Part One: the confusing world of compact point-and-shoots.
A bizarre thing happened in 2017: early 90’s compact point and shoot cameras - the 35mm variety - surged back into popularity. Although models such as the ubiquitous Contax T2 had been made famous by fashion photographers such as Juergen Teller, it and others like it (such as its cousin the Yashica T4) were still at best an obscure piece of history largely confined to the ‘old tech and spare batteries’ drawer of middle-class Japanese households.
A year later and all of earth’s most unremarkable celebrities seemed to be toting either a T2 or a T3. In perfect sync with the inexplicable return of all things useless but endearing from the 90’s (does anyone else remember Buffalo shoes and those ‘dida trackies with the poppers?), the hypebeasts duly descended on compact point and shoots as if their daddies’ credit cards depended on it. A Contax T2 cost ¥33,000 in January 2016. In January 2018, they commonly sold for ¥90,000 and more for the basic model.
The major downside to this is that premium compact P&S cameras became more expensive across the board; from the Fuji Kasse to the Minolta TC-1 and all in between. Everything with a Contax and Yashica label followed, as did eventually the previously affordable Nikon F3 and similar SLR systems. I’m not even ready to talk about how much a Mamiya 7ii costs.
The positives however, far outweigh the negatives. Sadly, compact 35mm cameras haven’t yet exploded back into mass production, but people have realised that they now have resell value, and thousands have been dug out of storage and sold back into circulation. If you’re lucky and find a model which has been bought and owned in Japan for the entirety of its life, you’ll likely have found a camera which works as well now as the day it was first used - the Japanese take good care of their cameras (you’ll never see brassing on a Leica used as a selling point).
As you’ve now enjoyed a brief history lesson on why everybody suddenly wants a compact, you’ll be thinking about which model you’d like to track down.
There are multiple types of P&S that are suited to a variety of different shooting conditions. Street shooters will want a wide angle prime lens (around 28mm) - cue the Ricoh GR or Nikon T28. If you’re less concerned about focal length, fast systems such as the Nikon L35 AFii or silent rangefinders like the super-affordable Olympus XA2 deliver vibrant, sharp (and affordable) images.
If you’re looking for a more portrait ready compact, a focal length of 35-40mm would be better (although 40mm lenses are more often found on rangefinders such as the Contax G system or the Minolta CL/E). I do maintain that the Contax T2 takes beautiful portraits, but the prices in 2019 are beyond insulting. There’s always the Canon ML - an affordable 40mm is always worth trying.
To keep things simple, I’ve created a list of compacts I’ve tested or owned ranging from low to high price, with some useful info attached to each. To find more info, Google is your friend. Flickr is currently being converted to a paid service, so the use of ‘groups’ as a way of checking out the kinds of image a camera can product may be somewhat up in the air as of 2019. In most cases, though, if you Google the name of the camera you’re after and the word ‘Flickr’ you’ll almost certainly come across a group or an album of images taken by that camera. It’s an essential step in the research stage of things.
While I could write about cameras in this manner for another 800 pages, I realise that ‘could’ doesn’t equate to ‘should.’ Enjoy this fun little list of compact cameras.
Please note - prices are based on shop and auction prices in 2018 and are in Japanese Yen (¥). Be sure to check auction sites and use a currency converter to better understand pricing in your local currency.
Pentax Espio Series
You can find these at almost any secondhand camera shop for under ten British pounds/¥2000. They’re bargain basement and do the job - a good option if you’re using one in a place it’s likely to get covered in beer/mud/sand. Use without fear.
Olympus XA & XA2:
This tiny babe is so cheap you’d be insane not to have one. The lens is vibrant and bright and it’s the perfect introduction to rangefinder shooting. For those who are unfamiliar, a rangefinder requires the user to pre-set a focal distance and shoot the image subject within the set range. Fits in your pocket and flash units are cheap and easy to find.
Nikon L35 AFii/AD
Fully automatic, this is a very literal point-and-shoot type of camera. Expect sharp and saturated images (comparable to those produced by the LOMO LC-A rangefinder). Dirt cheap, fast auto winding and not too loud with an in-built flash, this is an ideal camera for street, beach and club. Be warned - the flash will burn your friends’ retinas out if used at close range.
