Minolta XE-1

The mid 70's saw the birth of Minolta's first auto-exposure enabled SLR, the Minolta XE-1. This is undoubtedly a nice looking camera. It must have been a good design, because in a partnership with Minolta, Leitz borrowed certain parts of it to re-use in their Leica R3 camera.

The XE-1 departed from the earlier range of cameras - the SR T series - in many ways, so I'll spend some time going through its functions and controls.

As opposed to Minolta's earlier SLRs, this is an electronic camera - it won't be of much use without a battery. (When a battery is not installed, the shutter operates at a constant speed of 1/90 sec. on the X setting. On B the shutter stays open as long as the shutter release button is held down. On other shutter speed settings the shutter will release, but the shutter blades won't open properly and the mirror stays in the 'up' position blanking out the viewfinder. To return the mirror to its resting place, simply turn the shutter speed selector dial to B or X.) Thankfully, the battery to use in this camera is no longer the 1.3 volt Mercury battery, but the easily obtainable 3 volt CR 1/3 N or equivalent.

With the electronic shutter comes the now well-known aperture priority automatic exposure setting. It is a standard feature on modern cameras, but in the 1970's this was groundbreaking new technology. I do use this setting a lot, because, while I like to have perfect control over the depth-of-field, I don't care much about the exact shutter speed (within a predictable range, of course). The added benefit of the AUTO setting is that the camera is able to fire the shutter at in-between speed settings, thus making the exposure even more accurate (provided the light metering is right). Naturally, there is a facility to compensate for non-average lighting conditions with a dial that operates in the range of +2 to -2 EV values. (Click stops are at full values.) This is all the more important, because this camera doesn't have a light reading memory (AE-L) button.

For those situations when one wishes to set the shutter speed manually the range goes from as low as 8 sec. to 1/1000 sec. plus B and X for electronic flash synchronisation. (But, as I mentioned before, a battery is still needed for manual operation.) One last thing to say about the shutter is that it consists of metal blades and has a vertical movement.

Now, let 's walk through the controls with the help of the three pictures here.

On the top left of the camera we find the exposure compensation dial and the ASA dial. Both of these have safety locks; the button at the 2 o'clock position is for the ASA dial, and the less easily visible one at the 11 o'clock position is for the exposure compensation dial. Thankfully, there is no safety lock for the camera back release - the back opens the usual way by pulling up the rewind knob. (I say 'thankfully', because these wrenched safety locks drive me mad. I find them completely unnecessary and a real nuisance. Nikon is the worse in this regard. Sometimes it seems to me that engineers spent more time and effort inventing ways to prevent things from happening than creating ways to enable the photographer to do something. I missed quite a few 'decisive moments' because of some stupid safety lock.)

On the right hand side of the camera the thing to mention is the little switch with a black plastic top. This is for the multiple exposure function - another new feature on Minolta cameras.

Down at the back we see the On-Off switch and a little window for the frame counter. (It shows the number of pictures already taken.) The shutter button is locked when the On-Off switch is in the Off position. When turned on, the light meter is also turned on. So, if one doesn't want to deplete the battery too soon, one has to keep switching the camera on-and-off all the time (just like with the SR T 101). This is less than ideal. To make things worse, the switch is not as easy to operate as one would hope to.

The view-finder window has a shutter to prevent stray light from entering and interfering with the light meter when, say, one uses the self-timer to take self portraits. Very convenient. The control to operate the blinds can be seen to the left of the viewfinder window. Finally, there is a memo holder with an ASA - DIN conversion table printed inside it. I suppose this is to compensate for the fact that the film speed setting dial is only marked with ASA numbers.

The battery check switch received a place on the side of the camera. When the tiny lever is pushed down (with some effort), the red light lights up, if the battery is healthy. (It is interesting to note that these three controls - the On-Off switch, the view-finder window shutter switch, and the battery check switch - have the same shape and operate in the same way. Perhaps the designer was exceptionally fond of this form. The uniformity of design looks pleasing, but I find these switches somewhat difficult to turn.)

The push-button on the side of the mirror housing is the lens lock release. I think this is an improvement over what we saw on the SR series of cameras. Below this button is the flash connection socket and the switch with which either X or FP synchronisation can be selected.

Notice the tiny window on the front of the prism housing just above the letter m. This is a sign of another new feature; in this camera, there is a shutter speed readout in the viewfinder, and this is the illumination window for it. This is roughly what the user sees inside the viewfinder:

In manual operation, the user selected shutter speed is displayed in the little window at the top and the needle on the right shows what the camera thinks is the correct shutter speed. On AUTO setting, an A appears in the viewfinder readout, and the light meter needle shows the shutter speed chosen by the camera.

Did you notice the aperture stop-down switch on the first picture? If you are familiar with the SR T 101 you might think that this camera is shown with the aperture stopped down. But, although the switch looks the same, it works differently on the XE-1. In pressed-in position (as on the picture), the aperture is open. Press and release... the rod pops out and the aperture closes down. Furthermore, and this is a good change, the switch can be operated at any time, not just when the shutter is cocked.

In summary, this is a very nice camera. Well built (actually, quite heavy) and has a number of attractive features, which make it a great user. For a time I though this will be the camera of my choice - the one that I'll carry with me everywhere and get to know it like the back of my hand. But, I eventually strayed away from it. Two things got in the way; the On-Off switch was just too inconvenient, and the lack of a mirror lock-up function proved to be too great a limitation. (I don't know why Minolta dropped it after already offering it on the SR T 101 and even on the SR-7.)

Further reading:

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