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/2.6-2.8, 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.

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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

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).