Nikon L35AF Pikaichi – Camera Review

Photophiles in the 1980s had it good. The camera industry was surging forward on a wave of prosperity. Cameras featured greater automation, ease of use, and affordable quality. At the head of this surge was Canon, a masterful designer of sophisticated and desirable machines for border-line enthusiasts and amateur snappers. They were producing point-and-shoot cameras that would change the way the average shooter engaged with photography.

Not one to play catch-up, Nikon quickly launched their own point-and-shoot to compete with Canon’s AF35M. Theirs was the L35AF.

This machine was everything consumers wanted. Small, durable, simple, and affordable, it also offered something its competitors lacked; a truly exceptional lens. Marketed by Nikon as a pro-spec, do-it-all lens, the 35mm F/2.8 was built to be fast and sharp. This glass combined with a number of automatic features, including Nikon’s first-ever auto-focus system in a compact camera, automatic metering, automatic aperture control, automatic pop-up flash, and automatic film wind, to create the first in what would be a new era of Nikon automated compact cameras. The L35AF was a promising machine for a new type of shooter.

At the time of its release, Nikon nicknamed it Pikaichi, meaning top notch, and while self-proclaimed nicknames rarely catch on, this one did. The L35AF became synonymous with quality.

But time marches on. What was top notch in the ’80s may be on quite a lower notch today. Last week I spent some time with the L35AF, to determine whether or not it still can claim the name Pikaichi.

The L35AF is a nice looking camera. Inoffensive, simple and clean, it’s essentially a black rectangle that takes photos. The hand grip is small and effective, allowing casual, one-handed operation. The lettering is nicely printed in contrasting white, and the trademark Nikon red accent presents as a simple line surrounding the front grip pad. Totaling just three, switches are subtle in both style and quantity. There’s an On/Off switch, a self-timer lever (10 sec.), and an exposure compensation lever (+2). That’s it.

A tiny footprint and diminutive weight of 345g make the L35AF a compact machine. With modern mirror-less cameras there’s a lot of talk about pocket-sized this, or that, and when I read these reviews I can’t help but wonder where the writers are buying pants with such spacious pockets. Yes, mirror-less cameras are smaller than the previously in-vogue DSLRs, but to call the XE-1 or Sony A7 “pocketable” is a bit optimistic. My Sony A7 is anything but, and compared to the L35AF and its virtually flush-mounted lens, the Fuji is downright clunky. And while the Nikon point-and-shoot will actually squeeze into a pant pocket, it fits a lot better in a jacket; both impossible with the Fuji. A verbose paragraph, for sure, all to say that this thing is small.

In a time when many manufacturers were looking to plastic for cost-cutting, it’s nice to note that the L35AF is refreshingly metallic. While not completely metal, there’s enough of the solid stuff here to give peace of mind in rough environments. Even sections covered in plastic benefit from a metallic structure underneath. It makes this little Nikon one of the more robust and long-lived point-and-shoots of its era.

Shooting the L35AF is simplicity itself. From aperture setting, to focusing, to metering, to whether or not to use a flash, the L35AF is about as automated as it gets. This was Nikon’s first autofocus camera, and the AF system works well. The camera uses an AF spot in the center of the viewfinder. Half-pressing the shutter release button locks focus on whatever’s framed under this center spot. It’s an incredibly accurate system, and the viewfinder uses a charming, analog lever and diagram to show focus distance. Also contained within the viewfinder are frame-lines and parallax correction frame-lines to help keep your shots composed.

ASA/ISO is set by turning a small ring surrounding the lens. Early models covered film speeds from 50 to 400, while later versions bumped the maximum speed to 1000. Today the 1000 ASA version is more desirable (and more expensive), though the two versions are identical in every other way.

Loading the camera is simple. Pull out the film leader and lay it on the red patch inside the film compartment. Make sure it’s flat and close the cover. Press the shutter release button and the camera takes care of the rest. After loading, the camera’s capable of .8 exposures per second. While this isn’t very fast, it’s still pretty notable for a camera coming from a time when most camera film advance happened via thumb power. Rewinding the film is a simple one-two process of sliding a switch and pressing a button, both located on the bottom of the machine. Full rewind takes approximately 25 seconds.

