Beginning in the late 1970s, camera manufacturers began to turn away from fun and discrete rangefinders to bulky, and often boring, SLRs. But before totally abandoning the once-popular rangefinder, each of the major Japanese makers seemed to honor their recent pasts by producing one last serious fixed-lens rangefinder. In Minolta’s case, 1977 saw their final effort in the form of the extremely compact, lightweight, and optically wonderful Hi-Matic 7sII. It wasn’t a feature-rich camera by any means, it only sought to offer the minimum that a photographer needs in a camera, and it certainly wasn’t a best-in-class endeavor, that title was more fitting to Canon’s Canonet. But the 7sII does possess certain rare characteristics that make it a special camera, even four decades later.
But lest you think we’re getting carried away, let me be frank. There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about this little camera. It’s about as average a camera as one can imagine. As the rangefinder market dwindled, the competition was showcasing new features to entice buyers to their swan song rangefinders. Minolta, on the other hand, decided to keep it basic. The result is a camera that doesn’t surprise, and simply works. If you’re one who enjoys the beauty of basic machines, then you just might feel right at home with the 7sII.
At the heart of this diminutive rangefinder is a nearly silent Copal leaf shutter capable of speeds from 1/8th of a second to 1/500th of a second, plus bulb for long exposures. And though very few shooters today will appreciate the fact, this leaf shutter allows flash sync at all shutter speeds (a standard hotshoe provides the only circuitry for flash shooters). Shutter speeds are controlled manually or automatically. More advanced shooters will find comfort in using the 7sii’s full manual override (sans metering unfortunately), and a metered, shutter-priority auto-exposure mode make this camera a breeze for photo enthusiasts who are just starting out. Simply set the desired shutter speed via the ring at the front of the lens barrel and the camera selects the aperture that will result in a perfectly exposed photo. An ASA/ISO range of 25 – 800 means we can shoot in all light, and the mechanical shutter means we can keep shooting even if the batteries die mid-roll.
Film advance is lovely and quick. The plastic tipped advance lever is small but angled effectively enough to catch the thumb when needed. Pushing it through its throw (130 degrees) yields a smooth, well-damped motion, though it does sound a bit toy-like on account of its lightweight, metal internals. The frame counter is easy to read and shutter release is of the standard threaded type, with no ability to lock.
The film bay, take up spool, and rewind crank are about as vanilla as it gets. No Canon QuickLoad technology here, but things are easy enough. When loading film, just pull up on the crank and the door pops open. The take up spool grabs the film leader with authority and pulls it around and into place without the hint of a missed load. Unlike its predecessor the 7s, the 7sII does not have a film load indicator; another minor but delightful feature found on other machines of the era.
The 7sII boasts an always-on CDS metering cell capable of EV 4.5 to EV 17 inside of its 49mm filter ring (which means mounted filters are considered when metering. Conserving battery power can be achieved by covering the lens with the lens cap, or simply turning the aperture dial away from auto. The aperture dial sits flush against the camera body, but is easily manipulated via a small metal protrusion at the bottom of the ring. Achieving half stop increments can be a challenge, as the stop detents are very tightly spaced. A non-indented ring may have been a better choice here; those looking to achieve more precise exposures will need delicate hands.
There’s no shutter lock for over- or under-exposure during auto-exposure calculation. In other words, the camera will fire even when there’s too much or not enough available light. This is can be a great help or a great annoyance, depending. Sometimes these exposure locks are a wonderful baked-in forcing function, as in the case with a camera like the Canonet QL17 GIII, and other times the flexibility to shoot no matter what the camera thinks is a necessity. It really depends on when and where the camera’s being used, and ultimately comes down to personal preference. Additionally quirksome is the focus ring. Equipped with a large tab and very short throw, it displays metric and standard distance scales on opposite ends of the ring. Those who only use one scale may find the lack of clutter quite nice, but others may yearn for traditional, vertically stacked scales. This is a quirky design choice, though largely irrelevant since there’s no focus scale for pre-focus.
