Life is full of surprises. From the time I decided to take photography seriously, my focus had been on SLRs. They are perfect for photographing flowers, cheap, and easy to find. However, as I have continued my photography journey, I encounter situations where an SLR is not necessarily the ideal camera choice. I like wandering about the city with a camera, and in the past would set out with a camera bag, one or two cameras, lenses, and a few rolls of film. It’s odd the type of reaction one gets when walking around with a camera. A single camera and people look briefly, maybe smile or frown, and make some effort to move out to the way. Now, go out carrying a bag, with two cameras slung like bandoliers, and people try to see what you are looking at, what you might be investigating. One cannot go unnoticed when in full photographer regalia. I wanted to wander around neighborhoods, camera in hand, and be ignored, like a tourist. I decided I needed a P&S, and the Minolta Freedom 160 proved to be the perfect solution to my problem.
After deciding a P&S was the solution to my walkabout gear issues, I went looking and was overwhelmed by the possibilities. It seems every camera manufacturer made numerous P&S models with all sorts of feature sets. After a bit of research, I decided against a fixed focal length version. While I was giving up the ability to change lenses, I did not want to lose the ability to change focal lengths. Of course, that brought up another challenge—how to find a camera with a zoom lens that was sharp enough to make decent images. After a few hours of wading through blogs and YouTube videos looking for detailed reviews of P&S cameras, I gave up.
A few weeks later, I found a good article on CasualPhotophile, and after reading it, I decided to buy a Pentax IQ model. There were tons on eBay, so things looked promising. In the back of my mind, I had the nagging thought that it should be a Minolta, but I managed to ignore that thought for a while. Then, I came across a review of the Minolta Freedom 160, and based on that glowing review on 35mmc, I decided to keep my purchase in the family.
Having decided on the Freedom Zoom 160, it took a few weeks of daily eBay viewing before a couple of 160s showed up as BINs. Both sellers accepted offers, so I got two cameras—one with box and manual, and a second more used, but still in great shape. So, I got two for a little more than 50.00! The Minolta 160s fit easily into a pants pocket, so now I can load one roll each of color and B&W and set out. No one pays attention to a tiny silver P&S.
Historical Perspective & Technical Specs
As best I can determine, the Minolta Freedom (Riva) 160 was released in 2001. Reading the specs blew me away. It was the last of the Freedom models, and it seems Minolta threw everything that would fit into this tiny case. It has three autofocus modes: area, spot, and target. Area focus finds the subject in the frame—it had an early form of face recognition—and reminds me of how my iPhone camera works. Point the camera, and it selects a subject and focuses. If that is not the subject desired, switching to “Spot” will do the trick. Target is for moving subjects—all this in a P&S! The focus wizardry is made possible by a 32-bit RISC chip. Further, it powers 125-segment metering (yes, 125 segments)! Eye-start comes along with this advanced metering system, and when out on the street (as opposed to in the garden), eye-focus is quite handy.
I wanted a decent lens with variable focal lengths, and the Freedom 160 provides what I sought. It goes from 37.5mm to 160mm, but there is a downside—at 37.5mm, the maximum aperture is f5.4, at 160mm, it is f12.5. The minimal focus distance is two feet at 37.5mm and about three feet at 160mm. Shutter speeds from 10 seconds to 1/500 are available. Rounding out the specs, it offers AE lock, red-eye reduction, fill-flash, and a night mode along with EC of +1.5 for high-key scenes, continuous shooting of 1 frame every 2.2 seconds, and a ten-second self-timer. All this fits into a 4.4 x 2.4 x 2 inch case that weighs 7.4 ounces! A CR123A( three volts) battery supplies the power.
Inspection and Appearance
The boxed model was in excellent condition with instructions, a strap, and a few other accessories. The more weathered model (a few minor scratches) came with only a strap. Viewfinders for both were clean and clear, and the battery compartments were clean. The insides of both cameras were free of dust and dirt, and both lenses were clean. I was very satisfied with both.
