will england :: art : photography : Minolta 5xi Review

First Published AUSTRALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY September 1992


Minolta Dynax 5xi

Halfway House

The 5xi slots halfway between the 3xi and the 7xi. But is it sufficiently different to attract buyers?


The Dynax 5000i was always the quiet achiever in Minolta`s line-up. An unpretentious camera, over-shadowed by the 7000i and 8000i, its price point and specifications virtually guaranteed it respectable sales.

Now Minolta has followed it up with another camera cast from the same mould. 'The new 5000i features many of the advances of the extraordinary 7xi at a significantly lower RRP.

Technology has moved on apace in the three years since the 5000i was released. That camera had a dual-area metering system; this one, the eight-segment honeycomb SPC found in the 3xi. It had a fixed flash; the 5xi has a retractable one with preflash. There's the grip sensor/eye-start operation found on its two siblings but not on the 5000i, and the ASZ (Auto-Size Zoom) -- with appropriate lenses - pioneered on the 7xi.

Unlike the 3xi, the new model has a card door for Minolta's "Creative expansion" computer cards. The 5000i only accepted five cards, including one that gave you aperture-priority and shutter-priority metering (on the 5xi, they're built in). You get a choice of six special application cards with the 5xi: travel, child, automatic depth control, sports action, portrait and close-up, plus three feature cards (multiple exposures, exposure bracketing and flash bracketing). The last three features weren't available on the 5000)i so this is obviously a step in the right direction.

One major oversight is manual film speed setting -- also missing from both the 5000i and 3xi. However, the camera does have + / - 4 stops exposure compensation (accessed via the rear mounted function button) and this could be used to push a roll of black-and-white, for example provided you don't press the P/panic button, which zeros all settings. It's in half-stops only, though (unlike the DX coding) so you can't expose Kodachrome 64 at ISO 80.

Availability of` exposure compensation and multiple exposures will be enough to persuade many would-be 3xi buyers to upgrade.

Continuous wind mode could be the icing on the cake.That's just as well: the two cameras have the same shutter speed range (1/2000s-30s), flash synch speed (1/90s), metering systems, even exposure modes (A, S, M and P), although the 5xi allows you to alter the programmed aperture and shutter speed in P mode. (The new settings are held for- four seconds after you take your eye from the Viewfinder).

Importantly, the 5xi also boasts a full Viewfinder display. So you get shutter speed and aperture as well as focus confirmation, flash ready indicator, focus confirmation LED, exposure compensation and Spot metering warnings and a camera-shake indicator makes the camera much easier to use than the 3xi, for example, which displays exposure parameters only in its LCD panel.

Layout and Features

Control layout is also similar to the 3xi, with spring loaded slide switches for aperture and shutter speed, activated by pressing the function button at the rear of the camera with your right thumb. This is certainly faster to use than the 3xi, which has a single button alongside the shutter release. On the 5xi this later control is located to the left of the pentaprism a la 7xi and is a P/panic button, pure and simple.

Next to the function button is the spot metering control which reads off the central cell in the honeycomb pattern.

The main switch is just behind the panic button and there's a card button (for activating the creative expansion cards) behind the LCD panel.

To the left of the lens mount are the flash button, aperture input switch, lens release button and focus mode button. There is no facility for stopping down the lens to check depth of field.

As usual the card door hinges out from the handgrip. It also carries button for preflash and wind mode a system that isn't always the easiest to use.

The body styling is chunky and - for a Minolta - conservative. At 575g sans lens it weighs 50g more than the 3xi but 155g less than the 7xi. Minolta seems to have got its handgrip contours down to a fine art and the camera is very comfortable in the hand.

Eyestart operation requires both a hand on the handgrip and an object within 45mm of the infrared sensors below the eyepiece to actuate AF and AE. It's not just a gimmick: it saves power, yet maintains the camera in a state of "constant alert".

Its greatest weakness is that it also activates Auto Standby Zoom (ASZ), which automatically zooms xi lenses to a programmed focal length. Having the lens suddenly zoom to wide-angle when you're trying to shoot a close-up is not our idea of easy photography.

The trick is to de-program the lens by pressing the button on its side at the same time as you turn on the main switch. This doesn't de-activate image size lock (which zooms the lens to maintain subject image size -- useful or fashion photography, for example) but will certainly save on batteries. How long does it take, after all, to zoom the lens to the focal length you want? Of course, all this raises the question of just how necessary are powered zoom lenses? They obviously consume more juice (our test 7xi's 2CR5 lasted just 10 36-exp rolls; don't expect much more from the 5xi's). And they're no quicker to use. It reminds us of having an electric mirror on the driver's side of your car -- nice, but pointless. Manual operation is faster. The lenses can be focused manually, but only with power assist. Pull back the zooming ring and turn it. Focus confirmation acts as an electronic rangefinder. Works even in autofocus mode -- the ~MF switch is essentially for non-xi lenses. Focusing, which is aided by fuzzy logic, is extraordinarily fast and accurate and of course you don't need to part-depress the< shutter button to activate it. The5xi has the 3xi's single AF array so unlike the 7xi won't focus on horizontals. It uses the flash as an AF illuminator for very low-light conditions (unaided, it will function down to EV-1). Maximum operating distance is 5m.

