I’ve long been a fan of Minolta’s cameras and lenses. The boys from Osaka were always among the most innovative, forward-thinking, and truly exceptional camera-makers. And while they had their share of less-than-perfect machines, they also created some of my personal favorites.
So it should come as no surprise that when choosing which classic film camera to take on a recent vacation, I’d gravitate toward a Minolta machine. After some ponderous rumination, my choice was clear. It had to be the X-700, Minolta’s most advanced (and their last) manual focus camera.
My decision was influenced by popular opinion; the X-700 comes highly recommended. If there’s any single camera of which I’d continually heard nothing but praise, the X-700 is it. A technological marvel of its day and one of the most popular cameras ever, it represents the pinnacle of film shooting for countless photophiles.
But would it be the same for me? Would the X-700 live up to its reputation and reaffirm my love for the sadly defunct brand from Japan? Or would the X-700 break my heart? Stuck on an island with just one 35mm camera, I’d know soon enough.
The X-700 was introduced in 1981 as Minolta’s top-of-the-line manual focus SLR system camera. The premier member of the long-lived X-series, the X-700 featured much of the same construction and design found in earlier X-series machines, such as the XG-M. But while it shared many of the X-series cameras’ core components, it differentiated itself in one, big way; inclusion of Program auto-exposure mode.
The camera was an immediate success, being promptly declared the European “Camera of the Year” by EISA. Photogeeks everywhere rejoiced. For the first time, Minolta was offering a camera with features to rival the likes of Canon’s AE-1 and A-1, machines that were simply decimating the competition with their mass appeal.
The X-700 went on to enjoy enviable sales success, becoming Minolta’s best-selling camera since the highly respected and drool-worthy SRT range. The X-700 would find its way into countless camera bags around the globe and continue uninterrupted production for almost twenty years. It would finally finish its run in 1999.
In time, the success of the camera would lead Minolta to offer lesser models for the budget-conscious shooter. These came in the forms of the X-500 and X-300. While these machines were still quite capable, their lower price point required them to jettison some of the most important features of their predecessor. Both cameras lack Program shooting, and the X-300 further cheapens things via the shedding of TTL flash metering and viewfinder perks.
But that’s all ancient history, and as the ferry from Wood’s Hole began its laborious slog away from shore, the X-700’s lineage and legacy barely entered my consciousness – I was on vacation! It was time to relax. So as the ferry pulsed on through the sea-spray and lingering fog, and as the island of Martha’s Vineyard slowly resolved to crisp detail despite the low-hanging clouds, an eager giddiness swelled up in my gut. It had been over a year since I’d been to the island, and I couldn’t wait to get there and shoot some film.
I pulled the X-700 from my camera bag, and knowing that there’d be a review to write at the conclusion of the trip, I used the downtime to pour over the design of the machine with a hyper-critical eye.
When we first encounter the X-700, it’s easy to imagine a design brief in which the big-wigs at Minolta demanded a camera that would appeal to the widest audience. If this was the case, Minolta’s designers succeeded. The X-700 is a simple, inoffensive camera. It’s a decent looking machine. There’s nothing here to repulse, and there’s nothing here to excite. Perfect for mass-appeal.
But how does it hold up in today’s market? Many vintage camera geeks are mildly obsessed with the way a camera looks. If a camera doesn’t have that certain visual appeal it might mean the difference between shelling out the cash or moving on to a different machine.
With the X-700, there will certainly be some shooters who just can’t get into its style. There’s very little here in the way of striking looks, flashy visuals, or panache. The X-700 is a no-nonsense tool of a camera. And while it’s perfectly proportioned, practical, and modestly refined, it’s a camera that some will find aesthetically vacuous.
Why? For one, the X-700 is as black as it gets. But we’re not talking black and silver, or two-toned black, or black with accents of contrasting polished metal. None of that. There’s nothing here but black plastic, and it’s easy to see how some shooters might find it all a bit boring. Buttons, knobs, levers, dials, leatherette, and switches are color-matched to the body, creating an unbroken silhouette of blackness with little aesthetic contrast. Even the hot-shoe is painted black.
What little visual contrast does exist comes by way of the engraved and white-painted logos. Minolta’s “rising sun” is prominently displayed on the face of the pentaprism, while the model number is stamped above the waffle-grip. A subtle “MPS” badge sits opposite upon the leatherette, quietly broadcasting that the machine contains Minolta’s impressive Program System.
