Minolta Maxxum 9000

Minolta's first auto-everything plastic wonder-camera for the professional market was the Maxxum 9000.

Minolta 9000 with flash

The claim "auto-everything" needs some qualification. This is true, when the MD-90 motor drive is attached. For, curiously enough, Minolta did not build motorised film transport into the Maxxum 9000 even though it was already a feature on the model 7000. The lack of a built-in motor catches me out every time I pick-up this camera; I keep forgetting to operate the film advance lever. Why not have the motor drive permanently attached? Perhaps because it would have made the camera very heavy with all the batteries installed.

Minolta Maxxum 9000

Despite of having a plastic exterior, the Maxxum 9000 comes across as a robustly built camera with modest proportions (unlike some of its peers). The sharp edges and corners are telltale signs of the initial transition from a metal bodied camera to plastic. In years to come, everyone would adopt a new trend and 'go round'. (Not only in cameras, but cars also.)

An important change from Minolta's earlier cameras was to move the light sensors out of the prism housing and into the bottom of the camera. The mirror has a semi-transparent area which lets some of the light through to reach a secondary mirror right in front of and parallel to the shutter. This second mirror then directs the light towards the sensors at the camera floor. The surface of the mirror has been fabricated in such a way as to allow two types of light readings to be taken; spot and center weighted average. This (coupled with some wizardry with compensation for high-key and low-key subjects), indeed, was one of the selling points of this camera. It is a pity, that Minolta did not go a step further and made exchangeable viewfinders available. The fact that the light meter was no longer in the prism housing would have allowed simpler viewfinders to be made while still retaining light metering. (Just think of the drudgery Nikon went through with their F and F2 cameras. These two cameras had six bulky pentaprism viewfinders between them, all built with light meters for TTL metering (hence the bulkiness). Furthermore, the user had to resort to an external light meter when any of the other types of viewfinders were used. Finally, in the F3 Nikon solved this problem by moving the lightmeter out of the viewfinder.)

Minolta 9000 controls

The Maxxum 9000 is an electronic camera and would not operate without batteries at all (not even in 'bulb' mode). The On/Off switch has a third mode; On+sound. On this setting, the camera beeps during self-timer operation and whenever the auto-focusing brings the subject into sharp focus. (This is also indicated by a green light in the viewfinder.) The shutter release button is somewhat different than on many other cameras. It is touch sensitive - the user's finger provides a conductive surface between the two halves of the button and it turns on a circuit that immediately starts to operate the auto-focus (unless focusing is switched to manual). It also switches on the light meter and the LCD display panel. (At last you can see what your settings are.) The lens will keep re-focusing until you press the button down half-way, thereby locking-in the focus. (Personally, I find this implementation of continuous focusing irritating.) The metered exposure is not locked when the button is held down. For this, you need to press and hold a tiny AEL button at the back of the camera below the shutter cocking lever. This button is not very well positioned and it is in a recess, so it is not easy to get it to work.

(One of the reasons continuous focusing upon touching the shutter release button annoyed me was because I often just wanted to turn on the display and not re-focus. After playing with the camera for some time I discovered that I can do that by pressing any other button and don't need to touch the shutter release button.)

The mode selector switch is a fairly big ring around the LCD panel. It is a novel design, but it works well. It offers the four usual choices: Program, Aperture priority auto, Shutter priority auto, and Manual exposure. Program mode is 'intelligent' in that it optimises settings depending on the focal length of the lens used. With wide angle lenses it favours a smaller aperture for greater depth-of-field, and with long focus lenses a faster shutter speed to minimise the effects of camera shake. Remarkably, this also works with zoom lenses, even if they cover a wide-to-tele range. The user can also influence this behaviour by altering the camera's choice with the control at the front of the mode selector wheel. In this case, the P in the viewfinder blinks to indicate that the camera's decision was overruled.

It is not easily seen on these pictures, but the camera features a DOF preview switch. It is a fold-down lever on the inside of the handgrip near the AF logo. The good news is that it operates in all four exposure modes. The bad news is that the aperture cannot be changed while it is closed down. Also, the shutter has to be cocked first and - less importantly - auto-focusing is disabled. To invoke DOF preview, press the lever half-way down and let go. To reset, press the lever all the way down and then let it return to its original position. (This control doesn't operate very smoothly.)

The self-timer switch is next to the shutter release button. A red mark is revealed when it is slid to the 'On' position. The count-down is ten seconds and there are no other time delay options available. There is, however, an eyepiece shutter on the camera to prevent stray light from entering and fooling the light meter. (This is less important with cameras whose light meter is not in the viewfinder, but still, it is a useful feature.) Focus is locked as soon as the shutter release button is pressed. However, light metering continues until the shutter fires. This is the usual behaviour, but if anyone would listen I would wish for an auto-focus that remains in operation until the picture is taken. Why? Imagine you were egoistic enough to want to take a picture of yourself when travelling alone. Where do you set the focus? Invariably, one needs to resort to manual focusing and guesswork, or to find something that is at an appropriate distance. There is always a solution, but not very convenient.

