First published AUSTRALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY November'92
THE BIG END OF TOWN
Performance is what Minolta's new SLR is all about.
For some time now we've suspected that the Japanese camera manufacturers were nearing the limits of technological advance. Landmark cameras like the Minolta 7000, .Nikon F4, Canon EOS 10 and Minolta 7xi appeared to be becoming less and less frequent, and the innovations more rcfinements than genuine advances.
With the 7xi,Minolta seemed to have played its trump card..Here was a camera that had the lot:: the world's fastest and most accurate AF system; 14-zone honeycomb metering; variable AF marks; 4fps motor drive; the most detailed viewfinder display ever; and even an off-camera wireless TTL facility.
Yet lurking; in the background was an even more sophisticated SLR: the 9xi.
Primarily intended as a replacement for the aging 9000, the camera is aimed at the advanced amateur/semi-pro/pro market, where built-in flash is a no-no and ease of use and robustness of construction all important.
But it does feel solid. it's also heavy, at 830g (with battery), 100g more than the 7xi and right up in EOS-1 and F-4 territory.
Other changes include:
For this you pay a premium of $810 over the 7xi, which seems a lot for a camera which in one way (absence of onboard flash) is less fully-featured than its sibling. The rationale is that pros won't buy a camera with built-in flash, so the 7xi can't rcac·h that market, Ancccdotal evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. Many pros have bought the 7xi for its superb AF system, continued but not (so far as we could tell) improved in the 9xi. Never the less, the 9xi is a mighty impressive piece of hardware. It's up to you to decide whether the features it offers warrant its pricetag.
Controls are barely modified 7xi, with the main switch and 'panic' (reset) button to the left of the pentaprism housing; and the control dials, function, AEL and wide-view mode buttons, plus the LCD panel, to the right. New on this model is the so-called 'quick' button near the AEL button; more of this later.
Under the card door are the usual range of button controls: wind mode, mid~roll rewind, film speed setting, and card adjust. There's also a programming button for the quick system.
Other centrals are arrayed around the lens mount: left top, force flash (for program mode); lens release and AF/MF; right bottom, iris stop-down. The latter can be accessed by the right hand but is probably best actuated by the left middle finger, assuming you're cupping the lens in your left hand.
A place for everything, and everything in its place. The body contours are first-class: this doesn't feel like a camera weighing in at well over 1kg with lens attached. The ridge above the handgrip, thumb ridge and rubber thumb pad allow it to be held in one hand with minimal shake.
Yet Minolta's ergonomics aren't too wonderful; no one could call the 6~t card door buttons easy to reach (even if the EOS-1 has a similar arrangement). We prefer the F4's dials. On the Nikon F-601 and 801, the wind mode can be adjusted without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Try that on the 9xi and you'll either end up either shooting at 4.5fps or with an ISO rating of 6400!
Like the 7xi and 5xi, the 9xi boasts eye-start automation. Operated by both handgrip touch and infrared eyepiece sensors, it actuates focus and AE as soon as you raise the camera to your eye (provided it's switched on). We thought this was just a gimmick until the 7xi came along. Now we see it as an asset. It allows you to track a moving object, for example, without running the risk of prematurely tripping the shutter.
Then there's manual stop-down. Too many manufacturers today seem to regard thisfacility - fundamental to the picture-taking process - as appropriate only for pros. Yet a scant 15 years ago it would have been unthinkable for a manufacturer to have excluded it!
On the 7xi, mind you, depth-of-field is conveyed schematically via the viewfinder, and this is a satisfactory alternative. I'd challenge anyone to stop down a tele lens to minimum aperture in the late evening and identify which points will be sharp and which blurred.
There is no second shutter button for vertical shooting, a la EOS-1 and F4, nor is there mirror lock-up.
It's hard to improve on perfection, and with the 7xi, Minolta achieved the world's best metering system. That le- zone honeycomb pattern is almost infallible, and when it can't cope: for example, before a backlit window - why, there's always spot to fall back on. The 9xi has the same system.
