Minolta Autocord – Medium Format Camera Review

Minolta Autocord – Medium Format Camera Review

2052 1367 James Tocchio

In the early days of mass-produced cameras, when a photographer talked about “the best” he invariably talked about Germany. This reflected a truth; Japanese cameras of the 1930s and ‘40s were in large part inferior to their German contemporaries. In this nascent period of Japanese industry the Japanese makers lacked the technical excellence, and just as crucially, the reputation for excellence that surrounded the likes of Leica, Zeiss and Rollei. For a long time, a Japanese camera is what a photographer bought if he couldn’t afford a German machine. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when Japanese camera makers began refining their optics and manufacturing processes, that their machines began to match and surpass those of their German rivals.

Everyone knows of the game-changer that Nikon produced in their Nikon F SLR, but a lesser-celebrated and equally worthy Japanese camera existed even before the F. Minolta produced a camera in 1955 that, while not in the same technological class as Nikon’s first SLR, refined and perfected a different class of machine known as the TLR. This Twin Lens Reflex camera was known as the Autocord, and it was a better camera than any TLR made by the Germans. Amazing optics, exceptional build quality, and a number of small ergonomic and functional refinements signaled the arrival of a new choice in the TLR scene. As an added bonus, the Autocord was significantly less expensive than any TLR from the land of bratwurst and dachshunds.

So what’s it like to shoot this medium format antique today? After spending a few weekends with the Minolta Autocord, here are my impressions.

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Aesthetically the Autocord is a nice looking machine. Classy and timeless, it’s essentially a black, rectangular box with silver trim. In raised areas the black enamel has been carefully machined away, leaving wonderful contrasting lines to frame the camera’s edges and nameplate. This touch gives the camera a distinctive stateliness, and an impression of thoughtful design. Film spool knobs are nicely knurled and contrast well with the black body. The tripod mount is a beautifully milled piece of aluminum, and the metal strap lugs are held solidly in place with shiny screws.The film advance lever is a cast piece of metal with a gentle curve and raised accents, ending in a finely detailed handle.

Unadorned panels are covered in nicely textured leatherette, cut to fit every angle and curve. A liability coming from age, it’s common for the Autocord’s leatherette to crack and peel away. Luckily, replacement material can be easily sourced and applied by even the least mechanically inclined hobbyists. Even with the occasional damaged leatherette, it’s difficult to imagine anyone regarding this camera as anything but beautiful.

The Autocord’s twin lenses are about as close to jewelry as it gets in a TLR. The top lens, known as the “viewing lens”, displays the image through the viewfinder on the top of the camera. The lower lens, known as the “taking lens”, is the lens through which the film is exposed. Both lenses use Rokkor-grade optics and feature stainless steel surrounds to protect the front elements and to capture the bayonet-style lens cap. The caliber of machine work on this assembly is outstanding, and it’s easy to fall into quiet contemplation as one admires the striking application of curves and bevels, and the combination of gleaming glass and polished metal.

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The taking lens uses a 75mm focal length Rokkor assembly consisting of 4 elements in 3 groups. The 10-bladed aperture is a step-less iris from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/22, and is adjusted via a small lever on the left of the lens. Actuation is smooth and light, and a readout on the top of the lens assembly allows the shooter to know the set aperture without any change in natural shooting position. A similar window displays the selected shutter speed, which is controlled via a matching lever on the right side of the lens assembly. The shutter varies from model to model, with some using Citizen-MVL and Optiper shutters. Our review model covers speeds from 1/500th of a second down to 1 second, plus Bulb mode.

The camera features a shutter lock in the form of a rotating ring surrounding the shutter release button. When the red and black dots are aligned the shutter won’t actuate when the release button is pressed. This is great for barring accidental shutter release. Additionally the lock serves a second purpose; long exposure photography. By setting the camera to Bulb mode and pressing the shutter, it’s possible to then turn the shutter lock and keep the shutter open indefinitely. Once the long exposure is complete, simply turn the lock and the shutter closes. It’s a great system for night shooting, though it should be mentioned that winding the film should never be attempted if the shutter lock is on. This will break the winding mechanism.

Some Autocords have a self-timer lever. This lever is located directly behind the shutter speed selector and uses a ten second delay. Great for shots of the whole family, though our review model lacked this feature.

