Minolta Freedom Tele: The secret Leica?

After a year and a half back at film photography, my camera preferences have started to solidify. I like machines that give me some control over focus and exposure. The compact 35 mm cameras that became commonplace in the 80s and dominated the film era to its end around 2005 generally gave you no control over either. Despite that, I’ve liked a few of them and can see their convenience. And I’m always willing to try out another one, especially when either the camera interests me enough or I can get it for cheap.

Enter the Minolta Freedom Tele, which interested me and was cheap.

Known as the Minolta AF-Tele Super in Europe, this point-and-shoot debuted in 1988. Like many of its brethren it featured autofocus and built-in flash. It was a camera from the tail end of the eighties, so it was stuck between two eras: AF cameras with moderately-fast prime lenses and slower super zoom lenses. It’s basically a camera with a moderately-fast prime lens of 38mm f/2.8. But it has a “tele” mode where the lens extends out at 80mm with f/5.6. An extra lens element swings out inside the barrel when the lens is extended. There’s no intermediate stops like with a zoom, either 38mm or 80mm.

I like Minolta, but the only 80’s AF Minolta I tried, the “Talker”, was underwhelming. So I’m willing to give another 80’s Minolta another chance. And what made this particular camera interesting? Look below. Notice any similarities?

Public domain image from flickr.

Yes, that’s right! Leica asked Minolta to dress up the Freedom Tele a little differently, threw a red dot on it, and viola! The Leica AF-C1, Leica’s first entry into the autofocus point-and-shoot world. Leica and Minolta had a partnership going back to the early 70s, which first came to fruition in the Leica/Minolta CL. So it made sense that Leica would contract with Minolta for their first point-and-shoot, as Minolta had heaps of experience with this type of camera.

How different are the cameras? I don’t know for sure since I don’t have the Leica to compare the two. But from what I’ve heard on the internet, the difference is somewhere between “little” to “not any”. Of course Leica was going to make people think there was a significant difference, especially since it was going for about double the price of the Minolta. But all I can find is vague insistences that the Leica was “better”, like this New York Times article (published the day before my 14th birthday!) which says:

But if the Leica AF-C1 is no bargain in purely picture-taking terms, it does admit you to the Leica fraternity without having to mortgage your mother-in-law. (And, to be fair, it does differ from the Minolta version in significant details, including the lens.) 

And…that’s it. “Significant details”? Like what, exactly? I don’t know, there’s nothing to elaborate that parenthetical aside. Pretty vague, isn’t it? “Of COURSE it’s different! It says ‘Leica’ on it. Why are you even asking?” Well, because I want facts, and those facts are fleeting. A few folks on the internet point out the difference in listed focal lengths (the Minolta is 38 or 80mm, the Leica 40 or 80mm) as the proof. But the difference is slight, numbers can be rounded. If Leica did use their own lens in this camera, shouldn’t it say so? This type of lens was not in their wheelhouse. And there’s no “Leica” or “Leitz” on the barrel, whereas the Freedom Tele clearly states it has a Minolta lens.

The Minolta Freedom Tele in “tele” (80mm) mode. Note how the flash extends.

I can neither prove nor disprove that the Minolta and Leica are the same underneath their skins. What I can prove is that because of that “red dot”, the Leica AF-C1 goes for significantly higher prices than the Minolta Freedom Tele. Checking eBay they have regularly sold for $100 or more. My Freedom Tele? I bought it for $12 plus shipping.

Anyways, getting back to the Minolta at in hand…

The Minolta Freedom Tele is pretty austere on controls. The on/off is via a sliding switch underneath the lens barrel, which opens the lens cover. Switching it on and off is quick, since the lens doesn’t need to extend. (I wish there was a “switch lock” as it turned on a few times in my bag.) There’s a lens toggle switch to choose between the 38mm and 80mm focal lengths, positioned right above the shutter release on the top plate. This meant that I often ended up hitting that button instead of the release. There is also a self-timer button on the top plate and two flash buttons placed to the right of the lens: one a flash-off override, the other flash-on. Outside of these buttons, there’s no other controls. Film advance and rewind are motorized and ISO set by DX code. Focus is determined by the camera. A true point-and-shoot.

