Nikon N90s/F90x – why almost nobody seems to like auto-focus film SLRs

When kids take a photography class in high school, the teachers typically recommend cameras like the Pentax K1000. If you Google “best learner camera for film photography”, most of the sites making the top of the list will recommend the Pentax K1000 (again), or cameras such as the Canon AE-1 (often), the Nikon FM, the Minolta X-700 or the Olympus OM family. All are manual focus cameras, all were launched in the seventies or in the early eighties,  and most of them only offer semi-automatic (some people call it “manual”) exposure.

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The Nikon FE2 of 1983 is objectively not as capable as the N90s (F90X) – but it’s more sought after. Nobody seems to like auto-focus SLRs from the early nineties.

 

James Toccio in his blog “Casual Photophile” is almost the only one to make the case that newcomers to film photography should start with a camera from the mid nineties, because with its multi-mode auto-exposure and reliable auto-focus system, it’s more similar to the current  digital cameras, and will yield much better results for an untrained photographer than a semi-auto/manual focus camera from the seventies (in: Casual Photophile – How to cheat at Film Photography)

James may have a point here. And if you look for a reliable, auto-focus multi-mode SLR with great performance and a large supply of lenses, the Nikon N90s is a very good choice.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very capable cameras to be had for next to nothing.

Unfortunately, if the value of a camera on the second hand market is any indication, most buyers disagree:  very good enthusiast-oriented auto-focus SLRs from the mid-nineties such as the N90s or the Minolta Maxxum 9xi seldom sell for more than $25.00, in the same ball park as the very primitive K1000, with more amateur-oriented auto-focus SLRs (such as Minolta’s Maxxum 400si or Nikon’s N6006) struggling to reach the $10.00 mark.

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The Nikon N90s was sold as the F90X in the most of the world (in fact, anywhere but in the USA). Note the trademark Nikon Red Stripe on the front grip –

The Nikon N90s

Nikon joined the auto-focus market shortly after Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000.  Its first auto-focus SLRs were slow to focus – even the flagship F4, but it did not matter much at the beginning, at least not until Canon launched the EOS-1, and showed what a good auto-focus camera should be able to do. From there on, Nikon had to play catch-up. It took them almost 10 years to do so (with the F5 & F100 bodies and the motorized AF-S lenses), and in the meantime, Nikon’s cherished pros kept on defecting to Canon in droves.

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The N90/N90S – In terms of design, uncomfortably seating between the analog Nikons (F, F2, F3, FM, FE) manual focus bodies,  and the modern auto-focus generation (F100, F6, D700, D800).

 

Launched in  1992, the N90 (named F90 in the rest of the world) was Nikon’s first real response to the EOS series. Officially, the N90 was designed for committed enthusiasts. But scores of pros also bought the N90, because it had the best auto-focus system Nikon could provide at the time. The  “N90s” aka “F90X” that rapidly followed was a level of performance above the N90 (improved auto-focus and weather sealing),  with a mission  to retain the pros who had fallen in love with the Canon EOS system until the launch of the F5.

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The aperture value is controlled by the aperture ring of the lens itself (and not by a second control wheel at the front of the grip as is the case with more recent SLRs or dSLRs)
  • Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

    Size, weight, features and ergonomics

    Size, Weight, Features and Ergonomics

The N90s is a typical auto-focus SLR of the mid-nineties – with a black polycarbonate shell and high levels of automation:  auto-exposure with the conventional Aperture Priority, Shutter priority, Program and Manual (understand semi-auto) modes, Matrix, Weighted average and spot metering, and motorized film loading and rewind. Compared to its lesser amateur oriented siblings, the N90 has no built-in flash, but a better shutter (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250), a better viewfinder and runs on AA batteries (instead of the harder to find and more expensive lithium batteries).

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Nikon N90s – a single control wheel at the right of the top place – the main ergonomic difference with modern “Enthusiast-oriented” Nikon AF SLRs and dSLRs, which have two.

Apart from the build quality and the use of Nikon F lenses, the N90S has very little in common with the previous generation of “enthusiast” and “pro” cameras, the FE2 and the F3. While not as bulky as a modern full frame dSLRs (like the D810), N90s is larger than the FE2, as heavy as the F3, and very close to the D7500 in its dimensions and weight.

Nikon Film Cameras Nikon dSLRs
FE2 F3 N90/N90s D7500 D810
35mm film 35mm film 35mm film Digital – APS-C (DX) Digital (full frame – FX)
weight (g) 550g 760g 755g 640g 980g
height (mm) 90mm 101mm 106mm 104mm 123mm
width (mm) 142mm 148mm 154mm 136mm 146mm
  • Viewfinder
    In my opinion, the long eye point viewfinder of the N90 is one of the two reasons to prefer the camera to a FE2, the other one being its very accurate matrix metering. With a magnification of 0.78, a 19mm eyepoint and 92% coverage, it’s a good compromise between magnification (the image is large enough) and the eye point distance (at 19mm, it’s confortable for photographers wearing glasses).
    It’s not as good as the high-point viewfinder of the F3, but much wider than the viewfinder of a conventional SLR such as the FE2 – and of course than the narrow viewfinder of APS-C dSLRs. It’s also very luminous, not as much as a modern full frame dSLR (such as a d700), but much more than its Minolta competitors of the nineties. All the necessary information is grouped on a green LCD display at the bottom of the screen. The only significant difference with modern Nikon cameras (and with Minolta cameras from the nineties) is that there is no LCD overlay to show information (such as the area of the image chosen by the auto-focus system) – considering there is only one central autofocus area, it’s not much of an issue.

