Minox 35 GT – Little Big Camera

The Minox 35 GT is a very convenient camera, mainly due to its diminutive size.  At one point it was the world’s smallest 35mm camera, a title which was only relinquished to one other camera before digital took the mainstream. It would very easy to dismiss this as being its one and only differentiator amongst the world of compacts and SLRs, but this is a camera worth a whole lot more than the sum of its parts.  It can produce results which are superior than a lot of larger cameras.

The balancing act, though, is whether the drive to miniaturisation leads to compromises for usability or even available functions, and if those compromises are acceptable to the experience and results of the camera.  In the digital world there has been a slight push back on the smaller sizes of cameras, specifically in the mirror-less cameras.  While the small size has been a convenience to the compact equivalents, more serious photographers have questioned whether the small form factor makes the camera awkward to use.  Recent models have been introduced which are bigger but also return to using dials and knobs rather than buttons with endless menu systems, in other words making things simpler.

Minox tackled this contradiction head on, with the Minox 35 series, and with its history in sub miniature cameras using other formats of film, was able to apply a measured and quality approach to building a camera which achieved a decent amount of success.  So much so, that at one point they even attracted the attention of Leica, who liked what they did so much, they bought the company.

So how did this camera come about and what is it like to use?  Let us have a look.

History

In 1936, Walter Zapp, a photographer with a Baltic German background discussed the concept of a small camera that could be taken with you wherever you went with some friends, Nikolai Nylander and Richard Jürgens.  Nylander, later when the concept came to fruition, coined the name Minox and drew the original “mouse” logo.

At that time he was based in what is now Estonia, and initially he struggled to gain funding for the new project.  It was then his friend Jürgens contacted the Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika (VEF) electro technical manufacturing business in Riga, Latvia which coincidentally is where Zapp was originally from.  Zapp demonstrated the UrMinox prototype, including bringing along actual enlargements to demonstrate the quality that could be achieved by a small film size.  VEF were impressed enough to agree to production, and the Minox Riva sub miniature camera was produced from 1937 through to 1943, when the second world war halted production.

The sub miniature form factor will always be associated with the world of espionage, whether government or corporate, made famous by countless movies which portrayed spies with these little cameras snapping away at secret documents.  Minox effectively was then associated with that reputation and for the longest time was known as the spy camera manufacturer.  Interestingly, the macro ability of this camera enhanced this reputation and it did gain attention in certain intelligence agencies across the world.

After the second world war, Minox once again began production and produced new cameras which were very similar to the original Riva, the Minox II.  They worked to produce a version with a light meter and in 1958 produced the Minox B which incorporated a Gossen light meter.

It was not until 1974 that Minox entered the 35mm market, and released the Minox 35 EL.  True to their history, the EL was designed to be very compact.  It was an unusual design with a drawbridge which required a special type of plastic to ensure it was strong enough to withstand constant use but in a very small size.  Throughout the Minox 35 range there were some variations, where some models had different shooting modes, self-timers, backlight compensation switches and other options but overall the 35 series kept the same basic shape and functionality.

The Minox 35 range was considered the smallest 35mm camera made, a title it took from Rollei.  It held onto that title until 1996 when the Minolta TC-1 was introduced.  The Minox 35 GT, the camera in this article, was produced in 1981 for ten years until 1991.

In 1996 Minox was acquired by Leica and retained until 2001 when a management buyout made Minox an independent company again.  Minox is still operating today producing optical products.

Walter Zapp finally lived in Germany and passed away in 2003 at the age of 97.  He would have been very pleased to see the company he founded continue into modern times.

Camera Specifics

The Minox 35 GT was produced from 1981 through to 1991.  It is a 35mm compact camera with a drawbridge design which activates the meter when opened.  Opening also moves the lens out a few millimetres into position.  It is a very small camera with the dimensions of 100mm (W) x 61mm (H) x 31mm (D), and weighs 200 grams.  The body is made from reinforced plastic, specifically Makrolon, which is specially designed to be tough.  The camera is battery operated, with the native battery being the now outlawed PX-27 mercury batteries.  Adapters and other solutions exist, usually utilising LR43 batteries.  A battery test button is located on top of the camera which moves the light meter needle to the 1/125th second position when the battery has enough charge.

The lens is a 35mm Minox Color-Minotar f/2.8 and is non-interchangeable.  The aperture is continuous without click stops from f/2.8 maximum aperture to f/16.  The aperture ring is closest to the camera body on the lens.  The lens is a Tessar with four elements in three groups.  Closest focusing is 90cm (3ft) and focusing is by rotating the front element which is common on smaller cameras.  Focusing is by scale as there is no rangefinder.

There is no filter thread on the lens, but specially made slip on filters can be found.  As the light meter is on the front of the lens, metering will take into account the filter.

Shutter speed is determined in aperture priority only, there is no manual options.  The fastest shutter speed available is 1/500th second.  The slowest speed is based on what film speed it has been set to.  For instance, a slow speed of 30 seconds is possible if the film ISO is set to 25, but if the ISO is set to 400 it is limited to 1 second. Obviously, you would be wanting to use the tripod if you get anywhere near that slow a speed.

The shutter speed can also be adjusted for backlighting with a switch on top of the camera, where it doubles the exposure time.  It handily shows a white “2x” surrounded in red when switched on indicating an extra stop.  The meter is well known to being very accurate, even for longer exposures considering reciprocity failure (which considering each film is different is a pretty good feat).  There is also a self-timer option which is set with another switch on top, this time showing a “T”, which can be confusing as usually “T” means Time option on most cameras.

The shutter is fired with the very distinctive yellow shutter release button placed on top of the camera top plate.  The Minox 35 range all have different coloured buttons as a differentiator.  Next to the shutter release is a cable release slot which is very convenient for a longer exposure.  This is not limited by the film speed and can be kept open for any length of time.  Also on top is the exposure counter, the flash hot shoe and the film rewind lever.

