Minolta Dynax 700si
The Good and the Bad
|The fourth generation Minolta AF SLR series doesn't embody any dramatic new technologies, but the refinements are extensive enough to represent a significant development. Paul Burrows reports.||
* = Very Poort
***** = Very Good
0 = Half Point
The up-grades and revisions embodidied in the 700si put it firmly into a class above the 7xi. Essentially Minolta has created a semi-professional SLR which is equipped to do battle with the Nikon F90 and Canon EOS 5. It's cheaper and on balance better featured than both.
This semi-pro category is essentially a new one (in terms of AF SLRs), but both the Canon and Nikon models have been doing big business by virtue of their ability to offer the latest technologies, combined with the essential pro-grade features, much more affordable then the dedicated professional cameras. In technological terms, both the F4 and EOS-1 are past their sell-by dates and, increasingly, the thinking in professional circles is that it makes more economic sense to buy cheaper SLRs which can be easily turned-over (or retired) as new technologies arrive.
For Minolta, a move into this category makes sense because at this price point, the brand becomes a much more viable option for professionals who would previously have only contemplated Canon or Nikon. Although this probably wasn't the main intent, the 700si has the features, the specifications and the performance potential to give Minolta the toe-hold in the professional SLR market that it has been desperately seeking to establish with first the 9000 and, latterly, the 9xi.
As already has been implied, the Dynax 700si slots between the 7xi and 9si. It carries on the new technologies introduced in the former, but these are mixed with some of the more desirable high-end features of the latter and a few brand new capabilities are thrown in for good measure. It's an appealing recipe which produces a fairly tasty result.
In terms of styiling, the 700si looks a good deal more business-like than its predecessor by virtye of a much squarer shape which makes the camera appear beefier (although it's actually fractionally smaller all round).
This impression is accentuated when the optional vertical control grip (designated the VC-700) is fitted to the base. In addition to adding depth to the camera, the horizontal grip -- something most working photographers find essential -- replicates all the key grip-hand controls to enable vertical operation that's both comfortable and efficient. Even the grip sensors which, in concert with the proximity detector below the viewfinder eyepiece, enable auto start-up of the metering and autofocusing, are duplicated on the vertical grip.
Consequently, there are no operational sacrifices to be made when the camera is used vertically and this component undoubtedly strengthens the 700si's professional aspirations.
Furthermore, the vertical grip provides the option of powering the camear with a quartet of standard AA size batteries in place of the six volt lithium pack (a reassuring back-up). Minolta has thought out this aspect of the component extremely well. When it's attached to the camera, the grip's power connections insert directly into the 700si's battery compartment (after first removing the cover whch has its own little recess for storage) and the lithium pack is transferred to the accessory component. The beauty of this arrangement is that batteries can be changed without unscrewing the grip which also incorporates a reinforced tripod bush and a PC terminal for off-camera flash connection (another feature designed to appeal to pros).
In either configuration, the handling of the Dynax 700si is superp and very well balanced. Both grips are ergonomically shaped and fit the hand beautifully, affording excellent manoeuvrability and control, but fitting the VC-700 undoubtedly enhances the handling characteristics.
The control layout is equally well conceived and a lot more of the `on-the-fly' adjustments are now within reach of the grip hand and operated either by the trigger finger or the thumb. Minolta employs front and rear master input dials which operate in concert with a variety of function buttons. As with previous designs, the set-and-forget functions (motordrive modes, etc) are mostly located inside the door-type flap which opens to accept Minolta's plug-in expander cards. Adjustments to these settings can be made using either the front or rear input dials and it's not necessary to hold the function button down at the same time, so flying the 700si doesn't require the manual dexterity of an octopus.
While the fourth-generation Dynax may not offer anything dramatically new in terms of technology, it's bristling which facilities which make full user of the latest developements in autofocusing and auto exposure control.
Focusing is based on a wide-area rangefinder which employs four CCD arrays, arranged to enable the detection of both vertical and horizontal contrast edges or lines. What's more, the sensing area is adjusted automatically to provide optimum subject coverage when the camera is vertically oriented.
Each of the four CCD arrays may be engaged independently for selective focusing while the detection of subject movement will result in automatic switching to continuous autofocusing. As with the 7xi, the predictive function takes into account whether the subject is changing either speed or direction (or both), or is travellihng parallel to the viewfinder frame.