 

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The information is grouped at the bottom of the screen – it’s less crowded than the viewfinder of a modern dSLR.
  • Shutter, metering and auto-focus system:
    The shutter is still at the state of the art (1/8000 sec and flash sync at 1/250). Nikon’s matrix metering was considered the best in the nineties, and it’s still very good. You can trust it most of the time. The auto-focus (a single sensor, in the middle of the screen) is reactive, accurate, and works well in low light situations.
  • Lens selection and accessories compatibility
    Designed for Nikon’s “screw drive” AF lenses (Nikon AF and AF-D lenses), the N90 also works with AI and AI-S lenses – basically, anything sold by Nikon after 1977. The camera can also focus with modern Nikon AF-S lenses (the ones with the focus motor in the lens), and works in Program and Shutter Priority modes with lenses devoid of an aperture ring (most of the current Nikon AF-S lenses). It can’t work with them in Aperture preferred or Manual (semi-auto) mode, because there is no way for the photographer to directly set the aperture. It is not compatible with pre-AI lenses (unless they’ve been converted to AI, of course) and can not take advantage of the vibration reduction (VR) function of the recent lenses.
    The N90 was part of Nikon’s line of Enthusiast and Pro cameras, and many accessories (the remote control systems, for instance) are still inter compatible with Nikon’s current Enthusiast and Pro dSLRs. The flash systems are downwards compatible (you can use a recent Nikon flash on the N90, but the opposite is not true).
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Fifteen years separate those cameras. But the connectors (PC Sync, Remote) and the buttons (AF settings) are still at the same place.
  • Reliability
    The N90’s polycarbonate film door was initially covered with a sort of mat soft skin which has a tendency to peel.  Rubbing alcohol will take care of it, and will leave you with a shiny, naked camera. Apart from this somehow minor issue, it is a very solid and reliable camera.
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Nikon N90s – the film door was covered with a thin soft skin, which is peeling. It’s not specific to this copy – all N90 cameras suffer from this issue at various degrees.
  • Battery
    The N90 uses four AA batteries, which are cheap and easy to find, and do not seem to be depleting too fast.
  • Cost and availability
    I don’t have production figures for the N90. But the camera was a sales success, had a long production run, and has withstood the test of time pretty well. It is still easy to find. Supply apparently widely exceeds demand,  and the prices a incredibly low for a camera of such quality (if you’re lucky, $25.00 buys a good one).

Conclusion: why is this camera so unloved?

Objectively, the N90s is a very good film camera. It has a great viewfinder, you can trust its metering system and  its auto-focus. It is solid, reliable, and runs on cheap AA batteries. It’s designed to be used as an automatic camera, but lets you operate with manual focus lenses or in semi-auto exposure mode if you so wish. Why is it so unloved?

Because it’s a tweener. It’s far too modern for some, and not enough for others.

Its predecessor in the eighties, the FE2 and the F3, are simple cameras, with a single auto-exposure mode, average weighted metering and no integrated motor. They offer the minimum a photographer needs, and a few goodies at the top of that (shutter speed and aperture values displayed in the viewfinder, depth of field preview, exposure memorization). Nothing more.

The FE2 and the F3 are the cameras that a photographer will look for when he wants to work on his technical skills, as a pianist would do with his scales.

They will also appeal to photographers who believe that using a simple tool and following the deliberate process it imposes will help them create more authentic, more personal pictures.

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The N90S next to its predecessor of 1983 – autofocus, matrix metering, large long eye-point view finder, modal interface on the left, manual focus, center-weighted metering, and analog interface on the right.

For those photographers, the N90 is already a modern (understand feature bloated) electronic camera. It is not too  dissimilar in terms of ergonomics, commands, auto-exposure and auto-focus performance to a recent entry level dSLR  – except that you shoot with real film instead of relying on a digital sensor and on film simulation algorithms. The technical difficulties of photography are to a large extent masked: you can shoot for a whole day in the programmed auto exposure mode, with matrix metering and auto-focus,  simply concentrate on the composition of the pictures, and still get mostly good results.

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Nikon N90s next to a Nikon D700. High end cameras have a built in flash now. It was not the case in 1991.

But the N90’s successor – the Nikon F100 – is even better at producing technically perfect pictures with little human intervention. Manufactured from 1999 to 2006, it is  closer technically to the high-end dSLRs that Nikon is selling today (general organization of the commands, meter and auto-focus performance, full support of AF-S and VR lenses).  The F100 is a better choice for photographers shooting not only with film but also with a full frame Nikon dSLR  – they can use the same lenses and rely on their muscle memory because the commands are so similar between the F100 and a high end Nikon dSLR.

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Nikon N90s (front) and Nikon D700 (back). The cameras had the same place in the Nikon hierarchy (just below the top of the line F4 or D3 bodies). With “only” 17 switches or buttons, the interface of the N90S looks simple in comparison to the D700’s.

It relegates the N90S to a narrow niche of film photographers who want the convenience of auto-focus and automatic exposure, the build quality and the viewfinder of a pro-camera, without having to pay to the roof for the ultimate film SLR.


More about the Nikon N90s

Thom Hogan’s review : http://www.bythom.com/n90.htm

The Casual Photophile’s review: https://www.casualphotophile.com/2017/10/13/nikon-n90s-camera-review/


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400.

