The last time Craftyangie and I visited my parents, eczema my father dug through his collection and found a treasure: my Grandmother’s old Minolta Hi-Matic 9. It’s a late ’60s 35mm rangefinder camera, information pills with a 45mm f/1.7 lens. It features fully automatic exposure, but also allows full manual exposure control. Like so many hand-me-downs in my family, even though this camera was used extensively by my grandmother, it’s in absolutely perfect cosmetic condition.
Of course, there’s always a catch to these things. (There kind of has to be!) In this case, there were a couple of catches. It originally took one of those nasty old Mercury cell batteries, that are now illegal in the US. And, as we played around with it, we discovered that the shutter didn’t always fire. In fact, while playing around with it, the shutter stopped working entirely. You’d hear a “click”, but nothing would happen. Fortunately, I was able to fix both problems…
The mercury cell battery problem is an interesting one. Mercury batteries were 1.35v batteries. Unlike Alkaline batteries, mercury cells maintain a constant voltage over their lifetime, until they finally die. This voltage is so constant and reliable that circuit designers were able to use the voltage from the battery as a reference voltage, without creating any circuitry to normalize the voltage first. This means that if you put a battery in with a different voltage, say 1.5v, the light meter will give incorrect readings, because it is relying on it being 1.35v.
The good news is, I’m hardly the first person to run across this problem. Albert Yee has a good description about how to solve this problem using a Zinc Air 675 hearing aid battery (which is 1.4v, close enough). I bought a pack of these hearing aid batteries, selected a rubber washer from my father’s collection, and the light meter was back in business.
Then, there’s that shutter problem. I’ll write a blog post soon about how I fixed that when I returned to Philly. It took some more effort and disassembly to fix, and is worth a post of its own…
Anyway, I loaded the camera with a test roll of Kodak Gold 200 that came with another camera I bought a few months back. And I’m thrilled with the results! The 45mm lens is just as sharp as The Internet said it would be. The colors and contrast are good, and I can’t see any flare, chromatic aberration, or any other bugaboos in the photos. The only cheesy thing about it is the 5-bladed aperture: I bet a 7-bladed design would make for much better background blur. The photo to the above left is a good example of what the camera is capable of.
Here’s the specs: The shutter goes from 1/500 to 1 second, plus Bulb, in one stop increments. ISO can be set from 25 through 800, in 1/3 stop increments. The light meter’s range is on the small side, from EV 5.5 through 17. (Though with manual exposure, it can go down to EV 1.5.) My first reaction is that it’s too bad that there’s no ISO 1600 on this camera, but then I doubt it would be terribly useful when the meter only goes down to EV 5.5. I’m thinking the fastest film I might ever put in it is ISO 400, which is still fast enough for most general photography.
The light meter reads out in exposure values (EV) inside the viewfinder. In automatic exposure mode, it chooses an appropriate aperture and shutter speed itself. In manual exposure mode, you choose an aperture and shutter that corresponds to the number the dial points at in the viewfinder. If you want to over- or under-expose for whatever reason, you simply set the EV lower or higher than recommended. If you turn both the aperture and shutter speed control rings together, you can keep it set for the same EV setting, but go through aperture and shutter combinations that are all equivalent. (For example, EV 10 is 1/125 at f/2.8… twist both to 1/60 and you’ll get f/4, which is still EV 10.) Very clever!
That said, I’m a little bit concerned about the metering on this camera. I took the next two shots with the same EV reading, using the method described above. The first is at f/4 and the second, at f/2.8. When I scanned them myself at home, I scanned both frames with the exact same settings. Note that there’s a definite difference in how bright the scene is from one to the other. F/2.8 is already stopped down by 1 1/3 stops, so I doubt it’s flare from being shot wide-open or anything like that.
It’s not like the brighter exposure of the second shot is so awful or that it’s unsalvageable… but it’s probably not the ideal camera for shooting slide film with. (Though my grandmother definitely did shoot slide film with it!)
The Hi-Matic 9 handles well, but it’s definitely a solid brick of a camera. It’s not a tiny like the Canonet GIII QL17 or Olympus RC35, but comparable to a Pentax K1000 in size and weight. In fact, I weighed the Hi-Matic 9 and compared it with my K1000 (an older all-metal model) with a 50mm f/2 lens attached. The Hi-Matic was 1lb 11oz, and the K1000 with lens was 1lb 12oz. Neither is exactly compact or pocketable, unless you have particularly big pockets. The Canonet or Olympus seem like better choices for a go-anywhere camera, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Some more beauty shots of the Hi-Matic 9 itself:
Two focus scales, one in Metric and the other in English measure. No DOF scale, though.
The Hi-Matic 9 is especially easy to load film in. The film take-up reel on the right sort of grabs the film leader, making mis-loading difficult. Nice.
It’s easy to unambiguously check the battery status. Note on the lens barrel that there are three green dots lined up with the “check” arrow. You line up the green dots on the aperture, shutter and focus rings with that arrow, and look through the viewfinder. If the light meter points at the lightning bolt icon, your battery’s good to go.
After having an underwhelming experience with a Yashica YL a few months back (admittedly, an older camera not quite in the same class as this one), the Hi-Matic 9 has redeemed rangefinder cameras for me. I plan on keeping it loaded with film and shooting with it!