Konica / Minolta
A Photographer's Camera
This is a preliminary hands-on review
of the brand-new Maxxum 7D. It was written in mid-October
and was based on a week of field testing a pre-production camera. I was told by Konica Minolta that while the body itself
was in final form, the firmware was not. For this reason minor glitches have been either overlooked or reduced in emphasis.
Minolta, or KM as some people now call them, has a soft spot reserved in my photographic heart. When I began my career as a photojournalist in the late sixties and early seventies I couldn't afford a Leica or a Nikon, and so a couple of Minolta SRT101s were may mainstay. These camera were, at the time, state-of-the-art (at least for the money), and I still remember them fondly. I also found that Minolta's lenses were very good, and offered great value compared to those from Nikon – the pro camera at the time.
I have not used a Minolta camera (sorry – Konica / Minolta) since then, until the A2, which I tested and then purchased earlier in 2004. I found it to be the overall best of the 8 Megapixel digicams, which were all released at around the same time. The area where I found that it stood apart from most of its competitors was with regard to handling. While most of the others felt as if they were designed exclusively by engineers, the A2 had definitely been designed by people who were also photographers.
I was therefore quite keen to test the Maxxum 7D, as I was very curious to see how that contemporary digital camera design skill would translate into the 35mm format.
Last But Not Least
Konica Minolta is the last of the major Japanese camera makers to bring forth a digital SLR. (Contax came and went, and hasn't returned, and Leica is, of course, not Japanese). The issue for Konica Minolta was therefore to try and accomplish two goals. One was to provide owners of existing Minolta lens with a migration path to digital, and the other was to position the company in the highly competitive DSLR marketplace.
Doing the former simply required showing up at the party with a good looking date, and this they have done. Accomplishing the second goal meant that they had to do something to differentiate themselves from the pack, and this they have accomplished with their proprietary Anti-Shake technology.
This was first seen in the A1 and A2 digicams. What makes it different from Canon's Image Stabilization (IS) and Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR), is that Anti-Shake (AS) is built into the camera, rather than into the lens. Whereas IS and VR use motion sensing to move lens elements, thus compensating for unintentional camera movement, AS moves the sensor itself.
This is no mean feat, particularly with an APS-C sized sensor, as found on the Maxxum 7D.
So, how does this new 6 Megapixel camera shape up, both in its own right, and against the competition – in particular the Canon 20D, which is the most recent DSLR that I tested, and also the one that I am currently most familiar with.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with 24-85MM F/3.5-4.5. ISO 100.
I found that AS worked very well. After shooting many hundreds of frames, at least half of which were with the Minolta AF Apo Tele Zoom 100-400 f/4.5-6.7, I found that AS provided at least a couple of stops of additional hand-holdability. I have no rigorous comparisons to offer, only the judgment of my own eyes. But it seemed to me that Canon's IS, with which I have greater familiarity, provides possibly a bit more stabilization, and also the versatility of being able to select unidirectional as well as multidirectional stabilization settings. Konica Minolta's offset to this is that the Anti-Shake technology is in the body, and therefore works with almost all lenses (except those with focus limiters, if set), while Canon and Nikon's solutions require that it be built into special lenses.
There is one downside to Konica Minolta's Anti-Shake, as implemented on the Maxxum 7D. This is that the effect isn't visible in the viewfinder. With IS and VR the image visibly stabilizes in the viewfinder, just as with stabilized binoculars. You can actually see the image lock-in as the gyros take effect. But because Minolta's AS technology utilizes correction via sensor motion, this takes place well after the optical path. (The A1 and A2, of course, show an electronic stabilized image in the viewfinder).
The reason that I see this as an issue is as follows. I judge whether or not a shot can be successfully hand-held by how much camera motion I see in the viewfinder. After decades of shooting with long lenses, I can usually judge pretty well whether the focal length and shutter speed combination being used will be successful in arresting camera motion. With Canon's IS, I have learned to judge as well how stable, and therefore how successful, its action will be.
With AS on the Maxxum 7D though, there's no way to judge this. You just have to take it as an article of faith that stabilization is working, and that your shot will work.
