The hype train for point-and-shoots travels faster than a Japanese Shinkansen, and seems to change tracks more often than a hobo runnin’ from the law. Every few months, it seems, another point-and-shoot camera becomes the talk of the town. One month it’s the Olympus Stylus Epic, next it’s the Yashica T-series, and after that it’s the Leica Minilux. The cycle goes on and on, pursuant to the whims of Instagram “influencers” and their hashtag camera-porn.
Personally, I can’t keep up with these trends and inconsequential style shifts. A lot of point-and-shoots start to look and function the same after you’ve shot enough of them. It’s like listening to Christmas music; nice at first, but it’s not long before you never want to hear another rendition of Walking in a Winter Wonderland. No thanks.
So when my good buddy Nick offered his Konica Big Mini for review, I was just a bit reluctant. I was fresh off reviewing the Olympus Infinity Stylus, a camera that, however easy-to-use, just wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s a good camera by all accounts, which had me thinking my displeasure with it might signal I’m not cut out for the point-and-shoot life. Nevertheless, I accepted Nick’s offer of the Konica, if only to give this frustrating segment of the photo world another shot.
For those who may not recognize the name, Konica was once one of the great optical powerhouses in the world (and certainly the greatest in Asia), but the company just couldn’t keep up with its competitors as the decades marched on. They tapped out in 2003 and decided to merge with similarly ailing optical powerhouse Minolta to make… copiers. A depressing end to a pair of legendary camera makers.
But before all that, Konica was churning out some pretty impressive machines. The Big Mini is just one in a long line of cult classic point-and-shoot cameras. What’s a cult classic camera? Cult reputations when talking about cameras typically attach themselves to machines with some sort of hidden power (usually the camera’s lens) combined with an extremely low price, but a little research on the Big Mini suggests there’s very little unknown or value-priced about the camera. From the beginning, the Konica Big Mini was conceived as a rather pricey point-and-shoot. It was targeted at discerning casual shooters who wanted to enjoy Konica’s legendary image quality without the stress of actually operating a camera.
A quarter century later, and with a little help from the internet hype industrial complex, the Konica Big Mini (model BM-201 in particular) has been revived and deified by the point-and-shoot community as a sleeper camera with incredible Konica optics – optics reportedly good enough for legendary photographer Robert Frank. Whether or not Frank has actually published any work with the Big Mini is currently unknown, but regardless, his association doesn’t hurt the Big Mini’s street cred. And at the very least, Robert Frank isn’t this guy.
But does the Konica Big Mini live up to its own legend? It at least looks the part. Its design is clear and concise, each line curving smoothly around every component and outlining each feature of the camera. The metal matte grey finish on the face of the camera adds a touch of sophistication, and puts the plastic blobs of contemporary Olympus and Yashica cameras to shame. Without a doubt, it’s one of the prettiest point-and-shoots of the ‘90s, and would look right at home on the passenger’s seat of a vintage supercar.
Digging a bit deeper we find a camera that not only looks nice, but offers some interesting and useful features. Favoring simplicity, the camera has just three buttons on the back; a Mode/EV button, a self-timer, and a manual rewind button. The Mode/EV button is particularly interesting – not only does it turn the flash on and off, it offers exposure compensation from +1.5 EV to -1.5 EV, a feature not normally seen on point-and-shoots. A peep into the viewfinder also reveals an AF lock indicator, a small light-up flower symbol to indicate close focus, and a red flash indicator, all contained within a reasonably sized albada viewfinder. Neat.
Internal mechanics of the Konica Big Mini are quite standard compared to other point-and-shoots, though it does keep a few cards up its sleeve. The Konica’s lens is a rather standard 35mm F/3.5. The experienced geeks among us have already filed this maximum aperture under “slow-as-snails”, but the wanting maximum aperture is offset by the unusually healthy range of shutter speeds available to the Big Mini. Shutter speeds range from an unusually lengthy 3.5 seconds at the low end to 1/500th of a second at the top end. Also unusual to this particular camera is its minimum focusing distance, which goes down to a very intimate 35 centimeters. This is a close focusing distance typically reserved for well-made wide-angles and macro lenses, and it makes the Big Mini stand out among its comparatively farsighted point-and-shoot contemporaries.
