The Smiling Camera

The Smiling Camera

Not one for endless analysis, poring over the fine detail of tech specs, or pixel peeking, I prefer to judge a camera’s worth (and whether I keep it or not) by my response to two simple questions – 

1. Does it make me smile when I’m using it?

2. Does it make me smile when I see the final photographs?

A Yes to Q1 but not Q2 and it will likely get another chance to see if I can produce some better final images, or just for the pleasure of using it again.

Yes to Q2 but not Q1, and it will likely be on the way out pretty soon. Life’s too short to waste time and film on cameras I don’t love using.

Yes to both questions of course is the holy grail of the photollector.

For me, there are a small group of cameras that have excelled in these areas, including the three above –

Konica C35 EF3 (the only compact camera I have two examples of, and even think about buying a third)

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Canon Sure Shot A1

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Olympus XA

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I plan to use these two simple questions more to weed out the mediocre and the maybes and get my collection down a handful of glistening gems…

How do you judge a camera and whether to keep it or not?

Wet Weather Wonder

23576529671_a04c5d3a70_cCanon Sure Shots and me have a pretty good history. I’ve had maybe ten, and all but one have been more than competent, intelligently designed, and fun to use.

I recently wrote about the Canon Sure Shot Classic 120, a camera that despite having a zoom lens, is very impressive in virtually all areas, and has become a favourite of mine.

This post is about the Canon Sure Shot A1, a compact made to be weatherproof and even waterproof, with specific design features to allow easy use underwater.

22981084901_54cc2380a0_cThe overall size is smaller than it looks in pictures, and handling is very good with the rubber grips front and rear and a big red shutter release button on top.

Similar to other later era Sure Shots, the A1 has a mode dial, and my favoured mode (flash off) is a simple two clicks up on the dial. I like that it’s the furthest most setting on the dial, so you can just grab the camera, push the lever up as far as it will go without looking at the front of the camera, and know you’re in the right mode and good to go.

I didn’t worry too much about its other features and modes, this is a camera that’s meant to be very much a point and shoot.

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The viewfinder is excellent, big and bold, and designed apparently to be usable with a diving mask or goggles on so even a few centimetres away from it you can clearly frame the scene.

The info in the VF is minimal, with the usual frame lines, centre section to focus the AutoFocus (and lock if required with a half press of the shutter button), and AF confirm light. If the green light doesn’t come on at all with a half press, then the camera hasn’t found focus and/or the subject is too close.

Speaking of close, the minimum focus is a pleasing 0.45m, closer than most compact AF cameras, and a big plus in my book.

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If the AF light stays green, the camera is focused and ready to shoot. If it blinks rapidly, focus is locked but (in the flash off mode I used it in) the blinking is warning you of camera shake, ie a slow shutter speed will be used, so you can make a decision to either switch to a flash mode, find a composition with more natural light, or just hold very steady and shoot!

Usually cameras have a green light for the AF and a red light for the flash. Once I understood the green light, I found it clever how Canon had eliminated the need for two lights and enhanced the camera’s overall simple, chunky and fun persona.

23658959585_16b3f11b0d_cOn the subject of the AF, it seemed to lock easily enough in use, but in the final images quite a few in my test roll seem a little off in focus. This might be down to it being a cloudy day with the camera using slow shutter speeds, and my hand not being as steady as I thought it was.

The lens is a 32mm f/3.5. My favoured focal length is 35mm, so I was intrigued to see if/how the extra 3mm would make a difference.

It did, marginally, and I was able to get a little more in the frame than usual, without getting into the wide angle compositions (and sometime the edging into distortion) that you get with a 28mm lens or wider.

23576529371_9f92c2f405_cThe lens – or rather the final photographs – were more “lo-fi” than I expected. On the basis of this roll compared with the roll I’ve shot with the Sure Shot Classic 120, I’d say the 120 has the superior lens – surprising, as that’s a zoom compared with the A1’s fixed lens.

I was happy enough with the end images, but if I was more obsessed with sharpness and clarity, there’d be a number of cameras I’d pick up before the A1.

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But to look for this kind of performance is missing the point of the camera.

Even on land it’s very easy and fun to use, and the almost oversized controls (including the refreshingly large VF) in an overall relatively compact package (jacket pocket compact, or hung around your neck with the funky wide strap) make it unique.

Though I didn’t test it underwater (and don’t plan to, I don’t know how well those seals have endured the last couple of decades) I was more than happy to walk around in light rain when I took the shots featured in this post, in a way I wouldn’t with a standard camera, and certainly not an SLR.

