To try out 110 film there are only a few higher quality options, with the Minolta 110 Zoom SLR being one of them. This is very distinctive looking camera, possibly designed to resemble an original Cylon Raider! What it does show is that Minolta, in their heyday, was very progressive and not afraid to try new ideas.
110 film is not widely available in 2018, with Lomography being the only company producing this format. It is more of a niche film to try rather than something you would burn through lots of. If you like big grain and small photos, then this is for you.
So we have a camera, with a unique design, options putting the photographer in some control, and a small format film. Let’s see how it handles and performs.
Minolta is part of a photocopier company now, which does not do them or Konica, who they are merged with, justice on what they contributed to the photographic community. From the time in 1928 when Minolta began as Nichi-Doku Shashinki Shōten in Japan, which means Japanese-German Camera Shop, they have pushed the innovation button. Minolta introduced features in cameras which we take for granted, the most well known being autofocus. It was in 1931 where they took on their well known name, which is an acronym for Mechanism, INstruments, Optics, and Lenses by TAshima.
With a history dating back to the early 1900s it is no surprise that their initial cameras were TLRs and Rangefinders. Some of the models, especially the Autocord TLR are very sought after now, a testament to the quality of the production. While as a manufacturer they were never considered big in the professional market, the level of quality was noticed by more than just the customer base, which incidentally is very loyal. In the early 1970s Minolta entered an agreement with Leica which not only produced the CL but also manufactured the Leica R3, R4 and R5.
This led to the invention and patent of Through The Lens (TTL) and Off The Film (OTF) exposure metering. This was introduced to the world in 1981 and was on the back of the 1977 first ever multi-mode SLR which had options for Program, Aperture priority, Shutter Priority and Manual (PASM) modes.
It was 1985 when the world changed for SLRs, with the Minolta Maxxum 7000 Alpha which was the first autofocus SLR with an in-camera motor. While primitive by today’s standard, it was an innovation that allowed for capture in a way never experienced before. Innovation which was eventually ruled to be Honeywell’s with an award of US$127m from Minolta for patent infringement.
Later in 1994, the unfortunate signs of where Minolta was heading was evident by the change of name, removing reference to the cameras as it did not see that market as its primary business. Eventually merging with Konica and selling off the relevant camera business to Sony, it is at least nice to know that some of that history is still around, albeit in a range which many believe Sony is phasing out.
110 film was introduced in 1972 by Kodak, after successfully marketing the 126 cartridge format. These were both introduced to make loading film easier. 110 film is a small format initially aimed at the more basic cameras. Known for producing grainy and by default blurry photos if blown up to any larger size, it led to many cameras with very limited controls produced. As happens in many cases though, popularity leads to advancement, and eventually some manufacturers produced cameras with more advance features. These include Rollei, Pentax and Minolta. Minolta introduced the 110 Zoom SLR in 1976 and sold it until 1979 when it was replaced by the 110 Zoom II.
The Minolta 110 Zoom SLR is an aperture priority fixed lens SLR, with a low profile. It was probably a shape which did not win over enough customers as the subsequent model reverted to a more usual shape. Being such a thin camera vertically, the lens protrudes at the front giving it a slightly front heavy look, even though there is a hump for the prism over the top.
On the top of the camera is the shutter release, with a standard tripod thread, an on/off switch, a hot shoe, a switch for exposure compensation (up to +/- 2 stops) and a little red button to test the battery. Also on top is the control dial which allows for selection of Aperture Priority (standard operation for this camera), flash (1/150s) or Bulb.
On the front of the camera, apart from the lens with the focus and zoom rings, is a protruding Cds meter, which is linked to an aperture control dial. Aperture selection ranges from f/4.5 through to f/16. This also automatically controls the shutter speeds which range from 1/1000s through to 10 seconds. The lens can take filters, which will not be metered for, with a 40.5mm thread.
