I began my photographic journey with a Minolta DSLR, the rather fantastic-in-its-day Maxxum 5D, so when I felt the urge to try some film shooting more than a decade later, Minolta became my launching point. After careful research, I purchased the XE-7, and it turned out to be one of my favorite buys of all time.
This camera was so special to me, in fact, that it’s entirely responsible for spawning the germ that would become CASUAL PHOTOPHILE. It was the XE-7 that showed me the incredible value of quality vintage cameras, the charm of analog photography, and the importance of experiencing the world through a lens (a truth that I’d somehow forgotten during the previous ten years).
Recently, with the site about to enter its third year, I’d been feeling the urge to get back to basics; to get out and shoot with a camera that just felt right. The XE-7 would have been a strong candidate, but with the new year and omnipresent deadlines fast approaching, it was important to shoot a camera that I’d not yet reviewed.
With this in mind, I chose to spend the holiday break shooting a Minolta XE-5, a 35mm film SLR made in 1975. Would the XE-5 be any good? Or would the ‘5, as many commentators might have us believe, be naught but a low-rent knockoff of the lauded ‘7? Let’s find out.
As touched upon, the Minolta XE-5 was conceived as a lower-specced sibling of the XE-7, and while ostensibly marketed in this way, the assertion that the XE-5 is drastically inferior to its predecessor should be met with intense skepticism. When we look closely, what we find is a camera that mirrors the XE-7’s spec sheet so closely that it’s very nearly the same machine. In fact, there’s only one missing feature that truly impacts the camera’s usefulness.
But just what does the XE-5 lack? To start, there’s a short list of superfluous features including a viewfinder blind (replaced by a plastic cap on the XE-5’s strap), multiple exposure capability (which few people ever use), and a film advance indicator (redundant, since film advancement can be easily gauged by the natural motion of the camera’s external film rewind lever).
More noticeably lacking is the one feature that I feel really hamstrings the capability of the machine, though not all shooters will find it truly egregious. It’s the replacement of the XE-7’s extremely informative viewfinder with a less capable VF.
XE-7 shooters enjoy a viewfinder that happily displays not only the recommended shutter speed based on a light meter reading, but also the selected shutter speed and selected aperture. In its day, this was pure luxury. The XE-5 unhappily offers a viewfinder in which only the recommended shutter speed and light meter needle are displayed. Gone are the displays of selected settings for both shutter speed and aperture, resulting in a shooting experience that’s a bit more cumbersome, in that it requires the photographer to raise and lower the camera to visually check settings.
Are these lacking features enough to discourage shooters from pursuing the XE-5? In testing I found shooting the ‘5 to be nearly as enjoyable as shooting the ‘7. Though there were certainly moments of pause when shooting manually, using the camera’s aperture-priority auto-exposure mode streamlines the process. Shooting this way, the experience is virtually identical to the XE-7, so long as one is comfortable sightlessly counting F-stops on an aperture ring.
Sure, the missing bells and whistles may be worth mentioning on an online camera forum, but they’re completely irrelevant when actually shooting the thing on the street. That’s because the XE-5 is one of the best and most under-rated 35mm film cameras to come out of Japan. Like the XE-7 before it, the XE-5 offers a robustness of build that’s hard to top.
This becomes entirely evident the moment one holds the camera in the hand. It’s dense, solid, and has a balanced weight that screams of quality. This show of mechanical prowess further impresses as we begin fiddling with knobs, dials, and levers. Everything just works so beautifully.
Specifically noteworthy is the rotation of the shutter speed selector, which clicks into its detents with a mechanical precision that’s simply stunning. Similarly inspiring is the fluidity of the film advance lever, which is about the most satisfying range of motion I’ve ever felt in a camera. And while I acknowledge the ridiculousness of getting jazzed up over something as silly as smooth lever actuation, I can’t help it. The XE-5 is a machine that’s packed with mechanical actuations that are uniquely satisfying in a way that’s hard to understand unless one experiences them. This camera just feels really good, and while there are certainly Japanese SLRs that do things just as well as the XE-5, no Japanese SLR is better.
The machining of component parts is excellent, with edging of dials and knobs receiving a unique combination of chamfers, bezels, and knurling. The chosen leatherette is incredibly durable (I’ve never seen an XE-5 come through our camera shop in need of replacement leatherette, rare in vintage cameras). The chrome plating shines with a lustrous satin sheen that’s beautiful to look at and soft to the touch.
Minolta engineers selected proper construction materials for all surfaces, resulting in a resilient and well-designed body with only one glaring exception. The pentaprism is made of a plastic shell that houses the electronic metering bits, and this plastic is rather thin and rigid. An XE-5 dropped on its prism has little chance of surviving unscathed, and while the replacement of the prism housing is an easy repair, it’s one that most shooters would prefer to avoid. Buy a strap, or hold on tight.