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Many Autocords feature light meters. The model reviewed here does not. Arguments can be made in favor of those with and without. Metered models are naturally better in that they tell the photographer where to set shutter-speed and aperture to achieve a correct exposure. Unfortunately, they tend to have unwieldy growths spurting from the otherwise concise design. Meter-less models are harder to shoot accurate exposures, but they look substantially better. They also don’t require batteries, which is nice. There’s also a certain simplicity that’s refreshing in a meter-less Autocord. It brings the photographer back to a time when the focus was on observation of the environment, and a knowledge of the craft. Know your stuff and the meter-less Autocord is a machine lacking in nothing. The metered model will always be uglier.

Focus is achieved through a helicoid system connected to a lever on the bottom of the lens assembly. This lever can be actuated with one hand, a big improvement over the focus knobs of its German rivals, and covers infinity to a minimum focus distance of 3.3 feet. Easy focus is aided by the viewing lens’ fast aperture of ƒ/3.2. This allows a good amount of light to come streaming into the viewfinder, which uses a Fresnel screen with imprinted frame lines. Coupled with the focus magnifier, it’s very easy to dial the focus exactly where it’s intended.

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Fresnel focusing screen with frame lines.

The camera uses medium format, 120 film and is fairly easy to load. Pull the film back opening knob on the top left of the camera and open the hinged, metal door, insert the film spool in the top slot and lock it in place. Once this is done, spool out a bit of film and insert the leader into the lower take-up spool. Wind the advance lever until the arrows appear on the film. Line up these arrows with the small red dots in the back of the camera body and close the film back. Now simply wind the advance lever carefully until the frame count indicator window displays “1”. The camera’s ready to shoot.

For those unfamiliar with medium format film, it’s a real treat to use. To put it simply, medium format film is dimensionally larger than 35mm film (what digital users call full frame). As film formats get larger the capability of the film to produce higher quality images improves. Larger surface area means higher resolution images, less grain, and more detail. Photos taken on medium and large format cameras are naturally going to be nicer looking than photos taken on smaller formats, such as 35mm. There’s just more space for the chemistry to work its magic, resulting in cleaner, deeper images, with unrivaled detail. The takeaway? These cameras use film that’s larger than full frame at 1/10th the price.

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Image made with the Minolta Autocord.

So the film is good, but to get the most of the format you need a good lens. Luckily, the Autocord’s lens is fantastic, and it’s this fantastic lens that puts the Autocord in the same league as the German machines. The images produced by the Autocord are second to none in sharpness, color, and contrast. Minolta’s Rokkor optics are again proven to be nearly unbeatable in the world of vintage cameras. Naturally the images produced will vary depending on film type and, of course, the ability of the photographer. But using an Autocord certainly helps stack the deck in the photographer’s favor.

It’s also important to remember the way that film format affects the photographer’s final image. As film (or digital sensor) size increases, the depth-of-field decreases. So even though the aperture is a relatively slow ƒ/3.5, because it’s a medium format camera, the Autocord is able to create adequately shallow depth-of-field for the bokeh-lovers among us. The 75mm focal length is exceptional for portrait work, and shot wide open offers very nice subject isolation on close subjects. Bokeh is entirely a matter of taste, but I’m of the opinion that the Autocord produces just the right amount of blur in these types of photos. Stop the lens down further and things get downright crispy. Images shot at ƒ/8 are unbelievably sharp, and detail is fantastic.

Minolta Autocord Scans

Images made with the Minolta Autocord.

Outstanding build quality, good looks, technical advances and optical perfection? Seems there’s not much to complain about with this camera. Searching for an issue, it could be said that it may be too unwieldy for some people. While the fact of it being a big metal box is an asset when talking of build quality, it’s certainly no asset when talking of portability. At 1,100g it’s no light-weight, and lugging the thing around in the hand for extended periods will lead to tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome. While a good strap will help, this may not be the best camera for travel.

Street photographers may be mixed regarding the Autocord. It’s true that most street shooters value surreptitious machines over anything large and flashy. Smaller cameras help them fade into the background of the environment, allowing them to capture candid shots of unaware subjects. Because of its sheer size, logic might dictate that the Autocord fails as a street photography camera. Then again, the Autocord’s waist-level viewfinder allows it to be accurately shot from the hip, it’s mostly black, and it’s lack of mirror and use of a leaf shutter make it exceptionally quiet. It’s even got a focus scale.

