There are better and more exotic vacation destinations than Berlin in the winter. Here the skies are grey, the sun sets around 3:30 p.m. and the cold Russian winds make the temperatures plummet. Berliners in winter are universally clad in puffy jumpsuits, and a trip on the underground is soundtracked by a chorus of coughs. For even the most die-hard Berliner, winter can be a draining experience.
Any opportunity to foray into warmer and sunnier climates is enthusiastically embraced. So when some friends told me they were visiting Lisbon for a long weekend this month, it didn’t take much convincing for me to tag along. With visions of Portugeese beaches and palm trees, I booked my ticket and started mulling over just which camera I’d take with me.
As it happens, my choice of camera was an even easier decision. A few weeks earlier I’d stumbled into an old friend, a Minolta SRT 303b. It was deja vu holding the camera again, and for good reason. I had owned this camera before and gifted it away, later feeling like a member of the Bluth family as I mumbled, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Last year I bought another 303b that was packaged with a larger lot of ten broken down cameras. I sent it off to a Minolta repair specialist, hoping he could bring it back to its former glory. He couldn’t. After that, I stepped away from the SRTs.
Then, when I wasn’t looking any longer, the 303b came home to roost. I found a black copy online that looked remarkably good but with terrible images of the camera. As an added bonus, it came with the same Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 lens that had been attached to the 303b I had given away as a gift. I rolled the dice, ponied up 100 euros, and waited for the mail to arrive from France. A few days later I was holding it in my hands, and blown away by how good it looked.
Except for a small scuff on one side, this looked like a brand new camera. Even the white Minolta badging looked fresh. The meter didn’t seem to work, but I was planning on using a dedicated lightmeter anyway. Shutter speeds sounded as accurate as I could guess, but it wouldn’t be until I received the first roll back that I would know for sure.
Those first rolls would be Kodak Ektar, which I picked up from my local film store the night before my flight. The weather looked warm and sunny, but just to be safe I also packed two rolls of Tri-X in case the rain and clouds followed me from Berlin.
After two hours of sunny flying through Germany, over Paris and into the Iberian peninsula, ominous clouds began forming around us. By the time we landed in Humberto Delgado Airport it was raining and sloppy. My Uber driver told me that it had been sunny the entire week preceding my arrival, confirming my fear that I was the deliverer of depressing weather. I had until morning to determine which film stock would be loaded into my Minolta SRT 303b.
A Quick Overview of Minolta’s SRT Series
The Minolta SRT 303b isn’t the first of its kind, nor is it even unique unto itself. It was released in 1975, nine years after the first SRT camera debuted. It was named the SRT 303b in Europe, the SRT 202 in the Americas and the SRT 505 in Asia. Given these numerous designations, it would be easy to assume that it was either the second, third, or fifth model in the SRT line of reflex cameras from Minolta. Confusingly, it was the sixth.
The first was the SRT 101, an iconic camera that was the first to offer through-the-lens multipoint metering at full aperture. This system was called the Contrast Light Compensator – a metering system that used two photocells to average the light and contrast across a scene.
To achieve correct exposure, the photographer must match two needles by changing aperture and shutter speed settings until the needles center over one another. This system gave photographers the ability to make accurate photographs faster than ever before, and made the SRT 101 one of the most successful cameras in history. Thousands of photographers, including Annie Leibovtiz, cut their teeth using this mechanical beast, and it remains one of the best choices for anybody who’s looking to learn photography today.
The success of the SRT 101 made inevitable the release of four more SRT cameras over the next nine years; the budget-oriented SRT 100, the motorized SR-M, the intermediate SRT SC and MC (sold exclusively in Sears department stores and K-Mart respectively), and the SRT 102/Super/303, which replaced the 101 as Minolta’s flagship for professionals. In 1975 Minolta tweaked its entire lineup, making some changes to its existing cameras and renaming the lot. The flagship became the SRT 303b and would be the last flagship of the SRT series, which was discontinued in 1980.
Features and Specifications of the Flagship Models
The SRT flagship series is a study in small, incremental improvements. The SRT 303b is a minor improvement over the SRT 303, which is itself a minor improvement over the SRT 101. The first 303 body did not include the early SRT 101’s mirror-lock-up functionality. Minolta also added exposure settings to the viewfinder, a split-image focusing aid, a hot shoe, and a film release button that allowed for multiple exposures on a single frame. For the later 303b, Minolta added a safe-load indicator on the back of the camera under the film advance lever and a film memo holder.
