Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Forgotten innovation: Minolta CLE with 40/2, 28/2.8 and the 21mm wide-angles

Forgotten innovation: Minolta CLE with 40/2, 28/2.8 and the 21mm wide-angles

The M Files, part 8 of 9

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The Bessas, the Zeiss ZM, Konica’s Hexar RF, the Rollei 35 RF, finally the Leica CL… but, stop, isn’t there something missing in The M Files? A blind spot in this eclectic mix of film cameras with M mount but without being exactly a Leica M? Oh yes. At first, I thought the Minolta CLE was not much more than a Leica CL variant. Macfilos readers directed my attention to the fact that this is a camera in its very own right. So here we go with this really last camera review.

One of the CLE’s advocates was David Babsky, who made clear that The M Files were not complete without an article about the Minolta CLE. To bring this idea to fruition, he was so generous about lending me his own CLE together with some Minolta and other lenses. Without him, this review would never have been possible. And, sorry for the spoiler, I fell in love with the idea of owning a CLE myself. Read on to learn why.

At Minolta, they did not want to bury the idea behind the CL 

But for the beginning, some history. You might have read or known about the Leitz and Minolta joint project that led to the Leica CL (part 7 of The M Files). It ended in 1976, officially because it was no success. That might even be right if you only consider the financial effects for the Leitz company. The profit margins of the CL and its lenses might not have been as comfortable as it was the case for “proper” M cameras and lenses. Technically, the CL was not a simple camera by any account. It had TTL metering, and it displayed the selected exposure time in the viewfinder. Not even the much-lauded M6 from 1984 could sport all these features.

Look at eBay, and you will see: The CLE’s fanbase is in Japan

At Minolta, some people must have had more appreciation for the design. In this elegant and small rangefinder camera, the Leica genes will have fostered this perception (Leica and Made in Germany always had a good name in Japan). In any case, Minolta continued to further develop the camera even after the end of the joint project. In 1980 the Minolta CLE was introduced, and it seems to have been a success particularly in Japan, when today’s eBay offerings are the basis. 

A nice package of innovations

The Minolta CLE kept the M mount, it continued the idea of tiny, excellent lenses and received otherwise several innovations which (a) put the CLE more or less on a par with contemporary SLRs, and (b) made the Minolta CLE the most advanced rangefinder camera of its time and for decades to come. According to different sources (Stephan Gandy’s website www.cameraquest.com being the best among them), Minolta produced about 35,000 bodies. After a couple of years, the camera was discontinued—the niche was just too small, I think.

The CLE looks smaller than it actually is

The CLE is a fairly small camera. Height and depth are pretty much the same as for the contemporary Leica M4, but the width is almost 2 centimetres less. This sounds insignificant but has a big impact (remember the praise for the M10, which is some millimetres thinner than the M240). The biggest difference is weight, however. The CLE tips the scales at 380 grams and the M4 at about 550. As a result, you have a camera in your hand that feels much smaller than a Leica M.

Auto-exposure and off-the-film reading

Handling is quite different from its predecessor, the Leica CL. The CLE has auto exposure and employs off-the-film metering, which had been first introduced in the ground-breaking Olympus OM-2. Apparently, this was a patent from Minolta, and after they saw its potential, they integrated this technology into their SLRs and the CLE. The meter reading is shown in the viewfinder through LEDs; no mechanical moving parts are used—which is quite a step forward compared to the early Olympus solutions or the Leica CL. Values range from ½ second to 1/1000 second, plus arrows for under- and over-exposure.

A beautiful viewfinder, probably the best-ever for 28mm lenses

The viewfinder shows 28, 40, and 90-millimetre framelines. This covers the most popular and useful focal lengths, and the finder is a real joy. It is uncluttered; you get just the information you really need. Only with the 90 attached do you also see the 28-millimetre framelines. Exposure information is placed to the left. All in all, the finder is bright and quite resistant to flare. 

