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).

cameragx-6594
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).

cameragx-6614
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).

cameragx-6599
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.

cameragx-6601
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…


Scn_Pont_Nf-23
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).

How much did SLR cameras cost in 1985?

1985 is an interesting year, a turning point for the market of single lens reflex cameras: Minolta launched the first technically and commercially  successful auto-focus SLR, the Maxxum 7000. In a few years, manual focus SLRs would be relegated to the status of entry level models manufactured by subcontractors such as Cosina. Brands like Olympus or Contax would fail to impose their autofocus cameras on the marketplace and would become largely irrelevant, while vendors like Fuji would not even try to launch an autofocus line of bodies and lenses, and would leave the market altogether.

Old issues of Popular Photography have been scanned and indexed by Google, editorial content and ads. I compiled the table below from Adorama’s and Cambridge Photo’s ads.

Price of Cameras - 1985
Price of Cameras – 1985

A few interesting points….

Minolta Maxxum 7000 - source Wikipedia
Minolta Maxxum 7000 – source Wikipedia
  • the models most popular with enthusiasts  (Canon AE-1P and Minolta X-700) were in the $150 price range (body only).
  • Beginners could buy “a learner’s cameras” – with semi-auto-exposure – or a spec’d down aperture priority automatic cameras for less than $100.00.
  • Very few models were competing in the $300 price bracket: serious or wealthy enthusiasts and pros could buy the Nikon FA, splurge on an OM-4, or spend even more on modular cameras with interchangeable viewfinders  (like the Nikon F3, the Canon F1 or the Pentax LX).

The Minolta Maxxum 7000, priced at $300 (when you could find it), completely changed the equilibrium of the market. Targeted at the enthusiast photographer crowd (there was a more expensive Maxxum 9000 for the aspiring pros), it moved the average price of a camera a few notches upwards.

In a few years, the major vendors had converted their product line to autofocus, and relegated what was left of their manual focus SLR lines to the status of  low margin items targeted at impecunious customers. Minolta and Pentax moved the production line of their  manual focus SLRs to China, while Canon, Nikon and Olympus  commissioned companies  like Cosina to design and manufacture entry level manual focus cameras for them (Canon T60, Nikon FM10 and Olympus OM-2000 respectively).

On a side note, the Maxxum product line was so successful that Minolta leapfrogged Canon to become the #1 vendor on the market. It took Canon a few years (and the EOS series) to take their crown back.


Charleston, SC - Shot in 2009 - Nikon FM - Kodak CN400
Charleston, SC – Shot in 2009 – Nikon FM – Kodak CN400

50 Years of Lens Mount Evolution – Part IV of VI


Programmed exposure


The automatic bodies of the early seventies still required some input from their users: they could only determine the shutter speed (or the aperture in the case of Canon cameras) after the photographer had set an aperture (or a shutter speed) compatible with the film speed, the intensity of the light and the characteristics of the scene (portrait, action shots, macro, and so on).
If the aperture set by the user was too low or too high, a matching shutter speed could not be selected by the camera and the picture was hopelessly under or over exposed.
Similarly, if the photographer let the camera select a very slow shutter speed with a long tele-lens, the picture would be blurry and unusable. Trained photographers knew that. But a better automatic exposure solution had to be found for the photographers who did not want to be bothered with technical details.

Nikon FA - the commands for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM)
Nikon FA (1984) – the command for the multi-mode exposure automatism (PSAM) is in front of the shutter speed knob


Inspired by the program modes already available in point and shoot cameras, Canon launched the A-1, a new SLR with programmed exposure modes in 1978. Practically, it meant that the auto exposure system of the body had to simultaneously command the shutter speed and the aperture of the diaphragm.


Canon did not have to change anything on the FD mount, which had been created for full aperture shutter priority exposure. 


Nikon introduced the “AI-S” generation in 1979 when the mount was modified to support a linear command of the diaphragm. The first Nikon cameras to take advantage of the AI-S lenses and to offer a program mode and shutter priority were launched in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Because the camera body was informed of the focal length of the objective, it could choose automatically between two aperture-speed combinations when configured in program mode, one for wide angle and normal lenses, and one for lenses of 135mm and longer .