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The Sure Shot A1 helped me further clarify what I enjoy most about AF compact cameras, and the functions I value most –

A bright clear viewfinder, flash off control (and an easy way to select this), good handling, close focus (0.45m opens up a whole other world compared with 0.8m, especially with the slighter wider angle 32mm lens) and logical AF.

The A1 ticked all of these boxes for me, and overall remains another Sure (Shot) triumph for Canon in my eyes.

It’s not going to give you bitingly sharp images, but it will likely bring a great deal of enjoyment and a big smile to your face (and to the face of anyone who sees you using it and thinks you’ve borrowed your daughter/ granddaughter/ niece’s toy camera). And that is a huge part of what making photographs is about.

The Promise Shot

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It starts with someone else’s “Promise Shot”. 

A photograph taken with a camera I’ve become curious about, that shows enough potential to urge me further to get one for myself and see what I can create with it.

Then, hopefully after a roll or two, I manage to make a Promise Shot of my own, one that shows that this new (old) camera and me in partnership can conjure up something that excites and inspires me enough to try to do more with it.

The letterbox above is the first Promise Shot from a Canon Sure Shot Classic 120 I picked up a few weeks back. 

The colours, sharpness and depth of field are more than enough for me to want to take the 120 out again.

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But of course if the camera itself was horrible to use, these Promise Shots would mean next to nothing. 

For me, the experience of shooting with a certain camera is more important than the end result, though it’s even better when you get a few pleasing photographs to show for the experience too.

Fortunately, the Sure Shot Classic 120 is very enjoyable to use. 

It’s genuinely compact size (just about trouser pocketable, certainly fine in a jacket pocket), comfortable hold (the rubberised concave front grip is a delight), decent viewfinder (for a zoom) and thoughtful controls make it an immediate winner.

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Best of all, is the mode dial which controls the main settings of the camera, and has a Personal mode.

Whatever other settings you change when you’re in Personal mode, it remembers, even when you switch the camera off. And very cleverly, is I found out just now, even when the camera hasn’t had a battery in for a week!

These “other settings” are accessed by three buttons in a hidden panel on the back. The first is for flash modes which include the all important flash off and +1.5 or -1.5 exposure compensation – great for over- or underexposing expired film in an auto DX coded camera.

The Personal mode stores these settings remember, so once you set +1.5 exposure compensation at the start of a roll of film for example, it’ll stay set all the way through, until you tell it otherwise. Excellent.

The third button switches been the default metering and spot metering. Again, Personal mode remembers which you choose.

The middle button of the three alternates between single shot, timed shot (ie self timer) and continuous shooting. The self timer setting is not remembered when you switch off (probably a good thing) but whether you’re on single or continuous frame shooting is memorised.

Intelligently, the Personal mode on the dial is just one notch clockwise from the off position.

Also cleverly, the Auto mode is the same single click, but in the other direction from the off position, so whether you use your Personal configuration or just want the all Auto pure point and shoot experience, it’s a very quick single click of the dial to waken the camera ready for action.

It feels like this Sure Shot was designed by people who actually care about photography and the end users of their cameras.

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Two things I don’t love.

First, the flash that pops out sideways every time you switch on. It would have been good if, when the flash was set to off in the Personal mode, it meant this flash itself didn’t pop out. I just always found it trying to pop out where my finger was already resting. I may just put a piece of my favourite black insulating tape over it to keep it inside the camera, as I never use flash. Crude but effective!

The other feature I think could have been better (aside from the obvious fact that instead of the less than stunningly spec’d 38-120mm zoom lens it could have been made with a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens like in many of the early Canon Sure Shots, or even a 35-70mm like in the Rollei X70 or Pentax Zoom 70 series) is the AutoFocus confirm light. It gives the feedback you want, but in broad daylight is just so tiny it’s hard to always see. I found myself locking focus then pulling my head back a couple of inches to check the light was on and the focus locked, as I couldn’t see it when my eye was up against the VF.

Aside from these minor quirks, both of which can be got around, the 120 has impressed my greatly – as indeed have a number of Canon Sure Shots of the past. 

Whereas with film SLRs my favourite brand by a clear margin is Pentax, in the compact camera genre, Canon with their Sure Shots give Pentax with their equally vast Espio range a very good run for their money.

I look forward to shooting another roll with it soon, and maybe this time black and white.