review

What I learned Shooting #006: Minoltina AL-S

What I learned shooting #006: Minoltina AL-s

I probably haven’t shot quite enough to be a truly definitive authority on the Minoltina (Minolta?) AL-s, but on the other hand, I feel like it doesn’t take super long to figure out a camera, as opposed to a film, because the mechanisms are largely the same across cameras. So I think i’m qualified to write a loose report on it, or at least what I learned shooting the thing. If you want to see the images/examples just jump down to the bottom of the page for the gallery.

So anyway, here’s the stats on the Minoltina Al-s/Minolta Al-s :

It’s a small, compact rangefinder camera (128x74x60mm), and weighs a little more than a pound including it’s 40mm 1.8 lens with a leaf shutter that runs from B, 1-500, and a solar powered meter, with an iso range of 25 to 800. It’s got a self timer (I never used mine). -- Stats taken from this overall review.

I bought mine on Ebay for around 40 bucks, all in. The cameras are definitely climbing in value (likely due to the exorbitant prices now commanded by Canonets, and other compact rangefinders, like the Minolta Hi-Matic 7), so I’d definitely encourage you to buy yours now, before they really spike in value. They might not, but given how everything film is getting kinda expensive, you’ve been warned.

So what’d I learn shooting the camera?

It’s nice to have a compact camera -- It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered picking up an actual halfway decent point and shoot based on how nice/convenient it is to have a small camera with a decent-ish lens, and be able to carry/use it as a serious camera without it being forced to have a full on camera-guy camera, etc.

40mm is a pretty ideal focal length, it’s wide (like 20% wider than a 50mm) (not really) but not so wide or broad that it ever feels “wide angle,” like 35mm lenses tend to. The Rokkor 40mm on the Minoltina al-s even has a really nice rendition (see below for examples).

Rangefinders are pretty ideal for documentation and street photography, because of the area around the actual capture area, and ability to read what’s going to be in your frame and around before it actually hits the frame -- I finally “get” the rangefinder cult that seems to pop up around those genres. I still stand by an earlier statement (here?) that I probably wouldn’t use a rangefinder setup for formal portraiture, or anything else needing a lot of setup, or where you don’t wanna deal with any possible.

Anyone saying you can take a decent exposure with 1/30 and steady hands, on a rangefinder or leaf shutter, is a liar. Or I just have super fucked up, shaky, hands. Could be both. Either way, I found most of my “reach exposures” were unusable due to motion blur/hand shake.

With a little practice, sunny 16 (and a taking quick incidental light reading every once in a while), can be as reliable or more accurate in a bunch of cases than the internal meter in a bunch of SLR’s, because of backlighting, etc. Also you start to get a better “feel” for lighting over time. That said, I have difficulty thinking you’ll ever really beat a well operated incidental meter/spot meter.

Leaf shutters are really cool. I like that they only really make a small “click” when fired. It was fun to pretend to do street photography and get right up to people without them noticing. Not really my deal, art wise, but it was interesting to see how that worked. Also, because I’m lazy and don’t have a super common flash, I didn’t get to try out the flash sync -- the camera doesn’t have a hot-shoe, so you need a separate sync cable, and apparently it’s hard to find one for my Minolta x-series flash.

Zone focus is also really interesting. The Al-s actually does have something like a lens-tab, like you’d see on a Leica, but maybe quite as obtrusive or really ergonomic -- that said, if you get a loose feel for the camera’s focus/focus range (2.6ft-infinity), and use a suitably small aperture, you can make zone focus work somewhat reliably. It’s not intended for that, and I wouldn’t go hard on a zone focus only project with it, but if you need to be inconspicuous, it can probably get you by.

Would I shoot it again?:

Maybe.

It’s not a bad camera by any means, in fact it’s a really really great camera, especially given the bang for the buck. That said, it can feel a little janky, and the rangefinder isn’t the greatest. It works, but it’s not the greatest. That being said, if you were looking for say, a Canonet or even the Minolta Hi-Matic-7, I’d heartily recommend it, over either of those cameras on price alone. The other reason -- and it’s a dumb one -- is that the camera doesn’t take straps easily, or like the loops for straps are really small, and mine didn’t come with said strap -- and here in LA coat/sweatshirt season is definitely over, so it makes it kinda difficult to carry around.

The camera also feels just a bit flimsy -- not bad by any means, and it is a solid camera (it’s all metal) but some of the parts have more give and shake than I’d like. However, that may also be a maintenance issue than anything else and the construction/joinery might be a lot more stable in a different copy of the camera.

