First Look
Minolta Maxxum 9 Professional SLR

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Minolta's autofocus Maxxum 9 SLR is the first professional model offered in this camera line in many years. It has a solid appearance and handles extremely well while taking all of the lenses and flash units and many other accessories currently offered for this popular line of SLR cameras.
Photos © 1998, Robert E. Mayer, All Rights Reserved

When I first saw the Maxxum 9 at a private showing inside the Minolta display booth at the 1998 photokina I was impressed with this camera's capabilities and was anxious to obtain one for review--but they were not expected until sometime in the spring of '99. That's a long wait for something as radical and interesting as this new professional-caliber SLR. But a call from Minolta's public relations firm said they would have a few preproduction samples of the camera to send out for a quick look. In a mere two weeks hands-on period we could not do a really thorough testing, besides this is not a finished camera sample. Therefore, these are preliminary first impressions derived over a very short time with little practical use testing.

Just the appearance of this hefty SLR is impressive. All of the controls are laid out logically and are large and very legible so it's easy to pick up and start shooting with minimal review of the controls. That's all to the good since there was no instruction book ready yet.

Some of the controls are a bit different from conventional. The main power switch on the left side is labeled On and Lock, not on and off you normally see. The lever that opens the back must be first lifted up then turned counterclockwise before the back will open. There won't be any accidental opening of this camera's back. The frame counter remains visible even when the camera is switched off, a decided convenience in my opinion. The bright white lettering on the exposure-related dials even has a phosphorescent material so they glow in the dark, a nice extra touch for low-light shooting situations. Important dials are rubber-coated and oversized for a more positive grip. All of the dials, buttons, and body seams were specifically designed to guard against unwanted dust and moisture typically encountered in rugged professional usage. It appears to be designed for hard use by ardent photographers.

Operating controls are all clustered for rapid, convenient use on the top and back of the camera body. Since they are large and rubber-covered, they are easily grasped when any adjustment or deviation from the norm is required.

A solid, durable, stainless steel and zinc die-cast metal body encloses a host of desirable features. The more important features include: 5.5 fps rate without requiring a separate battery pack; 1/12,000 top shutter speed and 1/300 sec top flash synch speed; four-segment flash metering; 14-segment honeycomb pattern metering; 100 percent visible viewfinder field; and 21 custom functions. The built-in computerization includes extensive built-in data memory, which records all exposure information for up to seven rolls of 36-exposure film. Changing the drive mode, engaging automatic bracketing, or making multiple exposures are all controlled by a dial nestled just below the simplified main mode setting dial beside the data panel where it's easily accessible.

Two unique new features are mid roll reload and delayed shutter mirror lockup. The former automatically advances a partially exposed roll of film to a frame selected by the photographer; it's said to drastically reduce the time consumed when attempting this technique. The delayed shutter mirror lockup provides a two second delayed automatic shutter-release to allow the mirror to lockup before the shutter fires when using the self-timer mechanism. This brief delay helps reduce the problem of unwanted vibrations when taking long exposures while the camera is on a tripod.

A large vertically oriented data panel on the top right of the body contains pertinent information about the camera settings. It can be lit for easier viewing in low-light situations. Controls that are used less often (data memory, mid roll rewind, and ISO setting) are all concealed under a flap on the right end of the body.

The leaves of our dogwood tree always produces interesting color combinations in the fall such as this unusual combination of yellow and purple. There was strong midday sunlight streaming across from the right, but the camera's multi-pattern metering was not fooled so the exposure was just right to see into the shadows and to accentuate the green pine bush below. (Fujichrome Velvia film; 28-105mm zoom at about 80mm; program automatic exposure.)

A three-point cross hair type autofocusing sensor uses a built-in three-target AF illuminator for accuracy even in low-light or low-contrast situations. A touch-sensor system in the grip speeds up autofocusing operation by activating everything including an eyestart system when the camera is first picked up so it's immediately ready to work as you raise the camera to your eye. Vivid red rectangles on the ends or a central square illuminate on the viewfinder screen to inform you exactly where the autofocusing sensor selected its prime focus point for easier focus tracking. The intensity of these LED indicators even changes with different light levels making them less obtrusive. The autofocusing was extraordinarily fast and accurate under every different lighting situation I used for my brief film testing.

