Testing a Minox 35GT
A few days ago I bought a Minox 35GT which was advertised locally for a reasonable price. The Minox 35 series of cameras is famous for being very small and for high quality optics producing fairly contrasty images. The internet has a lot of information about the different models as they were in production from 1974 to 2003 with a couple of million made. The most comprehensive source of information can be found at this link. Here I summarise some of that information, and compare it in some detail to three of my favourite small 35mm Olympus cameras, the XA, XA2 and mjuii. At the bottom of the post is a table comparing features between the four cameras.
While this camera was a good price, it was more than I would have preferred. It is increasingly rare to find the cameras I would like to try out in thrift stores, and generally it is getting more difficult to find any affordable cameras of quality as the better film cameras are steadily going up in price around here. I doubt that will last, but for now I had to fork out what I would normally pay for 5 or 6 point and shoot cameras – on the plus side is that none of those 5 or 6 would likely be a keeper while the Minox most definitely is.
Minox 35 mm cameras have manual scale focus operated by a tiny but easily accessed ring on the outer edge of the lens with 8 distances marked between 0.9m and 10m as well as infinity; some versions are marked in feet only. It has a viewfinder but sadly no range finder for focusing so you have to guess how far away your subject is, and the view finder gives no clues if you have it wrong. However, the top of the lens does have a depth of field scale so you can tell when you are on safe ground by using an aperture that gives sufficient depth of focus to cover the guesstimate errors.
The camera has an aperture priority exposure system with electronic shutter. Aperture can be set between f/2.8 and f/16 by rotating a ring against the camera body – this ring is fiddly to use and even harder to operate while looking through the view finder, though I find that with the tips of both index fingers I can rotate it while looking at shutter speed. Shutter speed is indicated inside the view finder which shows a range from 1/30 to 1/500th though longer exposures are possible and depend on the ISO. Apparently 10 (or even 30) second exposures are possible at ISO 25 and about 1 second at ISO 400 to 800. There is information on the web that suggests earlier models will set very much longer shutter speeds in low light, but this does not seem to be the case for the 35GT that I own. However, I will test this more when it is not loaded with film – if longer exposures are possible, I will edit this post.
All models have a drawbridge cover over the lens reminiscent of bellows units in old folding cameras. The drawbridge serves as a lens cover, and switches the camera off when closed, including locking the shutter button to prevent misfiring in the pocket. When the drawbridge is opened it pulls the small lens out of the camera body. It can be useful for shading the lens by turning the camera upside down to cast the drawbridge shadow across the lens in strong sunlight. EDIT: While running a second roll of film through the camera I have discovered that the drawbridge is also very handy as a rain shield for the lens, even with some wind.
The viewfinder is bright and sufficiently large, and the frame lines are particularly bright compared to many other compact cameras. The exposure indicating needle is easily seen, though this requires a slight shift of the eye for glasses wearers like myself. The shutter release button is tiny and very sensitive to pressure so is almost too easily triggered, until one is used to it anyway. The shutter itself is barely audible, and the shutter release is locked when the front is closed.
The battery compartment is also concealed by the drawbridge, being located next to the viewfinder on the front of the camera. The 5.8 volt mercury batteries are no longer available but the camera operates with 4 LR44 alkaline or SR44 silver oxide batteries taped together and even though these are in combination about 6.2 volts the exposures seem to be reasonably accurate. I would say that with this combination my camera looks like it is under-exposing a smidgen, though of course this could just be a tired meter and not the batteries. Once I get a better sense of under-exposure, if any, I can compensate by changing the ISO.
The drawbridge provides a very stable platform for holding the camera level and steady on a flat surface when you don’t have a tripod (and who carries a tripod with a camera this small?). Setting the camera down, composing and then using the self timer (10 seconds with flashing LED indicator in front of camera) will produce very satisfactory long exposures without the need for a tripod.
Film advance is manual, with a two-stroke lever. The indicator needle in the viewfinder for shutter speed, which also serves for a battery check, does not move unless the film has been advanced all the way. Film is loaded by releasing a lever on the bottom of the camera and sliding the back off the camera body. Film loading is simple, and the camera is so small that you should expect to get at least 26 exposures from a 24 exposure roll. The ISO dial is also on the bottom of the camera, as is the release for rewinding film and a tripod mount.
The 35GT was introduced in 1981 and improvements on earlier models include the self timer, a back light compensation (+1EV) switch, along with other design changes like moving the cable release to its own socket. The ISO range remained 25-800 in earlier GT models like mine but later GTs include a 1600 ISO setting. There are limited methods for controlling exposure and the lack of a wide ISO range is the main reason. The back light compensation can be useful, but exposure manipulation via the ISO setting is limited, especially if shooting 400 or 800 film.
The cameras have a hot shoe on top for a flash. A largish flash was made to fit with the camera (different models of flash will only work on particular models of the Minox 35) but this flash is as big as, or bigger, than the camera and really undermines the size advantage. This makes no difference to me since I almost never use flash, and in any case don’t have one for this camera.
The cameras have various cases available, including a very nice “ever ready” leather case that is formed to be a tight fit and keep the whole small. Mine only has the bottom half of the ever ready case, but that too is ok as it provides quite a lot of protection, does not fill my coat pocket and has strap lugs should I wish to hang the camera around my neck, or off a wrist.
Filters are available, as is a lens hood; both slip on the outside of the lens. Without trying them I cannot tell if they would obscure the focus scale, but it sure seems likely, and they would have to be taken off when closing the drawbridge. The light meters (one to set the shutter speed and one to control the needle in the view finder) are beside the lens where the filters would cover them so correct exposures are obtained with filters in place.
