My journey back to film, by now I’m sure, is a common enough story; however it still surprises me every time I think about it.
As a child of the 70’s and 80’s with photography as one of the things we all did in our house, I was fascinated with cameras and used to handle my father’s Zeiss Ikon Ikonta and my brother’s Olympus OM-1 with reverence.
When I was lucky enough to afford my own first serious camera – a Minolta 7000 in 1988, it was like something from the future with its auto-focus and built-in motor drive. I subsequently moved on to Canon and has a few EOS cameras in the 1990’s. Like a lot of my peers in the 2000s, I (unwisely, as it turns out) ditched my film gear and moved to the world of digital where I have been for the last twenty years.
In late 2020, the camera club I’m a member of held a €20 film camera challenge and I bought a Nikon F65 on eBay for £15, shot a roll of Portra 160 and to say I was stunned by a) the quality of the images and b) by how much I enjoyed the whole experience is an understatement.
Researching the right camera, hunting for the best one at a good price and then bidding for the camera was great fun. I also enjoyed looking at the different film options and selecting what I thought would suit – the fact that film was still available and that there were a number of options in colour and black & white really surprised me.
Even more enjoyable was the shooting experience – the slow-down in taking pictures, the fact that it took me a couple of outings to get through a roll of film and then the anticipation of waiting for the scanned images to come through was such a different experience to blatting off 100’s of shots on an outing and then the instant gratification of either chimping on the back of the camera or loading into Lightroom and scanning through the shots. My initial films were colour with a few black and white – to my surprise, I have started to process and scan my own negatives and now shoot nearly exclusively in B&W. Re-learning the art of processing after a gap of 35 years was great and I really enjoy the anticipation of waiting to see the initial preview of the scans on the laptop.
Since that initial road to Damascus film moment for me, I have ended up repeating the experience many times – researching and purchasing cameras and trying out different types of film. Where I can see value, I am looking at Nikon and Minolta SLRs. While I can see the attraction of point & shoots and rangefinder cameras, my photography DNA is rooted in SLRs going back a long way and I’m perhaps a bit blinkered in that respect. When you consider what excellent SLRs (and how many of them) you can buy for the price of a Contax T2..…perhaps that’s for another article.
This brings me to the Minolta XE1. I spotted one of these when leaving in my Nikon FE for a CLA. The guy in the repair shop had one on his desk and when I picked it up, I could immediately tell that this camera was different to anything I had seen before and in a class of its own above any of my other Minolta’s or Nikons (with the possible exception of my F3). When I got home later that day, I started to do a bit of research on the XE and learned all about the Leica / Minolta partnership that produced the XE. When I looked at the specifications, they were nothing to write home about and were in line with much of the competition at the time; electronic operation, aperture priority function, shutter speeds of 4 seconds to 1/1000th of a second, exposure compensation +/- 2 stops and using the Minolta CLC standard exposure metering (two readings -high and low and averaging). It uses the standard 1.5v LR/SR44 batteries (thankfully!) and has a very nice film advance indicator on the back of the camera.
I started to look for a good example for sale and was surprised and pleased to see that these very excellent cameras were available for less than €100. I found a German site selling one in what looked like excellent condition for €89, purchased it and eagerly awaited its arrival. It arrived a few weeks later and I was delighted with the condition – literally mint without so much as a mark on the base plate. The viewfinder was clear and bright, the shutter speeds at least sounded correct and the exposure meter measured up well against my DSLR meter. What is most evident when you hold the camera in your hands, operate the winder and the shutter release is the quality of the materials and construction that went into making the camera – there is a noticeable increase in quality over and above other similar cameras of its time.
I paired the XE1 with a Minolta 28mm 2.8 MD I had been using on my X-700, loaded in a roll of Ilford FP4 and shot the roll over the next few weeks in a few locations. The camera was a joy to use and feels absolutely natural in the hands. It is relatively large and heavy but still lighter and smaller than one of today’s DSLRs. The size and weight give it a solid, reassuring feel rather than it feeling like hanging a rock around your neck.
When I made my way through the film and processed/scanned , I was delighted with the results – exposures were correct and the lens had given me very sharp results with great contrast.
What would I improve on this camera ??? Probably nothing to be honest (other than what they did with the XD perhaps). I can’t understand why this camera and Minolta cameras in general seem to be sleepers in the re-emergence of film photography. It may be because the brand no longer exists ? It has to be remembered that Minolta were true innovators through several generations of cameras through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and their massive lens and accessory infrastructure was the match of other manufacturers of the time.
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16 thoughts on “5 Frames With a Minolta XE1 on Ilford FP4 – By Conor O’Brien”
I think to remember the problem with the XEs is often the pneumatic mirror damper. When the seal breaks shutter times become random, both automatic and manual ones. But other than that an adorable camera (spoken from experience).
Minolta cameras were sometimes disregarded for the wrong reasons. E.g. the Maxxum/Dynax 7 was aimed at the professional market as was rediculed by camera magazines for the pop up flash which was never intended for lighting but to synch studio flashes without speciality gear (Minollta used their own hot shoe setup already)
Hi Martin – I’ve had a bit of luck with my XE and its exposure has been spot on. I can’t understand why Minolta’s are not getting any recognition in the re-emergence of film. Only advantage is that their excellent camera bodies and lenses are available at reasonable prices
I enjoyed your account of discovering the Minolta XE-1 and certainly the quality of your photos on FP-4.
Like you, I came to Minolta (SLR, at least) and discovered that “sleeper” quality a bit late, having accumulated most of my experience with a variety of other makes. I was fortunate in finding a very clean, truly like new, XD-S and a couple MD Rokkor lenses plus motor drive all in that well-cared-for condition, from a Japanese seller, and I found the shooting experience and results – even with slide film – really lovely.