Exposure control shortcomings

There is a manual mode, too. You select your exposure time on a wheel around the shutter release. This also serves for ISO setting and exposure compensation (between -2 and -2 EV). The manual times are controlled electronically, but the light metering is switched off in manual mode. I have no idea why. It just seems to be a construction error. As a result, you have to take your measurement in auto mode and then change to manual mode or use a handheld meter (or smartphone app) right away. This is not really convincing, and even less so because any AE lock function is missing. That much about electronics, with one last piece of advice: Without batteries (LR44, easy to get everywhere), the CLE is useless.

Ahead of its time? Hm. Ahead of Leitz? Sure!

You can frequently read that the Minolta CLE was wide ahead of its time in technology and ergonomics. True, it has the most advanced exposure control of all rangefinder cameras in its day. It offers TTL flash, and film loading is accomplished by opening the back door instead of removing a substantial part of the camera. But, let’s face it, all this was state of the art in 1980. The CLE’s lead is only in comparison with Leica’s products. Looked at another way, it demonstrates how little M system innovation came from Wetzlar between the beginning of the 70s and the middle of the 80s. The most advanced rangefinder camera of these days was the little Minolta, and arguably, the CLE remained the most attractive auto-exposure M mount camera to this day. 

A camera to Barnack’s ideals: small and easy to use

In real life, I took the CLE out for quite some activities in our surrounding countryside. It is a great companion for a stroll or a hike, much easier to carry than, say, a Leica M7. The CLE, with the 40 and the 28 lenses, weighs a mere 700 grams. It would all fit into the pockets of your coat if you do not mind the inevitable dust in there. I prefer a small camera bag which offers far more protection (even more important when a camera has been entrusted to you on loan). I usually added the M10 to my kit for The M Files to test the lenses on a digital sensor under comparable conditions.

The 40 Rokkor and its Leica predecessor

The 40-millimetre lens with the M-Rokkor designation is the most frequent companion of the CLE, I guess. It makes an excellent fit as it is really tiny and easy to use. According to the major sources, it uses the same optical formula as Leitz’ Summicron-C. The dimensions of the lenses are very similar by all accounts, and so is their handling. Everything is small on this lens—expect slight problems to operate focusing tab and aperture ring if you have huge hands or are working with gloves.

40.5 filters – far easier to get than the strange Series 5.5 ones

As opposed to the older Leica lens, the M-Rokkor has a 40.5mm screw-in thread, where the Summicron-C uses the strange 39×0.75 thread. So you have no pain in searching for series 5.5 filters and exotic lens hoods or for stepping rings/adapters. The rangefinder coupling is different, too. The M-Rokkor uses the standard Leica M principle, so you do not have to expect compatibility issues.

1970s coating and its limitations

Optically, the M-Rokkor 40 is a fine lens. It is very sharp if stopped down a little and renders fine details right into the corners. Distortion is minimal, colour rendering neutral. You sometimes read that the M-Rokkor has a more modern multi-coating than the single-coated Summicron-C. This may be true, but the Minolta 40 does have quite some flare issues compared to modern lenses. A lens hood helps, but it will not solve all problems.

Unfortunately, not many cameras support 40-millimetre lenses

As I wrote in the M Files episodes about the Rollei 35 RF and the Leica CL, which both have 40-millimetre lenses as a kind of standard, 40 millimetres on any other rangefinder body are a bit complicated to use. There are no issues when you can use live view or an electronic viewfinder on a digital camera, but guesstimating with a film camera is not easy, especially if cropping is no alternative because you are either a purist or a slide film user (or both).

Lens: 40/2

Film images

Digital images

The 28 millimetre Rokkor: Klein, aber fein

The wide-angle 28 millimetre M-Rokkor was a delightful surprise for me in my M Files research work. I am happy that David Babsky did bring it to my attention and lent one to me. Again, we have a small and easy to use lens, a tad bigger than the tiny 40 but still tinier than almost all other 28s I ever used. The original lens hood mounts with a bayonet very similar to today’s Zeiss and Voigtländer lenses. All this comes across as very well constructed and manufactured. Klein, aber fein, as we would say in German.

On any other M mount camera, the wrong frame lines will appear

Mechanically, the 28 is very similar to the 40. It has the same 40.5 filter thread, a nice focusing tab and a smooth aperture ring. The rangefinder coupling follows the same standard Leica principle. I see only one weak point: The M-Rokkor brings up the 35/135 frames in any Leica M viewfinder. I think this is because the Minolta CLE always shows the 28 lines, so the camera needs no information that the 28-millimetre lens is attached. If you are using a film camera with a frame line selector or a digital body with live view, everything is fine. 