Minolta 9000 controls

On the left side of the camera we find the light metering mode selector switch. As I stated above, both center weighted average and spot metering are available. 'Spot' here means that readings are taken from a small circular field, about 5.5 mm across, in the middle of the frame. (This translates to about 2.7% of image surface area.) A variation on spot metering is provided by the H(ighlight) and S(hadow) settings. These are applicable for dominantly bright and dominantly dark subjects, respectively. There is a little catch; setting the light metering mode switch to either of these values is not enough - one also has to press and hold down the AEL button for the desired effect to take place. The idea is to reproduce whites as whites and blacks as blacks. But in my experience these modes simply apply +2 and -2 EV exposure compensation, respectively. There is nothing smart happening here, so this switch looks like a gimmick to me.

While we are on the topic of exposure compensation - there is a button for this near the front, and it is easy and quick to use. One holds this button down with one hand while operating the up/down control with the other. Compensation values can be changed in half f-stop increments. To me that is good enough.

The film speed (ISO) setting button is also on this side of the camera and works similar to the exposure compensation button. There are some rules to be observed in relation to the ISO setting. (Not knowing these rules can cause some confusion.) When the batteries are replaced, the ISO display blinks and the camera won't work until either of two actions are taken: 1) accept the displayed value by touching the shutter release button, or 2) set the desired ISO value manually. (The camera recognises DX coded cartridges, but does need a confirmation from the user.) When a new roll of film is loaded, the procedure is somewhat different - I will write about that further down.

Minolta Maxxum 9000 controls

With the above picture I would like to draw attention to three things. In front of the Maxxum sign we see the aperture setting control - it slides up and down. The placement of this control is characteristic of Minolta, I think. Obviously, it stems from the observation that the photographer's right hand thumb is at this place anyway as he/she holds the camera, so shifting the slider up and down comes naturally. It works for me, so I agree... to a certain extent. The trouble is that with auto-focus lenses this kind of camera holding is no longer the necessary choice. (In fact, one can interfere with the rotation of the auto-focus ring on some lenses, such as the attached 28 mm wide angle lens.) So, one could argue that a right hand thumb rear control dial would have been better. (History has proven exactly that, but it is always easy to be smart in hindsight.)

The next control is the Auto-Manual focus switch. There is not much to say about this. At the time this camera was built, Minolta lenses did not have their own motor, so to have an A-M switch on the body was absolutely essential. Auto-focusing in this camera is the TTL phase detection type. It is not due to the technology as such, but auto-focusing with the Maxxum 9000 is not a mood-lifting experience. This is the destiny of the pioneers; their methods and inventions look crude from the vantage point of latecomers, who benefited from lessons learned from their predecessors' experience.

Thirdly, we can see an electric terminal with three prongs. This is for the RC1000L (or RC1000S) remote control. Unfortunately, on the Maxxum 9000 one cannot use a simple screw-in type cable release.

Minolta Maxxum 9000 open back

The back of the camera opens the usual way. (Note, there is a safety switch in front of the rewind knob.) An interesting design feature is the flexible rewind shaft. It makes film rewinding easier and quicker. (Minolta always comes up with something ingenious.) The middle of the rewind knob turns when the film is advanced and this is made even more obvious with a white dot on it.

Film loading. Ahrrr - slow and cumbersome. (This is my pet grumble with Minolta cameras.) The design of the take-up spool has not changed for two decades, and it wasn't a good one in the first place. Everyone else has created their version of a 'quick load' - not so Minolta. According to the instructions, you have to insert the film lead in a reverse direction (you kind of make a U shape with it in the air and feed it in from right to left). How silly. Would a professional photographer want to fumble with film loading in this fashion and risk missing some of the action?! Anyway, this is all history now... After you managed to put in the film, the next step is to close the door and advance the film to the first frame. The camera is not ready until this is done. Initially, it will only operate in the fastest shutter speed (1/4000) and the smallest aperture. This is logical. When the film counter reaches 1, the film speed can be set. DX coded cartridges are recognised, so all you need to do is accept the displayed value. With non-DX coded cartridges an arbitrary ISO number will blink until the film speed is set manually.

Minolta 9000 bottom view

It is amazing, but this sophisticated electronic camera needs only two AA size batteries to operate. I guess, it shows that the most power hungry part in a camera is the motor (or motors). Perhaps this is why Minolta decided to make the motor winder an add-on accessory.

