Minolta Freedom Zoom 160: (Yet) another millennium compact

Here we go again.

Despite claiming that I don’t care much for the compact superzoom 35mm cameras that marked the end of the film era, I picked up another Pentax IQZoom last month, a 150SL, last month. You’d figure one of these cameras would be enough, right? Of course not. The mistake I made as usual was “look at the interwebs”. And that’s where I found a good write-up on Earth, Sun, Film about a Minolta compact, the Freedom Zoom 160. Jerome is a fellow Minolta lover, but he’s specifically an SLR only kinda guy, no matter how much I enthuse about my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s to him. If this rangefinder-averse photographer gushes about a superzoom compact released around 2002, I’m intrigued.

This led me to the 35mmc post that had Jerome intrigued. While outwardly the Freedom Zoom 160 doesn’t look or act differently than the IQZoom 150SL or many of the other compact superzooms, there is one big difference: the Minolta’s autofocus system is much more sophisticated. The Pentax has a perfectly fine multi-point auto-focus system, pretty standard in what someone on another blog refers to as “millenium compacts”, those early 2000’s point-and-shoots right before digital took over. But the Pentax doesn’t tell you what you are focusing on. And to be fair to the camera, most machines of that era didn’t.1 You just had to have faith that the camera would lock on to what you want. But the Minolta? It actually tells you what it’s focusing on! That’s a big deal.

Since I like that idea, I decided to find one to try out. I also wanted to give compact Minolta autofocus cameras another chance after the disaster with the Talker. Minolta is one of my fave camera companies (the other being Olympus) and I knew they were capable of producing a decent point-and-shoot. Thankfully most of the millenium compacts that are zooms sell for peanuts…for now. So I easily grabbed one. (Perhaps when the supply of Contax T3s and Olympus mjus either dwindle to nothing or people stop wanting to pay the inflated prices for them, maybe people will start hyping the millenium compacts?)

The Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 is a sleek, small machine, just weighing in at under eight ounces (225 g). It’s about the same size as the Pentax though a bit smaller in every dimension. Not as sleek and slim as my Olympus XA2, but the Minolta can still easily fit in a coat pocket. The basics are pretty standard for this style of camera, a zoom lens from 37.5mm to 160mm, self-timer, various flash modes, remote shutter release with not-included remote, and of course a date back option. The lens is also typically slow, from f/5.4 – 12.4, not much different than my Pentax.

Now to what makes the Freedom Zoom unique: Put your eye to the viewfinder and you’ll see red LED framing lines. These lines will bracket what the autofocus system is aimed at. So you can easily see what will be in focus! Neat. If the camera is focusing on something other than what you want, you can use the “focus lock” technique of focusing on what you want, pressing the shutter release half-way down, then recompose. Yeah, pretty standard. There’s also Target AF for moving subjects, and Spot AF which will focus on whatever is in the center of the frame.

A crappy photo, yes, but you can get the idea of the red LED lines that “bracket” where the camera focuses. The dotted line across the top is the parallax correction for close focusing.

it’s not just the visible LED lines in the viewfinder. The Area AF (autofocus) was different than most other compact AF systems. From an article from the Shutterbug website, published in 2002:2

What’s the difference between this and other AF systems used in compact 35s? Normally, an AF system targets the centered subject, as that’s where the AF sensor sits. Area AF is said to target a human subject within the frame. It does this by analyzing a database of over 3000 images and comparing it to statistical data on human dimensions. Inside the camera sits a 32-bit RISC processor that calculates all the above and makes a focusing decision. The exposure is decidedly subject weighted and calculates exposure using 125 metering segments, thus handles backlight and other difficult lighting conditions. For subjects in motion the camera incorporates predictive AF, as the camera continually calculates focus until the shutter release button is pressed.

All this stuff mentioned above is standard in modern digital cameras and smartphones. But film cameras? Besides the Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 I’m guessing you’d only find it on the high-end film SLRs that survived the death of film, like a Nikon F6.

I shot a few test rolls through the Minolta. The first one was just hum-drum stuff around the ‘hood. Everything seemed fine, though I wouldn’t call the lens a particularly sharp one. I think the Pentax might have a slight edge in that department, but when I reexamined the shots from the IQZoom 150SL, there didn’t appear to be that great of a difference. Shots taken in indirect sunlight seemed better than those in direct, and the flash would fire sometimes in situations I thought didn’t warrant it. Pretty standard.

I then took it with me on my Sunset/Moonrise Ride. While I had the SR-T 101 for capturing the moon rise, I figured an easy-to-grab camera with autofocus and built-in flash would be handy. A camera like the Freedom Zoom 160 would go along with the “party vibe” of the ride. It definitely proved itself with the ride. I was able to take a few quick shots on ride stops and the flash was handy for crowd scenes at night. Unfortunately a gaggle of cyclists means there’s going to be lots of reflective surfaces to catch the flash, oh well.

I also took it with me on the Westside Wednesday Ride, loaded with Lomography 800 film. These slow lens compacts don’t do that well with slow films, anything below 400 or so. I figured fast film for a night ride would be a good idea. Even with that, the flash fired more than I thought. It did get some good shots, though, including this dreamy landscape shot of Cedar Mill Creek below (flash on.) The small size means I can put in a handlebar pouch and quickly grab when needed. But because it wants to flash, shooting is far from quick in low-light conditions.

The Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 is definitely a fun little camera, a great example of the height of compact film camera technology right before the market plunged and digital stepped in. I enjoyed using it. But the Minolta and Pentax IQZoom 150SL are too similar to each other to keep both. The Pentax might have the slight edge in picture quality and has a couple useful features not found on the Minolta, like infinity focus and a bulb mode. The Minolta has the fancy-ass AF and +1.5 exposure compensation in its favor. Since I know what the Minolta is focusing on, the lack of infinity focus isn’t missed. Bulb mode on the Pentax was fun for a while, but it’s not the most practical thing, requiring holding a button on the remote and aiming just so. I’d rather use a cable release and either my SLR or rangefinders for bulb. So the Minolta had the overall edge, plus the mode buttons on the Minolta are less fiddly than those on the Pentax. So I sold the Pentax IQZoom 150SL.

Another good review of the Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 can be found on Photo Jottings.

For photos from the Minolta Freedom Zoom 160 camera, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or click here.

Sunset/Moonrise Ride at Thomas Cully Park, 24 June 2021

1 The Fujica DL-100 I had for a hot second last year would show you what “zone” the camera was focusing on. I thought it was a handy feature. Perhaps the early (early-mid 80s) autofocus cameras did this to instill confidence, and they dumped that feature when people got used to these cameras?

2 One of the things I find neat about researching these millenium compacts is that you can still find contemporary listings and articles on the internet from when the camera was released. The internet was totally a thing by 2000, and some of these sites have lasted that long. Compare this to pre-internet cameras, where everything you find online is from recent sources or scans of pages from old magazines.

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