First published AUSTRALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY January 1992.
The Big M's latest SLR is a spinoff from the 7xi
Minolta Dynax 3xi
SON OF SUPERCAMERA!
When you spend $30million creating a new camera, you need to ensure you get your money's worth. And that's just what Minolta has done with its Dynax 7xi development programme. The same technology found in the 7xi (surely destined to be a landmark camera) has also been incorporated into two new cameras, the 3xi and the flashless SPxi, with a 5xi no doubt lurking just around the corner.
Where the 7xi is a top-of-the-line model, with features even technofreaks would classify as extraordinary, the 3xi is comparatively basic. But it's a giant leap up from the 3000i which, frankly, we never liked. The 3000i was almost a compact with interchangeable lenses. The only exposure modes available were program and high-speed program; there was no exposure compensation facility; aperture and shutter speed were a secret known only to the CPU.
The 3xi, we're delighted to say, is much more of a photographer's camera, with a full range of exposure modes (P, A, S and M). It's lacking in some of the features we've come to regard as standard, even on top-line compacts, but is still capable of being controlled by the user.
It's like the difference between riding a horse that is responsive to your commands and an old nag that refuses to venture off the tourist track.
Some cameras we've tested recently really haven't felt good in the hand, despite the obviousadvantages of moulded polycarbonate construction. 'The 3xi isn't like this at all. In fact, it's one of the most craonolnn cameras we've used: much thinner and at 470g more than 250gms lighter than the 7xi. Less appealing is the contrtol layout. In lieu of the 7xi's input dials, the 3xi has two springloaded switches, one (mode and shutter speed) in front of the shutter button; the other (aper-ture) on the lens mount. To change exposure mode, you must first press the mode button to the left of the shutter release, then slide the mode switch -- an awkward operation that would have been greatly improved by placing the mode button to the left of the pentaprism.
The flash release button is on the back of the top-plate, where you'd normally expect to find exposure lock. Another button, in front of it, activates pre-flash (for red eye reduction).
There's a manual focus switch at the bottom left of`the lens mount, a self-timer button in front of the Main power switch.and a mid-roll rewind button underneath. That's the lot.
'I`his camera shares the two-trigger eyestart operation pioneered on the 7xi. T'here's a touch sensor on the handarip as well as infrared sensors by the eyepiece, both must be activated to start AF and AE, once the rnain switch is on. This system is not a gimmick.it helps conserve power and makes the camera easier to use -- almost an extension of your own mind. Yet the 3xi can't be accidentally tired up by someone walking by, as the Riva 105i can.AF and AE are not the only functions that are eye-started. Auto stand-by zoom, whereby xi lenses automatically zoom to a programmed focal length, is, too.
We found it pretty irksome when testing the 7xi. Fortunately, ASZ can be cancelled on both cameras (this wasn't necessary with the 35-80mm zoom on our test camera, which had all the xi features except ASZ. Then you zoom the lens using the variable speed zooming ring.
In case you've forgotten, the "xi" in the 3xi's title stands for "Expert Intelligence"--a phrase that would rank high on Alex Ruzo's tautology list! What this is all about is the application of`''fuzzy logic'' -- the computer simulation of human thought processes -- to picture-taking.
'I'he 3xi uses fuzzy logic for cxposure rnctcrina and predictive autofocus. Metering is via an AF- integrated eight-segment silicon photocell -- seven honeycomb pattern segments plus the background. The program AE system classifies subjects into four categories -- landscape, snapshot, portrait and close-up.
Metering accuracy generally was good, with the system able to cope with nioderate but not extreme backlighting. In high contrast situations, the 5000i tended to under- rather than overexpose; the 3xi is more feminine about its decision-making and may go either way.
Shutter speeds range from 1/2000s to 30s in full-stop increments, an excellent range for an entry-level camera; aperture can be adjusted in half-stops.
Unfortunately, exposure parameters only appear in the LCD panel, not in the viewfinder, and in P mode only stay visible while your finger is on the shutter button, or your eye to the viewfinder (when you can't see them). You get a slightly better deal in A and S modes -- one parameter stays visible permanently; the other for two seconds. Still, that's a marked improvement on the 3000i, so I guess we should be thankful for small mercies.
Focus confirmation is the dominant LED in the viewfinder -- a small green dot with concentric circle for predictive AF; and a big green dot for focus lock which blinks when focus is impossible.
There are also some exposure symbols which take a little working out. In manual mode, an arrow pointing up warns of over-exposure; one pointing down, underexposure; two arrows, correct exposure. But the two similar arrows appearing in the LCD panel don't signify anything. To obtain correct exposure manually, you must first set the aperture or shutter speed you want, then press the other input switch until the two arrows in the viewfinder light. You then have to go back to the LCD panel to find out what you've set. All a bit complicated for our liking, particularly when there's no exposure compensation facility, spot metering (as is found on the SPxi) or manual film speed setting, so manual gets rather more use than might be expected on this type of camera.
In program and aperture-priority modes the downwards arrow blinks as a camera shake warning; it also blinks (more quickly) when the flash is charging. Both arrows blink -- even in shutter-priority mode -- when correct exposure is impossible. Too much blinking blinking? You've got it in one. Flashing lights and an LCD panel are no substitute for a full viewfinder display -- particularly when the panel doesn't illuminate.
