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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).