The Alpha System celebrates its Silver Jubilee or 25th Anniversary this month – though left uncelebrated by the inheritors of the Minolta AF legacy, Sony. They have no reason to draw fresh attention to the age of the system, as in four years they have taken it the same sort of distance that Minolta took the world’s first AF system in the late 1980s.
It’s not only Alpha’s 25th birthday. This is also the 25th birthday of modern AF SLR systems – all of them!
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For Photoclubalpha and the historic Minolta Club of Great Britain, the anniversary does matter. A good many of you out there have been members since the launch of the system, often using the earlier SR and X manual focus systems before that. We still have a 1985 Minolta 7000AF and it’s still working just as it did when new.
25 years before the first Minolta SLRs appeared – a folding Minolta Six of 1935
I don’t mind showing my age to make a comparison. I was 11 in 1963 when I took my first pictures with an SLR camera. My father had bought himself a Pentax S3 – and the camera it replaced was 25 years old, a pre-war Zeiss Ikon Kolibri collapsible 16-on-127 model.
When the Kolibri was made, 127 was the ‘vest pocket’ format of choice. 35mm was on the rise, but 35mm SLRs had not yet arrived. They were as much a thing of the future as digital SLRs were when the Minolta 7000AF was launched.
But within that 25 years, there was hardly a single camera system made with interchangeable lenses that did not become obsolete. Only the ‘frozen assets’ of the cold war kept some systems, like the Exakta bayonet and the Praktina, alive. New brands were launched, from the British Wrayflex and Periflex to the Italian Rectaflex and many German oddities. It was not unusual for an entire system to be come and gone within a few years.
Even in the following quarter-century, the high years of the Japanese 35mm SLR, the succession of lens mount changes was bewildering. Independent lens makers like Tamron and Sigma were forced to make systems using interchangeable mounts not just because the public wanted it. A dozen or more mounts were made for every lens and in the 42mm screw thread fit alone there were endless variants – Praktica LLC (Pentacon Electric), Olympus FTL, Pentax ES and more.
It was more or less a 25-year cycle – the SR system was announced in 1958, and really got underway by 1960. It was to be another quarter century before the AF system arrived. We are now a further 25 years on – can we expect a totally new camera system, once again, in 2010?
Minolta’s SR bayonet mount, introduced in 1958/9, actually remained basically unchanged all the way through to 2005 when the last manual focus model, the X-370S, was available. It survives even now as a mount popular in China where the Seagull range from Shanghai Optical includes Minolta fit models. That mount only ever had one major revision, to add a linkage for open aperture TTL metering. The introduction of programmed exposure and shutter priority was cleverly enabled by using the existing design of lens mechanism and improving its accuracy, while adding a simple reference lug to the ƒ-stop setting ring.
Nikon’s 1959 F-mount proved similarly easy to improve without any basic modification. Both these bayonet mounts celebrated half a century of production in 2008/9 – another landmark, which Nikon was able to celebrate but Minolta of course could not.