Intro - the challenge

Our '$20 film camera challenge' is partly an acknowledgment that the universe is well-stocked with affordable analog cameras, and you don't necessarily need to spend an arm and a leg on something trendy to get great shots. But it's also a fun excuse to reassess the cool and often quirky camera designs of the not-too-distant past.

The rules are simple: Find a film camera for under $20, shoot a roll or two with it, and describe the experience. Film and developing costs do not count toward the $20, otherwise you'd have no money left to spend. But shipping and/or tax do count.

In our very first challenge, DPR writer Aaron Gold ended up falling in love with the surprisingly feature-rich Minolta Maxxum 5. In the second edition, DPR editor Dan Bracaglia pulls the trigger on another Minolta camera...

Read the first installment of the $20 film camera challenge here

Dan Bracaglia and the Minolta Riva Zoom 90EX

The hunt

I've been considering purchasing an inexpensive 35mm pocket zoom camera for some time now – something I can toss in my bike frame bag and bring along on adventures. As a kid, I remember shooting with our family's Olympus Stylus Zoom and recall enjoying the experience and the photographs immensely. And so I figured the $20 film camera challenge was the perfect excuse to take to eBay and do a little shopping.

I also picked up an Olympus Stylus Zoom 105, as a sort of consolation if the Minolta didn't work

The camera industry pumped out a ton of these autofocus-enabled 'compact' zoom cameras during the 1990's. And I had no shortage of well-priced options from every major manufacturer. I'd never shot with a Minolta compact camera before, only an SLR, but a recent, glowing article about the Minolta Riva 110 over on had me intrigued.

Priced at $15, the Minolta Riva 90EX (aka Minolta Freedom 9T) was my camera of choice.

I couldn't find a Riva 110 for under $20, despite a strong desire for as much zoom as possible, but did I track down the a slightly-older Minolta Riva Zoom 90EX, priced to fit the rules of the challenge. Note: The North American version (which I picked up) is called the 'Freedom Zoom 9T,' which doesn't sound as cool, so we're going with Riva 90EX.

It had originally been listed at $20, but was subsequently lowered to $15 with free shipping. The seller noted it was in mint condition, minus a cracked hinge on the film door, which they were confident was a non-issue. I figured 'what the heck' and bought it for the asking price. Grand total: $16.52.

Full disclosure: I also picked up an Olympus Stylus Zoom 105, as a sort of consolation if the Minolta didn't work. That one I splurged on and spent $49.10 with tax and shipping.

The 'pick'

The Riva 90EX has a nice selection of features including a double exposure mode, landscape mode and even a continuous drive mode.

The Riva 90EX debuted in the early 90's at a time when the 'compact' AF zoom camera market was blowing up and brands were churning out new models, with each generation offering more and more reach.

A mostly automatic camera, the Riva 90EX is built around a 35-90mm F3.5-5.7 lens and includes a nice selection of modes and features, some more useful than others. For instance, 'Landscape mode' locks focus at infinity and disengages the flash, something I found useful when shooting street photos on a sunny day toward the tele-end of the focal length. There's also also a double exposure mode and even a continuous drive mode which, from my testing (without film), shoots at a zippy 1 fps.

In use

You ain't a beauty but hey, you're alright.

Upon unboxing my new/old Minolta Riva Freedom 90EX, I popped the film door to see how weak the cracked hinge really was: it fell off in my hands, with only the date cable keeping it attached.

"The first time the date imprint function was ever actually useful," I thought as I grabbed some gaffers tape.

After loading in a battery I checked to make sure the flash, zoom and shutter worked, and all seemed to be functioning as intended. I then went to set the date on the back because why the heck not? It's there. Much to my dismay, the year only goes until 2019, something that is actually mentioned in the instructions. Was Minolta foreshadowing a lack of faith and/or the ultimate demise of their camera business all the way back in the early 90s?

