The return of the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, and an appreciation of its charms

It’s June 2nd when I originally wrote this post. (What can I say, sometimes my posts gestate for a bit.) The day before I got my second shot of the Moderna vaccine, and on June 2nd I’m feeling the side-effects: basically it feels like a moderate cold, with aching and a lack of energy. The last time I felt like this was in January 2020 when I had an actual cold. (Remember those?) Down for the count that winter day and feeling a bit bored, on a whim I decided to peruse Ye Old Internets about old film cameras. I was losing enthusiasm with either my iPhone shots or my token digital compact, and after seeing my friends have fun while “Pedaling Bikes and Shooting Film”, I decided to seek out one of my own. After a day of research I had a Minolta Hi-Matic 7s rangefinder camera on its way to me.

It’s been an interesting year-and-a-half for many different reasons. The one big positive for me is getting really into film photography. And the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s in all of its mid-century glory was the gateway. I’ve tried out many cameras since the Hi-Matic 7s arrived on a January day, but I still come back to it. It’s a joy to use, takes great photos, and taught me about the mechanics of photography. It even survived a notion that it was “redundant” when I received my Olympus 35RD. I like the camera that much.

While there was nothing really wrong with the Hi-Matic, back in February I decided it was high time to get it serviced. These cameras were built to last, but a CLA (clean, lube, adjust) every decade or so means it’ll last longer. And I value the cameras I like, so I was okay with the investment. I dropped it off at Advance Camera in the SW suburbs and waited. And waited. And waited. Apparently pandemic has been the time for people to bring out their old cameras!

Finally after three months in the shop I picked up the Hi-Matic 7s right before I left for Lost Lake. They took care of some minor issues (loose-feeling lens barrel which is common with this camera, “film detector” window staying “on” all the time) and spiffed it up. I loaded it up with some Portra as I was feeling fancy and wanted to celebrate. The Hi-Matic is a fixed-lens rangefinder, meaning I couldn’t switch to a different lens, but its 45mm Rokkor f/1.8 handled things famously. At no point did I feel limited by its fixed focal length.

Staying with the fancy theme, after I got back I headed up to Blue Moon Camera in St Johns for development and prints. Citizens Photo on NE Sandy is my typical shop, but there is a big reason I wanted to use Blue Moon: They are one of the few places that still make optical prints. Most modern labs make prints from scans of the negative, as it’s easier to make adjustments and the process can be done faster and with less expense. But before digital, prints were done by shining light through the negative onto chemically sensitive paper. I wanted to see how my photos would look when the Hi-Matic 7s was new back in 1966, so I splurged on 5″x6″ sloppy border prints. Yes, it’s more than I normally pay, but optical prints won’t be an everyday occurrence.

And man, those prints. They were nice and sharp. I do realize that sharing scans of the prints isn’t the same thing as looking at them directly, but I can’t invite all of you to my house to look at them. (Even if you are vaccinated!) It’s definitely a special feeling to see how they used to make prints, well, at least good prints. I don’t know if what you got back from Fotomat would compare.

And I just love using the Hi-Matic 7s. It is a big camera, veering into SLR territory, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It feels right in the hand. I like the feel and sound of that Seiko leaf-shutter. None of my other leaf-shuttered machines compare. Some complain about the long travel of the winding lever, but after a few shots I get used to it again.1 The viewfinder is big, the rangefinder patch bright (brighter than on the 35 RD), the EV readout on the right easy to see. I generally use the camera in what they call “semi-automatic”2 mode: Read the EV and set the aperture and shutter rings until the number in the little window matches the EV readout. It’s not super-quick (it would have made more sense to move the EV window to the top of the lens barrel, not the side) but it’s not bad if you aren’t in a hurry. And if you are, set both rings to “A” and let the camera determine the exposure for you!

This camera will be a companion for quite some time, sitting in its classy leather case until needed.3 Should you get one of your own? I can definitely recommend the Hi-Matic 7s, along with its close sibling the Hi-Matic 9.4 They are definitely more capable machines than the smaller Hi-Matics that followed in the 1970s, with the exception of the Hi-Matic 7sII, which commands high prices. If you don’t mind a bigger camera, the 7s and 9 can do anything that the 7sII does. And since it has manual exposure controls, batteries aren’t required! Have fun.

More of my writings on the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s:

For photos of and from my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or click here.

I think I may be joining the club... #pedalbikesshootfilm #shootbikespedalfilm #minoltahimatic7s #35mm #35mmphotography #minoltahimatic
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1 One point of caution: Make sure you pay attention when you are at the end of your roll, and don’t try to advance past it. That long 220 degree throw can rip the film from the cartridge when you reach the end, requiring unloading in darkness so the film doesn’t get ruined. This has happened to me at least once.

2 This so-called “semi-automatic” mode seems to confuse a lot of folks, so much so that certain places on the internet insist that the Hi-Matic 7s has, in addition to its full auto exposure mode, either aperture-priority mode, shutter-priority mode, or both. But the manual only talks about setting the two “A”s on the shutter and aperture rings together for auto, not what would happen if the aperture ring was on “A” and the shutter ring on say 1/500. Reading the manual and contemporary ads, what Minolta meant by “semi-automatic” was to use the aid of the light meter readout in the viewfinder to control the exposure rings. “Manual” would be to manually set exposure without this aid. You have to remember that in 1966 in-camera meters were still relatively new so having some sort of in-camera aid for exposure was considered “semi-automatic”.

3 Minolta was really good at making (or providing) nice leather Ever-Ready cases for their cameras. The one with my SR-T 101 is also a beaut. The flaking and battered case for my Olympus 35 RD pales in comparison. No wonder why Olympus was so hot on making the XA, a camera that had a built-in case.

4 The Hi-Matic 7 is basically the same camera but lacks a hot shoe and has less advanced metering. The Hi-Matic 11 is also fairly similar but lacks manual exposure, only giving you shutter priority or full auto. If the meter is broken on the 11 it won’t work properly. The cameras in the Hi-Matic series after this were generally auto-exposure only machines with the exception of the Hi-Matic 7sII.

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