Seen for ¥5-10,000
Another excellent ‘always with me’ compact; the 40mm lens sets it apart as a very affordable daylight portrait compact. This would be my go-to budget compact - take a sneaky look at the images in its Flickr group here.
Canon Autoboy [Luna] (Sure Shot) Series
A huge number of different cameras have been released under the ‘Autoboy’ (Sure Shot) model name. Some are panorama-ready, others have data-backs that can print messages on your photos in 5 languages. Most have zoom lenses that start wide at 24 or 28mm and feature the ‘slide cover’ style of lens cap that Olympus has made famous with its XA and Mju (stylus) models. Reliable and fun.
Olympus Trip 35
Unique in that it uses solar cells instead of batteries, this super simple compact produces surprisingly sharp images. It’s a manual winder and very basic, but ideal for sunny outdoor shots. It produces sharp, well balanced images with a good degree of colour saturation.
A bizarrely designed compact half-frame camera, completely automatic and very easy to use. Being a half-frame means you’ll get 72 images from the usual 36 exposure roll of film, and thusly 48 frames from a 24 exposure roll. They usually sell for under ¥10,000 in Japan and are definitely the best camera for reducing the running costs of film.
Mid-range prices and models
Contax TVS, TVSii, TVSiii
Currently selling at ¥40-70,000+
The world missed a trick with these three. While buyers were falling over themselves to buy a T2 or T3, they totally ignored the TVS series, which could be found for about 1/4 of the price. The only major difference is that the TVS series featured zoom lenses. I’ve owned a TVSii and the images it produced were just as sharp as the T2 I now own. I also own a TVSiii and again, the images are as sharp as those of a T2 or T3, but wider when zoomed out (I never shoot while zoomed). My TVSiii is my go-to for times when a wide angle is needed.
Sadly, the world cottoned on to these great compacts and their prices are now hugely inflated. In my opinion, the TVSii is the best based on image quality and affordability.
Konica Big Mini
Made famous by Japanese flash-in-the-pan ‘Hiromix’, the big mini range features a huge number of models, and some can still be found for a reasonable price. Tiny, cute, prime lensed and easy to use, they are well worth the effort of tracking down. Seriously, if you have to choose a mid-range, grab the Big Mini or a TVSii.
A completely manual rangefinder - in many ways, a (much) more expensive version of an Olympus XA. The LCA+ model is essentially a Chinese remake. If you can find a Russian original, you’ll have a lens made from unique and imitation-proof Black Sea-sand glass. I came close to selling mine, but upon finding some old prints decided not to - the colours the lens produces are amazing.
Another small compact, no doubt designed in Japan for tiny lady hands. It may be just as good in giant man-hands - I couldn’t say for sure. Much like the Big Mini and other P&S compacts, it produces clear, sharp images and features a slide-front cover.
This camera was kind of this weird thing in between just being a Yashica T and ???
They’re still marginally cheaper than other mid-range compacts, with the picture quality you’d expect from Kyocera. Zoom compacts aren’t my first choice, though.
Premium range models
It seems strange to refer to this camera as ‘premium’ - but thanks to the God of all HypeBois, Terry Richardson, you get to pay the HypeTax(tm). For those who don’t know, the HypeTax(tm) is the extra stacks you burn because something that is unremarkable has a ‘Supreme’ logo on it. That being said, aside from a temperamental AF, this camera takes insanely sharp images and has a plasticky feel that requires less precious handling. If you end up finding one that is surprisingly cheap, go for it. I acquired mine for free as it was gathering dust on a Japanese ex-boyfriend’s shelf.
Contax T2, T3
T2: ¥80,000+ and T3: ¥100,000+
Should I even bother? It’s this guy. You either want it for the hype, or want it because it’s actually an excellent camera. Yes, that Zeiss Tessar lens is a gift from the almighty. Yes, the design is to die for. Yes, the price tag is a joke. I’m glad I got mine before the hype-tax became straight silly. If you’re going to get a Contax T2 or T3, use it every day for the next ten years to offset the straight stupid price. And if you’re sensible and don’t want to spend the money - a Contax TVS2 or a Konica Big Mini are so close to the T2/3 in terms of quality that the difference is negligible.
