by Philip Greenspun; created 1997
Site Home : Photography : Minolta Vectis S-1
It is small. It is weatherproof. It is a single-lens reflex. The lenses are small. They are weatherproof. A whole Vectis camera system takes up less space than one of my Canon EOS-5 bodies with vertical grip.
I like to be able to see what I'm photographing. I wear eyeglasses. The Vectis viewfinder has reasonable eye relief. I can't really take in both edges of the frame at once in panoramic or HDTV mode, but I can come close. The LCD display at the bottom of the viewfinder is clear and large. I'd rate the finder almost as good as on my Canon EOS-5 body, though not as good as a Nikon N90 or F4.
The finder optics seem a bit dark compared to 35mm SLRs, a problem compounded by the generally slow lenses that are available for the Vectis.
You choose your APS format from a convenient wheel on the side of the camera and a mechanical curtain blacks out the relevant portion of the viewfinder. Very slick.
Manual focusing is available at all times by depressing the shutter button halfway and then turning the MF ring on the lens. About as convenient as a Canon EOS body with a USM lens (if only the Nikon AF system were this smart). Unfortunately, the feel of the rings on the 28-80 and 50 macro lenses that I tried was very poor. The ring seems not to be mechanically connection to the optics but rather is a sensor input to the camera which will drive the focus rack with a motor. The S-1 body seems to not reliably notice when you are turning the ring, so can take several complete rotations of the ring to go from infinity to close focus. The camera can also be set to full-time manual focus mode at the touch of a button.
Autofocus is presumably how most people will use the camera. The sensor is a big wide central one. The camera hunts much more than my EOS-5 and seems less tolerant of what one would think are good targets (e.g., text).
Autoexposure works like you'd expect, with aperture and shutter-priority modes plus program. A thumb wheel on the camera back adjusts aperture or shutter as appropriate. There does not seem to be a program shift function which every modern 35mm SLR I've used has had (e.g., if my Canon EOS-5 thinks f/8 and 1/125 is good, a twirl of the wheel will bring up f/5.6 and 1/250). The wheel simply does nothing when in program autoexposure mode.
Manual exposure is crippled in two separate ways. First, the camera has only one control wheel and you have to set two items. Shutter speed is set conveniently using the control wheel. To change the aperture, you have to press the exposure compensation button and simultaneously twirl the dial. The second blow against ever using manual exposure is there there is no graphical indicator of how far from the meter's recommendation your set exposure is. The LCD on the camera has no indication at all; the in-finder display shows only a plus or minus sign.
The built-in winder is quiet but slow; you won't get more than 1 frame per second out of this camera.
The Vectis S-1 has a wimpy built-in flash whose best feature is that it can emit coded signals to remotely activite off-camera Minolta-brand strobes. There is even an automatic way to get 2:1 lighting with the off-camera strobe providing 2/3rds of the exposure and the on-camera flash providing 1/3rd as fill. You could do this with a Canon or Nikon too, but you'd need $150 of extra cords and a PhD in reading Japanese instruction manuals.
If you don't like high-voltage electric shocks, then you'll appreciate the dedicated SF-1 accessory flash that remains splash-proof when attached to the S-1.
The only thing Minolta could really learn from any other company on the flash score is the value of the Nikon D metering system. The Vectis will set flash exposure based on its TTL sensors. Minolta will tell you that their "14-segment honeycomb patterned metering" is the best in the business (and it probably is), but I like to take pictures with subjects that are at the edges of the frame. The Nikon D system is the best for this because it sets flash exposure purely based on its knowledge of the power of the flash, and the distance at which you've focussed the lens.
Plastics. It is all plastics. The only part of the camera or lenses that is readily identifiable as metal is the tripod socket. I think a bunch of other little things are in fact metal, e.g., the front filter threads of the lenses and the strap holders on the body. But basically the body and the lenses and the lens mount appear to all be plastic.
I'm not going to complain. It works and it bounces.
Minolta decided to make a new lensmount and all new lenses for the Vectis. I guess if I had a huge collection of Maxxum lenses, this might upset me. But really there is no point in carrying around a set of lenses big enough to cover a 35mm negative when you could carry around a set of lenses big enough to cover the APS negative area (56% of the size of 35mm). I don't want to use my Fuji medium format or Schneider 4x5 view camera lenses on my Canon EOS. Why should I want to use my Canon EOS lenses on an APS camera? The thing that I hate most about good optics is weight. Having a custom line of APS lenses lets you slim down considerably.
