My dog, Cooper, is a big fluffy oaf; a joyful dope who finds the kind of bliss in play that the rest of us can only dream of. When he runs, he’s the happiest organism in the known universe. I’m a close second. As I watch my best pal’s floppy ears and tongue and tail bounce in arrhythmic incoordination, a smile invariably spreads across my face. The idiot’s happiness makes me laugh.
Whenever I’m shooting sample shots for the reviews here, I always try to take the opportunity to hoist Cooper into my car and let him run free in an out-of-the -way open space. He runs, I follow with a camera, and we enjoy a rare moment of free time. Often the photos I snap during these frolics aren’t usable and the wider world never sees them. Running alongside a sprinting Golden Retriever with a vintage camera is hard, after all.
But every now and then a camera works in such a way that the shots I make in these moments of uncomplicated joy turn out to be pretty decent. The best of these photos, the ones that seem to show my best friend’s unvarnished goofiness, can even make me laugh. But this is rare. Even after three years of running this site it’s hard to find a film camera that offers the kind of speed, flash settings, focal length, and focus accuracy needed to make these shots.
One of our readers recently sent to the CP office a relatively unknown point-and-shoot camera from the 1980s. The Chinon Auto 3001 Multifocus is an inconspicuous brick with a less-than-awe-inspiring name. At first glance, it’s nothing special, and were it not for the reader’s note attached telling me that it’s worth a try I’d have listed it in the shop and sent it on its way. After spending some time with the Chinon I can tell you that my friend was right. This camera is something special.
A little post-shoot research illuminated the subject further. When Chinon designed and released it in 1987 they knew what they’d created. This is reflected in the MSRP of the time. At $350, this nondescript point-and-shoot would ask prices higher than many SLRs of its era. And it’s perhaps this high cost that most contributed to its difficulty finding mainstream success. But that was then. For shooters today, the Chinon 3001 can be found for considerably less.
What did fat-walleted photo geeks in the ‘80s get for their money, and what can you expect to get today?
Build quality is quite good, with only one or two minor points of contention. Of note is a general emphasis on strength and durability. Of course, the camera is made almost entirely of plastic, but Chinon’s designers have reinforced areas in which other point-and-shoots are typically sub-standard. Among these are the hinges for the film door and battery compartment, and the film door latch, all of which are robust. Light sealing is handled by way of deep plastic channels, eschewing the gooey light seals used in other and older point-and-shoots. This ensures the film compartment stays light tight and free of debris, and will continue to do so for decades without the necessary maintenance required by other cameras.
The body itself is generally dense and tight, avoiding the kind of flex-and-squeak found in many point-and-shoots of its era. The sliding lens cover (which also acts as an On/Off switch) slides and locks into place with mechanical certainty, and all buttons click into their detents with precision. Ergonomic flourishes, such as finger depressions and hand grips, are subtle and deliberate; they do the job without adding unnecessary weight or design eccentricities.
Areas in build quality where the 3001 falls a bit short are few, but could be significant in the wrong circumstances. Chinon’s decision to thread the camera strap through the battery door seems, on its face, to be a really bad choice. That said, I haven’t broken this one, so perhaps those engineers knew something I don’t (massive understatement there). But when I imagine swinging a camera’s weight from its battery door, I can’t help but feel a cringe. And if I really want to pick nits, I wish the tripod mount was metal and centered, as opposed to plastic and off center.
Like its build quality, usability is excellent with a few caveats. The 3001 is about as simple and effective a point-and-shoot as I’ve ever shot, within limits. It’s the kind of camera that has almost everything you need, and definitely nothing you don’t.
To start, let’s talk about the shutter, which might be the camera’s most limiting factor. The Chinon’s programmed electronic shutter is capable of speeds from 1/45th of a second up to 1/250th of a second. Experienced camera geeks reading this have just been quietly surprised- this is not a versatile range of speeds. But if we investigate a bit closer we see that Chinon knew what they were building. Yes, the shutter is limited, but we’re also looking at a camera with a fairly slow maximum lens aperture of F/2.8, a camera with a well-developed flash, and a camera capable of shooting DX-coded film from 50 to 1600 ISO. So while on paper it would seem that this machine is immediately hamstrung by its shutter, out in the field the proficiency of its meter, flash, and ability to shoot nearly any speed film should allow it to handle the demands of most shooters and situations.