The built in solar (photo voltaic?) meter is pretty good, probably a stop off  -- but if you’re like me and you typically rate your film at half box speed anyway, it’s sort of a non issue. I probably wouldn’t attempt to shoot slide film using that meter/metering combo though, or like, I don’t think it’s worth risking slide film on something that janky, or potentially just old/burnt out.

If I were good with my hands or had disposable income for doing really dumb stuff with, I might actually consider lopping the lens off to stick on a digital camera or slap on an m-mount. But that’s kind of a stupid/pointless endeavor. I just happen to really like the Minolta rendering, and 40mm is slowly becoming a favorite focal length.

All that considered, I still default to my Minolta XD-11/ Rokkor 50mm MC-PG combo for daily shooting, etc — partially out of familiarity, but also because it seems to work for me a bit more.

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What I learned shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

What I learned Shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

I deeply resent that I have to write this article. I deeply resent the fact that I paid 200 dollars for a broken Pentax 6x7, and then had to throw another 100 bucks to get it to work. I resent the fact that the Pentax 6x7 is the it-girl camera (or at least, it sure seems like it) in medium format right now, alongside the Mamiya 7ii, the evergreen favorite.

I know your first instinct as a reader will be to ask “why bother writing it if you hate doing it, or that you have to do it” -- and to that my response is simple: reviews, specifically camera reviews for in-demand cameras get website traffic. Likewise with film reviews for permanent favorite emulsions, ie your HP5+, your Portra 400, your Ektar, your Fuji Pro400h Reviews. I’m not above a little commercialism, I’d even argue it’s healthy.

That aside, The Pentax 6x7 (MLU) or non MLU is a great camera, and I do really like it, a lot. Some of the images I’ve gotten from it, like the glassy more-than-real, but still organic images it produces when I’m shooting at the heights of my abilities (not trying to be egocentric, it just seems like the highs that come out of this camera are really, really really high). I’m probably never going to sell it, if for no other reason, than I could probably never afford to buy the dumb thing back.

To save you the trouble of reading *another* fawning. Pentax 6x7 review:

The Pentax 6x7 is a big clunky steel machine with no frills. The lenses are my favorite general look of all the medium format systems that I’ve seen, or had access to so far. It’s capable of taking some really amazing photos that would be very very hard to replicate in 35mm. I think the best examples currently posted up on my website are the photos in Feature #4: Apocalypse Gulch. I think my (current) flagship Editorial Homecoming (Mourning) is great, and it shows off the optics, but not quite as clearly as the Salton Sea photos.

For a slightly different perspective, I think this review by Daniel J. Schneider is probably more helpful to an actual potential buyer than my post/review/essay this is going to be.

My Best/Worst about the camera, with brief explanations:

Here’s my top five favorite things about the camera:

  1. The Lenses, and their rendering. I know in terms of pure sharpness the Zeiss lenses on the Hasselblad probably blow the Pentax 6x7’s to shit, as well as the painfully sharp Mamiya RB/RZ or Mamiya 7 series glass; but I think the Pentax lenses have tend to have a certain (still super sharp/high resolving power, if that’s your bag) human look that suits my own particular need/style of photography really well.

  2. The Viewfinder is kinda magic. Not like it makes you better, but just having a giant bright image makes it really nice to compose and shoot on. I guess I have some (minor) complaints about the focusing because the depth of field tends to be super thin, but overall, the viewfinder (ground glass) just shines. I haven’t had a chance to use a dedicated waist level finder or chimney on the Pentax 6x7, but when I’ve just stared down through the ground glass it’s pretty amazing.

  3. The Aspect Ratio. The Pentax 6x7 has a nearly perfect 4:3 ratio, which, for what it’s worth makes it pretty perfect for darkroom printing on the common sizes, ie 8x10, 11x14, 20*24. Beyond that I think the the boxy, relatively even aspect ratio also lends itself to a more thoughtful, slow composition style, as opposed to the more dynamic ratio of 3:2 (ie 35mm). I know cropping is always an option, but usually the way the box or viewfinder

  4. It’s Imposing. I know I typically tout the Minolta XD-11’s nice compact feel in hand, and the form factor is small, so this may come as a surprise. But I like that the Pentax 6x7 is a big, gnarly, imposing camera, that makes a loud-ish, clack, when the shutter fires. It makes you, and to some extent, the subject (if you’re doing portraiture) take the camera seriously. It feels like an event, when you shoot and work with the camera, but maybe not as involved or static as one would when shooting and setting up a large format.

