The Minolta 7hi
First let me say I am not a camera expert. There are many good reviews of this camera out there by people that really know what they are talking about. The purpose of this page is to discuss the decision behind getting the Minolta 7hi by someone who doesn't really know and the experience of using it.
First a little history. I've been taking pictures since I was three which is way too long ago. I graduated to SLR's at 11 and have stayed there ever since. Just over a decade ago I bought a Minolta 7000i camera and have never really had the urge to leave it. I do nature photography, portrait photography, landscape and architecture photograph. I have lenses from 24m, through the 28-70 zoom and the 75-300 zoom with a 2x teleconverter. Starting as a real photographer I am happy with manual operation although I love the 7000i program modes with the mode shift capability. It lets the camera get me about there and then lets me tweak for effect. I bought a digital camera (Kodak 2800) a couple of years ago for taking snaps of the children (I am now a continent away from my parents). The 2800 is easy and convenient and the results appease the grandparents, but I would never consider it for taking real photographs.
Anyhow I have been stuck in this position of loving the convenience of the Kodak but hating the results. I love the results of the 7000i but somehow sending of film for processing and having to wait and then having to scan before I can publish all seems like too much work. I wanted a better solution.
Stage 1 was to buy a good photo quality printer. I got the Canon S900. If you haven't looked at inket printers for a while then check this one out. On top quality photo paper, with genuine Canon ink and a good file the results are superb. I used to get my slides printed with Cibachrome and I think I actually prefer the Canon S900 results. (This was from scanning a slide).
The list of cameras I considered getting may seem a little weird, it was: Nikon D100, Canon D60, Minolta 7HI, Minolta 7i, Nikon Coolpix 5700, Canon G3, Sigma SD-9.
My logic went roughly like this.
I like SLRs, the feel, the quality and the interchangeable lenses. The problem is that digital SLRs are very expensive and although they last in terms of wear they will not last in terms of up to dateness. My decade old 7000i has a similar spec to a film SLR you will buy today. A digital camera that is two years old is massively outclassed by machines half the price today.
On the other hand a lot of expense on SLRs is building up the system, the lenses, the flashes and other pieces. Those stay from body to body. Although $2000 buys a lot of glass.
On the non-SLRs you get a good deal. They are half the price of the SLR versions, are lighter to carry and compact to use. Also the non-SLRs seem to be updated more often than the SLRs so you'll find features on them that the more expensive cameras don't have.
But you have the fixed lenses. I use lenses from 24mm all the way to 600mm fairly routinely, a fixed lens just doesn't cut it over that range. Also I had a feeling that these tiny little lenses couldn't possibly give the quality I wanted.
I spent ages pouring over the specs. All of the cameras I name give full manual control, good metering and are capable of good results. If you read the reviews (and I read them all again and again) you will find they all have strengths and weaknesses, however I narrowed my choice down through the following factors.
First a review was published of the 3 mega-pixel Sigma using the Foveon sensor. To cut a long story short it was kicking the D60 butt in a number of ways. The problem is it was stuck inside a Sigma body using Sigma glass. At this point I worked out that any DSLR I got was going to become obsolete once the big manufacturers went to the Foveon CCD. Of course this argument suggests that any digital camera will become obsolete, but it obviates the 'buy expensive quality as a long term investment' argument. So now, for me, is not a good time to buy into a DSLR.
Then I thought about going down to a non-SLR and thought about what I most liked about SLRs and see if I could keep it. It came down to the focal lengths available in the lenses and the holding position. I like to hold the lens barrel to zoom and focus.
If you look at the G3 it has only a short zoom range so it was ruled out. The Nikon has the best zoom range (8x) but it starts at 40mm. So although it is great at the telephoto end it is pretty useless for landscape and architecture.
Then I discovered that the two minolta cameras are zoomed from the lens manually (rather than using a motor) and from then on the decision was easy.
I didn't really have a single feature to justify going for the more expensive option; I just liked the look of it and as I was feeling virtuous at having not splashed out on an SLR went for it.
It was with some trepidation that I awaited the cameras arrival. I somehow had the feeling that as it wasn't quite an SLR it would do for what I wanted but would never quite be good enough.
To cut a long story short, I was blown away! Within the first day (with the manual less than half read) I had taken almost 500 pictures and, to quote my wife, "Wow! These are as good as you got with the old camera".
Note: I am not saying that the 7hi optics and CCD are equivalent to a 7000i with top quality glass and a good slide film, I am saying the results I got were as good as I used to get. If I wanted to be picky I would say that there are 10-20 of the pictures I got with the old camera that are in a class I haven't yet got to with the 7hi; but on a daily basis I can churn out far more 'winners' with the 7hi than I could with a conventional SLR.
