Chiyoka Kogaku, later known as Minolta, was one of the most innovative companies in the photographic industry. They consistently pushed the boundaries of technology without ever pricing themselves out of competition. In this article, we’ll cover Minolta’s two main SLR mounts, the MD / SR mount and the Maxxum / Dynax / A AF mount.
Both are worthy of respect, and both are perhaps talked about less than their competition.
Minolta’s venerable MD mount was in production from the late 1950s until the 1980s. The company produced multiple lines of excellent cameras and lenses that retain quite a bit of compatibility between them. MD was one of the longest-running mounts in photography.
Their A mount was the first system designed completely around autofocus, beating Canon to the punch by years and delivering a great product. Minolta’s lenses during this time are also exceptional, and the bodies sold very well, leading to low prices nowadays. They are also indirectly responsible for the rise of Sony mirrorless cameras, but we’ll get to that.
Minolta was also one of the most innovative companies in photography, inventing numerous technologies and bringing them to a mass market faster and better than a lot of their competition. It’s no wonder why Leica chose Minolta to collaborate with for years.
Let’s go over Minolta’s systems with Nico and Nuno. Keep scrolling for more information!
History / Bodies
Minolta was founded in 1928, and took on the name Minolta in 1931. This name stood for “Mechanism, Instruments, Optics, and Lenses by Tashima”. Kazuo Tashima was the company’s founder.
After finding success with TLRs like the Minolta-Flex and rangefinders like the popular Minolta-35, the company unveiled the SR-2 in 1958. This SLR was popular in Japan due to its low cost, instant return mirror, hinged film back, bayonet mount, and wide selection of Rokkor lenses.
At this point, Minolta named their mount after the SR cameras. Later, they added a budget model (the SR-1) before replacing them both with the SR-3. These cameras had attachment external light meters, but were otherwise fully mechanical.
Sales of the SR series allowed Minolta to become a mainstream name in photography. In 1962, the company officially renamed itself Minolta Camera Co., and astronaut John Glenn used a modified Minolta Hi-Matic in space. As Hasselblad semi-incessantly reminds us, bringing a camera to space is a big deal.
The SR-T Series
Four years later, in 1966, Minolta unveiled the SR-T 101, one of the first SLRs to feature TTL, full-aperture light metering. The Topcon RE Super beat them to it ever-so-slightly, but the Minolta would prove to be the more approachable and successful design. Minolta also made claims that this was the first Japanese SLR to feature a bayonet mount, which is again debatable due to Tokyo Kogaku’s Topcon RE Super.
One true innovation, though, came in the form of Minolta’s CLC metering system, which also debuted with the SR-T. This system measured contrast by using two photo-sensitive cells and calculating an average based on the two. Many consider this the precursor to modern evaluative metering. This technology showed up throughout Minolta’s rangefinders and SLRs through the 60s and 70s.
The SR-T models would become incredibly successful by appealing to amateur photographers. Simply put, the camera didn’t match up to the professional offerings of Japanese rivals (cough cough, Nikon) in terms of features or reliability.
Fortunately, Minolta didn’t try to incorporate all the features necessary for a true professional camera. This kept costs down and made the camera more accessible to the average consumer. This means the SR-T cameras lack interchangeable finders/screens, motor drives, etc.
Minolta’s cameras did appeal, and sell, to amateurs attracted to the system by lower costs and exceptional optics. For those who wouldn’t take advantage of the Nikon’s superior flexibility, the Minolta was all the camera they needed. The SR-Ts created beautiful images, and that’s what mattered.
Collaboration with Leica / The XE Series
After the success of the SR-T series, Minolta drew the attention of one of the biggest names in photography; Leica. Ernst Leitz Wetzlar had standardized the 35mm film format, and their Leica rangefinders had inspired many.. Imitations, especially in Japan. Even Canon first made a name for themselves by making Leica clones.
In 1972, Leica and Minolta began sharing technologies and manufacturing capacity. Minolta wanted to learn about Leica’s lens-crafting, and Leica needed help creating in-body camera electronics. It was a win for both companies, and a number of excellent cameras came out of this collaboration.
