Back to Film: Camera Choices for Sony/Minolta A-Mount

Back to Film: Camera Choices for Sony/Minolta A-Mount

It's 2017, which, if you haven't heard the news, means it's back to film (Yes, I admit I would have said the same for any year, but 2017 really is special in this regard. Read on to find out why). Most of us are living the digital photography lifestyle, however, and though every photographer is a gear hound to some degree, we're loath to overpay on stuff we don't need. Solution? Buy a film body for your existing lenses. In the first of a loose series, let's take a look at the first mount in the alphabet and your options for it. Here are some cool cameras for Sony's A-mount.

You may be wondering why none of the cameras in these picks say "Sony" on them. The history here is simple: A-mount was introduced by Minolta in 1985. It was the first SLR mount specifically designed for autofocus. Then Minolta first became Konica-Minolta, and shortly after that stopped making cameras, selling their camera department and IP to Sony instead. Born was the Sony Alpha series of cameras.

Confusingly, Sony at some point decided to name all of their system cameras Alpha, including their mirrorless line of E-mount cameras, so that's a bit of a stumbling block for backward compatibility with film. The long and short of it? If you have only E-Mount lenses they won't work with film cameras. If you have A-mount lenses they will, though to which degree depends on which drive technology they employ for autofocus. Most work fine in some capacity, though. Let's round up a few of the cameras (this is not meant to be an extensive list, just something to help you pick) you could and should be looking at, from the most expensive and capable to the cheap and cheerful – with some odd ducks thrown in just for fun in the end.

Top Tier

This is where you'll find cameras that are still sought-after and that will sometimes command prices in the hundreds of dollars. This is not much compared to what they used to cost, and what comparable current digital SLRs cost, but for someone maybe just wanting to dip a toe into the film realm, they may be a bit rich.

First up: the Minolta Alpha / Dynax / Maxxum 9. This is it. This is the latest and greatest. The professional grade A-mount camera to end all other A-mount cameras. It has a minimum shutter speed of 1/12,000th of a second and is built to last. The 9 comes in two varieties, the more common standard dark gray, and the TI Titanium version. They are essentially the same except for color, but they differ in a few aspects. Both of them  can support Sony's newest SSM and SAM lenses and have support for ADI flash only as an optional upgrade.

If you don't use ADI flash and have no SSM/SAM lenses (or can live with manually focusing them), any 9 is a great buy. Its ergonomics are well thought-out, it's solid, fast, dependable. It's a professional grade SLR, and it's as tough as it is capable.

Minolta 9000

The Minolta 9000 still had manual film wind. Photo by Peter Caulfield.

A step down from the Alpha 9 is the Alpha 7. Its build quality is not on par with its big sister, but it's not quite as expensive in the used market, and since it was released two years later than the 9, there's no need to fuss with figuring out if it has an upgrade installed. It works with newer lenses right out of the box.

Next up: the Alpha / Dynax / Maxxum (Alpha was the name used in the Japanese market, Dynax was for Europe, and Maxxum for North America) I'll use "Alpha" from now on except if clarification is needed, since DSLR lineup) 9xi. The 9xi is somewhat less well built than the plain 9, but somewhat better than the 7. It's an older design, so as with all older Minoltas, you're stuck manually focusing your SSM/SAM lenses. Apart from that, it's a really nice camera that will take a beating. It shares the 9's 1/12,000th of a second minimum shutter speed, which is nice if you're after shallow depth of field in bright light.

The 9xi, and the rest of Minolta's "xi" series cameras were a bold but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in a user interface design that hid away complexity. Because of this, many settings require extra button presses. For some, this is not a huge issue, while it drives others up the wall. If you come across a 9xi, don't let this scare you away immediately, but know that you might take a while getting used to it.

If you want a more classic camera layout, you'd best take a good look at the Minolta 9000. Released in 1985 on the heels of the Alpha 7000, the camera that began the autofocus arms race, it was the company's first foray into making a professional-grade autofocus camera. The Minolta 9000 is similar to Minolta's (and every other company's) manual focus SLRs, and even has the distinction of being the only autofocus film camera with a manual film wind. Winder or motor drive are optional. While its autofocus is no longer deserving of Minolta's marketing hyperbole from the mid-80s, which proclaimed that "only the human eye focuses faster," it can be surprisingly decent in low light, and if you can find an alternative viewfinder, the 9000 can even become a manual focus SLR with a split prism.

Middle Tier

A bit further down the rung of the ladder are a few of Minolta's semi-pro and advanced amateur cameras from the heyday of autofocus film SLRs. These are all good cameras, though maybe not quite as full-featured or well-built as the best of the best. Prices have dropped considerably on these since film was king, but they still often command something between $30 and $100, with exceptions proving the rule.

