2.03.2017

Svelte in Steel: The Minolta Vectis 300

It may be the three letters that the film photographic community wishes to forget the most, or at least the three letters that have been most forgotten...

A P S

Promised to be the next generation of film format that would be able to adopt all that technology had to offer at the time, the Advanced Photo System, which debuted in 1996, turned out to be much ado about nothing.  Largely aimed at the casual consumer market, the 24mm wide film format enabled multiple print formats from the same roll, title and data printing on print backs, mid-roll changes, and data exchanges for optimal print quality.

After a somewhat rocky start of getting the infrastructure in place to APS film across the country, the APS film format briefly made inroads into share of the film photography market in the late 1990's, before the full scale advent of consumer digital camera imaging, which tore deeply into its market share.  The film format officially held on to about 2011 before being discontinued.  

The reasons for the failure of APS are many, and since the internet has been around for its entire history, there is much written online to document the timeline of the rise and fall of the format. Today, there is little in the way of nostalgia for the format; in fact there is often downright resentment for it being a "gimmick" to which the camera and film manufactures placed their attention instead of the existing formats.  Still, some of the best features of the format made their way into the last models of 35mm cameras, or were adopted and refined in digital formats popular today.  

While a handful of consumers may stubbornly shoot their APS cameras and remaining stock, there seems little in the way of nostalgia for the format or the cameras which defined it.  The result is that for the savvy shooter, there are a nice mix of interesting bargains available in APS.  Film of still quite usable vintage can be had for under $3 per roll online, while some nicely featured APS cameras are a great bargain on the used market.  This is just one such camera...




While there were some APS cameras with a robust feature set similar to semi-pro cameras in 35mm, it was generally a consumer level dominated format, and the Minolta Vectis 300 was among the APS cameras on the ultra-compact end of the line.  Little did I know when I bought it that it was a pioneer of sorts, being the first consumer product made using techniques of stamping stainless steel parts.  The result is a particularly handsome product with fluted lines that mimic art deco cameras of the early days of film photography, but sheathed in a stainless steel finish that is completely contemporary in look.  


"Grandpa, is that you?!?" said the large refrigerator to the tiny camera.

Starting up and examining an Vectis 300, it becomes pretty obvious that it was designed with a consumer market in mind.  It seems more designed to be a well protected tag-along that can be tucked into pants or purse than a vehicle for creative options photographically. This is reinforced to a large degree by the very simple user interface that consists of the typical "fill flash/red eye flash/no flash" button plus a self-timer button, as well as the essential zoom buttons.

This is not to say that the camera is entirely shabby in its specifications.  The camera does offer a minimum focusing distance of 40mm, which is quite suitable for some macro applications. Though the 24-70mm lens is slow at about f/5.7 on the wide end (which only gets worse as the camera is zoomed outward), a maximum shutter speed of 8 seconds would certainly seem helpful for low light photos when tripod mounted.  The camera also offers a "night portrait" mode, a fairly common feature around the time the camera was made, to help burn in dark backdrop settings for flash photos. 

The main aspects that distinguish the 1999 vintage Vectis 300 from the typical 35mm point and shoot of the same time period are a smaller size form factor as well the presence of a small switch next to the viewfinder to mask (and denote) the three different aspect ratios of the APS format: Classic (designed for 4x6 printing), High (designed for 4x7 printing) and Panoramic (designed for 4x10 printing).  To my knowledge the ability to print in these three separate formats has almost entirely vanished since the discontinuation of the format, but was once a signature feature of the APS format.



Few buttons control the Minolta Vectis 300, and they are all conveniently located in a proximate location on the top rear of the camera.

Admittedly. the shooting experience with the Vectis 300 was a bit lacking.  Having shot with other 35mm point and shoot cameras of the era which often feature spot meter modes or even multiple exposures, I often felt stymied by the very limited feature set of the Vectis 300.  I often felt like I had little say in being able to do anything to sway the decisions made with regard to focus and exposure of the images I was taking.  This lack of involvement in the process only dampened my enthusiasm for the Vectis 300.  It was a feeling pretty similar to that of using the Yashica T2.  


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The clever design of the Vectis 300 keeps the lens well protected when not in use, while quickly retracting on start up.

Disappointment aside, the Vectis 300 did seem to perform as advertised while shooting. The camera started up quickly, zoomed and focused readily, and methodically worked through a roll of Kodak Advantix 400 with an no-nonsense precision that I could appreciate.  It's small size made it a nicely discrete lunch time partner, while the durable casing allowed the camera to be unfazed at being tossed into the camera bag with bigger and heavier vintage equipment.  From all of these angles, the Vectis 300 was a very high quality product.