The winding mechanism, AF system, and every other function are powered by two AA batteries, which are thankfully common compared to other cameras and their sometimes annoyingly specialized batteries. Using two AA batteries, the economical L35AF is capable of shooting 100 24 exposure rolls of film. That’s pretty fantastic.

Automation is systemic with the L35AF, but there are some manual options available to the intrepid photographer, both by design and by  jury-rigging. For photographers who demand full artistic control of every aspect of photography, this may not be the camera for them. But those who are willing to bend their notion of how a camera should operate can still achieve their artistic goals.

Nikon only designed the camera with one manual adjustment; exposure compensation in the form of a +2 exposure lever for use when shooting back-lit subjects. If the photographer thinks a subject will be underexposed due to excess background light, he depresses a lever to the left of the lens and holds it down during shutter release. Beyond this meager artistic input, the camera’s going to do whatever it feels is right to achieve a proper exposure.

The only other way to manipulate an exposure is by hijacking the camera’s automation through physically altering the information fed to its “brain”. Hold down the automatic flash to force long exposures, or partially cover the metering window with your hand to force over-exposure or day-light fill flash. It’s also possible to under-, or over-expose a shot by adjusting the cameras’s ASA dial mid-roll. This takes experience to get right, but luckily 35mm film is reasonably inexpensive, encouraging experimentation.

It’s also possible to use 46mm diameter filters to aid artistic shooting. These screw-on filters will be familiar to any photo geek, especially those who cut their teeth shooting film. Since the metering window is located within the circumference of the camera’s filter threads, any adjustment to light produced by fitted filters will be naturally calibrated by the camera. Use neutral density filters to choke the light, or colored filters for better black and white shooting. Trying to coax artistic shots from the L35AF isn’t difficult, it’s just incredibly analogue. This camera brings us back to the days in which producing exacting images required the focused physical manipulation of light and camera.

If all this seems too tiring, uninterested photographers can simply point and shoot, the way Nikon intended, and enjoy outstanding results. For these shooters, the L35AF’s systemic automation allows for a concise and focused style of photography. Composition takes precedence over everything, which could lead to stronger photos and a greater ability to stay in the moment. Street photographers know the importance of awareness, both spacial and cerebral, so the camera may work perfectly in this discipline of photography. When there’s nothing coming between the photographer and the subject, beautiful things can happen.

While cameras like the Nikon 35Ti sport the Nikkor badge with pride, the L35AF does not. It’s long been the way of things at Nikon that their Nikkor lenses could be considered of a higher quality than lenses marked “Nikon”, so one could be forgiven for thinking this point-and-shoot houses an inferior lens. Given this preface, it’s surprising to discover that most photo geeks consider the L35AFs lens to be one of the best in the world of point-and-shoots. But does it deserve this enjoyable reputation?

Designed in-house by Koichi Wakamiya, the Sonnar-type 35mm F/2.8 lens consists of five elements in four groups. Shooting into bright light results in minimal flaring, and distortion is a non-issue. Contrast and color rendition are very nice, though not as good as the Nikkor mounted to Nikon’s 35Ti. This is forgivable, given the 35Ti costs more than ten times what one will pay for a perfect L35AF.

Bokeh is possible, though its quality is short of amazing, and achieving it reliably is difficult due to the camera’s full automation of aperture. Subject isolation isn’t a strength, and with a maximum aperture of F/2.8 and a relatively weak flash guide-number of 20, it’s not the best camera for low-light shooting. Images can also suffer from light fall-off, mitigated as the aperture stops down, though never perfectly resolved.

It seems, on paper, that we could expect to be let down by the L35AF. When one tries it, however, this expectation will go unfulfilled. What was most notable in the 1980s about the L35AF’s lens remains its most notable feature today; outstanding sharpness. How Nikon coaxed such sharpness out of this lens is a question, the answer to which I’ll happily stay oblivious. I’m no engineer; I don’t know, and I don’t care. All that matters is that this little machine creates some of the finest detail and sharpest images of any point-and-shoot I’ve ever used.

