Minolta unveiled the TC‑1 compact 35mm camera back in 1996. It garnered a few “oohs” and a handful of “ahhs” amongst the camera cognoscenti, but it elicited little more than a shrug from the nescient, pre‑ULTRA Egor. I remember having only two thoughts upon its release: 1) “why would anyone want to set aperture with a sliding switch?” and 2) “who would buy a premium point‑and‑shoot film camera when digital will render it obsolete within the next couple of years?”
Flash forward twenty years and here I am — definitely older, ostensibly wiser, and the proud owner of a Minolta TC‑1. In the interim, I have transformed into a rather strong proponent of “obsolete” film cameras — a curious turn of events for someone who was so rabidly pro-digital in the late 1990’s. If it weren’t for my stubborn refusal to accept the wonders of a sliding aperture switch, there would be no hint of my former self in today’s incarnation.
The TC‑1 re-entered my gravitational field quite unexpectedly last November when, in a small camera shop on the east side of Shinjuku, I spotted one sharing a display case with several old Nikons and Leicas. It was homely enough to be endearing, and appeared to be even smaller than my Rollei 35T. But the camera’s most captivating feature was the little bit of text beneath its lens: “Minolta G‑Rokkor 28mm 1:3.5.”
I knew Minolta had once manufactured a Leica M‑mount version of this lens — now so rare and thus so expensive that it’s oft-rumoured to be the only lens suitable for photographing unicorns. So I whipped out my iPhone, launched my English-to-Japanese translator app, and clumsily communicated to the shopkeeper that I would like to examine the TC‑1. He opened the case and handed me the camera. It slid effortlessly into my palm, and had I been blessed with metallic robot hands, its presence would be nearly imperceptible to anyone in my proximity. It was quiet, solid, simple and yet fully featured. Miraculously, I handed it back to the shopkeeper and exited the store without extracting a credit card.
For the next several days, I couldn’t help worrying about that poor little camera: unused, unloved and surrounded by all those big, bad, bully cameras. Every evening, prior to retiring for the night, I’d do a bit of TC‑1 research — trying to convince myself I didn’t want to adopt it. But after a week, I caved.
This will be neither a thorough nor complete review of the Minolta TC‑1. Hamish Gill has recently discussed this camera extensively, and I recommend his article to anyone who wishes to learn more. It eloquently mirrors many of my own thoughts and experiences, which means I can be lazy and simply point my readers to his site. Another mix of details and enthusiasm can be found in Bellamy Hunt’s mini-review from 2011.
Instead, I’ll take a more random approach to my impressions and opinions — some of which may corroborate Hamish and Bellamy’s findings, and some of which are unique to my requirements and experiences. So let me begin by reiterating what others have said before me: the TC‑1 is a quirky camera. There’s simply no way to make a pro-grade, full-frame 35mm camera this small and not be forced to engineer a few oddities.
In the case of my old Rollei 35T, those oddities are numerous, varied and glaringly obvious. Eccentricities abound, such as placing the film transport lever under the left thumb, while positioning both the film counter and the hotshoe on the bottom of the camera. Obviously, building a 35mm film camera slightly larger than a deck of playing cards required the elimination of convention, which is why the Rollei 35’s irregularities actually increase its functionality and appeal.
So what about the Minolta TC‑1 — a full frame 35mm camera that’s surprisingly even more compact than the Rollei? Minolta released the TC‑1 a full 30 years after the Rollei 35, so most of the requisite gears and levers have been supplanted with electronic circuitry. For this reason, the peculiarities are not as blatantly obvious until you turn on the camera. Doing so causes a door to slide open, from which a freakishly unconventional rectangular-ish lens barrel and switch arrangement extends — protruding a mere 7mm from the front surface. This appendage’s quirkiness stems from the fact that the TC‑1’s aperture is not set by rotating a ring to open and close a set of blades. Instead, the aperture is set by a sliding switch — where each switch position causes a washer with a different size opening to drop down inside the lens. Apparently, back in the day, Minolta touted this perfectly circular aperture as a “feature” that would provide creamy, smooth defocusing in shots with limited depth of field. But here’s the thing: this is a 28mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5. Shallow depth-of-field is not really at the top of this camera’s bag‑o‑tricks.