Image Courtesy Konica Minolta
Minolta has anticipated this issue, and has implemented a series of illuminated green bars to the right of the viewfinder, to show you the extent to which AS is working at the moment. A week's use, and some hundreds of frames, was not enough for me to gain confidence with this system, but I imagine that an owner of the Maxxum 7D, doing a lot of hand-held long lens shooting, will find that the system provides the feedback needed, and will adjust.
Finally, just as with the other manufacturer's technologies, Anti-Shake brings with it the cost of greater battery drain.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with Apo Tele Zoom 100-400 f/4.5-6.7. ISO 200.
The Maxxum 7D uses the same lithium ion batteries as do the A1 and A2 cameras. These are essentially the same battery as used by just about every other camera maker, except that no one has standardized on the connectors, and so each maker's battery type is proprietary. What a pain!
Anecdotal evidence from other pre-release reviewers of the Maxxum 7D is that battery life is good. That wasn't my experience. In taking approximately 400 frames, my camera showed a red low battery warning three times. Fortunately, I had two extra batteries along, and so never ran short. The weather conditions encountered ranged from indoors at the Photo Expo show in New York, to just above freezing in the mountains of upstate-New York at dawn.
My guess is that Anti-Shake, which I had on almost all the time, except during long exposures atop the tripod, was taking its toll, and the replacement of a top LCD by a more power hungry colour screen is also a factor, as will be seen below.
The good news is that the Maxxum 7D has a very large, clear and bright colour LCD on the rear panel. One of the biggest and best out there. The bad news is that the camera has no B&W LCD on the top panel, and instead, the rear colour screen serves double duty. Indeed, the lack of a settings LCD is largely mitigated by the profusion of mechanical dials for setting, and for visually confirming a great many controls.
But, it's still an issue. For example, when you first fire up the camera the rear screen lights up, displaying all of the items that you would normally need to know, and which aren't readily apparent from the physical dials. These include battery condition, ISO setting, F stop and Shutter Speed, frames remaining, and several others.
But, after a few seconds this display disappears (to save battery), while on most other cameras with top-panel LCDs, this information is always visible. The need for this screen can also be an annoyance in a dark setting. It ruins your night vision when you're working in the dark, and can make the camera, (and thus you as well) quite noticeable in a dark environment. Beware of snipers.
I understand why Konica Minolta made this design decision, but I can't say that I'm all that happy with it. The mechanical controls are great, and the huge colour screen is welcome and useful. And clearly, with all those mechanical dials and levers there simply isn't any room left for such an information panel. But, I still miss it, and am not happy with the current solution.
It should be noted that Konica Minolta uses its proprietary eye-sensor technology to turn the colour display off when you lift the camera up to eye level. Nice.
Peter's Wood Nature Reserve. Ontario. October, 2004
One design aspect of the Maxxum series of cameras that I am less than enamoured with is that the focus motor is built into the camera, not the lens. This leads to several consequences. The first is that the camera wants to ramp the focus of the lens to infinity as soon as you turn the camera on. Secondly, the rubberized manual focus ring at the front of the lens rotates during autofocus, and if your hand is in contact with it you're in for a bit of a surprise. Since I'm used to cradling the lens in the palm of my left hand for support, especially telephotos, with my elbow tucked tight against my body, having the focusing ring constantly rubbing against my fingers and palm is a real annoyance and distraction.
Minolta has made the focus ring as small as possible, I assume to minimize this problem. But as a consequence, when you do want to manually focus, the ring is less than ideally gripable. Furthermore, unlike most of Canon's EF lenses, on which you can manually override autofocus at any time, on the Maxxum 7D you need to press or hold down a Manual Focus button with your right thumb to release the focus mechanism interlock. I suppose that Minolta SLR users are used to this, but coming from familiarity with a lens system (Canon EF) that doesn't have this foible, I found it disconcerting, and hard to become accustomed to.
Finally, the front element of some lenses rotates, (such as the 100-400mm zoom), seriously complicating the use of polarizers and split neutral density filters. This is a design no-no in my book.