But the seemingly limited amount of improvements belies the fact that the 303b was a world class camera in its day and remains a stellar choice for anyone seeking a truly mechanical approach to photography. The SRT series was always good. The 303 and 303b are simply the best of the bunch.
The Minolta SRT 303b has a fully-mechanical cloth focal plane shutter with speeds from 1/1000th of a second to 1 second, and bulb mode. Electronic flash is supported with speeds from 1 second to 1/60th of a second. There’s also a depth-of-field preview button and self timer on stage left of the front of the camera, with the DOF preview button resting near the bottom of the lens mount.
Occasionally there’s good reason to say “they don’t make them like they used to.” Those words come to mind while holding the 303b. It’s not quite a heavy camera, nor a light camera – it’s a well-balanced camera. You can wear it around your neck all day without getting tired, but it’s substantial in the hand. Perfect, is a word I would use. Or perfectly balanced, as all things should be.
Construction is almost entirely metal, with only a few small pieces being made from plastic. The leatherette isn’t as luxurious as that found on the XD11, but unlike that smoother stuff, the 303b’s leatherette will never shrink and rip. There are stories of Glock owners burying their guns in the mud and digging them up a week later, firing them off without any problems. It’s easy to imagine doing the same with the 303b. It’s a tank, but a svelte tank.
[Editor’s note – In my earlier write up on the SRT 202, one reader left an interesting comment about his SRT which involved a dunk in a river and a thorough cleaning by way of cheap, Russian vodka. It worked, so he says, like a charm.]
The Minolta SRT 303b has a big viewfinder and a full readout of aperture and shutter speed selections, as well as the exposure needles on the right side of the finder, and yet all of this information isn’t distracting. Regarding that meter, it’s the same CLC pseudo Matrix metering as was in the SRT-101 and has a sensitivity from EV 3 to 17 at ISO 100. Film speed is accounted for through the typical pull and twist dial with a range from ISO 6-6400. This is the single part of the camera that requires batteries – the now-illegal PX625s that have mercury in them. But in the event that one with a working meter can be found, the Weincell batteries are a suitable replacement.
If you don’t want to mess around with weird batteries or rely on nearly sixty-year-old metering technology, no problem. Everything other than the meter on the 303b is fully mechanical. Shooting in a blistering desert? The frozen tundra of the Northwest Territories? No problem. Mechanical operation also means that the camera has fewer irreplaceable things that can break with age and brick the camera.
The Minolta SRT 303b on the streets of Lisbon
I woke with a sigh of relief on my first full day in Lisbon, as the sun was brightly shining. I instantly loaded my first roll of Kodak Ektar 100.
I chose Ektar for a number of reasons. The most obvious reasons were covered in James’ review of this low speed, virtually grain-free film. The slow speed would work in the bright sun-dappled streets of the city, and the low grain would make for smooth and silky images. But three other factors contributed to the choice; first, that I hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with Ektar, second, that at 20 euros for two rolls, it’s now the cheapest professional Kodak film available, and third, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most colorful cities. This makes it a place seemingly designed for the vivid punchiness of Kodak Ektar.
On our first day we toured the Torre de Belém, a 15th century tower that has an expansive view of the Tagus River and the city’s waterfront esplanade. Next we walked to the nearby Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a colossal monument to the age of discovery when Portugal mapped much of the then unknown world. After a late lunch at LXfactory, an old industrial complex turned into an arts and restaurant district, we ended the day at Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a plaza with views of the city and river. It was a great place to take a few city sunset photos, something I try to do in every new place I visit.
Until that point, my experience with the 303b had been relatively simple. All I had to do was compose, read the light, transfer the settings, focus, snap and repeat. The light was bright, bountiful and unchallenging. Sunset proved to be somewhat more challenging, especially while trying to photograph with front lighting. I didn’t have anything like exposure compensation or automatic bracketing to guarantee I got my shot, nor did I have enough film to take multiple photos.