Apparently, this unique design has caused some cameras to experience reliability issues over time. Hamish reports that his first TC‑1 had a problem with light leaks (apparently due to non-perfect alignment of those little aperture disks). Mine seems to have a different problem — one I haven’t seen reported before. At f/3.5, the camera sometimes fails to take an exposure reading and thus prevents me from taking a shot. This means, on several occasions, I’ve been forced to stop down to f/5.6 when it would definitely not have been my choice. The problem can sometimes be rectified if I pull the little aperture switch as far past f/3.5 as I can (pretending that there’s an f/2.8 setting that I’m trying to switch to). It doesn’t always work, but it does indicate that, perhaps, this might also be due to an aperture disk alignment issue — and that pulling back on the switch gives me just a little more space for the disk to settle correctly. Honestly, I haven’t a clue what the root cause might be — but it can be somewhat frustrating, and is an issue you might want to look for should you be seeking a TC‑1 of your own.
Anxious to read about additional oddities? No problem. The TC‑1’s got you covered:
- In spite of appearances, the TC‑1 is not technically a point-and-shoot camera. Instead, it’s a camera that always functions in aperture priority mode. You must select an aperture and then let the camera automatically set a shutter speed. There’s no other exposure method available, and there’s also no way to manually expose. Plus, since there are only four available aperture settings (f/3.5, 5.6, 8 and 16), you certainly won’t have nuanced control over your exposure options.
- Curiously, even though the camera forbids manual exposure, it does actually allow manual focusing. Unfortunately, much like the Rollei 35, this is done only via “scale” focusing. To manually focus the TC‑1, you rotate the top dial to the AF/M position, then use a little switch to step through every possible focus distance: 0.45m; 0.5m; 0.55m; 0.6m; 0.65m; 0.7m; 0.8m; 0.9m; 1m; etc… Yes, it’s wickedly precise — much much more precise than my ability to guesstimate distances!
- The TC‑1 compensates for its lack of manual exposure by allowing photographers to set an exposure compensation of up to 4 stops in either direction. This goes a long way toward alleviating my personal dislike for auto-exposure. Sometimes I want to set my exposure well outside convention, so having the ability to override the camera’s internal recommendation by a total of 8 stops is a necessary and welcome luxury.
- Camera settings are modified via a sliding switch on the TC‑1’s front edge. Hey, if you’re going to replace a conventional aperture dial with a switch, why not go all the way and replace the traditional data dial with one, too? It’s a seemingly odd choice, but it’s not without some merit. Unlike a dial, which you have to continuously rotate in order to select increasing or decreasing values, the switch on the TC‑1 can simply be held in one direction and the indicated value will increase or decrease automatically for as long as it’s held. This actually makes it relatively quick and painless to, for example, scroll through that laborious list of possible focus distances.
- The battery door and its closure mechanism are woefully under-designed. There is a small sliding switch (surprise, surprise!) that unlocks a battery compartment, which holds the requisite CR123 Lithium battery. All that sliding switch does is to slide a teeny tiny little bolt in and out of a teeny tiny little hole. The whole contraption appears to be fabricated from consumer grade tin foil, which yields two inevitable results: either 1) I can’t quite get the sliding switch to slide open; or 2) I can’t quite stop the sliding switch from sliding open. Fortunately, there’s this handy product on the market called “tape,” which you can use to hold the battery door closed.
- The camera is loaded with all sorts of little niceties that belie the rather shoddy battery compartment lock: a diopter adjustment on the viewfinder; spot metering; a slow-sync flash mode; manual DX ISO override; and a self-timer. There is little doubt Minolta was doing everything possible to position this as a “professional’s compact.” This included saddling it with a rather exorbitant ¥148,000 sticker price, which in 1996 would have been roughly US $1400. Even in 2016, that sounds ludicrously high, so just imagine how it sounded twenty years ago! No wonder these cameras are rarely seen outside Japan.
OK. So the TC‑1 is an odd handling camera. Fine. Muscle memory is relatively easy to attain. The real question on most photographer’s minds — particularly given the near mythical status of its built-in lens — is “how is the TC‑1’s image quality?”
It’s a simple question with a semi-complicated answer. That’s because one’s idea of image quality is likely to depend on whether you’re living in the here-and-now, or taking a time machine to the past. Fact is, that little 28mm G-Rokkor lens is loaded with character. It pumps out a negative with rather high contrast, good centre sharpness and a potently dramatic amount of vignetting.