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Spring cleaning in January…

It’s time to trim my  collection of film cameras, and make room for newer entrants.

The Minolta Maxxum 9xi has to go – I like it but I can’t use it to its full potential unless I spend more money on a set of Minolta A lenses and, maybe, a flash. I already have 4 sets of lenses for as many different makes of cameras. That’s already one or two too many, I won’t add a fifth one.

The Olympus OM 2000 falls into the same category as my Nikon FM (a modern semi-auto SLR), and is also competing for my attention with an Olympus OM-2 and my beloved Nikon FE2 (which both have very good semi-auto modes). I know I won’t be using it and I need to find a better place for it.

The two cameras are currently listed on eBay. It took them for one last photo shoot …

One last round with the Minolta Maxxum 9xi

I don’t know what drove Minolta out of the photography market – the expensive (and ultimately lost) lawsuit against Honeywell over auto-focus patents, the APS format debacle, or their inability to get more than a tiny fraction of the “pro” market –  but at some point they decided to throw the towel and sold themselves to Konica (forming Konica-Minolta). Two years later, Konica-Minolta stopped manufacturing film, and sold its photography line of business to Sony. It explains why current Sony a77 and a99 still work with the same Minolta lenses that the 9xi uses.

The Minolta autofocus SLRs designed for enthusiasts and pros were very pleasant to use and worked very well.  The Maxxum 9xi is no exception. It falls very well into the hands, gets the exposure right, and does not impose an information overflow to the photographer. Being designed as a “pro” model, it’s very well made (better than the 700si, for instance) and still looks good (no panel gap, no sticky paint) after all these years. If you love the Minolta brand, or if you are an active Sony Alpha photographer, it’s a camera to have.

  • Links to previous blog posts in CamerAgx

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a fuzzy logic camera for the “Pros”? (part I)

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – part II

 

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi –
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Heritage Park – Mableton – Minolta 9xi 28-105 AF zoom – Fujicolor 400.

Olympus OM 2000 Spot Metering

The Olympus OM 2000 is a Cosina-made semi-auto SLR, and has little in common with the rest of the Olympus OM family, except for its bayonet mount, of course.

It’s still an interesting camera – good looking, simple, with spot metering (in addition to the conventional weighted-average metering). A good introduction to the OM family of cameras, and a good backup for owners of an OM-3ti or OM-4ti who don’t want to risk damaging their expensive and sometimes temperamental camera in difficult situations.

  • Links to previous blog posts in CamerAgx

The Olympus OM-2000 – not a true blood Olympus, but a cheap and convenient bearer of Zuiko lenses

 

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Olympus OM 2000 Spot Metering
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Olympus OM 2000 – the fastest shutter on any Olympus SLR (1/2000sec, Flash X sync up to 1/125)
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Florida sunrise – Olympus OM 2000

 

Minolta Maxxum 600si: the return of buttons and knobs

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The Minolta 600si – one switch for every function

The 600si was at the same time Minolta’s cheapest enthusiast auto-focus SLR, and the test bed for the ergonomics of the future Maxxum 9, 7 and 7d.

After the launch of the 700si – at a higher price point than its predecessor the 7xi, Minolta had a gap to fill in their line-up. And because they had taken heat about the user interface of their xi generation of cameras, they took the opposite route for the 600si.

The design of its interface was so well received that it served as a model for the high end Maxxum 9 and 7 launched at the end of the century. And its influence could still be felt in the Konica-Minolta 7d, and in more recent Sony digital SLRs.

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The Minolta 600si – it looks like a “pro” – but its very light construction feels very “consumer”

High level, the 600si is a cheaper variant of the 700si, somehow spec’d down technically, with a very different user interface and a lighter build. Instead of being designed with a modal interface (press the FUNC button to access a menu, and navigate the menu with the control wheels), the 600si is covered with dedicated knobs and rings to control the flash, the exposure mode, exposure compensation, and the drive mode. In addition to which a few rotating switches control the auto-focus setup and the metering modes.

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The Maxxum 600si’s mode control knob – it looks and feels really cheap.

The Maxxum 600si is clearly engineered to a price point. Compared to the 9xi and the 700si, some components are one notch below, with a shutter limited to 1/4000 sec, an auto-focus sensor analyzing 3 zones instead of 4, no LCD overlay in the viewfinder and no “creative Card” slot. Fortunately, the camera retains a steel bayonet and the good long eye-point viewfinder of the higher end Minolta cameras. Minolta had cut cost intelligently.

The camera’s body is made of shiny black plastic, and the knobs and dials – in a dark shade of mat gray, look and feel extremely cheap – a bit like those of the low quality electronic devices you find in dollar stores. I’m not aware of any reliability issue specific to the 600si, so it must be better than it looks, but back in 1993 I would never have paid $500.00 for such a sorry looking camera, when the 700si was selling for only $100 more.

As for the interface, I’m not necessarily sold on the “one knob per function” type of ergonomics – I shot hundreds of rolls with a 700si and I never felt that its interface was getting in the way. I also played with a 9xi recently, and provided it’s set up to your preferences, it’s perfectly fine too. What really matters is your ability to verify at a glance how the camera is set up. If the top plate LCD is informative enough, it may be simpler to read it rapidly and know everything about the camera’s setup, than have to check each knob and switch individually.