I mention this in the event, now that you have embraced Minolta, you decide you may want to add a companion body. The XD-S (Japanese market only; goes by other numbers elsewhere) has that wonderful combination of compactness and solid feel, such that even with motor drive, it is not a “rock” around your neck.
Wishing you lots of pleasurable shooting,
Thanks Steve-I really enjoyed using the XE – lovely camera to use. I’ve already embraced other Minoltas and have managed to get my hands on an XD7 – I’ve still to put it though its paces and yes, it is a bit lighter to hold ok
Very nice look at a little appreciated Minolta. I have an old XE7, the North American version, and it’s a fantastic hunk of metal. Thanks for writing — and photographing — this.
Thanks Gil – yes – you can really appreciate the engineering when you hold it and use any of the buttons. I often wonder how much it would cost to buy a camera of that quality, made from the same materials in today’s money
Nice article and pictures! I am also a owner of an XE and very happy with it as I wanted a quality feeling and tactile feeling that comes close to my Leica experience. I am curious on how it compares to the Minolta XD and also the f3 with respect to quality in use, build and viewfinder (it seems XD brighter and better for focus) . Have a good day.
Hi Marius – I haven’t used the XD7 enough to comment on usability etc., In terms of handling, the XD7 is physically smaller and while it has a high quality feel to it, the XE is definitely more solid and quite unlike any camera I’ve had . My F3 is also a beautiful camera to hold and to use and its hard to compare one to the other but the XE, to my mind, is on a par with it. The XE and XD both have 94% viewfinder coverage and appear to be very similar to me. In terms of focus, I didn’t have any issues with focus with the XE – will be interesting to see if the XD is the same or better
Of all the Minoltas I’ve owned, the XE-1 was, and is, probably my favourite.
I have focused on Minolta since I was 14 years old (in 1972), because my camera store owner demonstrated the superiority of Rokkor optics over anything else that came from Japan. and I still do to this day, having gone through a sizable collection of Minolta (and Sony) gear.
The XE-1 is possibly the most sensible professional-grade camera they ever made. The XM Motor, with the AE-S Finder, matched it in terms of feeling substantial, but the XE-1 simply made more sense.
You’ll find that the XD-7 (of which I have two) has a noticeably brighter viewfinder — in my opinion, that’s the most important difference between the XD-7 and the XE-1 . I know it’s smaller, lighter, and has a multimode automatic exposure, but most of us don’t care about shutter priority AE.
I use the XE-1 for favourable lighting conditions, with ISO100 film or slower. For ISO320 and ISO400, I’ll use the XD-7 or the X-700, and for anything over ISO400 (when light becomes an issue for my 64 year old eyes), I rely on autofocus, and I’ll use the Dynax 800si.
Hi Peter – I have to agree regarding the XE1 – its a super camera. Looking forward to getting out with the XD-7 and comparing with the XE. Interesting approach to camera selection and film speed – I generally shoot on ISO100 as I suffer from grain and sharpness OCD !
> I suffer from grain and sharpness OCD !
You should try ADOX HR-50 and… wait, you rely on a lab, right?
There are two reasons why I decided to take up my own development again — cost (especially scanning is prohibitively expensive) and my obsessive need for control over the end result.
I’ve spent less than 500 euros on the stuff needed to do my own development and scanning, and I now get better results than any lab could possibly offer me — not only because I have… lemme see… fifty years of experience developing film (and a decade or so of scanning it), but also, and mainly, because as an amateur I can afford to spend time on it until the result is what I want. 🙂
Having said that, I get excellent results with ADOX HR-50 film and ADOX XT-3 developer.
This is an entire frame from the XE-1 using the above combination
and this is a one-to-one crop
For some images, you really want a fine grain and maximum sharpness. I wanted to be able to feel the softness of the nappa leather for this one (from the same roll as the two above):
But sometimes, being able to scoop the grain off the photo doesn’t harm the image at all! This is Tri-X, developed in Rodinal, so a very… masculine grain, but I don’t find it disturbing at all. And while the lines per millimeter are definitely less than on the above examples, I don’t find it “not sharp enough”.
And sometimes, you have a dull scene and you want to jazz up the contrast a bit… so you take a fast film, push it a bit over box speed, and adjust development accordingly. This is a Delta 400, exposed at ISO800, and pushed in (again) ADOX XT-3 (which is really my goto developer).
It may be worth it to take a look at different approaches. 🙂
I’m thinking maybe I should do my own “5 frames”…
Great comments and super photos and yes – worth doing your own 5 frames.
Totally get your points about sharpness and grain dynamics, I am processing and scanning my own negs – just started again recently after a gap of 35 years (oh God I’m old). I have REALLY enjoyed doing my own processing, although I have yet to get it right. The ones in my 5 frames were processed and scanned at home and I’m reasonably pleased with the results. You can see some dust and micro-hairs on some of the scans, but I’m working on getting the negs as clear as possible !
Oooo. You should try ADOX HR-50 and soak it in XTOL… or in ADOX XT3, which is a direct replacement for XTOL, and just as good. Maybe I should write my own 5 frames…
Having said that, I have a couple pictures from that roll where I thought “ok, I should really have pushed an ISO400 film for this shot to add some drama”.
Totally agree, xe is a great cam. Getting harder to find a good one, I lucked out a few years ago. The weight and brilliant rokkor glass (in my case 55 1.4) makes for such amazingly sharp images. I recently discovered the multi exposure switch, lots of new creative avenues to explore. Thanks for the review!
I switched from an XE to a Leicaflex SL2.
Definitely an upgrade…. But probably mostly the lenses… And it’s built like a tank.
Hi Chris – Just looking at the Leicaflex there. Nice camera and looks like it would survive most things you throw at it