The camera, lens and film used
5 frames with...

5 Frames with ‘The Worst Lens Minolta Ever Made’ – By Iain Paterson

September 26, 2021

A flurry of budget e-bay purchases since my imagination had been captured by the film photography revival had brought me a prized ragbag of treasures. Amongst them, three items that had been part of bundles or hasty mis-purchases: an untested Minolta Dynax 500si Super SLR whose badly yellowed viewfinder looked barely usable, a Truprint 400 film (to be developed within 24 months according to the foil wrapper in which it was still sealed) and a Minolta 35-80mm 1:4 (22) – 5.6 autofocus zoom lens. These misfits of my small new collection of late-model 35mm kit somehow belonged together, and I was curious to see what could be made of them.

In particular, the lens seems to be universally derided; forum contributors have suggested that it would be useful only as a paperweight (were it not so light) and that it ‘may be the worst zoom with a Minolta logo ever made’. ‘Easily the worst lens I have ever tested’ declares one reviewer. The criticisms generally relate to its softness at most apertures and focal lengths, and to its cheap feel. Opinion is divided on its USP – an integrated lens cap that closes like the doors in a 1970s sci-fi film. How bad could it be? Could it still capture the timeless essence of Launceston, just off the main A30 through Cornwall, but still off the tourist-beaten track?

First, a note on the film, which came bundled together with the camera. Truprint stopped supplying film some years ago, and I can find no definitive information on the date (or source) of manufacture of Truprint 400. The foil outer pack advertises it as a new product, this presumably being at some point after the 1995 launch date of the Minolta Dynax 500si Super. The general advice seems to be to overexpose expired stock by one stop per decade after expiry date, but I conservatively set the ISO to 200 on the Minolta. It seemed to work fine.

Carved granite church wall and clock tower

In general, I was more than happy with the way things turned out. The elaborately carved granite exterior of St Mary Magdalene Church is its unique and celebrated feature, and I think the graininess of the expired film really adds to the sense of its weathered texture. The sun’s unforeseen reflection on the streetlamp was a plus.

Streetlamp reflecting the sun outside large church window
I also like the way the film rendered colours, particularly in the rather seasoned-looking figure outside the service station.

Characterful mascot-type figure outside service station

Yes, the image has grain, and the colours are shifted, but this just seems to nicely accentuate its air of being out of time.

Old overhanging timber shop with flower-laden war memorial in background

The reds particularly have a sort of rich mutedness in the flower arrangement at the foot of the War Memorial in the market square, and in the rooftop photo.

Town Hall Clock Tower with Castle in the Distance
I bracketed some shots at three different apertures to see if stopping down had much effect on the sharpness of the lens, and used focal lengths down to 35mm to see if I could detect its supposed dire softness at wide angle settings, but there was little discernable difference; all results were acceptable – in the context of the shoot – to my eye. Granted, the graininess of expired film might obscure any variations in sharpness and in performance compared to other lenses. The innovative lens cap arrangement did feel flimsy, and inconveniently jammed itself securely half-open at times.

Would I shoot with expired film again? Absolutely, and, as for the lens, this just might be its speciality. As for the yellowed viewfinder – well I might just draw the line there. It was reminiscent of looking at a window display through a 1970s shop window fitted with a yellow PVC shade (anyone?); one retro experience too far.

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  • Reply
    Simon Bayley
    September 26, 2021 at 11:25 am

    Funnily enough I had a somewhat similar experience but using a later Minolta the 800si and expired Truprint film but iso 200 not 400, I have a number of minolta lenses as they also work on my Sony A77ii digital camera but not that one, though I do have the similar 35-70 f4.5 which I never seem to use. I had similar results, grainy with a strong red caste, the company that developed and scanned the film even emailed to see If I wanted the scans colour corrected but I wanted to see the results as Is. I think with Autumn upon us and the leaves shortly to redden and go golden the red colour caste would only enhance this, might have to chance my arm and see if there are any Truprint films for sale on EBay!!

