Konica Minolta Dynax Maxxum 7DAt long last, Minolta SLR owners have a *very* worthy body to use with their lens collections!
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Page 2:Overview/Field TestReview First Posted: 11/27/2004, Updated: 02/01/2005
The arrival of the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D is something of a milestone for the entire industry. Konica Minolta is the last of the top five camera companies from the last century to enter the digital SLR market. In order of relative prestige (at the time, anyway), for around thirty years those companies were Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Olympus. There were many other third tier manufacturers, one of which has since merged with Minolta, and some of them are still around. You may disagree with my pecking order, and there are many excellent cameras that are and were made by other companies, but the big market shapers of the last century were these five. In this century, much has changed, with Sony and Kodak--market leaders in the digicam category--shaping quite a bit of the existing market; but Sony has no SLR, and sales of this new Konica Minolta SLR will easily eclipse Kodak's ground breaking professional offerings in a short time if only a few Minolta SLR fans step up to the plate.
Among these big five, their power, influence, and sales statistics have varied over the years, often leapfrogging one another as they went. Of course, it was the masses of SLR photographers who put these top five in place by voting with their dollars. Most will not shoot with anything but their favorite brand. Loyalty is part of the reason these big five have remained enthroned, but so is familiarity with a company's philosophy, reflected in the camera line's common control layout and image capture methodology. For years I stuck with only two brands of SLR--Olympus and Mamiya--because only they had the shutter speed control arrayed in a ring around the lens opening. It wasn't so much that I thought it was the only way, it was just the way I was used to, and I wasn't willing to change. Also, an avid photographer will of necessity build up quite a collection of lenses and accessories, making a platform switch an expensive proposition.
Though most press and art photographers I know who shoot 35mm and digital SLRs use Nikon and Canon, I know of no one who would say there's anything wrong with Minolta cameras or lenses; most just aren't familiar with the line because of their habitual use of the brands they or their company have invested in heavily. But there are hundreds of thousands of proud and happy Minolta owners out there who have been waiting impatiently for release this camera: the Konica Minolta Dynax/Maxxum 7D. Following as it does in the footsteps of the 35mm Minolta Maxxum 7, the Maxxum 7D accepts an impressive line of lenses and flashes, and borrows quite a bit from its film brother in terms of controls and design.
In other ways, however, the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D stands on its own. Its controls will be familiar to existing Minolta 35mm camera owners, but what goes on inside is quite a bit different, with in-camera image stabilization that is backward compatible to all the existing Minolta--and probably third party--lenses that will fit, and a sophisticated set of professional options that fairly bewilder in their sheer number, if not their surprising usefulness. Some options are unique enough that I find myself reciting, "Only from the mind of (Konica) Minolta."
I love the word "bristling," and the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D gives me ample reason to use it, because it is just bristling with controls. Switches, dials, buttons, and sliders burst from its skin like guns from a battleship. Dials are nestled under other dials and buttons are surrounded by still more dials. Nearly every major control you'd want to access quickly has an external control at the ready for your immediate adjustment. Where most camera manufacturers have buttons that rely on the LCD to show you the selected setting as you cycle through the cryptic icons and words, on the Maxxum 7D the same icons and words appear on the many dials, switches, and buttons. The separate Status LCD has been removed to make room for more controls, but the main LCD serves as a reasonable replacement, as we'll see.
I can say three things about the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D: It's made for those who want digital, but still like the feel and ready access to analog controls. It's made for the photographer who likes to be intimately familiar with every aspect of his camera, and intends to keep it for many years. It's made for the photographer who actually likes to read manuals to get the most from his photographic tool. Thankfully, the manual is fairly well-written, though we recommend reading all you can, even a book by a Minolta SLR expert to really understand this powerful tool. Though it has easy-to-use full-auto modes for the novice, the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D is for the dedicated, sophisticated photographer. In particular, it has several features that would be invaluable to event photographers whose work takes them both indoors and outdoors in all manner of lighting situations. Wedding photographers immediately come to mind.
Feeling about as heavy as it looks, the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D is a handful. The grip is nicely shaped with a rubbery finish, but it doesn't quite go deep enough. To get a good purchase on it, you have to press your fingertips into the body. The problem isn't really the grip, though. The length from front to back is just about right for most palms. The body is just very thick and takes up much of the finger space. Otherwise, Konica Minolta has made a nice looking, quality digital camera with a magnesium underbody. All body panels fit tightly and the feel is extremely solid.