Unusual for a high-end professional SLR is a built-in, pop-up flash which has a GN of 39 for providing flash fill illumination outdoors or indoors when a regular flash is not handy. More important, the small flash also provides coded signals for Minolta's wireless extension flash units for entirely wireless TTL operation with multiple flash units. On the top of the prism there is the usual Minolta split-rail hot shoe for their dedicated shoe-mount flash units. Naturally there is a PC contact for using studio flash units, which is hidden under a screw off cap on the left end of the body.

Working in manual mode with most AF Slurs can be a pain since each adjustment in the shutter speed requires a similar adjustment in the aperture, or vice versa. With the Maxxum 9, after an exposure is set, pressing the AE lock button on the back, while turning the front dial, changes the aperture and shutter speed together without changing the original exposure. This allows you to make changes quickly without having to make any other readjustment.

Optional accessories to come when the Minolta Maxxum 9 camera is introduced in '99 include a vertical control grip, data memory back, and four new acute matte focusing screens. The Data Memory Back DM-9 has the usual data imprinting capability for shutter speed, aperture, date, or numerical information. On each frame one such item can be selected for imprinting between film frames. It can also store up to 18 items of photographic memory from each of 400 rolls of 36-exposure film on a 2MB SmartMedia card. This information can be accessed later on a personal computer for organized review. If you merely need to imprint the date or time on the pictures there is the Quartz Data Back QD-9. The Vertical Control Grip VC-9 will improve handling the camera when holding the camera vertically. It accepts a variety of battery types to augment the batteries in the camera body resulting in approximately three times longer operation. Key controls have been duplicated on the grip for easier operation. The new camera is fully compatible with the existing Maxxum system of more than 40 interchangeable lenses, dedicated electronic flash units, and related accessories.

These burning bush leaves were just starting to turn red. Synchro-sunlight balance fill flash brought out the subtle colors on a cloudy bright afternoon. (Kodak Ektachrome Elite 200 film; 28-105mm zoom at about 50mm; program automatic exposure.)

Although we did not have samples to test, two new Maxxum lenses were introduced with this new SLR. The Minolta AF 200mm f/4 Macro APO G telephoto lens has macro focusing capabilities down to 19.7" for 1:1 life size images; focus-hold button and focus-range limiter. Unique is the only way to describe the Minolta Smooth Trans Focus (STF) 135mm f/2.8 (T4.5) which is a manual focusing, special-purpose lens, the only such lens offered for the Maxxum autofocus cameras. The lens construction includes an apodization filter to produce a natural visual shift from focused to defocused areas so the original subject outline remains clear while there is a smooth transition rendering the background more out of focus. To fully appreciate what this lens can do you really have to see sample images made with it.

Preliminary Test Results. For this brief First Look overview we obtained a preproduction prototype Maxxum 9 SLR with a Maxxum AF Zoom xi 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. Like the earlier Maxxum xi lenses, this one has a power zoom feature that zooms the lens as you turn the main knurled ring on the front of the lens. If you lightly touch this ring, the lens zooms slowly so you can let it stop and remain at just the composition you like, but if you twist the ring harder the lens zooms rapidly from the present focal length to one extreme or the other. Once you get used to this action, the power zoom function is very efficient.

In the two weeks this camera was available I only had time to expose five rolls of color transparency film (Agfachrome RS 50 Plus, Fuji Velvia, and Kodak Ektachrome Elite 200) as a quick test of this prototype. All of this E-6 film was processed at Accu-Color Lab., Inc., Fort Wayne, Indiana. Although this is not a finished production camera, the results were impressive. Exposures were accurate under varied lighting conditions, focusing was accurate, and the images were all crisply detailed and very sharp. The built-in flash when used as the prime light source was even in its coverage at 28-105mm focal lengths and points in between. The automatic bracketing worked efficiently when unusual lighting challenged the normal honeycomb pattern metering.

In 1985 Minolta introduced the first 35mm autofocusing SLR camera. The new Maxxum 9 camera joins six other models currently available in this outstanding line. It's a welcome addition made during the firm's 70th anniversary. Check your local Minolta dealer or contact Minolta Corporation, 101 Williams Dr., Ramsey, NY 07446; (201) 825-4000; web site at: www.minoltausa.com.

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