As you might expect, you don't get the 7xi's selectable four CCD sensor AF array with the 3xi -just a single horizontal CCD array that is 80 per cent wider than that in the 3000i. Autofocus is activated automatically through eyestart but it won't lock until you press the shutter button halfway down, which is great for action photography, for example. There's no need to switch to predictive AF; like several other Dynax models, the sensors detect motion and continue to track while the subject is moving, locking focus only as the picture is being taken.
However, there's no continuous wind mode, so the number of shots you can grab of a moving subject is restricted. The 3xi is programmed to track erratically moving subjects as well as those moving in astraight line, although it isn't in the same league as its sibling. Expect only a 50 per cent success rate with a runner weaving towards you. But the response rate is still very fast, with AE in program mode biased towards higher speeds.
Unusually, the camera doesn't use near-infrared light to assist focusing under low-light conditions, but a couple of flash pulses, which can be pretty startling when you're not expecting it. The flash will only fire when it's raised -- that is, automatically in program mode and manually in aperture-priority, shutter-priority and manual. The system will work unaided in light levels as low as EV-1 (the same as the Nikon F-801), but isn't partial to low-contrast subjects.
Manual focusing with xi series lenses is via the power zoom control, which is pulled backwards first, then turned. This is inferior to conventional focusing, moving too quickly past the focus point. Other Minolta AF lenses with standard focus rings are recommended.
The lens on our test camera was an AF power zoom sharing many of the features of xi lenses, but without the Auto Stand-by Zoom or Advanced Program Zoom functions. Manual focusing is still via the zoom ring.Optical quality wasn't too hot, with maximum resolution of just 42 I/mm, falling away at 35mm focal length to to 30-33 I/mm in the corners. There was considerable barrel distortion at this focal length and -- more disturbingly -- vignetting.
There seems to be a trend towards built-in flash on SLRs, which frankly we welcome - you never know when you might need it. And the 3xi's is a model of the genre. It gives coverage for lenses to 28mm focal length; has a pre-flash facility to reduce redeye; and fires automatically when needed in program mode (although unlike the Canon EOS10, it doesn't retract as well).
Guide number is a lowly 12 (Metric, IS0100)-- the s;tmc· as the 7xi's -- so don·t cxpect to go lighting up the Entertainment Centre with it. We found that like the Contax T2, it barely gave sufficient illumination in dark places. Remember, at f5.6 your maximum shooting range is just 2.lm -- scarcely· a body's length away No, this is a flash for fill.
A slower synch speed than the 7xi (1/90s vs 1/200s) makes it less functional, but not unbearably so, provided you stick to slower films.
In program mode, the flash is supposed to fire when needed but it doesn't respond to backlighting, so must be force fired using the flash button. In the other three exposure modes. it will fire whenever it's raised. Fill is, if anything, a little understated, which is surprising for a Japanese camera.'I'he flash can be programmed not to fire in P mode by holding in the flash button while the head is pressed down.
Charging is indicated by yet another blinking (blanktety-blank) arrow in the viewfinder with a winking lightning bolt signifying the flash is charged. The arrow re-appears briefly (not the lightning bolt, as suggested in the instruction manual) to confirm light was sufficient.
Slow shutter synch is possible by combining manual mode (for metering ambient) with flash. This isn't explained in the instruction book. The flash can't be fired with an auxiliary on the hotshoe but will trigger (and quench) thc 3500xi flash when the latter, is used off-camera. This remarkable innovation provides TTL metering for both flashes -- the ratio can be set to 2:1 auxiliary/built-in by depressing the flash control button while you take the picture. A full description of the process was given in our 7xi test in October.
Pre-flash works well to reduce redeye. but users are advised not to use the on-camera flash in low-light conditions in which redeye would be a problem.
Power for all functions, including flash, is provided by a single 2CR5 lithium battery. We hope the longevity is better than for the 7xi, which flattened one battery in just 10 36-exp rolls of film.
What's missing? Plenty. But perhaps that's not so surprising: this is, after all, an entry level camera. We've already mentioned spot metering, exposure compensation and manual film speed setting (fortunately, DX coding is in 1/3 step increments,so ISO 64, 125 and 160 are not a problem).To this list must be added a depth-of-field button, and all of Minolta's creative expansion cards, so things like automatic, exposure bracketing, flash bracketing,, rriultiple exposures and highlight/shadow control are a no go.
Of the greatest concern is one's ability to program the camera (using the customised function card) to leave a a leader out of the cassette on rewind. Rewind is automatic at rolls end. Buy a film picker as an accessory.
The 3xi does have a self-timer (the flash, if raised, pulses three times as a warning light) but no cable release facilily. A glaring ommission.The self-timer cancels after the shot is taken, which is preferable to having to switch it off.
Despite some reservations, this is a lot of camera for the money. It feels good to hold; seems well-made and robust (no plastic lens mounts, a la Canon 1000) and has first-class metering and exposure systems. Designed as a beginner's camera, it is in
fact the first Dynax below the top-line models likely to appeal toadvanced amateurs as well. If only it had exposure
compensation, more viewfinder information, a cable release facility and left a leader out on rewind.But at $569 (body only),
-- MICHAEL RICHARDSON
PATERSON LENS TEST
Minolta AF35-80 zoom
Focal Length Resolution (l/mm)