The Minolta 600si (or 650si) is the middle tier Minolta to beat. In a departure from their all-singing-all-dancing all-computerized cameras with seldom-used functions hidden in menus (something that seems much more familiar to us now than it did to photographers in the 1990s when these cameras sold alongside such unchanged classics as the Nikon F3, Minolta X-700, or Pentax LX). It is essentially a trial version of the user interface Minolta would return to in the Maxxum 7 and 9, and though it feels a bit light, it comes into its own with the dedicated battery grip. Which is to say: try to get the grip as well.

The Minolta 7000

The Minolta 7000 was an advanced amateur model in 1985 and the first of the company's A-mount models.

The Minolta 8000i had its fifteen minutes of fame as the camera that Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama brought aboard Sojus TM-11 on his 1990 mission to space. Honoring this otherworldly marketing stunt, the 8000i was available in a still somewhat sought-after pearl white edition. The 8000i is a decent camera, and it adds some functionality to the 7000i, which itself was a somewhat improved 7000 (And I have a feeling that at this point you're a bit lost among all the very similar numbers the now-defunct cameramaker gave its models through the years). The 8000i, while fine, isn't on many Minolta fans' lists of "greatest autofocus camera," however, and you shouldn't pay too much money for one if it comes your way. Unless it's actually been to space, that is.

Lower End

I'll be a bit controversial and throw in every other xi-series SLR (such as the 7xi, 5xi, 3xi, 2xi) here. Except for the 9xi, cameras from this series are all automated to the point of being annoying. They have automated eye-start that cannot be turned off, automated exposure modes with arcane settings, and they introduced the xi series of lenses which had motor zooms built in and which, with xi series cameras, could be set to zoom automatically. Color me (and many photographers the time of release) unimpressed.

Minolta 3000i

The 1988 3000i was the first of Minolta's point-and-shoot SLRs with no manual settings. Photo by Enzo Pellegrino.

Aside from that, cameras names with numbers that begin with digits lower than 7 were usually Minolta's way of saying that this is meant more for the amateur. While features still abound, build quality is often a sore point. The 500si, for example, despite being almost as capable as the higher-specification 700si, is nowhere near its bigger twin in terms of haptics. Such cameras were bought by many an enthusiast photographer in the 1990s, and today they are, quite literally "cheap as chips." Examining the grab box at a local photo store the other day, I saw almost half a dozen sold for single-digit prices.

Finally, if you're really willing to think outside the box and want to, perhaps, put your fancy Zeiss lens on something truly simple, cameras like the 3000i, 300si, and 303si don't even have settings for shutter speed and aperture, relying on buttons with exposure modes instead. While these should therefore be disqualified on that lack of fundamental functions alone, I have a soft spot for these small, light cameras. They are, in essence, film point-and-shoots that will take your favorite lenses. I keep around a Minolta 300si with a somewhat dinged-up 35–70 standard zoom for party pictures. These are the kind of camera you can hand off to anyone in your family or circle of friends without much worry that they'll be able to work it. Just maybe switch out the Zeiss lens first…

Whether you're a Sony shooter or not, if you're interested in film at all, many of these autofocus cameras from Minolta's lineup are good fun and take well-exposed pictures on film without much fuss. As such, they're certainly worth wasting a little bit of money and time on.

Images used with permission of Enzo Pellegrino (title image and Minolta 3000i) and Peter Caulfield (Minolta 9000).

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Hans Rosemond's picture

Ugh...35mm. hehehe. Just kidding, cool list! Looking forward to more.

Ah, remember that's what most motion picture films were shot on, and even smaller depending on how the 35mm frame was utilized. You're just spoiled from shooting all that large format. ;)

As most of my age, I have grown up shooting films by the simple fact that I was born in 1960 and the digital camera age only started about 15 years ago. Shooting film as an amateur was a pain in the butt. You never knew in advance if the pictures you took were okay or bad. You only saw that after your trip or after the event you attended. Films as well as prints were expensive so during my holidays, I usually shot 4-5 rolls of film (36 exposures).
As an amateur, I only used one type of film, Fuiji, ISO 400 which at least worked somewhat on darker situations.
I still have a bunch of film cameras for decoration but I don't ever want to go back to film.
Mind you the Minolta 7000 had one central focus point and oh boy, was it slow.

I bought the Maxxum 7000 (the American version of your 7000) when it first came out and it was definitely faster at AF than I ever was. Compared to today, sure, slow as molasses.

I would never go back to film either. I enjoyed my film time but what we have today is so much better. I'll leave the film to the young hipsters and the curious.

Anders Madsen's picture

Hey! Minolta 3000i - my very first SLR ever! :)

- and yeah, you could go with the default program mode or you could go with "S" for "Sport", which basically meant "open up the aperture as much as possible to shorten the shutter speed", and that was it - everything else was decided by an engineer in the Minolta development department somewhere...

