A Gray Day with the Minolta XD

A line of three deep at the film processing counter at my local camera shop afforded me the opportunity to wander across the store to the used department. There's a glass case there full of old SLRS, lenses and flash units. I need to stay away from this case. A visit always parts me with my money. On this day, $100 got me a mighty fine Minolta XD with 50mm lens. The asking price was $150, but when I pointed out that the viewfinder was a bit hazy in the lower left corner, the price came down and I became an owner.

 Black Body XD with 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X

Black Body XD with 50mm f/1.4 MD Rokkor-X

I figured when I got home that some lens cleaning solution on a micro-fiber cloth might clean up the haze, but it turned out that it was inside the viewfinder eyepiece. It wasn't fungus. Most likely haze that develops on glass when the seals and glue in old cameras deteriorate. The haze wasn't enough to obscure the image in the finder, but it was damn annoying. A great time, I thought, to try out a new repairer I'd heard good things about. So off the XD went to Blue Moon Camera & Machine in Portland for a CLA, with special instructions to clean the haze in that viewfinder.

After a month up in the Northwest, Blue Moon informed me that the XD didn't need much; new seals, a good cleaning and gentle adjustment of everything back to factory specs. And their tech thought the haze was probably caused by the deteriorating foam seals, glue or oil that was drying up. When I got the camera back, it looked good as new, worked just swell and the viewfinder was crystal clear. Full review on Blue Moon coming soon.

The Minolta XD's release date was right in the sweet spot for 35mm SLR design; 1977. These were the last gasp years for mostly metal, finely crafted camera bodies and hand assembly. Plastic bodies and lens mounts as well as lots of in-camera electronics were on the near horizon. Minolta was working closely with Leica at this time and some of the innards of the XD found their way into the Leica R4. I had an R4 and I can tell you that the controls on this camera feel a lot like its German counterpart. 

The XD was called the XD-11 in the US, the XD-7 in Europe and just XD in Japan. The XD is a historically significant camera because it was the first SLR to offer both aperture-priority and shutter-priority auto-exposure modes. More important still, the XD had a built-in, simple but effective microprocessor. In shutter-priority mode, if the photographer selects a speed that the camera determines is outside proper exposure parameters, it will automatically select another one that will deliver a good exposure. This was the first ever "program" mode on a camera. The XD also offers a fully manual exposure mode.

I've become particularly fond of the smaller sized SLRS like the Olympus OM-2n, Pentax ME and LX and Nikon FM2n. The XD is similar in size and weight. A very comfortable camera to wear all day. Controls feel familiar and are well placed, with the exception of the shutter release. Its design, dropped down into the middle of the shutter speed dial and with a reverse concave had me firing the shutter a few times when I was simply trying to meter my shot. A soft release might help here.

The split image viewfinder in the XD is big and bright, helped I'm certain by the Acute-Matte focusing screen which Minolta also made for the Hasselblad V-Series medium format cameras. How good is an Acute-Matte screen? Google one for Hasselblad and see how much they sell for. The XD's viewfinder serves up essential exposure information along the right side of the frame with LEDs; either aperture or shutter speed depending on exposure mode. 

My XD arrived from Blue Moon during a hot and sunny week and by the time I got around to shooting it, gray skies had moved in. Not a good test for a new camera but any day taking pictures is a good one, so I loaded up some Portra 400, set the ISO at 200 and off I went. Here's the coast near where I live under the overcast.

Some birds on the beach with one taking notice of the photographer.

I saw this old fishing rope wedged into some rocks and thought it would make an interesting shot.

Hardly any color on this gray day.

In the absence of color, go hunting for texture.

Heading back to the house, I grabbed some shots of neighborhood flowers. Sun really would have helped these out.

This Minolta performs superbly. I've never shot any Minolta product before, so I had no expectations. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed using the XD. The Rokkor MD lens exudes quality, with nice focus action and clicky f-stops. These late 70s SLRs and manual focus lenses really were the best of the bunch.

Minolta began moving in a different direction after the XD, releasing their last manual focus cameras; the X-370, X-570 and X-700. These cameras had additional metering and exposure features designed to appeal to new photographers, but had more plastic parts to lower cost.

In the early 1970s, Minolta purchased the patent on autofocus technology from Leica and in 1985, released the first autofocus SLR, the Maxxum. Minolta did well with the Maxxum line, but as they further developed their autofocus technology, Honeywell sued for patent infringement. The two companies settled out of court, but Minolta was financially bruised. Minolta merged with Konica to form Konica/Minolta, eventually exiting the photographic business.

For people just discovering film photography, a Minolta camera might be low on a list with names like Nikon, Canon and Pentax coming up first. After shooting this XD, I'd have to say--this is a stunning little camera and very capable performer!