Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More gems from the past - The Minolta 800si & 700si - a brief review





Introduction

As a film enthusiast, the recent news that Fujifilm is ceasing to produce its medium format version of its Neopan 400 black and white film came to me as a bit of a shock. There are an increasing number of photographers' long loved films disappearing from the market as technology advances and digital photography exponentially improves and provides results which are surpassing film in certain areas. Yet many photographers won't let go of their traditional roots and find in fact that in many aspects and applications, film still provides the better or more suitable results. But in honesty, if I look back at my own work, the vast majority is now digital based. But I won't pass an opportunity ever to put one of my favourite films into a nicely crafted camera and go out and hunt for images.

As we all know, the upside for those who still appreciate film and its virtues (and its flaws) is that nicely crafted film cameras have tumbled down in price (with a few small exceptions). For those who still want a film based system, the price of a digital camera, despite its own price falls, still pays for a film camera, lenses and even for a film scanner and/or film developing equipment.
Personally, film keeps me in touch with proper technique, requires from me that I concentrate more while out taking photos and I still appreciate more the results I get out of film, it still possesses a certain quality that it still attracts me that bit more.


Owning a Alpha mount system myself, I am a proud owner of a pretty much in excellent condition Minolta 7D and Minolta Dynax 5 film camera, with a Sony A700 now taking the roster place of the 7D, which is a great camera in its own right. But my affinity with film took me to a search for a film camera that could match my 7D or A700 in build and performance (don't get me wrong, the Dynax 5 in some aspects matches the 7D in performance, but it's size is a bit of a problem for my mediumish largish hands). I was looking for a film Dynax 7, but these cameras were most of the times either over my budget in the secondhand market or they would be whisked away almost as soon as they appeared. So I started looking for alternatives and came across the Minolta Dynax 800si and 700si by accident one day, while out taking pictures. I spotted a well built camera with a Minolta badge on its tall prism on the hands of a photographer that did not look like any Minolta known to me, so I approached the man and asked a few questions. I held it for a while and was very impressed.He also had a 700si with him. I went to the internet, looked for information on both cameras and decided to make a few bids on Ebay.


I only wanted one....honest!


I, in all honesty, just wanted one camera (although some people will snigger at this statement) and I wanted one with a grip. I was informed by a forum user that the 700si grip is the same as the grip for the 800si. Still, I looked for an 800si with grip and it was a difficult find. I kept on finding more often the 700si with the VC-700 vertical grip. I spotted one in nice condition that seemed to be ignored by most bidders and I put a bid and won. My intention was to take the grip for the eventuality of buying an 800si and sell the 700si. Well, the 700si is still with me, albeit sans grip. Which leads us to first impressions.

The 800si with grip


Add Image
The 700si with grip

First Impressions


The Body

The 800si had already made an impression on me when I handled one in that casual meet, it is a solidly built camera with a nice rubberized hand grip finish versus the 700si's smooth plastic grip.
In fact, if the 800si is standing out for you from the onset, that is not because of any bias it is simply because it is an upgrade to the 700si as such it is expected to excel in many areas over its predecessor, but it is also the way the upgrades were implemented. The cameras in many respects are the same.

Both cameras feature on the grip the grip sensor (from the days before grip sensor components fell fowl of EU regulations) and the eye start AF, both of which can be deactivated from a switch in the lower back of the camera. To the front, the 800si also sports a synch socket versus none for the 700si, which gives the 800si a more professional look and feel. This feature is added to the 700si when the grip is mounted (PC socket in VC-700 grip), for 800si users this gives you an extra PC socket. Then there's that massive prism on the 800si, which we will get to in the features section. The 800si is also apparently weather sealed, giving further professional credence.

From the top, on both cameras the LCD top panel is very informative and the whole top plate and controls are near identical. The small differences are that the 700si sports a mode button to the left hand side above the user memories button and the 800si has two separate buttons, one for mode which allows you to shift between the usual M/P/A/S modes and the other for Program Modes. Choosing a Program Mode and then choosing M can also give the user an program shift mode.

The back of both cameras is also nearly identical except for the metering/AEL button which on the 700si pressing it gives the user spot metering/slow synch and on the 800si AEL/slow synch. For the rest it is identical with an AF button just under the metering button, film window to the left hand side and to the bottom, film rewind button and next to this the Eye-Start on/off switch.

From the front, the cameras are once again near identical, except that the 800si's flash button also allows you to adjust flash output while on the 700si the user has to press this button plus the exposure compensation button simultaneously. There is an AF illuminator in both cameras next to the grip (I wonder why the 7D did not feature this!).The AF/MF toggle switch located to the lower left of the camera next to the lens mount.

The 700si features the Minolta card expansion slot in a door to the right side of the camera to add more features to the camera, but to the experienced photographer, the camera features more than enough features and controls to warrant the use of an expansion card. This is a feature that many felt was a step in the wrong direction from Minolta, but still in my view it doesn't detract from the excellent tool that this camera is. On this door in both cameras, once opened, there are also a more controls for a number of different functions such as flash modes (wireless flash including), single-continuous shot and AF,ISO adjust, card eject (700si), film data memory (800si). To the right side and bottom there is also a remote port on both cameras.