And hold on tight we must, as the XE-5 is a heavy beast. Some photographers will appreciate this, others will find it simply too big and heavy for every-day use. At 730g, the body alone weighs as much as today’s modern DSLRs. And while this weight is manageable on today’s machines by virtue of their superb ergonomic grips, the XE-5 offers no such handhold. Shooting the XE-5 is a thoroughly two-handed affair.
Yes, the camera feels mostly wonderful, but attention to build quality means little if a camera takes bad photos. For a camera to be truly remarkable it needs to perform, and luckily, the XE-5 does just that.
This camera is one of the best-specced machines of its day. A massive and bright viewfinder, a reliable shutter, controls for exposure compensation, an incredible assortment of world-class lenses, stop-down preview, and a bevy of minor features all combine to form a camera that’s capable of virtually any demand that may be imposed by the average photo enthusiast.
Controls are laid out in an intelligent and intuitive way, with the top plate serving as the base of operations. Here we find all major controls arranged exactly where an experienced shooter would expect. The shutter speed selector, shutter release, ON/OFF switch, and lens stop down lever all exist where the shooter’s fingers naturally come to rest. Less commonly used dials, such as the +/-2 stops exposure compensation, film speed selector, and battery check, reside on the opposite end. Locking tabs keep all controls that could impact exposure secured, ensuring these knobs will only move when needed. While these can be a bit annoying in the field, there’s no telling how many accidental over- or under-exposures these locking mechanisms have saved.
Shutter speeds range from a maximum of 1/1000th of a second down to 4 seconds, with Bulb mode handling long exposure demands. While the maximum speed of 1/1000th of a second was respectable in its day, I find myself wishing for a bit more speed. Shooters looking to make shallow depth-of-field on bright, sunny days will need to learn the ins and outs of ND filters, or buy some extremely slow film.
The metal-blade, vertically traveling shutter also offers step-less speeds automatically selected when shooting in aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. When not feeding on common batteries, the shutter offers a mechanical shooting speed of 1/90th of a second.
The fixed viewfinder gives a fantastic window to the world, being vast and bright. It shows 94% of the image area at a magnification of 0.8X. This helps to ensure that focusing is a simple task, helped along by the large central focusing circle with its horizontally oriented split-image spot and micro-prism surround. While I will always prefer a diagonally oriented split-image spot, I shall refrain from picking too many nits.
Wide-open through-the-lens metering ensures a bright viewfinder, even in challenging low-light situations. Rounding out the VF perks is the analog needle that sits to the right of the frame. This needle moves in time with available light, pointing to the suggested or automatically selected shutter speed that will result in a proper exposure. It’s a delightfully analog touch compared to later cameras’ LED displays, and those used to today’s cluttered VFs and digital EVFs should find it incredibly charming.
On the business end of this needle is a metering system that is certainly the centerpiece of the machine’s technical proficiency. Using a system that Minolta invented with their SRT line, the XE-5 meters from two locations within the pentaprism and averages the reading to achieve proper exposure in even the most challenging of lighting situations. In scenes of extreme contrast, where a photographer might normally need to use their brain and exposure compensation, the camera handles things beautifully.
It doesn’t just work, it works really well. I sought these kinds of challenging lighting situations when shooting for our review, and using the camera’s auto-exposure mode with no exposure compensation the XE-5 rewarded my confidence. Nearly every shot was properly exposed, and those that weren’t perfect required the slightest of adjustments in post-processing. That’s remarkable, especially for a camera made in 1975.
The camera uses Minolta’s ubiquitous manual-focus SR mount, meaning all Rokkor/Celtic/MC/MD lenses will fit. Options in glass are of typical Minolta quantity and quality, which for those unfamiliar, means “lots” and “the best”.
Colorful superlatives aside, it’s nearly impossible to overemphasize the greatness of Minolta lenses. Their Rokkor and later MD lenses are quite simply among the best in the world. They feature the most capable optical coatings, build quality that’s equal to or better than any other Japanese maker, and a time-tested reliability. In our decidedly anecdotal experience, old Minolta lenses come into the shop with far less frequency of oily blades and fungal-infected glass, when compared to offerings from Canon, Olympus, and other Japanese makers.
Even compared to modern lenses and shot in front of today’s most advanced sensors, these lenses still perform to an astounding level of excellence. Color, tonality, contrast, sharpness, bokeh- it’s all there in droves. Yes, Minolta lenses are simply stunning, and coupled to the XE-5 they create a photographic tool of true excellence.
And while excellence should be enough to warrant attention, perhaps this isn’t the case. The XE-5 occupies a paradoxical place in Minolta history; a camera that’s truly exceptional, yet seemingly destined to be overlooked.
Today’s marketplace certainly doesn’t help to promote the XE-5. In an era when a perfect XE-7 can be found for around $100, does that amazing camera’s younger sibling maintain relevance? It’s a question that’s tough to answer, and one that may ultimately come down to price, availability, and whether one prefers holding a silver or black camera.