It’s a camera that feels good in the hand despite the not-well thought out placement of buttons. And it’s a big camera! Not SLR big, but it’s nowhere near as compact as my Olympus XA2 or Minolta Freedom Zoom 160. It’s larger than my Olympus 35RD rangefinder, but the 35RD is heavier due to the preponderance of metal.

After receiving the Freedom Tele in early July, I popped in an oddball 2CR5 battery, a roll of Ultramax, and got shooting. The camera was pretty easy to use: compose and fire the shutter. My particular Freedom Zoom seemed to work fine, except for one issue: the flash didn’t work. Thankfully that moderately fast f/2.8 lens meant I could get away without flash in most instances. And when the camera wanted to flash but couldn’t, preventing me from taking the shot, I just held the flash off button while pushing the release.

The results were good. Minolta knew how to make some nice lenses, and the images I got back were nice. For the most part the autofocusing focused on what it should have. In short, it’s a good camera that takes decent pics, and besides the non-functioning flash the camera worked as it should.

So…how do I feel about the Minolta Freedom Tele?

There are two things that make me like a camera. The first is photo quality: Does it take technically good photos, and/or do the pictures have character? My keeper cameras must pass this first hurdle. After that, the other reason can be a little harder to quantify or rationalize, but: Does the camera itself give me joy? Is it fun to use? Does it look nice? Is there something special I get out of using the camera? This je ne sais quoi can manifest itself in different ways: The “looking through the lens” of an SLR like my Minolta SR-T 101. The satisfying shutter sound and feel on my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. The ability to eke out twice as many exposures on my Olympus Pen EES-2. All three of these cameras look good, too.

The Minolta Freedom Tele fulfills the “good photos” part, but I can’t find the joy beyond that. Besides the poorly-placed focal length switch button (and the broken flash), I can’t really complain about the camera. It’s easy to use, but ease of use isn’t the only thing for me. If that was the case, I’d just be shooting with my iPhone 8. I wouldn’t call the camera ugly, but the look and size don’t appeal to me. And the camera lacks any sense of control. While I don’t require all my cameras to have manually controlled focus and exposure, I like a little bit of something.

I look at the camera in my stable closest to it in age and function, the Olympus XA2. It’s smaller, has zone focus, manually-set ISO, shutter speeds up to two seconds, and a lack of noisy motors. It’s a more versatile machine than the Freedom Tele, especially when one uses a tripod and the self-timer. I can also compare the Minolta to the Konica 35 EF, a camera roughly the same size. The Konica gives me the ability to set ISO, focus on what I want, and (somewhat) controllable exposure via the exposure lock. It also has a filter ring. If only the two 35 EFs that passed through my hands had working flashes…

As good as the Minolta Freedom Tele is, I can see why this type of camera was a dead end for sophisticated point-and-shoots. The 90’s would see the proliferation of compact cameras with zooms, and while the lenses were slower, the variable focal length appealed to consumers. These cameras also often added more features: While not giving the all-out exposure and focus control of an SLR, they still gave you some options. I’m finding these superzoom cameras more fun than I think I should. They are not anywhere near as desirable as the prime-lens compacts of the 80s or their contemporary boutiquey high-end compacts that dominate some people’s wish lists. But they are plentiful, cheap, and produce good results. And I won’t be as bummed if they break, either.

So it’s time to move on and give the Minolta Freedom Tele a good home. I’d like to pass it along to someone interested in film photography for free. Ideally you should not have a 35mm camera right now to claim it. Interested? Email me at urbanadventureleague@gmail.com I will be happy to ship it but ask to be reimbursed on shipping costs. If I ship the battery will not be included due to restrictions on lithium batteries. I can also arrange for a local contactless pickup around Mount Tabor. If local pickup battery will be included.

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

Cryptomeria Tree (Japanese Cedar). NE 63rd and Stanton, 8 July 2021

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