The camera is said to expose with an emphasis on points of light and I saw this down at the beach as can be seen in the photos below. The back-light compensation may prove useful, and necessary, in such lighting situations.
Since size is a main point of fame for the Minox series of cameras that are often claimed to be the smallest 35mm camera, it warrants comparison with some other small cameras that I own and really like using. The XA2 is pictured, but it has the same dimensions as its superior sibling the XA. You can see in the following photos that while the Minox is a tiny bit smaller than the Olympus XA/XA2 they are essentially the same size, closely followed by the Olympus mjuii (aka Stylus Epic).
The following picture substitutes the Pentax Espio 120SW for the Yashica T4 but it is quite a different camera with a zoom lens and many electronic controls – its optics are very good for a zoom but not up to the standards of the other cameras in these pictures. When the zoom is retracted it too fits in this size class, though a bit bigger than the XA and mjuii it is smaller than the mju and T4.
When claiming small size honours, one has to consider the drawbridge, which when opened means the camera is functionally larger than all the competitors with clam shell covers like the Olympus XA, XA2 and mjuii Stylus Epic.
In pocket mode the Minox is barely smaller than the XA and XA2 and not much smaller than the mjuii – all of these stay the same size when their clam-shells are open – so on balance they are functionally smaller than the Minox, except in the pocket. On top of that, the mjuii has a built-in flash, along with a number of other controls like a spot meter, autofocus and an ISO rating to 3200 which make it overall a more useful camera, though exposure is fully automatic so there is no way to control depth of field which is a distinct advantage of the Minox and the XA. The XA has a rangefinder for exact focus. The XA2 is zone focus without any exposure control (other than ISO). The ISO range is the same with the XA and XA2, but being able to focus through the viewfinder for the XA is a big plus for that camera and the size difference is negligible. The mjuii has lock focus (half press on shutter release) which allows focus control comparable to the XA. My experience suggests that there is little to choose between the Olympus and Minox optics. The XA (f2.8) and the XA2 (f3.5) are perhaps a bit sharper than the mjuii (f2.8), at least when wide open, but all are excellent optically. The Minox compares well to the XA and XA2, and possibly is optically a bit superior though I need to shoot it more to be sure. It does seem to produce more contrast in the photos, so it might be particularly good for black and white film. I have a roll of Ilford HP5 in the camera as I write so soon enough there will be examples of how it looks in black and white on these pages.
Below is a table comparing features of my favourite small cameras to the Minox. In terms of control the XA is probably the best camera, in terms of speed of use the XA2 is the fastest, and in terms of versatility the mjuii is the winner with built-in flash and fast film capability as well as autofocus and automatic film advance, however it is noisier than the other cameras and thus less suitable for candid photography. Even so, the Minox fits in well with these cameras – it is pocket-sized, has excellent optics and is fairly easy to use with sufficient controls. Definitely this is a camera that I will be continue to use and enjoy.
Feature Comparison for the four smallest cameras in my collection:
|Minox 35GT||Olympus XA||Olympus XA2||Olympus mjuii|
|L x W x H x Wt (less battery)||10×6.1×3.1cm x 190 gms||10.20×6.45×4.0cm x 225 gms||10.20×6.5×4.0cm x 200 gms||10.8×5.9×3.5 x 135 gms|
|Focal length||35 mm||35 mm||35 mm||35 mm|
|Filter thread||No, push on filters and hood available||No filters available||No filters available||No filters available|
|Focus type||Zone, choose distance, DoF indicated||Rangefinder||Zone, three distance choices||Autofocus with focus lock|
|Shutter speed range||1/500 to ~30sec (ISO25) or ~1 sec (ISO800)||1/500 – 10 seconds, all ISO||1/750 – 2 seconds, all ISO||1/1000 – 4 seconds|
|Shutter speed indicated?||Yes, 1/500-1/30 and <1/30, in viewfinder, only when shutter cocked||Yes, 1/500-1 sec, in viewfinder||Long exposure indicator only, in viewfinder||No, fully automatic. Flash fires in low light if not disabled.|
|Backlight Compensation||1 EV||1.5 EV||No||Spot meter available|
|Aperture Priority||Yes, auto speed control||Yes, auto speed control||No, fully automatic||No, fully automatic|
|Self Timer||~10 sec, red LED flashes on front camera||~12 sec, red LED flashes on front||~12 sec|
|Flash||External, hot shoe||External, screws on||External, screws on||Built-in, 5 modes|
|ISO Range||25 – 800 (some models 1600)||25-800||DX coded: 50-3200; non-DX: 100 default|
|Battery Check||Yes, with shutter cocked||Yes, beep and LED, operable at any time||Yes, operable at any time||Yes, displays when camera on|
|Power||Exact voltage batteries difficult to find, but 4xLR44 stack taped together works. Powered off when front closed.||2xLR44, powered off when clam shell closed||2xLR44, powered off when clam shell closed||1xCR123, powered off when clam shell closed|
|Film Transport||Manual, lever, double stroke||Thumb wheel, 360o||Thumb wheel, 360o||Auto wind and rewind|
|Front Cover||Drawbridge, pulls lens out, protrudes and more than doubles thickness, covers lens, front of view finder, light meter, locks shutter release, turns camera off||Clamshell, camera thickness unchanged, covers lens, front and rear viewfinder, light meter, locks shutter release, turns camera off||Clamshell, camera thickness unchanged, covers lens, front and rear viewfinder, light meter, locks shutter release, turns camera off||Clamshell, camera thickness unchanged, covers lens, front of viewfinder, light meter, locks shutter release, turns camera off|