A new option on the 700si is the release priority mode (as offered on the 9xi) which enables the shutter to be fired even if the subject isn't precisely in focus. The main advantage here is that the maximum continuous frame advance rate can be achieved as there are no delays -- however slight -- while focusing is locked in. Interestingly, however, Minolta claims the AF system is fast enough, in terms of response times and actuation, to keep up with shooting speeds as fast as three frames per second.
As expected with a camera of this calibre, the AF module's minimum quoted sensitivity is EV -1 (at ISO 100) while a built-in IR illuminator -- with an effective range of seven metres -- assists in even gloomier conditions or when there is insufficient subject contrast. Of course, manual focusing is available if all else fails... which is rare with the 700si.
The AF system is astoundingly quick, very quiet (although not quite in the Canon USM class) and unerringly accurate. The finder image literally snaps into focus and it's rare for there to be any hesitation or hunting.
No less extensive are the 700si's metering and exposure control facilities. There are three metering options starting with the 14-segment multi-zone system introduced with the 7xi. Thirteen separately metered segments are arranged in a honeycomb pattern -- so each zone is uniformly sized and shpaed -- which effectively covers the frame area and extends far closer to the edges than any other pattern. The remaining surrounds constitute the fourteenth zone.
As with the wide-area AF, the multi-zone metering pattern is automaticaly adjusted to match whether the camera is held horizontally or vertically. Subject distance (and size) information is also used to fine-tune the weighting of each honeycomb segment, the sensitivity of which can be `faded' up or down continuously to provide the most appropriate bias.
If the subject moves within the frame, the weighting of the segments fades up or down accordingly! Furthermore, fuzzy logic data processing ensures the adjustment of each segment's sensitivity is achieved smoothly and they aren't just switched on or off.
For more selective metering, spot measurements can be made. The entire metering sensitivity is concentrated on an area accounting for three percent of the total frame area. Conveniently, spot measurements can be made at any stage via the touch of a thumb-operated button (provided on either grip) which automatically overrides the selected metering mode. This additionally brings up a pair of LCD `brackets' in the viewfinder which indicate the spot meter's zone.
The third light measureing option on the 700si is centre-weighted avarage metering which was previously the exclusive domain of the 9xi. This uses all 13 honeycombe segments, but with the bias on the central frame `turned up' so they account for about 80 percent of the meter's sensitivity.
Another metering feature borrowed from the 9xi is what Minolta terms the `metering index.' This is a display which takes the form of a vertical scale (spanning +/- 3.0 EV in half-stop increments) that's superimposed over the viewfinder image on certain occasions. When using the multi-zone meter, the index shows the difference between this measurement and that of a centre-weighted average reading. In other words, it shows the degree of automatical correctin being applied for back or spot-lit subjects. When centre-weighted metering is used, the index indicates the amount of compenation dialled in manually. In the spot metering mode, it shows the difference in brightness levels between consecutive measurements which enables the contrast range to be easily gauged. Finally, the metering index is guides manual exposure by showing the difference between the selected and recommended settings.
If exposure control is left totally to the camera, a continuously-variable program mode (Minolta calls it `Expert Program') determines the most appropriate combination of aperture and shutter speed based on subject classification. In addition to metering data and lens focal length, this process takes into account the subject's distance, its size and location within the frame and whether any movement is detected. Using these factores, the 700si selects one of four basic scene classifications -- portrait, landscape, close-up or action -- and the program line is adjusted accordingly to give greater depth-of-field or freeze movement.
At any point it's possible to quickly switch to either of teh semi-auto exposure modes and take full manual control of tpaertures or speeds (simply use the appropriate control dial) which the exposure value is maintained. In other words, this is a program shift facility which gives the option of making speed or aperture biased adjustments. These shits can be made in half-stop increments.
If all this isn't enough, compensation (plus/minus three stops), AE lock and built-in exposure bracketing are available for further fine-tuning. The AEB function fires off three frames in quick succession with plus and minus half a stop variation over the metered exposure. Previusly, this luxury was only available via a plug-in expander card, but Minolta appears to now favour incorporating more features as standard so the 700si also has a double exposure facility built-in.
Varying degrees of automation are available for flash photography using the 700si's built-in unit or a new dedicated accessory gun, designated the 5400HS.
The built-in unit has a metric guide number of 12 (ISO 100) and provides wider subject coverage than before. This is now equivalent to the angle-of-view of a 24mm lens, presumably to match the 24-85mm zoom which has been added to the choice of standard lenses (more about this lens shortly).