Overall, top marks for both cameras in terms of build, with the 800si ahead.


"...looking back it's so bizarre...it runs in the family..." Level42
Rugged good looks and build quality run in the family. Taken with the Sony A700, missing the Dynax 5 and the 5000i only came to me for a bit of TLC.



Features and use

Yes, the tall prism of the 800si. It is apparently, even to this day, the most powerful built in flash of any 35mm camera ever with a GN of 14-20 (m) covering 24-80mm. As you first put batteries in the camera or when switching on the camera after a period of time, you will hear it charging with a sound akin to a sensor shake and a little vibration, clearly making a statement about its power (alongside two paralel smooth bumps on top of it akin to the hood of a muscle car). It means business and makes a statement about it on power up. The 700si's flash on the other hand is what you would expect from a 35mm SLR of semi-pro grade with a GN of 12m covering 24mm.

The AF system is very prompt, if not perhaps helped by the Eye-Start feature, but even with this feature off, I felt that the 800si is very responsive and edges over the 700si in this respect. For street work, I found that the area AF can work very well including with subjects coming towards the camera, but still perhaps for those busier scenes, keep to zone focussing or hyperfocal focussing. In use, I found the mirror of both cameras to be decisively on the louder side, giving both reassurance that you got a frame and catching the attention of your subject, not helped by the fact that the DOF preview sounds as loud if not louder. The 700si has more of a “clack” quality to it, perhaps because it's body is a little less robust than the 800si and the weather sealing of the 800si perhaps providing a bit more sound insulation. A few times I wondered if I took a shot without pressing the shutter button. Both cameras can transport film at 3 frames per second and a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000. Both also synchronize the flash at 1/200. The viewfinder is bright and a pleasure to view through on both cameras with a very informative display on the bottom. The only downside in my opinion is that the AF points are not illuminated, but of an LCD type, which in the dark can be an issue. And since we are on the subject of illumination, the top panel of the 800si illuminates as light levels fall.

When used with the grip changing between both is virtually seamless, the 700si with the grip still weighs a little less, but the contoured shape of the back of both is the same and handling remains almost unchanged. The 800si once again edges because it feels more solid and the rubberized grip on the camera makes it feel a little safer in hand. But if you are weight conscious, the 700si in use is your horse. Of course, this is all subjective.

The features behind the little door on the right, are there if you need them and despite many arguing the need to have concealed features behind a door, I found that I rarely needed to use them and when I do, I only need to set them once, close the door and forget about it. It also keeps the camera body tidy and less distracting. I haven't gone through all the concealed control features on both cameras, but they seem feature rich, if you are a dedicated film shooter, you will feel as if you don't need another camera (unless of course you are like me and needs all and any of them ;) , or being the more reasonable kind and wanting two different types of film set to go).

The metering led me to slight frustration at times....not because it was bad, but because it did echo the word on the internet that it is uncannily accurate on both cameras. In part, by fault of mine, as I am sometimes lazy to just press that little button and take a spot or center weighted metering and leave the camera to it's own very accurate devices. Most of the times I do not have the time either and sometimes think of post processing (yes, digital will finally get to you!). If accurate exposures is what your work is 100% about, then both cameras will, I am tempted to say, never disappoint you (but nothing is perfect).

The grip, which has been mentioned so often along this review, is the VC-700 which features shutter and aperture controls,spot/slow synch button,AF button, shutter release button, PC Synch Socket,tripod socket and finally grip on/off. It can take 'AA' or 2CR5 batteries albeit Minolta does not recommend Lithium 'AA' types. It is a nice grip,solid, but I feel that it could be more solid and I feel the same of the material improved grip of the 7D. Sony addressed this in their current range of Alpha mount cameras and the grips are as solid and feature rich as the cameras.


In Conclusion...

The continuous price drops of digital have driven the prices of such great film cameras to ever lowering depths and now is the time to grab yourself some great and legendary photographic equipment. For the film enthusiast, it's heaven out there as the choices are immense. But in retrospect, film equipment was a tad cheaper a while ago and as people realised that their film lenses will work almost flawlessly with their digital equipment, some film equipment has also increased in price. As such, many cameras, including the ones in this review will be hard to find with decent lenses. Most are sold without or with cheaper lenses. Nevertheless, good professional film equipment can be had on a small budget. Both cameras in this review together came to £130 in near pristine condition. For an existing owner of a lens system this is a treat.

As for recommendations for what camera to go for in this review, it's a bit unfair to say the 800si, as it is after all an upgrade to the 700si. As tools, you will get the same results from either, it is simply that one is an improved tool, as such I would personally award a 'highly recommended' to both as in many respects, the choice will be subjective, but I do have to point out that the AF in the 800si seems faster even though it is apparently the same system as well as the very powerful built in flash can make all the difference when you can't travel with much more than just a camera and lens.
The only hope for now is that companies that produce film keep improving available film emulsions
and keep film 'out phasing' to a minimum.



Some Test Samples



Until next time,


Luis

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