It starts to seem like a tenuous case could actually be made for street-shooting a TLR, if only it didn’t attract so much attention. When out with the Autocord, people just seem to want to chat with you about it. While this may thwart some street photographers, most people will find it a happy byproduct. All but the most hardened and miserable photographers will enjoy these interactions. It’s especially nice to make small talk in the dense urban areas that are so often associated with bustling people eager to avoid eye-contact. And after a conversation about the antique box of gleaming glass and metal, it’s easy to segue to a portrait request. If these non-candids aren’t appealing, the Autocord user’s manual offers some charming tips on how to shoot candids; so sneaky.

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She’s so sneaky.

The Autocord is an amazing machine compared to other TLRs, but to be fair, it’s not all roses. Compared to SLRs, TLRs are downright primitive. Low light shooting can be a bit difficult, and things can get a little squirrely when framing a shot, since the nature of TLRs dictate that the optics through the viewfinder are reversed. Panning left moves the framing right and vice versa. This is disorienting at first, but becomes less jarring with experience. Parallax error is a common issue with close-up subjects, and the inability to switch lenses is a hamper on certain types of creative photography. It’s also generally impossible to preview depth-of-field, though this is again mitigated as the photographer gains experience.

Though the list of caveats may be long, they’re completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that TLRs aren’t as capable as SLRs, or DSLRs, or any other camera made in the past 50 years. TLRs are amazing, and every film enthusiast should own and shoot one. A perfect combination of old-world charm, technical capability, and tactile involvement create an unmatched experience in film shooting. Affordable, yet offering image quality comparable to modern full-frame DSLRs, a TLR camera and 120 film should be on every photographer’s shopping list. And if you’re spending the money, shouldn’t you spend it on the best? If you said “yes”, then go buy an Autocord, because if it’s not the best TLR in the world it’s certainly close.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
25 comments
  • Nice work James, the design is quite clean and even looks more modern that some cameras of today (holga comes to my mind) Did you use a lab to scan the film? I read that medium format is more comfortable to scan than 35 mm that has better outputs in labs or dedicated film scanners.
    By the way I love the candid poses XP,

    • Hi my friend,

      Yes it’s a really pretty machine! I’m glad you like it. I scanned the photos myself using a Canon scanner/printer. It’s nothing special, but it gets the job done. I’m sure a lab would have done a better job though.

      And yes, the poses in the manual are charming.

      Looking forward to more of your wonderful photos. Thanks again.

  • Few things nicer than sitting back with a hot cup of coffee on a chilly Monday morning and reading an excellently written medium format camera review. I had no idea that the Autocord used an innovative non-knob focusing method – seems pretty ingenious! The Yashica just mimics the german machines.

    Definitely agree that the heft of a TLR makes it a tough device to tote along daily, so mine generally comes out more for special occasions and purposes, where passersby will invariably gawk at its retro form. The big challenge for me however has been adapting to square compositions from rectangular. I guess I need to think outside the rectangular box and into the square box. 🙂

    • Thanks bud!

      You’re right about the square compositions being odd at first! The first time I used the Autocord I shot everything as if it were using the full viewfinder and was unpleasantly surprised when I got all my prints back as cutoff images.

      I can see the square format for photography becoming really popular though. Instagram uses it, and it’s kind of become the standard frame for a whole generation of photo enthusiasts who only know of photography through their iPhone. Nothing wrong with that.

      I saw a photographer named Edward Keating, who was selling some prints over the summer at an artists fair. He’s shot Pulitzer Prize winning photos for the New York Times and has a pretty robust career. Half of his entire pop-up shop was selling 5 x 5 iPhone shots.

      Things are changing, but these medium format prints are more familiar (in size) than new shooters might imagine.

      • Interesting! From what I’ve seen, the Yashica’s viewfinder is essentially what you get in the image, aside from any parallax, but from what you indicate, the Minolta requires you to get the image inside the etched lines. I’d think that would make precise focusing a bit trickier since you are trying to fixate on a smaller area.

        You make a very good point about the resurgence of square format photos, and in all honesty they’ve been around for quite some time, not just in 120, but also in 126 and 127 formats too. Most of what I’ve shot lately lends itself better to rectangular, but I’m sure I’ll find more ways to use 12 shots on my Y-12.

