If you don’t have time to read this review of the Minolta RD-175, I can read this to you with the Photo Thinking Blogcast! You can find it on most podcast platforms or here.
Imagine this. It is October 3rd 1995, and O.J. Simpson was just acquitted of murdering his wife. You are in a local café and noticed he is sitting there, seemingly having got away from the limelight. Luckily you have your new Minolta RD-175 with you. You snap away to make sure you are first with the scoop.
Afterwards, you rush home, fire up your new Windows 95 computer and download the 1.75mpx photos onto a diskette. You then head off quickly to the local newspaper, drop off the diskette and bask in the upcoming fame and fortune, while anyone else would still be developing their film.
There is a view that something older than twenty-five years or more is vintage. If that is the case, we are well and truly in a period where the early digital cameras can be considered vintage. In the case of the Minolta RD-175, as it was released in 1995, it is twenty-eight years old as I write this in 2023. So, it now really does qualify. Something to consider and I did find this as a challenge, is that using old digital cameras can be a lot more difficult than old film cameras.
The reason being that for a film camera, you insert film, shoot and process the film finishing with either scanning or printing. With old tech, you start to hit aspects of discontinued technology, incompatible interfaces, and generally lack of the right plugs to plug things into. Luckily with the RD-175, it was loaned to me by a friend, Bill Thoo, who suggested I write something about it. He supplied memory cards I could use, though I did need to dip back into Windows XP. Subsequently, Mike Eckman and I were talking and we have coordinated this review with his of the Nikon E2. What, two early DSLR reviews at the same time!?!
Mike’s might be up a day or two after this one, so go back if not already there.
I have shot with the RD-175 on and off now for a couple of months, it is a beast to get used to, and limitations of the early digital era can really be felt. If you need to recover highlights, this is not for you. If you need to cover a 30” high resolution monitor with the photo, again, not for you.
This is not to take it away from Minolta and the camera itself. At the time, this was ground-breaking technology. We were moving into a new world of photography, one that would shake the longstanding leaders, structure, and accessibility. In the mid 1990s, digital photography was seen as just replacing film, there was even debate that it will never be as good. Only a few pioneers could envisage where we would get to now, and I can guarantee you, it will be totally different again in another twenty, thirty or fifty years.
Over the course of the last couple of months, I have had to deal with some technical issues a camera of that age experiences, but also enjoyed what a camera like that provides. Due to being so early, there is no screen on the back and there are limited settings beyond what you would have on a film camera. That is quite liberating, with the benefit of what digital brings.
Before we venture into my experiences, let have a look at the camera itself.
If we go all the way back to 1928, this is when Minolta was founded to manufacture cameras. But I am not going to subject you to the history from then, apart to say they have been a company pushing the boundaries of technology from the beginning.
1985 is where it becomes important for this story, in that it is then the Maxxum 7000 Alpha was released being the world’s first autofocus camera, that is with a motor in the camera. The Maxxum range of cameras were a big hit for Minolta and really placed them well in the amateur to advance amateur market. Minolta did not make big inroads into the professional market.
The lenses developed for this range of cameras are still considered very highly and it was not a coincidence Minolta had a close collaboration with Leica from just over ten years earlier. They continued the quality in the glass and the autofocus lenses extended that.
By the mid 1990s, digital had progressed a considerable amount from when Steven Sasson had invented the digital camera. Many of the camera makers were starting to adapt current designs into digital versions. It was not considered equal to film yet, but for certain industries like newspaper reporting it was enough of a quality. Generally, none of the options could be blown above 8x10in size prints with acceptable quality.
Minolta, not to be left out, released the RD-175 in 1995. It was unique in that it uses three CCD sensors effectively making the captured image more detailed than most of the other options. A bonus being that it uses A mount lenses like the Maxxum cameras, as the camera was based on that range of SLRs. The RD-175 was also known as the Agfa Actioncam in various parts of the world.
One of the other distinguishing features of the camera is that the RD-175 was the first DSLR under $10,000 USD priced at $9,999. In Australia it sold for just under $17,000 AUD.
As we know, eventually Minolta merged with Konica. After that the camera division of Konica Minolta was sold to Sony, who continued the A mount DSLR well into the 2000s in the Alpha range. They eventually developed the mirrorless range, and while they are worlds apart you can attribute some of the success Sony has with it to the combined breed of the RD-175 and their own Mavica range.
The Minolta RD-175 (also known as the Agfa Actionacam) is a digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR). It was manufactured in 1995 and has the stylings of the Minolta Maxxum 500si Super of which it was based on. The body is all plastic and looks like a regular DSLR of the period with the extended battery and card slots.
It uses three Charge Coupled Device (CCD) sensors. Two for green and one for combined red and blue. The camera uses relay optics to reduce the 12 x 16mm focal plane for the small sensor sizes which are each 4.8 x 6.4mm in size. These equate to 768 x 494 pixels which is equivalent to 0.38mpx each. Some software gymnastics are performed, and it interpolates the three images caught on the sensors into a final 1.75mpx image (1528 x 1146 pixels).
This is then stored in a proprietary raw format onto a PCMCIA hard drive. The PCMCIA card is connected to the camera through a SCSI interface. It is also a SCSI interface to the computer. The PCMCIA hard drive must be formatted with the appropriate image for the camera to work, the camera itself will not format it.