The lens is a 35mm F/2.8 with variable automatic aperture, and is made up of four elements in four groups, which is quite respectable. But more important than figures or diagrams is the fact that I’ve found images made through this lens to be remarkably sharp and brilliant. This draws comparison to the much lauded Nikon L35AF, which has developed a reputation for housing one of the best lenses ever placed in an affordable point-and-shoot. And while I agree with this sentiment (mostly), I’m finding that the Chinon makes images that are as good as any I’ve made with my Pikaichi. Shots from the Chinon are just as sharp and very contrasty, making the lens in this Chinon one of the most surprising to pass through my hands in a long, long time.
The camera’s metering system is similarly impressive. A programmed CdS affair, it does its job perfectly. In my testing there wasn’t a single wasted frame due to exposure issues. That’s pretty fantastic. Sure, you’ll need to understand how and when to use the camera’s fill-flash and flash cancel modes, but once you’ve learned this you’ll never fail to make a properly exposed shot.
The autofocus system (which was this camera’s major selling point when it was first released) is quite possibly the best in an automated point-and-shoot of its era. It uses infrared technology to estimate distance to subject, as did many of its competitors. But unlike most of its contemporaries, the Chinon uses three separate beams spread across a wide area of the frame. By creating a system such as this, Chinon was able to make a camera that can selectively focus on objects that may not be in the center of the photograph. Instead, the camera uses these three focus points and a microprocessor to calculate and choose where the shooter is most likely to desire focus.
This “Multi AF” system was pretty amazing for its time, and further simplified the process of taking excellent photographs with a point-and-shoot. The photographer needs only to frame the shot, ensure that the subject is at or near any of three focus points in the viewfinder, and fire away. Shooting this way, the Chinon always gets it right.
For instances in which the desired point of focus is located on the extreme edge of the frame, the photographer has options. One method is to use the focus lock feature. Place the subject in the center of the frame, half-press the shutter, reframe, and shoot. Additionally there’s a Spot-AF button on the rear of the camera. By pressing this button it’s possible to direct the camera to focus on the subject in the exact center of the photo. This makes the previously mentioned focus technique even faster and easier.
For a camera to so heavily lean on its auto-focus proficiency that AF system needs to produce results. And after sprinting around with Cooper, firing from the hip, and generally doing everything a decent photographer shouldn’t do if he wants to get in-focus photographs, I can say that Chinon’s system works great. If it’s not perfect, it’s certainly the best AF I’ve ever used in a point-and-shoot camera of this vintage. It just works. And that’s about the best praise I can give to a camera that calls itself “Auto”.
Portability and responsiveness are exactly what you need in a point-and-shoot, and this camera delivers. It’s pocketable in the kind of way that a Walkman was pocketable. You can get it in there, but you might look a bit funny. Startup time is nearly instantaneous. Slide the lens cover over and it’s ready to shoot, perfect for moments when you need to capture a guy on the freeway whose nose is being plumbed to the depths of a second knuckle. Gotcha.
Lens, meter, and focusing system; these three elements comprise the core of the 3001, and each is capable and advanced. But individually, they’re not so special. Many cameras have a good lens. Many cameras have a decent AF system and meter. But not many point-and-shoot cameras have all three working in blissful unison, bundled together in a compact, attractive, and affordable package. The Chinon has this. It also has a bevy of additional perks. A user-selectable flash, a large and bright viewfinder, an LCD display, automatic film advance and rewind, a very quiet shutter and drive motor, a self-timer, and more.
And the more time I spend with it, the more I realize the Chinon is a criminally overlooked machine worthy of more attention. It’s pretty. It’s quiet. It makes really excellent images and demands nothing of the photographer (aside from a few easy button presses). This camera captured the essence of my idiot dog’s flouncy glee, and I love it for that. It’s also an excellent machine for traveling, street shooting, snapshots, adventures with friends, and any other style of shooting in which you want to relax, have fun, and still make exceptional images. If this sounds like your kind of machine, choose the Chinon over the competition. It’s just a better camera.