Recently, I published a review on YouTube of the Minolta X-700 where I enthusiastically recommended it as one of the best cameras a new photographer could buy if they want to try their hand at 35mm film. I still stick by my endorsement of the X-700 but to my surprise, I got quite a few e-mails asking me about another Minolta SLR from the same era and what my thoughts were on that particular model. It seems that the Minolta XD-11 has a bit of a cult following out there hidden within the anonymity of the internet so I thought I would take a moment to write about another solid choice from the minds of Minolta.
Working with most SLR’s is like writing a letter with a ball point pen. They are blunt instruments capable of getting a job done easily, cheaply, and with efficiency. They are plentiful and easy to acquire and they are more or less suited to the task they are designed for. I don’t mean this as a negative toward SLR’s mind you. Quite the opposite. I consider it a compliment. There is nothing wrong with a tool designed to be used by the masses with universal appeal.
However, the Minolta XD-11 is a little bit different. It is more like the fancy fountain pen your Great Uncle buys for you when you graduate college. It still does the same job, but it just feels a bit more elegant, more classy, and more refined. It’s the tool that inspires a bit more confidence, and gives the task at hand that little extra something that inspires you to do what you want to do better and with more purpose and thought behind your choices.
Just to illustrate this point a little further, the Minolta “XD” series of cameras were eventually used by Leica as the starting point for their “R” series of SLR’s. That is how lovely this camera is to hold and how much confidence it inspires. When a camera company that is synonymous with perfect precision and perfection like Leica takes a blueprint from Minolta to use as a design standard for their own SLR you know you have something special on your hands.
On the surface I consider the XD-11 to be just about perfect in terms of shape and size. It’s big enough in your hands to feel substantial but doesn’t feel overly large or heavy. The general fit and finish feels solid. Squeeze the camera in your hand and nothing creeks or bends. It’s that sort of build quality that leaves one with the impression that nothing will eventually wear out or fall apart. Controls move freely without feeling overly tight or floppy.
The body is wrapped in a sort of “leather-like” substance that feels incredibly soft in the hand. I’m not sure what the material really is but I’m pretty confident it isn’t actually leather. It is very pleasant to the touch however, and really dampens the vibration of the mirror and the shutter when holding the XD-11 up to your eye. It’s a great touch that really sets the XD-11 up a notch and gives it a luxury sort of vibe.
The XD-11 is one of those rare cameras that has all the features you need and none of the features you don’t. This is something that obviously varies from photographer to photographer but as far as I’m concerned a perfect camera has manual controls that can be adjusted by touch: aperture priority mode, a threaded shutter release, exposure compensation of +/- two stops, and ISO adjustment. Everything else is just extra fluff in my mind that gets in the way of what could be a clean and fast control design. In the case of the XD-11 that fluff comes in the form of a shutter priority mode, which I never use. It is always interesting to me how photographers such as myself will pay a premium for and crave a camera for its simplicity as opposed to all the extra bells and whistles one finds on modern equipment. Sometimes it is about what a camera doesn’t have that makes it special.
Manual controls are easy to use by feel and are located exactly where they should be. The shutter speed dial is large and well dampened while the ISO dial is appropriately small (theoretically you don’t change film speed all that as often). Exposure compensation comes in the form of switch on the top left that is easy to change when you want to and impossible to accidentally nudge when you don’t. An interesting feature to note, the shutter control dial has an ‘O’ setting which I had to look up when I first purchased my XD-11. Evidently, it sets the shutter speed to 1/100th of a second and will work even when the camera has a dead battery. So if you are in a pinch without battery power the camera will still work at a useful shutter speed with full manual aperture control.
Aperture is dialed in on the lens barrel just like one would expect and your setting can be viewed by both taking the camera away from you eye or in the lower portion of the viewfinder when you are about to take a picture.
The viewfinder of the XD-11 is easily one of my favorites of any 35mm SLR. It is big, clear, and very bright. It is also perfectly simple and just like the rest of the camera, gives the photographer everything you need and nothing you don’t. Different focusing screeds are available for the XD-11 but mine has both a split prism and a matte screen, which work nicely together in low light.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again on this review, Minolta made some of the finest camera glass of any manufacturer ever. This is especially true of their manual focus lenses. There is just something special about them to my eye and I consider them every bit the equal of the glass that came from Leica and Zeiss and a cut above most of the glass from Canon and Nikon. I realize this is purely subjective and many people would disagree with me. Minolta lenses are sharp without looking too clinical (I’m looking at YOU Canon), and the bokeh looks painterly as opposed to just simply out of focus. The standout lens in my mind is the every day simple standard 50mm f/1.4 but just about any piece of glass with the “Rokkor” name on it will produce lovely results.
Total side note, Minolta, just like many camera companies, used a separate brand name on their lenses, in this case being Rokkor. I had always wondered were this name camera from and assumed it meant something in Japanese. Turns out I was right. After a quick Google search it turns out the name is a reference to Mount Rokko in Japan which was located right next to the Minolta factory. Good to know!
This link right here is a great page to get some further details on Minolta lenses.
In my experience, the Minolta XD-11 can be a bit tougher to find than the more popular and massed produced Minolta X-700. It is for that reason alone that I tend to recommend the X-700 for beginning photographers over the XD-11. The massive amount of X-700s on the used market make it incredibly cheap and very easy to repair. However it cannot be denied that the XD-11 is a better camera overall. The control layout is a bit easier to use, the construction materials nicer, and the viewfinder more useful.
From what I understand, in Europe the camera was designated the XD-9 and in Japan it was just simply the XD, so if you find a camera body with either of those designations they are ultimately the same as the XD-11. The XD-11 also tends to go for a heftier price tag than similar SLR’s of the era but if you can find one for under two-hundred dollars or so in good condition I would recommend jumping on it, especially if it comes with some nice glass like the 50mm Rokkor f/1.4.
You absolutely will not regret it.