by Martin Coleman
Australian Photography February 1986
The new 9000 is the first Minolta I have touched since the very functional X-700 appeared, so there are a number of features about the 9000 which are totally new to me although not totally new to Minolta, having already been used in the 7000.
While I don't consider first impressions of a camera to be any indication of its practicality in the field, I do think they are important -- usually in a negative sense that a camera which doesn't immediately feel comfortable and functional, usually isn't.
This is not so with the Minolta 9000. As I undid the studs on the camera case I regressed 20 years, back to undoing the solid and protective cases which were standard with professional quality cameras, and which haven't been seen for at least a decade -- until now.
Even without the MD-90 five frames per second motordrive the 9000 cannot be described as light, but it is extremely well balanced with the autofocus 50mm f1.4 lens. (This was as the camera came to the reviewer. Normally the standard lens is f1.7). Nearly as heavy was the sheaf of technical info which accompanied it! At around $1500 including sales tax (ST) as reviewed, (which drops to below the grand figure with the f1.7 optic to ST exempt pros), the 9000 is not going to fit everybody's budget. What you get is extremely competitive compared to the other current professional 35mm SLRs. Few of them come close to offering similar sophistication, and equally few can be judged to be truly aimed at use by professional photographers.
There is no doubt that the Minolta 9000 is primarily aimed at photographers who earn their living with their cameras. Photojournalists are the largest group of professional 35mm users, and it is these who will be especially interested by what the 9000 offers. This is what I found when I put the camera , sans MD-90, through its workout.
Ultrafast Shutter and Sync
Shutter speed in the 9000 is as fast as anything else around with a fastest setting of 1/4000 sec. and 1/250 sec. electronic flash sync. The metal blades of the vertical-travel focal plane shutter look fairly conventional in design, although they are obviously very light. The automatic speed range is stepless between 30 seconds and the top setting. With manual settings this becomes one-stop intermediate graduations with a B shutter open position also available.
Setting the shutter in metered manual mode and shutter priority auto-exposure mode is by a two-way button at the front of the body close to the shutter button. This is very quick in operation with all shutter speeds visible in the viewfinder with the appropriate aperture information. The same information is displayed in a LCD window at the top of the camera. The viewfinder information is illuminated for easy reading in all lighting conditions.
Choice of Exposure Modes
Two options for manual metering provide the accuracy of spotmetering, in addition to centre-weighted average. A circle etched in the centre of the focusing screen represents 2.7 percent- cent of the film frame and indicates the spot measurement area. The spot metering can be applied to give highlight exposure measurement and shadow exposure measurement for accurate rendition of these areas, in addition to spot metering for 18 per cent grey exposure.
Automatic exposure modes are extensive and require an understanding of the differences between settings, since the programs have distinct characteristics to suit different conditions.Firstly there are multiple programs to suit the type of lens in use. These are set by the camera automatically.
Programs are designated Wide, Standard and Telephoto, which translates as; wide program coming into effect with lenses shorter in focal length than 35mm, standard program for lenses between 35mm and 105mm focal length, and telephoto program for lenses longer than 105mm.
It is not possible to select these programs manually and the effect is that as the focal length of the lens increases the program becomes biased more towards a faster shutter speed. With a zoom lens attached to the camera the programs are selected as the lens is zoomed to different focal lengths.
Additionally, the same exposure metering alternatives are available in program and autoexposure modes as in manual mode. This gives the option of highlight, midtone or shadow spot metering in addition to centre-weighted average meterings.
AE modes come in two varieties: Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. These are set on the exposure mode selector at the top of the camera. The indicator is plain to read and it is easy to dial in the selected exposure: Manual, Program, A (Aperture Priority AE), and S (Shutter Priority AE).
If all this automatic exposure control needs some manual adjustment there is exposure compensation available up to plus and minus four aperture stops. This adjustment requires the operation of two buttons at different sides of the camera and cannot be operated accidentally -- once a compensation has been set, an indicator flashes in the viewfinder until the adjustment is returned to zero.
