Minolta Maxxum 9 Retrospective: A Great Camera That Arrived Too Late

Minolta Maxxum 9 Retrospective: A Great Camera That Arrived Too Late

When I was working in the photo industry in the late 90s and early 00s, Nikon was king. Canon was already a close second or even considered the leading brand, depending on which photographer one spoke with. Both companies offered a robust selection of lenses, advanced camera bodies, and excellent autofocus systems. And then there were the outlier brands, like Minolta, Olympus, and Pentax, all who made some wonderful cameras, but were not nearly as popular as tools for professionals. Minolta was, perhaps, one of the most adventurous camera makers.

These companies released some innovative cameras and were often willing to take more risks and try novel approaches to camera and lens design by incorporating experimental features or just by going against the grain of what was the current norm. Minolta's risks sometimes paid off in a big way, as when they released the world’s first viable autofocus SLR, the Maxxum 7000, in the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, not all of their gambles paid off, and some of their more bizarre designs in the 1990s turned off many advanced amateurs and pros from the system.

Minolta's last professional SLR camera, the Maxxum 9 (also known as the Dynax 9 and Alpha 9)

At the time, I was a college student working at a camera store to help pay my way through school. I was a diehard Canon guy. I found most of Minolta’s cameras to be bizarre-looking and downright odd in their design and function. The experimental nature of Minolta bodies culminated in the extremely strange shape and interface of the Maxxum 9xi, which was a bold move in many ways by the company, but ultimately failed. The 9xi had some innovative features like a superimposed display in the viewfinder, as well as removable “Creative Cards,” which could add a variety of custom features to the camera, depending on the card that was used. The 9xi also lacked traditional dials and opted for a more futuristic button interface. All of these ideas had potential, but their execution was such that it did nothing to help Minolta gain professional users and instead soured some towards the brand. For example, the superimposed display resulted in a rather dark viewfinder, which detracted quite a bit from the supposed professional status of the camera.

Minolta, however, learned many lessons from the bulbous and perhaps even ugly 9xi and implemented a completely new approach in what would be their last professional SLR camera, the Maxxum 9 (Dynax 9 in Europe and Alpha 9 in Japan). The 9 abandoned all of the molded futuristic plastic and hidden buttons in exchange for a simple, classic design, which had everything a professional could ask for and then some, in a body that looked and felt like a pro camera, right down to its immense heft and excellent ergonomics. I can remember the first time I saw a Maxxum 9. I was enamored with it. It didn’t look like any of the Minoltas I was used to seeing. The aesthetics as well as the features intrigued me. Even as a know-it-all college kid who scoffed at most cameras that weren’t made by Canon at the time, I knew it was something special.

The Maxxum 9 has large, grippy buttons and dials which were easy to use even when wearing bulky gloves.

For one thing, the 9 sports what is still the fastest mechanical shutter in a 35mm camera at 1/12,000 of a second, and has an equally impressive 1/300 second flash sync speed. It even has HSS (up to 1/8,000 second) when using certain Minolta flashes. The 9 has extra large and beefy control dials, making it a snap to use with gloves on, and the design is so perfectly straightforward that it is a real treat to make pictures with, as well as one of the most intuitive 35mm cameras I have used. The autofocus is quick and accurate for a camera of this era, and the 9 has many custom functions which were thoughtfully included by Minolta without needing any expansion cards, including the ability to rewind a roll midway through and then reload it later on and continue shooting right where you left off. One of the best parts about the camera is the bright, 100% viewfinder coverage, which makes composition extremely easy and fun. And, as it is a Minolta, the camera includes some quirky features such as a built-in flash, smartly housed in a weather-sealed compartment that lifts manually instead of via electronics, and their “Eye Start” system, which started the autofocus the moment one held the camera up to their eye. This was accomplished via sensors in the grip and under the viewfinder.

The Maxxum 9 featured a manual pop-up flash, a unique feature for a professional-level SLR.

Unfortunately for Minolta, the Maxxum 9, although not little by any means, was too late, especially as a viable competition with the likes of Nikon and Canon. As a feature-packed workhorse, the 9 could hold its own against the other flagship models of the time, but it would ultimately be Minolta’s last professional SLR camera for a variety of reasons.