Spy Black's picture

If you're gonna shoot with film cameras, I think it's probably best to stick with manual focus cameras and lenses. AF was pretty sluggish back in the day, and chances are you can manually focus faster with the right body and focus screen. Just a thought.

I bought the Minolta Maxxum 7000 when it first came out and it could certainly focus faster than a person could. I never had any problems with the AF.

Also keep in mind that film cameras were still dominant for another 20 years, so AF further improved after the Minolta 7000. In other words, there are many more AF 35mm film cameras to choose from with far better AF. My final fim cameras were the Canon Elan IIe and the Canon EOS A2e and each had excellent AF. I highly recommend both cameras, especially the smaller Elan IIe. Those are the American designations for those cameras, by the way.

Spy Black's picture

That's certainly true with later cameras, but not necessarily with earlier ones. Just because it had the potential to focus faster doesn't mean it focus in the right place. Besides, you're working with film. Few exceptions doing this for a living today, slow down and enjoy the film ride.

Just telling you my experience with the first AF camera of its kind, and that AF in film cameras continued to greatly improve over the following 20 years. I didn't having any focusing problems with that camera. It simply performed quicker and more reliably than me trying to manual focus. There is no reason to avoid AF film cameras, especially the later ones.

michael buehrle's picture

i learned on film. there was only manual (which wasn't called that since that was all it was) my first camera was the pentax k1000 and my last film camera was the nikon F3hp. no auto focus, no P mode, nothing. either you got the shot or you wasted 10 bucks on film and developing (and only get 36 shots). while i liked it at the time, i'll never shoot film again. i love the fact that it really doesn't cost anything to take pics now and you can take thousands. i see this whole new film thing is just from people who have never shot it before. it will pass once people get tired of the high cost of film ect... but that's just how i see it.

Torsten you refer to the Minolta 9000 while referring to the 7000 as "Alpha 7000.” That is going to confuse people. The simple thing to understand is that Minolta 7000 and 9000 had the "Maxxum" designation in America, while Europe simply had the "AF" designation and the Japanese market version had the "a" (not alpha) designation. Both the 7000 and 9000 shown in your article are the Europe market versions.

You really should stick to how they are actually called as people who are going to be shopping for such cameras will get confused.

Everyone over 40 who started photographing at an early age has started with film. Anyone over 50 has shot film for a longer period than digital (assuming you started young).

Yea, I bought my Canon A-1 in 1980 and I still use it. July 2013, I added a used Canon F-1N so I could share lenses. With two film cameras, one is loaded with B&W and the other with color.

There's a minor error in the article. No Minolta 9 came off the production line with SSM, not even the TI which also had to be upgraded.

Getting a film body with a lens can also be a great way of getting hold of a lens you'd like for cheaper than the lens alone would cost. I bought a 700si with 28-75 2.8 from that popular auction site, for £16. Most listing a camera give details of the camera but not the lens so people looking for the lens won't find it. Check the pictures closely and you could be in for a bargain.

Thanks, I seem to have been misinformed there. Updated the article. And man, that's a great price, listed lens or not!

I believe you meant 8000i as the camera in space - the 800SI is the one with the giant built in flash

Sorry, typo. Thanks for pointing it out. It's been updated now.

Hey, what about upper end si models? The 800 and 700si were TOL for that series and good quality examples can be had for well under $100 or even $50. The 800si had one of the most powerful built-in flashes ever put in an SLR. You barely mention the 700si.

Robert Nuttmann's picture

I have 2 Minolta 600si cameras. I got one through inheritance and let it sit on a shelf for six years before I used it. Ran two rolls of inexpensive Fuji Superia 400 through it and was kinda shocked at how good the results were with the Quantaray 50mm f2.8 Macro lens that was included. After getting the film back I looked up the lens to find out it is a Sigma of similar specs with the name changed. Soon after that I bought a second body.

I have used digital cameras since the late 90's. No doubt that my almost new Sony and 2 year old Nikon DSLR focus faster than the Minolta. But the Minolta is still pretty quick. And the 600si has a big bright viewfinder to see if it is off. And also no doubt that once you buy the digital camera it is cheaper to shoot photos than using film.

I have told myself many times, "I am not going to shoot any more film, it is too much of a pain in the butt". And then I am going through my lightroom library and I run across some of my recent film shots. And then it hits me, I shoot film still because I like the results. I shoot way more digital than film, but every year when I go back and pick my favorites to put into an album film shots end up in that favorites category than you would expect. Film just looks different a lot of the time. And by that I mean different good.

I really really want a new Nikon D850 when they come out. And I find myself thinking along these lines 1 - Nikon D850 = 120 rolls of film and professional developing and scanning. The film just might give me better results? Not sure.