It was always going to come to this point. With compact cameras that sport prime lenses, even though the image quality is as it should be, the photographer is limited to a single set focal length. And that’s never really going to be 100% appropriate for the subject all the time. We know that compact zoom lenses will lose sharpness, build in distortion, and are slow. We can’t change lenses on a compact.
So what is there to do, except hunt for the solution? And in my camera-fevered brain, I thought I had it. One of a mostly forgotten tribe, a dual focal-length compact. Almost all the major manufacturers had made them at some point or other, so there were plenty to choose from. I looked for the one that would have a reasonably fast aperture at both focal lengths, and a long enough focal length for portraits and general variation in framing. After an evening whittling down the options, one stood out.
The Minolta AF Tele Super was released in 1988, a chunky black plastic monster. The dual focal lengths are 38mm and 80mm, good for everyday shooting in most instances. It weighs a surprising amount and is not small by any stretch of the imagination. It’s about the same size as a small SLR with a pancake lens, but as it is mostly made of plastic, it is still a little lighter.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably already familiar with the Leica/Minolta tie-up in the 80’s and 90’s. Leica released this camera as the AF-C1 in 1989, albeit with a heavily changed styling. So let your inner nerd rejoice. You could own a Leica in disguise!
Ergonomically speaking, the grip on the Minolta AF Super Tele is very comfortable. Also, as the lens barrel comes out far away from the body in even at 38mm, you’ll never manage to inadvertently put your fingers in the picture. Also, there’s no fiddling about with changing lenses. Want to change focal length? Press the button on the top, and it’s done in a second. The lens extends, and inside the camera an additional element is lowered down into the lightpath.
Of course, nothing is perfect. With the exception of being able to choose focal length, use a self-timer, and to keep the flash on or off by depressing a button on the side of the lens, the camera is entirely automatic. I’m not against the idea of the automation but feel that many enthusiasts would have been turned off by the lack of control when this came out. There isn’t even an ISO control to mess about with, although the DX range is good (50-3200).
Could this be one to trick with a modified DX code and black and white film?
To test this camera, we headed out for a long walk along Southbank on a bright October day. Both of the architectural shots are at 38mm, and the lens resolves detail in the brickwork very well indeed. The pug licking his own face was slightly out of focus, and apart from one or two inside the slightly-too-long near focusing distance of 70cm, it is the only one not in focus on the roll.
The multibeam active AF picks up nicely with this camera, and the flash is also very good in terms of power and spread. It’s a pop-up flash when the lens is extended, making the light harder and less diffused then when nestled behind the clear plastic in-body for wider shots. The flash suppression button on the body is easy to forget about, and the camera loves to fire the flash for you. A hint of backlighting or darkness, and pow, scorched retinas abound. It shouldn’t be difficult to keep the flash constantly surpressed with a bit of tape, but it’s a shame that flash mode couldn’t have been cycled by a button instead.
Handling in general is fine, however; the overall ergonomics and weight are ideal for someone used to using an SLR. The lack of buttons and options make for a more streamlined shooting experience than that though. If your main interest is composition then it is a good and very responsive camera. Shutter lag, while present, is minimal; there is very little in the way of getting the shot you want. Those who are bordering on the criminally insane in terms of completism should note there is a (large) dedicated auxillary 1.3x teleconverter lens out there for this camera. Could it be useful, or would it just be more stuff in your house?
Only you can decide if losing a stop and a half of speed for just 24mm of extra reach is a decent trade-off.
The 80mm end of the equation isn’t quite as great as the near end side of things. Although the lens itself remains reasonably sharp and offers very good colour rendition, the camera struggles to meter some scenes well. Backlit subjects in bright scenes, even with fill-in flash, are not well represented and seem washed out. Having a rear element inserted into the light path is one thing in good ambient lighting. But in bright conditions, there is definitely some stray light bouncing around leading to veiling flare. Admittedly shooting against the light is rarely a great idea with a compact, but performance here is definitely quite weak.
The camera is still a worthy addition to a compact collection though. It offers good image quality, more versatility, and as it is still relatively unknown, a good price. That would supposedly be offset by an expensive 2CR5 battery, but they’ve actually become a lot cheaper online. So it’s a winner in most senses, and potentially worth seeking out.
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