With some handwork, most cameras are compatible

I found a comfortable way to move the lever on my M10 to the 28/90 position with one finger of my left hand and using the others for focusing. You just must not forget about it. Alternatively, you can use the entire field of view of the standard Leica 0.72 finder. Or use an external viewfinder – there are several options if you want to use this little gem on your rangefinder.

You will get very nice results with the 28 M-Rokkor

Optically, this 28 leaves nothing to be desired. It has good sharpness if stopped down a little, high flare resistance (no bad thing for a wide-angle lens) and almost no distortion. The contrast seems good to me but not excellent. Compared to my Leica 28/2.8 ASPH (first edition), the M-Rokkor does well, but of course, there is a significant difference. Remember, however, no in-camera correction profile was applied, so the use of such a lens on, say, an M10 is a moment of truth. I also liked the bokeh, but the longer I think about it, the clearer I see how much this is a matter of taste.

Be careful because of the white spot disease 

Mind you, many 28-millimetre M-Rokkors have an issue with white spots on the inner surface of the front lenses. Stephen Gandy from www.cameraquest.com gives a precise explanation on this. Reports differ on the question of if and how much image quality is affected. David Babsky is lucky to have an immaculate copy, and the other copy I tried was also ok. So I cannot say how less-good copies behave. I checked some offers on eBay out of sheer curiosity and found lenses with and without these white spots.

Lens: 28/2.8

Film images

Digital images

The Leitz heritage: The M-Rokkor 90/4

I also had the opportunity to take some shots with the M-Rokkor 90/4. It is pretty identical to the Leitz Elmar-C 90/4. You can sometimes read that the coating of Minolta lenses is better than the one used by Leitz. In fact, the lenses show different colour when the light falls in a flat angle onto the front lenses, with the Leitz more yellow-ish and the Minolta more blue-ish. In practical use, I saw not much of a difference right up to the vignetting of corners both lenses show when used on the Leica SL.

If you are looking for an inexpensive 90…

The M-Rokkor 90 is by no means a bad lens and, being offered cheaper than its Leitz counterpart, it can even be a bargain. So if you do not need a 90 often and not in poor lighting conditions, think about it. The Minolta has the additional advantage that it does not need the original lens hood to make use of filters (if you find some Series 5.5 ones at all). The M-Rokkor has a more or less standard 40.5-millimetre filter thread to attach both filters and hood (if you do not find an original one or if its rubber has just become old, you will find many third-party offerings).

Lens: 90/4

Film images

Digital images

The CLE is a good basis for super wide-angle lenses, too

While designed to be used with 28, 40 and 90-millimetre lenses in the first place (the finder supports these focal lengths), the CLE also makes for a fine basis for super-wide lenses thanks to its very well laid out auto exposure mode. You have no spot exposure measurement, which can be tricky in a wide-angle context, and you can correct by plus and minus two stops. I had the chance to use three 21 millimetre lenses from five decades, Leica’s 1963 21/3.4 Super Angulon, the 1997 21/2.8 Elmarit ASPH and Zeiss’ 2004 ZM 21/2.8. 

Some real-life experience with different 21s

Of the three, the modern Leica lens is clearly the best on a digital body (maybe also thanks to 6-bit-coding and in-camera correction) and equally excellent if used for film photography. The Zeiss performs very well on film, too. On digital, I saw some problems with odd colours on the margins when adapted to my older M262 and very good results when mounted on the M10. Corner sharpness, however, is not better than with the Elmarit. 

Super Angulon: a real classic and great for film

The Super Angulon, a real classic, is attractive because of its small size, and it renders beautifully on film. With the rear element protruding deep into your camera and almost touching the film or sensor, you must not use this lens on a Leica CL, and many copies are also not fitted for use on an M5. On the CLE it provoked wrong meter readings so I used manual exposure mode. On digital sensors, this old 21 gives no useable results, unfortunately (it’s the full house—smeared rendering, heavy light fall-off, colour cast).

