Agent Double-0-Thirty Five: The Minox 35ML

Just yesterday, I posted an article covering one camera that I'd hoped might be a 35mm version of my beloved Bantam, and here, a mere 24 hours later, I'm posting an article on another similar camera, at least when it comes to size, form factor, and country of origin.

Typically I deliberately try to keep my articles staggered.  An SLR camera review isn't followed with another SLR camera review, Rangefinders don't follow other rangefinders, and so forth.  However, in this case, two cameras of a different build type, but both offering some features to make them something of a 35mm Kodak Bantam, have managed to pace behind each other.  

In the case of this review, this similarity comes in the form of the Minox 35ML, a tiny and amazing piece of machinery in 35mm format that, for lack of a better descriptor, is best termed as a modern day compact folding camera. 

While not entirely spy-worthy, the Minox 35ML is an amazingly small device.

The Minox 35ML comes from a photographic icon famous in the photographic community for its smaller "Spy Cameras" utilizing tiny devices to record 8x11mm images on small size film.  The Minox name brings to mind the thrilling world of James Bond movies from the 1960's and 1970's, as a means to discretely take images of documents. These cameras still have a following to this day keeping the medium alive and well.

Less known however are Minox's 35mm offerings, which stay very true to the maker's tendency to create amazingly compact devices with a surprising amount of functionality.  I had never noted the presence of Minox in the sphere of 35mm film photography when I suddenly stumbled upon one for sale at a local Goodwill for a modest $25.  I picked it up and could immediately see what a unique gem of a camera this was.

Despite a very plastic build that looks directly from the 1980's, the 35ML carried a certain precisionate charm to it, with an amazingly tiny footprint when folded up.  It wasn't quite "007" stealth in size, but it was without question the smallest size I had (or have) ever seen in a full frame 35mm camera, which makes perfect sense, as from most accounts, it is the smallest full frame 135 camera ever made.  

But in creating a super small camera, Minox did not simply do the bare minimum and offer a fixed focus setting or two, and a spring shutter tensioned for a "safe" speed to make an in focus image from a slow lens on high speed film.  Instead, the ML 35 offers a remarkable amount of control for its size, while having enough heft to manage an image, even without flash, in most lighting situations. 

The center piece of the 35ML is a 35mm Color Minotar f/2.8 lens that can be scale focused down to 0.9 meters using the small ring on the lens barrel.  Additionally, the camera can be decidedly set from any aperture between f/2.8 and f/16.  As well, it can be set on "P" to allow programmed exposure. Setting the aperture instead will put the camera in "Aperture Priority" mode and provide auto exposure for all shots, provided that it falls within the ML35's shutter speed range of 1 second to 1/500 second.   Shutter speed information is provided using small red LED lights in the viewfinder.

To add even more to the feature set, the Minox has a self timer as well as an exposure compensation switch that will double the length of time the shutter is open, very useful when shooting backlit scenes.  One can even use a threaded cable release with the 35ML as well.  The camera operates on a single PX-28 cell, which is not the easiest battery to find, but can still be easily sourced with a little bit of looking. 

The Minox 35ML shows a 1980's type of design that manages to be tasteful in a plasticky kind of way.  Unfolded, the camera's layout sets the main two setting controls in plain view and near proxmity. The orange button is the shutter release. 

Film speed is simply set using a dial on the bottom that ranges from ISO 25 to ISO 1600, and offers a secondary way to adjust exposures if make-shift EV compensation is needed in a pinch.   What this all adds up to is a pseudo-point and shoot camera that is anything but a point and shoot camera.

Given that point and shoot cameras can often be lean on truly useful features or control, it is refreshing to see the bevy of options possible with the 35ML.  The attention to detail and ergonomics is quite well in that controls are generally well placed and labels pretty self-explanatory, despite taking up such a modest amount of real estate.  A few cost and weight concessions are evident, from the plastic orange and black construction that looks like it belongs in an old Sharper Image catalogue, to the 2-piece "Double V" aperture iris that results in a diamond shaped opening.

Retailing for about $190 when it was a contemporary camera model in 1985, the miniature Minox had a price tag far above the basic $30-60 point and shoot cameras of the time, but still well below the advanced SLR cameras of the era.  It's main selling point was obviously its size, and that said size came without sacrificing much in the way of functionality.  Using a 35ML, one finds that there are few situations where the little Minox is completely unable to yield an image.

Discrete but convenient features allow the use of backlight compensation, as seen above.  The switch on the back sets the self-timer.  Below can be seen the modest profile of the 35ML compared to a much newer and very compact camera in the Nikon Lite Touch Zoom 80

However, with a wide angle lens and a limited range of shutter speeds, the 35ML is not always the optimal camera for every situation.  This isn't likely to be the take along to snap close in action shots of your little leaguer from the bleachers, and with its tendency to be a bit on the delicate side, is also not the ideal option for a day spent on the sandy beaches.

What the 35ML does manage to be is the camera that you carry with you daily without it burdening you.  It slips easily into pockets, purses, backpacks, and laptop bags, taking up a minimum of space when folded, and nicely protected by its leatherette case.  It's an ideal carry on for an airplane that doesn't have to count as your "personal item" and doesn't violate the "electronic devices rule."