The Minolta XE-1 resembled the SR-T series physically, just with more advanced electronics and capabilities more befitting a semi-professional camera of the era. The Leica R3 is more or less the same camera.
These cameras featured a Copal CLS electronic focal plane shutter developed exclusively for the Leitz-Minolta partnership.
The XE and R bodies were quite successful at merging the SR-T bodies with more advanced electronics, but sales must have been disappointing compared to the SR-T. Work began almost immediately on a new line of cameras, and the XE series would only see two models, the original XE (known as the XE-1 in Europe and the XE-7 in North America) and the lower-spec XE-5.
Minolta needed to innovate further. Small cameras like the Pentax ME (1976) and Olympus OM-2 (1975) had taken the market by storm with advanced electronics and auto-exposure. Minolta needed to develop their own.
Even though their SR-T cameras did not directly compete with professional cameras like the Nikon F or Canon F-1, Minolta had been taking notes. They knew that cornering the professional market was key to success in the amateur realm as well, as innovation in the professional sector trickled down to consumer cameras.
This led to them unveiling their first professional SLR to the world in 1972, the same year the XE released. This was the Minolta X1, otherwise known as the XM in Europe and the XK in North America. The XM differentiated itself from Canon and Nikon alternatives by having true auto-exposure.
The XM combined the form factor and flexibility of the professional Nikon F or Canon F-1 system with Minolta’s high-end electronics to create a camera with aperture priority auto-exposure, an electronically-controlled shutter, and interchangeable features like screens and prisms.
The shutter was a horizontally-travelling metal shutter that used titanium in its construction, allowing it to be the first Minolta capable of a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second.
The XM, for the most part, failed to capture the professional market in the way Minolta had hoped. Some say it was due to poor marketing, but most agree that the lack of a removable motor drive was a big part of the camera’s death knell.
A motor drive version was available, but it was non-removable. Professionals wanted the flexibility to take off the drive if they needed to.
Even though the XM system included five finders, nine focusing screens, and a series of dedicated accessories including flash and macro accessories, photographers wanted the motor drive. After all, they could do that with the Nikon F2 and Canon F-1, both released a year before the Minolta.
Even without a motor drive, it’s hard to ignore the other recently-released professional cameras. If Minolta had been just a year or two earlier, they could have taken their segment of the professional market away from Nikon the way Canon did with the F-1. As it stands, Minolta’s effort was too little, too late. This would become a trend.
Despite its failure, the XM had more advanced metering modes than its competition, all combined with a body that’s as well built as anything Canon or Nikon could produce at the time.
The XD Series
In 1977, Minolta answered the call for smaller cameras with pro-spec features by releasing the XD-7, otherwise known as the XD in Japan and the XD-11 in North America.
This camera not only packed all the features of previous cameras into a smaller body, but it managed to add even more. The XD-7 was the first camera to have multi-mode auto-exposure, and the first to have a “programmed mode”.
This is different from fully-programmed exposure, though. Canon’s A-1 did that just a year later. The XD-7’s system will automatically select the shutter speed for the photographer if the photographer leaves the camera in aperture priority mode, but the camera cannot make a good exposure with the current settings. This override system is technically a program mode, but it’s more of a background fix than a feature.
Leica and Minolta developed the XD chassis together, and it became the basis of the Leica R4. The Leica models would add even more features, including spot metering, to the already-advanced Minolta formula. The two cameras were never in direct competition, though, due to their wildly dissimilar price points.
Following the XD-7’s success, Minolta wanted to offer a slightly cheaper companion model. Thus, they developed the XD-5, which removed some features but kept the formula the same. The most notable removal is the aperture readout in the viewfinder. Otherwise, the two cameras are very similar.
The XG Series
Also in 1977, Minolta recognized the potential of the compact, low-price camera market and wanted to throw their hat in the ring. So they launched the XG series as a consumer-grade alternative to the XD series.