There are times when this camera works its magic so well that the results seem almost to rival medium-format detail. Shoot this camera as a street shooter in midday sun and bask in the sharpness, as city railings and foliage pop with distinct and lifelike detail. Shots of dogs look fluffy enough to pet, with whiskers clearly defined. Travel shots reveal things travelers never noticed, or long ago forgot. To state it simply; it’s a wonderful lens, and it’s the only reason you need to own a Pikaichi.

More than thirty years ago photophiles in Tokyo and around the world crowned Nikon’s L35AF with a reverent moniker. What was then considered top notch has aged gracefully into a cult classic, and one of the most collectible point-and-shoots in the world. Its reputation for quality, simplicity, and optical prowess was deserved then and it continues to earn it today. It’s one of the best classic point-and-shoots, and a truly wonderful camera to use. The L35AF proves once again that what was pikaichi then, is even more pikaichi now.

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29 Comments

  • Reply
    Francis.R.
    December 1, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    For what I see in the photographs the lens besides its sharpness has not much or any distortion, and it seems that the body can endure admirably the path of time.
    Although it could be the laboratory scanning I see it much better than my Canon FD 50mm 1.8 lens. (s.c. version)
    btw powerful portrait of the camera inside the iron circle.

    • Reply
      James
      December 1, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      Hi Francis. You’re right. There’s very little distortion, which is really nice in a 35mm. Thanks for the comment.

  • Reply
    Max Weinstein
    December 4, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    On the imagine where you show what you can trough the view finder, you guessed it was a tombstone, but its actually mountains to represent landscape/infinity focal length 🙂

  • Reply
    Dmitri Popov
    December 27, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  • Reply
    ideologger
    January 18, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    I recently inherited a Nikon L35AF. Seeing that they weren’t worth much on eBay, I figured I wouldn’t loose anything by disassembling it, removing the lens, and adapting it to E-mount. It’s a nice lens, though it is pretty low contrast and prone to flare. Nice colors.

    Any bokeh samples? On disassembly, I couldn’t find an aperture separate from the shutter, which closes down in diamond shape, which would lead to a funky diamond bokeh. I wasn’t sure if this was the case, or if it was simply fixed at f/2.8.

    • Reply
      James
      January 18, 2015 at 6:17 pm

      Interesting observation. Bokeh seemed to be pretty weak in the shots where I tried to bring it out. I’ll go back and look through the prints again. I’m sure I can find whether or not the aperture is fixed in Nikon’s archive.

  • Reply
    Don Graham
    March 9, 2015 at 9:02 pm

    I read your piece on the Nikon l35af. I just had to run out and buy one. Well, run out means clicking on your link to eBay. I can’t wait for it to get here and do some shooting. Thanks for the article.

    • Reply
      James
      March 9, 2015 at 9:10 pm

      Happy to have helped, my friend. It’s a great camera. Let us know if we can see the shots you make with it anyplace? Thanks again!

  • Reply
    L.T. Hanlon
    March 14, 2015 at 5:34 am

    Great review of this wonderful camera. I’ve found the L35A really shines with C-41 chromogenic black-and-white film like Kodak BW400CN. Here’s an example.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/chi_cowboy/4151548866

    • Reply
      James
      March 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Nice shot, my friend. That little Nikon really impresses, doesn’t it? Thanks for connecting.

  • Reply
    Nathan Gilmer
    August 13, 2015 at 3:49 am

    Well I just bought one and I already have to many. Thanks a lot. 🙂

    • Reply
      James
      August 13, 2015 at 3:50 am

      We feel no remorse. 🙂 Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    Jerald
    August 13, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Hi there! I recently found the L35AF2 sitting in my parents’ cupboard and decided to fiddle with it. I placed batteries in it and it powered on fine. I believe the shutter is working too. However, do you have any recommendations as to how I should check if the lens has fungus? I read online that shining light into the lens will show but the shutter covers the lens during power down.