The lens likewise has a tight fit. There seems to be little slop when finding the mount openings, in that you have to be spot on to get the lens mount through the opening in the body. It could be that the mechanically-driven focus motor coupling requires more precision (Minolta lenses are driven through a mechanical linkage between the lens and body, with the actual focus motor residing in the camera body, rather than in the lens as modern Nikon and Canons do). Once the lens is properly mounted, the AF motor gives it a little test, moving a little left and a little right. It's here that I remember that if you're not careful where you put your fingers, some of these Minolta lenses will break your thumb or forefinger when they focus, because unlike other manufacturer's lenses, the motor turns the external focus ring very firmly. (Alright, it won't really break your finger, but it will surprise you and can jerk the camera a bit. I also worry what it'll do to the motor or gears over time, if the focus drive ends up fighting your fingers very often.)
The shutter button seems oddly placed, set back from the leading edge of the grip and recessed in a groove, though once you're used to it, you find it's less likely to be activated by accident as you hold the camera waiting for the next shot because your finger actually wants to rest on that leading edge.
Controls are man-sized, buttons are big enough to know for certain that you're pressing that very button and not some button nearby, and it is clearly indicated which icon is currently selected by a given switch or dial. The two largest dials are more like control towers, with a dial accessed and read from the top, and another switched from underneath. My favorite is the Exposure compensation control on the left of the top deck. You can choose to adjust your exposure compensation by 1/2 increments or 1/3 increments depending on which side you switch it to. Beneath this is the Flash Exposure Compensation dial, whose scale is viewed from the back, while the lever that turns it juts out from the front of the dial. A similar arrangement drives the Mode dial. For once there's little naming confusion for the Mode dial: both major Mode categories are controlled here. You control the Exposure Mode (Program, Aperture, Shutter, etc.) with the top dial, and change the Drive Mode (Continuous, Bracketing, Single, Self-Timer) with the bottom dial. We particularly liked the AF/MF button on the back of the camera, which allows you to either momentarily trigger the AF system, or to toggle between Manual and Auto Focus modes, just in case you decide you want to refine what the AF system has done on the fly. Excellent. Easy. No attention required for the LCD, so your brain can begin to assign one set of controls visually to that part of the camera. Your mental map doesn't need to include a slew of menus and button combinations just to change a basic setting, it can become second nature--the kind of thing your finger muscles can learn to do without conscious thought.
Of course, that doesn't mean this is an all-manually-controlled camera. Not at all. For in addition to all these switches and buttons is a massive menu system and all the customary dials and buttons that drive the camera. Thankfully, the saving grace is Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D's 2.5 inch display, which makes the menu text big and clear. This big screen also doubles as the camera's status display. When used as a status display, it even rotates as you rotate the camera, either left or right. (No, it doesn't go upside down, though of course we had to try.) Just as Olympus chose to do on their EVOLT, most users will want to--indeed need to--leave the status display on all the time to see the vital metering and setting information, even with the preponderance of dials and switches. They even placed two IR sensors under the optical viewfinder to turn off the screen when you put the camera to your eye to keep glare from affecting your view. Of course, once you've captured a picture, it displays here in beautiful color and you can zoom in or out.
With all these switches and dials, it's easy to get lost. When these controls are software-driven as on other cameras, you can simply switch to a different mode and most of your settings will change to normal via software control, especially if you run to the Green Zone or Full Auto mode. But on the Maxxum 7D all those switches can't be so easily overridden. Or can they? This is where the camera starts to mess with your mind. Many of these settings can indeed be overridden. If you set the Exposure Mode dial to preprogrammed mode 1, 2, or 3, you can assign all the settings you like to that switch setting and regardless what the Exposure Compensation and Bracketing dials are set to, your previously-saved settings are recovered and active. This could be extremely valuable to that wedding photographer I mentioned earlier, because this can include both separate Exposure bracketing and Flash exposure bracketing modes.
Nine Point AF
Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D 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.
big technology advance in the Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D is the Anti-Shake (AS)
system. 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.
A major difference between the two methods became noticeable when we first looked through the viewfinder: it didn't seem to be working. We have 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. So long as only three bars are lit, the AS will likely be able to dampen the vibration. Shake more, and the bars will go up to four or five, which we presume means that 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 7D, you have a very good sense of whether you're well 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 the Maxxum 7D, we find ourselves wishing for it on our own Canon and Nikon d-SLRs.
The big question of course, is how well the 7D'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 - 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.)
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