These cameras sat right between the XD series and the still-sold SR-T cameras in Minolta’s price range. The first model, the XG-7, used a CdS cell for metering instead of the more advanced silicone diodes found in the XD cameras. For most people, though, this meter was sensitive and responsive enough.
One main weakness of the XG cameras is that the designers mainly had aperture-priority operation in mind. While the cameras have access to a full suite of manual shutter speeds, the light meter shuts off if the camera is in manual mode.
The XG-M is the only model to not lose light metering when in manual mode. This camera came out in 1981, four years after the series began. These cameras also lack the incredibly precise and intelligent shutter priority mode that so many praised on the XD cameras.
It would take until 1981 for Minolta to create a body capable of fully-programmed exposure. The X-700 and Canon AE-1 Program released in the same year at similar prices and with similar featuresets. It was a worthy battle for control of the advanced amateur market.
The X-700 does away with the shutter priority auto-exposure of the XD series and instead incorporates fully-programmed exposure. The photographer only needs to focus and shoot. This made the X-700 a highly sought-after camera for amateurs. Finally, they could achieve SLR results with point & shoot handling.
The camera made extensive use of plastics to keep cost and weight down, and opted for a cloth shutter instead of a metal one. These decisions prevented Minolta from capturing more of the professional market, although it’s arguable if they even wanted to compete there.
Instead, the X-700 became the ideal camera for everyone from beginners to advanced amateurs. Features like TTL flash, exposure lock, a motor drive, and interchangeable focusing screens on top of the advanced program mode and easy handling made the X-700 an easy choice, and a system capable of growing alongside the photographer.
The X-700 received the “European Camera of the Year” award in 1981. Compared to the AE-1 Program, the X-700 was more advanced and offered the photographer more creative control.
A small, but noticeable difference is in the viewfinders. The X-700’s has full aperture information, and tells the photographer what shutter speed the camera will pick under different light conditions. The AE-1 Program does not.
Minolta also sold the X-500 / X-570 as a lower-cost alternative to the X-700, although the X-570 added shutter speed information to the viewfinder while in manual mode. The X-700 doesn’t have this. Otherwise, the 500 and 570 were similar to the X-700, just with lower quality fit and finish and the program mode removed.
The Autofocus Revolution / 7000
Minolta would not rest on their laurels for long. Despite controlling a sizable portion of the consumer and advanced amateur market with the X-700, the writing was on the wall. Autofocus SLRs were coming.
Stop-gap, lens-based solutions like Pentax’s ME F and Canon’s T80 proved ineffective and unpopular. It would take an entirely new system to fully take advantage of autofocus’s capabilities.
And that’s what Minolta would unveil in 1985 with the 7000. This camera was the epitome of space-age technology at the time, eschewing much of traditional SLR design for a form factor and control set that was entirely alien to photographers at the time.
The 7000 had automatic film advance and buttons for settings rather than dials. To some, it must have seemed the unholy child of a point & shoot and SLR. Nowadays, it is one of the most iconic 80s designs ever, with chunky, polygonal pieces and colored buttons for everything. It’s a bit like the button pad on Darth Vader’s chest.
Jokes aside, the 7000 was a truly revolutionary camera. It wasn’t the first to incorporate a motor drive (Nikon’s N2000 beat them to it) but it was the first SLR to have in-body focus sensors and motors, using a physical screw on the lens mount to turn focus gears in the lenses.
This innovation allowed for lenses to be smaller and cheaper than the other autofocus solutions, as did Minolta’s commitment to plastic and polycarbonate body construction.
Unfortunately, the decision to abandon the MD mount wasn’t entirely necessary, as Nikon and Pentax were both able to update their F and K mounts to include screw-based autofocus just like Minolta‘s.
Canon, however, went a similar route as Minolta by introducing the EF mount a few years later. The EF mount’s all-electronic system would prove to be incredibly popular, leading Canon to decades of dominance in the SLR space.
The Minolta 7000 introduced the company’s new AF mount, often called Minolta A or Minolta AF. As previously mentioned, this mount was completely different than the mechanical MD mount, and relied entirely on electronics aside from the mechanical focusing screw.
