Note: The past few rolls have inadvertently become part camera/lens reviews. It was what happened naturally when I began writing the posts, and since many people really like gear reviews (myself included) I didn’t fight it.
Buying cameras, lenses and accessories can be a science, a series of rational decisions, a spur of the moment thing, or just an erratic zig-zag run through the fields, as if stung by bees. My approach, while I would like it to be the first in that list, has more often than not been closer to the last.
This is why the search for a tele zoom for my recently acquired Minolta 7000 (rolls 25, 26 and 27) led me to an eBay auction for a small, cheap lens, the Minolta AF 70-210/4.5–5.6. (see, again, roll 27). Having appeared in the 1990s, this was pretty much the cheapest option for that range. Since most of my photography happens between 28 and 50 millimeters, I figured it would be good enough. Including shipping, it was only marginally over €20, and it included a camera – another autofocus SLR: the Minolta Dynax 300si.
The 300si is an odd bird. When released in 1995, it represented the low end of Minolta’s autofocus lineup. The camera makes full use of all the advances in automation camera technology had produced by the mid-90s. In other words: it’s fully automatic, and you pretty much can’t do anything against that. When first turned on (fed with one of those 2CR5 lithium batteries that seemed to go into everything at the time and never last as long as you want them to), it defaults to fully automatic “P” mode.
It sets the ISO of your film automatically via a DX code scanner, and you cannot adjust this manually. So you better not try any expired film, or self-rolled film, or want to push or pull. Unless you’re hand-rolling ISO 100 film, which is what the camera sets if it cannot read the film’s speed. There is also no way to “trick” the camera into another ISO by using exposure compensation, or manual settings. It does not have either of these things. What it does have is a big button next to the display which switches between shooting modes, helpfully labeled above the LCD with pictograms. You get to choose from portrait, landscape, macro, sports, and nighttime photography. You also get two buttons to select flash modes – regular or red eye reduction – and one that sets either single shot, self timer, or multi shot mode. There’s an off-on sliding switch. There’s a film rewind switch for premature rewinding on the bottom, and there’s a slider to open the camera back in order to put film in or take it out. There’s a lens release button and an auto/manual focusing switch on the front of the camera. And there’s the shutter button, a small plastic thing that clicks with the limited satisfaction you get from pressing down on one of those metal frog toys that for some reason are periodically all the rage.
I wasn’t actually going to use the camera. I mean, come on! It does nothing. It weighs nothing. It’s all plastic, even down to the parts that shouldn’t be, like the lens mount. It’s just barely this side of a toy camera. But who am I kidding, I couldn’t resist to try it out at least once. So I headed out to run a test roll of Fuji made drugstore branded ISO 200 C41 film through the little modern take on the “baby Minolta.”
The first thing I always notice about a camera is how it “feels.” This is a broad category that includes looks, haptics, and the even more subjective impression of what the camera appears like to me, and thus must appear like to the world at large. The 300si feels light, and it does not feel premium. It also does not feel like a professional tool for analog photography. It does feel like something you could buy today at a big box electronics retailer that takes digital pictures. If you don’t want to stick out as the “analog” girl or guy at your local photo club’s meeting, this would be what I’d bring.
The fact that the camera doesn’t feel like it’s worth much also translates into how you use it. I threw it into duffels, gym bags and backpacks and for a while brought it everywhere, much like a point and shoot. You won’t feel worried about your gear. The little Minolta is surprisingly reliable, and if you shoot negative film its lack of manual controls is less of an issue. If you don’t want to risk a lot of money and don’t want a lot of fuss, grab a 300si and just shoot If you slap a cheap lens on the camera and go out for a hike or bring it to a summer barbecue (incidentally, what I immediately preceded to do with the 300si), you’ll have no qualms about handing it off and telling people to just shoot with it. And they’ll have no problems using the camera, even if they can hardly take an iPhone picture.
You can double the value of a 300si by putting a battery in it. You can triple it by adding film. If you have a “beater” lens, the 300si is as expensive as a disposable camera. And when that’s the comparison, it’s infinitely more capable. Using it taught me, once again, that limitations can be useful. Usually, it’s the other way around: you’re limited by an all-manual camera and slowly having to set distance, shutter, and aperture, and maybe even having to guess exposure. Here, it also works, but from the side of automation. You can’t set anything, so you don’t. You frame, and you shoot. I don’t know about you, but more than anything, I’d call that “pure photography.”