If I had to sum up in one word what it is that draws me towards certain used cameras, it would probably be “interestingness”. “Cheap” probably ranks pretty high too. After buying my first DSLR, a Sony A200, I got on a bit of a Minolta kick. Sony bought the rights to Minolta’s A-mount, so I researched Minolta’s history and started collecting a few of their cameras. During my research, I found a camera that seemed to have everything: it was interesting, cheap, and employed the most obvious misplaced use of technology in a camera that I’ve ever seen (including blink detection).
That camera was the Minolta AF-Sv Talker, and I was lucky enough to find one on eBay. Unfortunately the seller claimed not to know anything about cameras so they couldn’t verify if it even turned on or took pictures. It’s funny that someone who can figure out how to use a computer and sell something on eBay can’t figure out how to put a couple of AA’s in a camera and push the “on” button. Oh well, I won the auction for $10 and at that price it was worth the risk. The camera arrived with its box and manual and it looked as good as new… Until I opened the battery compartment and saw that the batteries has leaked all over the place and the contacts were severely corroded. Was my dream of having a camera that talked to me dashed forever? Find out after this short commercial break.
After watching that commercial, is it any wonder Minolta went out of business? I did a bit of scrubbing and some grumbling and eventually got the camera to turn on. When I attempted to load my first roll of film, I found that the camera has the best film loader that I’ve ever used. After pulling the film leader over to the other side of the camera, all you have to do is close a clear plastic cover over the film and the cameras winder motor does the rest. I grew up with digital, so I’m never 100% confident that I’m getting an image when I take pictures with film. I know exactly how a digital image sensor works, but film is mostly magic to me. When I can see the leader being spooled up instead of just trusting that it’s happening gives me nice piece of mind. The second thing I learned after getting the camera to turn on is that it only says two things: “Load film,” and “too dark, use flash.” Why couldn’t it tell me things like “theres a telephone pole growing out of your uncle’s head” or “that’s boring, don’t even bother wasting film on it”?
As it turns out, this camera is incredibly simple and fun to use. It’s not for control-freaks who want to set things like exposure compensation, aperture, focus, shutter speed, etc.
Even though it says “AUTO FOCUS” in large, white letters on the front of the camera, I’m pretty sure the Talker is fixed focus. If the Talker is autofocus, then it has the fastest, quietest focusing mechanism I’ve ever seen. This camera is a true point-and-shoot, unlike the point-wait-and-shoot digicams available today. As soon as you click the button, there is a quiet springy sound and the moment is captured. When you let go of the button, the film advances with an annoying whine common to all auto-winding film cameras. That film-advance delay is a nice trick and can be used to avoid embarrassing distractions caused by the loud noise. This gives the camera a dual-personality. It works great as a funny, lo-fi anachronism, but it also works as a simple, discrete and pocket-able camera.
The two wedding photos above were shot using Ilford XP2 chromagenic film (black and white film that can be developed in C-41 chemicals at drug-store photolabs). The Talker tends to underexpose, which I didn’t realize at the time, so the results on XP2 (or any film) are pretty grainy. The 35mm f/2.8 lens is far better than any lomo plastic thing. It’s real glass and the results are fairly sharp with decent contrast and low distortion. The downsides of the lens are the strong vignetting and low saturation. However, I find the performance of the lens to be just my taste (one part of my taste, at least). It has some of the qualities of lo-fi photographs that I like (vignetting, low saturation) without the extreme softness exhibited by plastic lenses.
For such an undeniably stupid product idea, the Minolta Talker is a surprisingly good camera. It’s simple, small and fun. The camera’s dual personality allows you to be as discrete as you want with it. There is probably no better way to get a subject to smile than hearing a synthetic, strongly accented voice say “too dark, use flash!” I can’t imagine a better use of $10.
Update: Steve (aka Capt Kodak) has cleared up my confusion with the autofocus system in the Minolta Talker.
The “quiet springy sound” you hear is the autofocus mechanism. It is NOT like what you find in either modern DSLRs or video cameras. It is phase detection (the method of AF used in SLRs) but instead of zeroing in on a specific point of focus, it is doing “zone” focusing–near, medium, far–and the lens has enough depth of field to cover for it. If you look at the front of the camera (specifically at the two rectangular windows on either side of the viewfinder) and press the shutter release, you’ll see that one of the openings has a mirror that “moves” (more of a pivot). That’s the sound you are hearing. The AF system works just like an old rangefinder but uses phase detection to put together images and calculate the distance. Very cool and very reliable.