There are also plenty of minor features on the 9000 body which add up to a superior camera; a stop-down preview switch is close to the right index finger position, multiple exposure facility, built-in eyepiece correction from -3 to +1 diopters, an eyepiece shutter to prevent stray light from entering the exposure metering system, interchangeable focusing screens, co-axial sync terminal, remote control terminal, automatic DX film setting and memo window for film type, audible signals which can be silenced if required,AE lock for recomposition of pictures after spot metering, full range of 1SO settings from 6 to 6400 and a full information viewfinder display which is illuminated when the shutter button is partly depressed. This all results in a highly professional and desirable package.
Metering is through a compound silicon photocell placed in the bottom of the mirror box; when spot-metering only the centre portion of the SPC is used. Metering range with ISO 100 film and the 50mm f1.4 lens is EV 1 to EV20 (equal to one second at f1.4 to 1/4000 sec. at f16).
Another point worthy of special mention is the brightness of the 9000 viewfinder with the f1.4 lens; simply the brightest I have used with lenses of this aperture. The mirror is semi-silvered, with a secondary mirror for metering and autofocusing, the light-loss through the viewing system really can be said to be minimal.
Autofocus with The 9000
Equally impressive is the Minolta autofocus system as presented in the 9000. It is described as a Phase Detection type and is right up to the professionalism and quality of the rest of the 9000 package.
This is not simply an autofocus lens fitted on a sophisticated but conventional body. Autofocus is achieved by the use of twin separator lenses which project light from the subject onto a charge-coupled device (CCD) which turns the information into electrical impulses that are analysed by the autofocus central processing unit (CPU). Then, using data from the lens' integrated chip (IC) the autofocus microprocessor calculates how far and in which direction the micromotor should rotate to adjust the lens. The focus is continuously evaluated and adjusted so long as the shutter button is touched.
The emphasis here is on the word touched. Not being familiar with the 9000, I was too heavy with the button at first.
Depressing the button halfway locks the autofocus so that the picture can be re-composed if desired. It was this position that
my heavy index finger took up on the button, until I realised that either the continuous autofocus mechanism wasn't working or
I was doing something wrong. By applying light pressure to the shutter button the continuous autofocus worked quickly and
very efficiently -- one of the two best autofocus systems 1 have used, the other being Nikon's F3AF. Another impressive
feature claimed by Minolta, although not put into practice in the course of this review, is provided with the MD-90 dedicated
motordrive: focus priority shutter release. Other manufacturers have looked at this facility and a few years ago Olympus
introduced such a system with its OM-30 -- since canned.
Focus-priority shutter release provides another dimension in automatic cameras, whereby it is the camera which decides when to release the shutter. There are innumerable instances where this is valuable, but it can make composition a problem. For 'hard news' sequences -- accidents, etc -- the facility is ideal, but for emotive pictures the photographer needs to decide the precise moment of release for maximum impact in the composition.
While I think focus-priority release will be welcomed by sequence-shooters, and for remote-controlled situations, I don't see the facility replacing hard-learnt professional experience.
The review camera came with an additional lens, a Minolta 35mm-105mm f3.5/4.5 autofocus zoom. This is one of six autofocus zoom lenses produced by Minolta and in total there are now 14 Minolta autofocus lenses ranging from 24mm to the 600mm Apochromatic.
Minolta has replaced Rokkor on the front but there has been no change in the quality of the lenses. I found these Minolta lenses to be of the highest standard, producing excellent resolution and colour saturation.
While the wide-angle to telephoto zoom lenses will appeal to those looking for a high degree of versatility, there is a continuing range of autofocus prime lenses for purists. All Minolta AF lenses can be focused manually but as they are not designed primarily for this the balance is not so comfortable, as the focusing ring is at the front of the lens. There is a switch on the front of the 9000 body which releases the autofocus mechanism when changing to manual focusing. The focus ring is very light and smooth.
9000 Flash Photography
The technological advances of the 9000 follow through to program flash at all levels. Minolta's 4000AF electronic flash is the first to incorporate a power zoom flash head which automatically adjusts flash coverage to the focal length in use, even while zooming!
A control grip, the CG-1000 provides sufficient power for five frames per second flash sequence. This could not be tested because the flash unit was not available at the time of going to press, but obviously power output at this shooting rate has quite a large question mark over it. The range of accessories available for the Minolta 9000 is too extensive to profile fully in this review, but there is an interesting professional data receiver DR-1000 which provides precise remote control of camera exposure from incident readings. The same unit provides flash test-firing via infrared signals from the Minolta Flash Meter IV.