Upon unboxing the Minolta Riva Freedom 90EX, I popped the film door to see how weak the cracked hinge really was: it fell off in my hands

In-hand, the Riva 90EX feels large and plasticky, in fact I'd go as far as to say it's much larger in life than the product photos suggest. But the 1990's bloat also means there's lots to hold on to and it's quite comfortable to grip. The shutter button is nice and clicky, but the zoom toggle has almost no tactile response, which I found odd. The top of the camera offers a nice big (for the era) LCD with setting info. Annoyingly, some settings are saved when the camera is turned off, others are not.

'Landscape mode' conveniently sets focus at infinity and disables the flash. Annoyingly though the camera doesn't save the mode selection when you turn it off and back on again.

I really enjoyed carrying this camera around. Its lightweight design made it easy to sling over a shoulder and its fat grip made it unlikely to slip from hand, though the bloated size meant it just barely fit in my bike frame bag.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by its functionality in most shooting scenarios. The little bit of control over the flash, i.e. the ability to turn it off (which can be done independently of 'Landscape mode') is much appreciated. And though I didn't try to shoot any double exposures, it's certainly a feature I might enjoy messing around with when the moment strikes.

Was Minolta foreshadowing a lack of faith and/or the ultimate demise of their camera business all the way back in the 90s?

The camera offers one central AF point, so focus-and-recompose is the name of the game. I found AF acquisition speed to actually be quite good, given the era. In operation it unsurprisingly sounds like an early 90's camera, which is to say, it's noisy. If you've ever sharpened a Ticonderoga (pencil) in an electric pencil sharpener, that's what this camera sounds like when the film is advancing. The zoom action is also audible, though the zoom speed is pretty quick.

There's really not much else to say about the Riva 90EX; it's a $16 chunk-monster of a camera with just enough controls and some pleasant features to make me happy. And one I enjoyed bringing along on adventures, thanks to its functionality and low cost of replacement, should chaos ensue (I drop it). But how are the photos?

The photos

About a quarter of my images have a pronounced circular flare, a possible sign that optical coatings somewhere in the lens may have degraded.

The Riva 90EX is certainly capable of solid image quality, but my copy has one obvious and unfortunate issue/defect: substantial circular flaring when shooting at the wide end of the focal range. I shot a grand total of 50 images and roughly 1 in 4 shots have this issue. Sure, it looks cool and artsy for some of the more abstract images, but it's just flat-out annoying in others.

At first I thought the flaring was a result of the flash, but it also appears in images shot in bright sunlight where the flash was disabled. Could a lens hood fix this? Possibly, but it also may just be the result of lens coating degradation. That's the bad, now for the good:

At the wide end I'd call the lens satisfyingly sharp and at the tele, acceptably sharp; not bad for $16

I was pleasantly surprised with the rest of the images, though Kodak Gold 400 seems a bit greener than I remember (I mostly corrected this in Lightroom). The autofocus system proved fairly reliable; very few of my shots had missed focused. The metering also seemed pretty good, especially given some of the more dynamically complex scenes I shot. At the wide end I'd call the lens satisfyingly sharp and at the tele, acceptably sharp; not bad for $16.

The takeaway

I really like the versatility of the camera's 38-90mm focal range, especially for street shooting. I also appreciate the camera's design, handling and features. But persistent flaring when shooting the wide end of the focal length is a deal-breaker.

Ultimately, I suspected I would love this style of camera, especially the versatility of the focal range, and my time with the Riva 90EX confirmed my suspicions. I've long been both a fan of both digital pocket zooms as well as compact 35mm cameras (but with fixed focal lengths), and this feels like a natural category of camera to now explore.

Plus, the sheer number of 90's pocket zooms available for cheap means you too can explore it, without breaking the bank. Of course, the next model I'll be trying is my new Olympus Stylus Zoom 105. Here's hoping for flare-free shooting!

The lens on the Riva 90EX is satisfyingly sharp at the wide end.

Who's going to take the $20 film camera challenge next?