The CLE summary: a massive improvement in many respects

Back to the Minolta CLE. It is a beautiful small camera, and you can shoot excellent images with it. It is compact and light in weight, unproblematic to use and easy to like. The Minolta CLE from 1980 sports many features that Leica did not introduce until almost 20 years later, such as auto exposure or TTL flash. The Minolta engineers did an excellent job when they were improving on the original Leitz-Minolta CL by keeping the strengths and improving the CL’s weaknesses. I think the Minolta CLE was heavily underestimated in its days (I hear that sales were rather low), and only today this camera, with its nice lenses, finds its appropriate appreciation.

Conclusion: a landmark design and a joy to use

To sum it up, the Minolta CLE is certainly one of the most interesting cameras with M mount and thus deserves a prominent place within The M Files. It is a landmark design to this day and it a joy to use even if you are normally spoilt with the sheer haptic quality of Leica cameras. Together with its three lenses, the CLE represents a small but capable system for serious amateurs and all lovers of off-mainstream vintage gear. And – it recalls a grand name of the photographic industry which has on the one side sadly disappeared and which was on the other side one of the origins of Sony’s enormous success in the last years.

Whenever I took David’s beautiful Minolta CLE in my hands, a strong feeling of “tempi passati”, a very special nostalgia, overwhelmed me. Triggering powerful emotions is, in my opinion, a reliable sign that this little camera is something special indeed.

I work on a completely independent basis, but I wish to thank Lichtblick and Leica Store Konstanz for their support in providing some accessories used for this review. Both are very recommendable; they take phone or mail orders and offer shipping also outside the EU. However, if there still is one, please do not forget to support your local photo equipment dealer in these challenging times. 


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28 COMMENTS

    • Thanks, Peter, for you feedback. The CLE is a fantastic camera after all. Maybe you’re interested in the other parts of our M Files series as well. There is a lot to discover, just click on the link in the footer of the article above. JP

  1. I still sorely miss Minolta. Their camera bodies always had an excellent build quality with viewfinders that were better than most. I bought a complete CLE kit (second hand but new condition) a few years before Minolta folded and had the white ‘bubbles’ removed from the 28mm and the lens cleaned and re-assembled by Minolta in Japan, where I am based. It’s a lovely little kit, even today. I’m also lucky to have a Leitz/Minolta CL and I still have a Minolta 5000 and 9000.I mention these last two because they were the first commercially successful cameras to introduce auto focus (and caught companies like Canon and Olympus napping at the time! ) and I understand the development of that AF system also came from a collaboration between Leica and Minolta. So I was particularly interested in the fact that the metering pattern used by Olympus was a Minolta innovation. This I didn’t know. Leica itself doesn’t get much credit sometimes for technical innovation but they certainly should. These days I’m happy to use my Leica M and Minolta M lenses on my digital SL2s body because it can pretty much do anything and the small lenses work wonderfully with it. An SL series body with a few M lenses or these Minolta CLE lenses makes a great kit. However, this article does make me want to take the CLE out for a stroll. New year’s resolution is to use some of my old stuff again. Some of my film cameras are too good to be collecting dust on the shelf. Many thanks for this article.

  2. Thank you, Thorsten, much appreciated. The CLE is a great little camera, and it’s a tragedy what has become of Minolta which was such an innovative brand back then. A happy and peaceful new year to you and all others! JP

  3. The Minolta logo on the camera and the 40/2 lens look blacked out, which is quite nice and minimalist! Do you know if the original owner peeled the white paint off or perhaps filled the space in with black paint as a modification?

    • Hi Terry, I got this camera on loan from an enthusiastic Macfilos reader. I am still grateful to D. B. who had so much trust in me, a complete stranger. He told me that he blacked it out himself because he wanted a more stealth appearance. JP

    • Yup, I painted out the logo and the white lettering on the lenses – and on most of my Leica – and other – lenses, too ..I just use a thin black felt-tip pen ..what’s called a ‘Sharpie’ in the States, I think.

      I find the white lettering distracting, and if I’ve asked someone to look towards me, they tend to look at the lettering instead of straight into the ‘glass eye’ of the lens. My jacket doesn’t have the maker’s name, its type or model name and size in stand-out white lettering right across the front ..so why put up with it on a camera or lens?