In program mode, flash operation is fully automatic, but the unit needs to be manually popped up and folded down. Obviously it's also possible to leave the unit raised by switched off, or alternatively it can be manulally fired for fill-in purposes. Red-eye reduction (via the favoured Minolta method of pulsed pre-flashes), slow-speed sync and flash exposure compensation (again over plus/minus three stops) are additional facilites. In the semi-auto and manual modes, flash operation is on demand and the maximum sync speed is 1/200 second.
Not so with the Program Flash 5400HS -- a new version of the existing 5400xi. When operating at shutter settings higher than the Minolta's x-sync speed, it delivers a 50HZ pulsed output thereby enabling flash synchronisation up to the 1/8000 second maximum. The pulsed illumincation has the effect of creating a continuous light output which starts just before the shutter opens, continues while the subject is `scanned' by the shutter's vertically-travelling aperture `slit' and finishes after the shutter closes. The 5400HS switches to HSS (high speed sync) mode automatically when a speed higher than 1/200 second is selected and a short `pre-burst' enables fully automatica exposure control to be retained.
The 5400HS also offeres a `modelling flash' mode which employs mulit-burst firings -- so the position and size of shadows can be visually gauged. There's the option of low-frequency series of stronger flashes for use in portraiture or a high-frequency burst of low-power flashes for close-up situations. A pulsed output is also used to permit TTL auto exposure control with the 5400HS located remotely off-camera and teh output can be set to give a lighting ratio of 2:1 with the built-in unit.
The 5400HS has a tilt/pan head with a 24-105mm zoom range and also incorporates an AF illuminator for low-light AF assist. It's worth noting the 5400HS can be used with a variety of Dynax series models dating back to the 8000i and including the full xi-series range, but the high-speed shutter sync is only available on the Dynax 700si.
The 700si has quite a number of features in common with the 7xi including the 1/8000 second shutter, auto start up and a high eyepoint viewfinder, but the list of facilities which are new to this level is impressively long.
These include depth-of-field preiview, interchangeable focusing screens (a choice of three), a zoom focal length indicator in the viewfinder (also shown in hte external LCD display), and on/off switch for the auto start facility (loug applause), a panorama mode indicator and a memory function.
The latter is a brand new feature which alloes specific camera set-ups to be memorised and then recalled at the push of a button. This encompasses focus, metering, exposure, drive and flash modes plus the focus area and features such as the self-timer and the double exposure facility.
Also new is a high-speed film rewind mode (faster threading is also possible) which takes just eight seconds to retrieve a 24-exposure length. Going in the opposite direction, continuous frame advance is possible at up to three frames per second (which, incidently, is one fps slower than the 7xi).
In keeping with current design trends, the 700si has a quiter film transport which uses a motor mounted on timy polymer shock absorbers to help reduce both noise and viration. Minolta claims the 700si is 60 percent quieter overall than the third generation Dynax models and while much of the motor noise is undoubtedly muted, it's still not sufficiently quiet to go entirely unnoticed.
No new expander cards accompany the Dynax 700si -- as already mentioned the emphasis is on built-in facilities -- but the camera is compatible with around a dozen of the existing modules. The most useful are those which provide more extensive exposure bracketing functions, multi-spot readings (up to eight readins can be made) and an intervalometer.
There's rather more activity in the lens system with five new zooms of which the most interesting is the 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 mentioned earlier. Given its focal range and wide-angle capabilities, this zoom is remarkably compact (73mm long) and lightweight (400grams) with minimum focusing down to 50cm. Also noteworthy is a 100-300mm f4.5-5.6 APO zoom which is just over 100 mm in length and weighs in at 420 grams.
The Dynax 700si is a dynamite package in just about every department and if the competition had been lulled into a false sense of security by the recent lack of AF SLR activity from Minolta, this camera must come as something of a rude shock.
It's brilliantly well conceived and very well executed; the strong points being the handling (especially in concert with the vertical control grip) and the more advanced mix of features and facilities. Only the most pernickety will find something to comlaing about (OK, so a mirror lock-up is perhaps the only notable omission given the new Dynax is now in the big league) and Minolta has clearly given a lot of thought to the requirements of the end-user. The 700si represents applied automation and its a dream to use as a result. Nikon in particular should take a close look at this camera if it's contemplating a revised version of the F90.
Needless to note, the 700si reliably and consistently delivered the goods performance-wise and the refinements to the honeycomb metering system make it very hard to fool, even in the most extreme situations. The AF system is equally competent. Built-in exposure bracketing, instant switching to spot metering, Av or Tv-biased program shift, depth-of-field preview and the other new goodies are all icing on what is already a very sweet cake indeed. Sampling will almost certainly create an appetite.