  5. (hypocritically) Flex Value. I’ve pissed and moaned a lot about price here (or if you keep reading I will), but there’s something kinda nice about owning an expensive piece of gear, and one that seems to be retaining it’s value, or even increasing it. I typically scoff at the Leica community, more for the idolatry of the red dot and the flex around it, but it’s kinda nice to brag that you got a deal on your (now expensive) camera, and show it off some. But not too much, nobody likes a rich prick.

Here’s some stuff I don’t love about the camera:

  1. It’s heavy. Not so heavy that it’ll break your back, or do permanent damage right off the bat, but the thing is definitely very heavy, and after a long day of hiking with the thing, you’re not going to feel great. I don’t actually care that the camera’s big or (relatively) loud -- I’m not really a street photographer, or at least what I do in street photography is so irrelevant to disturbing people that the noise and physical size/threatening look of the Pentax 6x7 don’t really matter that much.

  2. It’s expensive, and the price of replacement is just going to keep going up. A big reason why I’ve never even bothered to experiment with another system is that I don’t think I’d get enough money back selling whatever else I tried to buy back my original equipment if I didn’t like it -- and the camera’s good enough for what I use it for that I guess it doesn’t matter, but I still don’t like the thought of paying another 500 dollars to shoot the camera.

  3. The Eye level finder only covers 90% of the frame. It’s a perfectly nice finder/prism, but missing 10% of your image can be kinda tough, or like easy to forget about. Usually the image is pretty much exactly what I shoot, but that extra 10% has definitely snuck up on me before, requiring me to go back and crop back in, which overall is fine, but definitely a little demoralizing or frustrating.

  4. The flash sync speed kinda sucks. There’s no real good way to shoot flash with the camera, handheld, even with the specialized leaf shutter lenses, it’s still a pain and a lot of button clicks to get everything right, and not really anything you’d want to do handheld. I’m not a huge flash shooter or anything but this is admittedly, a significant border to entry for me.

  5. I’m now part of the medium format community, or like, if I want to share something (like this or one of my features/editorials) on facebook to a group to kinda get more eyes on it, I have to wade through the sea of shit that is the group of dumb, stubborn, fucks with no discernable taste who see fit to constantly criticize anything they neither understand nor like for not meeting their narrow, boring, and tasteless criteria of good photography, that seems to reek of being a professional hobbyist who approaches photography as an engineering question than an art. On top of that, the belief that they could be wrong is so foreign to them, that they refuse to try to see anything in a light that doesn’t favor them. There are plenty of perfectly nice people in the groups, but I get burnt out pretty quickly from the constant trolling, or dickish “criticism” which contains no palpable or helpful criticism that tends to hang over the board. (If this is you, you can kindly fuck right off my website, thanks.)

That brings me to, the eponymous section of the review/column:

So, what did I/have I learned shooting the Pentax 6x7:

  1. It’s probably way overpriced for what it should be, or like, I remember looking into buying one three to five years ago (I wasn’t ready for one) and it was like 200 bucks, maybe 300-400 with a lens. Tops. I know the whole film market has grown, and I should be happy, but as someone who’s been a (relatively) long-term film shooter, it kinda chaps my ass that all these johnny come lately kids are (un-intentionally) jacking the price of gear way the fuck up. I guess I should just be glad I don’t give a fuck about premium point and shoots.For a point of comparison, and SEO ranking, even the price of my beloved Minolta XD series cameras, have shot through the roof. Five years ago, when I got my first one, it was basically in mint condition, and I paid maybe 50 bucks for it. To get one of a decent quality, now, it’s something like $150 -- and even then the internal guts of the thing are a crapshoot. Additionally, it’s not like there’s a lot on the US used market either -- so you’re stuck gambling on Japanese eBay, which isn’t totally unreasonably priced, considering convenience of being able to just order the camera, but it’s always 30-40% over whatever budget I have for a camera or lens. Paralleled to the Pentax 6*7, even when I was buying mine, I remember the market being about 400 for a body only, with an unmetered prism, if you’re lucky. All this should probably be couched in “Andrew is an aggressively cheap bastard when  any purchase over $100 dollars is involved -- and his sense of value is way way stunted.”

  2. I like the camera and love the images it produces but I have yet to really bond with the camera in a meaningful way, or build a real relationship aside from “this camera is a tool, a really good tool.” My only real hypotheses are that 1. I haven’t gotten Stockholm syndrome’d by the camera yet -- it’s only been a year and some change, which leads into 2. The weight and expense of the camera, ie the price of 120 film (development and scanning, too), having repairs and CLA’s done (the big name Pentax guy charges $300 bucks for just a CLA -- I’m sure it’s basically a rebuild, but still, it doesn’t sit well with me -- see “I am a cheap bastard” above.), and just the dead weight of lugging the Pentax 6x7 (with lenses) around is prohibitive to me shooting enough with it to really gel with it beyond “camera make photo.”