      I prefer discreet!

  4. Hello JP, I found myself enjoying the use of the Minolta CLE once again just recently. This prompted a search for possible recent articles or reviews of the CLE as it’s always nice to read of others discovering this camera. It was a nice surprise to discover the Macfilos site and your work here as a result. Due to the quality of your review of the Minolta, I had already begun to explore your other entries in the M Files series. The time and effort that you put into this body of work is much appreciated.
    Bill

  5. Dear Bill, thank you very much for your kind feedback. I can fully understand everyone who loves to shoot with this beautiful camera. Unfortunately, the time I had with some of the M Files cameras was limited, otherwise I would have had better pictures to show. Maybe you are interested to read the other parts of the series, too. I wish you all the best with your beautiful small rangefinder camera! JP

  6. I really enjoyed this review. It is clear that you put a good deal of time, thought and effort into it. In addition, the content and quality of your images were much more enjoyable than most I see associated with camera reviews.

    I’ve owned a Minolta CLE for a couple of years now, along with two of the M-Rokkor lenses: the 40mm and the 28mm (a “clean” version that had supposedly been refurbished by Minolta). I’ve found that the CLE serves as a great complement to the Leica M6 that I’ve owned since new. I would note that my CLE had some metering issues when I first acquired it. These were resolved by cleaning the electrical contacts that reside within the shutter speed dial. This wasn’t terribly difficult to do and I’ve had no other problems since. All in all the CLE is a wonderful little camera.

  7. Dear Mike, thanks for your feedback and the information you are sharing! Indeed I found some more sources for 40.5mm filters. It is not a common size (that you would have multiple use for) but not all to exotic either. I am personally not a big friend of buying old filters. They are usually cheap, but I have seen it several times that they compromise the optical performance of a lens because they are not well coated or have small damages. JP

    • I seem to remember that the Nikon 1 system used 40.5 on the lenses, so a Nikon dealer might prove helpful.

  8. Many thanks for a great article.

    Many of the Soviet cameras used 40.5mm filters so they should be readily available.

  9. Great photos and article, Jorg-Peter. This is not a camera that I have used or even seen very often. I have the CL and like it, but I usually prefer not to use the meters in older cameras and to rely on external metering which I know I can trust. I also like to have a full range of manual shutter speeds even when the battery fails, which is one reason why I prefer the M6 to the M7. The sight of the Super Angulon 21mm gave me a shudder, but this camera does not have the ‘swinging lollipop’ like the CL and the M5. The metering issue may be caused by the rear element being so close to the metering surface.

    A great series which I hope will encourage some readers here to try film photography again. One good piece of news this week is that Camera Rescue in Finland is starting a course for camera technicians which should mean a whole new generation of people who can fix our older cameras. One of the problems up to this has been the fact that technicians to fix such cameras were no longer available. Even Leica has had to re-skill its workers to work on film cameras which are becoming increasingly popular these days.

    William

    • Some versions – my version – of the Super Angulon 21mm were made with a little cut-out in the bottom of their mount; this allows a sensing pin inside the M5 (but not in the CL) to recognise that the deep-rear-end Super Angulon is attached to the camera, and prevent the ‘lollipop’ light-metering cell from lolli-popping up, and so avoiding damage to it.

      (Of course, without a popped-up lollipop, there is then no through-the-lens metering with the M5 ..nor any usable TTL metering on any other cameras with the rear end of that particular ‘symmetrical’ lens so close to the film or sensor!)

      Still, it’s easy enough to do the metering: on a dull (average) day in Manchester UK, with ISO 100 film, it’s 125th at f5.6 ..Simples! ..Just extrapolate from there!

      • It’s the same 1/125th at 5.6 here in Dublin. Which calls to mind Billy Connolly bringing his kids from California to visit his native Glasgow and being asked ” Daddy, why is the sky so low? “. Or my favourite Irish saying ‘There are two days in the year I really like, my Birthday and Summer’. Still, all that dull grey makes metering much easier.

        William

        • Very nice, this joke. There is a notoriously cold area near here called Schwäbische Alb (has geographically nothing to do with the Alps). A saying goes that they have only two seasons there: the white winter and the green winter. This was before climate change of course.

