VMLP 11: The Minolta ER—Strange Quark

That the Minolta ER (Electronic Eye Reflex) is an oddity goes without saying. Its design says 1960’s hi-tech—like how one would expect George Jetson’s camera to look. It also carries over a 50s sci-fi vibe, so much so that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it suddenly shot red mind control rays into my eyes. Looking at it, I get the urge to say, “Klaatu barada nikto!”  After all, safety first…

Few Minolta resources mention the ER. I had never heard of it until seeing one on eBay. After discovering it was an SLR, intrigued, I ordered it. That first copy was a dud, so I returned it. A second copy showed up on eBay about two months later, and that copy worked! It even came with a usable case.  

Historical Perspective 
The usual internet search turned up a very brief Wikipedia article. A SubClub page shows in Google results, but the link doesn’t work in Safari. Fortunately, the manual is available, and that, along with The Minolta Way, by Clyde Reynolds and Camera Wiki, are my references. The release date is hard to pin down. I have seen 1961, 1963, and 1964 in various sources. However, I have seen copies of the camera with Chiyoda Kogaku as the company name, and my copy has Minolta Camera Co, LTD. on the top plateHaving both names means they were made before and after 1962 when Minolta became the official name of the Chiyoda Kogaku company, so 1961 is likely the correct initial release date. A price list from August 1964 lists the Minolta ER with a case for 132.00.  

The Minolta ER holds a special place in Minolta history because it was the first Minolta SLR with a built-in meter AND automatic exposure control with shutter priority. Setting the aperture control to “A” allowed the camera to choose the correct aperture to match the selected shutter speed. Setting the shutter to an appropriate speed caused a green light to glow in the viewfinder. If the light did not glow, then one increased or decreased the shutter speed until it did, then took the shot. Automated exposure was a big deal!!! The SR-T models, which came later, did not set the aperture for the user, even though they offered metering. Another aspect of the Minolta ER’s strangeness is that it is an SLR without interchangeable lenses and yet was introduced after the SR-2. Why??? I wonder if this was the 1960s equivalent of the APS cameras that came along 30-plus years later? 

Inspection and Appearance
It is impossible to get a good notion of how a camera looks from eBay photos, so I was a little wary of what I would find on opening the box. I need not have worried. The camera was in decent shape without major dents or scratches. The metal finish was generally smooth without rust or blemishes. Immediately, I pushed the film advance lever, and after having bought a Minolta ER two months earlier with a stuck shutter, I was blissful when the advance moved smoothly. Next—I paused (more than a little nervous) for a few seconds because if the shutter didn’t fire, I was going to be hugely disappointed— it did! I had a working Minolta ER!

Coming from an SLR mindset, getting comfortable with the Minolta ER takes more than a few minutes. For example, the ISO dial is on the front of the lens. I tested the ISO control by moving it around a few times. Next, it was on to the aperture and shutter controls. Since I did not expect the exposure system to work, I checked the manual controls first. Moving the aperture control and firing the shutter confirmed the aperture settings were accurate. Also, there was no oil or rust on the blades—sweet! The shutter speed ranges from 1/30 to 1/500, and all speeds seemed to work properly. Finally, I tried the automatic exposure features. Placing the aperture control in “A,” I could see the green glow in the viewfinder. Unfortunately, the shutter speed did not seem to respond to changes in light intensity.  

I inspected the optical system last. At this point, I had a camera with a working shutter, so unless the lens was entirely blocked by fungus or the viewfinder was unusable, I was keeping the camera. Happily, the lens and the viewfinder were clear, if a little on the dark side.  

After checking the inside of the camera and the closing latch, I was satisfied with my purchase, so no worries.  

Technical Specs
Lens: Rokkor TD 45mm 2.8
ISO range: 10 to 400
Shutter speeds: 1/30 to 1/500
Shutter: Seikosha SLV
Weight: 880gms (1.94 lbs)
Viewfinder: 0.74 magnification
MFD: 90cm (~35 inches)
Self-Timer: Present
Flash: X and M modes

Function and Handling
Like other early Minolta SLRs, the Minolta ER is solid, and that solid build translates to weight. It is nearly two pounds, one of the heaviest Minoltas I have used. In addition, it does not have the balance of the SR system cameras. In hand, it feels as if it wants to fall forward. Since I could not get reliable exposure behavior, I shot using PocketLight Meter.  

