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Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D

Quickly on the heels of its first dSLR, Konica Minolta shrinks the form factor and the price without losing in-camera image stabilization.

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Page 2:Shooter's Report

Review First Posted: 10/31/2005

Shooter's Report

Intrigued by the in-camera image stabilization of the original 7D, I asked for an extended loan. Konica Minolta generously agreed. Along with the Maxxum 7D, they sent three autofocus zoom lenses and their 5600HS D wireless flash.

The first time I got my hands on the 7D, I thought it was a Speed Graphic. It seemed huge and unwieldy. But when I slipped a lens on it and attached the vertical grip, it seemed remarkably well balanced. And, in fact, with the grip it's no larger than a compact Nikon FM2 with motor drive.

The beauty of a dSLR is that you don't have to learn how to use it. Just find the aperture and shutter speed controls and go. Despite its numerous buttons and dials, the Maxxum 7D captured nice shots seconds after I'd flipped the power switch and found Manual mode. I took my time learning what the buttons and dials were for and found them well-placed and useful additions in short order.

Then along came the 5D.

Feel

There's no vertical grip for it, but it does share just about everything else with the Maxxum 7D including the same battery, charger, lens mount, and proprietary hot shoe. It uses the same imager and communicates with the same large LCD whose status display cleverly rotates when you rotate the camera (although at 115,000 pixels the LCD displays images with slightly less resolution than the 7D).

But some things were different.

The size, first of all. As a compact dSLR, I worried a bit about the grip. But it was nearly identical to the 7D grip. The last two bones of my index finger measure two inches and they wrap neatly around the front and inside of the molded grips of both cameras. I wasn't cramped at all. And, because the camera is lightweight, I found I didn't really miss the vertical grip. It was easy to orient in portrait mode.

In fact, light weight in a dSLR is probably around ideal weight. It's enough heft to hold steady without tiring you out on a long shoot, but light enough for a compact tripod to handle. It even mounted easily to the Parks Malibu spotting scope using a Maxxum T-ring (just turn off shutter lock so you can shoot when no lens is detected).

Controls

Having grown fond of all the controls on the Maxxum 7D, I worried I'd miss them on the Maxxum 5D. But I found the subset was a really well-conceived design, taking advantage of well-positioned controls as well as the big LCD.

I thought I'd certainly miss the EV control on the 7D's left top dial (which, on the Maxxum 5D, only handles white balance). But hold in the 5D's EV button and the control dial shifts into EV mode. It was actually easier to use, since I didn't have to push a release button, too.

Likewise, I was sure I'd miss the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D's second control dial, which I'd come to love in Program and Auto mode. On the 7D the front dial controls shutter speed and the back dial handles lens aperture, so you adjust by setting the shutter with your forefinger and the aperture with your thumb. I did miss that, but not as much as I thought. On the 5D, the front dial still controls shutter speed, but pressing the EV button shifts it into aperture mode.

The reduction of controls actually made the camera seem friendlier. The real question was whether or not I could find these controls as I needed them.

And here, the D5 did well. The less frequently used controls (like image size and compression, not to mention date and time) are set through the menu system. But there were controls for shooting mode, ISO, EV and white balance in addition to the exposure modes. Enough controls, in short, to keep me out of the menu system most of the time.

Despite its smaller size, the 5D seems just as well-built as the magnesium bodied 7D, though it relies on glass-fiber plastic with a reinforced steel lens mount for its rigidity. I did find a few fit-and-finish issues, however. The control dial required a lot more force to move than the 7D's. And the battery door seemed particularly vulnerable, hinged on its short side. But the hinge itself is screwed to the body, so if it breaks, it can actually be replaced (another engineering marvel).

I noticed the shutter button was occasionally stiff, too. But this turned out to be the 5D's way of telling me it was having trouble finding focus.

Innovation

In his report on the 7D, our Senior Editor Shawn Barnett spoke about the historical importance of various camera manufacturers in both the film and digital eras. Konica Minolta was in no hurry to produce a digital SLR, but when they finally unveiled the Maxxum 7D, the camera did things no other digital SLR could do. The in-camera image stabilization of that model was an important innovation. Not only did it extend the technology to nearly any autofocus Maxxum lens, it opened up new territory in hand-held natural light photography.

The company's heritage of innovation is proudly on display with its Dynax Maxxum line and should interest anyone leaning toward available light photography.

Innovation has a dark side, too. I was more than little inconvenienced by the liberties Konica Minolta takes with filenames. If you set the 5D to capture images in Adobe RGB and embed that profile with each image, the JPEGs are named with a non-standard .JPE extension. If you don't embed the profile, the JPEGs are named with a prefix of _ICT (instead of PICT). Maddening.

Reassuring, however, is the manual's careful step-by-step description of how to clean the image sensor. Interchangeable lenses are great, but when dust takes up residence on the glass protecting the image sensor, you see it in every frame. Unlike a film SLR, a dSLR doesn't start with a fresh frame for each image. Sensor cleaning is inevitable and kudos to Konica Minolta for explaining how to do it safely. (Editorial note from Dave: The 5D manual limits its advice to the (admittedly safe) method of using a blower brush. Here at IR headquarters, we've found that dust sometimes adheres too tenaciously for a blower brush to dislodge it. In such cases, we've found the "Copper Hill" wet/dry cleaning method indispensable. Visit the Copper Hill website for extraordinarily detailed instructions and very affordable kits of cleaning tools and supplies.)

Optics

In addition to their electronic connections, Konica Minolta lenses are also mechanically linked to the camera body. Unlike modern Nikons and Canons, Konica Minolta puts the focus motor in the camera rather than in the lens. Powering the camera in AF mode, the AF motor jogs the lens a bit, testing the linkage.

