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:
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.
Good places to look for the Minolta CLE are:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Good places to look for the Minolta CLE are:
Spare parts can be difficult to obtain.