    • Thank you, William.
      I never expected myself that I would have so much fun again when shooting on film. The limited number of pictures, the waiting for your roll to be processed (it does not always take decades…), the first look at the negatives or the contact sheet or the scans. This is a very nice contrast to our highly digitalized everyday life.
      And I see that more and more photopgraphers start to try tis out for themselves, many of them very young. Therefore, it is not only commendable of repair shops to extend their activities but also perfectly sensible. There is a market! And there are still so many great film cameras out there, in cupboards and old bags and drawers and on attics that are only waiting to be kissed awake.
      If The M Files are a small contribution to this, I am glad. If it just entertains the audience, I’m equally fine.
      JP

  10. Absolutely gripping article and images, and I say this as one who has next to no knowledge about rangefinders or their lenses. I feel myself really tempted, but maybe I’ll just have to read your article once in a while!

    • Reading is cheaper than everthing else, John. But if you have the chance, I really encourage you to try out a film rangefinder camera. It is a very rewarding expericence. You will be proud of every single technically good photo beauce you made it and not the computer in your camera. The Minolta CLE is an excellent starting point, but maybe you will fin also inspiration in the other episodes of The M Files. JP

  11. Great article, J-P..!

    Leica’s own ‘automatic’-and-manual M came 22 years later ..the M7. A bit quieter than the CLE – and the CLE was far quieter than the Leica CL! – but the M7 weighs 610 grams, in comparison with the – almost identical in use – CLE, which weighs only 380 grams. The M7 is more than one-and-a-half-times heavier – but why? – than the lightweight, pocketable, CLE! (..OK, I know; the M7 has two ‘fail-safe’ mechanical speeds, which work without any battery needed: the CLE has only lightweight electronics for timing shutter speeds, and is dead without any battery ..but even so: the M7 is still one-and-a-half times heavier!)

    Of course, you’re not restricted to using old 1980s Leica or Minolta lenses on the CLE ..you can use pretty much all of the Leica-fit lenses ever made, right up to today’s very latest (although there aren’t any viewfinder framelines for 75mm or 135mm, but they’re easy enough to visualise).

    I’ve been so enthused by your CLE review, J-P, that I can hardly wait to stick a film back in mine and get stuck in this summer!

    • Thank you. David.

      Your feedback makes me especially happy. I have so much respect for your knowledge. Yes, the CLE is a wonderful piece of technology and handsome in every respect. And this in such a small and light-weight body. Your comparison with the M7 is striking but I still think that the M7 has ist strengths, too. Next to the two mechanical times, it is in my eyes better robustness, longer rangefinder base length, real manu mode.

      As to the lenses – you’re right of course. Any 50 or 35 make a very nice fit with the CLE if you have a keen eye for your framing (you have only the 40 mm frame lines in the viewfinder). That’s what makes the M mount so interesting, isn’t it? You can mix and match as you like. And this is why I got so interested in the “not-quite-M-Leicas” and finally decided to research and write The M Files (which turned out to be quite a task in a foreign language).

      Your joyful anticipation of shooting with your CLE I can fully understand. It’s a camera you can really fall in love with. In this respect, it reminds me of my OM-1. Well, this was my first love, but from today’s viewpoint, I had a good taste back then.

      All the best, and I hope you will enjoy the rest of The M Files, too.

      JP

  12. Thanks Jörg-Peter for a great article. I’m looking forward to the next one in the series. Reading your articles makes going back to analog photography really tempting.
    Jean

    • Dear Jean, you’re welcome. Yes, going back to film is a great experience. You will read a bit more on this in the next episode of The M Files. Unfortunately, after seven very different bodies, I have no more cameras to write about (and, aparat from some Bessas, there are no more M mount non-Leica film cameras). But stay tuned, Mike an I have have some nice stuff left for all the fans of The M Files. JP

    • Dear Andrea, thanks a lot for your feedback. I in turn love your contributions. They are a grat opportunity to dream myself into so-near and so-far Italy. I spend long times there because I have relatives near Cremona. From theses days, I have plenty of beautiful slides and b/w negatives, and I wonder if the photos I would take today were really better. JP

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