better still, it actually works. Minolta’s metering system is one of the most forgiving systems in vintage cameras, making the SR-T range a great choice for newer shooters.
Taking the camera out around town is a real pleasure. It’s got that special characteristic that’s so hard to quantify; it makes you want to keep shooting. I’m not sure if it’s the heavy feel, the precision machining, or the laughably raucous shutter, but it just brings out a smile and makes photography fun. The outstanding lenses and the CLC system instill confidence that every shot is going to come out looking great. Never do the camera’s ergonomics hinder the process, making it super easy to get into a photographic groove. It’s the kind of camera that makes carrying extra film a requirement, since before you’re aware of it you’ve spent your roll.
The cameras of the SR-T range are among the best choices for people interested in vintage SLRs. They were built to an exacting standard of excellence, and are still perfectly capable as photographic tools. Batteries are cheap and common, and the bulletproof mechanisms will never fail. Minolta’s impressive CLC technology makes for effortless captures by both amateurs and professionals alike, and an outstanding suite of lenses bring these cameras about as close to perfection as it gets. The flagship model 202 is the one to lust after, and at under $100 there’s really no excuse to pass it up. It may just be the best value in all of photography.