To explain why; I will deal in a few short paragraphs with some of the things that make a difference, for me. Some of the features are just things from the 7000i days that Minolta have carried forward that are superb, others are things missing from the 7000i. I will also offer my own counter to some of the statements you'll get in the more professional reviews.
First, let me say this thing does eat batteries. If you have all the neat features switched on you get 100 pictures from a set of batteries. True there are battery saving modes, but why get a digital camera and then leave it switched off? You can get AA rechargables at $15 a set. Get 4 sets and get over it. On the conservation side the 'eye detect' feature allows you to keep the most expensive part of the battery from being over used. Another nice things is the camera switches on quickly.
Second, forget about the included memory card. If you are buying a 5MP camera it is to take 5MP pictures, you won't get 10 of those onto a 16M card. Use the included card for keeping your desk from wobbling and buy the 1G microdrive. It is less that $300 and one review at least suggested it was faster than flash. You can get 100 full size pictures on it.
Now for the good stuff. Fab-fave feature #1 has to be the program shift. This is a mechanism whereby you can go into program mode, the camera sets an exposure that works and then you can shift (speed up/aperture down) to get the effect you want just by rolling the finger over a dial.
This raises a good point. The camera has a good menu system but just about everything is available via buttons and dials. This is essential, I want my eye to the viewfinder not fiddling with some dopey menu mechanism.
A good feature shared with the 7000i is the exposure and focus spot/lock mechanism. This is for the situation where you have one (maybe small) thing you want exposed correctly. What you can do is point the center of the viewfinder at it, press the exposure lock button, recompose and then press the shutter. The 7Hi takes this even further so you can use the button as a toggle and / or lock exposure and focus both using the shutter button.
The above are all things the 7000i has solutions for; here is one where the 7hi shines. Bracketing. You can get a program card to make the 7000i do it but even if you can who can afford to burn 3x the amount of film. But 3x the amount of electrons? That is a no-brainer. Also the 7Hi lets you bracket exposure, color balance, color filter or even contrast! This is also an area where the 7Hi is better than the 7i, it takes photos quicker so you don't mind it taking 3.
Another feature I found far more useful than I expected was continuous shooting. This is a mode where you can just hold down the shutter and it will do 2-3 frames a second. In fairness the 7000i could do this but I never used it. The ability to burn film at about a buck a second never appealed. On the 7Hi I used it maybe 10 times during one 'kids at the swimming pool session' and got some great shots.
Oh yes. Focusing. On the 7000i you have one auto-focus mode, central. If you want to focus off center you have to point the center at it, half-press the shutter and recompose. You can do that with the 7Hi but you can also direct the focus point to any of hundreds of positions on the screen. In fact the 7Hi even seems able to detect a slightly off-center main subject and focus on it automatically. The 7Hi will also manual focus if you wish and it has a half-way mode where you can focus automatically but then make fine grain adjustments yourself. The 7Hi has two main focus modes, single (locks when you half-press the shutter) and continuous (it focuses continually), again better than the 7000i.
Then there is quick view. This is really just a playback mechanism, except it allows you to zoom and scroll around the image. I find it perfect for seeing if everything is in focus and again I can do it whilst keeping the camera to my eye and you can delete with one button press.
Next thing to mention is the viewfinder. This is a little bit of a win/loose compared to the 7000i. An electronic viewfinder is a little harder to see in bright sunlight and it not quite as sharp. The 'digital zoom' capability is particularly tacky. On the plus side:
Another important thing about the 7Hi is the way it stores all the data (aperture, shutter speed, focal length, compensations used etc) about each shot. This was an expansion card on the 7000i, now built in.
Another surprisingly cool feature is the ability to take 60 second videos. There are some things it is hard to capture with a still camera (such as my youngest taking his first steps) and a 60 second movie does the job nicely.
The built-in flash is a mixed blessing. It is usually extremely convenient although red-eye reduction will the ADI flash capability just doesn't work in the real world. I don't have three seconds between when I press the shutter and when I want the picture taken, the kids are in the next room by then. I just forget the red-eye and touch it up in photoshop afterwards. One disappointment is the my Minolta 5200i flash does not work; extreme over exposure.
This is an expensive camera, about a grand. I'm sure that many people can argue that their camera is better, and more power to them. However, for me, as an old-time Minolta user, and an old-time SLR user this camera has opened up my eyes. I love it. Anyone want to buy a good 7000i and glass?