The lens is a fixed Rokkor-Macro 25-50mm Zoom which roughly equates to 50-100mm in 35mm equivalents. The lens will focus down to one metre in normal operation and to 28cm in close-up mode. Close-up can only be used when not zoomed, so set to 25mm only. Focus is confirmed through a circular patch in the middle of the viewfinder, which “stops shimmering” when in focus. It is very similar to some early Canons which employed the same technique.
The back of the camera has the viewfinder and a switch to open the back tray to load film. Loading the film is very easy, open the back and slip in the cartridge. Once closed, advance the film with the film advance lever on the bottom of the camera. The frame number can be seen from a window on the back which allows the user to see the backing paper. On the side of the camera is also a tripod socket.
As there is a Cds meter, the camera requires batteries to operate, a couple of LR43 cell batteries. These are easily found and inserted through a compartment on the side. In the viewfinder there are LED indicators which let you know if you are over or under exposing beyond the speeds available with your aperture selection.
I first came across the Minolta 110 Zoom SLR at a camera market, but the vendor wanted AUD $200 for it. I kept walking at that stage. What it did do though, is perk my interest, mainly as it is such a unique looking camera. Once I found out that it has some control in operation, I searched and found one online and bought it a few months later, for much less than $200 at $15 plus delivery. Bargain! It even came with a leather case.
As I don’t keep 110 film generally, I had to wait until I was ready for my bulk order from the U.S. and so a few weeks later I had some film ready to shoot. When the time came, I inserted the Lomography Tiger film, and let the camera select ISO 100, even though the film is rated at EI 200.
I headed out, camera in hand on the wrist strap and found while it was not uncomfortable, it also was not comfortable. There is a reason there is standard shape to cameras. It is very light though, so it was not a real negative.
I put the camera to my eye, and hit my first problem with it. I use reading glasses but generally when shooting I leave them at home (a habit I need to break). Normally I do not have much of an issue, but with the “shimmering” focus patch, let’s just say I am not convinced. I could not tell properly if I was in focus or not, especially in close-up. Even when I did then get my glasses, I could not tell. I will say that I thought I could use it a little in very bright sunlight, but otherwise I zone focused. It has led to very unsuccessful close-up photos.
The viewfinder itself is quite nice to use, maybe a little dark, but reasonably clear. Focus, at least the motion of it, is nice and smooth as is the zoom ring. Aperture selection took a little bit of getting used to, due to the strange location of the dial, but the LED indicators are quite clear and simple to follow.
I followed up with some Lomography Orca 100 film, with the thought that I would get examples of both types of film. This is where I really tried to bring out what vibrancy I could out of the well regarded lens, knowing the reputation of Rokkor lenses.
When I dropped by the lab to pick up my film, I eagerly looked forward to seeing the results as it is considered one of the more premium 110 cameras. I quickly loaded the film onto my Epson V850, taped onto the Better Scanning glass holders and was very quickly convinced that a flatbed scanner will not achieve any good results on such a small format. My other scanner is a Nikon LS-4000, but I do not have 110 holders. The Nikon autofocuses on the frame, so I was keen to try and get it scanned that way, so I built my own holder using black card. Success!
Wow, the grain! Maybe it is because I shoot everything up to large format, but it was a little bit of a shock. Once I got past that, I noticed a few flaws. Apparently the 110 Zoom did originally come with a collapsible lens hood, which unfortunately I did not have. Look at the examples below and you can see the flare on the left. It did not handle the direct sun very well. There seems to also be a problem with a light leak or a problem with the film, which obviously is not a performance issue, but I did have to clean up a whole heap of little orange balls in many frames.
The sharpness is fairly consistent across the frame, but I did notice that in photos where the zoom was extended it did suffer some vignetting at the edges. Metering was quite good, as most of the frames came back well balanced.
My final thoughts are, if you like 110 film and enjoy the results, then this is one of the better cameras for you. It has a decent zoom lens, just avoid pointing to the sun, and is quite easy to use. While I did not bond with this camera as much as I thought I would, I can appreciate what Minolta did do with it, and for 110 it is one of the better options. If you are really into the 110 film format, find one in good condition and embrace the grain!