My idea of a zoom lens is a Canon EOS 70-200/2.8. 3 lbs. Metal. Tripod collar. The Vectis 22-80 is about the same size and weight as the plastic lens shade for my 70-200. A delight. The angles of view that you get correspond roughly to a 28-105 in 35mm format. Aperture goes from a slow f/4 at 22 to a very slow f/5.6 at 80. Still, I guess if you're a consumer used to a zoom P&S camera with its f/10 telephoto zoom, this would be a big improvement.
Since the lens has no distance scale it also can't have depth of field or infrared focussing marks. It does have a nice bayonet-mount plastic lens hood, though.
The lens focusses continuously to 1:4. If you want to go closer, and/or have higher image quality, then you want...
This is almost like a real lens. It has a distance scale. It has depth-of-field marks for f/16 and f/32. When you rack out the barrel, it reveals 1:10, 1:5, ..., 1:2 image magnification indicators. When the lens is out at its maximum magnification of 1:2 and you've set f/11 in manual exposure mode, the lens is actually delivering less than f/16 worth of exposure. This is true of any macro lens because it has been racked way far out from the film plane and is projecting a huge image circle, much larger than the negative. If you are metering through-the-lens, this loss of light doesn't really screw up your pictures because the meter automatically compensates. If you are using a studio strobe system and a handheld meter, then your pictures will be underexposed by 1.25 f-stops. Oops.
Nikon is the only company that does this right. An ancient N8008 (F801) body's viewfinder display will report "f/16 and then f/32" as you rack a Nikon AF macro lens out to 1:1, even though the aperture ring is set to f/11.
With all the computer horsepower in the Vectis S-1, Minolta should have been able to get this right.
I don't know if the macro lens has a floating element.
The Vectis S-1 body seems to cost around $350. The decent lenses are around $250-300 each (macro and 22-80).
I lent the Vectis outfit to my friend Lorrie for her three-week trip to Nepal. Here's her report...
For years I've been using an Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR and a 20-year-old Hasselblad 500C, so I was very excited by the chance to take a Minolta Vectis S-1 on a recent trekking / river rafting trip to Nepal. I didn't want to be bothered with a light meter or manual focusing so I was counting on the Vectis S-1 to provide point-and-shoot convenience with SLR quality. The ability to change the APS film in mid-roll would be icing on the cake. I found the Vectis S-1 delivered on some of those expectations, but disappointed on others.
The Vectis S-1 is a bit smaller and lighter than my Olympus, but didn't feel it. It has an ergonomic, molded plastic body, so it felt larger than it actually was. I noticed that the molding allowed my right hand to curl around it comfortably, however, those folks who like to hold a camera in their left hands are out of luck--it just doesn't work.
The viewfinder is reasonably bright and worked fine with eyeglasses.
If you're in auto mode and the flash is called for, it pops up rather loudly when you touch the shutter release. Unfortunately, it sounds almost exactly like you just took the picture. It startled me every time and eventually I just turned off the auto-flash mode.
In a word: complicated. I found all the bells and whistles of the S-1 to be its biggest drawback. Perhaps I was put off by the 120-page manual, but it was necessary. The back of the camera had more buttons and little LCD pictures than the average VCR. So, not being willing to memorize that many instructions, and not wanting to be caught fiddling with my camera in case I saw a tiger, I left the S-1 in AUTO mode most of the time. I could only hope that if it appeared, the tiger wouldn't be doing anything artistic.
Autofocus and the Swaying Elephant
The 22-80 Minolta Vectis lens gave me most of the versatility I wanted, but I had a major hassle with the autofocus. Sitting on the back of swaying elephant is not the easiest photographic situation, but I wouldn't have thought it would pose such a challenge to a technological marvel like the S-1. The focusing sensor was baffled by the constant motion. The result: I couldn't take any pictures! The camera refused to fire. I suppose I should be glad it chose to protect me and my film from such an impossible situation, but my trusty little point-and-shoot didn't have any trouble. It focused and shot, and the pictures were fine.
In spite of all the frustrations, my pictures came out pretty well. The ability to choose between a standard sized frame, a full sized frame, and a panoramic frame was nice and helped make up for my unwillingness to fool around with all the settings. However, the photos weren't any better than those I took with a point-and-shoot that probably cost a quarter of what an S-1 costs.
On a scale of 1 (completely unacceptable) - 10 (absolutely amazing) I'd give the S-1 a rating of 6. In spite of its good construction and sleek design, I found disappointing to use and wound up missing a lot of shots I would have easily captured with a point-and-shoot or a manual SLR..
A note on APS film
The APS system is, as advertised, virtually foolproof. The film fits in the chamber in one position only, and the camera takes care of the rest. You don't have to fiddle with a leader, or worry about whether you've wound it on the uptake spool correctly. Changing the film is midroll is simple--the camera takes care of everything. The drawback to this system is that you can't look at the processed negatives.
OK, that's what Lorrie had to say.