On the strength of unexpected celebrity endorsements and the more predictable overzealous hype created by bloggers and YouTubers, the compact point-and-shoot bubble has now reached full bloat. Contax T series prices have risen to more than $1,500 per, and the comparatively cheap Mju series cameras are hovering around $300. These are good cameras, yes, but they’re not that good.
We want to give you some alternatives.
But before we get to that and before you say I’m just a grumpy, old man, let’s take a quick and critical look at the strange market surrounding the two cameras I mentioned; the T series and the Olympus Mju compacts.
The original Contax T is the best of the Contax minis. It’s a true rangefinder, the smallest of the bunch, faster to focus, and is the most reliable. But here’s a silly fact; it sells for a third the price of the T2 and T3. And the T3 costs more on average than a brand new Fuji X100f. What?
Speaking of the Mju series, the original is slow and unreliable and the Mju II is just a point-and-shoot originally designed for soccer-parents and people who didn’t want to think about photography. Yet ask any twenty-year-old film fan to name their dream camera and you’ll often hear the word Mju (usually sounded out with unsure hesitance – it’s “myoo” everyone).
For those of us who have been neck-deep in camera culture for longer than just the last few years, the sudden popularity of these cameras is a bit baffling.
But this is all beside the point. We’re here today to name some alternatives to these rather outrageously over-priced compact cameras. And though the lazy brains of The Internet will tell you there are no better cameras, people in-the-know know otherwise. Here are some cameras that cost much less and are as good (and in some cases much, much better) than those trendier point-and-shoots.
Almost Any Other Point-and-shoot
The first thing to realize, specifically when discussing the Mju series, is that during the 1980s and 1990s, every Japanese camera company was making an absurd number of virtually identical cameras. The Mju and Mju II are honestly and truly nothing special (if we ignore the fact that some famous photo nerds used or use one).
Chinon’s Auto 3001 has the same spec lens as a Mju II, focuses more accurately in any light, is easier to use (its flash controls are better), and costs $30. Nikon’s L35AF, though about as well known as the Mju, has a better performing lens than its Olympus competition and costs about half the price. The Pentax PC35AF‘s strong, metal body is world’s sturdier than the Mju, and its fast lens and capable flash match the Olympus’ spec sheet (at a quarter the cost).
And there are countless other better-than-Mju point-and-shoots that nobody ever seems to talk or care about. Like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one too, and also this one here, and this one. Even this complete and utter piece of junk will make equally Mju-like images in the right light.
Those boring cameras not special enough for you? Here are a few very specific ways to more smartly spend your Mju/Contax money.
Olympus’ XA, XA1, XA2, XA3, XA4
The original XA is a legendary rangefinder designed by a legendary man. I know that point-and-shoot fans would yell at me for including it on the list because its a rangefinder. If you’re among the manual-focus averse (even though at f/8 the XA will allow focus-free shooting that’s faster than autofocus, ladies and germs), there are other options in the XA range. These are the numbered XAs, and they’re some of the best point-and-shoots available.
The first numbered XA is smaller than the Mju and T series cameras, doesn’t require batteries, and is a perfect street camera. The XA2 and XA3 offer all of this, plus a combination of a higher degree of user controls. Set film speed, select one of three focus points, and then just point and shoot.
The XA4 is even more remarkable for its 28mm focal length lens. In addition to this wide field of view (which you won’t find in any Contax T or Mju camera) it offers much of what’s found with the XA2 and XA3. This makes the XA4 one of the best street machines ever made, and makes images made with it extra interesting.
All of the XA cameras will make images of a quality that can easily hang toe-to-toe with those made by Mju or Contax T series glass. And, in the case of the T range, they do so at about a tenth the price.
People say they like the Mju II in part because it has a fast aperture (if you can call f/2.8 fast). Well Canon made a point-and-shoot with a much faster aperture, and it seldom gets any fanfare. Perhaps that’s because it’s a bit bigger, perhaps that’s because they’re not the most reliable cameras in the world. Who can say.
In any case, the Canon AF35ML has an absolutely blistering maximum aperture of f/1.9. This is just about the fastest lens you’ll find in a point-and-shoot camera, and it’s an amazing performer in low-light shooting situations. Its autofocus system is fast enough, and its built-in flash is as good as anything you’ll find on a Mju.
That’s right. If you’re considering spending the outrageous prices that Contax point-and-shoot sellers are demanding, then you’ve got enough cash to buy a Leica. Which would you rather own?
Pick up a beautiful M2 with a 50mm lens, get good at manual focusing and manual shooting, and spend the next fifty years enjoying one of the best cameras ever made. Unlike the point-and-shoots everyone’s buying today, your Leica will never break (unless you drop it).
Arguments against will likely sound something like, “It’s not autofocus!” and, “It’s too big!” To which I’d likely reply, “F/8 and be there!” and, “Go to the gym!”
Olympus’ Trip 35
Josh called the Olympus Trip 35 the quintessential compact camera, and he’s probably right. It’s about the same size as a Contax compact, features battery-free metering and auto-exposure, and exposes film through an incredibly sharp Tessar clone lens.
Olympus Trip 35s were made by the millions, and this surplus means that there are still plenty to go around. Find one with a good light meter, buy it for fifty bucks, and have fun. Spend the remainder of your money on film, or low-grade Scotch whisky (the latter of which I consumed last night in far too great of quantities).
Yes, I wrote this while hungover. But at least I’m a shrewd shopper.
Before we wrap up, listen. We’re not bashing the Contax T series, the Mjus, or the people who love them. If those cameras do it for you, buy one and shoot the hell out of it. But there’s no denying that the prices of these cameras are undeservedly high at the moment, and for no other reason than because well-known people have stood on their soap box and decreed that prices should be high.
But the truth is that much of the allure of these cameras comes not from their supposed inherent ability to make better photos than any other camera. The great images you’re seeing made by photographers using Mjus and Contaxes would be just as exceptional if made with any other camera. And that’s because those shooters are shooting with purpose and thought.
Your ability to make amazing images is well within reach, even if owning the trendiest film cameras isn’t. Grab any film camera, think about your shot, and go make something good.