IMG_1145
Minolta 600si – the AF zones are engraved on the focusing screen

The viewfinder is informative (with a lit up green LCD at the bottom of the focusing screen) and displays a very useful scale in semi-auto exposure mode. Interestingly, the 600si also operates stopped down in semi-auto mode with adapted lenses (using a M42 to Minolta A mount adapter) and is somehow usable with old Pentax Takumar lenses – (focusing manually is difficult through – the focusing screen of an auto-focus camera is not designed for that).

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The Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens.

There is very little technical difference between the Maxxum cameras of  the “6 to 9 segment” (7xi, 9xi, 700si, 600si, 800si), which were sold for the largest part of the nineties.

  • Metering and auto-exposure had reached their final form with the 14 segment “honeycomb” pattern of the 7xi, which would be retained on all models until the final Maxxum of 2004.
  • They share the same 3  or 4 sensor setup for the auto-focus, and still rely exclusively on the in-camera motor. The final models of 1999 and beyond  (Maxxum 9 and 7)  would adopt a different sensor module, and only the Maxxum 7 would gain the ability to work with ultrasonic (SSM) lenses.
  • Lastly, they all share the same viewfinder (penta-prism, enlargement, high eye point). When comparing the viewfinder with similar Canon and Nikon cameras, it does not look as bright on the 600si, but we’re really nitpicking here.
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Minolta Maxxum 600si with the Minolta m42 to 7000 adapter, and a screw mount lens. It works, but once in place, the adapter is extremely difficult to remove from the body’s bayonet.

What’s my pick in the Minolta family, today ?

The Maxxum 9 and 7 are in a category of their own. They have unique characteristics (the all metal construction and the 100% viewfinder coverage for the Maxxum 9, the user interface for the Maxxum 7 with its large LCD display on the film door and its ability to use current Sony and Zeiss SSM lenses). They are purchased by photographers who want the very best of Minolta SLRs. And they still command top dollar.

Considering that there is no significant cost difference between rest of the Maxxum models – which are all more than 20 years old and are all selling for a few dozens of dollars at most, I would not consider any of the entry or mid level models; I would also avoid the quirky 7xi, and would limit my choice to a few cameras such as the 9xi, the 600si, the 700si and the 800si.

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi (left) and the 600si (right). Two very different approaches of the ergonomics

The 600si may be spec’d slightly below the three other models, but it does not really matter for photographers shooting film today – those are ancient cameras in any case and nobody will complain if they don’t shoot 6 frames per second. Any of those four cameras is very pleasant to use, and will produce well exposed pictures. The choice is primarily about your preferences regarding the user interface, and about your expectations when it comes to perceived build quality. Personally, I’ll stay with the 9xi.

What was my pick in the Minolta family, back then ?

Interestingly, when those cameras were on the shelves of the photo stores in the early nineties, I did not even consider the 9xi.

My first pick was the 7xi and its 28-105 Power xi  Zoom. There is no doubt that the camera was making good pictures (autofocus and metering were top notch for the time) but it was eating its very expensive lithium batteries with an alarming regularity, the Power Zoom and the built-in flash popping up automatically were a pain, and there was no depth of field preview capability. I got rid of the Power xi Zoom after a few months, and replaced the 7xi with a 700si and its optional vertical grip 2 years later. With the grip, the 700si could run on conventional AA batteries. I liked the 700si a lot, and kept it until I switched from film to digital, in 2003.

When I bought the 700si, I never considered the 9xi (far too expensive, too big, too similar to the 7xi, with no way to support AA batteries that I knew of). And once I had the 700si, I was never tempted to “downgrade” to a 600si.


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Joe – Skipper on Lake Powell (AZ) – Scanned from print – Minolta 700si – Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6 zoom (May 1994)

 

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – back then and today (part II)

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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a streamlined interface – unusual in the world of SLRs.

Back then

I introduced the Minolta Maxxum 9xi in a blog post a few weeks ago. The 9xi was a camera built to near pro quality standards, with a high end specs sheet (the fastest shutter on a 35mm camera, weather sealing, electric command of the depth of field preview), but its user interface and its internals were lifted from the 7xi, a camera designed for the average amateur more than the enthusiast photographer. It faced a difficult task:

  • In 1992, the lines had been drawn – pros and enthusiasts had already invested in their autofocus camera system, and it’s unlikely that a photographer having recently spent thousands of dollars in new autofocus bodies and lenses would have thrown everything away to enjoy the power-zoom gimmickery of Minolta’s new xi cameras.
  • It had a formidable competitor – Nikon’s N90. The N90 was positioned by Nikon as a prosumer camera, but this very serious and capable camera was often purchased by pros who needed a faster autofocus than what the F4 could provide, in a smaller and lighter body.  The N90 was a very efficient tool,  backed by a large range of lenses and an efficient pro support organization that Minolta did not have.
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Smooth lines, very few buttons in a nice bronze color, a card slot for extra functions.

Shooting with the Minolta  9xi today

The industrial design of the 9xi is unique (one of the most beautiful examples of “bio-design” in the world of cameras), and its build quality is significantly better than its lesser Minolta siblings (7xi, 700si and 600si). That being said, the 9xi suffers from the usual limitations of the autofocus cameras of the 90s:

  • It’s piece of black plastic
  • It’s a battery hog (and needs an expensive 2CR5 Lithium battery)
  • It’s not excessively heavy but it is really very large
  • It’s loud when the camera is “hunting” to focus
  • It can’t work with the most recent lenses or flashes from Konica-Minolta or Sony. To be fair, a similar limitation applies to most of the Nikon autofocus SLRs of the same vintage, which have no real-life compatibility with Nikon’s current AF lenses (the ones deprived of an aperture ring).
cameragx-6601
Minolta 9xi – the most unconventional interface – a “func” button to call a menu, and a door where “creativity cards” can be inserted – the predecessors of scene modes.

