Back shooting with the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s

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It’s been about eighteen months since I last used my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s.

The last roll of film I shot with it was mostly in Cyprus. I had learned about Ilford’s XP2 film, which is black and white, but is developed using the colour ‘C41’ process, meaning it is cheaper and easier to get developed than ‘full’ black and white film.

The images I got back from Cyprus – mostly in bright, December sunshine – came out so satisfyingly that I knew I would use XP2 again. 

Fast forward to the middle of 2020, the world is somehow different, and yet my photographic bug hasn’t gone away – in some ways it has stepped up with more time to devote to photography across a smaller range of locations and subjects, and the time spent looking at other people’s photographs and editing techniques has led to me having as strong an urge as ever.

I picked up a new roll of Ilford XP2 from Snappy Snaps and popped it into the Minolta one Friday a few weeks ago, and started shooting with it. It’s a rangefinder camera, and as such is a little heftier than some other film cameras. It has a fixed lens, and you look through a viewfinder which is separate to the lens itself – unlike with an SLR camera which uses a prism to allow you to see through the lens you are shooting with.

It’s a satisfyingly manual camera to use, and yet it can be used fully automatically (apart from focussing). That is – it can be, if it has a fresh battery installed. The battery powers a simple light meter which is visible inside the viewfinder, and gives a reading which can be used to set specific apertures or shutter speeds as you wish – or it just reveals if a fully-automatic shot is likely to be under- or over-exposed.

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The lightmeter inside the Minolta’s viewfinder

It’s on the right hand side – see how the black needle on the yellow bar moves from about 10 to about 14? These are ‘EV’ readings and correspond to settings on the lens which are shown when adjusting aperture and shutter speed manually. 

I’ve seen differing opinions on this: some say that this camera can only ‘do’ shutter priority; others say only aperture priority. One source states that it only works when setting both – i.e. fully manual.

The camera’s manual implies that all three are possible: page 18 says you can set any combination of shutter speed and aperture; page 19 talks about setting the shutter speed first, then using the light meter to set aperture; it goes on to say that alternatively you can set the aperture first, using the light meter to set a corresponding shutter speed.

The system is simple: compose your shot, check the meter for lighting, then rotate the barrel for either shutter or aperture so that the EV number shown on the lens is the same, and your picture should be properly exposed. Or just set both barrels to ‘A’ for automatic, and check the light meter and focus. If the above needle is in the red zones at the top or bottom of the range, the picture is likely to be under- or over-exposed. This is particularly important when shooting fully automatically.

I digress. This all relies on the light meter functioning correctly, and for that the camera needs a working battery. To my surprise, I found that the one in mine was dead. The needle on the lightmeter had just stopped responding to light.

This was odd, as I was sure it had been functioning eighteen months ago – it must have been for me to obtain usable images, right? But of course little, old batteries don’t live long when you go years between uses.

I noticed that the dial where you set the film’s speed in ASA/ISO also has an ‘off’ setting. Presumably if I’d set this, the battery would be disengaged? The manual doesn’t confirm,  but does suggest that if the camera is not being used for more than a month that the battery should be removed. This is probably more to do with avoiding battery leaks than anything else. Either way, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the battery was dead.

Being from 1966, the Minolta takes slightly strange batteries… Batteries that have since been banned from production. But fortunately there is a close equivalent which is fairly readily available. When my replacement battery arrived, I popped out the old one.

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And indeed it was an old one… In fact, knowing these batteries were banned from production in the EU in 2000 already made it a certain age, but, on closer inspection – Made in W. Germany – mine had to be, what, pre-1991…? Something like that, anyway. Weird. 

So maybe it was in the camera that whole time, mostly switched to the ‘off’ position and not draining charge, and it worked for the last film I shot? Or I just got very lucky and the light meter wasn’t working at all, and the shots just somehow worked. No idea. Thank goodness it hadn’t leaked.

Anyway – once the battery was swapped out, the light meter was responsive again. I wanted to get back into the swing of things nice and quickly, and I shot the roll of 36 exposures over the course of a week or so.

For this film, I wanted to check if the camera was functioning as expected – the first few frames were shot without the new battery, and either guestimating the settings, or using my dSLR as a sample or simply as a light meter. 

I noted down the settings I used for each frame (and the location/subject, to help me identify each one later on). 

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It turns out I seem to have accidentally invented the Photomemo notebook!

As I’ve written previously, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s is a bit bulky to carry around, but it also fits nicely in my hands. It feels nice to use – perhaps familiar? And the focussing system is nice and intuitive – and ensures tack-sharp images.

To focus an image, point the yellow diamond at the centre of the viewfinder at the edge of what you’re trying to focus on, and then turn the lens until the two translucent images align:

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The Minolta’s rangefinder focussing system

When the ‘two’ images are aligned, that confirms your image is in focus.

And with that, one can head out with the Minolta and snap away. I loaded the XP2 while sat on a bench in Regent’s Park, and within a few days I had filled the film. And it produced some really lovely results!

The whole film can be viewed here, but below are a few highlights.

I’ve already picked up a new roll of XP2 – as well as a roll of Fomapan 200 having seen a few others using this stuff. That wil be my first pure B&W film, so I’m excited to try it out.

 

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