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).
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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

A more serious comparison – iPhone 7 Plus vs dSLR

For three years now, Arstechnica has been comparing images of a same scene taken with a high-end smartphone, and with two good full frame dSLRs. By the way, one of the two cameras they tested was Sony’s A7 II, which is a full frame mirrorless camera, not a dSLR, but we’ll ignore this detail . They just published the latest iteration of their tests:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/12/mini-shootout-can-iphone-7s-bag-of-tricks-compete-with-a-real-dslr/

Just a quote: “phones long ago left “good enough” territory; images produced by a modern smartphone like the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel can be flat-out excellent when the images are constructed to play to the smartphones’ strengths.” (Lee Hutchinson)

No wonder the camera maker are now preparing Full Frame or Medium Format digital cameras with 50 MegaPixel sensors. Trying to maximize the advantages of a conventional camera for the situations when the smartphone is not good enough.


Chicago - iPhone 5S
Chicago – iPhone 5S

Old lenses on new gear – manual focus lenses on mirrorless cameras

One of the most remarkable changes brought by the advent of mirrorless camera systems (micro 4/3rds, Fujifilm X and to an even larger extent Sony E and FE) is the ability to mount and effectively use almost any old lens designed originally for a 35mm camera system.

With SLR and dSLR camera systems, it was pointless to try and mount lenses designed for another system, and very often, lenses from a previous generation of the same camera system:

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Two mount adapters: Canon FD to Fuji X, and Nikon F to Fuji X. Those Fotasy adapters are not fancy but they’re cheap and they do the job.
  • SLRs and dSLRs have optical viewfinders – the photographer needs all the light he/she can get for focusing and composing the picture, and the cameras are therefore designed to work at full aperture with aperture pre-selection – which used to require rods and springs and cams, and since the Canon EOS mount opened the way, now requires electronics. There is no simple way to emulate the pre-selection mechanism of one SLR system  with a lens designed for another one.
  • There are also physical limitations:
    • The adapter designed as the interface between a lens of System A and a camera body of System B is more or less a cylinder with the female part of the mount of System A at one end, and the male part of System B at the other end. Such an adapter would necessarily have a depth of 5 to 15mm, which adds to the flange distance. Unfortunately, all digital single lens reflex cameras derived from 35mm SLR systems have a very similar flange distance (from 44mm for the Canon EF mount up to 46.5mm for the Nikon F), and there is not enough room for an adapter (the adapted lens would sit too far from the camera’s film plane, and would not focus to infinite).

Mirrorless camera systems don’t have such limitations:

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Canon FD to Fuji X (left) and Nikon F to Fuji X (right). The Nikon mount range distance is a bit higher than the FD’s. Therefore the adapter is thicker.
  • They have electronic viewfinders – and offer a clear and bright view of the subject even stopped down at f/16. If fact, most of the mirrorless cameras operate at stopped down aperture even with their native lenses.
  • The flange distance of mirrorless systems is much shorter (17 to 20mm for the most common systems), which leaves plenty of room (almost 30mm ) for the adapter if you want to mount a lens designed for a SLR or DSLR system.
  • Thanks to their electronic viewfinders, mirrorless systems have multiple ways to assist the operator trying to focus manually (magnifier, zebra, focus peaking).

The use of CAD and CNC is now widespread and it’s easy and cheap to manufacture mechanical mount adapters: users of each of the big mirrorless camera systems have access to adapters for :

  • Most pre-AF era mounts for 35mm systems: (39mm and 42mm, Canon FL/FD, Konica, Nikon F, Minolta MD, Olympus OM, Leica M and R, Topcon, …)
  • Stranger or more exotic mounts (C mount, Adaptall,  Holga, medium format cameras)
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Fuji film X-T1, Canon FD to Fuji X adapter (Fotasy), and Canon FL 55mm. The X-T1 is a pleasure to use even with old lenses.

Even if it’s physically possible, mounting recent AF/all electronics lenses is generally pointless – not only you can’t set the aperture for lack of an aperture ring, but you can’t focus the lens because modern lenses are devoid of any mechanical connection between the focusing ring and the focusing mechanism of the lens. Unless a third party vendor develops an adapter which embarks the complex software required to translate the communication protocols of a lens of Brand A into something the body of Brand B will understand.

  • As far as I know, it has only been attempted with some level of success between a few lenses with a Canon or Sigma mount and a few Sony bodies (the A7R II or the A6300).

Therefore, the best candidates are lenses from the manual focus era (up to 1985), and the Nikon and Pentax auto-focus lenses designed before Year 2000 – they all still have aperture rings.

