For most people, the sequence of letters “IDDQD” means nothing. For me and many other terrified children sitting in front of a Gateway 2000 (or similar) computer in 1994, this odd string of letters represented safety, courage, a reprieve for a tortured mind and soul.
See, DOOM was a really scary game, especially for a nine-year-old kid in an empty house after school. Cyber-demons, screaming skulls, and a bleakly oppressive soundtrack were but a few of the terrors that lurked on that 3.5” diskette. Most days I’d gather my nerve and launch the game via MS-DOS, only to feel my courage drain at the mere sight of the game’s gruesome title screen, after which I’d inevitably quit in favor of something a bit lighter – Jazz Jackrabbit.
But that was before I discovered cheat codes; IDDQD, IDKFA. These letters gave us god-mode, full ammo, level select! With just a few keystrokes, I’d instantly become the all-powerful space marine that I always knew I could be. I was literally invulnerable, with a limitless arsenal of weapons.
While film photography isn’t very similar to wading through corpses in a demon-infested colony on Mars, shooting the Minolta Alpha 7 does totally replicate the fearless confidence that always followed the typing of those cheat codes. Yes, shooting the Alpha 7 is the god-mode of film photography.
Let’s get away from the DOOM metaphor for a bit; I know some of you are confused. The point is, shooting film cameras is a hobby that often comes loaded with compromise. These are, after all, obsolete tech. But the Minolta Alpha 7 is simply an uncommonly capable film camera that demands exactly zero compromise of its user. And while plenty of film cameras are capable of making amazing photos when we put in the effort, the Alpha 7 is rare in its ability to consistently deliver amazing shots with almost no effort (all you need is a tiny bit of knowledge). Its functional methodology and forward-thinking ergonomics make it feel less like an old film camera and more like a modern DSLR that just happens to expose film. For this reason, it’s often the camera I reach for when I want to make nothing but great photos or I’m shooting in a truly important situation.
The Alpha 7 (which was also called the Maxxum 7 and Dynax 7 in the United States and Europe respectively) isn’t unique in this, to be fair. Other SLRs from the same era do much the same. Nikon’s N80 and F100, and Canon’s late EOS film SLRs turn film photography into a similarly breezy pursuit, creating images that are simply remarkable nearly every frame. But in typical Minolta fashion, the Alpha 7 does everything its competition could do, does it better, and adds some extra-useful now-standard bells and whistles that other camera makers wouldn’t implement for (in some cases) a decade or more. Prescient design choices include a massive illuminating data panel on the back of the camera (that operates just like today’s DSLR LCDs when in data display mode), user-programmable custom functions, TTL phase-detection autofocus, depth-of-field preview, and fourteen segment honeycomb metering. And it doesn’t stop there.
It also manages to defy belief in that it’s an autofocus film SLR that actually looks great. The infamous bubbly design trend that so plagued the 1990s and early ‘00s, in which every damned thing seemed to be obtuse and rounded, is nowhere to be seen on the Alpha 7. Instead, it presents a for-the-time unusual angularity and muscularity that other makers wouldn’t embrace for another seven or eight years. It’s certainly not as sharp as something like an A-1, but its aesthetic details are leaps ahead of nearly anything from Nikon’s N series.
Its style works for me. But I know that this look won’t work for everyone. For some people, much of the allure of shooting a film camera is that film cameras look like film cameras. The Alpha 7 doesn’t look like a film camera, and this might just kill the whole appeal for a certain segment of would-be photogs. If your major concern is owning a film camera that looks the part, you may be better off with something from a couple decades earlier. But don’t be surprised if these cameras just aren’t as usable; the Alpha 7 might be the high-water mark for Japanese SLRs.
In the hand the Alpha feels great. Smaller and lighter than its more intense progenitor, the Alpha 9, it balances beautifully with any lens. Strap lugs are positioned correctly so there’s no uncomfortable swing, and an ample grip keeps things tight and controlled. The thumb rest on the back of the machine promotes one-handed operation, and places the tip of the thumb in a small area of unused space on the back of the camera, where the AE lock, focus controls, and rear dial await actuation just millimeters away.
Controls are laid out with near perfect placement, and the balance of individual dials and “combination dials” shows an incredible understanding of the way that photographers use cameras. While other manufacturers were consistently decreasing the number of buttons and switches in an effort to simplify things (which only made things clumsier, as menus were now within menus) Minolta shirked this. Instead, they designed things so that the most useful controls are easily accessible and obviously located, while secondary and tertiary controls are placed out of the way and, in some cases, hidden behind metal flaps. Even the control locks, which I typically detest, are large enough for easy actuation (though I would still prefer controls to be lockless).
I should stress this – it’s incredibly rare for me to use a camera and not find five or more functional design choices that annoy me. I want my cameras to be perfect. They never are. In the case of the Alpha 7 there is literally only one control position that bothers me; I wish the On/Off switch was on the right side of the body so that I could both hold the camera and turn it on with just one hand. That qualm noted, the Minolta offers an “Eye-Start” system in which the camera can be left on and simply raising it to the eye will spark it to life. I don’t typically use this mode because I’m not sure if it will impact battery life. Maybe I should. If it works well and doesn’t kill the batteries, it might convert the Alpha 7 from a camera with only one design flaw into a camera with none.
The machine’s spec-sheet is somewhat ridiculous, and reads like a wishlist that pulls from every one of the best cameras the Japanese had made up to the time of the Alpha 7’s release. Highlights include a shutter capable of 1/8000th of a second down to 30 seconds, plus Bulb, flash sync speed at 1/200th of a second; three metering modes including 14 segment honeycomb, center-weighted average, and spot metering; full PASM shooting modes; exposure compensation in 1/3 and 1/2 stop increments; AE lock; continuous shooting at up to four frames per second; unlimited multiple exposures, self-timer, both DX and user-selectable ISO control, and so much more.