With that in mind, I used my light meter to get a base reading, something around 1/500th of a second at f/11, and opted to use 1/125th of a second to give me two stops of over-exposure. My next shot was even more challenging, where I wanted to capture some interesting houses with the city’s famous Golden Gate Bridge imitator in the far distance. This time I had to shoot the dominating dark buildings with the very bright river, while not blowing the highlights and losing the bridge. My light meter gave the same reading as before, 1/500 at f/11, and I shot with just one stop over-exposure. It was my final frame of the first roll, so I prayed to the photography gods and hoped for deliverance.
The next morning we enjoyed breakfast at the same great cafe we visited three mornings in a row, and after a long walk trying to find a bank, stumbled upon the Assembleia da República, home of the Portugese parliament. We snapped a few photos and headed to our destination, unaware that in a few hours tens of thousands of people would gather there to demonstrate for whatever people were protesting that day.
Instead we went to São Jorge Castle. The castle, which dates to 100 B.C., protected historical Lisbon, and was occupied successively by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Moors before its conquest by the native Portuguese in 1147. Today, visitors can climb the castle’s towers and walk along its parapets to enjoy a 360 degree panorama of the city, a perfect opportunity for my Minolta to take advantage of another sunny and warm day.
Later we traveled across the river to the Cristo Rei, a towering monument topped with a statue of Jesus Christ, much like the similar Jesus statue in Rio. This was our final sightseeing stop, and with about six shots remaining, I hoped to get some interesting photos of the statue and the cityscape on the other side of the river. I grabbed my tripod as we hopped in an Uber (the hills of Lisbon had long ago defeated us) and we made the thirty minute drive to the statue.
The wind on the bluff was punishing as we arrived, and even worse when we got to the top of the 360-foot monument. I pulled out my tripod, extended the legs and then felt my heart fall to my feet as I realized that the tripod’s release plate was in my desk back in Berlin. After talking myself out of taking the fastest way back down the monument, I moved quickly to make use of the remaining light with my low ISO film.
By the time we got back down to the bluff, I had three shots and the blue hour was upon me. In spite of the fierce wind, I balanced my SRT 303b on the un-plated tripod, set the self timer, pulled my coat over the camera as a windscreen and wished for the best. Hopefully the weight of the camera and lens would stabilize the camera and make relatively sharp images.
I can always rely on forgetting one item when I go on a trip. Often it’s something simple like a toothbrush or socks. This time it was a critical piece of gear. I’d like to think that this lesson will help ensure that the same thing never happens again, but I know myself too well to believe it.
With a four-hour flight back to Berlin, I had plenty of time to reflect on my experience with the Minolta SRT 303b. When I purchased the camera, my motivations were largely nostalgic. It was one of the first film cameras I ever owned, and I remembered the unique joy I felt as a beginner getting back my first negatives. I had a different set of emotions this second time around. There was something therapeutic about shooting such a basic machine after years of using cameras with offerings that would make a Cheesecake Factory menu blush.
There were only two negatives regarding the 303b. One was my viewfinder, which was nastier than a Sidney Crosby wrist shot. It was so distractingly dirty that I might have it CLA’d just to have it clean again. The second was that at the end of my second roll, the mirror didn’t return down after a few long exposures (1/8th-1 second). It didn’t affect my images, but the mirror only dropped back where it belonged after advancing the film.
My return to Berlin was a quick one, just long enough to drop my film at the lab before boarding another plane to Warsaw. I still had the Minolta SRT 303b and the two rolls of Tri-X, figuring that rural northern Poland in January was a safe bet for black and white film. And sure enough, a few days after my arrival I was back in the winter doldrums, completely disbelieving that I had been eating “pastel de nata” in Lisbon only four days earlier.
On cue, that beautiful email containing 72 16-bit TIFF files dinged my phone. I jumped to my computer like a Bedouin finding an oasis. After opening the folders in Lightroom, I was overjoyed with my images. Ektar lived up to its reputation and the Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 again demonstrated why it’s the ultimate standard legacy lens.
But it wasn’t a lens or film that was giving me satisfaction. It was that I used my photographic knowledge to successfully tackle exposure challenges, and doing so gave me a greater sense of accomplishment. The camera might have taken those photos, but I made them. And I needed to feel that again.
The Minolta SRT 303b isn’t a uniquely fantastic machine. But it is a well-built and reliable one. It’s also not a technical marvel anymore, even if it was when it first came out. This is just a light-sealed box with a few knobs and buttons. It relies on you, the photographer, for everything else. And if the one you buy is well taken care of, it will rely on you for the rest of your life.
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