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The Minolta CLE film rangefinder was introduced in 1980. Until Leica produced the Leica M7 in 2001, the CLE held the distinction of being the most technologically advanced Leica M mount camera that existed (a 21-year track record).
The CLE has been my secondary camera for the past four years. In this review, I include a bit of history on the Minolta CLE, as well as some of my experiences shooting with the camera.
A lot of people are willing to spend a lot of time comparing the peculiarities of photographing with different types of cameras or recording media. Other people religiously claim that it’s all about the photographer, not the camera. In my experience, there is indeed a significant difference between different types of cameras in the areas of:
Tokyo, 2007 - In the Metro after a long day of sight-seeing
How noisy the camera is (can you approach a candid subject and get your picture unnoticed, if that is your style of shooting)
How flexible the system is (Focal length range, availability of fast lenses, focusing range)
How fast you can work the camera—and if you can keep your attention focused on the subject, rather than the camera, while doing so
How much you have to carry around (any DSLR with fast lenses takes up significantly more space and weight than a rangefinder)
I won’t make any blanket statements here, but the Minolta CLE lets me take some pictures that I would have had a hard time doing with my usual Nikon DSLR. I enjoy the “old school” process as well.
Leitz and Minolta had quite an extensive collaboration in the 1970’s, one result being the Leica CL manufactured from 1973 to 1976. This camera had a mechanical shutter and framelines for 40, 50, and 90 mm lenses. As an independent continuation of this, Minolta introduced the CLE in 1980, adding notably Aperture-priority AE and a frame line set of 28-40-90mm. I find that the latter configuration suits my style of photography far better.
Tokyo, 2007 - Asta taking a drink
Build and Handling
This really is a compact camera for being a first class camera system. It is solid, made mostly from metal, and handles very well.
Operation is as simple as it gets: I just insert the film, set the ISO, rotate the shutter speed wheel to “A” and start shooting. The CLE curiously deactivates metering when used in manual mode and there is no AE-lock, but so far this hasn’t bothered me.
As previously mentioned, the viewfinder has 28, 40, and 90mm framelines, and I can actually see all of them even with my unusual combination of facial topography and glasses. To compare, I have a really hard time seeing even the 35mm frame lines in an M6 with the standard 0.72x magnification. The viewfinder magnification is relatively low at 0,58x, and the 90 mm frame is just four small corners—this is definitely not an ideal portrait camera for me.
Amsterdam, 2004 - Kid Playing with Toy Car
I really enjoy working with the CLE—it’s small, quiet, and delivers really sharp results. The rest is up to the photographer, as they say. When I’m traveling, my primary camera is a Nikon DSLR with 12-24, 18-70, and 28/1.8mm lenses, but the Minolta CLE somehow always tags along, loaded with B/W film. Winning features of the CLE (to me at least) are:
Compact and light—when it comes to wearing it in a small pouch or as a secondary camera on travels, both size and weight are significantly more travel-friendly than any SLR or even the standard Leica M. My 28 and 40mm lenses are extremely compact relative to similar SLR lenses
It’s quiet and non-intrusive—I managed to take a picture of a Kimono shopkeeper from about 2 meters (7ft) distance without him noticing, and we were the only people in the shop.
The frame line set is really perfect to me for all-round travel use—I use a Leitz Summicron 40mm/2.0 for about 85% of my shots, a Voigtlander Color Skopar 28mm/3.5 for 14% and a Minolta CLE-Rokkor 90mm/4.0 for the rest. Sometimes I crop a 40mm image to 50mm FOV in post-processing though. As mentioned, the 28 and 40 mm framelines are extremely easy to see.
Automated Exposure (AE) is nice when traveling to exotic places where you may not always have the time to set things up with a meter and manual exposure. I always use ISO 400 chromogenic B/W film—my film of choice is Kodak BW400CN, so getting the exposure correct to within a stop usually suffices. The metering is good enough for that.
When I carry the CLE as my only camera, I use the LowePro Camera Pouch: a tiny “fanny pack” to hold the camera and three lenses. No one expects a serious camera kit in such a small pack.
Voigtländer 28/3.5, Leitz 40/2.0 and Minolta 90/4.0 lenses
Rangefinders usually restrict the number of available lenses due to the concept of a finite number of framelines available on each camera. This means that you should carefully consider your mostly used focal lengths and how they are displayed in the viewfinder. Here are my personal considerations:
My CLE came with the Leitz/Leica Summicron 40mm/2.0 already on it—a perfect choice, since this gave me a fast “normal” lens on a budget. I like the results from this lens very much.
I wanted a compact 28mm lens, and my budget was pretty low. The natural choice was the Voigtlander 28mm/3.5—solid in construction and great image quality. Having a fast aperture was of lesser importance as this was already covered by the Summicron.
For a 90mm lens, I got a Minolta 90mm/4.0 for a really nice price at the time of purchase of the camera. This lens also delivers the goods. It is my least used lens because I don’t use longer focal lengths much when traveling, and because of the previously mentioned viewfinder configuration.
I did a brief experiment using a 50mm lens and an external viewfinder on the CLE, and it worked all right for zone focused shots at f/8, but in the end I spent too much time speculating on whether I had remembered to set the distance properly. Maybe using a 15 or 21mm lens would be different.
Comparison with other Rangefinders
I also own and enjoy shooting the Leica M3, a camera that really is in a class of its own experience and quality-wise. For my style of traveling, though, the M3 has three significant drawbacks:
It is slower in use (manual exposure, external meter, and I use a collapsible Elmar 50mm/2.8 on it).
It’s heavier and larger than the CLE.
The M3 doesn’t have a wide-angle viewfinder.
Before the CLE, my B/W travel compact was a Rollei 35SE, which was even more light and compact, but in the end I retired it because of the lack of a rangefinder—shooting wider open than 5.6 led to too many out-of-focus pictures, so using it indoors or in low-ish light was not an option for me.
I also owned a Contax G1 with 35, 45, and 90mm lenses for about half a year, but in the end I sold it due to the less-than-discreet noise profile—it worked completely against my way of taking pictures, unfortunately.
Paris, 2005 - Dog and Wine
The best recommendation I can give the Minolta CLE is that it always follows me on my travels and is a significant addition to my photography gear bag (supplementing my Nikon DSLR). It somehow seems to coax some really satisfying pictures out of me. And on the seemingly perpetual quest for the “perfect travel camera” I found the Minolta CLE to be the closest match when it comes to a film-based rangefinder.