In program mode, fuzzy logic (computerspeak for the way humans think) decides what sort of scene you are shooting (landscape, portrait, close-up etc) and sets the exposure parameters accordingly. Focus point (relayed via the AF system) is also taken into account. If you don't like the camera's choice, you can spin the control dials to alter them - provided you keep eye-start actuated, the new settings will remain. Spot measures the centre 3 per cent only of the image area, indicated by two brackets which appear in the viewfinder. Access - as for exposure compensation - is via the function button and rear control dial.
Top shutter speed is 1/12000s, which makes this the world's fastest camera. That sounds terrific, but like a Lamborgini or Ferrari when can you use it? We've never been able to wring out other top-line SLRs to their 1/8000s maximum.
The same criticism cannot be levelled at the 1/300s sync speed, fastest of any focal plane shutter camera. You get 1/200s on the 7xi, and 1/250s on a number of other models, including Nikon's basic FM-2, so it's not a quantum leap. But anyone who has attempted sunlight-synchro with the old 1/60s synch speed and anything over ISO 25 film will appreciate the benefits.
Naturally, the shutter blades have had to be specially strengthened to cope with the stresses of such extraordinary speeds. Eight of the 10 shutter hlades are carbon fibre reinforced; without the toughening, they'd probably disintegrate. One interesting observation: to save power, in program mode, both exposure parameters extinguish five seconds after you put the camera down, whereas in PA, A, S and PS modes, one parameter takes 30 seconds to vanish from the LCD panel and in M mode, neither goes.
The AE-lock button at the rear of the camera is handy for recomposition. It can also be used (in conjunction with spot metering) in a unique way. If you meter off one part of the picture, then recompose, a viewfinder schematic will indicate the number of stops difference hctween your locked reading and the current subject. So you can easily work out (up to four stops difference; beyond that, the pointer blinks) the brightness range of a particular scene and whether the film you are using will tolerate it.
This schematic or metering index has other uses. For example, if you press the function button once, it will indicate the difference between honeycomb and CWA metering (so you can judge for yourself how effective the former is). It also gives the amount of exposure compensation you're dialling in and, in manual mode, the difference between your setting and the metered reading. All of this sounds complex but it's handy information to have and quite simple to comprehend once you've tried it a few times.
No SLR yet made focuses as swiftly or as accurately as Minolta's top two fitted with xi lenses. Once again, we were amazed by the system's speed and its ability to track not just objects moving in straight lines, but those ducking and weaving.
The big Dynaxes have the largest AF area of any camera: around 12 per cent of the image area. There are four CCD sensor arrays: two horizontal, and two vertical - so the system has no trouble biting on horizontal lines. In fact, the range of problem situations indicated in the instruction is fewer than for any other AF camera.
When the camera is held vertically, the top (left) horizontal sensor switches off and the focus frame brackets narrow accordingly. You can also select one: of the four focus sensors rather than the whole area.
Focus confirmation is via a viewfinder LED: there are no beepers to distract the neighboring fauna. Double brackets around the LED indicate focus is confirmed but the subject is moving.
On the 7xi and 9xi, there is no such thing as predictive focus mode. The camera starts focusing immediately eyestart is activated and continues doing so while the subject keeps moving. Focus locks when the shutter button is part- depressed; but the camera will keep tracking as long as it is in continuous drive mode and the subject is moving.
The 9xi has one feature the 7xi doesn't: "release priority" Normally, the shutter won't release unless the subject is in perfect focus. RP (set by pressing the drive mode button while the main switch is turned on you’ll need the instruction man- nail) overrides this, so you can take more pictures of a fast moving subject, albeit not all completely sharp.
The sequences we obtained of horses and rugby players (at up to 4.5fps!) were so good we didn't feel any need for RP. We doubt you will, either. For low- light conditions the 9xi shares the 7xi's AF illuminator at 9 o'clock to the lens mount. It has a range of up to 9m and allows you to focus down to EV-I. If conditions are particularly adverse - or you want to maintain a constant focal distance - you'll have to switch to manual. Unfortunately, as we noted in our 7xi test, the focus point then changes. One limitation: the Acute-Matte focusing screen is non-interchangeable. Film Speed Setting Naturally, there's DX coding (IS025-5000), but it's DX coding with a difference. There's no default: the previous ISO speed remains in place until a new roll of I)X coded film is introduced. And of course there's manual override: ISO 6- 6400. Is this better than the alternative? The jury, as they say, is still out. If you've been shooting Ektar 25, then switch to a roll of bulk- loaded HP5, you'll be four stops over- exposed, whereas with a default setting you would have been two stops over-exposed.
