Minolta’s story is almost Shakespearean; filled with both beauty and tragedy. The company was one of the most innovative and groundbreaking in the photo industry. They consistently invented new technologies and implemented breakthrough features years (and sometimes decades) before their competitors. They were the upstart who would never be king, out-marketed by their competitors, and an eventual casualty of litigation and consolidation. Today, their products are perennial sleepers – affordable equipment whose value outpaces its cost in the modern marketplace.
There’s a little Hamlet in there, a little Macbeth, and it’s far from Much Ado About Nothing.
By 1981 Minolta was coming off of twenty years of unmatched innovation and sales success. They spent the sixties and seventies producing workhorse mechanical cameras made out of metal, and manual-focus lenses whose stellar reputation endures today. In 1962, the astronaut John Glenn carried a (rebranded) Minolta Hi-Matic with him during the first manned orbit of the planet. In 1966, the SRT-101 pioneered through-the-lens metering and the precursor to matrix metering with that camera’s CLC system. In 1977, the XD became the first camera to have multi-mode metering including a rudimentary version of program mode.
But just as Minolta’s success was reaching its peak, a new era was dawning. With Canon’s release of the consumer-oriented AE-1 in 1976, Canon proved that an under-served yet extremely lucrative amateur photographer market existed. This segment of the market promised more new customers than the previously coveted professional market, and lots of cash would follow for any company who could produce a high-quality camera for less money. Minolta hoped to duplicate their rivals’ success.
At the time, the XD was Minolta’s flagship camera, and an exceptional camera it was. It was a metal body, leather ensconced beauty that came from Minolta’s partnership with Leica. But as the brand’s flagship model, it carried a flagship price tag that the non-professional simply wouldn’t pay. Minolta needed a cheaper camera.
To make a less expensive camera meant using cheaper materials and embracing a greater reliance on electronics. At the same time, the camera needed to be extremely user-friendly and of such a quality that a new shooter could make gorgeous photos effortlessly. In 1981 Minolta debuted the X series, a line of SLRs that promised to satisfy all these requirements.
The X-700 was the first to be released, and it proved to be one of the company’s most famous manual-focus bodies. In our review, James called it “capable, quietly handsome, and easy to use.” That’s a perfect summation of a camera that was designed and intended to be an SLR for everyone. Its major selling feature was that it offered a Program shooting mode that would essentially turn the camera into a point-and-shoot for people who didn’t want to think about things like aperture and shutter speed. That difficult task was left to the camera’s light meter and microcomputer.
But though the X-700 cost roughly the same as Canon’s consumer-grade cameras, Minolta sought to undercut their competition with an even thriftier machine. Two years later the X-570 was released as the cheaper camera in the brand’s lineup. The X-570 got rid of the X-700’s Program mode, but retained much of what made the earlier camera so great.
But that’s all history now, and today, theres’s a strong case to be made for the lower-cost, lower-tier X-570 actually being a better machine than its more expensive older sibling.
The X-570 offers either aperture-priority auto-exposure or full manual mode with meter assistance. This last point is critical in retrospect, compared with the X-700. When looking through the incredibly bright viewfinder of the X-570 in manual mode we see LED lights on the right side of the frame. One solid light indicates the selected shutter speed while another LED blinks to highlight the camera-suggested shutter speed. This blinking light wasn’t included in the X-700 and is a nice fail-safe measure for shooters adjusting to manual metering.
The camera’s user-selectable ISO ranges from 12 to 3200 and shutter speeds range from 4 seconds to 1/1000 of a second. There’s an exposure lock, a depth-of-field preview, and a silicon photocell TTL center-weighted meter capable of automatic exposure ranging from EV 1 to 18. Screw on the Auto Winder G and the X-570 can shoot 2 frames per second. Put on the gnarly Motor Drive 1 and you’re up to a blistering 3.5 frames per second. There’s a slow-shutter speed alert sound if you like to stand out in a dimly lit crowd, and this paired with the camera’s already noisy shutter has each frame sounding like a test of the Emergency Alert System.
The camera itself is light, with a plastic body, but it doesn’t feel cheap. Yes, it’s plastic. But it’s that 1980s ABS, unbreakable Gameboy plastic. It gives the 570 the advantage of reduced weight while skirting the liability of flimsiness. But 30 years later that old ABS plastic (made from bromine) can eventually turn yellow from UV exposure (something you’re guaranteed to encounter in photography). The result is that the nice, white Minolta badging on many X-570’s looks slightly beige.
Shifting colors aside, the styling of this camera is fantastic. Like the 700 before it, the 570 is a joy to hold, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into making it fit comfortably in the hands. Unlike my XD, which is metal and real leather, I don’t worry about getting the X-570 dirty. There’s no leather to shrink, so who cares what happens?
The camera is even more ergonomically perfect when it’s mated to the Motor Drive G. Especially when shooting with a long telephoto zoom lens, it’s amazing the difference an inch and a half makes. This drive, or the even more potent Motor Drive 1, only adds to the camera’s professional look and feel.
The exposure lock is nicely implemented and works great in tricky lighting situations, working especially well with the camera’s center-weighted metering system. The shutter dial is easy to use, and the blinking LED showing what my speed should be is a nice feature missing from the 700. It would be nice to have exposure compensation, but this camera’s intended audience didn’t need such things.