Although the Maxxum 9000 does not have a removable viewfinder, the focusing screens are replaceable. There is a set of five different focusing screens available. What is missing, is a mirror lock-up facility. This is a shame, because many earlier Minolta cameras (SRT 101, etc.) were built with one.

Now I would like to say a few words about the displays. The camera shows the bare essentials, and I say this in a positive way. The top LCD displays the shutter speed and f-number very clearly. This display changes to show the ISO value or the exposure compensation value when the respective buttons are pressed - again, in an easy to read fashion. The viewfinder display is also uncluttered. It is considered better to show all information in one place rather than scattered around the viewfinder frame. In the Maxxum 9000 all information is displayed in an illuminated bar under the viewfinder image in this order: focus indicators, flash ready signal, shutter speed, exposure mode symbol, aperture value, manual mode indicators, and metering mode symbol. The manual mode indicators are also good, because rather than being arrows and/or dotted lines, they consist of a + or - sign and a number - very easy to comprehend.

Finally, and before I move onto presenting some of the Maxxum 9000 accessories, here are a few technical details I haven't touched upon:

  • electronically controlled vertical traverse metal shutter with stepless speeds (in P and A modes) from 30 sec to 1/4000 sec. plus 'bulb',
  • multiple exposures possible,
  • viewfinder shows 94% of the captured scene with a magnification of 0.81x (with standard lens),
  • in-built diopter adjustment in the -3 to +1 range.

The MD-90 Motor Drive

The MD-90 motor drive is a formidable beast. To start with, it needs a total of twelve (12) AA size batteries to operate. It attaches to the camera without a need to remove the camera's bottom plate.

Minolta Motor Drive MD-90

The film winding speed can be varied in three steps, and the top speed is five frames per second. Not lightning fast, but remember, we are talking about the mid 1980's. (This is comparable to the Nikon MD-4 motor drive for the F3.) There are also settings for single frame operation and continuous film advance with focus priority. I believe, these two have been carried over from the Maxxum 7000, which offers them as built-in functions. There is also a conveniently located shutter release button to use in portrait orientation.

Program Back 90

Two program backs were offered for the Maxxum 9000; the 90 and the Super 90. The latter had a range of advanced functions, such as imprinting of exposure data, automatic bracketing, intervallometer, etc. The 90 was simpler, although it did offer intervallometer and long time exposure functions over and above the usual date imprint. The Program Back 90 is depicted below. (Notice the white stuff on the rubber grip. This is due to the aging of the rubber - a typical occurrence with old camera equipment.)

Minolta Program Back 90

Both backs connect to the camera via pins, not cables as in some earlier implementations. The exposure for data imprinting is determined by the camera automatically.

The CG-1000 Control Grip Set

This set consist of the following components: the CG-1000 control grip, battery cartridge for six AA-size batteries, the BR-1000 camera bracket, the AI-1000 AF illuminator unit and the EC-1000 grip extension cable.

Minolta CG-1000 Control Grip Set

The CG-1000 control grip set was designed for the Maxxum 7000 and 9000 cameras. Of course, it is not much use without a flash. The three compatible Minolta flash units are the 2800AF, the 4000AF, and the 1200AF macro flash. (Minolta calls these 'program flashes'.) The control grip and flash, or flashes, can be configured in a few different ways - two of them are shown on the pictures below.

There are basically two main reasons why a photographer would want to use the control grip: off camera flash operation with TTL control, and increased flash output with additional flash units. (Extra batteries in the control grip also mean quicker recycle time.)

TTL flash metering is maintained when a flash is moved from the camera hot-shoe to the control grip, however, the built-in auto-focus assist of the 2800AF and 4000AF flashes will no longer work. To restore auto-focus assist, the AI-1000 illuminator unit has to be mounted on the camera. The next picture demonstrates this simple setup.

Minolta 9000 with flash

Greater flexibility in positioning the flash is possible when the 5m long grip extension cable is inserted between the grip and the camera bracket. A further improvement on this setup is one where the illuminator unit is replaced with another 2800AF (or 4000AF) flash. (The 4000AF is the more advanced of the two flash units - its head can be rotated around the horizontal axis.) Furthermore, there is a PC flash connector socket on the handle of the grip to which a third flash can be connected. However, TTL flash metering does not control this flash, and it will not work by itself. Its intended purpose is to illuminate the background in portrait photography.

Minolta 9000 and Control Grip

There is a so called RATIO switch on the control grip. When this switch is on, flash output is balanced in such a way that the off camera (main) flash provides two-thirds of the total exposure and the (fill-in) flash on the camera the remaining one-third. This is a simple and effective setup that works well enough in many situations.

This equipment - together with a second flash unit - had been used by a wedding photographer for many years before it landed in my collection. It provided his livelihood and he was very fond of it, but when digital took over he could no longer afford to stay with it.




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