In the field the Big Mini offers a simple, pleasurable shooting experience. Press the shutter, and the camera takes care of all the tedious stuff. This is familiar ground for any point-and-shoot, but the magic of the Big Mini is in how easily it glides over the usual limitations that plague these types of cameras. See some pretty flowers? Don’t be shy; get up close. Need to compensate for backlighting? The EV button’s right there, and you can actually trust this meter. Shooting in a dark room and can’t be bothered to worry about flash guide numbers? Let the computer figure that one out. The Big Mini handles it all with ease, and helps shooters focus on their creativity rather than their camera.
That being said, there are a few problems with the Big Mini that serve to irk. Chief among these problems is the camera’s signature whirr. Prior to shooting, I thought most of the anecdotal complaints about the Big Mini’s excessive decibel output were likely to be greatly exaggerated. That is, I thought this until I pressed the Big Mini’s power button. This camera’s lens motor and film advance are easily among the noisiest I’ve ever experienced in a point-and-shoot.
How noisy is it? We’re talking jackhammers noisy. We’re talking biodegradable Sun Chip bag noisy. We’re talking drunk people outside your window at three in the morning noisy. We’re talking Merzbow noisy. Okay, maybe not Merzbow noisy, but it’s still pretty damn unpleasant.
I suppose the noise wasn’t a problem to folk in the early ’90s, when autofocus and auto-advance were still novel concepts, but today the sound is downright startling. What’s more, the ruckus makes it near-impossible to snap a stealthy candid, which is often the much-professed raison d’être of these point-and-shoots.
Problems don’t end at the eardrums. The Big Mini also suffers from a notorious failing shutter button problem. The shutter button tends to wear out with heavy use, and photo geeks often complain of half-responsive or totally unresponsive shutters. Like the Leica Minilux’s infamous E02 error, this is a problem that probably isn’t worth trying to fix. The Big Mini’s shutter button is an entirely proprietary affair and, if needing replacement, will undoubtedly involve a wild goose chase for the part. And if we manage to find the part and somebody who will work on it, it will likely cost more than what the Big Mini is worth to have it repaired. Not good.
But when all’s said and done and the images from the Big Mini end up back in our hands or on our computer screens, it becomes clear – this little fella can run with the big boys. Or this big fella can run with the mini… eh, whatever. You get the point. It makes nice images.
Konica was a manufacturer whose pride rested on making (or attempting to make) the best lenses known to man, and this ethos absolutely extends to the Big Mini’s 35mm f/3.5 lens. This lens is gorgeous, offering one of the most balanced image rendering characteristics I’ve ever experienced from a point-and-shoot. Shots remain sharp across the frame in most situations, contrast is a little lower, and colors skew towards the smooth pastel color palette of Konica’s classic lenses. Where other point-and-shoot lenses lay it on thick with grating sharpness and oversaturated colors (especially when paired with consumer films), the Konica Big Mini instead opts to lay back and paint scenes to a more discerning finish.
If nothing else, the Big Mini wins on image quality alone. Supplement that image quality with its good looks and a compact form factor and you’ve got a recipe for a truly wonderful point-and-shoot. But can we really call it a cult classic? Not really. See, everyone knows about it. The result? This camera does not come cheap.
The bullet train of its reputation long ago left hype station, and for more than a couple of years now it’s a rather well-known and well-respected point-and-shoot. Unless you’re an intrepid bargain hunter with an iron will and a pocket full of gas money, Big Minis can no longer be found for the low prices for which they once sold. They’re a rarer bird than those cameras from Olympus, Canon, and Minolta, and buyers shouldn’t be surprised if the Big Mini they’ve got their eye on costs more than a professional SLR of the same era. It’ll be up to the shooter to decide if this camera will be right for their budget and their lifestyle.
I’ll be candid here; I don’t like cameras that have been hyped to the moon and priced out of of the average photo geek’s reach. Too often this hype raises expectations to an impossible level, resulting in disappointment with the camera, and in worse cases, disappointment with film photography at large. The Big Mini could have very easily been that type of camera. I’m happy to say that it isn’t.
The Big Mini surely deserves the plaudits and the hype it’s garnered in the past few years. And while we may not like that it sounds like a robot with bronchitis, and we may resent the price hike that this hype has brought, at least the tiny point-and-shoot with the big name shines some much-needed light on the Konica brand, a brand mostly forgotten by the general public. It’s been easy for a generation of photo geeks to forget just how good Konica was at making cameras and lenses, and it’s nice to see them back in the conversation, even if it is a couple decades too late.