A few months ago we talked about one of Nikon’s best point and shoot 35mm film cameras, the L35AF. This week, we’re taking a look at a very similar camera from Canon, the AF35M. With this camera, Canon essentially created the compact automated camera segment, and in many ways spurred Nikon into creating their own, venerable point-and-shoot.
Known as the Autoboy in Japan and the Sure Shot in the USA, Canon’s AF35M launched in 1979 (four years ahead of Nikon’s L35AF) and immediately became a sensation. This was Canon’s first compact camera in which focus, film advance, film rewind, and exposure were all handled by the camera. For the first time, inexperienced shooters could produce consistently excellent photos due to Canon’s innovative and technologically advanced automation systems.
While in some ways the AF35M shows its age compared to Nikon’s L35AF, in other ways it’s the superior camera. So which camera is best for today’s retro-loving photophile?
Visually the camera is clunky and, some would say, boring. A rectangular black box, there’s nothing here that’s too wild or exciting. It’s got that “lo-fi/high-tech” style that seemed so popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Some will likely think of it as chunky and uninspired, while others will see it as a well-proportioned icon bursting with retro flair. Love it or not, it’s a big, plastic brick. To be fair, the designers tried to spice things up with contrasting finishes, employing an encapsulating band of matte black surrounded by a glossier black outer shell. There’s also a vibrant red circle around the lens and some exotic Japanese text on the back of the flash unit. And also, um, the film door opening switch is blue. That’s pretty wild, right? Okay, not the most exciting design, but Canon’s never been known for their radical aesthetics.
If the visuals are dull there’s certainly not much excitement to be found in the spec sheet, either. The camera uses a 38mm focal length Canon lens with a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8. It has an integrated flash which is manually selected, a viewfinder with frame lines and parallax corrected frame lines for up-close shooting, a focus indicator, a low-light warning lamp, safe film load window, frame counter, and a self-timer. Yup; pretty run of the mill. But this is a camera with a dichotomous personality. While the spec-sheet and visual design are a bit hum-drum, the automated systems of the AF35M were ground-breaking in their day and are pretty damn convenient today. More impressive because of their practical proficiency, the auto-exposure and auto-focus systems are especially notable in use.
The auto-exposure system uses a CdS photo-resistor, and it’s one of the best metering systems found in a vintage compact. Even in the most challenging situations, such as night shooting and shooting in bright snow, under- and over-exposures are very rare. In two test rolls of 24 and 36 exposures, only two frames were off, and it was discovered that this was due to the reviewer being unaware of one of this camera’s strange eccentricities.
How did I mess things up? It seems that if the lighting in a scene requires a long exposure, the photographer needs to hold the shutter release button down for the duration of the exposure, rather than press and release the button. Since there’s no way to tell how long the shutter will remain open, it’s important to be aware of this weird functionality when shooting in low-light and remember to listen for the shutter to close before releasing the button. This can be a little annoying, but it beats using a flash when trying to achieve naturally lit, low-light images.
Thankfully, the viewfinder will do its best to make the photographer aware when the lighting is too dim for a quick shutter speed. This is about all the viewfinder is good for, however, since it’s woefully ill-equipped. With only a single red light and a virtually useless focus indicator, this is certainly the weak link in the AF35Ms otherwise purposeful engineering.
Compared to the Nikon, the Canon’s viewfinder is just awful. With Nikon’s point-and-shoot, the focus indicator intelligently actuates with a half-press of the shutter release button. In this way it’s possible for the photographer to see if the camera’s focused where it’s supposed to be focused before committing to the shot. With Canon’s camera, the focus indication happens on full shutter release, after the photograph has been taken. That’s just silly.
There is a way to make sure the Canon’s focused where it should be before taking the shot, but it’s counter-intuitive at best. By using the self-timer lever (which Canon also calls the Pre-Focus lever…) it’s possible to press the shutter release, watch the focus indicator, and cancel the shot if the indicator shows the camera’s focused on the wrong plane. Not efficient.