It needs to be said though that most issues related to autofocus on the Maxxum 7D are not specific to it, but rather are legacy issues related to Minolta's implementation of autofocus throughout their camera and lens line.
As for autofocus performance, I did no speed tests, but found it to be reasonably fast and accurate. The Maxxum 7D, like the Canon 20D, has nine focus points, and like its competitor the focus point chosen by the camera light up. Unlike on the Canon though, if more than one point is at the same plane of focus, only one of them lights.
Selection of focus points is made with a well-designed thumb wheel on the back panel that allows manual selection, automatic selection, and a Lock position for when you have chosen one of the points.
The Maxxum is quite a bit noisier than the Canon when it comes to focusing motor noise, which may be an issue for some.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with Apo Tele Zoom 100-400 f/4.5-6.7. ISO 400.
The Maxxum 7D takes a couple of seconds to turn on. Quite a big slower than the almost instantaneous Nikon D70 and Canon 20D.
The Maxxum 7D can shoot at 3FPS for up to 9 RAW frames, while the Canon 20D can shoot at 5 FPS for just 6 frames. But whereas the 20D can then continue to shoot a new RAW frame every couple of seconds, as the files are written to the card, the Maxxum 7D needs to wait a full 10 seconds or so until space in the buffer has been cleared for the next shot. A single frame takes about 12 seconds to write to the card on the Maxxum 7D, while the Canon takes less than 2 seconds to write a frame to the same card, (a Sandisk Extreme 2GB).
Built in Flash
The built in flash covers to 24mm. Many competitive camera's provide wider flash coverage. Also, flash sync speed is only 1/125sec when Anti-Shake is turned on, and just 1/160 sec when it's turned off. This is notably slower than most competitive cameras. Anyone wanting to do daylight balanced fill-flash may find this to be a limitation.
All Minolta cameras use a proprietary hot shoe mount. The good news is that it is very secure. The bad news is that this forces you to use Minolta-brand flash units. There is though a standard PC sync socket, so use of studio flash units is possible.
The electronically controlled shutter operates from 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second, a typical range for a cameras in this class, though not the fastest.
Exposure and Flash Compensation
The Maxxum 7D has a comprehensive exposure and flash compensation dial on the top left panel. Curiously this dial has two separate scales, one in orange and one in white. The orange scale, covering one half the dial, is calibrated in 1/3rd F stops, plus or minus 2 EV. The white scale, covering the other half of the top of the dial, is calibrated in half stops, and allows for exposure compensation to plus or minus 3 EV. This is a level of comprehensiveness not seen on any other camera with which I am familiar, and is especially attractive because it is implemented on a mechanical dial rather than being buried within layers of menus. Exposure compensation is also displayed on an illuminated scale within the viewfinder.
Incidentally, exposure compensation can also optionally be accomplished with the rear thumb wheel, which is my preference.
Jut underneath the nicely canted exposure compensation dial is a flash compensation scale, which is adjusted with a side mounted lever. Click stops on the dial are very positive. Indeed, all click stops on the camera are definitive, and the major dials all have locking positions for their settings which require a button to be simultaneously pressed to activate them. This means that the chances of accidental settings are minimal. Kudos to MK for this often overlooked feature. Missed shots due to accidental incorrect settings are highly unlikely with this camera.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with 24-85MM F/3.5-4.5. ISO 400.
The Mode dial atop the upper right hand side of the body has the usual M / S/ A / and P settings. It also has one so-called dummy mode, which provides complete camera automation for Aunt Martha. To Konica Minolta's credit they have avoided putting all of those silly shooting modes which Canon and others include on their non-Pro models, which simply clutter up the dial, and hardly anyone ever uses.
In Manual exposure mode, in typical fashion, the front control wheel, near your index finger, controls shutter speed, while the rear control wheel, under your thumb, controls aperture. On the viewfinder display, which is calibrated in 1/3rd F stops, the actual exposure setting as well as the camera's recommend exposure are both shown. If in this mode you depress the AEL button, your preferred exposure is locked, and either control wheel will vary the combination of aperture and shutter speed while retaining your preferred locked exposure combination.
