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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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/2.6-2.8, 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.