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Minolta CLE Review

by Soeren Engelbrecht, March 2010 (updated February 2011)


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:

  • 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.

Where to Buy

Good places to look for the Minolta CLE are:

The Minolta CLE: a Brief History

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.

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.

Key Features

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Where to Buy

Good places to look for the Minolta CLE are:

Spare parts can be difficult to obtain.

More

Example Photographs


Text and photos © 2013 Soeren Engelbrecht.

Article revised February 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Bruce Robbins , April 09, 2010; 02:55 P.M.

Nice review. I've just added a link at my website, Just Camera Reviews

Gerry Rosen , April 09, 2010; 03:09 P.M.

Thank you for an excellent review of my favorite camera.

For many years the CLE was my camera of choice for most situations, despite owning an M5 and M6. I would go out with the 40 Rokkor or a 50 collapsible Summicron (with external VF) mounted and the 28 and 90 in my pockets. It was unobtrusive and quiet, and I found the lenses and the AE metering superb. My film of choice was Agfa Scala. I, also, rarely mounted the 90 but it was small enough to always carry along.

I no longer have my CLE and currently use an Epson RD-1s in its place but it's really not a proper substitute due to size, weight, framelines and the crop factor. I despair of ever finding a proper digital replacement.

Gerry Rosen

Dave Powell , April 09, 2010; 03:48 P.M.

I too love this camera... mine's the earlier Leica CL. I found it in a thrift shoppe for $2, and snapped it up even though the shutter button seemed to be frozen. It wasn't until later that I discovered that the metal collar around the button rotates... and it was set to "lock" the shutter button. Turning it released the button... and I've been constantly amazed by the photos it takes. Don't know if the CLE version also has the same locking collar... but it's worth checking!

Raoul Vernede , April 09, 2010; 04:12 P.M.

What about Contax G2! I have it and like it a look!

Henry Richardson , April 09, 2010; 04:27 P.M.

Thanks for the review. I looked at your Japan photos. Nice photos. It all looks very familiar to me because I lived in Tokyo for several years. Also, I go back there about every other year. Most recently I was in Japan for a few months until January this year. Japan is a great place for taking photos!

By the way, I have a few Japan photos in my gallery:

http://www.bakubo.com

Roberto Delduque , April 09, 2010; 06:05 P.M.

Hi

Look in my flickr: Henri Cartier Bresson using is a Minolta CLE a Paris (10/05/1981)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/umdiaumafoto/2788495240/

Congrats Roberto G. Delduque

Excuse my english is very lintel...;-(

Roberto Delduque , April 09, 2010; 06:07 P.M.

Hi

Look in my flickr: Henri Cartier Bresson using is a Minolta CLE a Paris (10/05/1981)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/umdiaumafoto/2788495240/

Congrats Roberto G. Delduque

Excuse my english is very litle...;-(

Rick Moscola , April 09, 2010; 10:13 P.M.

The Minolta CLE seems like a great camera but the possible inability to get needed parts is scary. Why wouldn't something like a Voigtlander R4A or R4M be a equally good substitute for the Minolta. The Voightlander cameras are small, inexpensive and are readily available. I have an R4A, which has a very good AP mode, and I use it along with my M6 TTL as a substitute for an M7. It hasn't ever let me down. Any comments, please?

Owen W. , April 10, 2010; 05:16 A.M.

Wonderful little article. I’ve owned two CLEs, beginning with my first in 1981. Although I got the wonderful little Minolta 40mm, I didn’t respect it (until many years later), and I found great deals on second hand Leica lens, eventually having the 28, 35/2, 50/2, 50/1.4 & 90 Tele-Elmarit. After only a few roles, I simply “knew” where my lens lines were, and used the 40/50mm difference as a mental framing space. It became natural to me.

One thing you may not have yet discovered are the remarkable flash capacities of the CLE. The electronics were state of the art, at that time. Auto-cameras did not have meters in the manual mode on most models. But the CLE brought the latest in OTF (off the film) metering in flash.

You can pick up dirt cheap flash slaves and attach them to units placed about, or you can shoot strobe-lit settings, and get fabulous results.

For hard shooting, I later moved to my M6ttl .85 & M7 .58. But I always have, at least, one of the CLEs in my bag. Most often, it has the 24 Elmarit. I might use a Voightlander 25mm VF, but most often I use the total window of the CLE. It is just about 24-25mm.

Fabulous camera. What a dream to have a digital version accepting all the Leica mount glass. Sigh.

thanks for the nice piece!

Owen

Jay F (DC) , April 12, 2010; 10:17 A.M.

I have had a Leitz/Minolta CL (NOT the CLE) since the early 1980s but haven't used it much for the past decade or so because of a problem with batteries - Originally it required, I believe, Mercury batteries which are no longer made. The substitute version causes the meter to behave non-linearly in the following sense - suppose I measure a scene and get f/2.8 at 1/500. I then stop down to, say, f/16, five stops down. It should then register a speed of 1/15, but it doesn't. It is off by about a stop (can't remember which direction) so it puts speed at 1/8 ( or 1/30). I read somewhere that this is becuase the Mercury batteiries had higher voltage than the new ones. A number of years ago I tried a "solution" that involved a little insert into the battery compartment that was supposed to boost the voltage of the replacement batteries. No luck - same systematic bias behavior when in aperture priority mode. Any ideas about how to solve this? I certainly agree that it would be a great companion to my D300.

SD Woods , April 12, 2010; 03:49 P.M.

Agh I thought this new rangefinder review was one about the rangefinder Jeff Ascough is currently under NDA about...