  3. Right now, I really only take the camera out when I do “serious project work” -- and even then, because I seem to have a nasty habit of accumulating (and shooting) 100 foot rolls of 35mm film, I still seem to end up using the Minolta XD-11 for a good chunk of my projects. That being said I do lug the Pentax 6x7 with me to do landscape photography when I travel -- and it’s definitely been good or great for that -- I have some stuff coming up to show that off, I’m almost done re-scanning all my photos from one specific trip to show that off.

  4. Bracketing is for chumps. Admittedly I haven’t fully incorporated this lesson into daily practice all the time, but typically, the amount I bracket shots has radically decreased way down. Typically (with limited exception) I tend to fall into the category or thought pattern of “first shot, best shot” and it’s borderline madness for me to re-shoot something better the second time when I’m overthinking it, but traditionally I still do or have a lot. Having only ten frames on a roll definitely cuts way down on the amount that I’m tempted to re-do something, if for no other reason than budget.

  5. Having a bigger/better camera doesn’t make your work better. I know this is something I say a lot, but I definitely have gotten some better shots out of the Minolta XD-11 than the Pentax 6x7, on the same day, just because I wasn’t working hard enough at getting the Pentax 6X7 framing right, or I just flat out didn’t have the right/wide enough lens for it. You can’t always make your new fancy toy work out for everything, as much as you want it to.

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What I Learned Shooting... #3: Minolta XD-11 -- A Tribute

I’m gonna switch topics from film to cameras and lenses here for the next couple weeks while I wrap up my 2 100ft rolls of Agfapan APX 100. (I’m at #17/36 as of posting this)

I have pretty much all the gear I could want or reasonably need. I have a full shooting set of lenses (and a few extras) in Minolta SR (the actual name of the mount, not MC/MD -- so help me god if I hear one more person call it that...), and in Pentax 6x7 for medium format.

Over the last five years I’ve shot a Minolta XD-series (XD, 11, and 7) camera with near slavish devotion. I’ll test out a new camera now and again --mainly an SRT 102 (seriously underrated), and the Minoltina Al-s (also critically underrated).

I may switch to a compact rangefinder (say a CLE with Rokkor 40/2) now that I tote a Pentax 6x7 around for most of my “serious” work, and use 35mm as a bts/quick journal camera, but I’ll never get rid of my workhorse(s). Also if I end up doing more portraiture or editorial work, and it wasn’t on Medium Format, I’d happily shoot it on my XD.

Let me put a few things out there right now:

  1. I love these cameras so much, when I had all four break on me, I nearly got their serial numbers tattooed onto my ribs (I didn’t -- a friend pointed out that that was kinda Holocaust-ey, and maybe I should avoid that -- thanks Jake.)

  2. I’ve always been a “Minolta guy,” my first camera, at age 15 was an XG-M, the repair guys at my local repair shop Walter’s Camera Repair -- http://www.walterscamerarepairs.com/ -- Call me “the minolta guy.” (not a paid endorsement, seriously, if you’re in LA and need honest repairs done at a fair price and pretty quickly, they can probably help you out.)

  3. Either by gross overfamiliarity or closemindedness, I really don’t like most of the other 35mm camera brands’ SLR’s from the pre-autofocus era. I hate the Canon AE-1, I think it’s a bad camera with a backwards meter, honestly Canon SLR’s on the whole before AF are just straight garbage. Most of the Nikons are nice but badly designed, clunky, or flat out backwards -- good lenses though. I guess Pentax is okay (for 35mm -- Medium Format is a whole different story). I don’t know shit about Olympus -- people who shoot them seem to really like them.

  4. I think most reviews of this camera kinda miss the point of it. Or at least haven’t run  give or take 400 rolls through the the thing. It’s always “Leica this, Minolta that.”

  5. My complaints on reliability are a little bullshit. I probably ran +/- 75 rolls through the damn thing this year. I don’t think most people run that much through their cameras or tend to flat out abuse or over-carry their equipment the way I tend to. I’ll probably keep stricter track next year.

After nearly a page of disclosures and complaints here we go:

Here’s why I love this camera:

  1. It feels really nice in the hand. -- It’s a relatively compact design, but all metal, and it’s weighted really evenly with the 50 1.4 MC, which is the lens I use most as of writing this. I realize this is probably a dumb thing to vaunt as it’s best feature, but it makes it much more enjoyable to use regularly.