The Minolta 9000 is basically the same camera as the 7000 with the added benefit of continuous autofocus and focus-priority shutter release. The functions are in the hands of two eight-bit central processing units which have never been incorporated into a camera as efficiently as in the Minolta 9000.
While I found using the 9000a delight, perhaps a small criticism is that the different adjustments and controls are spread around the camera body and not always clearly marked: shutter speed control is on the right side of the camera and fairly obvious (although not marked) while aperture control is at the left side of the mirror box and rather inconspicuous. Of course, familiarity with the camera removes these as problems, but there are 14 or so buttons and switches around the camera body to memorise!
The Minolta is very good value for what it offers and there is no doubt in my mind that it is the most advanced, versatile and functional camera yet produced. Its cast metal body has a very good feel to it with no obvious quality faults or weaknesses. Whether the Minolta autofocus lenses will stand up to the rigors of heavy professional use, only time in the field will tell. They certainly look the part, though.
The Minolta 7000 was voted European Camera Of The Year in 1985, and I think that the 9000 will be eagerly accepted as a new champion in 1986.
TYPE: 35mm single-lens reflex camera with autofocus and multi-mode exposure control.
FILM FORMAT: 24 x 36mm.
LENS MOUNT: Minolta A type bayonet, self-lubricating stainless steel.
AUTOFOCUS SYSTEM: Minolta TTL phase-detection type; working range: EV 2 to 19 at ISO 100; LED focus signals in viewfinder for both manual and automatic focusing.
SHUTTER: Electronically controlled vertical traverse focal-plane type.
SHUTTER-SPEED RANGE: In P and A modes: stepless 1/4000 to 30 sec.; in M and S modes: 1/4000 to 30 sec, in full-stop settings; bulb operates in M mode.
METERING SYSTEMS: TTL centre-weighted averaging by compound silicon photocell at bottom of mirror box, or spot metering for midtone, highlight, or shadow using centre portion of same SPC; spot-measurement area: 5.5mm circle in centre of focusing screen, approx. 2.7% of film frame; centre-weighted averaging range: EV 1 to 20 with ISO 100 and 50mm f1.4 lens leg. 1 sec. at ft.4 to 1/4000 sec, at f16).
FILM SPEED SETTINGS: ISO 6 to 6400 in third-stop increments; automatic film speed setting for DX-coded films can also be set manually: manual setting for non-DX films also possible.
EXPOSURE MODES: Program AE with automatic multi-program selection at wide, standard, or tele program and program-shift capability; aperture-priority AE; shutter priority AE; metered-manual exposure.
FLASH EXPOSURE MODES: Direct (TTL) autoflash metering by same in all modes for ISO speeds 12-1000; program AE: automatic setting of X-sync to 1/250 sec. (above EV13 at ISO 100), 1/125 (EV 12-13), or 1/60 (below EV 12); aperture-priority AE: X-sync set to 1/250 sec.; shutter-priority AE and metered manual: 1/250 or slower speeds usable, speed automatically reset to 1/250 sec. for manually set speeds above 1/250 sec.
AE LOCK: Works in P, A, and S modes; used in all exposure modes for highlight and shadow-based spot metering; used for slow-shutter sync with dedicated flash.
EXPOSURE ADJUSTMENT: -4 to +4 EV in half-stop settings.
VIEWFINDER: Eye-level fixed pentaprism type with built-in eyepiece correction adjustable from -3 to +1 diopters; field of view: 94 per cent of film-frame area; magnification: 0.81X with 50mm lens at infinity.
AUDIBLE SIGNALS: With main switch at ON position. camera beeps when using focus hold, focusing manually. and during self-timer operation.
SELF-TIMER: Electronic with 10-second delay; operation indicated by blinking LED and audible beeps; cancelable.
POWER: Two AA-size 1.5v alkaline-manganese, carbon-zinc, or 1.2v rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries.
PREVIEW SWITCH: Used for checking depth of field; operates in all four exposure modes; pressing part way down stops down and locks lens diaphragm at aperture setting shown in data panel and finder; when used, F blinks in data panel.
DISTRIBUTOR: Swift Consumer Products.(Australia)
RRP: $1515 with f1.4 50mm AF lens. $1400 with f1.7 50mm AF lens.(Australian $ at time of Release)