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Some time ago I bought myself into the Minolta way of photography and over the years my kit-bag has grown to contain various Minolta camera bodies, lenses and accessories. So it's hardly surprising that I have waited until Minolta (now Konica Minolta) released a proper Digital SLR, that would allow me to use the majority of my existing kit, before I jumped into the expensive world of "pro-sumer" digital SLRs. While Minolta have been happily releasing model after model of SLR-a-like cameras with integrated lenses, there has been a distinct lack of a true SLR system. You can imagine my excitement then, when I heard that a digital version of my beloved 35mm Dynax7 was under development. Months seemed to pass and eventually I forgot all about it, until one day I decided to catch up with the folks at my local Jessops store and stumbled across the newly released, and long-awaited, Dynax 7D.
To be honest, my buying one was a forgone conclusion. My only digital camera, a Fuji Finepix F601Z, never gets used for more than the occasional happy-snap, and my trusty Dynax 7 has been my photographic workhorse since it was acquired over 2 years ago. In fact my old Dynax 505 still sees more action than my Fuji. But I have been spoiled by the ease with which photos can be produced from digital and the pain of film is beginning to take it's toll on my photographic urges. While I still shoot at least 4 - 5 rolls of film when away on a trip, my weekend jaunts to find something interesting have recently become few and far between. I needed the convenience of digital and the control of a proper SLR, but I didn't want to have to throw away all my existing kit and start again from scratch. The Dynax 7D is the answer.
Weighing in with a technical spec that boasts a moderate (by today's standard) 6m pixel resolution, a standard Minolta AF lens mount and support for Compact Flash (types I and II) storage, the asking price of £1150 seemed a little steep but being a glutton for new technology I stumped up. Sure enough, the more sensible folks will have waited and the price has come down considerably to somewhere around £800 at the time of writing. Especially when compared to some of the more reasonably priced digital SLRs that have come on to the market in recent months. The dedicated website is full of all manner of impressive sounding features, enhanced this, optimum that, reduced the other, but ultimately this camera is selling into a market that has been crying out for it. If you are a long-time Minolta fan with a bag-full of lenses and, like me you have been waiting for a Minolta digi-SLR then your prayers have been answered. If you're a long-time Minolta fan with a bag full of kit and are still unconvinced about this whole "digital revolution", or you are just picking up photography and haven't committed to a "system" yet then the Dynax 7-D is (possibly) just the thing for you.
Aimed squarely at the pro-sumer market (with a price-tag to match), the 7D is a purposeful looking piece of kit. From the front, top, bottom and sides, it's could easily be mistaken for the 35mm Dynax 7. It's slightly heavier and some of the less useful features have been left out, but otherwise it's near identical. Finished in matt black plastic & rubber, it's only slightly chunkier than it's 35mm sibling. It has the same dial layout, exposure and flash compensation (in either 1/2 or 1/3 stop intervals) is set by a dial on the left of the top-plate, program and transport modes set by a dial on the right-hand side. Missing from the top plate is the LCD film counter (mainly because there's no film). Instead it is replaced by a switch that allows for rapid selection of the White-Balance function, a handy feature that allows you to correct for the colour cast given by some light sources by quickly switching between auto and user-programmable modes.
Control wheels sit under the index finger and thumb of the right hand and can be configured to control various aspects of the cameras operation with the defaults being aperture and shutter speed (depending on the mode of the camera). The rear of the camera is home to a thumb-pad to the right of the LCD that controls the menu system and can also be used to select the focus/metering area. There's also a button for quickly changing the ISO rating of the CCD (from anywhere between 100 and 3200), a row of buttons for managing the stored images (including flicking through, zooming and deleting) as well as the generous LCD screen (measured at about 7cm diagonal). Last but by no means least there's also the Anti-Shake button that lets you turn this wonderful feature on and off. On the underneath you will find the tripod screw-mount and the battery compartment which takes a custom-format Minolta NP-400 Lithium-Ion battery. All other interfaces to the camera are found on the left or right hand side panels. The left is home to the remote flash socket, a custom Minolta (electronic) remote-release socket and a 6v DC power socket for when you are doing studio work. The right-hand side is home to the USB interface (which is USB 2 compatible) and the compact flash socket which sits behind a substantial flip-up cover. All interface ports are protected by either rubber flaps that remain attached but flip out of the way or slide-back covers, which ensures that you never lose one of them.
