A Minolta AF-C landed on my doorstep today. It’s a tiny little thing, no bigger than a Contax T, which is one of the smallest 35mm cameras ever made. Why does the f/2.8 lens have so many elements (6) for a compact? How do they run an AF system off four button batteries? How did they get this thing so small?
The thumb wheel film advance also cranks the lens backward toward infinity, against a spring. Even then, it looks like only the rear group moves. Releasing the shutter lets the lens jump forward to the position selected by the active AF. Then when you wind to the next frame, the lens returns to its “ready” position. It’s a lot like how cameras like the Konica Autoreflex T could run AE off two 675 cells – all of the mechanical work is done by springs, regulated at a place where a tiny amount of mechanical leverage can arrest great forces.
‘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.
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.
- 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.