      • To be fair to the European TLR family (though not German), the lever & helicoid focus system was present in each and every Czech Flexaret model, well before the Autocord came along. They’re also a much sturdier design (the stamped pot metal of the stock Autocord is quite fragile and are known to break), though not as smooth in operation as the Autocord for certain – each has their strengths. Flexaret have their own drawbacks/technical weak spots, are quite heavy and over-engineered but you can help but love them a great deal as well. 🙂 I do love both. I’ve not hard an Autocord terribly long at all, but it endeared itself to me immediately

  • Indeed, it’s taking time to get used to square-format composition, but on the whole I love using my Rolleiflex. There seems to be a level of involvement that’s missing from most 35mm work, though I can see some of the older rangefinders being similarly so. Perhaps this could be put down to the ‘arcane’ mechanics present in such devices, but nevertheless, you’re forced to engage with the machine, the subject and the environment, in ways that modern photography has obscured.

  • Early on used a Yashica Mat 124G and, while it wasn’t bad, moved UP to the Autocord and FELL IN LOVE. The majority of my work was done with it on 120 Provia (sometimes cross-process as c41).

    Wound up managing a massive photo studio and having access to Hasselblad, Sinar, Canon (1Ds Mk I/II), and all the best, but often found myself still taking the Autocord everywhere because of its consistently good sharpness (within 25% on a DrumScan of the Hasselblad 500CM with a Planar). Compared to many Medium Format cameras it has one really critical advantage – the way the film transport works, keeps the film flat till after it is shot, then it turns the corner to the takeup spool – this is MASSIVE if you leave your film in the camera for more than a day or so in warmer temperatures. With Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, Mamiya and others, if you have not shot the current roll in a while, you have to just ‘burn’ the current frame and advance to the next to be assured of a sharp image.

    Here are a few nudes I shot with it over the years –
    http://modelsociety.com/category-galleries-galleryview-imagedetail.aspx?id=129030&source=Portfolio&containerId=36239a5e-794c-48ed-8cc2-8b6f1539b997
    http://modelsociety.com/category-galleries-galleryview-imagedetail.aspx?id=129033&source=Portfolio&containerId=36239a5e-794c-48ed-8cc2-8b6f1539b997
    and my Twitter Banner here: https://twitter.com/adamalbrec

    Another amazing trait these have is the ability, because of their weight, and the fact that they are suspended typically by a neck-strap rather than held up to the face – you can shoot at least a full shutter speed slower (in low light) than the inverse rule normally demands and still get sharp pics (a 15th second is often no problem).

    Finally PIMPED mine out with a Hasselblad Acute-matte focus screen and a yellow-lizard leather replacement covering! A true tribute to value.

  • Hey there,
    I really enjoyed your article and the way you write. I recently inherited an autocord and I was wondering if you had any 120 film recommendations? I am an amateur photographer and have never bought 120 film. Maybe a recommendation or film that’s more vintagey and warm or sharp and crisp?

    Thank you!
    Matt

  • I had one of these in the early ’60s – superb machine. Regarding the weight I took it around the wall of the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia at that time. Somewhat reluctantly I later sold it to make a deposit on an engagement ring (which has turned to be a good investment over the years) I am pleased to say. The square format has never been a problem, my first camera at the age of 16 was a Coronet Box 12 on 120 film. I currently own a pair of Yashica TLRs, Mat and Flex, which give me good results. Interestingly, the sharpest results that I have obtained have been with an ancient Weltaflex with a Meritar f3.5 75mm taking lens. If the viewing mirror was in a better condition resulting in a more viewable image I would use it more often.

  • Minolta Rokkor lens was one of the sharpest I’ve ever experienced. Easily as good as the Rollie Planar with only four elements.

  • Just ran across this and I have to say “kudos” for selecting one of the unsung TLR’s of the past! At one time in the early 90’s, I owned 5 of these in various states of finish, and tried to use them all. The lens was really one of the better ones, after getting some marginal results with Rolleicords and Rolliflexes, most of my Autocords were all very ‘use-able’. One of the great things about the Autocord, and why I liked them so much, is that they can be used while holding it with one hand and focusing, advancing, etc. with the other; you don’t have to do the “Rolleiflex juggle”. Alas, all gone now,, just have one I’m holding onto…