Konica Minolta has also included three custom setting positions. You set all of the numerous parameters which contemporary DSLRs offer, and then can switch between them by simply turning the Mode dial to one of the three corresponding positions. This is an excellent design feature which makes shooting in rapidly changing situations much more efficient, and which other camera makers should emulate.
Knobs and Buttons and Levers
I won't itemize all of the knobs and buttons and levers. I stopped counting after about 25, and I'll leave it to those reviewers who excel at that sort of thing to detail what each of them does. But I will comment that while at first the camera appears overly endowed with controls, in fact they are generally so well positioned and intelligently laid out that only a few hours of concentrated use will make them almost second nature for most experienced photographers.
This seeming profusion of controls has the huge benefit of making activation and visual confirmation of their functions clear and unambiguous. Unlike almost every other DSLR on the market, where controls like exposure compensation, ISO setting, metering mode and White Balance are either set though multiple button presses and reference to an LCD screen, or via menus, on the Maxxum 7D these are via mechanical switches.
I wish that more cameras were made this way.
The viewfinder is large, clear and bright – better than those on many of its competitors. In fact, there is less of the tunnel look that so many reduced-frame DLSR regrettably provide. There is the requisite diopter setting, and also a rubberized eye cup.
Like most quality digital cameras the Maxxum 7D has flashing highlights on the review screen to show where the shot is overexposed. But the Maxxum 7D also has flashing shadows, showing where underexposure will occur. When your shot exceeds the dynamic range of the camera each one flashes alternatively with a different pattern. Nicely done.
I found that the Maxxum 7D was not as responsive as I would have liked. I have no hard figures to back this up, but the camera always seemed to be about 1/8th of a second behind what I wanted it to be doing. Usually with a new camera I find after a few hundred frames that I become familiar with the amount of "lag" between when my brain tells my finger to press the shutter release, and when it actually happens. I never could quite get the measure of the Maxxum 7D. It could be that because I was using the camera with Anti-Shake turned on almost all the time when shooting hand-held it was contributing some slight additional delay. I'll leave it to one of the technically more rigorous reviewers to try and measure if this is the case, but subjectively it seemed that way to me.
Fit, Finish and Feel
The Maxxum 7D is not the smallest digital SLR on the block. It's a bit bigger than the Canon 20D and Pentax *stD, but smaller than the Fuji S2 and S3. Anyone with normal to large hands will have no problem with the handling, as the contoured grip, thumb rest and shutter release positioning are all in the current idiom, and comfortable. I used the camera in the cold, wearing gloves, and found that all the required shooting controls were usable.
The body itself is magnesium alloy, and the covering either smooth metal or a nicely textured rubberized surface. Control lettering is clear, and on the Mode dial and Exposure Compensation dials is raised, providing a high-quality appearance, if not increased functionality. These knobs have a thick knurled rubberized ring for gripability, even with sweaty hands. As I wrote in the review's subtitle – this is a photographer's camera, and clearly has been designed by engineers who are also photographers.
Mirror Lock Up
Mirror lock-up is implemented simply and logically by making it part of the 2 second self timer setting. Why other camera makers can't figure out this simple strategy is a complete mystery.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with Apo Tele Zoom 100-400 f/4.5-6.7. ISO 100.
Subjective Image Quality
Most contemporary digital SLRs produce extremely high image quality. When working with raw files it is possible to make tonal and colour rendition jump through hoops just about any way that you want, so it's only when shooting JPGs, and baking the files in the camera, that this really is worth focusing on.
The Maxxum 7D allows quite a bit of adjustment to JPG parameters, so most photographers working with these files will be able to find a combination of settings that's to their liking. As for RAW files, at the time of my testing Konica Minolta's software for RAW file handling was not available, but I was able to work with the camera's RAW files using a beta version of Adobe's Camera Raw. (The Maxxum 7D will be supported in the next official release of Camera Raw).
