Rangefinder Impersonators, or: Using Minolta’s Hi-Matic AF2 as an Analogue Fuji X100s

The Fuji X100s, and its predecessor, the X100 before it, have received both accolades and disparagament from many a commentator during the past three years or so. Though the camera is not everything to everyone, it seems that it is one thing: everybody’s favorite digital rangefinder camera that’s not actually a rangefinder.

Minolta AF2 and Fuji X100S
Analog and digital. Not easy to discern up front.

This is now a camera category. With its digital X-series of retr0-styled – read: designed to look and work the way that most cameras actually looked and worked from the early 20th century until the mid-1980s – cameras, Fuji hit a nerve. It didn’t hurt that its postmodern forays into yesteryear produced more than acceptable digital pictures. Some photographers even seemed to rediscover an analogue soul in the by now bewildering number of  digital offerings from a company that still makes, and importantly, still calls itself, Fujifilm.

The Fuji X100/s had the looks and many advantages of a rangefinder complete with close enough simulations of favorite Fuji film stocks, some ironically long discontinued in real life. As the owner of an X100s who began once again taking photos on film a little over a year ago, I wondered: was there an analogue equivalent? And not an expensive Leica M series camera, a somewhat less expensive but still not-cool-if-you-leave-that-on-the-bus C0ntax G, or one of the plethora of fixed lens rangefinders from the 1960s through early 1980s. No, those were fun, but I wanted something for those occasions when the camera I brought would be cheap, competent, and idiot proof.

Was there a camera, conceived at the time with a good fixed lens, 35mm or so field of view, some automation, and built in flash? Something that could be used like an X100S in program mode for unobtrusive pictures of streets, buildings, and most importantly, people? Something, in short, that I could carry everywhere instead of my trusty, but heavy and very very manual Rollei 35T? This is where, by way of an unexpected side entrance, the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 appears on the scene.

AF2 - X100s Side by Side - Front
AF2 – X100s Side by Side – Front
AF2 - X100s Side by Side - Back
AF2 – X100s Side by Side – Back

In the late 1970s, the all-metal, mostly manual operation design language of SLR cameras was slowly but surely on its way out. Canon introduced the AE1, which in 1981 gave way to the AE1 Program, and on the heels of those cameras’ successes, Minolta thought it could capture the mass market with something a little cheaper and a little more technically advanced than it’s top of the line XD 7 (a.k.a. XD 11) camera. That something was the Minolta X-700, and it was a design they felt no great rush to update. In fact, it continued to be made well into the 1990s.

The X-700 sold, and it sold well. This would ultimately enable Minolta to throw some of the money earned into research and development for what became the Alpha (a.k.a. Maxxum, a.k.a. Dynax) 7000. The 7000 would set the standard for all autofocusing SLR cameras. Though today it exudes a naive 1980s charm, all the major elements of today’s high tech digital Canons, Sonys, and Nikons are already present in this, their ancestor. The 7000 had autofocusing built into the camera, not the lens (as Canon’s first attempt at the technology did), an LCD display, motorized film transport, and a menu system for settings. It was a technological achievement, and a commercial success.

Before that, however, Minolta had released a point and shoot autofocus camera that showed its old school rangefinder heritage: the Hi-Matic AF. Introduced in 1979, the AF was part of a class of small, semi-automatic cameras from different Japanese manufacturers that looked much the same. Konica’s C35 AF led the way in 1977. It used the simple passive autofocusing system patented by Honeywell. Canon’s AF35M (also in the guises of SureShot and AutoBoy) was not too far behind in November of 1979. Minolta’s entry, still featuring the cursive mid century modern logo that had branded their cameras since the 1960s, innovated on details (it had an auto focus lock, so you were not limited on getting the middle of your picture in focus, but could recompose after having focused), but otherwise stayed the course.

In 1981, coinciding with the release of the X-700, and the unveiling of Minolta’s new round, blue “rising sun” logo thought up by graphic design legend Saul Bass, the Hi-Matic AF got a makeover and became the AF2, to bring its look subtly in line with the X-700. Both were affordable yet not cheap, solidly performing cameras in their respective niches. A typical camera store ad in Popular Photography from 1983 prices an X-700 with two lenses and a few extras at just under $300 (US). The AF2, with an ambitious original list price of $250 sold for $100, including the case, two years after its introduction. (The AF2-M was $140).

Both sported a sleek, black, angular look that is forever associated with the 1980s – the technotronic age of Casio, early home computers, and MTV. The AF’s autofocusing system was updated from a passive one to an active one, rivaling the Canon AF35M’s.

In 1982, the AF2 received an even more modern, motorized sister, the AF2-M. The trend towards small, ever more automatic cameras usable even by absolute photography beginners was well on its way. Its current outgrowth is the smartphone camera: good enough for most people most of the time, but not longer a dedicated tool with manual settings and professional control over image parameters.

The camera that now sits on the table next to me, liberated from – judging from the almost imperceptible strands of lens fungus that adorn the rear element of the 38mm f2.8 lens that produces joyful color and sharp black and white images – a damp closet or garage, still looks almost pristine. The mold would have rendered it useless (“uneconomical to repair”) before too long, but it’s not now noticeable on pictures, and since the fungus that in wet climates so often attacks optical lenses is averse to UV light, it’s all the more reason to take this camera out and about and just… shoot.

After a few days worth of research and search search on eBay, this particular AF2 was mine for under $20 including shipping. It takes two regular AA batteries, and any kind of 35mm film you want to throw at it, but has a maximum ISO of 400 in its exposure settings. The manual remarks that you should set it for ISO 400 when using ISO 1000 film. In all likelihood this means that the camera will treat it like ISO 400 film, but that the manual writers felt confident the one stop plus change overexposure would not hurt the resulting images. Since the AF2 has a built in pop-up flash, I haven’t found the 400 ISO limitation particularly problematic yet.

The flash is small and not particularly powerful, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s enough for pictures of individuals or small groups, and that’s fine by me. I appreciate that the camera will beep if there’s low light, but won’t insist on activating the flash before firing. To activate it, move the “flash on” slider and hear it pop up with a satisfying clack. Charge time seems to be about five seconds when depleted, less if there’s still some charge left. The flash can also be used when there’s plenty light, as a fill flash, for example. The fact that the AF2 has a leaf shutter makes this all the more exciting and useful.

My AF2 came with a set of third party tele and wide lens converters and small goggles to indicate the changed field of view in the camera’s viewfinder. They seem like nice additions, but are by no means essential to enjoy the camera. They screw into the AF2’s 46mm filter mount if you need them. In this, they resemble the screw on lenses offered by Fuji for the X100 and X100s, though I would wager the newer lenses, benefitting from the fact that they are made by the manufacturer of the camera, and use electronic corrections applied in camera, offer much better picture quality.

AF2 Tele and Wide Lenses
AF2 Tele and Wide Lenses
AF2 with Wide Angle  Lens Converter
AF2 with Wide Angle Lens Converter

In fact, the 2010s era digital X100s and the 1980s film AF2 have quite a few things in common. They both look like, but are not rangefinders. They have fixed lenses with similar fields of view (23mm f2 on APS-C format on the Fuji, 38mm f2.8 on 35mm on the Minolta), share a similar size, have autofocus and an on board flash that can be activated or deactivated according to the user’s wishes. They have decent build quality, though the edge goes to the Fuji, with the Minolta’s plastic wind lever and rewind spool looking a bit more flimsy than necessary. They are quickly ready to shoot, and both give good picture quality, though of course each offers the up- and downsides of its respective kin in the film vs. digital debate. They are both quiet cameras. Both use leaf shutters. The Minolta’s goes off with a small “snitch” sound that almost sounds like a repressed sneeze, while the Fuji’s clicks almost imperceptibly.

For some applications, they actually can fill the same photographic niche. If you need a good quality camera for street, travel, people, or vacation photography and aren’t looking for full image control, either will easily suffice.

There are, of course, differences. If you need something to take white water rafting, the cheap old Minolta might be a better bet than the expensive Fuji. Likewise, if you need instant feedback and digital turnaround times, only the Fuji will do. Also, 30 years of camera development have not been for nothing. The Fuji has video, manual controls, and the high ISOs nowadays associated with big sensored digital cameras. If I needed to pick just one camera to do everything, the Fuji it would be. Then again, the Fuji is battery hungry and uses proprietary lithium rechargeables, while the Minolta happily sips AA batteries, alkaline or rechargeable, of any provenance. The Fuji is also $1300 sans case, while a fully functional AF2 will set you back an average of $20. That’s 65 AF2s for the price of one Fuji. Film, of course, costs money, but so do SD cards, backup hard disks, and extra batteries.

Why would one even attempt to compare two products from a full human generation apart that were designed for different people in different eras? For the same reason that one would ever look back at history; to try and understand where we are now, and understand how we got here. Also, to remind oneself that the amount of money you invest in a gadget often has very little correlation to the enjoyment you can get out of it.

So, what is there to consider if you want to buy an AF2? Luckily, not a whole lot. If you’re trolling garage sales or looking on eBay, make sure the shutter and flash work. Even sellers that do not know anything about cameras can often be asked to pop in batteries and try out those fundamental functions if you tell them the AF2 takes common AA batteries. Since the case was usually sold with the camera, most AF2s today still come in one. It’s a useful thing to have. I usually use mine as a bottom half case and bring the lens cap if I need to throw the Hi-Matic in a bag (the lens cap also prevents the shutter from firing accidentally). Check if there’s bad lens fungus, unless you’re going for an artsy out of focus vibe in your pictures. Finally, as a result of 1970s and 1980s Japanese camera manufacturers’ reliance on foam to make their cameras light tight, your AF2 will likely have some of that now degraded foam gunking up its film compartment.

This can easily though somewhat messily be cleaned out using some toothpicks, cotton swab, and rubbing alcohol. The little Minolta does not seem to rely on the foam to keep the film in its belly from undue exposure, however. I cleaned out all the foam, and immediately put a test roll through it without any visible light leaks. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll put light seals back just to be on the safe side, but it seems to me that if you keep the bottom case on while you use the camera, you won’t have much trouble.

Apart from that, the AF2 offers some useful functions, a very good and reasonably fast lens, enough automation to capture quick snapshots without feeling like an overengineered plastic wonder that whirrs and whines at the most inopportune moments, and a fun throwback design that looks perfectly in tune with Minolta’s SLR offerings from the same era.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of exposure and film photography, then the AF2 is not for you. It is for you if you like the look of film, but don’t much care about the technical ins and outs of photography, or if you already have a more manual camera and want something smaller, faster, and cheaper to accompany you every day, or during a vacation trip where expensive gear is liable to get stolen or damaged (beach, anyone?).

If you need any more convincing, just look at the pictures.

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