In use it handles well. Despite the heavier than expected body-weight it is well balanced and the rubberised grip gives a very sure feel. The control layout itself is typical Minolta so anyone familiar with the system will be at home straight away. Anyone new to Minolta will have picked it up within 15 minutes. Lenses are easily changed, batteries easily loaded and memory cards easily swapped. Dioptre adjustment is available on the viewfinder and theres even a marking to indicate the film plane on the camera body. Everything appears to have been well thought-out and, after 3 weeks of almost solid use, the only complaint I have is the re-designed Depth-of-Field Preview button, which is a bit fiddlier to use than the old Dynax 7. Focus is very fast; although Im not sure its quite as fast as the old Dynax 7. Manual focus is still engaged through the depression of the clutch button and the mode of operation can now be adjusted between on while depressed or on/off with each press. There is also a Minolta Flash hot-shoe on the top so that you can replace the in-built GN13 flash, which actually has a very respectable coverage. Wireless Flash is also supported, as is rear-curtain sync, red-eye reduction and high-speed flash (the latter provided you are using the suitably expensive Minolta dedicated flashguns).
The only other point to note is that lens-lengths arent quite the same thanks to the fact that the CCD is smaller than 35mm film, so you can effectively multiply lens lengths by 1.5x. So a 50mm lens with 35mm film effectively becomes a 75mm lens on the 7D, with a correspondingly narrower field of view, but this is pretty much transparent in use as the viewfinder still shows almost exactly what you are going to get (to within 95%). At this point, you should be wary of the new breed of super-cheap lenses coming out from the likes of Sigma. They are a LOT cheaper than their 35mm equivalents an 18 - 50mm zoom costs just £89 with a review to follow shortly but this is because they cater for the smaller frame size of the digital cameras. So, while they will fit the lens mount of your old Minolta bodies, they wont be any good for aking photos
Thats pretty much all the traditional camera stuff out of the way and it has to be said that the Dynax 7D is a very well thought out piece of kit that has taken a lot of obvious customer feedback on the original Dynax 7 (which was also a fine camera) and evolved the design. But there have been some significant changes under the bonnet. Film chambers and transport have given way to digital gadgetry of an impressive level, with the most impressive piece arguably being the new Anti-Shake CCD arrangement. Rather than repeatedly sell expensive anti-shake technology that moves the elements of a lens to compensate for camera shake, Minolta have seized the opportunity offered by digital to move the image capture device instead. While theoretically harder, this approach has the benefit of making anti-shake available to ALL lenses, without the need for expensive upgrades. But does Anti-Shake work? After all, its one of the bigger differentiators between the 7D and its competition. The simple answer is yes, but this doesnt quite tell you the whole story. As anyone will tell you, there are a number of factors that contribute to camera shake ruining a picture, the mains ones being the exposure value and the focal length of the lens. It must be made clear that Anti-Shake cannot work miracles. If you are trying a hand-held shot with a 5 second exposure, you will experience camera shake. If, on the other hand, you were shooting at a shutter speed of 1/90th Anti-Shake would give you the opportunity of about another 2 stops on your aperture (taking your shutter sped down to 1/45th, and still be in with a shout at a shake-free picture. It may just be that I have exceptionally shaky hands, but in my practice shots anti-shake has not been able to do much for shots at 1/30th of a second or slower. Handily, the viewfinder shows you whether you are suffering from camera shake and how much compensation anti-shake is making, so that provided youre not in a hurry to take your picture you can at least wait until your hand has steadied, giving you an even better chance at perfection. Of course, Anti-Shake can be switched on or off, which may be a good thing as I would imagine it goes some way towards draining the battery. All the usual exposure information is available through the view-finder as you would expect. The same information (and more) is also available from the LCD panel which will show you much the same as the original Dynax 7 including EV, effective ISO rating of the CCD, shutter speed, aperture, metering mode & focus area selection file format and an estimated number of pictures remaining on the memory card. The only thing that is missing from the old Dynax 7 display modes is the metered exposure levels for the honeycomb pattern, but as you can easily snap a shot, view it on the LCD and re-take it if its not to your liking, its not too much of a problem.
