Minolta’s SR-T family of SLRs has never quite got the attention they deserve.
In the 1960s and 70s they were passed over by many professionals in favour of the higher end of Canon and Nikon’s stables.
That’s not to say that the SR-T series wasn’t a success. The SR-T-mount lenses were superb, and the bodies well-specified and reliable. The fact that the SR-T line lasted 15 years (1966 to 1981) is also testament to the marque’s quality, and the fact they sold well.
But as other camera lines bask in kudos and see prices rising and spiking, most of the SR-T line has languished in relative obscurity. That might be partly down to the fact the Minolta name no longer survives, having been bought by Sony and incorporated into the parent brand in the early 00s.
But that might be about to change. And for that, you might have to thank (or blame) Johnny Depp.
Last year, the actor’s latest project was announced – the film ‘Minamata’. It retells the life of acclaimed war photographer W Eugene Smith. His photo essay on the effects of heavy metal poisoning on a fishing community in Japan in the early 1970s helped spur the modern environmental movement. It’s an essay which includes one of the most profound photographs ever published – a portrait of a mother, Ryoko Uemura, bathing her severely disabled daughter Tomoko at home. Tomoko’s disfigurements resulted from the pollution pumped into the sea by the Chisso corporation.
Smith’s photo essay came at great personal cost; Chisso hired Yakuza gangsters to beat him up and the photographer never really recovered from his injuries. It’s this period that of Smith’s life that the film is believed to be focusing on.
The film was first announced in 2018, but it wasn’t until February that the first production image of the film was made available, showing Depp as Smith toting a Minolta SR-T 101. Kosmo Foto wrote a news story about it at the time, and in the last week or so that story has resurfaced again. There appears to be an immense amount of interest in the film.
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Celebrity sells everything from swimming costumes to mobile phones, and vintage cameras are no different. The popularity of Yashica’s Electro 35 rangefinders rose after it was featured in the 2002 superhero film ‘Spiderman’ (hero Peter Parker is often seen sporting one) and the continued price rise of premium compacts like the Contax T2 and T3 is thanks to the Instagram-friendly exploits of the likes of socialite Kendall Jenner and actor Chris Hemsworth.
At the time of Smith’s Minamata project, the SR-T series was very popular. The SR-T 101 was one of the best-selling models and was in production from 1966 to 1976.
There are several reasons why Smith might have been minded to use it; the Rokkor lenses were uniformally excellent. Minolta built an enormous family of lenses around its SR-T cameras, and none of them were duds. The cameras were robust without quite having the tank-like toughness of the likes of the Nikon F (a cloth shutter instead of the F’s metal one, for instance), but they were cheaper and still well-specified. The SR-T 101’s meter goes up to ISO 6400; impressive even by the mid-80s, a decade after it was discontinued.
But the SR-T 101 is only the tip of the iceberg. There are 26 different cameras in the SR-T line-up, ranging from more basic “budget” models to the higher-end likes of the SR-T 102 and 202. Even as the X series of SLRS (also using the SR lens mount) started gaining ground, Minolta was still tweaking the SR-T family.
The last camera in the series, the SR-T 100X, is one of the most enjoyable to use and one of the cheapest. I picked mine up a decade ago for £40 in a camera fair. The SR-T 100X is a typical enthusiast SLR of the period; its fastest shutter speed is only 1/000th, and it doesn’t sport pro-level options like the ability to change the finder. But it meters up to 6400 – the Olympus OM-2 only goes as high as 1600, and the Pentax K1000 to 3200 – making it fantastic for shooting in low-light. If you want to shoot indoors in available light (candid portraits in a pub, for instance) then an SR-T 100X and some pushed Tri-X is a fantastic combination.
‘Minamata’ might finally push the SR-T series out of the shadows and into the mainstream. It might be a good time to try one before the Depp effect takes over.