  2. It has a quasi-mechanical vertical shutter. While it lacks a really fast sync speed -- like a Contax g2 or a leaf shutter camera -- it can do 1/100th of a second, mechanically. I can shoot any lens I regularly use with it, safely, and mechanically if I have a battery failure. Also 1/100th of a second is fast enough for *most* uses. I know HSS is a hot commodity, but 1/100th is usably fast for me. Also, for an SLR, assuming you get a good copy of the camera, it’s really quiet.

  3. It has three modes in order of usefulness, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. It’s not easy to accidentally switch between the modes, and they’re all pretty reliable --- the camera actually has a hidden program mode which double-checks your exposure and fixes it -- steplessly.

  4. The meter is good down to EV 1 -- Which basically has you covered in most situations you’ll ever run into, unless you’re a hardcore night photographer, or shoot mostly backlit.

  5. Kind of a no-brainer, which is why it’s #5 on my list, but Rokkor lenses.

Complaints:

  1. It’s a hard camera to fix. My normal shop can do a bunch of fixes on it, but they can’t fix everything -- apparently the circuit board is kinda janky, or not an easy one to fix because of how early-primitive it is in its technology.

  2. It’s not nearly as reliable as a standard mechanical camera. I put way too many rolls through my camera, but I still probably have to send it out once a year for maintenance.

  3. People have started to get in on the camera, and the price of them keeps climbing. Also the number of Black Minolta XD’s keeps shrinking. And if you’ve seen the black finish, you know how great it is. The silver is fine, but the black finish is just better.

What’ve I learned shooting it?

A lot.

I’ve had one (of four) basically since I showed up in Los Angeles five years ago.

Basically, with the XD-11, I’ve used it to shoot everything: friends, the city, my drive across America, my first fashion editorial --- which I’m pretty sure never got released --- and every project I’ve done in 35mm. If you look at my instagram or any 35mm feature or story on here, it was most likely shot on the XD11.

It also showed me what I like and dislike in a camera, and it’s now what I bench my expectations around.

Anyway -- Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this -- please consider buying a zine in the shop. It helps me keep the lights on here.

What I learned shooting #01: Fuji Pro160s (35mm)

What I learned shooting (#01):

Most film reviews are unhelpful at best, they tend to gloss over how the tester shot what they shot and what their own biases and predilections are. I often learn more about photography and a specific emulsion from shooting large batches of the same film over and over and reviewing it, rather than rapidly changing between different emulsions.

For these reviews, I’ll shoot no less than 25 rolls of a given emulsion.

Today’s Review:  Fujifilm Pro 160s (35mm)

Technical considerations:

The film was indeed expired when purchased, but well stored. I mostly processed in large batches of 6+ rolls at a time by either D+J digital imaging or (primarily) Fulltone Photo.

Everything was shot on a Minolta XD11 and the Rokkor 50mm 1.4 MC PG, 24mm MD 2.8, and 85mm MD 2.0. I shot everything handheld, and at higher shutter speeds to compensate for hand-shake.

I shot 2 100ft rolls bulk-loaded of the emulsion (+/- 35 rolls), and exposed all of it at EI 100 to compensate for the expiration date, and to slightly overexpose.

Initial Bias:

I like slow film, cool tonality, and relatively even or muted colors. Fuji Pro 160s should, by most guesses be a slam dunk for me. I shoot mostly landscape, travel, and street/diary type stuff on 35mm. I’ve also shot the same or similar emulsion in 120 and really really liked it. I absolutely love fuji pro400h and fujifilm provia as well.

What I learned:

For day to day shooting, it was fine, but I found that in many situations, storage dependent, the cool-tone reproduction was actually more of a curse than a blessing. If film is stored correctly from the beginning of its life, it tends to hold up much better post-expiration, and in bad conditions when shot.

Unless you’re sending a bulk roll to a dip and dunk facility, your lab may have to cut your roll (this happened multiple times) if it’s too long. You may also end up damaging a machine or causing an accident if your roll is improperly bulk loaded. Also the metal snap-top canisters, while theoretically more durable have a tendency to fall open.

Cool tone films are hit or miss at rendering bright sunlit days, and you need subjects or scenery with enough tonal warmth in them inherently to show any kind of brightness, as light alone won’t show through.  The nature/landscape of the west coast generally doesn’t render super well on this film, because of that cool tone reproduction.

Would I seek out more of it?

Not actively. It’s a nice film, but not so nice that I’d pay a premium or spend extra time seeking it out. If it happened to fall into my lap at the right price again, I’d snatch it right up.