Minolta CLE

‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

As Charrington might have said to Smith, it is kind of late in the game for film Leicas. It’s 2017; Kodak makes three varieties of black and white film; and frankly, every other manufacturer has narrowed down to that number or fewer emulsions. Is it fun to shoot a film rangefinder these days? Yes and no. The beauty is that you can afford cameras you would have never dreamed of buying when you were 12 and reading old issues of Popular Photography. The bad news is that 30 years later, the cameras all seem so mortal.

The short take

Let’s forget about doing a full-on description of the camera; you have Google for that. Perhaps it is better to start with how this camera works for people who normally use Leicas.



21mm f/4.5 ZM C-Biogon

The CLE, like a lot of small cameras (and M cameras) is straightforward. It is small, light, and easy to handle, if a bit blocky. The rangefinder seems more capable of focusing longer lenses than people seem to think. And it is extremely quiet. But there is more.

  • Size. The CLE is the size of a Canonet. A small one. It is about 80% of the size of a Leica M-series camera. Not vanishingly small, but quite a bit smaller and lighter. In fact, it might be uncomfortably small for the large-handed.
  • Rangefinder construction. The rangefinder mechanism is very similar to the Hexar RF in its design, right down to the annoying gear wheel for vertical adjustment. It also has the same general affect as in the Fuji GSW690III, Mamiya 6/7, and Bessa M cameras. You will love it or hate it.
  • Common parts. The CLE is built on the Minolta XG-7 platform. So it is cheap as an SLR and very expensive as a Leica-style rangefinder. A repair person has confirmed for me that many of the parts are the same but that some key ones (like the viewfinder/rangefinder) definitely are not.
  • Capacitive (or not). Your finger closes the circuit that makes a half-press of the shutter. This will be fun with gloves, I suspect. That said, it may make the camera more resistant to the breakdown of a two-stage shutter switch (ahem, cough, Hexar AF…).
  • OTF/WTF metering. The camera meters off the film (hence, there is no exposure lock). The metering is far more sophisticated than any Leica film M (and indeed the digital ones if they are not in the multipattern mode).
  • Wide lenses. The CLE is a great platform for compact wide M lenses. Your 21, 15, or 12mm lens does not need massive rangefinder accuracy – and when it comes to getting images on film, the CLE still gives you a 24x36mm frame.

And here is that Biogon again.

  • Cheap TTL flash. A TTL flash costs $10 (Vivitar Auto Thyristor 550D for Minolta). Take that, Leica Camera AG.
  • Rangefinder. The rangefinder masks are on glass plates, not metal pieces. Don’t be surprised to see some degradation.

Quirks and Annoyances

If you are used to traditional Leicas, you may be tripped up by a few things:

  • Swing-open back. The Minolta dispenses with the irritating bottom-plate loading of a Leica M. And yes, it is annoying and pointless on a film Leica, and even more so on digital Leicas. The idea originally was to allow a bigger pressure plate and flatter film. While there may be a use case for this with some lenses, there is no real-world consequence to using a normal-sized plate except that your chances of successfully loading film go way up with a swing back.
  • “Easy” loading takeup spool. This is one place where Leica is easier to live with – on a Leica, you just jam the film leader into a multipronged spool. The CLE has a fairly terrible spool with a white collar. It’s tough to get the film tip in there. Konica wins in the easy-loading spool race; Minolta should have sucked it up and licensed that feature.
  • Rewind knob on the bottom. This is mostly harmless except that you need to lift and rotate the knob to open the back. This is definitely a “read the manual” moment.
  • No manual metering. A carry-over from the XG-7 series, the meter shuts down when you switch the shutter speed dial off A. This is not the worst thing that could happen; before you switch to M you will see the recommended shutter speed – you can dial it up or down from there.
  • Viewfinder blockage. The viewfinder/rangefinder window placement is terrible for big-diameter lenses. Most of these lenses are fast 50s, but even where they are not (such as the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon or the 18mm ZM Distagon),  a lens with a 55-62mm front end will block the viewfinder and rangefinder.

