6.08.2017

Overshadowed Overachiever: The Minolta Maxxum 5

A few months ago, I waxed poetic about an oft-overlooked Minolta camera model, remarking of its many charms, and insisting that it was a great sleeper find that was overlooked due to all of the attention of its slightly more capable siblings that hog the spotlight.

Well, prepare yourself for more of that.


Like a Hollywood reboot brought 30 years forward from its original setting, I'm once again here to espouse the virtues of an oft-overlooked Minolta camera model that I feel to be a phenomenal bargain in the marketplace today.  


To those of us either discovering or re-discovering film, the myriad of Minolta Maxxum models and their generational successions can be a daunting learning curve.  However, the one most novel standout from the procession of about 15 years of Minolta "Maxxum" film SLR models is the Minolta Maxxum (Dynax) 7, an amazing machine that uses an intuitive LCD display on the back to display settings.  It is a film camera that can easily be mistaken for a DSLR, and regularly fetches upwards of $100 on the used market.  It has, to this date, retained a certain degree of cult status that is only reinforced by the scarcity and price in the used market.


But for a mere fraction of the price of a Minolta Maxxum 7, a comprehensively featured alternative in this same line up can be readily found in working condition: a light weight camera excellently suited for advanced film photography on a budget. This my friends, is the Minolta Maxxum 5.



Unlike the dated look of many Maxxum line cameras of the 1980's and 1990's , the 2000 vintage Maxxum 5 presents a fairly contemporary look in comparison.
Standing in the shadows of its much adored sibling, the purchase of a Minolta Maxxum 5 can often be seen as settling, and in some ways it is.  But this is no bland vanilla camera in the least.  Despite its small size and light weight, the Maxxum 5 crams an impressive number of features into a portable and easy to carry package that offers all the easy quick features, but doesn't skimp on the nice extras and specs.

These include a 1/4000 minimum shutter speed, multiple exposure and bracketing modes, manually selectable ISO speeds ranging from 6-6400 in deference to the DX coding detection, continuous autofocus availability and 7-point selectable autofocus, exposure compensation, as well as a "panic" button to quickly throw out any settings and return to the default settings and ready to set in the Program mode.


Also available are 14 customizations that allow you to tailor your Maxxum 5 to behave how you wish.  This behavior may include the leaving of film leaders out after rewinding, the metering pattern around focus points, or flash and program settings, among other items. The camera does feature on-demand spot metering and depth of field preview as well. 





The Maxxum's front display is modest and clean, and admittedly matches the more recent lenses more than older Maxxum lenses. The top display is full of options, yet manages to reign them in to be readily used, though the well written manual is often required to decode things such as custom functions.    The top deck LCD is small but generally pretty clear with its information.



So why would one want to buy into the Minolta system as opposed to those made by their competition of the time?  In a nutshell, it comes down to the lenses and their cost.  No other platform allows the opportunity to pick up such a wide range of well made OEM lenses at a comparative fraction compared to other makers.  In other words, if you like having a range of various AF zoom lenses to use on your camera, and don't want to spend a huge amount of money to spend, you'll likely do best with Minolta.


AF Leneses of the first and second generation tend to have the best reputations for build and image quality and can often be found in auction lots with older Minolta bodies like the 3000i or 7000.  I've even been fortunate enough to find lenses on my list in cheap auction sales mounted onto other Maxxum 5 bodies.


Combine these older lenses with the ca. 2000 build Maxxum 5 and you've got the basis for an extremely capable film camera system that is both fun to shoot and can handle pretty much whatever is thrown its way.  The 5's aluminum and textured black finish may not "match" the smooth black onyx finish of the early lenses, but that's entirely cosmetic, as the pairing the well built 1980's lenses with the turn of the millenium body will provide the best of both worlds when it comes to a robust yet easy to use shooting experience that provides results of excellent quality.