This means, if you’re really old school and order prints from a lab (as would likely have been the case for this camera’s intended customer), you’re going to love what you see when you open the envelope. The bold colours, high contrast, sharp subjects and dramatic vignetting give those 1-hour photo lab prints a pleasingly professional pop.
And therein lies the problem: hardly anyone using this camera today is going to make prints at the local drug store. Today’s film shooter — particularly one who would be interested in the Minolta TC‑1 — is likely to develop and/or print his or her own photos. In my case, I self-develop and scan all my negatives. Because of this, I actually prefer to start with a negative that’s fairly low in contrast and that doesn’t have as much vignetting — these can be added in processing. So, even though the lens is very capable and characterful, I find myself spending a little extra time in Lightroom/Photoshop working to remove those very same attributes that would have made this such a killer camera in 1996.
That said, the out-of-camera shots might just please you enough that you ultimately drop the mouse, “go with the flow,” and print them with less manipulation than you might ordinarily choose.
Of course, there’s more to “image quality” than technical details — there’s the subject of the image itself. The bulk of my photo technique involves fleeting serendipity — photographing subjects that suddenly coalesce into a single perfect moment before dispersing in the blink of an eye. My need to respond rapidly to ephemeral stimuli is precisely why I prefer using cameras that allow near-instantaneous manual changes to exposure and focus. The TC‑1 does not offer these capabilities, and for these reasons is better suited for deliberate photography than to my reactionary sort.
So, even though the TC‑1 and Rollei 35 share a similar physical envelope, their widely divergent approaches to miniaturization suggest completely different subjects when used. The Rollei, because it’s both manually exposed and focused, excels at shooting ephemeral subjects (as long as I can work around its 40mm focal length — which is a bit longer than I prefer). The TC‑1, because it’s auto exposed and (fundamentally) auto focused, rewards a more pensive shooter.
For two cameras that share such a seemingly similar purpose, the way I use them couldn’t be more different. All I can say is that it’s a good thing my jacket has a pocket on both sides.
©2016 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS:
I’ve always had issues with publishing so-called “test” images to accompany any sort of gear review. That’s because, as a “creator of images,” I’m conditioned to be very selective about which ones I share. But anyone reading a gear review expects to see a lot of images, no matter how banal they might be. So what I’ve done here is to create a vBook as a sort of “compromise.” By controlling the presentation and sequencing of the photos, I’m able to diminish their perceived banality. If you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, I suggest you (re)read an old article called Reject Intent.
There are 23 photos in the vBook — all of which were shot with the Minolta TC-1 between mid-November 2015 and mid-February 2016. Some photos were shot on Tri-X, some on FP4+, some on Delta 100, some on expired HP5+ (compliments of a generous reader), and some on UltraMax 400. Everything was exposed at box speed, but developed differently — sometimes I used HC-110, sometimes I used Rodinal and, in the case of the UltraMax 400 roll, a print lab in Shibuya was used (I had a 1-week “warranty” on the camera, and needed to shoot and view one roll in order to see if the camera had any problems).
ABOUT THE MUSIC:
The soundscape was realized predominantly on my ever-evolving modular synthesizer, which is most heavily inhabited by Intellijel modules. Numerous 4MS modules handle much of the clocking requirements and a smattering of additional modules from Make Noise, Mutable Instruments, Expert Sleepers, Noise Engineering, Malekko Heavy Industry and others add to the cacophony cornucopia. Originally, I planned to create the entire soundscape as a single “patch,” which I would perform and tweak in a single take. Alas, I ran out of patch cables before I ran out of ideas. So only about 75% of this performance was done in a single take (from a single modular synth patch). I later overdubbed another track from a re-patched modular, plus a couple more tracks from the Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2 synthesizer. The only software-based instrument was a single instance of G-Force’s Oddity synthesizer (a software “clone” of an old Arp Odyssey). As is usually the case, Ableton Live served as the “multitrack” recorder, and the final mix was mastered using Izotope Ozone 7. The entire sound and photo sequence was then assembled as hastily as possible in Apple’s Final Cut Pro X.
Inevitably, every time I publish a vBook, I get emails asking for an MP3 version of the soundtrack. So, here you go: DOWNLOAD MP3 SOUNDSCAPE
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