Editorial discretion at Casual Photophile dictates that we don’t write about every camera ever made, and the cameras that we do write about don’t necessarily need to be “the best.” Our only requirement of the cameras we cover is that they should be interesting. Case in point; Minolta’s Minoltina P. This simple viewfinder camera is, at first blush, not much to talk about. But look a little closer and we see that its mix of unusual features, exceptionally small form factor, and a truly surprising lens make it very much worthy of a second glance.
Part of a concise and relatively forgotten series of incredibly small cameras made by Minolta during the mid-1960s, the Minoltina P is noteworthy within and outside of its own range for a number of important reasons. It’s the smallest camera in the lineup, features the widest lens (38mm vs 40mm), and more substantially, employs an easy-to-use coupled exposure system as opposed to the more technical all-manual methodology employed by the Minoltina-S. This makes it one of the most advanced semi-automatic cameras of its day, bringing it near to the simplicity levels enjoyed by point-and-shooters.
Outside its own brand, it’s notable as being one of the smallest 35mm film cameras in the world (if not so true today, then certainly at its debut in 1963). While not as tiny as something like Rollei’s 35 series or the Contax T, it could be argued that the Minolta’s size is closer to what most shooters want. It’s a pocketable camera without being so small that it’s fiddly to use or delicate to hold. Marginally smaller than Minolta’s CLE, it reminds me of something like Fuji’s modern X100 digital mirror-less series. In short, it’s the right size.
This incredible compactness really springs to the fore when we compare it with its contemporary competition. At the time of its release, this camera must’ve been a miracle for travelers and those shooters looking for a real negative from a small camera. Sized just slightly larger than Olympus’ incredibly popular half-frame cameras, the Minolta beats these by exposing a full-frame image. It also weighs just fifteen ounces, and thanks to its low-profile lens it stashes into any pocket without producing unseemly bulges.
The viewfinder, with nothing more than frame-lines and parallax corrected frame-lines for up-close shooting, is about as sparse as any you’ll find in a camera. There’s almost nothing here to look at, which includes focusing aids. That’s right, no rangefinder, no micro prism focusing dot; this is a viewfinder camera through and through. It could be said that this makes the shooting experience simple and free of distraction, but shooters used to EVFs and fully informative finders will be in for a rude awakening. What limited information the camera does provide is displayed through an unusual window on the top of the machine. This includes analog readouts for zone focus settings and exposure information.
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The Minoltina is fitted with a selenium cell exposure meter that reads the available light and makes photography, according to the brand’s brochures of the day, “goof proof.” In theory, the idea is simple; set your film speed (between 25 and 800 ASA) with the dial on the bottom of the lens barrel, then point the camera at your subject and a needle that’s coupled to the exposure meter shows a reading in the mentioned readout window on the top of the camera. As we adjust the one-and-only exposure control on the lens barrel (which adjusts both aperture and shutter speed at the same time) a second needle swings within the gauge. Align the two needles and the camera is set to make a correct exposure.
In practice, it really is this simple, with a few caveats. Though we forfeit the ability (in automatic mode) to independently adjust our aperture and shutter speed, which will certainly prove a hindrance to serious photographers and be a detriment to the creation of certain styles of images, when we resign ourselves to the use of the camera as intended, it simply makes well-exposed images in most conditions. Heavy backlighting and low-light shooting can fool the P’s rather basic metering system pretty easily, and the fact that we can’t gauge our light while framing through the viewfinder means our readings may not always be perfectly accurate. But when used within its limits and with some allowances made for its quirks, the camera works great.
By rotating the exposure controls in the opposite direction to the automatic scale, we’re able to select Bulb mode, plus any aperture setting we desire from f/2.8 to f/16. In this shooting mode, however, the shutter speed is locked at 1/30th of a second. Incidentally this is also how we activate flash shooting.
Focus is achieved a way that’s similarly divorced of precision. Rotating the focus ring on the lens barrel causes a needle in the top-plate viewing window to swing and click between any one of three positions – near-distance shots, middle-distance shots, and infinity. There’s also a distance scale on the rotating focus ring which also helps achieve accurate focus. In similar fashion to the auto-exposure methodology employed by this tiny camera, the Minoltina’s focus system works most of the time. It’s not a fast or accurate system, by any means, and as with most scale-focus viewfinder cameras, practice makes perfect.
Build quality is decent, not exceptional. The camera is solid enough in the hands, and switches and dials actuate with mechanical certainty. But the haptic feedback found here is far from Leica-like. The thin and simple film advance lever ratchets a bit too freely, and the plastic film take-up spool has me flashing back with post-traumatic stress over some other camera’s and their broken, plastic spools. Shutter release is accompanied by a rather hollow click!, and the ringing reverberations that echo through the body after making a photo are more reminiscent of a spring-loaded wind-up toy rather than precision optics.
But just as we’re ready to smile pleasantly and dismiss the Minoltina P as just another nice-but-quirky viewfinder camera, it surprises with its better-than-average lens. The 38mm f/2.8 Rokkor is a nice piece of glass, capable of rendering unique images that rival those made by any of the more popular cult cameras that people constantly wax on about. Especially considering the camera’s size and weight, the performance built into its lens is impressive.
When stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 it makes punchy, characterful images that, if not clinically sharp, are sharp enough. Shot at wide open aperture, images are a bit spongy on the outside edges of the frame (a truth that doesn’t bother me). The wide-standard focal length produces what I consider to be the ideal viewing angle, just wide of 40mm. This allows us to bring more context to our photos and puts the Minoltina P right into the conversation as a great travel, landscape, or street photography camera.
Shots in the samples gallery were made with expired Ilford HP5 Plus, on a miserable grey day in which all things were frozen. (Color samples from a more vibrant day coming ASAP).
Is the Minoltina P a must-have machine? I can’t say that. For shooters who value full manual controls it will feel constricting, and for those who value build quality above all else it simply won’t feel heavy enough. The reliance on a selenium exposure meter could also be counted as a hazard, as this technology is not permanent; the effectiveness and accuracy of selenium exposure meters fades over time and this is exacerbated by improper storage. But these caveats don’t overshadow the camera’s strengths.
At the very least the Minoltina P is a camera that should more often be mentioned when we discuss machines like the Canon Canonet and the Olympus Trip. It’s an incredibly small and simple-to-use camera that’s a joy to shoot in the digital age. Its rarity relative to other cameras of its class makes it more collectible than the usual compact 35mm film camera. And its fantastic-for-its-size Rokkor lens may alone be worth the compromises it demands elsewhere. It also happens to be gorgeous, which has to count for something.