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Compact Cameras: A Brief Overview

Introduction

The hype train is here. Next stop? Compact cameras. All aboard! Be sure not to bring ANY liquids on board or the entire train may stop working. Also, don’t hit the train too hard. Oh, and try not to look at it wrong either. Gosh, I hope it doesn’t rain.

Here’s Nico and Nuno to talk about compact cameras. Keep scrolling to read the text version.

Defining Compact Camera

The term “compact camera” is a loose one. Is it any small camera? Is it defined by autofocus, plastic construction, and simple use? The truth is, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a blanket term that we use to describe cameras that don’t fit neatly into a “system” the way an SLR or rangefinder would.

This is because compact cameras generally have fixed lenses. The unifying features of other camera styles is a lens mount. All Pentax K cameras share the Pentax K mount, and can all (mostly) use the same lenses. Compact cameras don’t have this, and thus are not part of a “system”.

On Kamerastore.com, compact camera means any small camera with a fixed lens. This ranges from old, manual viewfinder cameras to plasticky, ultra-modern compacts. For the purposes of this article, though, we mean the latter. A compact camera in this sense is a small camera with a fixed lens. 

Some have autofocus and advanced electronics, some do not. Another term we’ll use is “point & shoot”. For our purposes, they mean the same thing.

History

Point & shoot cameras, in the modern sense, rose to prominence in the 1980s. The first camera generally regarded as a “point & shoot” is the Konica C35AF, but this camera owes its legacy to decades of camera history.

Cameras like the Olympus Trip 35, Canon Canonet, Rollei 35, and Olympus PEN paved the way for our understanding of the point & shoot. These cameras combined small size with simple controls that made photography accessible and travel easy. 

Compact rangefinder and viewfinder cameras with programmed auto-exposure were very popular for decades before the first “point & shoot” camera came out. The only thing these cameras lacked was automatic focusing. Fixed focus cameras existed, but they sacrificed image quality and had to be used very specifically to achieve proper focus.

This all changed when the Konica C35AF was released in late November 1977. By integrating a Honeywell-designed passive autofocus system into the existing C35 platform, Konica had an instant classic on their hands. This passive system works similarly to a manual rangefinder or something like the Contax G series, in that it takes measurements from two points and does calculations to find proper focus.

This system was quickly abandoned for a more active system more reminiscent of a bat’s sonar ability. The camera emits a light beam, which bounces off of the target and then comes back to the camera. The time it takes for the signal to return tells the camera where to focus. The Canon AF35M was the first to integrate this system.

Over the 1980s and 1990s, cameras became more automatic in general. The introduction of Minolta’s AF mount and Canon’s EF mount blurred the lines between compact camera and SLR. In response, compacts started getting smaller and smaller, as well as adding zoom lenses, waterproofing, date imprint functions, and complex flash modes.

Despite advancements in SLR technology, point & shoots became the default “family camera”. Many people have nostalgic memories of point & shoots, and many more have memories taken with these diminutive cameras.

Why Compacts?

SLRs are more flexible, with interchangeable lenses, manual focusing, and control of settings. You can get any number of accessories and lenses for a rangefinder camera. The photos from both will be better than most compacts. So why buy them?

Size

Well, it’s right there in the name. Compact cameras are compact. That has always been their biggest selling point. For many people, lugging around an SLR with multiple lenses isn’t worth it. They’d rather fill that space in their bag with something else. 

That “something else” is a mystery to me, but it’s true. I normally just have cameras in my bag.

Enter the point & shoot. This ultra-compact camera has many of the features of the SLR or rangefinder that appeal to casual shooters packed into a body that fits nicely into a bag or even a pocket. 

This helped many people carry cameras everywhere, especially on trips. Even people who had never used a camera before could use a point & shoot, greatly expanding the market. For the same reason the Olympus Trip 35 and Canon AE-1 were widely popular, point & shoots took over the casual world.

Ease of Use

Like I said just before, point & shoots made it easy for anyone to use a camera. This wasn’t just because a camera could fit into your bag or pocket more easily. It also had to do with easy functioning.

While the Konica C35AF had manual film advance and rewinding, soon integrated motors became standard on compact cameras. At this point, everything was automated. All the photographer had to do was.. Point.. And.. Shoot. Whoa.

Just like with size, this ease of use opened up photography for an incredibly wide audience. Children could take photos. People with limited mobility could take photos. Almost everyone could take photos with these cameras, which is a beautiful thing. It’s clear to see why point & shoots became as popular as they did.