One great benefit of Minolta's system is that DX coding is always adopted first when coded film is loaded, and you must override the computer to set film speed manually. On many cameras DX coding is at one end of the ISO speed continuum, so if you manually set film speed, all rolls will be exposed at that setting until you remember to revert to DX coding.
The Quick Button
Minolta's Creative Expansion system, first seen on the 7000i, has as many critics as it does proponents. Many users object to having to pay another $50 for a card (inserted into a swing-out door on the right side of the camera) to carry out a function - such as exposure bracketing- they feel should have been built into the camera in the first place.
The system was carried to absurd lengths with the 5000i, which required a card to access aperture- and shutter- priority modes. Well, the good news about the 9xi is that a lot more functions are programmed into the cam- era than are on the 7xi. The bad news is that they're only temporarily available (via the afore- mentioned thumb-operated "quick button') unless you use a card.
The functions that can be programmed in via a card door button and the front control dial are a) Exposure bracketing. Three frames with half a stop between them. Drive mode changes automatically to high speed continuous. Can be combined with exposure compensation. b) Flash bracketing. Three frames, as above, except that drive mode is single-frame. c) Multiple exposure. Hold in the quick button while you depress the shutter and the film won't advance. d) Drive mode selection. Instant change from single-frame to high-speed continuous advance, or from low-speed (2fps) or high-speed (4.5fps) continuous advance to single-frame. e) Spot metering. Instant, at the push of a button. Also acts as an AE lock button. f) AF area selection. Either from full focus area to centre, or any local focus area to full.
Of course, you can only use one of these functions at any one time, but they do tend to be mutually exclusive. For example, you'd be unlikely to want to combine flash bracketing with multiple exposure. Bracketing plus spot is a possibility, but you can always obtain spot through the main controls. Ditto AF area and drive mode. So the quick button is quite a useful innovation, so long as you remember it's there.
Deck of Cards
It's not yet a full deck, but with 16 CECs (Creative Expansion Cards), Minolta's getting there. The company claims five of the cards (actually small computer chips which slot into a door ( the right-hand side of the camera) are new, but really they've only been tweaked.
Flash and exposure bracketing have been combined on one card, while the 8000i's auto depth control has been dropped. You're left with fantasy, sports action, data memory auto program shift, bracketing, panning, intervalometer, background priority, multiple exposure, multi-spot memory, highlight/ shadow control, travel, child, portrait and close-up not to mention customized function xi.
We gave a full rundown; on the cards then available and an assessment of their usefulness in our 8000i test (AP July 1990 with an update in last year's 7xi test (Oct 1991). Two of the cards amplify Quick Button functions - multiple exposures, exposure bracketing, flash bracketing. Others are pretty otiose, although cards like fantasy,for example, and highlight/shadow control, do expand the camera's versatility.
One card you can't do without is Customised Function xi. It allows you to vary the standard panic button resettings plus switch off the grip sensor, auto flash in P mode, DX memory, and change the frame counter from counting up yo counting down. Even more importantly, you can use it to program leader out of cassette on rewind, and cancel auto rewind at the end of the film.
As this is the only card that remains effective even when removed, you don't even have to buy your own. Borrow a friend's. Bits and Pieces The 9xi retains the 7xi's Wide-View mode, which allows you to look at 150 per cent of the image area until you press the shutter button, when the lens zooms to your chosen focal length. It works only if you have an xi zoom lens. Four viewfinder brackets indicate the approximate image when you take the picture. Of course, it will only function if the lens is set at more than 1.5 times the shortest focal length. We thought it was kinda cute on the 7xi, and still do. It's also a good way to burn up your 2CR5 power cell - although without Auto Stand-by Zoom and builtin flash, your battery should last a lot longer than on the 7xi.