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      September 26, 2021 at 1:03 pm

      Interesting, thanks very much Simon – the morning light definitely helped with those warm tones as well. Opinion seems divided on whether Truprint 200 and 400 shared the same manufacturer – I’d agree, definitely worth trying again with a roll or two of either (though expired film bargains seem to be thin on the ground now!)

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    September 26, 2021 at 9:40 pm

    I very much like the film set. Do I want to see every minute detail of the architecture? No, I more appreciate your compositions using the building shapes – more detail would distract from the over-all effect. Away with sharpness! Away, I say!

    . . . and if someday I could figure out how to receive new comments from this site . . .

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      September 26, 2021 at 10:47 pm

      Thank you Scott, very much appreciate your positive comments; glad you enjoyed the composition of the photos – I tried to make the shapes interesting and reflect the mood as best I could – and my sentiments exactly! Tack sharpness has become so standard that it’s now unremarkable and surely film can bring something else

  • Reply
    September 27, 2021 at 3:27 am

    If that’s the worst Minolta lens ever then maybe my old eyes just snapped back in focus! Short of Zeiss lenses, it’s sharp as most anything else I see shot with film. Tack sharpness is overrated. Those images of the typical boring architecture are actually not so boring at all! You’re probably right, it could be the pleasing grain and color shift. More of that please!

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      September 27, 2021 at 3:21 pm

      Many thanks indeed for these encouraging words Steve – I think I’ll give a similarly grained B&W film a go also

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    September 27, 2021 at 9:42 am

    It is a while since I last shot with a 500si. The specs of the ‘5’ series Minoltas was quite good, you only got one control dial, but they had lots of enthusiast features – the 500si even had a proper pentaprism. The one bit I remember as being a little alarming was using the pop-up-flash in anti-red-eye mode… the whole thing made alarming spluttering and sparking noises on releasing the shutter which sounded like something was shorting out…

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      September 27, 2021 at 2:23 pm

      I have to say I too liked the camera Bob – nice to use and nothing missing from my point of view. Haven’t needed the flash so far, but I’ve got to give it a try now!

  • Reply
    Matthias Steck
    September 28, 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Iain,

    nice photos. It was worth using the combo.

    I should also give our Minolta Dynax 500si Super a try.

    It’s sitting in the back of our photo gear closet, with the equally badly viewed (and ugly) Minolta AF 3.5-5.6/28-80mm Zoom lens. My wife used it till she (more or less) stopped using a camera. She made great images with the combo (she makes good images with anything !).
    Coming (partly) back to film in 2017 with my older Minolta SRT (MC/MD) gear, I never used the 500si till now. It seems to work still, as I put new batteries in, but it’s so ugly and plasticky I never want to use it.
    But I know that it exposes nicely (as your images show) and I also have better Minolta AF glass like the AF 1.4/50mm, AF 2.8/20mm, AF 2.8/24mm and AF 2.8/100mm Macro. I should definitly give it a try and overcome my aversion against plastic.

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      September 28, 2021 at 8:08 pm

      Thank you Matthias, much appreciated. Yes, as you say, good exposure capability, some good lenses, what’s to lose! I decided the later-manufactured SLRs were the best bet when returning to film because of their (usually) better condition really, and have a Pentax MZ-M as a manual focus camera – no complaints so far.

  • Reply
    Joseph Linington
    October 5, 2021 at 9:49 pm

    I just built a film bag for some fun. Maxxum 5, Minolta 50mm f/1.7, 28mm f/2.8, 28-105 RS and 70-210 f/4 beercan. I am looking forward to a sunny weekend at the park with my kids. Now if I could only find some film and processing for those 90’s prices.

    • Reply
      Iain Paterson
      October 8, 2021 at 10:34 pm

      Enjoy Joseph, sounds like a great collection of kit – and amazing value for money too no doubt!

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