Doug Nelson , April 16, 2010; 04:16 P.M.

I used one on a trip to Mexico. The metering was wildly erratic. Instead of trying to have it fixed, I let it go. I think the Cosina-"Voigtlander"  R3A would be a better choice, especially if you, like me, love the 40 'Cron and its variants. My Leitz-Minolta CL is another loser, requiring almost yearly repairs. I love the lens!

David W. Griffin , April 19, 2010; 12:27 P.M.

I've used the CLE and the CL (which I still own). They're both great cameras brought down only by their choice of battery. I'm using a silver battery with the CRIS adapter and so far so good.  When I was still shooting a lot of film, the CL was my choice for a small, easy to carry camera that still allowed me to do pretty much anything I needed to. Not as durable as my M2, but a great camera that was underappreciated by Leicafiles.

When carried by itself, I use the Voigtlander 25/4 snapshot skopar, the Leica Summicron-C 40/2, and the 90/4 Elmar (not the Elmar-C just because it's the lens I own).

Fred C , April 19, 2010; 07:41 P.M.

I don't see how anyone would have trouble getting the very common A76 or LR44 batteries in an urban area for the CLE.

Rather the biggest drawback is the painfully slow 1/60 max flash sync speed.

Graham Line , April 19, 2010; 09:02 P.M.

Batteries are absolutely not a problem with the CLE. Two MS76 cells are needed, last for a year or more, and are not hard to locate.

The Leica/Minolta CL is a completely different camera and has only the lens mount in common.

My CLE has been in steady use for the 10 years I've had it and is still going strong. The 28/40/90 kit takes up very little space.

Some of my CLE photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/74312783@N00/tags/minoltacle/

 

Steve Rosenblum , April 27, 2010; 11:44 P.M.

CLE vs. CV R3A

Regarding the question of why not get a CV R3A or R3M instead of the CLE? I have used a CLE for years, and bought a CV R3A when they first came out as it seemed a good modern solution. I returned it because: 1. I shoot with my glasses on. I can see the 40 mm framelines on the CLE with no difficulty, but could not see the 40 mm framelines on the R3A without moving my eye all around. That is because the CLE has 28/40/90 framelines (so the 40 is the middle sized box) but the R3A has 40mm framelines as its widest setting (40/50/75/90). Since 40 mm is my favorite focal length, I just couldn't shoot well with the R3M. 2. The R3M doesn't have 28 mm framelines so you must use an external finder to shoot with a 28 mm lens. I use 28 mm frequently. 3. The shutter sound of the R3M is louder than the CLE.  In favor of the R3M: if you shoot without glasses and can see the 40 mm framelines OK, the finder is 1:1 which allows you to shoot with both eyes open and use both eyes. That is a cool thing to do. I also think it has exposure lock and more straightforward manual metering than the CLE. For me, the CLE is a better choice.

dan Mar , April 30, 2010; 11:34 P.M.

This looks to be a truly a remarkable camera and a great performer. I wish i could afford to get one. Dave Powell, after reading your post about how you acquired your CL i come to the conclusion that i hate you .

CHRIS INGRAM , January 03, 2011; 06:54 P.M.

A FIRST CLASS RANGEFINDER FROM A COMPANY NO LONGER WITH US, THE CLE IS ABSOLUTE PERFECTION IN PRECISION OF ENGINEERING AND JUST A TOTAL JOY TO USE. LONG MAY IT CONTINUE,BUT IF ITS LIFE DOES FINALLY EXPIRE THROUGH BEING IRREPAIRABLE THEN ON MY BOOKCASE IT GOES AS A PERMANENT REMINDER OF ONE OF MINOLTA'S LITTLE GEMS THAT SERVED ME SO WELL.

CHRIS INGRAM. CANNOCK.ENGLAND.

Klaus Heimbucher , January 26, 2011; 04:53 A.M.

I had this camera too for about 2 years with the three (28,40,90) lenses from Minolta. I was lucky to get a crystal clear 28mm. I loved this combo for travels but eventually the camera died because of a mechanical problem which was not repairable because of the lack of spare parts. I sold it all 1 year ago and I'm now on a micro 4/3 system which can adapt some of my old Leica lenses. I hope they'll make a compact camera like the CLE with a built in finder sometime soon. 

ms hobbies , July 31, 2011; 06:07 P.M.

Using a Leica a CL with a 40mm, I just p-exed a spare Nikon lens for a CLE body. Wow. Much as I like the CL, as a google-eye, the viewfinder is imho better than my old M6, and the AE is a dream to use. I am hooked, selling the CL, and am after a 28 and 90 lens to match.

Truly a camera 20 years ahead of its time, and yet when it came out I remember all the sniffy remarks in the press and made by users: not a real leica, autoexposure is a toy, not for a real leica user etc etc yawn, snore, typical jap devalue of cherished brand etc etc etc. Mind you I couldn't afford one at the time, nor a Leica.....

Small, light, amazing. I have bought one of those half-cases from China to look after it (the Minolta pouch case was a bit of a dud).

Long may it work. Anyone want to buy a used but loved, and working spot-on, Leica CL? ;)

Peter Staal , August 16, 2012; 05:06 A.M.

I have since 6 months also an Minolta CLE with all three lensen 28/40/90 mm original Minolta lenses, only the 28 mm has some "White Spots" , i like the camera but use it not so much I am more a MF user with my Mamiya 645 camara's .

But on city trips then the minolta is my camera together with my Rollei 35 (wich my wife also use)

Gr peter


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