The film is wound forward by the advance lever on the right side.  It requires a double stroke for each frame advance.  Film is loaded by removing the back of the camera.  The film cassette is loaded on the left and the film threaded on the right side.  A couple of strokes are required to ensure it is loaded properly.  When the back is reattached, the film counter is reset, and requires a couple more strokes forward to position it to the first frame.

The film speed is set at the bottom of the camera with options from ISO 25 through to 800.  This drives the metering and if further compensation is required beyond the extra stop, the film speed can be adjusted in a pinch.  Also at the bottom is the lever to lock the back onto the camera, the tripod socket and the button to release the film for rewinding.

The viewfinder has frame lines for the 35mm lens, with the meter readings on the right side, indicated by a needle.  There are markings for 1/30, 1/125 and 1/500th second.  The top and bottom sections beyond these markings are shaded to indicate possible over exposure or camera shake respectively.

When finished, the lens drawbridge folds up neatly, making the camera very easy to store in a pocket and this also shuts the meter down sustaining the battery.

The Experience

I found my Minox 35 GT at a Sunday market, sitting there in the sun in amongst antique knick-knacks.  It was covered in dirt and looked a bit sad.  The stall holder assured me it worked, but as it did not have a working battery there was no way to test it out.  Based on this condition, I negotiated a price I was happy with, allowing for the risk and took it home.  To my horror, when I opened the battery compartment at home I found an original PX-27 battery in there!  I carefully removed it, conscious it is a mercury battery and disposed of it properly.  It had not leaked which was a big relief.  I then gave the camera a good cleaning where it came up in a much better condition even I thought it could be in.

I have been carrying my Olympus XA3 as my everyday camera, so I was quite keen to try something else to have a couple of options.  I ordered a battery adapter from a seller on eBay the same day I got the camera.  When it arrived I quickly inserted the adapter with four LR43 batteries and was extremely happy to see the needle move when I tested the battery.

Holding the camera I began to understand the quality workmanship that has been put into it.  While still plastic, the reinforced nature of the build makes the camera feel quite solid.  Not once have I felt the camera would break or bend out of shape.  This contrasts with how light it is.  Even the drawbridge doesn’t feel like it would break off very easily.

My first experience with the camera was not a great one, as I found the camera worked intermediately.  Unsurprisingly the first film had quite a few very overexposed frames as the shutter defaulted to a 1/30th second when the meter was not activated.  While testing it out again, I then found if I tapped the camera on the back it would work for the next frame.  It dawned on me that the battery adapter must be loose causing the loss of contact with the batteries.  I stuck some tin foil in there and voila! it has worked consistently without fail since then.

I started to carry this little rocket with me everywhere I went after that.  It is so easy to pop into my work bag or in a pocket, and have handy.  The viewfinder is nice and clear and very easy to see the frame lines, though if you wear glasses it might need a bit of angled viewing.  The meter needle is very clear and very simple to read on the right of the viewfinder.  The frame lines are also very clear with some space to see a subject moving into the frame.

The drawbridge is so well shaped, that I find the action of opening it very automatic after only using it a little while.  In fact, it has started to feel easier than looking for an on button.  As I have started to use the camera more and more, I have begun to enjoy and look forward to using it.  The concept is very easy, once film is loaded and film speed set, all that is left is to set the focus distance and shoot.

There has been only a couple of handling issues that I have found with using the GT.  Both related to one of its key attributes, the small size.  I feel that sometimes after having it in my hand for a few hours the lack of any lugs for a hand strap is lacking.  It forces it to be held tightly and as Sydney tends to be quite warm for large periods of the year, the sweaty hand is not doing the camera any favours.  In the end, I have attached a wrist strap through a loop screwed into the tripod socket.

The other minor issue I have is that due to the size of the lens, the distance scale printed is very small.  As I need reading glasses, but usually do not wear them when shooting, I have found it quite difficult to read the distances in lower light.  Luckily in the street I tend to set the distance to something that would keep a considerable amount in focus at f/11 or even f/8, so I do not need to change this very often.

The small size, auto exposure and easy use is well and good, but it is the quality that is what has really helped me decide that this will be a regular user.  The results from the Tessar lens are beautifully sharp and full of character.  Combined with what is extremely good metering, the pictures come out into a good selection of keepers.  Sharpness is well distributed across the frame, with only the extreme edges being a little soft.

The exposure is also consistent across the frame with only a hint of vignetting.  I also have not found any flare to speak of, indicating a well constructed and coated lens.  Colour when paired with Kodak Portra 400 is bright and vibrant.  No colour fringing has appeared in any of my photos. It allows Portra to do its thing and bring out that very distinctive look.

It is very hard not to get attached to this little big camera.  While I always look forward to shooting with a camera, I find that the Minox 35 GT is always available for use.  While not quite as convenient as having the iPhone in the pocket, it is the next best thing, and of-course uses film.  Small, well equipped and most importantly, above average quality results.  If you find one at a reasonable price, make sure that it works, and then definitely buy it.  You won’t regret it.

4 Comments

  • Michael Rennie February 27, 2018 at 6:20 pm

    I agree the shots have a great character, what an interesting wee camera!

    Reply
    • Theo February 27, 2018 at 9:23 pm

      Yes, it quickly became one of my favourites!

      Reply
  • Barry Reid May 1, 2018 at 10:59 pm

    Just a note on the drawbridge. Like you said it’s really easy to use and, IMO, it’s much better than the button press version on the more expensive 35ML.

    Reply
    • Theo May 2, 2018 at 12:03 am

      Couldn’t agree more!

      Reply

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