Mike Lipphardt's Review of the 600si/650si

The 600si is a departure for Minolta in terms of user interface. It retains much of what is good about the current Maxxum/Dynax line like the metering system, high speed flash sync, wireless flash control, and AF. It eliminates much of what is bad, like the somewhat unfriendly pushbutton controls of the other members of the Maxxum family. There are a few odd weaknesses tot his camera as well, and we'll explore those.

First, the specs. This is a three AF sensor, 14 metering segment system. Unlike other camera lines, Minolta has elected to NOT use any kind of scene database, instead opting for the ability to decide where your subject is in the frame based on which AF sensor has lock, and to base exposure primarily on that. For instance, if your subject is backlit and the AF system knows where it is because it knows which sensor has lock, it will attempt to expose the locked area properly.

There are as I said three AF sensors, two horizontally sensitive sensors flank one in the center which is vertically sensitive.

Metering is the excellent Minolta 14 segment honeycomb, with spot available. Flash metering is done with a center weighted meter, which is somewhat disappointing. It does seem to provide good results however. Meter readings can be locked with a push of a button. There is a nice exposure index at the bottom of the finder which is normally visible only in manual, but which can be set to be on in other modes as well. When it is set to be on, it also shows any exposure compensation you set.

Speaking of exposure compensation, the higher end of the si line, of which the 600si is a part, allow you to set flash and ambient exposure compensation separately. Practically, this allows you to set whatever degree of fill flash you want (within reason). Ambient exposure compensation is done with a knob on the top deck, and can go from -3 to +3 stops about normal. Flash compensation is done with a collar about the base of the ambient knob and can go from +2 to -2 stops about normal. Compensation is done in 1/2 stop intervals.

Minolta allows exposure bracketing on this camera, either ambient or, when flash is on - either the built in or a shoe mount - flash bracketing. Sadly this is limited to a 3 frame sequence of 1/2 stop changes. While this may be usable for slide film, it is virtually pointless with print film.

All motor drive modes (normal, continuous, bracket, multiple exposure and self timer) are selected with a lever which rotates about the exposure mode knob. This allows you to do things which are both good and bad, like setting the 600si for self timer operation and leaving it that way for every shot. I find that convenient, but it's easy to forget if you are used to other cameras which cancel the self timer after the shot is taken.

The film handling is typical of modern AF cameras with automatic loading, advance and rewind. Multiple exposures are easy with this camera. Basic multiple exposure ability is up to 9 exposures per frame, but you can actually make as many exposures as you like. Frame advance is single frame or motor driven sequences at 2 frames per second. The self timer has a 10 second delay, and is signalled when the sequence is started by a blinking light on the front of the camera.

The AF system is very good, being fast enough for most purposes, but not as fast as other cameras in the si line. It's not a motor sports camera, but for almost all purposes it's way more than fast enough. Accuracy is great, and you can choose either the center sensor (via a lever on the back) or allow the camera to choose which sensor to use. The three AF modes - automatic, single shot and continuous AF - are selectable by a lever on the side of the camera. Automatic allows the camera to choose single shot or continuous and to switch between them as needed. An unfortunate omission is that of a real AF illuminator. This would be an LED array which projects a near IR pattern of bars on your subject, compensating for poor or no light, or insufficient contrast. Minolta tries to get around this by making a series of low power pops from the built-in flash, but this is much more intrusive and not very effective. If you are using a shoe mount flash the flashes AF illuminator is used, and with better results. Bad move, Minolta. Fortunately you can turn off the low power pops, and it really doesn't seem to make all that much difference.

Exposure modes are selected with a knob on the top deck; they are Manual, Aperture Preferred AE, Shutter Preferred AE, and Program. There is no program shift on this camera but changing exposure modes is so easy that, in my opinion, it doesn't need it. Of course that _is_ just my opinion; others differ. But if I want to control some part of the exposure equation, I select a mode other than program. Program mode however does base it's decisions on the AF system's locked sensor information, and it seems to do extremely well. The three metering patterns, spot, center weighted and matrix, are available at the turn of a dial.

Notice the distinct lack of pushbuttons? There are only a few buttons on this camera; AF/MF to switch between auto focus and manual, forced flash, AE lock and depth of field preview. All actual modes are accessed via easy to handle and obvious in function switches.

What other tricks does this thing have up it's sleeve? Mostly having to do with the flash system. There is a redeye reduction mode, which pops a few low powered flashes from the built in flash to stop down your subject's iris. Wireless flash is available with the 3500xi, 5400xi and 5400HS flashes, with the built in flash acting as a controller. This allows you to make TTL controlled flash shots, with the flash off camera and WITHOUT CABLES. Great stuff, and Minolta was the first to do this. The 5400HS has another talent when used with the 600si (and above) - high speed sync. This flash can be used at ANY shutter speed available on the 600si, and that means up to 1/4000th. Nikon and Canon are just now getting around to doing this, although Olympus has had this feature for sometime.

600si vs 650si

What about the 650si? Well, they are practically the same camera. The 650si adds two features; date/time imprinting and a built-in panorama mask. Cleverly enough, the imprinter is smart enough to know when the camera is in panoramic mode and moves the imprint to the exposed area of the film with a second imprint head. The mask simply covers the top and bottom third of the frame, and it masks off the viewfinder to allow you to compose your pans. I'm not entirely sure that all this is worth the trouble, but again that's my opinion.


A few additional things to note here, but which don't seem to fit in well with the previous stuff. Minolta has included a connector for their RC remote cords, which allow firing the camera and making long time exposures (bulb) with a locking switch. Since the AE system can be screwed up by light entering the eyepiece, an eyepiece cover has been included for use when making self timer shots and shots using the remote cord, where typically your face is not blocking the finder. Speaking of the eyepiece, there is a built-in diopter correction knob which allows you to adjust the finder to your eyesight.

A VERY nice accessory - almost a must have - is the VC600 vertical grip. This duplicates the shutter release and controls where they are easily accessible when making vertical formats shots. It also allows you to use AA batteries, both Nicad/LiMH rechargeables and alkalines (but not, Minolta warns, Lithium AAs) and the normal 2CR5 lithium as power sources. AAs are much less expensive than the 2CR5, and of course there is the obvious benefit of using rechargeables. As a bonus, the grip provides a PC terminal for firing studio flashes.

Overall, the 600si is a very nice camera. The few weaknesses are not particularly damaging for it's intended user, who would be an amateur or advanced amateur. The simplicity allows even beginners to be comfortable with it and, as a fellow MML member puts it, fairly cry out to be played with and explored. I really like this camera, and I also own the more capable, but less friendly, 800si. The 600si makes a good companion for me in almost all situations, and there are few things it can't handle. Definitely a camera which grows on you.

Mike Lipphardt, (email: liphardt@harborcom.net ), 28/4/99
HTML: Chris Valentine

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