Looking through the viewfinder, it quickly became apparent that the viewfinder showed much less than the final image area. Aside from that discrepancy, the viewfinder and split image focusing aid were fine. MFD limits the kind of images one can make. Minolta recommends using close-up filters (46mm), which I bought (Hoya). Wide-angle and telephoto converter lenses were available for the ER, but I have only read about them in the manual; none have been for sale on eBay.  

Loading film is easy, but it was a little odd for me to set the ISO on the lens. A film counter is present. The winding throw of the advance lever is 220 degrees, and initially, I thought it was broken because it moved so much farther than expected. One can only see through the viewfinder when the shutter is primed, which is similar to the SR-2. However, unlike the SR-2, the lens is not stopped down–the mirror is up until the film is advanced. Focusing is easy, with the focusing ring providing just enough resistance to enable fine adjustments.  A self-timer is present, which experience has taught me to leave alone.   

Shooting
The weight of the ER took a while to get used to. The split image focusing aid was sufficiently bright and easy to see in dim light, so focusing was fast. I shot the Ultrafine 400 on a deeply overcast, rainy day and never had trouble seeing the target. Generally, I shot at f5.6/125 using 400 ISO Ultrafine Xtreme. Both aperture and shutter speed controls are on the lens barrel, and the shutter speed control is easily nudged out of place. I accidentally changed the shutter speed at least a few times while focusing.  The manual states that no lens hood is required because the lens barrel is designed to function as a shade.

The film advance throw was the most annoying aspect of shooting. Having used SR mount cameras, in comparison, the film advance required too much extra movement. The mirror, which does not return until the film is advanced, makes a loud thunk every time a frame is advanced.  

I shot two rolls, one Ultrafine Xtreme 400 (12 exposures) and one Fuji 100 (12 exposures, expired, shot at box speed). Fuji 100 images were shot with 1+ close-up filters. The close-up filters worked well. The photos were sharp, and focusing was the same as with the native lens alone.   The only problem I encountered was forgetting the MFD, an issue I have whenever I switch from AF to manual cameras. In some images, this mental lapse shows up as a slightly blurred foregrounds. These are test images that were shot soon after getting the camera to check the shutter, lens sharpness, and the close-up filters, so no “art” intended.

Bee Balm, Close-up +1

Impression  
The lens is pretty good–a pleasant surprise. I wish the electric eye worked so I could have had the full ER experience, but after 59 years, probably in a box, I’m glad it works at all. Even without the automatic exposure functions, I enjoyed using such a unique camera.  

The viewfinder field of view is much less than that of the lens, so framing is challenging. Every frame had elements that did not appear in the viewfinder. For B&W because, after the few shots, I left the aperture and shutter controls on the same settings and put the metering app away (that’s why the stop sign is dark). I did change settings when shooting color, but that wasn’t cumbersome— I simply bracketed a few shots.   

Overall, this was an enjoyable shooting experience. Due to its weight, the Minolta ER will not be the first camera I grab for a stroll around the city. But that lens produces excellent images, so I will definitely put more rolls through it.  Although I like the Minolta ER enough to add it to my shooting rotation, I am baffled as to why it even exists.  The SR-2 and SR-1 already existed when it was released.  While it may have been a test precursor to Minolta autoexposure SLRs, the gap between it and the Minolta XK–more than ten years– makes that seem unlikely.  It strikes me as a rangefinder/SLR hybrid that is not a solution to any particular problem.  How strange—a glitch in the Matrix perhaps???

I started the Vintage Minolta Love Project to experience Minolta’s history and innovations firsthand. Using the Minolta ER has allowed me to do exactly that. As the song goes, “ It’s strange, and I like it…”  

10 Comments

  1. Awesome review of a camera I had been after for quite some time. After reading this, I am definitely going to step up my game in trying to find one for myself!

    I often get readers on my site saying “thanks to your review, I went out and bought my own”, to which I usually reply that I’m always happy to help other people spend their money.

