The $20 film camera challenge part 2: Saved by the Minolta Maxxum 5 – Aaron Gold


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Aaron ended up picking up a Minolta Maxxum 5 and 28-80mm kit lens for under $20.

Read: The $20 film camera challenge part 1: the hunt

A quick recap: In part one (see link above), I proposed a $20 film camera challenge, the goal being to find a working film camera for less than twenty bucks, shipping included. The search was fascinating: I found lots of point-and-shoot compacts, several intriguing vintage cameras and a surprising number of autofocus SLRs. I had been trolling the waters of low-end Minoltas and was just about to make an offer on a Maxxum 3xi

a zoom lens, when I saw… the camera.

Too good to be true?

It was a Minolta Maxxum 5, a camera that, quite frankly, I had never heard of. It came with what I assume was its kit lens, a Minolta AF 28-80 F3.5-5.6 painted in matching silver. The lens hood was present but the lens cap was missing. The seller was here in the Los Angeles area, so shipping was only six dollars.

Asking price: $12 or best offer.

The description didn’t indicate if it was working, just the standard Ebay ‘Used’ boilerplate, which does include the phrase ‘…is fully operational and functions as intended.’ I figured that was my out if the camera turned out to be broken.

The asking and shipping price were already within my $20 budget, but I am the son of a used car salesman, so I had to try to do a little better. I sent the seller a $10 offer, and it was accepted!

A high-feature camera for a super low price

While waiting for my new cheap camera to arrive, I fired up Google to figure out exactly what I’d just bought. I learned that the Minolta Maxxum 5 came out in late 2001 (well after I’d tuned out the 35mm SLR market, which explains why I’d never heard of it). The Maxxum 5 was part of that market’s last gasp. It sat in the middle of Minolta’s lineup, but the features sure made it look like a high-end camera to me. It was as if Minolta was shoveling every feature they could into their 35mm SLRs as film was on its way out the door. Retail price for the body was $403, which is $587 in today’s dollars. I wasn’t able to find any contemporary ads, but I imagine at the time, you could get it with the 28-80mm for just a bit more dough.

The Maxxum 5 was part of the 35mm SLR market’s last gasp. It sat in the middle of Minolta’s lineup, but the features sure made it look like high-end

I’ll spare you a laundry list of the Maxxum 5’s features, because it’ll waste too many words and no one will care, but the highlights include 14-segment exposure metering, off-the-film flash metering, 7-point switchable autofocus, and a shutter speed range of 30 sec to 1/4000 sec. It has a depth-of-field preview (yay!), 3-exposure auto-bracketing, and – especially important to me – automatic and manual ISO settings. (I bulk-roll my film, so if the camera has no DX override, I’m stuck.) And the film advances at the lighting-fast rate of three frames per second.

I stopped paying attention to the 35mm SLR market in the late 90s (after all, how could I need anything better than my Canon EOS Rebel 2000?), and frankly I was amazed at the Maxxum 5’s features and configuration options. Cripes, I thought to myself as I skimmed the 127-page manual, who needs a Nikon F100 when you can get one of these?

A sample from the Maxxum 5, shot on Ilford HP5+.

The realities of my sub-$20 camera

Two days later, my camera showed up, and it looked brand new. The lens cap was missing, but there was a UV filter installed, and the glass underneath was spotless. It still had batteries and they had just enough juice to turn on the camera on and fire the shutter. Everything seemed to work – but would it take decent pictures?

I loaded up a new pair of CR2 batteries and some film. I started with a roll of deep-discount Ultrafine Xtreme 100, then splurged on a roll of Kodak Ektar, and followed up with my old favorite, Ilford HP5+. It’s worth noting that these three rolls of film together cost more than I paid for the camera.

It’s worth noting that three rolls of film together cost more than I paid for the camera

Shooting with the Maxxum 5 is good fun. The body and lens barrel are made of plastic, as were many SLRs of the era, and the upside is a light weight. With a strap, cap, and no film, it weighs 612g (21.6 oz), a little heavier than my Sony a6000 and quite a bit lighter than my Pentax ME Super. The autofocus is quick and accurate and there’s minimal shutter lag. Aside from the clicks and whirrs of the autofocus and winding motors, the experience wasn’t entirely unlike shooting with my a6000 – no surprise, I suppose, since the Minolta is, technically, the Sony’s not-too-distant ancestor.

But were the photos any good?

When I developed my B&W and picked up the color film from the lab, I was rather pleased with the results. I shot primarily in aperture-priority or program mode, and the Minolta’s built-in meter nailed the exposure on pretty much every shot. As for image quality, well, it’s what you would expect from a kit lens: reasonably sharp, but I’ve seen better. Actually, I’ve seen better from other Minolta AF lenses, which are ridiculously cheap – you can get some damn fine Minolta lenses in the $10 to $40 price range. (I was tempted to fit them to my new Maxxum 5, but that would go against the spirit of the challenge.)

The more I shot with the Maxxum 5, and the deeper I delved into its features, the more I realized that it is, by far, the most comprehensive, feature-rich film camera I own

The more I shot with the Maxxum 5, and the deeper I delved into its features, the more I realized that it is, by far, the most comprehensive, feature-rich film camera I own. Not bad for something that cost me sixteen bucks!

Yes, you can get a great camera for $20 – or less

I set out on this little experiment to see if it was possible to find a decent camera for less than $20. I was pretty sure the answer would be yes, but I never expected to find such an advanced camera in such good shape. Did I just get lucky? At $16, maybe a little. But it only took me a few days of shopping to unearth this gem, and as I speak there are a bunch more Maxxum 5s on eBayfor $30 or less. And I have no doubt there are even better bargains to be found.

Who’s going to take the $20 Film Camera Challenge next?

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