The 7000 was sold alongside a cheaper 5000 and a more expensive 9000. The 9000 was an interesting case, as the only autofocus system camera made with a manual film advance.
The camera also had more tangible dials than the 7000, with a mode dial surrounding an LCD that shows the selected settings. The 9000 is also almost fully metal, breaking from the lightweight plastics of the 7000.
2nd Generation / i Series
The next generation of Dynax / Maxxum cameras came in 1989 with three new cameras. The 3000i, 5000i, and 7000i slotted into the entry-level, mid-level, and advanced amateur markets respectively, with the 5000i and 7000i mirroring their previous versions in terms of market segment.
No professional option was offered at this time, with the 9000 retaining its spot atop Minolta’s lineup. The “i” suffix stood for intelligence, and the 7000i and 5000i supported a new range of creative customization cards that allowed for bias in program modes and more advanced metering capabilities.
The 5000i also had a built-in flash, something that had been received well in earlier cameras like the Nikon F-401. It was the 3000i, though, that provided the biggest change. This camera brought the price point down to an absolute minimum by cutting almost every feature.
This SLR is more or less a point & shoot, with access only to program mode and a “high-speed” mode that biases the computer towards faster shutter speeds.
3rd Generation / xi Series
Only one year later, in 1990, Minolta began releasing the 3rd generation of Dynax / Maxxum cameras. This began with the entry-level 2xi and would continue until the release of a new professional camera, the 9xi, in 1992. The xi series all supported xi lenses, including power zoom models.
The 2xi replaced the 3000i as essentially a point & shoot with SLR quality, and the rest of the models followed suit. The 9xi is the most interesting of them, as it finally supplanted the 9000 as Minolta’s professional offering.
The 9xi featured a max shutter speed of 1/12000th and a continuous shooting speed as fast as the 9000 with the attached motor winder. It also featured a 14-zone metering system and had LCDs project settings directly to the user’s eyes through the pentaprism.
Even now, a maximum mechanical shutter speed of 1/12000th is quite uncommon. Still, the 9xi received criticism for its lack of compatibility with existing Minolta accessories, its minimalist design, lacking a true vertical grip,and for locking functions behind the creative cards introduced in the previous generation of cameras.
Generally speaking, the xi series is criticized for its lack of buttons and reliance on digital menus for settings, with the 9xi being the most egregious offender. This professional offering suffered compared to its contemporaries because of some unintuitive design choices.
4th Generation / si Series
Following the waning success of the Maxxum / Dynax xi cameras, Minolta again attempted to reinvent their entire lineup. The si series released from 1993s 700si to 1999s 400si and represented the largest and longest-running generation of Maxxum / Dynax cameras.
This series also features cameras from the bottom (300si) to the top (800si) in terms of market segment, although the 800si isn’t quite a professional camera. Its most notable improvements are the powerful built-in flash (one of the most powerful ever fit into a camera) and the abandonment of the card system that had long overstayed its welcome in consumers’ minds.
Even the entry-level 300si, however, had a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000th.
These cameras broadly continued the trend of the xi cameras, relying on menus for many controls rather than buttons or dials. Many of the models added panorama functionality by cropping the top and bottom of the frame.
Minolta did seem aware of the criticism the xi and si cameras received, and attempted to rectify this (or at least understand it) with the release of the 600si Classic. This model, released in 1995, returned to physical dials for mode selection and exposure compensation and incorporated physical switches for auto-exposure lock and focusing modes.
Aside from more closely mimicking “classic” cameras, the 600si had the advantage of retaining settings even when powered down. With a quick glance, and without powering the camera on, the photographer could know how it had been configured.
The 600si would go on to be very influential on the design of the next generation of Maxxum / Dynax cameras.
5th Generation / Single Digit Series
The next generation came quickly, as Minolta released the 9 in 1998 after a year of having no professional offering. The single digit cameras would coexist with the si series before supplanting them entirely. The final single digit camera to release would be the 3 Limited in 2003.