Do we like it?

The CLE is a very solid camera; it is small, quiet, and does not get in the way. It seems to distill the things that are fun about shooting rangefinders while minimizing the things that seem to be baggage. Maybe the sunset of film photography is here, maybe it is not, but this is a good companion with which to watch the sun go down. Or come up.


8 responses to “Minolta CLE”

  1. David Babsky says :

    Leica ..or whatever the company was called by 2002.. eventually got round (twenty-two years later) to offering the M7 ..which was what the Leitz/Minolta CLE had been twenty-two years before in 1980: a Leica-fit rangefinder with through-the-lens metered, automatically-set, camera-determined auto shutter speeds (and manual speeds, too) based on the aperture you chose and the ASA, er ISO, or DIN film speed.

    (That’s, of course, what the Olympus OM-2 offered in 1976, and with a what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinder, and no bigger than Mr Maitani’s Barnack-style Leica.)

    The CLE weighs 416 grams (with strap attached). The 22-years-later Leica M7 weighs 640 grams (with nothing attached). The M7 weighs more than one and a half times what the featherlight CLE weighs, around your neck, or over your shoulder. The CLE has a silent (electronic) self-timer; the M7 has none.

    (I got these dashes and brackets wholesale.)

    The CLE has that 28mm compatible wide-angle finder. If you look hard you can find an M7 (most have the .72 magnification 28mm finder) with a .85x magnification finder, which doesn’t show the 28mm framelines but offers a more life-size, easier to focus view.

    The CLE was Minolta’s own update of the very noisy little 1973 Leica CL, which had been built for Leitz by Minolta with a vertically-travelling cloth shutter to reduce the width of the camera, and thus make it a “Compact Leica”. The CL had the Minolta-made ‘swinging arm’ light metering cell, which had been fitted two years before to the Leica M5, thus cannibalising many M5 sales. The CLE avoided having the fragile ‘cell-on-a-pole’ swinging meter arm by using – like the OM-2 – reflected-off-the-shutter-and-off-film metering, without any awkward behind the lens protrusions inside.

    The CLE had / has an easy +2/-2 stops exposure over-ride, does not have fall-back mechanical shutter speeds (..unlike the 1/60th and 1/125th of the M7..) and is slightly noisier than the M7.

    But to my (very simple) mind – other than the 1954 M3 – the CLE is the very best of all M-series film Leicas: it’s not made of lead, it fits a coat pocket, it’s simple and unobtrusive. All the rest are too big and too heavy.

    • John says :

      “wholesale” – (funny)

      I would love a CLE, but aren’t they mostly not repairable anymore?

      • David Babsky says :

        I think it depends on whom you ask, and where they get their bits. Mine’s still running true, and hasn’t failed yet.

  2. danjazzblog says :

    I love them CLE. Very compact and great lens!

  3. Steve Rosenblum says :

    Not mentioned is the Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f2 lens that came out with the CLE. It is a really stellar lens in my opinion, quite extraordinary, and sells for next to nothing. I love my CLE, and my repairman has had no difficulty fixing it the few times it’s needed attention. I carry the M-Rokkor 40 and 90mm lenses with it. The M-Rokkor 28 is well known for developing “white spots” in the lens, so I have substituted the CV 28/3.5 Color Skopar lens which matches the CLE perfectly.

  4. Martin Siegel says :

    I think the non-metered manual mode is only logical, at least from a camera designer’s view. If you want manual buy a light meter.(If you don’t trust the built-in meter and the automatics use a handheld one) 😉

  5. Bud Sisti says :

    These cameras are a delight! I see mine as complementing my M Leicas, for certain work, but not replacing them.
    What puzzles me is that Minolta never went on to create a CLE II, with, most importantly, an auto exposure lock, as well as metered manual. Is it possible there was no interest shown by the purchasing public? To me, that would have made a really nice camera absolutely perfect; 40mm is my favorite focal length, and 28mm my second favorite, so what’s not to love?

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