A recent re-associating with the Pentax Spotmatic F had me pondering about some of the other ‘Golden Oldies’ that have been sitting by the skirting board in my living room for a number of years. Often as not a new purchase would actually be an exercise in stripping down and putting back together. A number of these cameras were Minolta SRT 101s.
Minolta SR cameras
Minolta’s SR line began back with the SR-2 in 1958 – this was an unmetered camera which operated a new bayonet mount – one that would only go out of production with Minolta in 1999.
The SR bayonet (often mislabelled as MC or MD) was quite versatile – it allowed open aperture viewing and, when the SRT 101 came around in 1966, lenses designated as Meter Coupled (MC) could also meter wide open, with the camera able to detect what aperture the lens was set to. Later incarnations even allowed for multi-mode metering. The one thing they didn’t adapt it to do was autofocus and Minolta switched to a new mount for that in 1985. The SR mount still continued however with the x-700 ending up as one of the most produced manual focus SLRs of all – still bearing the SR mount.
The lenses on SR-vintage cameras generally bore the name Rokkor, although some later lenses may just be branded Minolta.
The range of Rokkors is extensive, through from 7.5 mm fish-eye lenses to 1600mm mirror lenses, 600mm refractive lenses, Macros, Variable soft focus lenses, Variable curvature lenses, shift lenses and superfast f/1.2 standards. Minolta may never have broken into the professional ranks in the same way as Canon and Nikon, but it wasn’t for want of ‘class glass’. Rokkor lenses are very highly regarded.
Minolta specialised in coatings and improved them throughout production. At the same time there was a move over time to reduce cost and weight, so build quality might be perceived to be less ‘cast-iron’ on later models. I have always held that there is no such thing as a bad lens – rather, some lenses may have character that is harder to fully exploit… In any case, if it says Rokkor or Minolta on the front, it is likely to be a nice (or at least interesting) lens.
The SRT series
There were a whole series of SRT bodies, varying subtly in features. The first was the Minolta SRT 101 which carried on in production (with slight name changes) for 15 years as recognizably the same camera. The copy I’m reviewing is an SRT 101 from the early 70s.
The big thing with the Minolta SRT 101 was the full aperture TTL metering – it was also rather clever, using a mix of CdS cells in an exposure formula that Minolta dubbed Contrast Light Compensation (CLC). This worked very well and effectively meant that the camera was not over-influenced by very bright sources of light within the viewfinder – it tried to expose for shadows rather than highlights that were likely to blow out in any case (such as street lamps or the sun).
The specification is very good. In addition to the open aperture metering and the mirror lockup, the Minolta SRT 101 has a self timer, locking depth of field switch (click to lock, click again or take a shot to unlock), a battery check and meter switch and a viewfinder that shows you shutter speeds, allows you to set exposure by matching a ‘paddle’ to the meter needle and gives you a microprism focusing aid.
A voyage round my Minolta SRT 101
The Minolta SRT 101 carried on with the same top-plate layout that had been used by Minolta for SLRs since the SR-2 of 1958. This layout seems to have been inspired by the Leica M3 which has a similar arrangement of a shutter release within the hub of the wind-on lever.
This configuration is supposed to bring benefits of smoothness of operation and longevity for the shutter. It gives the Minolta SRT 101 a rather more ‘angled’ wind on lever than might be expected. It also leaves a fair amount of space on the right of the top plate for a generously sized film counter with the serial number of the camera engraved beneath. The plastic-tipped wind on lever rests against the shutter speed dial, which supports shutter speeds from 1-1/1000 plus B, with a flash synch (as usual for horizontal cloth shutters of the time) at 1/60. Film speeds from 6 ASA to 6400 ASA are supported and an engraving on the top plate shows where the film plane lies. The shutter speed dial moves quite easily, despite its many internal linkages
Over on the other side of the pentaprism is an engraving for the ‘MINOLTA CAMERA CO. LTD’ and the rewind crank. Pulling up the crank releases the back and reveals the large film pressure plate.
Front of house
On the front of the Minolta SRT 101 to the right are the self-timer, which sets by rotating anti-clockwise revealing the start button. On the side of the mirror housing is the mirror lock up, with a plunger below which toggles the depth of field preview on and off if the shutter is cocked (but which goes off automatically on releasing the shutter). On the other side of the mirror box on the front side is the knurled button for unlocking the mount (despite its shape and the knurling, this operates by pushing towards the mount) and on the side, the flash sockets for X and FP synch (all the more important if you have a cold shoe version).
On the base of the Minolta SRT 101 is a centrally positioned tripod mount, a battery chamber, an inset rewind button and (unusually) a meter switch. This is not the best ever position for a meter switch and it has to be operated by pressing a finger against the flat rotary switch and twisting. It works, but it is easy to forget to switch the meter off. The switch also includes a ‘BC’ position which deflects the needle in the viewfinder to a reference point to confirm that the battery is still good. Unusually (again that word!) the battery chamber cap is not slotted for a coin – instead it is knurled and relies on the pressure of a fingertip while rotating (nobody ever liked their finger tips anyway did they?)
The viewfinder of the Minolta SRT 101 gives a fair amount of information. It shows the selected shutter speed at the bottom of the viewfinder, and a needle from the meter on the right, this is matched against a paddle (a circle on an arm) the position of which is affected by both the aperture and shutter speed set. In order to do this the camera needs to transmit a fair amount of information from the shutter speed dial (where both shutter speed and ASA value are set), over to the opposite side of the pentaprism, which is where the meter sits.