  • It is perhaps worth mentioning that two of the Autocord models (Autocord L and LMX) had selenium meters which means that, unlike the later cds models, they don’t need batteries. I have a LMX and despite its age the selenium meter is spot on. Also the framing lines on the focusing screen offer the photographer the opportunity to frame the shot so it can be cropped to the 3×2 (35mm) format shape. Another plus for the Autocord is that all the Rollei, Yashica and quite a few other ‘Bayonet size 1’ accessories may be used. Rollei filters are coated and are worth the additional cost. The close-up sets, especially the No.1 set, are useful for closer portraits and the wedge lens in the viewing part of the set effectively corrects the parallax error. The things I like most about making photographs with a TLR is that the view is not interrupted at the critical moment and they are so very very quiet.
    Thanks for a lovely review.

  • My father purchased an Autocord in the late 50’s/early 60’s … used it for years as a small town newspaper reporter until he passed it down to me. SUPERB B&W 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 negatives produced tack sharp images.

  • Have you tried the Minoltacord, how does tht older model compare to the autocord?

  • Are you sure your Autocord does not have a meter, it looks identical to mine which has a selenium meter behind the flip-up name plate. It is also quite accurate on my camera The photo of your Autocord seems to show the hinge in the middle at the top of the name plate. BTW, good article.

    • Hi Nigel,

      If you look at the 1st and 2nd pictures again, it’s missing the Light Value Meter on the left hand side of the camera. Unless I am wrong on this.

      I must say that the camera looks like in mint condition.

  • Nice review of a wonderful camera. I find that it’s a great street shooter. Since you’re looking down at this black box rather than holding up to your eye something that most people recognize as a camera, most people are pretty oblivious to it. And then on the occasion when someone spots it and looks at you, I find it much easier to snap the shot since I’m somehow less self-conscious of taking the picture, again I think owing to the fact I’m looking down and the sense that it’s all much more indirect. Then people tend to be charmed rather than suspicious and hostile.

    One note: you refer to the viewfinder gridlines as frame lines. That’s a bit misleading. They were intended for 4×4 super slide frame lines, but as for routine 6×6 shooting, the whole viewfinder image approximates (90%) the captured image.

  • Thank you for your review of this vintage TLR.

    Just bought one Minoilta LMX recently in almost mint condition myself. Despite already having a Yashica 635 and 124G, I went and bought this LMX even though I knew very little about this camera before buying it. Two things I like about this camera; –

    1) The design of the film winding crank is just beautiful and unique. Much nice looking than a Rollei TLRs and my Yashica 124G in my opinion;
    2) The loading and the movement of the film from the top to the bottom.
    3) Multiple exposure. I can do this with my Yashica 635 but the 124G.

    However here are the disappointing facts about this camera design since I bought mine;-

    1) The material used for the helicoid focusing lever. This is made from the unstable zamak metal material which can break into 2 pieces easily if force is used. Many users reported this when the grease on the lever became glue especially when the camera was not in use for a long period of time.
    2) The way the back cover is opened. It may provide better excess to space when loading/unloading the film but it can also damage the cover/helicoid lever if the lever is not in either the far left/right position.
    3) No self-timer. I was not even aware of this when I bought my LMX. This is not a big issue for me. Since than I have bought a Kapil self-timer specifically designed for TLR cameras. This is a little beauty! How cool is this?
    4) the selecting of the shutter speed of 1/500 can be a bit tricky but the manual provides this instruction to over come this problem and thanks to the multiple exposure crank reversing button.

    Please do not get me wrong. The Yashica TLR also has it’s own design flaws too but it’s good to know these flaws so that one can avoid breaking the vintage camera when using it.

    I hope more young photographers venture into taking pictures with film negatives as I find the shooting in digital is getting a bit boring nowadays.

    As the LMX was first manufactured in 1958, the leatherette on my LMX is showing sign of aging (coming off and a bit brittle too), I have been gluing it those loose areas back to hold them together, but thanks for the link for the leatherette replacement website. I hope the company is still in business. This would be very useful to many TLR owners.

    • Correction, I believe the one that I have is the Minolta L and not the LMX. I have been trying to find images between these two version – L and LMX. I would like to know what the MX stands for. The one that I have, has the “Feet” distance reading underneath the helicoid focusing lever. I have been trying to find out if this is the earlier version before they changed to Meter reading? Does anyone knows, or these were manufacturing and sold at the same time back in 1958? Please feel free to let me know. Many thanks

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio