A brief fling with a Minolta Talker

Currently I own five 35mm cameras. I talked about “reaching capacity” with them and not feeling the need to seek out more. But I also allowed myself to pick up cameras if the risk and price was low and I found them interesting in some way. And despite claiming that I’m not that interested in electronic cameras with auto-exposure and autofocus, I’m still intrigued by the early ones that came out in the late 70s into mid 80s, the ones with a prime lens (generally a 38mm f/2.8) and a flash that you had to turn on if you wanted to use it. I briefly had one, a Fujica DL-100. But the experience underwhelmed me, and after shooting a test roll I gave it away.

Then when perusing Blue Moon Camera’s eBay page, I came across a Minolta AF-Sv for dirt cheap. Also known as the “Talker”, this camera released around 1984 (after the Hi-Matic line was killed) featured the standard 38mm f/2.8 lens setup that better known and better loved examples from Canon and Nikon also had. What made it unique was what gave it its nickname: a state-of-the-art voice chip would give prompts like “Too dark! Use flash!” or “Load film”. It was a gimmick that was supposed to make picture-taking easier for the Average Joe. That gimmick has diminished its standing: it gets nowhere near the respect that either the Canon AF35M/Sure Shot or the Nikon L35AF/One Touch command. But while to some the Talker is when Minolta “jumped the shark”, it’s still a Minolta with a Minolta lens, two things I like a lot. So I gave it a try.

First, the special feature! The “talking” has three prompts: Besides the two I previously mentioned, it will also tell to “check distance” if you were too close to your subject. As someone who turned nine in 1984, I do remember how much of a big deal stuff like this was back then. Before that, if you wanted a recording of something, it had to be on tape or another analog medium. The ability to put sound on a chip was revolutionary at the time, but now it’s highly dated.* The novelty of the voice wears off after a couple goes, even when I switched it from English to Japanese.** Thankfully you can easily switch it off. (For added security, I removed the button battery for the date back and voice so it would not accidentally switch on.***) In any case, LED lights in the viewfinder will visually warn you of the same things.

As for the rest, the Minolta AF-Sv seems to be a pretty standard “premium” autofocus from the mid-80s, much in line with what was being offered by Canon and Nikon. It was big and boxy, a clear break from the rangefinder-styled cameras that preceded it, but not sleek and/or blobby like what was to come. There’s also vestiges of things that used to be common but would be gone by the end of the decade: a filter ring around the lens that accepts the 40.5mm size, manually-controlled ISO setting, analog exposures counter (though the date back also showed it digitally), and a manually-triggered flash. It had a typical noisy motor drive. All of these vital features are powered by two AA batteries.

I popped in a couple double-As, loaded my standard testing film of Ultramax 400 (24 exposure) and took the Talker with me on a ride on Monday April 12th. The camera was easy to use, as was expected with an auto-everything machine. The viewfinder was generous but lacked any indication what zone the camera was focusing, so I had to trust it. The next day I dropped the roll off at Citizens Photo and then got the scans a week later.

The results? Eh.

One thing I had read from a few sources (like Jim Grey) is that the Talker had a tendency to underexpose. And boy, did it. The day was brightly sunny with no clouds and yet many shots looked like I was shooting at dusk with 100 speed film. Here’s a few glaring examples of the under-exposedness:

The camera did seem to work OK with a few shots.

And it also seemed to perform as expected when I used the flash.

Oh yeah! The self-timer works.

The Talker seemed to struggle most when the light was either uneven or bright. A few of the shots are moody enough in that oh-so-modern “film preset on digital camera” way to look good. Some of the other “bad” shots are interesting in a lo-fi, Lomo way. A few shots, like this one below, give off an “expired film” vibe, even though that roll of Ultramax was fresh.

And when the camera was on, the focus was good and the lens appears sharp. But I don’t know what is up with the metering. It’s not like the concept of autoexposure was new. Heck, Minolta had been doing it since the first Hi-Matic in 1962. When I’ve run my Hi-Matic 7s in “auto” mode everything comes out good, and the meter on the SR-T 101 is spot on. Then why after twenty years did Minolta manage to botch metering so much?****

Overall, this camera is not that good, and as someone who likes Minolta I wish I didn’t have to say that. The saving grace is that ISO control is manual. I could try to set it at a slower speed, say ISO 100 for a 400 speed film, and hope for decent results. (This is what this blogger did.) Then again, some of the shots came out OK enough, so if I try to do that I may very well end up getting overexposed photos as well.

But I’m not going to bother. Yes, the lens is good, but there are good lenses on the other cameras I own. Besides, my zone-focus Olympus XA2 is a lot more compact than the Talker. And since I now have a flash for the XA2, having another compact flash camera is not that necessary. Maybe I’ll find another early autofocus camera instead, something like the contemporary Minolta AF-C which was more compact than the Talker, or the Minolta autofocus that preceded the Talker, the Hi-Matic AF. But I’m in no hurry.

So I’m giving this camera away for free. Camera has been CLAIMED.

Minolta AF-Sv, aka Minolta Talker

*This was also when digital sampling became a thing. It was fresh and fun for a moment, as the amount of music with random and stuttery vocal samples from 1983 to about 1987 can attest. But it got overdone and sounded dated immediately after this era. For a good example, look at Big Audio Dynamite’s first couple albums and the amount of samples contained within. By their third album they were even commenting on how sampling has jumped the shark.

**It seems like the standard Talker did not outwardly let you change language, though I heard that if you toggle the “on/off” switch just so, you can. Mine was the more deluxe version with date back, and the switch has off, English, and Japanese.

***This was more done for the date back than the voice, as I hate that feature and it’s “accidentally” turned on on other cameras.

****To be fair, the metering could have been correct back when it was new and failed due to the passage of time. It’s not like Minolta’s engineers expected people to be using the camera almost forty years later. Still, why would cameras that are pushing sixty years in age meter better than one that’s younger?

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