One reason why the Maxxum 9 couldn’t save Minolta is that they just didn’t have the lens selection offered by Canon and Nikon. Among the lenses they did make, some offered features like power zoom, which was ahead of its time, but terribly impractical for still shooting. There were also compatibility issues with some of the newer lenses that forced owners of the Maxxum 9 to have a circuit board upgraded in order to use them. Another, albeit less important issue, was that Minolta MD mount lenses were not compatible with their autofocus bodies. This meant that their large array of exceptional manual focus lenses could not be used on the Maxxum cameras.

The aforementioned previous flagship model, the Maxxum 9xi, did little to please Minolta’s existing advanced amateur and professional shooters, as many were upset with the added cost of expansion cards as well as the clunky user interface and poor viewfinder brightness of the camera. Disgruntled users had many superb cameras to choose from offered by other brands. Additionally, Minolta’s lineup was never as robust as the offerings from Nikon and Canon, who offered a large variety of bodies ranging from amateur to professional and lots of options in between. The events that led to the end of Maxxum cameras are a more complex tapestry, of course, but that is not the focus of this essay.

Fast-forward over twenty years, and the Maxxum 9 has become an iconic camera, in part due to a rare titanium version, the 9 Ti, which still fetches quite a sum on the used market. Since I was unable to afford a 9 back in the early 2000s, I picked one up on eBay recently (not a Ti version) in order to appease my nostalgia and continue fueling my growing interest in shooting with film. Over 20 years later, the 9 still holds its own. As I described earlier, the beautiful, bright viewfinder, heavy-duty construction, intuitive layout, and overall speed make the camera one of the most fun I’ve ever used. Outside of the leatherette grip, which seems to fall apart on all of these cameras, the construction is quite excellent and rigid.

But using the 9 in 2022 is bittersweet. One can almost feel the passion Minolta poured into developing what would become their last professional SLR. The company threw all the stops at their effort, and it seems like Minolta knew the Maxxum 9 would be a make or break camera for the company. Sadly, even the stunning Maxxum 9, which received heavy praise at the time of its release, couldn't save Minolta from what was to come.

One flaw in the design of the Maxxum 9 is the rubberized grip, which tends to disintegrate over time and fall apart.   

Even though the Maxxum 9 was indeed the end of an era, there is certainly much more to the story of Minolta as a camera and lens designer. The revolutionary A mount lenses pioneered by Minolta all those years ago, as well as their camera design philosophy and aesthetics, took on a new life through Sony, who acquired the company in the early 2000s. I suppose that depending on how one looks at it, the story of the Maxxum 9 and Minolta as a powerhouse camera manufacturer has a happy ending after all, through the innovative work Sony continues to do to this day.
Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

Log in or register to post comments

In the early 70's I was a college student working in a camera store in suburban Chicago. As in your account Nikon and Canon were the big boys with everyone else trailing far behind. I was still using my first SLR - a Minolta SRT 101. I had graduated from another Minolta the rangefinder ALF a couple years prior. The camera of my dreams wasn't the Nikon or Canon "F" but Minolta's entry in to the professional market.
The Minolta XK was a direct challenge to the industry leaders. The camera body was on equal footing. but as in your account the lens selection. or lack thereof, prevented the camera from making real inroads in to the professional market. I don't shoot film much anymore, but I might be more inclined if I had an XK in my hands.

I started on an SRT-101 as well, although it was in the mid 90s. That was the camera my boss gave me to learn with when I got my first camera store job. A few years back someone gave me a bunch of old cameras which included an XK, which I had never known about until then. And you are right, that camera was certainly up to par with Nikon and Canon and as is always the case offered some unique features. If I remember correctly, there is a long bar on the front of the grip which activates the meter when the camera is held, sort of like a quick start for the meter so when you put the camera to your eye it's ready to go. This is the type of quirky and thoughtful feature Minolta was known for. Thanks for reading and for the comment!

I'll never ever forgive Honeywell for what they did to Minolta. There'll never be any equipment of Honeywell into my house for as long as i'll live.