Smaller "on-the-fly" controls can be found in generally convenient places that don't require removing one's eye from the viewfinder.  These include flash and EV compensation buttons near the lens mount, and spot metering and AF point selection on the rear deck. 


Don't get me wrong - holding a Maxxum 5 with a 1988 era 75-300 lens attached won't make you feel like you look like a professional, but it will make you feel like a savvy stealth.  This small camera punches in an array of settings and features into very well thought out machine.  There are some modern extras such as an "Eye Start" focus that senses the camera being lifted to your eyes.  I found this feature to be frivolous, but not annoying enough to disable using the easy to use control dial.

What I did find were other features that the Maxxum 5 capably handles in an intuitive fashion.  Changing the modes between P/A/S/M is slightly more involved than some other cameras, but is by no means painful.  Dialing in EV compensation is a cinch, Switching AF modes - easy.  The consolidation of a lot of features (that don't need to be reached on the fly) onto the well marked command dial makes for less hunting around the camera to find the setting you need.  It also helps that the manual for the Maxxum 5 is particularly well written and easy to follow.


My one guilty pleasure feature of the Maxxum 5 that I really love is where focus and shutter settings are locked when the shutter is held half-way down.  It's straight from the world of point and shoot cameras, but I've found it hugely handy in instances where small points of focus don't naturally fall over a focus sensor.  Rather than hunt for lock buttons, it simply locks it, and lets you reset it if you choose by simply releasing and then depressing the shutter release again.  Sometimes the nicest things stem from the simplest of touches.


A powerful suite on the cheap: this complement of 2 Maxxum 5 bodies plus the 1st generation 50mm lens and the 2nd generation 35-105mm and 75-300mm lenses was all had for under $100. 

Not only is image quality better regarded on older lenses, but build quality is also nicer.  The 2nd generation 35-105mm lens has a metal lens mount, the later era 28-80mm has a plastic mount.  Unlike the affordable options from makers like Canon, the Maxxum 5 itself carries a metal lens mount as well. 

Despite having a "penta-mirror" instead of a pentaprism, the viewfinder of the Maxxum 5 is particularly nice and bright.  Focusing points illuminate when focus is confirmed (the diagonal red line on the distant house roof) while the display at the bottom is bright and easy to follow.  The "confetti" pattern at left indicates focus across all focus points, but can be adjusted to focus on specific points.  The only minor relevant bit of information missing is the shooting mode. 


I found in practice that the Maxxum 5 was quick to respond and focus, and that its operation was simple and easy to use even with having a healthy amount of additional features available features ready at the touch.  The camera is extremely easy to hold, and while this may lead one to think its light weight will make its use with longer heavier lenses like the 75-300mm to be awkward, I was easily able to maintain a steady grip and balance when shooting with any lens.


The result was a shooting experience that I found particularly enjoyable in practice, and led me to want to use this camera more and more.  Add in the quality results and versatility from the readily attainable complement of lenses that work flawlessly with the Maxxum 5 and it didn't shock me at all to realize how quickly I had shot through four rolls of film.  This really is a camera that does a lot to promote enjoyable photography. 

Regrettably, I started my Maxxum 5 experience on a roll of Delta 100 picked up on ebay that had degraded more than I'd have expected.  The results were excessively grainy and fogged compared to what I'm accustomed to with Delta 100, but it did give me a good chance to get a feel for the camera with its kit lens, and get a batch of initial results.  



A typical landscape through the 28-80 kit lens.  Decent, even on expired film that aged poorly, but the mushiness of the branch detail on the horizon shows off its weaknesses.

Closer range objects with the kit zoom render a bit better, but still show some softness. 

An overcast morning resulted in rather flat light, but a decent enough chance to test the Maxxum.  Overall, it was nice to get accustomed to its usage.

Far nicer was this result which the Maxxum readily handled, giving off a well toned and nicely detailed rendering.

