Winter 1985. I am standing in a shop window looking at the world’s first autofocus SLR camera. I often walked past it until I had saved up the money to buy one. My first own film camera, my Minolta 7000. A unique moment in the analog age. A camera with interchangeable lenses that could focus automatically.
The rest is history. After Minolta, all other brands followed with AF cameras. After automatic exposure, it was by far the greatest development in analogue camera history. AF lenses from Nikon and Pentax did exist, but each lens had its own motorised drive unit. Big and expensive. With Minolta, the camera controlled the lenses. The Minolta 7000 had special AF sensors and the focusing drive inside the camera body. The new AF lenses could easily be adapted to this mechanism and as a result the lenses could be much smaller and cheaper. When a lens was mounted, the new ROM chip in the lens would access the camera’s CPU to optimize the program for that lens, and even later models with on-camera flash heads zoomed automatically with changes in focal length. The aperture and focus were also mechanically driven through the lens mount from the camera body. But, electronically controlled buttons on the camera body now replaced the mechanical aperture ring on the lens, and the setting was electronically displayed on the body and in the optical viewfinder. With the AF version, the look of the classic chrome metal cameras also changed. This was replaced with a lighter, cheaper body made of plastics and a rubber grip.
With the 7000, after the MC and MD series, came the famous A-series lenses that for decades were counted among the best in the world. All of them are quality lenses. These can still be bought new today for the Sony A77/99. Later on they even invented automatic (Xi) zoomlenses, but in the end we know that after a short merger with Konica, Minolta withdrawed in 2006 from the camera and photo business, transferring their assets to Sony. They renamed the Minolta series to Sony Alpha. But to this day, the resemblance to the Minolta’s and the numbering has remained similar. Clearly, with the sale, many engineers and designers had also switched to Sony. And the rest is history.
The Minolta/Maxxum 7000 featured completely new manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program modes. Modes, not by classic knobs and dials, but with pushbuttons and internal and external liquid crystal displays (LCD’s). Popular with many new buyers, the LCD displays were disliked by some photographers used to the older controls, but emerged on every new SLR from all brands. Camera’s became mini computers and did more and more calculation themselves. The camera has a steep learning curve for someone who wants a simple SLR camera. The camera is fully battery-operated. Nothing works without it. For the first time, a camera had to be switched on and off. An audible signal has also been added that warns of under- or over-exposure. The LCD screen displays all the data: aperture, shutter speed, negative number, mode, etc. Values could be changed in the LCD display with arrow keys. Only on the left-hand side will the user recognise classic buttons for exposure and ISO. Two new buttons are for the functions single or series exposures and ‘mode’ button for automatic or manual settings. Shutter speed and aperture priority could be set as a program, next to the fully automatic mode.
There are buttons everywhere on the camera, small and large. Mostly arrows that do their job in combination with a master button. A function button whose values must be set using push buttons and arrows. In addition, the new shutter button could be pressed halfway or fully. Press half to focus and full to take the picture. Nothing new today, but in 1985 it was a revolution. Also new was the Program Shift, which mechanically already existed with simultaneously rotating aperture and shutter rings on classic cameras with the shutter in the lens. Now this was also possible electronically. With a chosen combination of shutter speed and aperture, the values could be shifted in pairs, so that a correct combination of exposure and shutter was always found. The focus can be followed in the bright viewfinder, a green light and a audio bleep indicate the correct focus. The shutter speed and aperture were also displayed on an small LCD screen in the finder. After shooting, the camera winds the film to the next shot at fast speed and at the end the film goes all the way back into the cassette. An extra rewind button does that job.
The maximum shutter speed is 1/2000s and the flash sync speed is 1/100s. Series exposures are possible, but the delay caused by winding the film must be taken into account. The 35-105 F3.5-4.5 lens quickly won out over the slow kit lens. It was a high-quality, high-contrast lens that was also fast to focus. This lens is still often used as a lens on newer digital cameras. The Minolta 7000 is a historic camera that opened a kind of wormhole into the fastly adapting computerised analogue camera market. Every brand followed in Minolta’s footsteps. But not everyone was happy. True manual photographers did not like the camera taking over the basic operations that made photography so much fun and professional. It also meant that brands such as Leica were enjoying success with their ongoing manual line in camera development. For other brands, there was no escaping the competition, which was becoming increasingly visible on the outside through the use of cheaper plastic materials and fewer buttons. The automatic reflex camera comes in many shapes and sizes. It also heralded the end of the success of the bulky cameras. Ten years later, the digital camera made its appearance…
I can still see myself walking in front of the shop window. Now the Minolta 7000 is like an old school old-timer, but I still feel the excitement when I used the camera for the first time. The excitement of technological innovation. Now that excitement has given way to respect for the classics that allow the same photos to be taken on the basis of technical, mechanical ingenuity. And the rest is really history now.