    Well, the tables are turned, and you have helped me spend my money!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Mike!!! I have read many of your reviews, and they are great! Glad to see one of mine made the cut!

      As for buying cameras, life is short… Enjoy the hunt!

  2. Indeed a unique and interesting camera! I know there are a few other “fixed-lens SLRs” out there, but they seem to be from the 70s, when SLR=important, professional camera. That didn’t seem to be the case (yet) in the 1960s. So of course Minolta would think of it first.

    It is a neat idea: take the “through the lens” viewing of an SLR and mash that up with the convenience of a fixed-lens rangefinder. It probably was cheaper to build since they could use a leaf shutter instead of focal plane. But it would have been better to put the selenium meter around the lens: the metering would automatically adjust for filters, and there’d be more a likelihood that the selenium would last longer as a lens cap would cover it. Oh well.

    1. Author

      I suppose one way to look at the ER is as an experiment. Autoexposure must have been a significant challenge, since it did not appear until the Minolta XK. One thing I really love about Minolta is that the company was always willing to take chances. I’d like to think Sony’s all-in on mirrorless back when everyone considered it ridiculous was inspired by the Minolta engineers Sony brought on board. He who laughs last…

      BTW, thanks for the mention in your blog!

      1. Well, autoexposure on other Minolta SLRs didn’t happen until the XK, but this ER was released as the same time as the first Hi-Matic rangefinder (1962). Both the ER and first Hi-Matic feature the “selenium cell array on body”. That Hi-Matic was quickly followed a year later with the Hi-Matic 7, which featured a better CdS cell on lens and offered full auto (program) or full manual exposure. Minolta offered a few other small cameras like the Minoltina with the selenium array, but CdS was the future for them.

        Perhaps the fixed-lens SLR was due to the difficulty of doing autoexposure with focal plane shutters was difficult. And since the ER needed a leaf shutter to work, they made it fixed-lens, as trying to make it an interchangeable lens camera would mean each lens would need a shutter, and that would be really expensive. I’m guessing that the SLR user circa 1962 wasn’t that concerned about autoexposure. But a decade later when SLRs were “the thing”, having an easy to use SLR with AE would be great for beginners/amateurs, and that would broaden the market.

        Even though it was a dead-end, kudos to Minolta for giving an autoexposure SLR a go with the ER.\

        And you are welcome!

        1. Author

          Agree as regards Hi-Matic. Perhaps the issue was metering technology. Cadmium Sulphide meters can operate with less light, and that plus the need to meter through the lens may have delayed autoexposure for SLRs. Love having these obscure discussions!!! 🙂

      2. Another way to look at the ER is that Minolta was simply “keeping up with the Joneses” as nearly every other Japanese maker was producing a leaf shutter SLR at the time. Nikon with the Nikkorex, Canon with the Canonex (both made by Mamiya), Mamiya with the Prismat series, Kowa has a large lineup of leaf shutter SLRs, and Topon had the uni/Wink series.

        And of course, there were the Germans too, Zeiss had the Contaflex, Voigtländer had the Bessamatic, Kodak the Retina Reflex, and AGFA with their many models.

        Leaf shutter SLRs were just a sign of the times in the early 1960s but proved to be over complicated and under reliable.

        1. Author

          Since I have focused only on Minolta SLRs, I was unaware of the leaf shutter SLR wave. This info helps me put the ER in its proper historical context. Its an odd camera, for sure, but the lens is really good. My main complaint is that the viewfinder covers too little of the actual image area. So many shots could not be used because of unexpected items in the images. Now I know to get even closer.

  3. I had not heard of nor seen anything about this camera before. Very interesting. Maybe an attempt to match the AL with an SLR version?

    As a Minolta lover and a former Exalted Ruler of an Elks lodge, I think I need to find an ER of my own! Also, 35 to 45mm is my favorite all purpose focal length.

    I am enjoying your blog a lot as I am also an amature gardener.

    1. Author

      Yeah, the ER is interesting. I keep asking my self what Minolta could have been thinking to release it.

      Anyone with “Exalted” in his title should have whatever he wants! Glad you are enjoying the blog!

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