A compact which has been swept along in the ‘it’s kind of like a T2 tide.’ Another sharp, fast compact with a unique front design.
Loved by legendary Japanese street shooter Moriyama Daido, this guy is a dream. The sad drawback is that it is a sensitive little flower, and breakage is nearly inevitable. Be careful about paying a high price. The insanely wide lens is popular with street photographers. Whether or not you’re thinking about buying this camera, do check out Moriyama’s amazing work. I should add - digital versions of this camera are available and… I don’t hate them. If I had to buy any easy digital point and shoot, it would be a Ricoh GR I or II.
Fuji Klasse S/W
Japanese engineering with a German name - of course it’s an amazing compact. Following on from every other in the P&S list, you can expect a high quality lens and brightness and sharpness to boot. Also, very nicely designed.
Yet another drool-worthy premium model. Unique upper ‘speedometer’ design and, as is standard for this level of camera, sharp, clear and depthy images. In 28 or 35mm focal lengths - one for street and one for faces, right?
Fuji Natura Classica/Natura Black
Well, now. The Natura Black and Classica are such recent models that you can still find them new and boxed in some places.
The Classica’s selling point was that it was designed to be used with Fuji Natura 1600 - a very popular film that Fuji have now discontinued, because they are short-sighted and hateful. The Classica features ‘NP Mode’ - if you load a DX film of ISO800 or higher, the camera will automatically shoot in ‘high iso’ mode. I pined after this camera for years, and only sold it because I was on some next minimalist thing. It happens, occasionally. Luckily, both Fujifilm and Lomography make ISO800 colour films, so you can still enjoy low natural light shooting. It’s a very small and plasticky feeling camera, but packs a punch and includes a flash - definitely a good buy.
Olympus Mju ii (Stylus series)
I would have preferred not to list this camera as ‘premium’ - I do so because of its current price and not necessarily the camera itself. Until the hype came, this was one of those ‘so much camera for the price’ type of compacts. There are cheaper zoom versions available, but the Mju ii is, credit to Olympus, compact, stylish, easy to use and razor sharp. The flash makes it ideal for nightlife shots, too.
Easily comparable to the T2 and Nikon T28/35 in terms of looks and performance. Notably, it has a 40 mm Summarit f/2.4 lens which offers insanely crispy shots and a portrait-worthy capability for tangible depth of field. 40mm may just be the golden standard of all multi-use lenses.
Above and beyond the compact point and shoot, there are a couple of models of AF rangefinders worth mentioning, as they’re comparable in price to many of the premium compacts.
The Contax G1 takes a set of Carl Zeiss lenses that are reported to be the sharpest on earth (and yet still bizarrely affordable). The G1 has a habit of being unpredictable in its autofocus and range finding features - its more expensive sibling, the G2, doesn’t appear to suffer from the same curse - but the body alone is about 5 times the price of the G1. If you go for a G1, make the most of the system and pick up the 45mm f/2 ‘Planar’ lens. It was created to rival the Leica’s M-mount system at a fraction of the price. I bought my G1 and Planar for ¥15,000 from a friend. When he later wished he hadn’t sold it, he bought the exact same setup for closer to ¥35,000. Prices are likely reaching ¥50,000 and up in 2019. The 28mm Biogon lens for the G1 is a street dream, and usually affordable enough. There is also a 90mm f2.8 Sonnar lens for the G system which produces insanely cinematic images - of course, the Autofocus will troll you, but the win shots are so worth the fail shots. The G systems function as both Autofocus and Rangefinder cameras - both present occasional shot-nailing struggles, but if you ever find these cameras for a surprisingly cheap price, just go for it. With a 28mm, the G1 is basically the world’s heaviest point and shoot anyway.
Are you still reading? You did good, kid. You’ll know by now that I am not the type of writer who thinks that a list post featuring ‘the top ten whatever’ will cut it. Writing long posts like these provides me with an opportunity to prattle ad-infinitum about film cameras without having to see the boredom in peoples’ faces, so I consider it to be a win-win situation.
In my next ‘which film camera’ update, I’ll be focusing on SLRs (most intentional pun ever). We get to delve into the fun world of Nikon F3, Canon A1, and the Pentax ME-Super that your dad probably gave you.
Until next time,