This ease of use has also been used by professionals and amateurs as a stylistic choice, letting them move quickly around subjects and be more reactive to their environment than they could be with an SLR or rangefinder.

Image Quality

This may not be true of all compact cameras, but some of the high end models have quite good lenses in them, or at least lenses with a distinct character. Cameras like the Leica CM or Contax T2 are famous for their lenses, with ultra-sharp optical designs and excellent coatings in a tiny package.

For some, there’s also a charm to the lower fidelity look of cheaper point & shoots that can’t be as easily achieved with an SLR. There are soft lenses for SLRs, sure, but the mix of poor autofocus, camera shake, date stamps, and automatic flash can make for some interesting organic shots. It’s personal preference, of course.

Price

Compact cameras were generally aimed squarely at consumers, so they were made quite cheaply. They were also so wildly popular that finding them secondhand isn’t too hard, often for far less than what they sold for originally. 

Especially zoom point & shoots, which were the pricier option compared to prime lens models when they were released, but today command a fraction of the price. Just look at the Olympus Mju series for confirmation. The fixed lens models have increased the price of the zooms, but people still mostly want the primes.

Cons of Compacts

Of course, there’s no perfect camera. Despite compacts having some notable advantages over SLRs, rangefinders, and other camera types, there’s a reason they haven’t completely taken over the camera market.

Image Quality

Two sides of the same coin with IQ here. Where some point & shoots can compete with the best SLR or rangefinder lenses, most lag behind considerably. Especially point & shoots with zoom lenses. 

The compact size of a P&S camera means the lens cannot be very large. This prevents a lot of light from coming in, making lenses slower and leaving less room for complicated optical designs with good coatings. Zoom lenses only exacerbate this problem by needing to work at so many different focal lengths. Whereas zoom lenses on SLRs are adequate at most ranges, with increased softness at the far end of the zoom, P&S zooms can be downright awful at the tele end of their range. Some are so bad that the manufacturers elected to leave the lens specifications off of the camera entirely.

The Lomography applications of point & shoots are personal preference, but liking this aesthetic is a niche interest by definition. There’s a reason most people are always chasing more resolution, sharper lenses, bigger sensors, etc. instead of embracing the uncertainty and leaning into mistakes. 

Build Quality / Reliability

This is a big one. Many point & shoots were simply not built very well. These cameras were almost entirely aimed at consumers, and were not built to last the same way as more expensive professional cameras.

There was a race to the bottom with pricing in the point & shoot market, with companies always trying to cut costs and save money. This led to cheap plastics being used, as well as poor moldings and cut corners.

Simply put, many point & shoots were not built to last. That’s without mentioning the electronics. The electronics can be even worse.

A lot of these cameras come from the early days of compact circuitry. Engineers were still figuring out the most efficient ways to put circuitry on a board in ways that wouldn’t fail. These boards are quite far away from the incredible circuitry in today’s smartphones, for example.

While cameras like the Canon AE-1 and other SLRs had circuit boards, fitting those complex electronics into a small body leads to corners being cut. Plus, making all the functions electronic means that if one part stops working, the entire camera often becomes a brick.

While a Canon AE-1 can be repaired with spare parts, or have its mechanical parts replaced, a point & shoot rarely can. We’re not able to reproduce circuit boards for these cameras because of lack of demand.

No matter how popular a point & shoot gets, it will not be enough to justify a factory space just for reproducing a 30 year old board. The prices of these boards would exceed the costs of a second working model, and labor to install the boards would be expensive and difficult. It’s just not practical.

All of these things come together to make cameras that can be a bit fragile. With cheaper models, this is less of an issue. Replacing them is no problem, so they don’t develop a bad reputation for reliability. Often, people are more understanding that they probably bumped it or dropped it or did something wrong to cause the camera to break.

The more expensive models, however, often break just as easily as the cheaper ones. But when you’ve invested quite a bit of money into a camera, you’re more likely to try to be extra careful with it. Because of this perceived extra care, a lot of people have a harder time understanding why their camera stopped working. This leads to certain models developing a reputation for unreliability, even if it’s an unfair one.

Price

This leads into the next issue with some point & shoots; price. In 1993, an Olympus Mju cost $179.99 USD. In 2021 money, that’s $327.61, or around 275 Euro. For reference, the Olympus Mju Zoom cost $319.99 at the time, the equivalent of $582.43, or 489 Euro.

