There is no clear and widely accepted definition of what a “Pro” photographer is.
But for practical reasons, camera manufacturers have one. Canon, Nikon and Sony have a dedicated support organization for Pros. The admission criteria is somewhat different for each brand, but, high level, they all consider that a Pro photographer has to derive most or all of its income from photography, and owns a few high end camera bodies and lenses of the brand. At the top of that, Sony also asks for samples of the photographer’s work before granting admission.
Who was manufacturing “pro” cameras in the time of film?
In the days of film, Canon and Nikon clearly were the vendors of choice for pro photographers. At some point, Minolta and Pentax had modular SLRs in their product line (the XM and the LX), but those cameras were a one off – Minolta and Pentax never developed a family of pro SLRs over the long run, the same way Nikon developed the F series and Canon the F-1/EOS-1 product lines.
Minolta, Pentax, Olympus (and even Fujica) probably had many bona fide professional photographers among their customers. But they did not have Canon or Nikon’s presence in big events like the Olympic Games or the Soccer World Cup. And they did not have the lenses and accessories that professional photographers needed (or thought they might need one day).
The power of 9
The closest Minolta came to having a line of pro SLRs was its series of Maxxum autofocus cameras, starting with the Maxxum 9000 in 1985, followed by the Maxxum 9xi in 1992 and the Maxxum 9 in 1999 – remote predecessors of Sony’s high end dSLRs (Alpha 900) and mirrorless cameras (A9).
The 9000 was launched a few months after the revolutionary Maxxum 7000, the first technically and commercially successful autofocus SLR. The 7000 was the “prosumer” model, and the 9000 was supposed to target the “pros”.
Minolta replaced the 7000 with the 7000i in 1988 (relatively similar, but faster), and enriched the product line with the 8000i (a 7000i with a better viewfinder). In 1991, the 7000i was replaced by the 7xi with even more automation (xi stands for “eXpert Intelligence”), and in 1992 a new 9xi replaced both the 8000i and the 9000.
The 9xi was an expensive camera in 1992, with a US list price of $1190, which probably translated into a $650 street price at retailers such as B&H and Adorama. Minolta was very ambitious – its price placed the 9xi in the same ballpark as the Nikon N90, at a much higher level than any Canon SLR bar the EOS-1, which was selling for $1099 (street price).
xi : eXpert Intelligence, fuzzy logic
With its Maxxum line of autofocus SLRs, Minolta was genuinely trying to make photography simpler. In the early eighties, manufacturers had tried to attract new customers for their lines of reflex cameras by removing features – hoping that stripped down SLRs would be less intimidating for people who were just looking for a camera delivering better pictures than a point and shoot. They failed – those simplified SLRs (Canon AV-1, Pentax MV, Nikon EM) were still complex for the average amateur – they offered no program mode for auto-exposure, and still required the user to know how to focus and to load the film. They were too complex compared to a motorized/autofocus point and shoot, and at the same time too primitive to guarantee good results to amateurs ignorant of the technical fundamentals of photography.
The success of the Maxxum 7000 proved that if you added more automation to make SLRs easier to use (automatic film load, auto-rewind, programmed exposure, and of course, auto-focus) customers would come in droves.
Beyond all the buzz-words and the marketing verbiage – ”expert intelligence”, “fuzzy logic” – the Maxxum i and xi cameras introduced features that we still find in today’s digital cameras – matrix metering with a large number of metering cells, predictive AF, info provided on an overlay over the matt screen in the viewfinder, eye sensor to wake up the camera, scene modes and wireless flash control. Other ideas did not stick because they were too weird (automatic zooming), too cumbersome to use (expansion cards giving access to scene modes or extra features), or too irritating for technically savvy photographers (no direct access to exposure and metering modes, built-in flash that automatically pops up).
Power XI zooms – automation pushed to the absurd
The xi cameras were compatible with the “normal” Minolta A series autofocus lenses, but were designed to work with a new line of Power XI zooms. The main difference was that zooming was motorized. When the camera was powered on, it set the zoom automatically to the focal length best suited to the scene, and in some scene modes, the camera could even override the photographer and reframe the picture on its own. Pretty radical at the time.
In retrospect, the Power XI zooms happened to be a distraction for Minolta. They were not widely accepted on the marketplace, and consumed engineering resources that could have been used to develop a line of “pro” lenses. When they launched the 9xi in 1992, Minolta did not have any of the lenses of the pro-trifecta: the f/2.8 constant aperture wide angle, trans-standard and tele-objective zooms that professional photographers tend to use. The “Pro” zooms would arrive in time for the launch of the 700si, but too late for the 9xi.
The fate of the xi series
I don’t have access to sales figures, but I does not look like the 9xi, the Power xi zooms, and the xi product line in general were very well received on the marketplace. The 7xi was replaced with the 700si after a very short sales career of only two years. The Power XI zooms were discontinued at the same time, and replaced with conventional non-motorized lenses. The buying public did not root for the design of the 7xi, and did not see the benefit of power zooms. It can also be argued that the 7xi had been crippled to leave room for the 9xi (it lacked the depth of field preview, exposure bracketing, a programmable function button, and the ability to use AA batteries with in a grip) – all features that enthusiast photographers expected from this class of camera, and present on the 9xi.
With the Maxxum 700si, Minolta addressed the concerns of the enthusiasts about the feature set, made the interface more configurable, and returned to a pleasantly conventional design. But in the process they also made the 700si much closer to the 9xi, whose only remaining differentiator was its weather sealing.
The 9xi remained on Minolta’s catalog for a few years – as a signpost to confirm that Minolta still had ambitions in the “Pro” market.
Was the 9xi a “pro” camera?
In the early nineties, Minolta only had a marginal presence in the “Pro” market, and its line of auto-focus lenses and its support organization were not on par with Canon or Nikon.
Was the 9xi so significantly better than its competition, or so innovative, that it could lure a large number of Pro photographers into abandoning the Nikon and Canon systems? Would the Pros take a leap of faith with Minolta, hoping the brand would beef up its product line and its support organization as more of them became Minoltians?
At the time, the market’s answer was “no”. It would take the revolution of mirrorless, and Sony’s introduction of the A7 to finally see a product of the Minolta-Konica-Sony family encroach Canon and Nikon’s duopoly in the world of professional photography.
More about the 9xi with a review in a few days…