The 9 and 7 are the cameras worth focusing on in this generation. The 9 in particular was a professional camera in every sense of the word. By using the “classic” design language tested by the previous generation’s 600si, Minolta delivered a professional-spec camera that fit wonderfully in the hand and featured incredibly intuitive controls.
No expenses were spared, with a high-end alloy of zinc and aluminum frame and stainless steel coverings making the Dynax 9 incredibly rugged, if a bit heavy. The mechanical shutter was reinforced with carbon fiber and was able to reach speeds of 1/12000th of a second.
Even more impressive, perhaps, is the 7. Released two years later in 2000, the 7 took advantage of what Minolta engineers had learned since releasing the 9 to provide an even more streamlined experience that integrated new technologies.
The large rear LCD was the first impressive feature, which showed large amounts of information and allowed for an impressive display of information from the 14-segment honeycomb metering pattern.
Another very interesting feature is a built-in Smooth Trans Focus mode that would simulate a lens with a special apodization filter for smooth bokeh. This mode would take the same photo using different apertures on the same frame of film to produce smoother out of focus backgrounds in much the same way modern day portrait mode works in smartphones.
Merger with Konica
Both the 9 and 7 were incredibly well-received by journalists, but by then it was arguably too late for Minolta’s AF system to take off. By 2000, Canon’s EF system had been on top for 13 years with no signs of slowing.
What did Canon release in 2000? The EOS-1v, ELAN 7, and D30. That’s right, Canon’s first DSLR came out just as Minolta was hitting their design stride. Nikon was right there too, as their collaboration with Fujifilm led to the digital Finepix S1 in 2000 on top of the chassis of the F65. The Nikon F80 also came out in 2000.
There wasn’t much room in the 35mm SLR market anymore, and all signs pointed towards digital. Despite being the first company to make an autofocus SLR system, Minolta had been playing catchup for over a decade.
In 2003, Minolta announced a merger with Konica in attempts to keep their businesses afloat, but diminished sales led to Konica Minolta shutting down camera operations in 2006. The company sold off its remaining photographic assets to Sony, who then used it to create the Sony A mount.
In general, it can seem like Minolta was always one step behind the competition. Their professional offerings were always a bit too late, and lacking one or two features that would have made them incredibly successful.
This poor timing made great cameras, like the XM and the Dynax 7, go to waste and sell far less than they deserved to. It’s unfortunate, but that was Minolta’s trend. They would release innovative, cutting-edge cameras to the middle of the market and then play catch-up with a professional offering.
It happened with the SR-T and the XM, it happened with the Dynax series and the 7/9, and it happened with the XD-7, which isn’t a true “professional” camera without interchangeable prisms.
In their effort to keep innovation accessible to the consumer, they shot themselves in the foot. Canon, on the other hand, always led their new product lines with a professional camera, or at least introduced one soon after. In 1971, the FD mount was launched alongside the original F-1. The EOS-1 was released only two years after the EF mount came out.
When Minolta revolutionized the camera world with their AF mount, the professional option still had a manual film advance. The 9000 is, of course, a very interesting camera, with advanced metering modes and a sturdy body. It is, however, a body with one foot in the old and one in the new. It retains that older form factor, as well as the polarizing blocky appearance of the 7000.
If you compare it to the smooth lines and ergonomic controls of the EOS-1 (which are still used today!), it’s clear why the Dynax line didn’t appeal to professionals. By the time it did, it was too late.
But what about the glass? Glass is what makes a system truly great. Bodies are, after all, just light-tight boxes at the end of the day.
Minolta’s lenses have always been particularly well-regarded, and were a big reason why consumers chose them over other brands. Especially in the early days, Minolta’s lenses were seen as an exceptional value.
This was only helped during the 1970s by their collaboration with Leica, at which point even Leica themselves repurposed Minolta lenses for their R mount SLRs and allowed Minolta to produce and sell M-mount lenses.
Over time, Minolta’s MD mount evolved to incorporate new features from automatic aperture all the way to fully-programmed exposure before the company switched to their almost-fully-electronic AF mount.