Nikon F mount - AIS on the Nikon FA
The AI-S variant of Nikon F mount, shown here on the Nikon FA. Compared to the lens mount of the FE2, the FA’s is using three more sensors: a small pin above the lens lock – which informs the body that the lens is of the AI-S type, a larger sensor inside the reflex chamber (right of the picture, in the middle) which is used to transmit the focal length of the lens to the body, and a slider at the bottom of the reflex chamber, used to transmit the maximum aperture of the lens to the body. The use of mechanical sensor had reached its limits. It was time to adopt electrical contacts instead.
Nikon F mount - AI on the Nikon FE2
For reference, the much simpler design of the AI mount (Nikon FE2). The stop down lever controlling the diaphragm is on the left side on the picture. You can still find it on current Nikon digital cameras.


Still trying to catch up with Nicanolta, Pentax adopted a brand new bayonet mount, the K mount, in 1975. The first K mount, however, did not support shutter priority or program modes. Electric contacts would have to be added with the KA declination of the K mount in 1983 to make it possible. Its close derivatives are still used today on Pentax DSLRs.


The state of the art between 1971 and 1985


Pentax: Aperture priority automatic cameras launched in 1971 with modified 42mm screw mount lenses supporting full aperture metering.
Change from the 42mm screw mount to a new Pentax K bayonet in 1975 (automatic pre-selection, full aperture metering, transmission of the pre-selected aperture value from the lens to the body);
Shutter priority and program mode introduced in 1983 with the KA version of the K mount.


Canon: The FD breech mount introduced in 1971 was ready for the Shutter priority cameras launched in 1973 (Canon EF) and for the program mode (Canon A1, 1978).


Minolta: MD declination of the SR Mount (one pin added for the support of the Shutter priority mode) to support the Shutter priority mode in 1977.


Nikon: Aperture priority cameras available since 1971 (Nikon EL) with the manual indexing F mount. Launch of the AI version of the F mount in 1977 to improve the ease of use. Progressive adoption of the AI-S declination of the F mount in 1979 to prepare for the arrival of cameras offering a program mode (Nikon FG, 1982) and a shutter priority automatic exposure (Nikon FA, 1984).


Olympus: the OM mount was introduced in 1971, and was ready to support programmed exposure from the beginning.



More about the lens mounts


Photography in Malaysia: information related to the F lens mount


American Petit LeMans - the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA - Kodak CN400
American Petit LeMans – the Atlanta Pipe Band. Nikon FA – Kodak CN400 – Processed by Costo. Cropping and minor adjustments in Lightroom 2

The Minolta Vectis S-1: APS done right?


I don’t have this camera anymore. I’m afraid it ended its life in the trash can – not economically repairable – a few years ago. But I used it for years, I liked it a lot, and it’s too bad that no digital SLR available today is as light and portable as the Vectis S-1 was.(*)

The gun metal version was sold in Europe.
Minolta Vectis S-1 – The gun metal version was sold in Europe, but not in the US.


Launched in 1996, it was the only SLR system designed from scratch for the APS format. It inherited the best features from the Minolta mid-range 35mm cameras of its time, and exploited the new functionalities of the APS format to its full advantage. Built around a new, specific and very modern mount, the Vectis cameras and lenses were far more compacts than conventional 35mm SLRs, and than the APS SLRs developed by Canon and Nikon.


Single Lens Reflex cameras (SLRs) need a moving mirror, and the moving mirror needs room, which imposes a flange focal distance of approximately 45mm on 35mm cameras (44mm for the Canon EF, 46.5mm for the Nikon F mount). The diameter of the mount, on the other hand, is closely related to the size of the film (it’s roughly equal to the diagonal of the film – 44mm for the Nikon F mount, for instance). Both Canon and Nikon decided to make their APS cameras compatible with the large range of 35mm lens they had been selling for 10 years or more, and designed their APS SLRs around the same dimensional constraints (flange focal distance, mount diameter) as their standard 35mm offerings. Logically, the cameras could not be significantly smaller than their 35mm counterparts.