Canon also says this method should be used when trying to selectively focus. Since the camera uses a central spot in the viewfinder for focus, whatever is in the middle of the frame when the shutter release happens is what will be in focus. Obviously this becomes a problem when shooting subjects that are off-center, as happens constantly in photography (rule of 3rds, am I right?). By using the self-tim-err… I mean, “Pre-Focus Lever” it’s possible to selectively focus, recompose, and press the shutter release button again to snap the shot. Again, this is too cumbersome, especially considering the ease of use found in Nikon’s half-press method.
The only reason these issues are forgivable is because the auto-focus system is actually pretty amazing. When shooting subjects that are in the center of the frame it’s nearly impossible to miss a shot. Even the fastest moving subjects are no challenge for the AF system of the AF35M, as long as the subject is covering that center AF spot. The camera uses a near-infrared emitting diode, a pin photo diode (whatever that is) and some kind of sorcery to triangulate the distance to the subject. It’s okay if we don’t totally understand this kind of dark magic, because it just works brilliantly. Point, shoot, and don’t think about it too much.
Image quality with the Canon AF35M is a mixed bag. Where the Nikon L35AF tends to be uniformly excellent, image quality with the Canon ranges from great to substandard, depending on shooting conditions. In bright light and at smaller apertures the Canon is comparable to the Nikon’s stellar performance. Contrast, color, and all the rest are excellent in these well-lit situations. It’s when things get dark that the Canon begins to fall behind.
In low light, when shots are taken at (presumably) wide-open aperture, images become particularly soft with substantial loss of detail. In these same situations we see heavy light fall-off (vignetting) resulting in darkened corners of the frame. While this can be fixed in post-processing, it’s unlikely that most users of this camera are going to scan and edit every shot. Distortion, chromatic aberration, flaring, and ghosting are all pretty well mitigated, though there is some color-fringing in high contrast situations.
With a slow maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 and the previously covered caveats of wide-open shooting, low-light performance is not a strength of the Canon. Street photographers looking for night shots will be out of luck, and the 38mm focal length and slow apertures will likely leave bokeh-lovers underwhelmed.
These optical issues covered, images made by the Canon are pretty damn excellent when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. The AF35M may be a perfect 35mm point-and-shoot for a sunny vacation or a mid-summer roadtrip. Our good readers will just have to take our word on this, since during the period in which this camera was reviewed we’ve had nothing but grey skies and seven feet of snow. Sorry.
What further differentiates the Canon from the Nikon? The AF35M boasts a safe load window to indicate that the film is advancing properly, which is a convenient feature that the competing Nikon lacks. However the Nikon has a film type display window, which one could argue is a more useful feature that’s missing from the Canon. It’s also worth mentioning that the Nikon and Canon both support film speeds only as high as ISO 400, further hampering low-light shooting. Later models in each cameras’ production run would resolve this deficiency by bumping the selectable film speed to ISO 1000, a welcome upgrade.
Flash integration and implementation also differs slightly. The Nikon automatically pops the flash when the camera deems it to be necessary. The manual states that to override this the photographer physically restrains the flash from popping up. This seems cheap. The Canon, on the other hand, advises that a flash might help, but it’s up to the shooter to deploy it, which seems somehow better. On the other hand, the Nikon has a +2 exposure compensation lever for use with backlit subjects. No such option exists with the Canon.
If it seems like we’re driving at a tie, it’s because we are. In all honesty, there’s very little difference between the Nikon L35AF and the Canon AF35M. For better or worse, these cameras are pretty much the same. The decision to choose one over the other will likely spawn from the buyer’s brand loyalties, availability of one over the other, or a personal style preference. I suppose one could also flip a coin.
The takeaway? The AF35M is one of the most historically important cameras of the 1980s, with unparalleled sales success and a long-lived lineage of offspring. It’s a perfectly capable point-and-shoot from the heyday of 35mm film. For hip, young people out for adventure it’s a perfect companion to capture those memories. For photo geeks looking to shoot film it’s a great daily-carry-camera. It’s certainly better than many of the point-and-shoots from rival brands, but compared to the Nikon L35AF, it’s too close to call.