Other limitations are more specific to the Maxxum xi generation:

  • the 9xi is controlled exclusively by a modal interface (a “Func” push button that you have to press once or twice to access different menus, two control wheels and a LCD, and almost no dedicated button).
  • hidden functions are only accessible by pressing a combination of buttons during the startup process. And they’re not always mentioned in Minolta’s documentation (I found out about one on them by reading the pages of a fellow blogger)
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Minolta Maxxum 9xi – “complex” commands hidden behind a door

The last remaining issue is the choice of lenses, and the impact on the second hand market of Sony’s price policy.

  • No “pro” lens was available when the 9xi was launched. The issue finally started being addressed by Minolta in 1993, but the brand was always one or two steps behind Canon and Nikon when it came to adopting new technologies (such as the ultra-sonic motorization for the auto-focus).
  • Because Minolta was a brand only marginally popular with professional photographers, the f/2.8 pro zooms and the fast prime lenses never sold in huge quantities – probably a tiny fraction of what Canon and Nikon sold (*).
  • Sony’s current A series bodies still are 100% compatible with Minolta’s screw-drive lenses, and Sony’s current lens line up of full frame lenses is only addressing the very high end of the market. In other words, they’re very expensive. Therefore, there is a steady demand for cheaper lenses,  and the second hand market does not have enough of the old Minolta prime lenses and of the old “Pro-zooms” to fulfill it.
  • High usage value, steady demand, relatively limited availability: the price of Minolta’s auto-focus lenses tends to be high on second hand market today.
  • The only really affordable lenses on the second hand market are consumer level zooms, and Minolta has a mixed record in that area – some of their zooms were good, but some of their entry-level products were really bad, much worse mechanically and optically than the entry level products of Canon or Nikon. Do your homework and pick carefully.

Comparing the 9xi with Nikon’s N90.

If you read the manual (and the forums), set the camera to your preferences,  forget about the Power xi gimmickry and mount a conventional auto-focus lens, the 9xi’s behavior will not be that different from the prosumer body of reference, Nikon’s N90. Their interface could not be more dissimilar (the Nikon has one clearly identified button for each function),  the Nikon looks more compact (even if it is only marginally smaller) and it works with AA batteries, but the performance of the cameras is comparable, and the photographer will have access to the roughly same set of functions.

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The Maxxum 9xi next to a Nikon N90s (aka F90x in Europe). Two very different interface design approaches. The photographers of the nineties obviously preferred Nikon’s.

Both cameras fall pleasantly into the hands of photographers, even if I tend to prefer the two control wheels of the 9xi to the single one gracing the top plate of the N90.

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The Maxxum 9xi – there is an LCD overlay on the focusing screen. It’s contextual (here, it shows the selected focusing zone at the center) and not very legible.

The eye point length and the enlargement of the viewfinders are also comparable, and perfectly adequate for photographers wearing glasses. There is a LCD overlay at the top of the focusing screen of the Minolta, to provide contextual information, such as the auto-focus point selected by the camera or the metering area selected by the photographer. It also shows the exposure scale when the camera is operating in semi-auto exposure mode. Unfortunately, the information is difficult to read in low light, and the LCD overlay could be one of the reasons why the viewfinder is not as bright and contrasty as in the N90. By a wide margin: the difference is really striking.

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Almost no buttons to control the Maxxum 9xi – the two control wheels do everything. A reminder of their respective functions is displayed at the top viewfinder when you press the Func key.

The Maxxum 9xi has no built-in flash, but in the early nineties no “pro” camera had one. That’s one of the reasons to prefer the 700si or 800si bodies: their built-in flash can be used to command other Minolta flash cobras wirelessly.

Buying a 9xi today? 

Committed users of full frame Sony A series cameras (A850, A900, A99) will probably be more interested in the more recent Maxxum 7, which supports all current Sony lenses, including the SAM and SSM lenses with ultra-sonic motorized focus. The Maxxum 9 – the “pro” SLR from 1999 is also an interesting pick for users of Sony’s full frame digital bodies because of its outstanding build quality and its 100% coverage viewfinder, even if it’s not natively compatible with the new SAM or SSM lenses (some cameras have been retrofitted with an updated circuit board by Minolta’s customer service organization). The Maxxum 7 and 9 are the ultimate Minolta cameras and command a much higher price on the second hand market than the generations that came before.

For photographers just interested in setting a foot in the Minolta autofocus system, the 9xi is an interesting pick. Considering the low cost of all Minolta auto-focus SLRs on the second hand market today (except the Maxxum 7 and 9, of course), it makes little sense to settle for an entry-level model designed for beginners or amateurs such as the 3xi or the 400si. Go for a “pro” model for the same price.

The 9xi performs better than the previous generation of Minolta auto-focus cameras (7000, 9000, 8000i), it offers a few important features which are missing on the 7xi (depth of field preview, bracketing, programmable function button, ability to use a AA battery grip). It lacks their built-in flash and its interface is more cryptic, but it is better built than the 700si and 800si  that followed without being inferior in terms of features or performance (**).

If you’re looking for a well built auto-focus film cameras with matrix metering, it’s perfectly adequate. The user interface is not to everybody’s taste, but when you get used to it, it works.