The wide knurled grip on the lens body invites you to set the focal length. If you focus manually, you have to find the narrow ring at the front of the lens or use the lens hood. The lens hoods attach to the front of the lens much like the lenses themselves attach to the body, but you can reverse the hoods for storage so they don't protrude when you pack up the camera.

Macro lenses designate the minimum focusing distance on the lens barrel, a helpful reminder of just how close you can get. The focal length designations, in handy 35mm equivalents, are easy to read but no hyperfocal information is portrayed.

The kit lens spans 18-70mm, a 35mm equivalent of 27-105, a comfortable range. The focal length multiplier on the Dynax Maxxum digital cameras is 1.5. Your old 100mm lens will crop the scene as if it were a 150mm lens, making your wide-angle collection closer to normal. So it's nice to see that 18mm equivalent on the kit lens, as we've seen with most consumer SLRs.

LCD

The 5D's 2.5 inch display makes Menu text easy to read. Image resolution at 115,000 pixels is a bit less than the 7D's but you really have to be told to notice. The big screen doubles as the camera's status display, rotating with the camera in portrait or landscape presentations. And when you look through the optical viewfinder, sensors below the viewfinder turn the display off to avoid any disturbing glare (a very good idea, because this display is very bright). I missed the status display when it timed out, since it displays all the vital exposure information. Once you've captured a picture, it displays here in beautiful color and you can zoom in or out.

Capture Menu
Custom Menu
Play Menu Setup Menu

Nine Point AF

The Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D has a 9-point AF sensor with sensors arrayed at different angles around the screen. A line of fine LEDs lights up at each point to indicate which point was selected for focus. So long as the scene is bright and reasonably contrasty, focus performance is fast, although in our early testing we found that it wasn't always dead-on accurate. We often found it necessary to take over manual control to get sharp focus.

Anti-Shake

The big technology advance of the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D was its Anti-Shake (AS) system -- and the 5D inherits the very same magic. All other companies with such technology do their shake compensation in the lens, necessitating purchase of special lenses that cost more money. Konica Minolta has moved their mechanism into the camera body. Put simply, rather than move an optical element inside the lens body, they move the imaging sensor itself inside the camera. A computer detects the motion -- from a heartbeat, nervous hands, or breathing, for example, and moves the imaging sensor to counter it.

The difference between the two methods was immediately noticeable when we first looked through the viewfinder: it didn't seem to be working. We've grown accustomed to lens-based anti-shake systems in the other SLRs we've tested, and expected the surreal floating viewfinder experience we normally see with such systems, but our attempts at simulating a shake was not producing any visible dampening of the motion. Of course, we thought. The dampening is occurring inside the camera, and has no effect on the image coming off the mirror, so we never actually see the Anti-Shake mechanism at work. Instead, a five-step LED bargraph inside the viewfinder tells us by degree how much the Anti-Shake mechanism is being forced to work. As long as only three bars are lit, the AS will likely be able to dampen the vibration. When the bars will go up to four or five, the ability of the AS to compensate is approaching or exceeding its limit. Seems reasonable. Short of attaching the relatively heavy prism to the AS mechanism, this is the best compromise. The weight of the prism is obviously what kept them from taking this route, because there's no way a linear motor could accelerate such a relatively heavy object at so rapid a rate and be ready to counter the opposite motion without taking up a whole lot more space and battery power.

Actually though, the bargraph anti-shake indicator is more than just a compromise, it's a valuable tool in its own right. With a conventional lens-based AS system, you can tell when it's working by the viewfinder image, but you don't have any idea of how hard it's working. That is, there's no warning as to whether or not you're about to push it beyond its limits. With the Maxxum 5D, you have a very good sense of whether you're within the system's limits, or about to run out of "anti-shake gas," so to speak. Very nice, and having now seen this sort of display on both the Maxxum 7D (along the side of the viewfinder) and the 5D (on the bottom), we miss it on our own Canon and Nikon d-SLRs.

The big question of course, is how well the 5D's anti-shake works. The short answer seems to be "pretty well." We conducted some tests against a Canon IS lens (a 28-135mm f/3.5 to 5.6 IS model) on a Digital Rebel against the 7D's in-body anti-shake, and found the two fairly equal in their capabilities. (The 7D edged the Canon lens slightly at 50mm, and the two solutions were in more or less a dead heat at 135mm.) Minolta's in-body anti-shake approach does seem to be more effective at shorter focal lengths than longer ones, which is what we'd expected to see. At long focal lengths, small amounts of body movement will result in relatively large amounts of image blurring. This means that any body-based anti-shake system would have to be exceptionally sensitive to correct for image blurring with long telephoto lenses. That said though, the 7D's anti-shake did very well in our tests. (Read the "Optics" section of this review for more details.)

Recommendation

Photographers with a collection of 35mm lenses naturally want a digital camera body with a compatible mount. But if your old gear had one lens (maybe the inevitable 50mm or an inexpensive zoom), there's no reason to remain in the fold. In fact, because your widest angle lens (say a 35mm) will now approach normal range, you need new glass to see wide again anyway. And that usually means buying the kit lens (which is often a great deal anyway).

If that reflects your situation, having anti-shake in the body rather than the lens makes the Konica Minolta dSLRs very tempting. We took shots in dim room light at 1/5 and 1/10 second exposures that were still sharp. And the images weren't 'boosted' with unnatural brightness or noise. The scene appeared much as we had observed it.

The Dynax Maxxum model line has an assortment of sophisticated accessories (including the wireless flash mentioned above) and plenty of lenses. It isn't as extensive as Canon or Nikon, but it isn't skimpy either.

With the compact Maxxum 5D, Konica Minolta has delivered a compelling product for anyone interested in a dSLR.

 

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