The RAW files are easy to work, with and produce very lovely image quality. The only area that stands out is that they can appear a bit softer than those from Canon cameras, which I am more used to, and require some additional sharpening to be at their best. I regard this as a very positive attribute, as it shows that Konica Minolta is likely not applying any in-camera sharpening to their RAW files, which some camera makers do. I can find little if anything to fault with this camera's image quality.
The Macbeth colour chart seen below was photographed under tungsten halogen lamps at 3200 deg. The gray point was set in Photoshop. Otherwise no changes have been made to the file. Comparisons are based on viewing the chart under a controlled light source. Please go by what I write, not by what you see, since web conversion, your monitor set-up and a dozen other variable make it impossible to know whether what you're seeing is the same as what I see. Evaluation of the computer file was done on a Sony Artisan reference monitor.
Konica / Minolta Maxxum 7D
The Maxxum 7D's colour reproduction was very good. The upper right Bluish Green square was rendered slightly greener thanit should be, and the Yellow/Green square, second row, fifth across, was a little less saturated than it should be. Other that that colours were spot on. Only the most finicky of studio product photographers will need to consider custom profiling.
An Optical Analysis Using
I found the noise levels on the Maxxum 7D to be very low; comparable with those from the Canon 20D. The numbers below tell how close these cameras are. I didn't have the time, or the inclination, to do side-by-side field shots. In any event, it wouldn't prove much as there are so many variables as to make such comparisons suspect.
My DXO lab test shows some numbers comparing the Maxxum 7D with the recently released Canon 20D. The test shows almost identical results between the two cameras when it comes to noise.
Do I completely trust these results, especially down to the decimal point? No, not really, though my general shooting shows the two cameras to produce quite similar results when it comes to noise visibility.
Note that differences of 1dB or less are visibly insignificant.
S/N Ratio in dB
The photograph below was taken hand-held at ISO 800, through the plate glass window of a factory at night. The exposure was 1/8th second at f/5.6, showing as well the benefits of Anti-Shake, even with a 24mm focal length.
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D with 24-85MM F/3.5-4.5. ISO 800.
As can be seen in the 100% enlargement below, the noise appears to be mostly luminance noise, and could have been easily cleaned up with any of the common noise reduction programs, or even that built into Camera Raw. On a 11X17" print the noise is hardly even visible though. Excellent performance.
The Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D has come late to the party, but, if I may be allowed to torture the analogy a bit, it is one of the most attractive dates to show up. It is priced just slightly above its competitors, and even this is likely to smooth out as the pipeline gets filled, and the initial feeding frenzy settles down.
In terms of features, the Maxxum 7D is loaded. Just about every control and gizmo that one could want is included, and even some that no other manufacturer offers, such as Anti-Shake in the body, and a truly huge rear LCD screen.
Build quality appears to be very fine, and image quality is comparable to that of any other comparably equipped and priced camera to be found on dealers shelves.
Photographers who appreciate mechanical controls as opposed to buttons and menus will thrill to the Maxxum 7D.
Downsides? A few.
The lack of a monochrome top-panel LCD for displaying camera status information is only partially compensated for with the rear colour LCD. It has got to be a source of additional battery usage, and also can be distracting. I am also sure that Anti-Shake, as valuable as it is, also contributes to the less than stellar battery performance that I experienced.
Of course, compared to the Canon 20D, the Maxxum 7D has a 6MP chip vs. the Canon's 8MP. Is that a big factor? Not likely for most people, since a 6MP camera can produce roughly an 8X13" on a print at 240 PPI, while an 8MP camera can produce approximately a 10X15" print at the same resolution. A noticeable difference, but not huge.
In the end, anyone committed to Minolta lenses will likely find the Maxxum 7D to be an excellent choice – fully competitive with other camera maker's digital SLR offerings. For those choosing a new digital camera who are without a legacy lens collection to sway their choice, the Maxxum 7D will be seen as a worthy alternative to its competitors.
NB: Neither the Vertical Control Grip VC-Maxxum 7D, nor DiMage Viewer software were available at the time of this test.