I want to tell you about one of my most beloved cameras. So small, so delicate, so powerful. My precious Minox 35 GT-E. This might sound like a clichéd addict introduction to a support group in American movie – but I suppose that’s what it is. I started with just a couple of film cameras I now have twenty of them. And I can’t stop, as they are all different, all offer different capabilities and provide different ways to have fun! And they all look cool as well. Addiction indeed…
In my “digital days” speed and precision of autofocus were the main ways to measure camera and lens quality. As I dived deeper into this hobby, I found out that “sharpness” and “bokeh” are not equal to “beauty”. Then I slowly switched to old manual lenses on my digital cameras, as I liked the resulting images much more.
At first I was terrified of losing autofocus. But then I realized that for my subjects it was not that important. Old good tricks like focus traps or focusing with camera movement, work just as fine – just as they did half a century ago. Then there was the next step. I switched to film completely and it felt so good that I’ve never looked back – you can read my previous article about my conversion to film here.
For a long time after conversion to film I still believed that shallow DoF and precise focusing were critical. But one day I browsed my photos, looked at the subjects and compositions. And I felt that this limitation may also be an illusion, just like the others.
Half of my photos were at infinity. No need for focusing at all.
25% were focused with such focal length and distance combination where precision is not required. I could focus half a meter closer or further and my subject would still be in focus.
20% more required some precision but that could easily be avoided by stopping down. And the picture, despite of loss of some separation/bokeh, would actually look better.
Only 5% of the photographs I take actually require the feature I thought was most important. 1 out of 20. Two per roll. Close-ups or indoor portraits. Well, I have some cameras and lenses chosen specifically for portraiture and macro. Why not to find a camera for the rest of my photography now?
So what camera do I need? What features should It have? First of all it must be portable. I missed plenty of shots when I didn’t have my camera with me. And about as much opportunities were lost when I thought it would take too long to take my camera out of bag and set it up. So it must be not just portable, but pocketable.
The second thing is related to the first. It is strange to hear from me, but I must say it. It must include some form of auto exposure. Manual metering is not hard at all, and it is much more precise than any automatic system, including modern ones. But it takes time. I need that precision much less often than I need to make the shot quickly.
The camera must not be too expensive either, as everyday usage is everyday risk. And it should be pretty hard wearing too.
So, pocketable and relatively inexpensive camera with auto exposure. And, for the first time ever, scale focus is a viable option for me.
There are plenty of contenders checking all the boxes.
Should I go back to digital? Something like Micro 4/3 or even Nikon 1 come to mind. Or maybe a good smartphone camera, like the latest Huawei or Apple?
No, never. First of all I actually believe that aesthetics of film images cannot be reproduced or even reliably emulated by digital sensors and RAW processing. And it takes longer to tune RAW than to scan a negative.
“Computational photography” of smartphones is even less attractive. Their Artificial Idiot always produces the results it wants, not those I want. And when I disable all the bells and whistles, I am back at square one: tiny sensor, infinite DoF, etc. No, I want a real camera, not three holes drilled through a boot sole.
Half-frame? Well, that was a tempting idea. Olympus Pen or soviet-era Chayka are fine cameras. But I love high resolution and film with fine grain is so expensive nowadays… I might try half-frames one day, but now I want a full size 135 format camera.
Small autofocus compacts, like Olympus Mju? Big No. Those ancient autofocus systems miss all the time, aiming at infinity when target is close and vise versa. I have no idea why and I don’t really care. And you can’t see that until you scan the roll. Even scale focusing is more precise.
This left me with two main options: The Rollei 35 and Minox 35. The Minox is cheaper and easier to obtain, so it was my obvious first choice.
Is the Minox 35 GT-E good?
Oh yes it is. The Minox 35 GT-E lens is sharp from f/5.6 to f/8. Very sharp. It clearly out-resolves most of the consumer-grade monochrome film and all the cheap color film. It is only slightly softer at f/2.8-4, so you can use it in low light situations with ISO400 film with no issue.
Under the very bright light you may close down to f/11, but loss of sharpness is more obvious there. Try to avoid f/16 at all costs.
Auto Exposure works like a charm, even with scenes of high contrast. It fails where all they do: in low or bright uniform light. But you can’t do anything about that.
The 35mm focal length is very comfortable, viewfinder is big and bright.
My favorite film to use with the Minox 35 GT-E is Ilford Delta 100, as it has just enough resolution and still has plenty of character, unlike finer-grade films. And is not prohibitively expensive.
Is it bad?
What’s bad about the Minox 35 GT-E? Nothing really. Just avoid pressing too hard on the back of the camera. It’s plastic, so it bends easily. You won’t break it, but you can actually bend a pressure plate on the inside. I’ve seen quite a few complaints of soft images from Minox cameras, and I’d bet most of them were because of bent pressure plates. In most cases I could repair them by bending them back against a hard surface.
Shutters and diaphragms are also said to be prone to damage, but I think that claim is exaggerated. Just avoid ML model. It has P-mode, so its shutter is more complicated, as it doubles as a diaphragm in this mode. And it has a normal diaphragm too, for aperture-priority, so the risk is twice as high as with any other Minox.
Tips and tricks
I’ve tried quite a few ways to measure distance to a subject. The most straightforward is a dedicated rangefinder. Russian ‘Blik’ is easy enough to use, tiny and costs next to nothing. Try it.
Another option is to train your eyesight. The human brain is surprisingly good at this, you can do it instinctively. Try the following: measure distance in your own heights, or any other real units well known to you. I measure in umbrellas, for example.
Try a Minox 35 GT-E, or at very least try scale focusing, if you haven’t already. It’s not as scary as it seems.
And if you want to see more of my work, with this camera or some other, welcome to my Instagram.
See you there!