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?:


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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Test Your Goddamn Film.

Test Your Goddamn Film

Until early 2018,

I never took properly testing my film or developer too seriously. I picked a developer, cycled in between basically anything I could find and shoot, mostly just to shoot whatever I could find, and just stuck with whatever recipe the massive dev chart suggested, and hoped for the best. Honestly, it worked -- most of the time. That being said, over time, I’ve begun to desire more consistent results, to build a codified aesthetic, or voice if you will. I had a long period shooting Delta 100, in Kodak Xtol 1:1, but even then I’d go off and get distracted shooting Fomapan 100 for a week, or some bizarro expired neopan, without really digging into testing best practices for that core of Delta 100. While I may not have finally settled into a consistent aesthetic -- I’m still settling on my daily shooter/singular film stock -- I have learned or at least gained an appreciation for good testing and consistency. I think thorough testing is a necessity to the craft of black and white analogue photography, and to a lesser extent -- color photography.

Traditional Silver Black and White Negative film, and its developers, is the only film which requires extensive testing. There’s only one true “correct” developer for color negative still film, which is C-41 or whatever the company making it is calling it. Any color negative development, outside of that is cross-processing. Once you learn what an individual emulsion does, and how it reacts to light, and what it does when pushed or pulled or whatever other idiot processing decisions you want to subject it to it’s not going to deviate from that -- but even then, with rare exception, almost all C-41 film behaves the same way. As of writing this, there are over 100 different developers listed on the Massive Dev Chart. Given some (most) of them may not be in wide use. But even then, let’s say there are 10 “standard developers” (Rodinal, HC-110 or Ilfotec HC, D-76 or ID-11, DD-X, Xtol, Sprint, the Pyro Family, Ilfosol S, and Diafine), that’s still 9 more developers that are standard process than color film has. And each one of them has different dilutions which do different things, and act differently based on the relative temperature one develops at.

For my primary case study, I’d like to use Rodinal, because it’s such a universal developer. Let’s go over some standard assumptions -- Rodinal has three standard dilutions, 1:25, 1:50 -- the “standard” , 1:100 -- which sometimes is performed as a semi-stand development, and sometimes as a full stand for at least one hour. Rodinal does *not* play nicely at higher temperatures than the given 20ºC/68ºF, and tends to create heavy, heavy grain, as it is an Acutance developer, and most of its developing action comes from making grain larger rather than cutting away at the grain -- ie a solvent developer -- I’ll get to that soon. On top of that, because rodinal works at high dilutions, 1:50, 1:100, and those dilutions can take so much time, you can get compensation. Compensation is a bizarre phenomena which seems to allow one to get a more even rendition, along with sharper edges on their image subjects, but within certain limits, and only with certain developers. On top of that rodinal can be used to push, but because of the way the developer works, it’s typically not used as a push developer. Or at the very least, from my personal experience, one should not use additional time to push the film itself, to “gain” a stop, so much as they should use it to increase the negative thickness or the amount of contrast on the negatives. (NB: most of my info is pulled from Massive Dev, or Unblinking Eye -- they have a page specifically on Rodinal).

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping tally of all the variables and considerations in that last block of text, but that’s a lot of variables, with a lot of finicky and personal/preferential answers -- That’s three separate dilution choices, temperature volatility, speed volatility (ie how much grain the developer creates given the speed of the film, then also how much nominal speed the film loses in the developer), what kind of contrast you need, how much extra time you should be developing to compensate for a particularly dark or light scene. And those are just the developer variables, that’s not even taking into account how you rated the film you’re developing, or the water quality/mineral content of the water that you’re using for your dilutions.

That being said: most film, or at least any film made by a decently large manufacturer, or of “professional quality,” typically comes with its own datasheet, which should either be right on the film’s own box, or available from the manufacturer, online. Kodak is really great about this, as is Ilford, given the number of different films they manufacture. I even have a data sheet from the now defunct AGFA, for the batch of APX100 I shot (which actually confirms their loose recommendation of 17 minutes, in Rodinal 1:50.) These sheets typically give best practice for the film, and the best possible starting point. That being said, they’re not long on examples, just pure data on “how much contrast do you want vs. how thick your negative will be (gamma), and this is what the light response curve is.” Which is great, but not really a good substitute for figuring out what you actually need out of a film, which, unless you can perfectly read all those charts, and intuitively know what the film will look like, you still have to go and shoot film yourself to find out what the compensation is like, the amount of grain is in a given developer, or even how a developer will render the film given the scene. And this isn’t even taking into account all the variables that go along with developing, aside from time. All of this is a good starting point, but at the end of the day, you should still conduct your own tests.

Testing your film is important. Thorough testing allows one to get exactly the look, feel, and density one requires out of their film, without having to worry too much, or spend an excess amount of time correcting or photoshopping, once a desired benchmark is set. Once you sets your benchmark, you end up saving much more time in the long run despite the initial timesink of having to do all the research and testing in the first place. To make this personally relevant, this process of testing, in detail, is why I won’t review a film, unless I can shoot at least 20 rolls of it (if not more), because without that thoroughness, or exposure to multiple developers, conditions, etc, I feel it paints a relatively incomplete picture of what a given film is capable of. Admittedly, I was inspired to do or start testing thoroughly or sticking with a single film (per usage) at a time by Johnny Patience’s Article on the death of the zone system, which is also definitely worth a read.

Anyway, to sum all of this up: If you want the best most consistent results, test your goddamn film.

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