Minolta XD: The Camera I Wanted to Love

June 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment


f/1.4 is apparently really hard to focus
Minolta XD11 with 50mm f/1.4, Fujicolor 200

This winter I went on a bit of a film camera buying binge. It started when I sent my Minolta SR-T 101 off for a CLA, and while it was being cleaned up, I bought a Minolta Alpha Sweet II (AKA Maxxum 5) from Japan on eBay. I had that camera for less than a month when I bought a pair of manual Minoltas, an XD11 and X-570, as part of an estate sale lot, also on eBay. I had planned to keep one and sell the other, but I was also tempted by the thought of having one Minolta SLR from each decade from the 1960s through the 1990s.


Minolta XD11 with 50mm f/1.4, Fujicolor 200

The estate sale find seemed like a steal when I saw the listing. In addition to the two cameras, it included the Minolta 50mm f/1.4 and 28mm f/2.8 lenses along with a Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm zoom and an assortment of various other goodies including a vintage Tenba messenger bag, all for $200. When the seller offered me free shipping, I hit the Buy button. I knew there was some risk because the seller was not a camera specialist, and the cameras were being sold untested. But everything looked pretty good in the photos…

When the box arrived, I was very happy to see that the camera bodies and all of the lenses were in excellent condition. I don’t think I could have found an X-570 or the lenses in better condition. The XD11 also looked very good, although it was an early production model that suffered from the shrunken leather, but unfortunately it was showing its age and was also suffering from another common issue wherein the mirror sticks up and the shutter does not close. I emailed Garry’s Camera Repair, and he said it should be repairable unless the problem was with the printed circuit board.

The XD is revered by most Minolta fans as the crowning achievement of Minolta engineers. Designed to compete with the small and light Olympus OM-2, the XD is smaller than previous SLRs but still made of metal. It has a bright pentaprism viewfinder with an amazing Accumatte focusing screen that is so easy to use (but as these images prove, some extra care is needed when shooting at f/1.4). The XD is built around the Seiko vertical metal shutter and the mirror is damped with air pistons. It is both fully mechanical and electronically controlled and was the first Minolta to feature what is essentially a Program Auto mode when the shutter is set to 1/125 second in Shutter priority mode. The “Final Check” metering system recalculates and adjusts the exposure after the shutter release is depressed and the lens is stopped down, adding a slight delay to the release but ensuring that the exposure is perfect. And it has a film tab holder on the back. Not to mention the accessories like the auto winders and flashes. The XD was the ultimate manual-focus, electro-mechanical SLR.

Unfortunately, as I started writing this post, I was awaiting the return of my XD from its second trip to Garry’s. When I received it back from him the first time, the problem with the sticking shutter/mirror was fixed. But almost immediately I noticed another problem-the shutter would randomly not release in any of the electronic modes (any mode other than the fully mechanical O mode that fires the shutter at 1/100 second). I emailed Garry about the problem and he replied that he had no idea what the problem could be and that it was working perfectly when he shipped it back to me. The problem seemed to resolve when I put in a different set of batteries, but after firing the shutter several times it returned.


28mm, 1/100 second, in ‘O’ mode after the shutter failed to release

I searched the internet thoroughly, posted to forums, and even read through much of the XD11 repair manual, but I could not find any hint of a similar issue affecting other XD owners. I finally emailed Garry and asked if he would look at it again if I shipped it back to him. He agreed and I reluctantly sent it off. A few days later he sent me an email, with a video attached, stating that he had run 3 rolls of film through the camera and found no issues with the shutter firing. Every damn time apparently.

So I’m left wondering what is the problem. Was it the batteries? I used the same sets of batteries in the X-570 with no issues, but that camera is all electronic. Silver oxide batteries supposedly maintain their voltage throughout their life, then suddenly die when depleted, so it doesn’t really make sense that the batteries would be old. Nevertheless, I had a new package of Duracells waiting to try in the camera when it arrived.


f/1.4 again. At least something close to the subject is in focus.

But I had no confidence that a new set of batteries would solve anything, nor could I fathom any other explanation as to why this camera would work flawlessly with Garry’s 50mm f/2 lens attached, but fail repeatedly with any one of my five SR lenses attached. Even if it started working, could I be confident enough to ever trust this camera? For all the wonders of late-1970s engineering that are packed into the svelte SLR body, I can’t help but acknowledge that there are obvious reasons why the camera makers abandoned the mechanical complexity of this era of SLR in favor of the simplicity of printed circuit boards and capacitors that arrived with the ‘80s. And so I find that I love the mechanical reliability of my SR-T 101 and the electronic certainty of my X-570, but at this moment I’m really not sure if I like the Minolta XD.

When the camera arrived, I hesitantly inserted the new Duracells, wound the film advance, and…the shutter released. I put on the 50mm and tried again, and it worked. But the next morning when I tried again…nothing. The camera can’t be trusted.


50mm f/1.4, at something other than f/1.4

I decided that I would sell the XD on eBay and try to get back the money I had spent on the repair at Garry’s and the cost of shipping (2x each way), neglecting the original purchase price (since I did get some excellent lenses and a nice X-570 body). But I tried searching one last time for a solution and came across an older forum post that mentioned potential issues caused by aging of the electrical contacts on the settings dials. The author recommended disassembly of the dials and a good cleaning with contact cleaner, but he also mentioned that turning the dial back and forth a few times could help identify the problem. This seemed like a plausible explanation for the issue I was having, but I had no real thought that it would actually make the camera work.

The camera only has three dials. Throughout this ordeal I had rotated the shutter dial a few hundred times, but I had hardly touched the ISO dial or exposure compensation lever so I put both of them through their paces a few times then cocked the shutter and...it fired. Again, released. And again, released. After a few more iterations of this, I decided to re-load the roll of 24 exposure Fujicolor 200 that I had been shuffling back and forth between the XD and the X-570 (if you rewind the cartridge slowly, you can feel and hear when the film leader escapes from the take-up spool). I shot through the remaining 18 exposures or so over a period of a couple of weeks without a single failure to release the shutter. After the roll was finished, I tried using the depth-of-field preview button and the large Vivitar zoom lens, both of which had been guaranteed to produce a shutter failure before. And both worked.

So as I am writing this blog post the day after developing that first roll of film from my XD, I am allowing myself to feel optimistic that maybe, just maybe, this camera will live up to its reputation as the greatest Minolta manual SLR.

Images processed in Lightroom with Negative Lab Pro v2.2.

 

A word about Garry's Camera Repair

I've had a mixed experience with Garry's. I sent him two Minolta SLRs this year, both came back in better condition than when they were sent, but both were sent back for a second round of work. The SR-T 101 came back looking much cleaner and the meter was functioning flawlessly, but there was an issue with a darker strip at the top or bottom edge of the frame when the camera was held vertically. In email, Garry said that it could not be the shutter, but I think that is the only plausible explanation. So I sent it back in, and he did re-check the shutter and make adjustments. I don't know if it is fixed because I haven't finished off the roll yet.

The XD was also returned visibly cleaner and functioning better, but not working. Garry claimed it was working perfectly in his shop. I sent it back with detailed instructions to reproduce the problem I was experiencing. Garry emailed me to say that the camera was functioning flawlessly and even included a short video of their testing. But it seemed they had not tested the exact instructions I had sent, and I was very frustrated, and the camera I received back had the same issue as when I sent it. I don't know why it would work perfectly for them-maybe the change in humidity? But I will give Garry the benefit here and my recommendation. His prices are very reasonable, service is generally quick, and the CLA work is very good. I now have two functioning SLRs for cheaper than the basic CLA cost of other camera services.

 


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