On the contrary, Minolta took the risk of making the Vectis S-1 totally incompatible with its own 35mm lens system – and opted for a shorter focal flange distance (38mm) and for a smaller mount diameter, without any mechanical linkage between the camera body and the lens. The body and the lens could be made much smaller, but Minolta had to develop a whole range of new lenses, and ended up supporting two totally incompatible product lines.

Lighthouse of the Pointe St Matthieu (near Brest, France)-by default APS cameras shot in APS-H format (16x9 proportions)


One could debate endlessly about who did the right thing, Minolta or Canon-Nikon. Minolta’s risky strategy did not pay off – the sales of the Vectis cameras proved disappointing, Minolta lost its independence and had to merge with Konica. But Canon or Nikon’s more prudent approach did not work either, altough they did not lose as much money with APS as Minolta did. Learning from the experience, Canon, Konica-Minolta and Pentax all decided to retain their 35mm mount on their new dSLRs with APS-C sensors. Only Panasonic and Olympus, with no legacy of 35mm AF SLRs, decided to use a smaller form factor with their Four-Thirds and Micro-Four-Thirds formats.

Minolta Vectis S-1 (rear view). Courtesy of www.collection-appareils.fr


The design of the S-1 was very innovative in two important areas: it was not using the conventional central pentaprism, but a series of mirrors leading to a viewfinder implemented at the very left of the body – leaving space for the nose of the photographer, and the camera, its lenses and its accessories (such as the external flash) were all weatherproof, forming a compact, lightweight and reasonably rugged system that could even be brought in mountain expeditions.


The rest of the camera was in line with the advanced-amateur class of products of the time (P, A, S, M modes, Matrix and Spot metering, passive autofocus) and took advantage of all the new functionalities brought by the APS format – the ability to pre-select one of three print formats when taking the pictures being the most important. Some compatibility existed between the accessories of the 35mm cameras of the manufacturer (Maxxum or Dynax) and the Vectis: the flash system and the remote control could be used indifferently on both lines of cameras.


The user experience was very pleasant. Minolta cameras of the AF era have always been very pleasant to use, and the Vectis was no exception, provided you put the right lens on the body.


Unfortunately, the kit lens – a 28-56mm f:4-5.6 zoom, was not something Minolta should have been proud of. Poorly built, if proved fragile, and the quality of the pictures it produced was far from impressive. Mine broke rapidly, and I replaced it with a much better 22-80mm lens, which was correctly built, and could produce great pictures – with the right film in the body. APS’ promoters had decided that 200 ISO would be the “normal” sensitivity, but APS used a smaller negative than 35mm, and the quality of the enlargments from 200 ISO film never convinced me. The 100 ISO film, on the contrary, was very good. On a good bright and sunny day, with a good lens and 100 ISO film, APS could compete with 35mm.


My Vectis was defeated by one of design flaws of APS: the fragile automatic film loading system. A tiny piece of plastic broke in the camera, preventing the film door to open. Having it repaired was not an option. I sold the lens, and trashed the camera.


Today, the Vectis S-1 still has fans, ready to pay prices in excess of $150 for a camera. I liked mine as long as it worked, but with 100 ISO APS film now unavailable, I would not spend my money trying to get another one.


Good camera, flawed format. RIP.


(*): Edited in July 2017: the Vectis S1 tipped the scales at 365g, and the fragile 28-56 kit lens added 110g. With film and battery, the whole set was probably was below 500g. Today – in 2017, the remote heir of the Vectis, the Sony A6000, weights 20 grams less (at 345g). The Sony 16-50 Power Zoom also weights 110g.

 

More about the Minolta Vectis S-1
camerapedia.org: la page du Vectis S-1
collection-appareils.fr (site in French)


Portsall harbour low tide (near Brest, France)
Portsall harbour at low tide (near Brest, France)

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