While the meter stuff can be done by wiring, the position of the shutter speed dial has to be physically transmitted. I was amazed the first time I had one of these Minolta SRT 101s apart to see the little cables and pulleys that achieve articulation of the metering paddle. It says much for quality control that anything that old (and the oldest of them are over half a century old) can still be functioning.
The early Minolta SRT 101s had a ‘cold shoe’ and a mirror lockup. It would seem that the mirror lockup was mainly to accommodate a 21mm super-wide non-retrofocal lens where the rear elements would have interfered with the camera’s (large) mirror, but of course, it was also useful for microscopy and astrophotography. The introduction of later retro-focus wides may (along with cost-cutting) explain the disappearance of the mirror lock-up sometime in the early 70s.
The earliest Minolta SRT 101s use slot head screws for the top and bottom plates and have a black finely knurled shutter speed dial. My SRT 101 is from the second generation (1970-1973), which used cross head screws and had a more coarsely knurled chrome shutter speed dial. It is this series that lost the mirror lockup at some time during production, although my copy still has it.
A reasonably significant change occurred in the late 70s when the camera got a ‘b’ suffix in Europe and a slight name change in other regions (201 in North America and SR101b in Asia/Pacific) – this updated version gets a more conventional depth of field preview button (press and hold, rather than toggle on and off) and lost the CSC metering. This would appear to have been an economy measure, as the CSC system required two CdS cells in different positions, while the ‘b’ used a single cell. The ‘b’ did get a brighter focusing screen though, with a split-image rangefinder in addition to the microprism.
The same basic body was used for cheaper and more expensive variants – one was the first ever SLR with an integral motor drive – the SRM. This could buzz along at 3 frames per second, but lacked TTL metering. A budget model, called SRT 100 shaved the costs by losing the top shutter speed (maxing out at 1/500) and the shutter speeds in the viewfinder.
In addition to paring away, Minolta introduced a higher-specification model, which had different names in different markets – 102 in North America, ‘Super’ in Asia-Pacific and 303 in Europe. The Minolta SRT 101 spec was already quite impressive, but the 102/Super/303 added a hot shoe, Full information viewfinder, with lens aperture being read via an Aperture Direct Window at the front of the pentaprism, a split image rangefinder to go with the microprism and a fool-proof method of getting properly registered deliberate double exposures. A slightly revised version was released in 1976 – this kept the CSC metering but adapted the ‘press and hold’ operation for the depth of field preview. The new version was called 202 in North America, 505s in Asia/Pacific and 303b in Europe.
In addition to the above, there were special editions produced for certain department stores, which tended to be lie somewhere between the 100 and the 101 for specifications. The SC was sold through Sears, while the MC was sold through K-Mart.
For more information, look up the (very excellent) Rokkor Files – a wonderfully useful web resource for anyone interested in SR mount cameras and lenses.
The Minolta SRT 101 is a camera designed by an engineer rather than an aesthete – I stress I don’t mean this as any sort of insult to engineers, but while the Pentax Spotmatic looks architectural/sculptural, the 101 is rather more practical and pragmatic. The parts are still well made, but the wind-on lever and self timer are functional, flat pieces of aluminium. What the 101 does pay attention to are things that are of potential interest to the photographer – the depth of field switch, the battery check, the mirror lock-up, the information in the viewfinder and the flat film plane.
Overall the Minolta SRT 101 gives a rather ‘gangly’ appearance. Although it is about the same size at the Spotmatic, it looks higher, partly because the top plate extends further down the camera, pushing the (asymmetric) strap lugs low. The low positioning of the lugs means that the camera is more inclined to hang on a strap pointing downwards when a long or heavy lens is attached.
In use it is a great little camera once you get used to its foibles. It also gives you a window onto a whole range of interesting glass.
There are always annoyances with any camera, these should not be overplayed, but they should be acknowledged
- The meter switch is a weird implementation. You will forget to turn it off more than once.
- The battery chamber door is not easy to open. Preserve your batteries so you need to open it less often.
- Just about every example I have come across has some damage to the ends of the top-plate. This may be down to the exposed surface or the low strap lugs, but it may also be a indicator that the top-plate metal could be thicker. I stress, it does not break, but you will often see dents – this seems to go particularly for the 202/Super/505/303 cameras, which appealed to professional photographers and may well have seen hard service.
What to look for
If buying a used Minolta SRT 101, check the meter works (should be fine with a standard 675 zinc-air hearing aid battery), but if it doesn’t, remember the camera will still operate without it. Look out for damage to the top plate, whether the camera has ‘CSC’ metering (indicated by the engraving below the Minolta name), the presence of the mirror lock-up and that it works if it is there. If the camera you are looking at fails on any of the above, it may still be usable, but you might want to bargain the seller down. Note that the 303b with the crushed pentaprism housing shown in the top plate damage picture still works (although the ADW is not very clear).
No review is complete without some sample pictures…
The Minolta SRT 101 may not be pretty, but these cameras have photographic credibility. They open up the world of Rokkor lenses. Everyone should try one sometime.
Don’t change a hair for me…
More of my reviews can be found here