Due to the processing it has to do, the camera is fixed on ISO 800. Metering is through the lens (TTL), as per most modern SLRs. Options for exposure selection are Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or full Manual.
Images are captured through Dynax AF lenses with the Minolta A Mount. There is a 2x crop factor on what actually hits the sensors. It requires three batteries to operate. Firstly, the rechargeable 7.2v lithium battery (NP-500H) at the bottom. In the grip it requires a 2CR5 6v and finally a 3v CR2025.
The layout of the buttons on top are very familiar with anyone using DSLRs, with a notable exception of a lack of an ISO option. Exposure mode can be selected as can white balance. Exposure compensation is available for +/- 3 exposure values (stops). Shutter speeds range from 0.5 second to 1/2000 second. Maximum flash sync is at 1/90 second.
Speaking of the flash, it has a guide number of 33 metres (110 feet) based on ISO 800 and a 28mm lens. Option for red eye reduction is available. The built in flash sits at the top of the camera and pops up when the buttons are pressed on the sides.
The viewfinder has a field of view of 90% with a very slight magnification of 1.04x and is defaulted to a -1 dioptre. The viewfinder it is very rudimentary with a focus frame in the middle, a standby lamp, focus signal and flash indicator.
It is worth mentioning the top plate LCD has significantly more information with the frames available, battery status, white balance setting, exposure mode, compensation, shutter speed, aperture, disk connections (SCSI) and whether it is being powered by a terminal. Self-timer and red eye reduction are also shown.
Autofocus is phase detection with a one CCD line sensor. It can be set for continuous or single. Both focus and exposure can be locked with an AV button at the thumb position. Other settings can be controlled with the wheel at the index finger position on the grip.
To be honest, the Minolta RD-175 was not even on my radar when my friend Bill Thoo offered it to me to review. Mainly as these are now collector’s items, can fetch a decent price and they are quite hard to find. Luckily for me, he has already got a PCMCIA card adapter that takes compact flash cards. He had even already loaded the disk image required helping me avoid going through that pain.
First thing I noticed is that this is not a small camera. Basically, Minolta took a Maxxum 500si and added bits to it to house the batteries and hard disk. This has made the camera very chunky but to be fair, it is not overly heavy. In fact, this copy is furnished with a hand strap and only after quite while did I consider that a neck strap would have been handy.
The viewfinder is interesting. I suspect some age has impacted it, or I think it is lens which Bill mentioned was a spare lens he mounted on it, gave the impression it has fringing. That is neither here nor there, but it showed how much it has advanced these days. The auto focus is reasonably fast and reactive.
When it came to loading the file onto the computer, I had to take myself back to the 1990s. Lightroom does not recognise the ancient raw format, so I had to find a way to convert the files to something usable. I do have a little laptop that still has Windows XP on it, which I fired up and prayed it still worked. It did, but all the updates just about killed it, including the virus shield. In the end, I removed all that software, turned off the WI-FI connection and it is now a totally non-connected laptop. Using the original software, I downloaded the files from the card and converted them to TIFF files.
After that first outing is where I hit some issues. All images were very over exposed, more so if there was any hint of sun in the photo. I assumed I had made a mistake, but the same thing happened the second time. What did not help was that, especially in the early digital cameras, the highlights blow out very easily. From what I could see, half a stop would do it, and the photos looked about three stops over.
I took the camera into my backyard and started testing. From no compensation all the way to three stops under the meter reading. It is in-fact overexposing three stops. This could be due to the age causing a fault with the metering, but more likely it just needs a service. At least with the compensation it seemed to do the trick, I dialled in minus three stops and went out again.
The results this time were much better, and I can start to see some of the appeal for this camera. Zooming took a little to get used to, as I am not used the electronic way the Minolta lens zooms, but it started to feel comfortable. With the photos themselves, they are obviously limited in any editing with only 1.75mpx to play with. Recovering highlights or shadows is not an option in most cases, so it is impressive that these are reasonable photos.
I did have to also remember that I can’t have the photo filling up the Lightroom window on my thirty-inch monitor, otherwise they do look unsharp. When viewed at one hundred percent, I started to enjoy the output. It started to dawn on me why people were spending that kind of money back then for the RD-175. While it was limited in what it could be used for, due to the limited enlargement option, it would have been perfect for a newspaper. A fast way to get the photo out.
In respect to the photos, they are sharp with a bit of post, but that does to some extent depend on which lens you mount on it. Due to the low resolution, they do feel soft compared to current expectations though. Colour rendition tends to be on the warm side, but being raw or TIFF files, that is easily adjusted to your taste.
I had some fun with the Minolta RD-175 but can’t say I connected with it to keep shooting with a camera like this ongoing. You would not use it that way now. It is perfect for a collection, and I am sure when I give it back to Bill, he will enjoy shooting it for a bit.
Would I recommend this for other people? It depends. If you are looking for a quality modern DLSR, no, this will not fit that bill. For a collector or someone that enjoys shooting early digital cameras, then it would fit in well into a collection like that, as long as you are willing to pay the price for a working model.
The Minolta RD-175 Wikipedia entry can be found here at Minolta RD-175.
Paul Schow has a good article on Using a Minolta RD-175 in 2023.
The Digital Camera Museum has a page to the Minolta RD-175.
Edward Noble has a page to Minolta RD-175 – The Franken-Camera.