With this, and a general knowledge of modern pricing, you can see what the issue is. The cheaper Olympus Mju sells for almost the same price as it did new (or even more, with the Mju-ii) and the pricier Mju Zoom sells for a fraction of its original price.

The pricing of the non-zoom model does not make logical sense. These cameras were not built to last, were used extensively by their original owners, and are over 20 years old in 2021. Their circuitry and plastic frames are aging more poorly than metal SLRs, and their numbers dwindle by the day as cameras stop working.

The Mju isn’t even the worst example of this. More premium models made by the likes of Yashica, Contax, and Leica are famous for price increases, with some selling for over a thousand Euro.

The Contax T2 sold for the equivalent of 1520 Euro when it was released in 1990. What is the price today? At least a thousand for a model in good condition. While it may not have reached its original price, the T2’s electronics are 30 years old. No matter how well-kept they were, the electronics of this age are destined to fail eventually.

All of these complaints fail to take into account the other cameras available. If we compare a Contax T2 to a Nikon F4, it’s really hard to ignore how much more capable and flexible the F4 is. Yet you can buy three or more F4s for the same price as a single T2. It’s hard to argue that the F4 isn’t more camera for less money.

Flexibility

One big advantage of the F4 over the T2 is flexibility. The F4 can accept multiple grips, finders, focusing screens, film backs, flashes, accessories, and other things. Not to mention the wide variety of lenses available. The T2? Perhaps a case.

Point & shoots were designed to be easy to use, requiring little or no camera knowledge to start shooting. This simplicity often leads to a shallow shooting experience to some.

Most point & shoots do not have manual control of anything. Only the high end models, like the aforementioned T2, offer aperture control. There is less flexibility and less room for user control. Some may find the limitations to be creatively inspiring, but it can be easy to feel like a point & shoot will only work if used in the very specific way the creators intended. 

Of course, it’s personal preference with this as well. It can be argued that point & shoots are quite flexible because they can be carried so easily and used more quickly than many SLRs. There are pros and cons of both, but compact cameras have no answer for the wide suites of lenses available for SLRs.

Popular Models & Hidden Gems

Popular: Olympus Mju-ii

  • Released in 1997.
  • Ultra-compact, weatherproof, plastic clamshell design.
  • 35mm f2.8 Olympus lens.

The Mju-ii is the model most people point to when talking about overpriced compacts. These tiny plasticky cameras have shot up in value over the past 5 years, making it clear that compact cameras are more than a fad. The weatherproof nature of the Mju-ii at least gives the impression that it can be used more freely than other expensive point & shoots.

In most cases, the Mju-ii has an exceptionally sharp lens in an ultra-compact body. While some may argue about variance in the lens or decry the flash settings resetting when the camera is powered down, overall the Mju-ii is incredibly simple to use.

Hidden Gem: Fuji DL-200

  • Released in 1983.
  • Plastic design, with drop-in loading and sliding lens cover.
  • 32mm f2.8 Fujinon lens.

The DL-200 is a lesser known point & shoot, but comes packing heat in terms of its lens. The 32mm f2.8 Fujinon is simply an excellent lens, and the autofocus and auto exposure systems are impressively accurate for 1983.

Fuji’s drop-in loading system never became as popular as they would have hoped, but it does simplify loading. The Fuji also winds the entire roll upon loading, then winds the roll back into the canister while shooting. This means opening the camera back prematurely won’t ruin any shots, just unexposed film. It’s a clever trick.

Popular: Contax T2

  • Released in 1990.
  • Titanium body, with retracting lens cover.
  • 38mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar.

The T2 was an iconic camera upon its release, combining Contax’s beautiful industrial design with a rugged titanium body and an excellent Sonnar-pattern lens. It became a worthy second camera for professionals or a rich-man’s travel camera.

In the decades to come, the T2’s star would fade until it suddenly shot to the top of the most popular cameras. Point & shoots had already been rising in popularity, but celebrities began showing off their film cameras, including a number of T2s. The most visibility the T2 ever got was through Kendall Jenner showing it off in interviews. 

These endorsements send the T2’s popularity through the roof, creating one of the most hyped cameras in the market today.

Hidden Gem: Pentax IQZoom 60R

  • Released in 1986.
  • Plastic body, with retracting lens.
  • 35-60mm Pentax Lens.