    Thank you so much and much help appreciated as I’m really interested to start shooting with this camera!

    • Reply
      James
      August 13, 2015 at 1:26 pm

      Hi there. Great news that you’ve inherited such a fun camera! If you shine a light through the front of the lens you should be able to check the front grouping and if you open the film compartment and look through from the back you should be able to get a pretty good idea of how clean the rest of the lens groupings are. Going from memory here, but if you’re not seeing any glaring examples of fungus I think you should load some film and see what happens. Hope this helps!

  • Reply
    Cristujo
    December 26, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Hi James,

    What can i do if i want to take photos daytime, without flash? I will hold my finger on flash to not open, or it’s recommended to use the flash all the time? Can you give me some tips about that?

    Thanks, very nice article!

    • Reply
      James
      December 26, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Hey there. You’ve pretty much got it. The manual says to hold the flash from popping up if you want to shoot without using the flash even when the camera recommends it. Fill flash during the daytime can be useful though. I suggest shooting a frame using one method, then shoot another using the other method and see which result you personally like best. Let me know how it goes, pal! Happy shooting.

  • Reply
    Neilson
    May 12, 2016 at 8:38 pm

    I have the Action Touch which, from what I can tell, is very similar to this camera except that it’s waterproof. The Action Touch also has a manual on/off button for the flash, I really like that feature.

    • Reply
      James
      May 12, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      That’s a great camera. Amazing quality for a low price. Like you say, it’s similar to the L35AF and is part of the same series. The most important difference is the lens- the L35AF has the legendary 4 elements in five groups and the AT uses a four element in three group arrangement, plus the waterproof outer glass.

      The manual focus option is very nice on that AT, as I’m sure you know well!

  • Reply
    Alon
    May 16, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Really enjoyed your review! Just got one from Ebay and it’s on the way .. Just 2 questions:
    – Any way of shooting double exposures with the L35AF?
    – I know there are several aux lenses for this Nikon. Can you recommend any?

    • Reply
      James
      May 16, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      Congrats! Enjoy it. Double exposures are not possible as far as I know. You could hypothetically shoot an entire roll and the reload that roll and shoot it again, but exposures would be off. You might get some fun results, but it’s not a perfect solution.

      Auxiliary lenses are available as you say. The good thing about them is that they are very affordable. I would suggest just buying a few and seeing how they do. I don’t have direct experience with them myself, though I do have a set in inventory. Maybe I’ll give them a shot.

  • Reply
    Tina Kino
    May 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Very nice review.
    Just one small thing – the filter thread is 46mm, not 42.

    • Reply
      James
      May 26, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      You’re absolutely right. I’ve corrected the article. Thanks again.

  • Reply
    louie
    July 25, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    any idea what fisheyes are compatible with the nikon l35 af, I brought a kalimar screw on fisheye but it messes with the camera for some reason and shoots 5 shots at a time.

  • Reply
    Zazno
    September 17, 2016 at 9:27 am

    I got one of these cameras a year ago in its Nikon case for only $10! It is a great camera! Love the detail you put into your writing! -Zazno

  • Reply
    Preston
    November 12, 2016 at 4:28 am

    Hi, I just picked one of these great little cameras up and everything seems to be working fine, except for one thing. The focus needle moves but seems erratic and sticky – if I point it at the horizon it takes two or three half presses of the shutter to move the needle all the way to the landscape focus. Do you know how to fix this issue?

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 12, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Preston. Not sure what the problem could be, but sometimes with these 30+ years old cameras they simply need to be exercised. Shoot it for a while and see if it resolves. And maybe someone else with more repair experience can chime in. Good luck.

  • Reply
    Jorge
    January 31, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Tengo una cámara Nikon L35 AF, mi pregunta es puedo transformarla en digital ? y en caso afirmativo donde ? si es posible en Valencia. Gracias

    • Reply
      HOMBRE
      January 31, 2017 at 11:31 am

      Escanea tu película.

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