Despite offering some incredibly low-cost lenses and bodies during this time, Minolta’s lenses continue to be very well regarded. The normal 50mm lenses are excellent, with better sharpness and coatings than older versions.
Let’s get into the different lens lines.
MD / SR Mount
Pre-MC (1959 – 1970)
These lenses debuted alongside the original SR cameras, which had external light meters. Because of this, they do not incorporate meter coupling.
Some lenses, mostly telephotos, also did not include automatic aperture setting. Instead, they relied on the stop-down system established by older M42 or Exakta SLRs. Minolta marked lenses with automatic aperture stop-down with “Auto-Rokkor”.
Early MC (1966 – 1972)
MC stands for meter coupled, not multi-coated. These lenses can be identified by their silver (unpainted) aperture rings. Some of these early lenses used radioactive thorium as a coating.
Along with the thorium, Minolta used a double coating procedure on all older lenses. This gave their lenses extra color rendition, light transmission, and glare reduction compared to the competition. Minolta‘s lens coatings improved over time, so it’s possible to have an “early MC” pattern lens with “late MC” coatings.
Late MC / Rokkor-X (1972 – 1977)
One major change in this generation was the inclusion of rubber focusing rings. Previous models had used metal milled rings, which were more expensive to produce and harsher on photographers’ hands. They did last quite a bit longer, though.
A black aperture ring replaced the earlier generations’ silver. Optically, coatings were improved but designs remained largely the same. In North America, these lenses are known as “Rokkor-X” to differentiate them from older models.
At a certain point in this generation, Minolta discontinued their optical formula code in the lens name. Previously, there had been a two-letter code attached to each lens that specified the optical design. The first letter represented the number of groups, and the second the number of elements.
The famous Rokkor-PG 58mm f1.2 has an optical design of 5 groups, 7 elements. See the table below for the full breakdown.
|First Letter||# of Groups||Second Letter||# of Elements|
Later MC lenses did not use this naming convention, and also removed things like depth-of-field preview buttons mounted on lenses.
Early MD (1977 – 1979)
The new XD-7 required a new line of lenses to fully utilize its multi-mode auto-exposure. Thus, the MD series of lenses was born. Most people believe the MD name refers to “minimum diaphragm”, because that was a new feature.
These new lenses have a tab that communicates a lens’ minimum aperture to the body. This allows the camera to properly calculate shutter speeds in shutter priority mode.
The XD-7 and later X-700 will still work in shutter priority and program modes with other lenses. The viewfinder may not read properly and metering may not be as precise, though.
Another change was the lens aperture speed. The XD-7 used a “final check” style metering system where the actual metering was taken after stopping down the lens. In the split second between the lens stopping down and the shutter firing, a reading was taken.
Older MC lenses may not have been as quick with their apertures. so Minolta had to improve the system. Otherwise, the “final check” system may not have been accurate.
Most early MD lenses have 55mm filter threads.
Late MD / Celtic (1979 – 1982)
This phase of lens design saw the complete reconstruction of many popular focal lengths after decades of only minor changes. Following Minolta’s collaboration with Leica, the company was able to create smaller, lighter lenses of nearly identical quality.
Major changes include the introduction of the fantastic 85mm f2 and the replacement of the 58mm f1.2 with the 50mm f1.2.
Over time, Minolta changed many lenses to a 49mm filter thread and made the aperture rings on many lenses plastic.
Celtic lenses were introduced around this time as a lower-cost alternative to normal lenses. These lenses used the same double-coating system of the late MC lenses and had lower standards for quality. Some older (SR-era) Minolta bodies won’t work properly with Celtic lenses because a screw blocks the lens from opening to its widest aperture. This can be easily modified and corrected.
Plain MD (1981 – 2006)
The final generation of Minolta MD lenses continued the trend of cutting costs and making smaller lenses. The biggest changes revolved around the X-700 and its program mode.
This mode required the lens be set to its smallest aperture to function properly. Minolta‘s solution? Put a lock on the aperture ring. To be fair, Nikon did the same thing.