And despite its small size and controls, handling a 35ML is reasonably easy.  You can flip the aperture dial to "P" if you wish not to concentrate on anything more than estimating focus distance, or you can elect to control both aperture and subject focus distance.  Either way, the automatic exposure system will deliver a well exposed shot in most lighting conditions. 

In the course of just over a year, I was actually surprised at how many times I've turned to the 35ML.  Given its small size and reasonably worry free use however, it is one of the easier cameras to take off the shelf when I want something that I know I can use that will yield good results.  It also makes an easy addition to a seemingly full camera bag to have just one more well featured camera on hand that I can make use of.

Simple LED lights work in conjunction with the viewfinder overlay to offer basic exposure information details.  A sun symbol and shade icon show if exposure exceeds the range of the camera's exposure system.  Below, the folded camera can be seen in a relative size.  The title of the book says it all. 

The Minox does have a few quibbles however that make it less than ideal to use.  One minor gripe is that the focusing ring only shows distances in meters.  For most of the world, this is little of an issue, but for an American used to thinking of "feet first," the need to multiply each number on the dial by "roughly 3" to estimate distance adds a little bit of time to the photo taking process.  Another minor gripe is the double stroke film advance.  After each photo, the user should advance the film by stroking the short throw film advance TWICE. While seemingly just an annoyance, not doing this can lead to failure of the camera over time, as the shutter cocking mechanism relies on magnets that will weaken over time if the shutter is left uncocked.  

My main issue with the Minox 35ML however is what I call "battery deception." As the battery wears down below usable levels, the LED indicators in the viewfinder will still briefly light between shots, the shutter release will still depress, and sound (the shutter on this camera is extremely quiet as it is) as if it is functioning, and the camera will happily allow you to continue through a roll of film on dead batteries. I discovered this the hard way as I entrusted this camera to a roll of fresh Fuji Velvia 50 to record the most colorful moments on our trip to Maine last Summer, only to get back a strip of mostly dark exposures with a few intermittent shots completely overexposed.  In use, it pays to make careful observation of the LED lights in the viewfinder, or to use the battery check button near the shutter release.  

This issue aside, the 35ML has delivered me several rolls of sharp and problem-free images, all in a size smaller than a modest paperback book when folded.  The level of controls on the camera are quite nice, but I've discovered, aren't as artistically versatile as I'd hoped.  Below are samples from a couple of rolls shot on this Minox mini.  

In the busy and often security-paranoid confines of Union Station, a small discreet camera like the 35ML makes it pretty easy to snap photos on the go without missing a step!

At less hectic environments, the 35ML was even easier to use, as the distance dial in meters makes us Americans have to "translate" a bit. 

My overall impression of the Minotar lens is that it is impeccably sharp despite its small size. 

The exposure system of the 35ML handled a wide range of scenes capably and accurately.

Shots in broad daylight tend to be readily handled by the Minox.

Delta 100 made an overall good choice for the 35ML, as the lens was generally fast enough for most situations. 

On occasion, I could get limited depth of field shots on the Minox, but they were pretty rare.  This was one of my better efforts. 

An early morning image at Washington Union Station picks up some great tonality through the Minotar 35mm lens. 

Another impressive result, helped by the "2X" switch.  Using the add-on features isn't always recalled as being an option, but they do work as intended when you do remember them.

Motion shots in early morning were something for which the 35ML was suprisingly up for.  The results, while not perfect, are impressive to say the least. 

Another try at shallow depth of field.  The focus is correct, but the out of focis rendering isn't the most poetic. 

Despite its lack of dreamy bokeh, the lens holds its own in the sharpness field.  It is rather surprising to think of how small the camera was which rendered this fine image.

Ilford FP4

I grabbed up the 35ML again in 2017 to give it another try.  The sharpness again impressed me though I was again less than thrilled with the lack of bokeh on my first tries. 

For quick general street shooting though, the 35ML is an easy to use winner, delivering sharp image after sharp image. 

This 35ML has outlasted the circus, whose wagons made one last trip into the Nations Capitol. 

Yet again, if one isn't looking for artistic background rendering, the 35ML will yield a sharp negative that offers great detail and tonality.

I need to give it up.  I'm just not going to get the dreamy bokeh and muted backdrops I had hoped with this camera and its oddly shaped aperture diamond. 

Again, the camera just delivers a very sharp image that is noticeable both near and from afar.  With a little bit of good educated guessing at distances, this camera will do most or all of the left over work to deliver.

After sending several rolls of film through the 35ML, I've come to the following conclusions.  This is a fantastic camera to carry along on its own, or to readily toss in the camera bag to squeeze one more (familar) camera in as a backup.  This can work great when you have a unique film type such as color transparencies that you may wish to have handy in case you see a shot that begs for that medium.  The 35ML will reward you with sharp, contrasty, and well exposed images that certainly don't look as if they came from a camera of this size.

What the 35ML doesn't really do however, is enable much of anything in the way of creativity.  Bokeh is pretty bland, and there is no way to do multiple exposures or bulb exposures.  This little Minox won't transform your world into dreamy scenes but will more or less offer faithful and more literal renditions of your surroundings as they are, through a good range of lighting conditions.  

As such, this little camera makes a great companion for a day of landscape shooting in bright light or otherwise, while offering enough versatility and options to take a reasonable portrait or moderate close up as needed.  It won't make you feel like James Bond per se, but it will make you feel like it is capable of discreetly taking some very good photos that will be free of major goofs.

Just make sure you check the batteries!