The camera’s biggest failing is without question its viewfinder. Why Minolta chose to put such a tiny and dim finder on this camera is a universal mystery, but there’s little question that this miserable finder is the reason the 7sII finds little time in my bag when shooting the streets. Instead, I find myself only using it in situations where speed isn’t a factor. Why’s it so bad? To start, the AE selected F-stops run vertically along the right side of the parallax corrected window, and while the upper stops are relatively easy to see, the lower stops (F/2.8 and F/1.7) are imprudently occluded by the lens. If a lens hood is attached, we’re essentially obscuring half of the aperture range (eclipsing just above the F/5.6 mark). The finder is set inward about 3/4″ off of the left side of the body in order to get the field of view as close to the lens as possible (similar to comparable models), but given the diminished size of the viewfinder, it doesn’t allow for the experience of other rangefinders and their big, bright viewfinders.
Further frustrating things, it’s quite common to find 7sII’s suffering from hazy viewfinders. While cleaning them isn’t difficult, it’s unfortunate that the cause of the haze is the very design of the viewfinder glass itself. Minolta opted for a design with two plates sandwiched together, and though this isn’t uncommon, the 7sII seems especially prone to the defect. A defect that’s impossible to restore without tedious disassembly of the viewfinder cluster.
If opting to shoot in Auto mode, reliance on the meter may be a bit of a challenge. While originally accurate with the intended 1.35v mercury cell, more environmentally friendly alternatives may produce unintended results. In fact, it’s quite common to hear 7sII owners complain about working meters over-exposing by two or three stops even with the proper voltage. My copy seems to over-expose anywhere from one half stop to one stop with a 1.4 volt zinc air hearing aid battery. I can live with that, but these meters do become inconsistent with age. Additionally, battery adapters of the MR-9 type do not fit into the battery cell bay, leaving owners with three options when it comes to supplying meter power. Either use a higher voltage zinc air battery, a Wein cell, or rewire the cell to accept a modern silver oxide battery.
I would also caution against ever using the self timer on this camera (or any other fixed-lens rangefinder for that matter). They are, as many people call them, death timers. They will eventually break. Mine has. Please do yourself a favor and don’t use them. Ever.
So why buy one?
Great question, and the first answer is the lens. Sure, it’s a standard issue 40mm F/1.7 (capable of focusing as close as thirty-six inches), but there’s just something ineffable about Minolta glass. Comprised of six elements in four groups, this lens is not only sharp but produces just the right amount of contrast. And sure, the best in this genre possess similarly exceptional optics, but none match the unique rendering characteristics of the Minolta lens. Described in a single word, it’s “dreamy”. It reminds me of my single coat Minolta Rokkor 40mm F/2. In fact, there are rumors that this F/1.7 Rokkor uses the same optical formula as the M-mount F/2 Rokkor; and while I can’t say that’s true, it makes for great folklore.
Sure, the lens is soft wide open, but it tightens up nicely by F/4 and reaches corner-to-corner sharpness by F/8. Out-of-focus areas (bokeh) are nicely rendered wide open and highlight bokeh becomes geometric when stopped down. These observations should be unsurprising to experienced photo geeks. These fixed-lens 40mm cameras tend to be somewhat samey in their clinical test parameters. But the Rokkor simply renders in a different way. If a little window light is present, or even a bit of flare, it can create some very interesting results given its single coated optics.
Finally, to my taste the 7sII is the best looking compact, fixed-lens rangefinder of its generation. The finish of the camera is gorgeous, and if you’re fortunate enough to find a black copy (which may prove challenging), you may quickly agree that the enamel was made to withstand a great deal of abuse. It’s the only black paint camera I’ve ever owned that doesn’t show wear when I use my non-bumpered spring clip strap with it. Furthermore, the original leather case also shares the same durable quality that the camera does. Most of the cases that have come with my cameras have long since fallen apart or disintegrated, however the Minolta leather case for the 7sII still looks brand new.
Photo geeks who love compact rangefinders and have yet to hold a 7sII should seek to get their hands on one. It’s a fun little camera. But if you’re looking for a discrete, powerful, and quick tool for the street, there are better choices out there. In the right hands (not mine) I’m sure the viewfinder is a non-issue, but for me, a large, bright viewfinder can make all the difference between loving a camera, and simply getting along with one.