This spot belongs to the entire Pentax Espio / IQZoom range. Pentax’s line of point & shoots are often found quite cheaply, and many of them will produce great images. The 60R is a great choice due to its small zoom range. 

While it cannot zoom very far, you can trust the 60R to take capable photos throughout its zoom range. After all, what use is a 170mm lens if the photos are unusable after 100mm?

There are a number of other point & shoot lines that could substitute here. Canon’s Prima zooms, Nikon’s Lite Touch zooms, and many of the Minolta Riva cameras as well.

Popular: Nikon L35AF

  • Released in 1983.
  • Plastic body, with fixed lens.
  • 35mm f2.8 Nikon Lens.

The L35AF was Nikon’s first autofocus compact, and they managed to knock it out of the park. While they were a few years late to the party, they came in to burn the place down as usual. The L35AF takes a similar form factor to Canon’s AF35M and adds manual ISO control. Some models can even go up to 1000 ISO. 

This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize that you can use this one simple control to fool the camera’s programmed auto-exposure, creating a kind of exposure compensation. The L35AF can also accept filters and lens hoods, making it more flexible than a lot of its competition. The L35AF sold for $210 in 1983, which is the equivalent of 465 Euro today.

Hidden Gem: Nikon L35AW

  • Released in 1986.
  • Rubberized plastic body, with water sealing and lens cover.
  • 35mm f2.8 Nikon Lens.

I put the L35AW here because it’s basically an L35AF2 in an underwater case. This camera is ruggedly built, reeks of 80s styling, and works basically the same as the L35AF2

The waterproofing of the AW means you can submerge it up to 3m underwater, so long as you keep the rubber O-rings inside in good shape. The camera even comes with a manual focus dial intended for underwater flash use. 

Popular: Yashica T3 Super

  • Released in 1988.
  • Plastic body with sliding lens cover and waist level finder.
  • 35mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Tessar.

The entire Yashica T line could fit in this slot, but I chose the T3 because it’s the sole member that has an f2.8 lens. The rest lose a stop of light and end up at f3.5. All of these options have Carl Zeiss T* coatings, offering excellent contrast and sharpness.

The T3 also has a waist level finder, quite an interesting feature for a point & shoot. While this finder is tiny, it does increase the camera’s versatility. The T series has also gained fame through celebrity endorsement, although this time it was through famous fashion photographers who swore by the T series for their sharp results and ease of use. This is where the argument comes from that point & shoots are more flexible than SLRs because the photographer can get the smaller camera exactly where he/she wants it.

Hidden Gem: Minolta AF-Z

  • Released in 1986.
  • Compact clamshell design.
  • 35mm f2.8 Minolta Lens.

Minolta has a few compacts that could fit here. The AF-S, AF-C, and AF-E are all great options, and the AF-Sv can talk! These prime-lens equipped cameras represented the high end of Minolta’s lineup, and have lenses that back that up.

While they may not have any quirky gimmicks (save the talking AF-Sv) or revolutionary features, the Minolta AF compacts simply show up and do their jobs. The AF-Z in particular is a little-known model with a clamshell design reminiscent of the Olympus XA or Mju series. 

The shell hides a 35mm f2.8 lens and a surprisingly-large viewfinder. The only downside of the AF-Z is a lack of manual flash control. You cannot turn the flash off.

Conclusions

Compact cameras have become the camera of choice for many shooters these days. While they have definite limitations, it makes sense why they’re as popular as they are. Just like when they were released, simple compacts have been the entry point for many people into photography. Cameras like the Mju-ii have been a gateway drug into film photography for many.

That being said, it’s hard to not be wary of them. We pride ourselves on offering repaired, tested, and guaranteed gear, but point & shoots don’t fit neatly into this. Their aging electronics and fragile bodies mean we can’t continue to repair them. When they die, they die. Eventually, we will run out of Mju-iis and be left with only mechanical cameras.

What we do then is still up for debate. Even as prices climb, people are snatching up compact cameras left and right. For now, continue to enjoy compacts for what they are. There are still plenty out there, and they can be plenty fun to use. 

Another piece of advice is to not ignore zoom models. While they’re less sexy or clout-grabbing than fancy prime models, the zooms will work just as well for snapshots and flash photography. If you’re worried about image quality, just leave the lens as wide as possible. Then you basically have a slightly slower 35mm lens.

Happy shooting!

Filmi, Technical/Educational

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