Another big change relating to the X-700 was the extensive incorporation of plastic into the lens design. Minolta hoped to reduce production costs, lower weight, and simplify design.
This was most likely a reaction to the X-700’s success and competition from third party manufacturers. Companies like Vivitar and Tokina were stealing market share with excellent optics at a low price. Minolta had to get cheaper to compete. Nikon reacted similarly with their “Series E” lenses.
These lenses are defined by their “plain” plastic faces. Gone are the Rokkor names and codes that used to adorn Minolta lenses; replaced simply by “Minolta MD (Focal Length) (Aperture) Japan (Filter Thread)”.
Many MD lenses came with plastic clip-on lens hoods instead of the screw-in designs of previous iterations. Some telephoto lenses retained the metal hoods, but most others were plastic and all were clip-on. These hoods attached via a new indent on the outside of the filter thread.
Some lenses, particularly those aimed specifically at professionals, received very little changes aside from the dropping of the Rokkor name. Fisheye lenses and variable-softness portrait lenses were among those spared the cost-cutting other lenses received.
Some of the latest MD lenses included a focus confirmation post intended to be used with the ill-fated X-600. This camera sold very few units, but featured a focus confirmation system using the post. This was short-lived, as the new AF mount superseded the MD line soon after.
Minolta AF Mount
Minolta’s lens lineup was redesigned and refocused for the new AF system. The addition of focus gears necessitated changes in physical and optical design.
Generally, zoom lenses replaced 50mm lenses as SLR standards. Most Maxxum / Dynax cameras were sold with a 28-80mm, 35-105mm, or something similar.
For the most part, Minolta continued the trend of revising and restyling old lenses during the AF era. With each new generation of Dynax / Maxxum cameras, Minolta redesigned a few lenses to match the new body styling.
They also incorporated new technologies or features that were unique to the new bodies. Despite these mechanical changes, functionality and compatibility is maintained throughout the range.
The original line of lenses, released alongside the 7000 in 1985 or 1986. Their design matches the blocky, angular camera they were made for.
These lenses lack some electrical contacts of later lenses, and thus cannot communicate all the information some bodies may ask for. This does not impede use, however, and only limits tertiary functions.
The i-Series lenses mainly lowered weight and cost by using more plastic materials, allowing them to be faster as well. They also added two more electrical contacts for added communication between body and lens.
Overall design was simplified and smoothed to match newer bodies and differentiate them from older, blockier lenses.
Xi-series lenses are power-zoom enabled, with the camera’s power turning both zoom and focus motors. Even in manual focus mode, these lenses use a focus by wire system and use the electric focus mechanism.
Because of this, xi lenses will not work with pre-xi bodies. These bodies lack the electrical contacts to communicate zoom and focus electronically.
Minolta’s lens naming nomenclature also had many codes that corresponded with different innovations. When Sony purchased Minolta‘s camera business, they retained much of this system. Probably because most of the lenses were identical to their Minolta counterparts!
Minolta’s highest-end lens series received a G as well as higher build-quality and exceptional optical performance. G stood for Gold, and represented the pinnacle of Minolta’s optical construction. The famous 35mm f1.4 is a G lens, along with many fast telephotos, like the 300mm f2.8.
Minolta sold some of these lenses, like the 35mm f1.4, before the creation of the G series. There is no difference optically between lenses based on the presence of the G mark.
Some features associated with G lenses are circular aperture blades, floating focus systems, Internal focus, Anomalous Dispersion (AD) glass, and aspherical elements.
RS stands for restyled. During the Dynax’s production run, Minolta changed the styling of many lenses to match the bodies currently for sale. On top of lowering weight, they changed lens aesthetics to better line up with newer bodies.
These lenses feature different fonts and slightly wider scallops on the focusing rings.
D stands for distance-encoded. These lenses communicate focus distance to the camera, which the camera then recorded or used for zoom-enabled flash systems.
All Dynax lenses communicate some kind of distance information, but these lenses are much more precise. They have 8 electrical contacts instead of the 5 found on the original lenses.