But none of that really matters much, because spec-sheets are boring. I only mention it for the numbers junkies who want to see if this thing really is as good as an F6 (and because other sites that have talked about the a7 have put incorrect info into the world).
In the field, the spec sheet is irrelevant and all that matters is how well or poorly a camera performs. With the Alpha 7, there’s no photo that can’t be made. It’s a compact and light pro-spec camera that consistently punches above its weight.
Autofocus is fast and accurate, and after shooting more than fifty rolls of film through the camera I’ve yet to encounter a moment in which the AF failed. It uses a nine-point system spread wide across the entire frame with center dual cross type sensors. Compared to Canon and Nikon contemporaries, the Minolta is better, more accurate, and more consistent. It also features an astounding number of control methods for focusing. Shutter half-press naturally activates AF, but it can also be activated via a back focus button, spot-AF button, and even the M/F button when shooting in manual focus mode. That’s pretty amazing, and there are plenty of DSLRs being released today that still fail to offer such a robust variety of AF controls.
Metering is similarly flawless. The system Minolta’s packed into this camera simply never fails. If you’re not interested in worrying about the math of exposure, set it to P, A, or S and shoot for your desired effect. Since even semi-auto modes are meter assisted, you won’t make an improperly exposed shot. Just adjust your parameter until the exposure meter shows you’ve got the right settings. It also offers as much creative control as anyone would ever want with its multiple exposure compensation value controls, spot and average metering functions, AE lock, and of course, full manual mode.
The viewfinder is big and bright, and covers 94% of the image area with a magnification of .8X. It shows all the information you’d ever need to take a photo, including set shutter speed and aperture, light meter reading, selected metering mode, exposure compensation value, and autofocus status. If there’s a downside, it’s that the focusing screen is not replaceable, so the built-in acute matte screen will have to do.
Lens selection is phenomenal, with more than 100 different Minolta-made lenses of every type fitting to the camera’s A-mount. The company made world-class lenses for decades, and were one of the only camera companies to produce their own glass elements. This promoted intense quality control and extremely specialized designs. Some of their lenses have achieved legendary status for their incredible rendition and exceptional quality – the APO lenses come to mind. After Sony acquire Minolta’s camera concern in 2006, they reintroduced eighteen of Minolta’s earlier lens designs as rebranded Sony products. Many of these lenses are still made to this day with exactly zero adjustment to optical formulae or mechanical and electrical design. I guess if it ain’t broken…
One such legendary lens, the STF 135mm f/2.8, would even influence the Alpha 7’s feature set. This “smooth trans focus” lens uses an apodization filter to blend the transition between the plane of focus and the out-of-focus elements in an image. The result is some of the best bokeh you’ll ever see. What’s this have to do with the Alpha 7? The Alpha 7 is the only camera ever made that has an STF mode. What this attempts to do is replicate the incredible bokeh effect achieved by Minolta’s ultra-expensive STF lens. Does it work? Somewhat. It’s not as effective as the STF lens, in that STF mode requires a tripod and a motionless subject, since it takes seven exposures on a single frame at varying apertures. But the results do show somewhat optimized bokeh. But the Alpha 7’s STF mode is more of an interesting feature to try a few times, rather than the bokeh revelation that Minolta probably intended (the idea was that you could get amazing bokeh from any lens).
Other interesting features include the ability to record an immense amount of shooting data with Minolta’s Data Saver 100. This gizmo was designed exclusively for the Alpha 7 and makes it possible to record photographic data for each exposure to a media card. The data from as many as 400 36-exposure rolls of film can be saved to a single 4MB card. This data can then be displayed on the camera or compiled onto a list and displayed on a computer. Another interesting (if not completely useful) innovation.
[The photos in the gallery above were made by Stéphane Heinz using a Minolta a7 purchased from my camera shop, paired with the Konica Minolta 17-35mm wide zoom lens and Kodak P3200 shot at 800 ISO and processed at 1250.]
Of course, with a camera as feature-dense as the Alpha 7, shooters will need to understand and use these controls correctly in order to get the most out of the machine. If a shooter knows nothing about AE lock and when to use it, then it doesn’t much matter if the camera has AE lock. The complexity and incredible tech that makes the Alpha 7 such a masterpiece may send some users running for the comfort and simplicity of a K1000, and the resulting ten-or-so keeper images that more primitive camera will make per roll. But for someone who really values the image above all else, and who knows enough (or is willing to learn enough) to work an advanced machine, the Alpha 7 is hard to top.
Readers of this site will know how we feel about Minolta. If there’s one defunct camera company that we’d like to see rise from the dead, that company is Minolta. They were consistently on the forefront of technology while rarely sacrificing build quality. At any point in the fifty-odd years during which they were a major player in the photographic world, there was always an available Minolta that could go toe-to-toe with any other camera in the world. They weren’t afraid of risks, and they were always inventing (the company claimed many firsts in the world of cameras, including the first effective and successful autofocus system). Not every camera they made was excellent, but the excellent ones were often the best.
For modern shooters who want to experience a nearly perfect film camera, the Minolta Alpha 7 should certainly be considered. It’s an incredible machine with amazing glass that will help you make fantastic images on film. Circling back to our DOOM reference, I think I’ll start calling the Alpha 7 the BFG 9000. Why the hell not?