Press the wide-view button (not easy, if'you have stubby fingers) at the same time as the function button and you'll bring up two panorama crop lines as an aide de composition. You'll need the optional panorama adapter, which slips into the film gate, to create actual panoramic format negs. As the adapter only masks off part of the standard 24 x 35mm neg, the indicator isn't a bad idea. You can always crop your full frame negs in the enlarger, and it's nice to get the image right in the first place. The indicator vanishes only after the picture is taken.
The electronic self-timer is 10 second delay only, not alterable, with the AF illuminator doubling as a visual warning. A standard cable release can't be used, but there is a port for an electronic remote.
Most of the parameters programmed into memory remain locked in when the main switch is turned off - handy when you have to put down the camera for a few minutes. The exception is manual focus.
For those with less than perfect eyesight, the built-in diopter adjuster is nice, as is the soft rubber eyecup. It's also possible to view the picture with you eye well removed from the finder, something specatcle wearers will appreciate.
Minolta is making a serious attempt to market the 9xi as a systems camera. So the brochure describes various goodies not commonly available on amateur SLR's, a rightangle viewfinder, for example and gel holders and gels. Flash Photography Although the 9xi has no built-in flash, it is compatible with a number of dedicated Minolta guns, and particularly the 5400xi and 3500xi. The new 5400xi (supplied with our test camera) is very similar in design to the earlier 5200i. Although its designation would lead you to believe it has a Guide Number of 54 (Metric, ISO 100), thats guilding the lily a bit: at a 50mm focal length its GN is 42 - exactly the same as the 5200i. Only when used with a 105mm (or longer) telephoto lens does its GN blow out to 54.
The head swivels through 270 degrees, tilts 90. and zooms from 24-105mm (the biggest zoom range available).
The foot locks onto the camera's hotshoe via a spring loaded pin - a very positive system we have praised before.
An AF illuminator supercedes the camera's under low light conditions.
Unlike the 3500xi there's an LCD panel giving data readout. You can choose from full dedicated flash, or manual operation, with up to five stops power reduction. However, unlike Nikon and Canon's top-line flashguns, there is no flashside exposure compensation, which will not endear itself to portrait and wedding photographers, particularly as stadard flash fill (in common with other Japanese guns) is overly bright.
You can quench the illumination either by using camera-side compensation, or by switching to manual mode and chosing a fractional power setting. Either way its inferior to flashside compensation. (My Note: I wish someone could explain to me why.....Craig)
Maximum sync speed is 1/300s or 1/250s in manual mode. If you set a faster shutter speed, the camera will automatically revert to sync speed.
Strobe flash is possible with the 5400xi - up to 10 bursts in one exposure - to simulate movement. There is no second curtain sync.
Like the 3500xi the flash can be fired off camera via wireless remote with full TTL control, but as there's no on board flash to trigger it, one flash or a woreless remote controller must be attached to the hotshoe. You can then set up another gun off camera (a plastic foot is supplied with the flash) and fire both without leads. One of the guns must be a 5400xi. Four separate control channels can be selected using switches inside the battery compartment. A lighting ratio of 2:1 is possible between units.
Minolta is taking its flash componentry more seriously than it did a few years ago. As well as the three xi flash units there are a ring flash (1200AFn), numerous dedicated cables and even a clip on bounce reflector available in the Minolta "system". But there's no power pack to boost the four AA cells in the 5400 - just a NiCad charger. (Note the EB-1 must have been release after this review)
Up to four flash units can be synched simultaneously using cables.
In program mode the flash fires only when the camera decides it is needed, unless you force fire it via the flash button. In other exposure modes it will fire whenever you take a picture.
Slow shutter synch is possible eitehr by selecting manual mode or by pressing the camera's AE lock button when you shoot. Balance between background and flash light is good.
The PC socket on the lefthand side of the camera body can be used to trigger non-dedicated and studio flash without needing to acquire a hotshoe lead. The socket cap fits neatly inside the eyepiece cup on teh carry strap, so it won't be lost.