Film cameras and lenses

Week of December 14, 2003

Q: My sister has a Minolta Maxxum 4. I think it takes awesome pics. I was thinking of getting one for my wife for Christmas as an alternative to our digital camera.     What do you think of this camera, and what are some other options in the all-automatic 35mm 275-500 range? If you publish my question, please do not use my name as I want the gift to be a surprise.

Name withheld upon request (to keep the gift a surprise!), Mt. Lebanon, PA

A: Your question asks about the camera body, the Maxxum 4. You must look at the purchase of an interchangeable lens camera as two transactions: the camera body and the lens that will be used with it.

The job of a camera body is to advance the film as you take pictures, hold the film flat so the pictures are sharp, and set the lens and shutter so the film is exposed properly. Any camera body made by Minolta, Canon, or Nikon can accomplish this easily.

The most important part of any film camera is the lens. The lens creates the image, and the camera body the lens is attached to is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to determining picture quality.   This is true of any film camera, be it a small point and shoot with a fixed lens or an interchangeable lens camera like the Maxxum 4.

In digital cameras, the camera incorporates a digital sensor, electronics, and software so the camera itself affects image quality. But in a film camera, all the body really does is allow the lens to expose the film. Buying more expensive film camera bodies gets you more robust construction and more features, but the same lens attached to an expensive professional camera and a consumer camera like the Maxxum 4 will produce the same image.

When I was in college I sold cameras in a high-end camera shop and encountered many amateur photographers.   I would often see someone come in with an expensive professional camera body with a cheap “house brand” zoom lens attached. In order to afford the camera body, the buyer would skimp on the lens. Doing this would get the buyer bragging rights for owning a top-of-the-line camera, but as a picture-taking machine it was highly compromised by the poor optics. It was much more impressive when someone came in with a cheap consumer body with an expensive professional lens attached. That is a photographer who knows where to put their money!

When you buy a camera like the Minolta Maxxum 4, you will probably be offered a choice of lenses with the camera body. To get the best image quality, be sure to buy a Minolta lens. The same is true of Canon or Nikon- get the camera manufacturer’s lens and you almost certainly be assured of good images. Some third-party manufacturers make good lenses, but the manufacturers’ lenses are a safe bet and hold their value better if you ever want to sell the camera.

Be sure to check out Nikon’s cameras as well as the Minolta. Nikon is known for making very good lenses, even their entry-level offerings. Purchasers of point-and-shoot 35mm cameras can get good lenses by avoiding cameras with extremely long zoom ranges. I personally would not buy any point and shoot with a zoom range of more than 35-70.   The sharpest cameras do not have a zoom lens at all. My favorite point and shoot is the Olympus Stylus Epic. It has a very sharp lens, works well in low light and costs less than $100. To zoom you just use your feet!

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