The "covered bridge" in Frederick was only a quick snap in this test, but gave off a decent result.  Having a toddler with me, I couldn't leave to get a nicer composition. 



Soon after I bought the Maxxum, I found another one on auction with the 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6.  I shot a pair of shots in DC at short and long ends and was quite impressed with the results. 



As someone who doesn't do a lot of street photography around strangers, the 75-300mm allowed a unique chance to do some street candids, albeit with a more compressed perspective.

Zoomed out, the 75-300mm does a very respectable job of pulling out a fairly sharp image.  

Composition of subjects at longer focal lengths can be a subject, particularly in countering clutter.

Provided with a suitable scene though, such as along the canopy along Pennsylvania Avenue, the 75-300 does a very good job of focusing accurately and providing a sharp result. 

Thankfully, this gentleman didn't seem to mind being the focal point of this image, and shows just how nicely the long focal length does in giving shallow depth of field. 

The 35-105mm also gave exceptional results, and provides a suitable and cost effective walk around lens for every day shooting. 


Bokeh on the kit lens is decent but not amazing.  I didn't expect to see a tagged cactus on my lunch time walk. 

On the long end, the kit lens can do a respectable job of compressing backdrop, but not nearly to the degree of the longer zoom. 

For street photography though, the kit lens is a decent choice, though the availability of better alternatives can be had cheaply.

I loaded some fresh Delta 100 for another trial with the Maxxum 5.  Fortunately grain had improved and the Maxxum lenses delivered some good tonality.  By now, the Maxxum was becoming more familiar and easy, and even more fun. 

With a narrow sliver of golden hour light illuminating the old buildings in New Market, the Maxxum 5 took advantage of a break in traffic to deliver this gem, perfectly exposted and with great detail. 

The look of the 50mm f/1.7 works well with nice tonal films like Delta.  The fast shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second helps enable more opening up of the lens to get photos with shallower depth of field. 


I like how the Maxxum focused readily upon the subjects I chose, but could be directed easily to focus on specific points such as this fence, with AF and AE locked with gentle pressure on the shutter release. 


The 50mm isn't quite a nice in rendering as the Nikon AF version, but it still does a great job. 

As much as I like hitting battlefields armed with old cameras to get some rustic images, it's nice sometimes to simply shoot with a camera that does most of the technical work for you.

Backlighting?  The matrix metering did a good job of adapting well.  The wide aperture of the f/1.7 lens managed to get some separation of subject from the backdrop. 

Stopped down, the nifty-fifty is quite sharp.

Amid lit subjects and shadow, the Maxxum delivered a result that manages to capture the detail without blowing out the highlights. 


Subject isolation wasn't always as hoped with the 50mm lens, though much of this fault here is due to the lantern's excessive subject distance. 

Still, even at shorter distances, there were times when I wished that backdrops were more muted. 

Even still, the camera did an outstanding job of picking up the focusing points and nailing the focus on the subject. 

I was certainly curious to see how the Maxxum performed with color films, particularly having read many reviews referring to the "Minolta Color" to denote a nice rendering.  I tried the camera with some Vision 50D that I had laying about, and took off into the mid-winter landscape to try to find some hints of color to record. 


Though the vegetation is drab and dreary, the colors that are evident in this scene still rendered fairly nicely. 



A pair of shots taken at shallow (above) and deeper (below) depths of field were a fun experiment for the Maxxum 5.  




I stumbled across this scene on a variation of my commute home and tried to record it as best I could given the lack of a pull over spot.  Though the scene seems more apt for black and white shots, I thought the camera did this well.  I need to run past here again now that the warm weather foliage has emerged.



One of my favorite nearby subjects - the Bennies Hill Road Bridge.  A little over-exposed, but I'd used the ISO override to try this film at ISO 25, so it's not an issue with the camera. 

What looks like a filled in road makes an interesting subject to me, and the quick reflexes of the Maxxum made it easy to capture. 

