Which Minolta camera to choose?
This is an old article about film cameras from a defunct brand; it has little relevance for most people today. Still published for historical reasons!
A hard choice
From time to time, a question arises: which is the best Minolta? The 9 must be best, because it was the last analog "pro" camera? How about the 9xi as a lower cost -- but still "pro" -- alternative? How does the earlier and later cameras fit into all this? Luckily, I am here to tell you all about it. ;-)
The name game
Minolta have a pretty understandable naming scheme, with some easy-to-learn exceptions. A camera whose model number begins with a "9" is intended for professional use. If it's "7", it's meant for the market called "advanced amateurs". Basically, the "7" model has all the bells and whistles while the "9" is built to last. Then the numbers go downward, 6 5 4 3 2, with the lowest number being the simplest beginner's model. There were three "9" models; 9000 (1986), 9xi (1992) and 9 (1998). The "7" models were 7000, 7000i, 7xi, 700si, and 7 (I am not counting the 70 -- more about that later). So, five camera generations, one "9" model released every second generation, with six years in between. Easy to learn, no?
Then, of course, there are some notable exceptions. There has only been one "2" model, the 2xi, and it was arguably more interesting than its sister model 3xi as it had a spot meter (but lacked built-in flash). The 600si was the first "6" model, basically intended as a test model for the classic knob-and-wheel interface used on the later 9 and intended for the same market as the 700si but strangely with some odd feature omissions (no program shift, slow focusing); and the last Minolta film cameras, the Dynax 40 and 60 (sold as Maxxum 50 and 70 in the states) should really be called 40 and 50 in all markets, as the feature list and target market doesn't deserve a "6" or "7" name. But I digress. Let's talk about the best Minoltas.
The 9, the last professional film Minolta, is built to last. Heavy metal chassis, stainless steel cover panels, quality everywhere. It fits the hand like a glove, it has the best vertical grip ever made. If you ever hold one, you will immediately desire it; if you are anything like me, which I for your sake hope you're not, you will need it and run out and buy it. Unfortunately, this camera comes at a high price even on the used market and is heavy like a tank. Clearly not for everyone. Are there other alternatives?
The first "9 class" Minolta, the 9000, was groundbreaking at the time. Notably the only autofocus camera ever built lacking a built-in motor drive (two different external winding options exist, however), it is one of the quietest Minoltas, and also runs forever on just two AA (R6) batteries. The center-weighted metering is a little dated, but it's adequate and reliable and spot metering exists as an option. The interface is good, it's pretty light and small without the motor drive, the quality and survivability is great, and it can be found for very low prices. Fatal drawbacks: slow autofocus, not great weather sealing, and no built-in flash as a backup. More information about the 9000 can be found at www.9000.org. OK, so I love this camera...
Then there is the 9xi. Not the newest pro camera, and not the oldest, with a futuristic and very attractive look and an alluring set of features, at a very very nice price on the used market. Certainly this is the perfect camera, right? Wrong. I have never liked this camera; I really wanted to like it though, and I still own one, so it's not all bad. A built-in motor drive with 4.5 fps, fast AF (but lousy tracking), adequate handgrip and can't-be-killed construction due to a polycarbonate body on metal chassis. The last point also leads to arguably the most weatherproof Minolta ever produced; there are very few openings, buttons and seams in the body. However, it lacks a vertical grip, it has worse light metering than later Minolta cameras (14 zones but not as refined algorithms, leading to underexposure in some cases) and one of the more bizarre user interfaces ever put into a camera. It really can't be explained, you'll have to try it out, but it's not like other cameras; it's also unfortunately not easy to like and very inconsistent. I use my sample as a travel camera when I'm afraid I may lose it.
Last, but not least, we have the 7. Ah, the 7. What? Not a "9 class" camera? No -- but the most refined camera ever released for film. Everything oozes attention to detail and every feature is there for a reason -- or what about the large information display at the back, auto rotating depending on how the camera is held? At first seen as just a gadget, it is indispensible for tripod work, and it is also backlit. Oh, and the light stays on for the whole exposure if activated before the exposure in B mode, counting the seconds for your convenience. Only a small detail, probably never found by a majority of its owners, but it's an example of the tremendous input real photographers must have had into this camera. Technically and controllability-wise the best photographic tool ever produced (not only counting Minolta!), its only drawback is the rather high noise the mirror/shutter mechanism makes and the fact that the outer polycarbonate shell won't stand up to abuse in the same way as a 9. On the other hand, you won't freeze your fingers off on a polycarbonate body which is a real threat with the 9 when it's minus thirty degrees Celsius outside!
There are of course lots of other models, each with their own good points and drawbacks. Notable models are the 600/700/800si cameras, combining good performance with good prices (but, to me, so-so interfaces), the 7xi (having much of the 9xi in it but sadly lacking depth-of-field preview) and the 5 (low cost, good performance, the best Minolta beginner's model). Read more about all models at Michael Hohner's excellent Minolta site.
Wrapping it up
So, to sum it up, if I was to recommend a photographic tool I would recommend the 7. It's the pinnacle of film cameras and an absolute joy to use. If I was to recommend a camera, however, I would choose the 9; it has all the feeling the 7 lacks. On a budget, it's close between the 9xi and the 9000. Of course the newer camera is more desirable, if you can stand the interface. Still, if on a budget I would save up a bit longer and buy the 7; it's so much better it's ridiculous and you will end up with it anyway if you are a Minolta film shooter. It's inevitable.