As mentioned above, finding good lenses at a good price is a challenge.  And you can not mount any generic electronic flash on the camera. The 9xi (like all the Minolta, Konica-Minolta and Sony bodies until the A99 and the A6000) uses a proprietary Minolta accessory shoe. There are adapters, but they add to the budget and are a pain to use.

As usual for cameras which did not sell in huge numbers and have no particular claim to fame, there is no widely accepted price for the 9xi. Prices are all over the place, with some specialized stores in Japan asking for up to $800.00 for a nice 9xi, and the online store of a well know charity effectively selling them for less than $15.00.


(*) I noticed the same phenomenon when I was trying to find lenses for my Fujica AX-3 and AX-5 cameras a few months ago – wide angle prime lenses and luminous trans-standard zooms are extremely difficult to find, and reach prices in Leica or Zeiss territory. Brands like Fujica, which were not addressing the professional market, and catered primarily to price conscious amateurs,  had a few high end lenses in their catalog for the prestige, probably developed for a few friends of the brand, but they were never widely distributed and are now extremely rare.

(**) To a large extent, the 700si was a Maxxum 9xi under a more conventional looking  (and cheaper to build) body shell,  with a few extra buttons and switches. With the 700si, Minolta got rid of the weirdest aspects of the 7xi, and made  some of the features previously present on the 9xi (but undocumented) easier to configure.  With an informed use of the boot process (restart the 9xi while pressing a few specific buttons), there are very few of the 700si new features that are really missing on the  9xi.


More about the Minolta Maxxum series:

A site simply named: Fotographie : https://www.mhohner.de

Reviews of different Minolta autofocus cameras by Henk Jammes:

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7xi.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-700si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-800si.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-7.html

http://tammesphotography.weebly.com/minolta-dynax-9.html

A blog from Panagiotis Giannakis :  pansfilmcameras with reviews of the Maxxum 9xi, 7000i, 9000 and 5 among other things.


Instead of posting pictures of my dogs, I went back to the archives and found pictures taken in the mid nineties when I was shooting with a Minolta 700si (the closest cousin of the 9xi). My main lens was the Angenieux 28-70mm f/2.6, but I also used (rarely) the Minolta 50mm f/1.7, the famed beer can (AF 70-210 f/4) and a 35-200 xi power zoom. I liked the camera except for its bulk and weight, and ended up using a Minolta Vectis S-1 for my mountain hikes.

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Gjende Lake (Norway). Scanned from print – Minolta 700 Si (Aug. 1996)
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Another lake in Norway (Bygdin, probably). Scanned from print. Minolta 700si – Aug 1996

The Ultimate film cameras

Ultimate: “last in a progression or series : final” (Source: Merriam-Webster)

Film cameras stopped selling in any significant quantity in the first years of this century – and the production of film cameras had almost completely ceased by 2008. But almost until the end, Canon, Minolta and Nikon kept on launching new models.

Most of those cameras were forgettable entry level models (their main justification was to occupy a lower price point than digital cameras), but a few high end models were nonetheless introduced.

The Canon EOS 3 (launched in 1998), the Minolta Maxxum 9 and the Nikon F100 (1999), the EOS-1v and the Maxxum 7 (2000), and last but not least the Nikon F6 (2004), were all at the pinnacle of film camera technology, and there will probably never be any new film camera as elaborate as they were.

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Minolta Maxxum (alpha) 7 – Source: Meta35

They did not sell in large numbers. But they kept their value remarkably well, much better than the autofocus SLRs of the previous generation, and than the first mass market digital SLRs that replaced them in the bags of photographers.

Today, if you exclude the limited editions models that Minolta and Nikon had sometimes added to their product lines, it seems that for each of the big three Japanese camera manufacturers, the most expensive film camera on the second hand market is always their most recent high-end autofocus model.

Let’s look first at models launched at the very end of the film era, between the end of 1998 and 2004:

(source: eBay “sold” listings, body only, for a used camera in working order – I did not include “new old stock”, “Limited Editions”, “as-is”, “please read” and “for parts” listings.)

Canon

  • EOS1-V                   $350 to $800         launched: March 2000
  • EOS-3                      $150 to $700         launched: November 1998

Minolta (excluding “Limited  Series”)

  • Maxxum 9             $200 to $470         launched 1999
  • Maxxum 7             $150 to $230         launched 2000

Nikon

  • F100:                        $200 to $400         launched 1999
  • F6 (second hand): $600 to $1,300      launched 2004

Canon_eos_1_v

And let’s compare them with cameras of the generation that came just before

  • EOS 1n                     $100 to $300        launched November 1994
  • EOS Elan II              $40 to $100          launched September 1995
  • Minolta 800si         $45 to $60             launched 1997
  • Nikon F5                 $150 to $300         launched 1996
  • N90S/F90x              $40 to $150           launched 1994
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Nikon N90s (aka F90x) and Minolta 9xi – the unloved auto-focus cameras of the early to mid-eighties

The “ultimate” models sell for 3 to 5 times more than models that used to occupy the same place in the brand’s line-up, one generation before. Clearly for autofocus cameras, the most recent is also the most sought after, and the most expensive. A few reasons:

  • They have the highest usage value
    • Better performance – cameras of the ultimate generation are better machines – they focus faster and more accurately, the exposure is on the spot in more situations, under natural light and with a flash
    • Better compatibility with the current line of products of the brand (for example the Maxxum 7 accepts current Sony A lenses with ultrasonic motorization (Sony SSM lenses), and  the Nikon F100 can work with lenses deprived of an aperture ring (Nikon AF-S lenses). Older models can’t.
    • There is an expectation that the cameras will be more reliable (they’re more recent,  probably have been through fewer cycles, and their electronics components are most certainly better designed than they were in cameras of the previous decade).
  • Highest potential in collection
    • For bragging rights: “the most advanced film camera – ever”
    • For nostalgia: “the last film camera made by … Minolta”
    • Rarity: cameras launched in 1999 or in 2000 had a very narrow window of opportunity on the market – Nikon D1 launched mid 1999, the Fujifilm S1 Pro and the Canon D30 in the first months of year 2000 – and from there on the writing was on the wall. When the Maxxum 7 or the EOS-1V were launched in 2000, most enthusiast and pro photographers were already saving money for a future (and inevitable) Maxxum 7d or Canon EOS-1d. The last high end film cameras must not have sold in huge quantities.

How are the “ultimate” film cameras doing compared to the first digital models? 

The ultimate film cameras are more expensive than corresponding digital cameras sold in the first years of the 21  century – remember, those were dSLRs with 6 MPixel APS-C sensors at best, with mediocre low light capabilities and a narrow dynamic range. They  have a relatively limited usage value today (a smartphone does much better in many situations).

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Canon EOS d-30 from Year 2000 – a dSLR with a 3.25 million pixel CMOS sensor. Working copies can be found for $40 on eBay. (source: “Canon Museum”)

Are buyers of manual focus cameras also looking for the “ultimate”?
No. Not really.

Canon

  • T90                           $60 to $250             launched 1986
  • A-1                            $60 to $250             launched 1978
  • EF                             $90 to $140             launched 1973
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Canon T90 from 1986 – far superior technically to the Canon A-1 from 1978 – but sells for the same price on the second hand market.

Nikon

  • FA                              $50 to $350            launched 1983
  • FE2                            $70 to $400            launched 1983
  • F3                              $120 to $1,000       launched in 1980
  • Nikon EL2                $60 to $275            launched 1977
Nikon FA with handgrip
The “ultimate” multi-automatic manual focus SLR from Nikon – it does not sell for more than a simpler aperture priority FE2

To my taste (and for many lovers of film cameras), manual focus film SLRs reached their peak sometime between 1977 and 1983 – before the massive introduction of electronics, motors and poly-carbonate led to the monstrosities such as the Canon T50. What contributes to the value of manual focus SLRs today?

  • Usage value
    • Models produced around the turn of the eighties still have a real usage value.
    • Buyers of manual focus cameras tend to value simplicity and direct control of exposure parameters over complexity and automatism – semi auto exposure cameras often sell for more than auto-exposure cameras.
    • They also value the beauty of machines built out of brass and steel, using cogs and springs rather than integrated circuits and solenoids.
    • The reliability of the electronics integrated in the final manual focus cameras is a concern – the electronic components did not always age well, and engineers made bad decisions (like soldering capacitors or batteries on printed circuits or using magnets instead of springs to control the shutter or the aperture).
    • Therefore, the very last manual focus cameras are often not as well regarded as the generation just before. In spite of being massively superior technically and much more pleasant to use, the T90 is not valued more than its predecessor the A-1 because of concerns over its excessive complexity and questionable reliability. Similarly, Nikon’s FA does not extract any premium over the simpler FM2 and FE2, because its embryo of matrix metering is perplexing. And I won’t mention the Canon T50 or the Pentax a3000, which can not stand the comparison with the AE-1 or the ME Super, if only for esthetical reasons.
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Canon A-1 (1978) – Source:  “Canon Museum” –
  • Potential in collection
    • Manual focus cameras from the big camera brands were often produced by the millions (Canon AE-1, for instance). Other models sold in smaller numbers but over a very long production run (Olympus OM-4t, Nikon F3, for example). The usual law of supply and demand applies, but generally speaking, rarity is not a significant factor in the value of most of those cameras.
    • Only special edition models in pristine condition can be expected to be worth more than a few hundreds dollars – for the foreseeable future.

 


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Cherokee – Nikon N90s (aka F90x). Fujicolor 400

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The league of the $5.00 film cameras

How cheap can it get?

The price of used film cameras on eBay is racing to the bottom. No brand is immune – not even Nikon or Leica –  only a few models seem to be worthy of the consideration of the buyers  and still sell for more than $100.00:

  • single digit Nikon F models,
  • Nikon FM2 or  FM3A,
  • Contax 159mm or ST,
  • pristine and tested Canon T90 or Canon New F-1,
  • all rangefinder cameras from Leica and a few of their SLRs,
  • Olympus OM-3t / OM-4t.

The very last high end film auto-focus SLRs of Canon, Minolta and Nikon – such as the EOS-3 and EOS-1 V, the Maxxum 7 and 9, and the F100 and F6 – are also in a a category of their own. As the “ultimate” film SLRs, very close technically from the current dSLRs of the same brand, they can be sold for anything between $200.00 and $2,000.00.

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Olympus OM-2000 – a beautiful member of my $5.00 league

The rest is trending towards being virtually free, and autofocus SLRs fare even worse than manual focus bodies: I recently paid  $3.25 for a nice N6006, a Nikon SLR from the early auto-focus era and $15.00 for a beautiful Minolta 9xi with a good lens,  its original catalog and user manual. We already passed the point where the shipping costs exceed the sale price of the camera, and where a set of batteries can be many times more expensive than the camera itself – the lithium battery of the N6006 cost me $12.00, almost 4 times the price of the camera.