That was one thing I didn’t mention. I honestly don’t know enough about the particulars other than Honeywell sued Minolta for patent infringement and it cost them many millions of dollars, which was another factor in their eventual demise.

Also the Exxon lawsuit. Those two lawsuits destroyed the company. My first SLR was the 7xi later to be replaced my the 700si, 800si, and finally the Maxxum 7, which I still have with a few lenses. The Minolta 200mm f2.8 APO lens was stunning, and I was sad to let it go when I switched to digital with a Canon 5DmkII.

My mum and dad bought me a Dynax 7000i as a present when I was a teenager. It was my first "proper camera". it too had the creative expansion card feature that I thought was ingenious at the time. It was a lovely camera to tote around on holidays and trips, but being somewhat naive regarding the technical aspects of photography, I never realised how badly regarded the 35-80mm kit lens I had was. It never occurred to me a lens design could just be "bad". It's only now that I've been scanning my old negatives that I can see how soft some of them were. My teenage mind just though they were meant to look like that. Still, I had a nice Sigma 70-210 zoom that was much sharper, although I probably didn't realise it at the time.

I only sold this camera a couple of years ago for not a lot of money on ebay, - just before the film renaissance really took off! upon taking the camera out of it's case for the first time in many years, I noticed a different issue to what the author mentioned about the rubber grip. Covered in white stuff. Apparently this is know as "bloom" and usually happens on old rubber.

I've got to say though, one thing I do miss with these older cameras is the accessories they used to come with. Not only did you get a full, printed manual, but my Minolta came with a high quality strap and leather case, and a couple of strap attachments to cover the eyepiece, hold the hotshoe blank and hold expansion cards. These days you get a crappy thin strap and nothing else.

I think it's crazy that some manufacturers wont even give you a charger with a camera that costs well over $1000! For that kind of money I shouldn't have to charge the battery by plugging the camera into the wall. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

Like the reviewers of the time, you also seem to have not gotten the point of the built-in flash. It was not to be a "quirky" little flash, it was to be the controller for a set of optically linked remote flashes. It even allowed things like proportional division of light between different flashes.

By quirky I did not mean bad. Thanks for the info regarding the other capabilities - the camera was truly ahead of its time!

Me too.

Minolta rubber parts do love crumbling and falling apart. I thought the 9000AF was cool, AF, but manual wind, pro body. The Maximum.7 had some unique features too. Love the honey comb meter display on that one. I do wish all 9s were SSM motor compatible

The 1/12000 top shutter speed was already present in the older 9xi model but what was also forgotten was that it also enabled faster regular flash sync speeds of 1/300 (not the high speed sync of strobing flash that allows higher shutter speeds but robs you of flash range). Minolta had a good system that had almost everything a pro could want. But Canon and Nikon had a huge head start with the pros even since the 60s-70s, and they had bigger budget for marketing and pro support stuff. And Minolta didn't really go out of business, they first became Konica Minolta, then they sold their camera division to Sony. Before Sony assumed the A-mount, Konica Minolta had really good DSLRs, which include the 5D and 7D, which included the first ever IBIS in a DSLR.

Just curious if any body out there knows if someone is 3D printing replacement rubber grips for the camera. Mine unfortunately has started to crack.

Minolta was never a big pro market camera. They should have conceded that to Canon in that period as the EF mount quickly dominated the pro market because of its demonstrable superiority.
Had Minolta focused on consumers they might still be Minolta.
They had excellent glass amd and consumer cameras. Also bite the bullet as Canon did and go all electric mount and that likely could have overtaken Nikon who stuck with the F mount 30 years past it's expiration date.

The Maxxum/Alpha 9 didn't just happen out of nowhere. Minolta already had the blueprint with the 600si, which was the first retro-styled AF Minolta. But their interface was already getting a lot better with the 700si, which was pretty to use. The worst ergonomics during this period were the Nikons, with two-button press then rotate dial to change options (and the buttons were small). The 7xi/9xi, even with their unusual shapes were actually really nice to hold and pretty straightforward to use.