Even if it is possible, mounting an old manual focus lens on a mirrorless body is not necessarily the best thing to do:

  • in spite of all the focus assistance mechanisms, it’s much slower to get the focus with an adapted vintage lens than with the native auto-focus lens – adapted lenses are not a good fit for mobile subjects, unless you adopt old school focusing techniques (pre-focus, wait for subject to be at right distance, and shoot)
  • Older lenses were designed for 35mm film cameras, and are unnecessarily large and heavy when mounted on M4/3rd and APS-C cameras
  • Lots of older lenses were not that good in their heyday, and become really bad if mounted on a camera with a high resolution sensor. It’s true in particular for zooms and to a lesser extent for wide angle lenses.

As a conclusion, why mount old lens on a modern mirrorless body?

  • Because you can (of course)

    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. It worked pretty well.
    Leica Summicron C (40mm f/2) mounted on a Sony NEX 3 with Metabones adapter. The Nex 3 was surprisingly easy to use with a manual lens. The Metabones adapter is really stiff, and it’s one step above the Fotasy in terms of quality. Not sure it’s worth the price, though.
  • If you already have the lens… Considering adapters sell for $20.00, it’s tempting to buy one to use your old lenses, as a stop gap until you buy a modern equivalent in the mirrorless system, or even permanently
    • All macro lenses are a very good fit because macro photography does not require to focus fast, and old macro lenses are still up to the task, when compared to their modern equivalents
  • If you want to experience really exceptional glass
    • Canon FD Aspherical or “L” lenses (50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2) for instance, or some of the gems that Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax and others have produced in the past…
  • If the modern equivalent does not exist…
    • a 55mm f/1.2 lens – it doesn’t exist for the Sony E/FE mount
    • a teleobjective with Defocus Control – only Nikon has them
    • a tilt and shift lens (only Canon and Nikon have them)
  • or exists but is crazy expensive
    • can an amateur afford the new Sony 85 f/1.4 FE GM?

As a result, old lenses of good reputation hold their value extremely well. Some of the  Canon and Nikon lenses I mentioned above sell for more than $700.00 on eBay.

Jules - Fujifilm X-T1 - Canon FL 55mm f/1.2
Jules – Fujifilm X-T1 – Canon FL 55mm f/1.2


5 Years later

I started this blog in 2009. And wrote most of the entries between September 2009 and Sept 2010.

Between 2012 and 2015, I did not do much in terms of photography. I did not use my film cameras anymore – too cumbersome – forgot about my DSLR – too large, too heavy. I bought a Nikon V1 mirrorless camera – and got rid of it rapidly, very disappointed by the image quality. In fact, I spent the last four years taking pictures with my iPhone.

At the end of last year, while travelling for business, the desire to take better pictures than what an iPhone could do came back. I bought a $200.00 point and shoot Sony camera, and was so impressed by its technical abilities that I … returned it immediately to buy a second-hand Sony mirrorless camera – a rather scruffy NEX 6 with the tiny 16-50mm Power Zoom. I liked the NEX 6 so much that I decided to invest seriously in the Sony system. The week after I bought it, I returned the NEX to the vendor, and upgraded to a clean and shiny A6000 with a Sony-Zeiss prime lens. In the process, I sold my old Nikon DSLR and a few Nikon F mount lenses.

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Atlanta- Centennial Park – Shot in June 2016 with a Sony A6000 and a Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AF (non D) lens

Unfortunately, I could never adjust to the ergonomics and idiosyncrasies of the A6000 (it’s made by engineers specialized in electronics under the guidance of marketing people, not by photographers). The sensor is really great, but I did not like the APS-C Sony zooms – too much distortion with the cheap ones, fear of quality control issues with the expensive ones. I did not like the cost of their prime lenses (the real good ones are very expensive), and had doubts about the commitment of Sony to its APS-C line of products – it’s all about the A7 and its full frame sensor nowadays. Looking for something totally different, I bought a Fujifilm X100. I liked it. A camera designed by photographers for photographers. Comforted by the experience, I decided to bite the bullet, and sold all my Sony equipment to pay for a second hand X-T1 and its 18-55 zoom. I positively love my Fujifilm cameras, and I should keep them for a long time.

With my passion for photography re-ignited, I’m re-activating this blog.

In the first entries, I’ll focus on what changed in the world of photography in the last 5 years – the rise of the smartphone, the disappearance of color film as a mass consumption product, and the parallel rebirth of true black and white and instant film à la Polaroid. Then I will go back to what constitutes the core of this blog – giving old gear a new life.