The top of the camera has a clean, functional layout with features neatly grouped. The LCD shows focus mode, battery power, and flash status. There is an “Area Focus” button to change focus mode quickly. The shutter button is a decent size and has enough resistance to prevent accidental shots.
The rear of the camera has a viewfinder with eye-start detectors and AF and exposure warning lights for when a flash is needed. There are buttons for selecting flash mode, self-timer, EC, and finally, a small wobble bar for zooming in and out. All features worked well for both cameras.
Function and Handling
The battery compartment door is on the side of the camera, and batteries are easy to install or remove. The “On/Off” button is a little small; I had to use my fingernail to press it completely. Picking up the Freedom 160 is like picking up an eyeglass case—it is not much bigger or heavier. The interface is straightforward because the camera does all the work. Loading film is a snap—put in the canister, pull the film tab over to the take-up spool, and close the door. The camera reads the ISO and advances to the first frame. From this point, all one need do is select a subject, a focal length, and shoot. Rewind occurs automatically when a roll is finished.
The viewfinder is small, as might be expected on such a small camera. However, I found it to be bright enough to see clearly. The viewfinder provides 85% coverage, and there are guidelines for parallax correction.
I made many images while walking through Little Five Points, and the color images in that post show off the camera’s ability with Kodak Ultramax 400. The B&W images are mostly test shots (Ultrafine Xtreme 400, XP2).
Zoom images shot at 160mm with flash in very dim light:
Even knowing the specs, I was surprised by the focus behavior. It is more sophisticated than that of my 7D and Maxxum 7. The focus detects and shifts among viable subjects quickly. As I said before, focus behavior is iPhone-like, and it rarely failed to select what I was aiming for. I only switched to spot focus a few times for three rolls of film.
The zoom is smooth, fast, and quiet. One can look through the viewfinder while zooming and select the focus target. I used 400 ISO film (recommended). Shooting in the shade made it obvious why 400 ISO was recommended. Since the maximum aperture is f5.4, even a little shade can be problematic. A few times, I had to move for more light or use the flash. Fortunately, the flash is fast, and the fill feature works well. After a few frames, I stopped moving for more light, went with the flash, and took the shot. I did not use the self-timer or continuous shooting mode; maybe next time.
Eye-start worked well. Raising the camera to my eye initiated focusing and subject selection, both of which happened quickly. Lights on either side of the viewfinder warn about focus and light levels—green when everything is fine and red otherwise. The red exposure light turns green when the flash is charged—about 2 seconds. I shot shaded subjects to see how well the fill flash worked, and the results were more than acceptable, considering I did not have to do anything. The most disconcerting aspect of using this camera is the lack of a shutter sound—a minor quibble. On the first roll, I shot two or three frames before realizing I had taken a picture. Now, I have learned to look at the LCD or listen for the very soft film advance whir. If you want a silent camera, this is worth considering.
ImpressionI really like this tiny camera! The parallax correction is quite helpful as none of my frames were aligned differently than I expected. It would be nice to have greater than 85% viewfinder coverage, but at the prices I paid, that is a small thing to complain about.
The autofocus features are amazing. I never expected spot focus on an inexpensive P&S, but this camera has it, and the feature works well. With the sophisticated metering, I found shots came out evenly exposed in a variety of lighting situations. Subject selection is quick and accurate but easily changed if one wishes. Even the flash, which I rarely use on any camera, proved itself worthy by providing good fill to even the light across the scene without my having to select it explicitly.
Sharpness seems to be maximum at the short end, while at 160mm, definite softness becomes evident. I shot a few frames in low light with a flash, and the pattern held—good sharpness except at 160mm. The Freedom Zoom 160 meets my need for a small P&S zoom with decent to excellent sharpness. On my walk, I used it just as I would use my iPhone. Sweet–I love it!