Konica Minolta DSLRs use DT lenses. These lenses will only cover an APS-C image sensor. On a full-frame camera, they will leave black sections all around the edge of the frame.
HS means high speed. These lenses were special long telephoto lenses (200-600mm range) with gearing intended to make their autofocus faster. They’re noticeably faster than their old versions, although they lose some compatibility with older teleconverters.
SSM is an advancement even further than HS in terms of autofocus speed. This Supersonic Speed Motor system was both faster than the HS and a lot quieter as well.
This was a direct response and analog to Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor (USM) technology, although Minolta didn’t have a chance to integrate it as well as Canon.
Sony would eventually add SAM lenses to their lineup, which moved the focus motor into the lens in order to emulate SSM performance. It works for the most part, although focus speed and accuracy suffers compared to the high-end SSM lenses.
Minolta, especially during the MD era, was continually updating their lenses with new coatings and external designs. The important thing to note, though, is that the internals remained largely the same. The reason for this is that the designs were, for the most part, simply excellent.
Minolta’s designs stood the test of time better than many others, and required only slight tuning optically via coating changes to remain competitive. Otherwise, changes in the lens designs were done more out of body innovation or cost cutting rather than anything else. Only during the late MD / Rokkor-X period did Minolta drastically redesign the optics of their lenses.
This pattern remains true in the Dynax / Maxxum era as well, although Minolta began experimenting with different types of focus motors and lens-based data collection technologies as well, which necessitated some redesigns. Still, the optics were rarely the reason for a redesign, with most lenses remaining the same optically throughout their lifespan.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Minolta was an innovative company, always on the bleeding edge of optical design and willing to try new things in body design. Their cameras were essential for the development of matrix metering, autofocus, TTL metering, and all kinds of auto-exposure. Some Minolta models represent great points of integration and design.
Cameras like the XD-7, X-700, and Dynax 7 put together the technology of their era so effectively that they stand out from the crowd. Despite, or perhaps because of, consistently being at the forefront of technology, Minolta’s success wavered starting with the second generation of AF cameras.
These models failed to achieve the mainstream success of the first generation, and other manufacturers were more responsive to the desires of their consumers. While Minolta tried to limit physical buttons and provide a smooth experience, they ended up alienating consumers who preferred the simple, intuitive controls of Canon or Nikon SLRs.
By the time Minolta had figured out a successful control scheme, Canon and Nikon had pounced. While the Dynax 7 and 9 are incredible cameras in their own right, the competition had a firm grip on the professional market.
Like I’ve said multiple times during this article, it was too little too late. Had Minolta launched themselves fully into the professional market instead of leading with mid-market options, things may have been different. They had two opportunities, both in the early 70s and then in the mid-80s.
Instead, Minolta and Konica did not survive the mid-2000s, going the way of Contax and Yashica. While other manufacturers, like Pentax and Olympus, remained players in the camera space, they now occupy much smaller niches than ever before.
The irony lies in Sony. By purchasing Minolta’s designs, Sony was able to start with an advantage in their own camera design. Because of Sony’s incredible breadth of products, they were able to finance camera research and development, which eventually led them to create the E mount.
It’s indirect, but not off-base to say Minolta’s legacy lives on in Sony’s modern mirrorless cameras. It definitely lives on in their SLRs, which use the same lens mount. You can even get brand new lenses for the system that work perfectly on older bodies!
All else aside, buying a Minolta SLR is one of the best decisions you can make. Because they were widely popular, many were made. Because they were aimed slightly below the professional price point, their prices are low. Minolta’s aim has always been to provide excellent image quality for a low price, and that remains true even today.
I can’t believe I’ve written this entire article without mentioning the #MinoltaGang, but if you’ve made it this far you deserve a shout out. It’s cliche to call cameras underrated (even though we do it all the time), but Minolta cameras have always been in that market segment. Looking back, it seems almost deliberate!
If you own a Minolta, great choice. If you don’t, give one a try. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.Filmi, Technical/Educational