So is the X-700 a stylistic black hole? For me, not really. But I enjoy black cameras. They somehow present a “professional” air, and the X-700 does indeed look fairly professional. The waffle-grip endows the front and back of the camera with a certain refined ruggedness, and it gives the camera some visual weight. The geometric excess of the camera’s pentaprism further enhances its stout, purposeful character. And these multiple facets do a nice job of reflecting light at various angles, giving the blackness some shape and texture. Yes, for those who aren’t bored by it, the X-700 will be a pretty classy camera.
For those who dislike black cameras there’s still a glimmer of hope. This may surprise some photogeeks, but the X-700 was also offered in silver chrome. This glistening jewel of a camera oddly lacked the Auto-Exposure Lock feature found on every other X-700 and was only sold in Japan. Hence, its rarity in Western markets makes it something of a holy grail, so if you’re the kind of photophile who can’t abide black cameras, tarry not in thine quest, sir knight.
But the X-700 was never popular because of its looks. What won this camera serious bragging rights was always its feature-laden spec-sheet and technical prowess. Today, these are still the primary reasons to own and shoot an X-700.
Minolta packed everything they could muster into the X-700. It’s sporting all the usual accoutrements; TTL metering, depth of field preview, exposure compensation dial, self-timer, exposure lock, film safe-load indicator, frame counter, film memo holder, hot shoe, PC socket, remote shutter release ports (mechanical and electronic), and the list goes on and on.
Most importantly, the X-700 is capable of three shooting modes for maximum usability. In full manual mode, the photographer sets the shutter speed and aperture to make a proper exposure. Shooters with long experience will love this, as it allows maximum creativity and full implementation of the photographer’s vision. The shutter speed selector dial is well-placed, and the edge knurling makes it exceptionally easy to adjust.
Aperture Priority auto-exposure works as would be expected. Set the aperture to control depth of field, compose your shot, and shoot. The X-700 automatically sets the shutter speed in step-less increments to achieve a perfect exposure. As with all Minolta cameras, the metering is flawless in even the most challenging of lighting situations.
But the star of the show is certainly the pre-mentioned MPS (Minolta Program System). This is the bread and butter of the X-700’s spec-sheet. Minolta’s Program auto-exposure was, and is, a marvel. With its exceptional light-metering system, intelligent microcomputers, and step-less shutter speeds, shooting in Program mode is about as effortless and effective as with any camera of any era. The MPS is capable of using shutter speeds of finer increments than can be selected manually. Point and shoot, and you’ll be guaranteed to make perfect exposures every time. The MPS makes the X-700 one of the best point-and-shoot cameras in the world. It’s as simple as that.
Unfortunately, not everything with the X-700 is purely blissful. Minolta’s drive to lower production cost sacrificed some wonderful features found on previous X-series machines. The shutter, for one, is not the ultra-fast, vertical-traveling metal shutter of previous Minoltas. Instead, the X-700 uses the more traditional (and old-fashioned) horizontally-traveling cloth shutter. While cloth shutters aren’t necessarily a bad thing, their use does often handicap the maximum flash-sync speed of the camera. With the X-700 we’re capped to a flash-sync speed of 1/60th of a second. This may be a problem for shooters who use a fill flash in bright light, as is commonly done in portraiture.
Additional cost-cutting came by way of ditching metal construction for plastic. While Minolta’s plastic is robust and strong, it’s still plastic. A drop from any reasonable height onto a relatively hard surface will most definitely result in a cracked and shattered shell. While metal is heavier, it does a better job of protecting those juicy innards. Not a deal-breaker, but certainly worth noting for those who use their cameras in more adventurous situations.
Further annoyances include excessive use of locking tabs on all control dials. Specifically, when switching exposure compensation or shooting mode, one needs to depress irritating little buttons to enable adjustments of these dials. It’s a decidedly entry-level inclusion for a top-of-the-line camera, and it gets in the way of experienced shooters.
Troubling also is the camera’s excessive reliance on electronics. The X-700 uses an electromagnetically controlled shutter. Essentially, this means that the camera won’t operate without a battery (not even in Bulb mode), so if you run out of juice you’re not shooting anything. With Minolta’s reputation for reliable electronics and the well-documented longevity of the X-700 there’s no real reason to recoil, but the extensive use of electronics could be overuse to some photogeeks. If you’re okay with electricity, just bring extra batteries.
But that’s about it for qualms. In use, the X-700 is pretty phenomenal. All controls are well-positioned, allowing quick and effortless adjustments (aside from the pre-mentioned dial locks). The exposure compensation dial is a joy, especially when shooting on a bright sunny day. With a quick rotation it’s easy to compensate for backlighting, or to adjust your exposure in heavy contrast situations.
Film advance is operated via a nicely mechanical stroke, reminding us that we’re shooting a classic camera despite all the modern tech. The shutter release button uses a contact-sensitive system which detects the shooter’s finger and activates the camera’s brain, metering system, and LED display. This conserves battery life and allows quick captures of spontaneously photogenic moments.