Another quick take, but one quite lacking in result.  I have to be careful of pushing it too much. 

I turned the data back on with this roll and then forgot to turn it back off.  Date setting on the model equipped with this feature is done through the main LCD rather than in the middle of the film back.  Turning the printing feature on or off is actually at the bottom of the camera back. 



About the best results I got from the Vision 50 were these early spring blooms.  I think these were taken on the 50mm lens, but can't say with absolute certainty. 



A wider scene shot taken the same morning has oddly lost the intensity in the blue sky. 


Some kit zooms of digital cameras sharing the same mounts as their film predecessors won't properly fit on the film cameras.  Canon comes to mind as a maker whose EF-S lenes won't fit on their film EOS cameras.  This is no issue with the Minolta kit zoom.  Taken at the wide 18mm end, the result has a severe vignette that softens gradually down out to 24mm but does manage to get an image in a pinch provided you don't mind the circular inset.. 






It took for me to load a roll of fresh Fujicolor 200 though to really get a good appreciation of the Minolta Maxxum lenses.  I was actually quite pleased with what this camera could do with basic "consumer" color negative film. 

The 35-105mm owns it in regard to sharpness and color rendition in this image.  Some softness at the corners, but this is also in an area that is not the in-focus subject. 

Still impressively sharp zoomed out to 105mm, a quick take here shows some degradation, but nothing horrific. 

Contrast from the Maxxum glass is especially pleasing.  Flare is a tough thing to counter with the 35-105 even with it's flip-around visor. 

The 75-300 also offers some good color rendition, though a tad less saturated than its sibling at the wider end of the spectrum.

Taken on the wide end of the 75-300, this shot shows great sharpness and tonality.

As dusk approached, the Maxxum pulled out all the details, but with nothing really jumping color-wise. 


Even under shadow, the Maxxum glass delivered a decent color palette. 


Though shots like these are easy with manual focus lenses, it's nice to see the Maxxum deliver the focus just where it was intended on the first try.


Two shots of Middletown taken at about the same time as my images on the Canon AV-1.  The Canon lens seemed to give just a hint more contrast to the above scene that helped it, but the metering of the Minolta and its renditions of the Main Street are more or less equally nice. 




A narrow focus shot on the nifty fifty reveals a nice bokeh. 

Yet another narrow d-o-f shot gives just the result I'd hoped for. 


One more to close.  Decent sharpness was nice to see in rather marginal light. 

I have picked up a decent variety of Autofocus SLR cameras over the past year, and found good and bad in each.  Though I've a great fondness for the Nikon N2020's dial layout, the colorful touches of the Pentax ZX7, and the simple usability of the Nikon N60, the Maxxum 5 stands out to me as my favorite of my autofocus SLR cameras for its small size and light weight combined with a generally easy to use, yet still capably featured body that pairs wonderfully with the array of readily attainable Minolta Maxxum zoom lenses.  


Aside from the 50mm f/1.7, prime lenses in the Maxxum line up are still a challenge to find cheaply, but this is true for any line up of autofocus lenses from any maker.  Otherwise, my few gripes with the Maxxum 5 revolve mostly around some of its more advanced features. For example, it's not easy to figure out just how to change the focusing point.  More gripe-worthy however is the fact (that I already knew going in) that you can't mount the fine Minolta MF lenses to this or any other Minolta Maxxum body.  


Given though that a nice set of lenses can now be had cheaply to outfit this (or any other Maxxum) camera with a nice complement of excellent lenses, I can't be overly upset.  This truly is a great platform for the shooter on a budget who still desires quality in their equipment and its results. 


The Maxxum 5 sits in the unenviable position of being overshadowed by a more full featured and groundbreaking camera in the Maxxum 7.  Evaluated entirely on its own merits however, this is a remarkably good camera that is a pleasure to use.  Add in the giveaway prices at which the Maxxum 5 can be found, and the result is a truly overshadowed, and overlooked overachiever.