June 9, 2013

Review: Minolta SRT 101 - The Camera That Started a Passion

The Minolta SRT 101 holds a rather special distinction for me in that it happens to be the first camera I ever owned.  The year was 1994 and I was taking a High School photography class which required students to bring their own cameras.  Any camera was fine, so long as it had manual exposure controls.  My parents bought the beat up old Minolta at a repair shop in San Jose California and sent me off to school with it.  Fast forward to present times and I still have it in my possession and even use it on occasion to this day.

The SRT 101 is molded from the same design philosophy that created some of the most loved cameras of all time like the Pentax K1000 and the Olympus OM-1.  It is relatively small, rugged, simple, and incredibly reliable.  These are the cameras that solidified the popularity of the 35mm format for decades.  They were manufactured by the thousands and sold all over the world.  Even now they are not difficult to find through flea markets, eBay, and even through upscale camera dealers.

Manufactured between 1966 and 1976 the SRT 101 may not be the most popular camera of its time, nor the most highly sough after, but it certainly has its share of fans, myself among them.  In your hand it feels solid and hefty and yet not bulky.  I wouldn't say it is the most ergonomic design, but it is comfortable when held with two hands and the controls feel like they are placed exactly as the should be.  Adjusting exposure settings by touch is not a difficult thing to do with the SRT 101.

Though this little Minolta was certainly no premium camera when compared to more expensive 35mm models like a Leica or a Contax (or heck, even a Nikon), I can't help but notice the quality of construction and materials when I hold it.  Maybe we all just had different standards back in the sixties but the metal build and gripabble leatherette give the SRT 101 a nice solid feel.  It's not surprising I've owned this camera for two decades without the need to ever bring it to the repair shop.  Every component feels solid and moves smoothly under the touch of your fingers with purpose.

Controls on the SRT101 are about as simple as you can get.  Aperture is set on the lens barrel and shutter speed adjusted via a knob on the top of the camera body.  Focus and film advance are also done by hand.  The more "advanced" features include a mirror lock-up control, depth of field preview, and a self timer.  That is all you get and quite frankly, when using the SRT 101 you won't really feel the need for anything else.  That would ruin the fun.

This is the kind of machine that straddles a nice balance between having to think about your images to get what you want before clicking the shutter and yet is still fast in operation.  With a little practice it can easily become second nature operating the SRT 101.  Even though I don't use it as often as I used to, it still feels like I'm picking up an old friend when I do.  What is that the say about riding a bike?  Yeah, the SRT 101 is just like that.

The only aspect of  the SRT 101 that runs off a battery is the internal light meter.  In all honesty, if you buy this camera I would recommend just taking out the battery and not using the internal exposure meter at all.  It was designed to be used with a battery type that is no longer in production and you will need to have the camera adjusted for a modern 1.5 volt button cell.  As far as I'm concerned it is easier to just learn the sunny 16 rule or use a hand held meter instead.  But hey, that's me...

I've only ever owned one lens for the SRT 101 and that is the everyday Plain Jane Rokkor 50mm f/1.7.  I've never had any desire to use something else.  It is sharp enough for my meager tastes and renders a nice look, particularly with black and white film in my not so humble opinion.  I have long felt that Minolta never got the recognition they deserved for some very lovely lenses and the classic 50mm Rokkor is certainly one of them.  It's hard to describe, but images from this lens look just ever so slightly like they were rendered from brush strokes as opposed to film grain.  I have long said that when evaluating the quality of a lens you have to pay attention to its character as opposed edge-to-edge sharpness.  By this standard the 50mm Rokkor is brilliant.

If I have one complaint about the SRT 101 it's the viewfinder.  It is not a bad viewfinder necesarrily, but it is slightly dim even when compared to other cameras of its era and particularly when held against the standards of more modern SLRs.  It is more than useable, but it isn't exactly bright either.

Still, I do have to give the SRT 101 props for having a very uncluttered viewfinder window.  One of my biggest issues with modern cameras is the fact that manufactures will try to squeeze in a ton of camera setting information into their viewfinders.  All the flashing lights and tiny icons are completely distracting and take away from the experience of composing an image into a frame.  I suppose some photographers want this, but you won't ever see me counting myself among them.

Along the bottom of the SRT 101's viewfinder you will see a small and unobtrusive shutter speed read out and a match needle along the side for the light meter which I never use.  In the center is a very welcome, and incredibly helpful, split prism focus aid.  That's it.  Nice, simple, and free of distracting elements.

Probably my favorite aspect of the SRT 101 is the sound of the shutter.  It makes a nice "ca-chunk" that is not too loud but is still distinctive.  A lot of photographers crave silent shutters and I can certainly understand that line of thinking, especially with candid street photography.  Sometimes however, a good "ca-chunk" after pressing the shutter release is part of the thrill of making an image.  It completes a moment if you will, and tells your brain it is ok to move on to the next picture.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the flash sinc speed for this camera is an adequate 1/60th of a second.  I've never been one to use 35mm SLRs in the studio with strobes nore am I big on camera mounted flash units.  Natural light is more my flavor.  Still, I figure it can't hurt to bring it up in case someone reading this was thinking about the SRT 101 as a possible studio work horse.  I tend to favor leaf shutters in a studio environment anyway so for me this isn't a huge topic of concern.

So in short, the Minolta SRT 101 is...

Bad For: Automatic control.  Any application where you may want a larger negative.

Good For: Street shooting.  Travel Photography.  

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