There is, as mentioned before, a continuous wind mode but it's only good for 1fps -- the pro Nikons and Canons can be wound out to 5fps plus and the 7xi to 4fps in predictive mode.

Unlike other Dynaxes, the 5xi switches automatically to predictive focus mode when it detects motion. Continuous wind means it can shoot more sharp shots than the 3xi of a slow-moving subject such as a person running towards the camera, but not many more. One shot is all you'll get of a car moving down the street -- the winder can't keep pace with the AF mechanism. Unlike the 7xi, it has limited capacity to track subjects moving erratically.

Exposure metering, as we have discovered before, is superb, -- the eight-segment honeycomb cell is little inferior to the 14-segment cell used on Big Brother. The program AE system classifies subjects into four categories -- landscape, snap-shot, portrait and close-up, and sets the parameters accordingly. The system coped extremely well with back- and side-lighting, with spot metering (or exposure compensation) barely needed.

Built-in Flash

At first inspection, the pop-up flash looks the same as the 3xi's, but the moulding is slightly different and the guide number higher at 15 (tested). In fact, that's more powerful than the 7xi's, suggesting Minolta has finally decided photographers need something stronger than f5.6 at 2.lm. Remember, though, even with redeye reduction mode (pre-flash to shut down the irises. this is still a small flash just over the lens and as such its uses are limited. Lens hoods can cause shadows, for example: so can shooting within one metre of your subject. We always recommend using this flash as a fill light; slip one of the xi series flash guns onto the hotshoe (or use it off camera) for tougher assignments.

When needed in program mode, the flash raises and retracts automatically., although much more deliberately than the Canon EOS 10's high-speed approach. Or you can force-fire it by holding in the flash release button while you take the picture.

Switching off when the camera has decided you need flash requires grit, determination and a good memory. Slide the shutter speed switch while you hold in the flash button. Things are more straightforward in the other exposure modes, where a simple press of the button will raise or lower the flash, eyestart notwithstanding.

In program mode, under backlit conditions, the camera does a remarkable job of deciding when flash is needed. There are, in effect, only three exposure modes compatible with flash as shutter speed and aperture are determined in S mode as well as P.'This is a peculiarity of Minolta cameras that hampers special effects shots in particular.

That tiny flash head zooms with the lens to give coverage down to 28mm focal length (65 degrees horizontal angle of view) - a remarkable piece of miniaturization.

Fill flash works well providing good balance between ambient and flash light. The exposure parameters don't tend to alter more than absolutely necessary, guaranteeing good exposures.

Interestingly, the flash also fires in the last few' seconds of` the self timer cycle -- through a red diffuser, in lieu of an LED. Nice idea but won't it chew up the battery?

Flash metering is off the filmplane -- the sensor is located in the bottom of the mirror box. Slow shutter synch is possible by pressing the spot metering button at the same time as you take the shot. The 5xi is compatible with Minolta's 3500i and 5400i flashguns, which can be used off camera with full TTL metering. The flash is programmed by placing it on the camera's hotshoe and pressing the camera's pre-flash button. It can be used up to 5m from the subject with the camera a similar distance away. Even slow-shutter synch is possible, and by holding in the flash button at the same time as you take the shot, you can set a 2:1 lighting ratio (off-camera/on-camera flash).

Pros and Cons

The soft eyecup around the viewfinder is nice it can be removed to slip on the strap-mounted blind for tripod shots. Some form of diopter adjustment would also have been nice. Film is rewound automatically when the end of the roll is reached and there's no leader left out of the cassette -- unfortunately, you can't use the 7xi's Customised Function Card to program the 5xi. The film counter doesn' t count down the number of frames remaining although this is more of an observation than a criticism.

A depth-of-field preview facility would be nice but even more glaring an omission is a remote control facility. (Like the 3xi, it's self-timer or nothing!). Otherwise, the camera is hard to fault.

Lens Test

The 5xi comes in kit form with a 28-80mm xi zoom lens with motorised zoom, lens function button and clip-on lens hood. The polycarbonate lens has seven elements in seven groups, a moderate 55mm filter thread and a built-in lens hood which clips on, reversed, to the lens front. An indication of the amount of information being transferred from body to lens is given by the number of electrical contacts - a massive eight. But you can mount non-xi Minolta AF lenses on the camera as well.

The lens was a reasonable performer on our Paterson lens chart with maximum resolution (in the centre of the chart) of 60 l/mm at f/11, 28mm and 50mm focal lengths, but considerable fall off in the corners at all focal lengths and apertures. There was pronounced barrel distortion at the wide angle end of the zoom range, but zero distortion at other focal lengths.

Conclusion

In isolation, the 5xi stacks up pretty well, being sufficiently far removed from both the 7xi and the 3xi to justify its existence. But it falls a little short of the other offerings in its in its faster flash sync a wider choice of metering modes, manual film speed setting, faster continuous wind speed and cable release/remote control operation. Eyestart operation and Auto Standby Zoom don't compensate for these shortcomings. The 3xi and the 7xi are both great cameras; the 5xi is merely a good camera at a good price.


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Author: Will England ([email protected])
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Updated Thursday, March 07 2002 @ 10:27pm