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Nikon N6006 – a very competent auto-focus camera, to be had for less than $5.00 on eBay

For the photographer starting to shoot with film, there has never been a better time to buy a good camera on the cheap. Collectors are more attracted by pro or high-end cameras which were expensive when new, and still are in top condition. The  “last pro or last high-end film cameras manufactured by a given brand…” fare particularly well: a tested and working Pentax LX, a beautiful Olympus OM-4Ti or a Canon EOS-1 V are relatively rare and can sometimes reach prices between $400 and $1,000.

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Canon AV-1 – It was part of a $8.00 bundle which also included 3 other cameras. In all fairness the other cameras were all defective, but this one worked pretty well.

SLRs  originally positioned as mid level cameras for enthusiasts or experts provide the best opportunities, in particular if you’re willing to accept a few scratches or blemishes on the body: they tend to be much more usable than entry level cameras (they’re almost as feature rich as the high end models, if not as solid), but don’t catch the attention of the collectors because they’re too ordinary and too easy to find.

On my short list of recommended cameras:

Manual Focus cameras: strangely enough, manual-focus cameras from big brands tend to be more expensive than most of their auto-focus SLRs.

Although not as expensive as a T90, a FM3A or an OM-4Ti, the three cameras listed below can still command prices in the $70.00 to $100.00 range. They are very competent tools, they benefit from a large supply of good lenses, and are a great way to move one step higher with  film photography:

  • Canon A-1
  • Nikon FE2
  • Olympus OM-2n
they could be bought in 1983
Nikon FE2 – Canon A-1 – certainly not cheap cameras – but still a bargain at the current price level

You can find cheaper manual focus alternatives – the Olympus OM-2000 is one of my $5.00 cameras, but I’d be more prudent with brands like Fujica (and other brands which did not have strong following on the expert or enthusiast markets). Not that they did not make good cameras – but good lenses are going to be more difficult to find – and without a set of good lenses, a SLR camera is not really worth having.

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Fujica AZ-1 – the camera can be had for cheap, but apart for the ubiquitous 50mm lens and the zoom shown here, Fujinon EBC lenses (operating at full aperture) are rare and expensive.

Auto-focus Cameras: manufactured in the early to mid-nineties by the big four (Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax), they are mature technically, with a good multi-sensor auto-focus, matrix metering, and a long eye point viewfinder. The lenses are still somehow  compatible with the current dSLRs of the brand – and they’re incredibly cheap.  A few examples of the “expert” or “enthusiast” category:

  • Minolta 600si
  • Minolta 9xi
  • Nikon N90s
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The “prosumer” cameras of the early to mid eighties – they can be yours for $15.00 to $25.00 now, with a (good) zoom included.

Auto-focus cameras designed for amateurs (such as the Minolta 3xi or the Nikon N6006) are the cheapest of them all, but the price difference with the “expert”, “enthusiast” or “prosumer” model of the same brand is minimal (the price of their disposable Lithium battery, roughly). Don’t hesitate. Go for the top of the line.

As usual,  I only recommended cameras I’ve used and liked. I’m sure there are very good auto-focus cameras from Canon (EOS mount), and great manual focus cameras from Minolta (MD mount) or Pentax (K mount). They’re all supported by a great line of lenses and will also constitute very good buys.

One last word…of caution

When you buy a camera for less than $5.00, you don’t always win.

  • shopgoodwill.com  is a very good source for cheap equipment, but you have to consider it’s sold as is, by people  who – generally –  have absolutely no clue of what they’re selling and can’t describe it in any useful way.  To me, it has been a bit of a hit and miss – cameras from the 90s (the Olympus OM-2000, the Minolta 9xi, the Nikon N90s) were diamonds in the rough, and after a good cleaning, they worked perfectly. Older cameras (a Spotmatic, a Fujica AX-3) were broken and could not be fixed. The older the camera, the riskiest it gets. But most cameras are sold with a lens, and even if the camera is defective, the value of its lens alone sometimes makes buying the set a good deal.
  • eBay – thanks to the system of feedback, sellers tend to describe their items with some level of accuracy. In my experience, if you stick with sellers with an almost perfect feedback score (99% or better), and read the item description extremely carefully,  you won’t be disappointed.

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Dogs playing. Nikon N90s – Fujicolor 400 – The Nikon N90s nailed the exposure and the focus perfectly.

 

Minolta Maxxum 9xi – a fuzzy logic camera for the “Pros”? (part I)

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).

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The “Prosumer” camera of reference in the early nineties – the Nikon N90 (here a European version corresponding to the N90s) – next to its challenger – the streamlined Maxxum 9xi.

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).

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Nikon N90S – does the cloverleaf make a “Pro” camera?

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).

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The user interface of the 9xi – more or less the same capabilities as the Nikon, but far fewer buttons. Note the P (for Panic) button, to reset the camera to the default settings.

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.

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Minolta 9xi and its unconventional user interface: a “func” button to call a menu, and a door where “creativity cards” can be inserted, and behind the door a few buttons.

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…


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Le Pont Neuf, Paris, 1992. Shot with  the 9xi’s little brother, the 7xi. The 9xi is built more solidly and has a larger feature set, but the metering and the autofocus systems are the same on the two cameras. (Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6 zoom, Fuji Reala).