But as with any camera, the true test of a camera's worthiness comes from the images it produces.  I'd selected a higher speed film to work optimally with the slow lens of the Vectis, but as APS film is no longer in production, the film was expired.  And as anyone who shoots expired film can generally attest, slower is better from the perspective of countering the effects of age.

The scans that returned from Dwayne's were certainly grainy, resulting from a combination of the smaller film format, the film age, and the higher film speed.  Fortunately, the grain wasn't unbearable, and color reproduction was still quite good.  Yet, for someone like me used to the grain levels of 35mm and larger formats using generally slower film, the presence of this grain took me aback at first.  Below are my first results from the Vectis. 




I often start off my examples with a night scene, but I open this time with a pair of macros, which were my first shots taken with this camera.  In the above one, the flash fired off, but the one below uses entirely natural light.  Though I rarely desire to use flash, I have to concede the one above is certainly the better of the two, and that the Vectis did a good job in hitting the focus perfectly. 


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I never seem to be in the right setting when those evenings of dramatic colors hit as dusk approaches. So forgive the drab sprawl scenery in the foreground.  Despite the grain, the Advantix 400 did a decent job with colors and tonality to the dramatic sky behind.


Amid a long stretch of dreary Winter days, I often struggled to find the desire to shoot the Vectis, but made efforts nonetheless.  This obstructed view of a church spire is certainly sharp and offers good gradation and tonality. 


On a smaller format, achieving limited depth of field can be a real challenge.  I focused upon the wreath at left and recomposed.  While some softening of background details are evident, the slow lens really hinders the ability to mute out background details to provide the feeling of depth to the images.


The somewhat unusual aspect ratio of the APS format worked well for some compositions.  This church entrance fits perfectly in the frame, and gives off a near perfect symmetry! The details in hte image help mute the graininess of the film. 



Regrettably, the Vectis 300 struggled greatly with low light shots, despite having an 8 second maximum shutter speed.  Both of these images exhibit excess grain and terrible shadow detail. 




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Despite 400 speed film seeming the ideal companion for dreary days, the Vectis still seems to underexpose, resulting in poor detail.  The small lens also seems to vignette to a large degree as well. 


A day of Jury service kept me in Frederick one day, and provided me with a chance for a lunch time walk with the Vectis accompanied by a fresh dusting of snow.  The murky portrayal of this scene with poor shadow detail hinder this camera's usefulness. 


The artificial greens in the basket in foreground simply render as a "blob of blah" in this shot.  The building in the background is threatened with demolition soon.  It will be a shame to lose that classic ad as a photo op.


The overcast conditions improved slightly when taking this shot, but there is still quite a lot lost in murk. 



Even at dusk, it seems the Vectis struggles to achieve a proper exposure.  A "backlight" button to add a stop and a half of exposure to these images could have greatly helped fill in the missing details. 




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Sharpness? Yes.  Decent colors among lighter parts of the scene? Yes. 
Pleased with the result am I? No.


Another shot taken without the backlight renders OK, but still could have benefitted from some added exposure. 


Under favorable lighting conditions, the Vectis returned some decent images, though some vignetting is still evident.  I have a few more images taken under bright light on this day, but they will post in a separate article that will post very soon! 

In spite of its vague initial resemblances to a classic Kodak Bantam, the Minolta Vectis 300 lacks most of the versatility of most Bantam models.  Despite it's slow lens and limited functionality, I'd hoped the advertised 8 second maximum shutter speed would be enough to carry it through most shooting situations, but sadly it rarely, if ever seems to properly capitalize on this feature to make the most of its hardware limitations.  Add in the greatly limited shooting input and feature set and the result is a camera that is usable only in more ideally lit settings.  The macro capabilities, while nice, are certainly not enough to push this camera into regular use by this quirky guy.

With a sweet form factor and a durable shell, the Vectis 300 would have seemed the perfect platform for something a bit, well, better.  It's not difficult to imagine this camera upgraded with a faster lens of more modest zoom, and a few more fun features.  It's advent into the film world as the digital genre was about to embark on its most fruitful years put the kibosh on any such possibilities though, and the result is that we are left with a camera body laden with potential that is teetering on the brink of true obsolescence due to its use of a technology dependent format whose use will only shrink with each passing year.

I will likely give the Vectis 300 another shot at some point, using some slower speed film and keeping sight of its restrictions.  Still, unlike many other cameras whose shooting experience and results have me clamoring to use them again, the Vectis will not be high in my queue.