The LCD displays the multitude of configuration menus, all of which are easy to navigate and select from using the thumb-pad. The features and options are well documented in the excellent manual which is itself easy to use and compact enough to carry around with you for the first few weeks (although the binding isnt that good so dont abuse it too much). Data access is reasonably swift, for reading and deleting at any rate. The saving of images varies depending on the size/compression, but worst case (fine JPEG + RAW) takes about 10 seconds, with there being enough buffer memory to capture about 5 consecutive frames in multi-frame mode (at a rate of 3 Fps). The playback of stored images is very useful, with the LCD giving an excellent representation of colours and levels. The digital zoom is particularly useful for judging whether a shot was in-focus or not, and the delete button is far easier than taking 3 backups and having to wait until the whole roll has been processed.
The supplied software is very good for manipulating the stored images, and is essential if you want to work with RAW mode files. It provides an excellent way of making multiple copies of the original with varying exposure levels without any of the loss associated with JPEG or other compressed formats. The fact that RAW images are not compressed does mean that they are on the large side, at around 8MB each. When saved in JPEG + RAW this means that each picture takes about 10Mb of memory card, although you can still squeeze 80 onto a 1GB CF card, or 166 pictures using just extra-fine JPEG. Speaking of images size, one of my biggest disappointments with the 7D is the write speed when saving images. Even with a high-speed CompactFlasdh card, it writes at the painfully slow rate of 1Mb/sec, taking a never-ending 10 seconds to save a picture in RAW+JPG. The camera itself appears under Windows XP as a simple removable mass-storage device and images can be dragged/dropped as with pretty much any other digital camera.
A recent firmware upgrade (to version 1.10e) has been released recently. The upgrade process is simplicity itself, but I wont go into details here best to leave that to the instructions that come with the software. Suffice to say Id downloaded the update and upgraded my camera within the space of 5 minutes! One of the new features included in 1.10e is the highlighting of over/underexposed areas in image playback. This is an excellent improvement allowing very rapid determination of any areas that could be lacking detail and something that Ive admired on the digital Canons for a while now. The firmware also claims to have improved CompactFlash access times but Ive not seen any evidence of this my benchmark of RAW+JPG still takes between 9 11 seconds to save.
Some of the things it doesnt do include sound and video recording. This was an initial disappointment until I looked at my Fuji and thought back to how many times I had actually used those features. Probably less than 5 times in 3 years, so no great loss. The other important difference, and this is a good thing to my mind, is that you cant use it single-handed. The LCD will NOT show you the view through the lens until after youve taken the photo, so you HAVE to look through the viewfinder. I find this far better photographic discipline than the single-handed point and shoot nature of compact digital cameras, and it invariably leads to better photographs.
In summary, if you are have a bag full of Minolta kit already, what are you waiting for? This camera is what you need to break you free from the shackles of film (unless you like doing your own B&W developing). It offers all the flexibility of a high-end SLR, and a lot of the convenience of digital. If you are new to the market of SLR photography and have yet to buy into a camera system (lenses and all) then I think the Minolta offers an excellent platform to start on. And finally, if you are a die-hard Nikon/Canon user maybe you can get a trade in! ;-)