Every time I take out the 570 it’s a joy to shoot. With its plastic styling, loud slapping shutter and purely plastic film winder it really doesn’t care what you think of it. The frame counter on mine hasn’t worked in a few years, which feels like the camera is just shrugging its shoulders. Its incredibly bright viewfinder with 95 percent coverage shows the world as it is, and the photos I’ve gotten back from it have that unique Rokkor personality.
Sample shots from the Minolta X-570 were made with Fuji Color C200 film.
All things equal, the X-570 is a stellar camera. So why doesn’t this camera get its due respect?
When I type “Minolta X-“ into my web browser, the suggested auto-filled search results include “X-700,” “X-370,” “XG,” and about nine more X-something cameras, none of which are “X-570.” It feels like the world has forgotten about the X-570.
Part of the answer could be that it suffers from book-end syndrome (an ailment that I just now created to describe what happens when a camera is released between two very famous cameras). Sure, the features of the X-570 make it more of an enthusiasts’ camera compared with the X-700, but the program mode of the X-700 made it the perfect camera for someone who wants to get into film photography (the target demographic of both machines). For this reason, the X-570 was never going to be as popular as the X-700, and it remains less popular today.
And then there’s the camera that Minolta released just two years after the X-570 – the Maxxum 7000.
Among Minolta’s long list of innovative achievements, releasing the first proper autofocus SLR has to be at the very top.
Development of the 7000 saw Minolta go back to the drawing board and redefine camera construction. Nikon, Chinon and Pentax had all made rudimentary attempts at autofocus using existing camera bodies and add-on design, but Minolta understood that to make autofocusing really work, the entire system had to be overhauled from the ground up, so that’s what they did. This new camera would change the very face of camera manufacturing and push all makers headlong into the era of speed, convenience, and technology.
The camera itself is a massive technical upgrade from the X series. On the earlier cameras, it takes a separate motor drive to automatically advance film, and controlling aperture and shutter speeds means turning dials and knobs. The 7000 has a 2 FPS motor drive built in, and two sets of buttons controlling all major camera functions. It’s capable of shooting in aperture-priority, shutter-priority, full manual, and full program modes. It features shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/2000 of a second and a flash sync speed of 1/100th of second. ISO ranges from 25 to 6400 and it’s got two light meters covering an LV range from -1 to 20.
Oh, and it also has a TTL phase-detection autofocus system with 8-bit computer system that automatically focuses faster than any camera that came before it.
The Maxxum 7000’s new-age design isn’t all internal. The exterior sees a radical shift from the SLR cameras Minolta was producing just two years earlier. It brings a sleek black metal, plastic, and rubber design with harsh 1980s edges. On the left are four long silver buttons that change the drive system, exposure compensation, ISO setting and exposure mode. Automatic film winding and rewinding eliminates that chore, and DX coding means we never need to adjust ISO when switching films. A conductive shutter release button activates the camera the moment we rest our finger on the shutter button.
It’s as if Minolta took all of their best tricks, made them even better, put them in the 7000 and added the new technology of autofocus. When it debuted, it was the greatest, most glamorous SLR in the world. And this undeniable fact wrestles with the simple truth that I don’t enjoy shooting it.
Sample shots from the Maxxum 7000 were made with Ilford Delta 3200 film.
What made the Maxxum such a groundbreaking camera in 1985 are the very same things that make it a bore in 2018. The innovative autofocus, once perceived as fast and amazing, is today loud and far from speedy. It uses just one center focus point, and it often has to hunt for focus in all but sunny conditions. Thank goodness it allows for manual override, which I employ frequently. The button-actuated aperture controls feel far from intuitive and the shutter speed controls are awkwardly placed above the lens release button on the front of the camera. The creative control buttons can be difficult to press for those with larger hands, and their styling is as dated as a Thomas Dolby record. The meter seems to underexpose a bit, perhaps due to it relying on a 33-year-old 8-bit computer system.
It’s hard to level these criticisms against such a historically significant camera, because it’s not as if the camera is failing. When this machine was released in 1985, Minolta got everything right. It’s just an unavoidable truth that 33 years have passed since then, and expectations have risen. Where manual focus, knobs, dials, and levers are timeless, electric motors and computerized features are not.
The first one through the breach often becomes the first casualty, and in the great autofocus campaign, this could be the ultimate fate of the Maxxum 7000.
Between the two cameras, these Minolta cameras that ended one era and began the next, the manual focus X-570 is what I’d inevitably reach for when given the choice. It never interrupts the process of making a photo, it employs all of the lessons in manufacturing and design learned by Minolta up to the day of its release, it remains a fantastic economic value, and it’s a machine that generates looks. It’s a performer that consistently takes great photos because it was built to last.
The Maxxum 7000 is a well-built, forward-thinking machine, but it demands a significant amount of patience from the modern user. For its incredible technology and for the way it moved the ball forward, it deserves a prominent place on a top shelf in the Museum of Photography. But it’s on that shelf that I would leave the Maxxum, while perhaps echoing Hamlet’s gravedigger, “Age, with his stealing steps, hath clawed me in his clutch.”