Looking through the viewfinder we’re greeted with a spacious, bright (thanks to the camera’s wide-open TTL metering), and extremely informative viewfinder to rival any found in the world of vintage cameras. It eagerly displays enough info that the shooter’s attention is rarely broken.
Focusing is handled exceptionally well via the standard focusing screen. This matte focusing screen features a split image center dot with a surrounding micro-prism band. It works great, allowing fast and accurate manual focusing with any lens. Additionally, Minolta created a bevy of swappable focusing screens, so shooters with specialty applications or different tastes can easily customize their VF experience. That said, these screens are exceedingly rare today, so finding your ideal setup may prove difficult (diagonal split image, anyone?).
LEDs illuminate in the far right of the frame to display various bits of useful info, such as the currently selected shooting mode, the shutter speed, and exposure compensation status. Below the frame, shooters will find a delightfully analog window displaying the selected lens aperture.
But while it may seem at first blush that this viewfinder can do no wrong, it’s not perfect. In certain shooting modes the viewfinder sacrifices significant information. For example, when shooting in Manual mode the camera’s LEDs only display the recommended shutter speed, but not the selected shutter speed. This necessitates continual checking of the shutter speed selector on the top of the camera.
Another viewfinder irritant presents itself when shooting in Program mode. For the X-700 to work in Program mode, Minolta’s lenses need to be set to an aperture of ƒ/22 and locked into place. This signals to the camera that it’s in charge of setting both the shutter speed and aperture. So while this shooting mode may be a technological masterstroke, the unhappy byproduct of this is that the shooter has no indication as to what aperture the camera has chosen. Shooting in Program mode we have to point, shoot, and blindly trust that the computer-selected aperture will result in acceptable depth of field.
Only when shooting in Aperture Priority Auto Exposure mode does the X-700’s viewfinder display everything one needs to know. In this mode, we can see the manually selected aperture (ensuring confident knowledge of DOF), the automatically selected shutter speed, and any exposure compensation that we may be using.
Of the three shooting modes, Aperture Priority is the clear winner. It offers the most fluid and effortless image-making. It yields the greatest creative control, yet still utilizes Minolta’s exceptional metering and the microcomputers for which the X-700 is so lauded. In portraiture, where we’re looking for subject isolation and pleasing bokeh, it’s a simple twist of the aperture ring to achieve correct depth of field. Frame, shoot, and the camera has helped you make an incredible portrait with minimal effort. When shooting a landscape or street shot, turn the aperture to ƒ/8 and fire away, being rewarded with exceptional sharpness. In any case, exposures are perfect every time.
The X-700 uses Minolta’s ubiquitous SR mount (colloquially referred to as MC/MD mount), a mount that was first developed in the late 1950’s and which continued to be produced until the late 1990s. Today, this means that Minolta shooters are afforded a veritable cornucopia of exceptional glass of nearly limitless variety.
Of particular note are Minolta’s MC Rokkor and MD lens ranges. These were among the first lenses in the world to offer the previously mentioned full-aperture TTL metering, and they often sported the best coatings, optical designs, and construction of their era. More often than not, Minolta’s lenses perform well above the competition in sharpness, bokeh, aberration and distortion correction, and durability. Build quality of most MC/MD/Rokkor lenses is impeccable, with aperture rings clicking into their detents with delectable precision, and focus rings spinning with a perfectly weighted fluidity often found in much more expensive and exclusive lenses.
For those looking for the very best Minolta lenses, some research is necessary. The long history of continual production and incremental improvement has lead to a massive catalog of lenses with numerous iterations of each model. Because of this, finding the ultimate Minolta lens in your preferred focal length can be a bit daunting. But if you’re a shooter who’s less obsessive and you simply want a fantastic lens without a lot of hunting, rest assured and buy with confidence. If you see the MC/MD/Rokkor nomenclature, you’re buying a top-notch lens.
After just a few days, my time with the X-700 had come to an end. With it, I shot my small family’s first vacation together. With nervous anticipation I waited for my shots to come back from the lab. Happily, the portraits of my daughter, landscapes of the island, and small town street-shots all came back perfectly exposed and gorgeous.
The X-700 performed perfectly, and it’s easy to understand why so many people have fallen in love with this camera. Capable, quietly handsome, and easy to use, the X-700 is a real gem of the hobby and a camera that anyone should aspire to own and shoot. It’s without equivocation that I can say Minolta’s final manual-focus camera is one of the best in the world of vintage SLRs, and as so often happens with this maker’s cameras, I’m once again left pining for the days when Minolta was alive and well.