At this stage in my "cheap camera" photography journey, my quest was to score good SLRs. My motivation, of course, was driven by a false belief that SLRs are the only camera form factors that could deliver quality images. This notion was probably ingrained by how all professional photographers I saw — almost everywhere — used SLRs. I seem to have formed a strong belief — which I now regret — to look down on anything that didn't have a pentaprism and an interchangeable lens system. My flawed impression about SLRs changed after I experienced the Canon AF35m camera.
I found the AF35m at a flea market, bunched up with some 1980's memorabilia. Interestingly, before I came across this camera, I had passed on so many compact cameras just because they weren't SLRs. I however picked this one up without much hesitation. So, what made me lose my strong belief in SLRs? First, this was very a cool looking camera. Second, it was a Canon in good physical condition. Finally, and most interesting of all, it relied on two regular double "A" (AA) batteries, and I happened to have had a pair in my pocket. With permission from the vendor, I popped in the batteries and was immediately excited by the sounds the camera produced as I operated it. I paid for it, took it home, and tried to find out what is was capable of.
One of the first things I wanted to find out was, how old this camera actually was. Under the influence of the items in the lot where I picked this camera, and the overall boxy look of its design, I estimated this camera to have originated sometime in the 1980's. Contrary to my estimate however, this camera in this particular form factor was introduced in 1979 — which , I believe, is still close enough to be considered 1980's. Another thing I found interesting about this camera, was the history behind it. It apparently happens to be the first fully automatic compact camera made by Canon. As far as I could tell, from almost every post I read online, Canon's auto focus system (which was branded as CAFS) for this camera, worked by bouncing infrared light off the subject to determine its distance from the camera. This was indeed very innovative for 1979. Relying on infrared light allowed the autofocus system to work really well — even in the dark. It however introduced an annoying quirk which made it impossible for the camera to focus directly through glass, unless shot at some weird angle. With this particular quirk aside, this camera was truly a technical marvel at the time it was made. Apart from manually setting the ISO (since DX encoding wasn't introduced until 1983), every other function on this camera was fully automatic. All you needed to do was pop in your film, point the camera at anything you found interesting and you just shot away. The camera did the rest. Point and shoot. For 1979, that was definitely insane.
Physically, for a camera branded as a "compact" point and shoot, this camera is rather huge and bulky. This shouldn't be a surprise; for a compact made late in the 1970's, this is probably as compact as it could have gotten. Holding it in my hand, it does seem have some heft to it and, although it's externally made mostly of plastic, it doesn't feel cheap or flimsy. This made me have a strong feeling (that I still haven't confirmed) about the innards of this camera, either having a metal frame or a significant number of metal components. The external plastic surface however, for most parts, is very smooth and feels slippery. To make it comfortable to hold, a rubber grip has been glued unto the surface and the back of the camera is textured.
Optically, this camera is fitted with a fixed 38mm lens which has a maximum aperture of f2.8, and 48mm filter thread. I would have loved to tell you about the fancy number of groups and elements in the lens but I currently do not understand the significance of those numbers (and I don't want to blindly regurgitate stuff I clearly don't have a clue about). One thing I can say about the lens is how well it performs when actually shot.
As I stated earlier, I was partly influenced to buy this camera because I was excited by the sounds it makes. To be honest, I wouldn't have been disappointed if the camera failed to work. I'd have always been okay with it, as long as it produced those sounds. Luckily for me however, the camera worked. Why else would it have made the right kind of sounds if it was broken? Apart from the sounds from this camera being amazingly retro as expected, the sounds are also very loud. The camera clicks, it whirrs, and when the flash is charging, it whines. This camera produces all the iconic sounds of photography our smartphones try to replicate these days.
When it comes to handling while shooting, the textured surfaces and the large size of the camera makes it easy to grip. For it's age, it has a very bright viewfinder with very distinct frame lines (which includes extra lines for parallax correction) and zone focus symbols to give you an idea of the distance the camera selected while focusing. Apart from the lines and icons, there is also an indicator in the viewfinder to tell you when the camera selects a low shutter speed (which might introduce blurry photos). For situations where this indicator is triggered, there is a pop-up flash you can use by engaging a switch in front of the camera. This flash really pops, and I mean that both in terms of the brightness of light, and how fast the flash unit is ejected. Just as you push the flash switch, the flash unit just appears out of nowhere with an appropriate loud clank! Please be careful to keep your finger out of the way; you do not want be bound for the emergency room (just kidding, but you get the idea). Apart from the flash, you can rely on the soft — and very responsive — shutter button to counter some camera shake, in certain conditions, if you have steady hands.
Autofocusing on this camera is another feature I found interesting. The operation of the autofocus system definitely needed some getting used to, especially if you have a lot of experience with digital cameras. The truth is, at the time this camera was introduced, the autofocus feature in cameras was relatively very new. Different manufacturers were still experimenting and trying to figure out what works best. You can compare this to self driving cars these days. This constant innovation meant there wasn't any standard as far as operating the autofocus system was concerned. For this particular camera, Canon went with a design where auto-focusing happens immediately you press the shutter to take a picture. This means, the camera focuses quickly, and immediately opens the shutter to make the exposure, right when you push the button. Even with all these steps, there is no shutter lag and the autofocus works very fast. Focusing is also quite accurate, as long as your subject is correctly placed directly in the center of the frame (which is the autofocus point) and is also not behind any glass. So, how can you compose shots where the subject is not in the center? Well, the trick here is to first place the subject in the center of the frame, engage the self-timer (also labelled pre-focus), which in turn activates the autofocus. You are now left with about 10 seconds to quickly recompose your frame and push the shutter button before the self-timer expires. Good luck!
I ran a few rolls of film through this camera and carried it around for about a week. The images that came out of this camera were surprisingly beautiful. Although the autofocus system was a little quirky, it was really fast and most of my pictures were correctly in focus. The flash in this camera was very harsh and it gave really strong shadows whenever I used it. You can imagine how astonished I was when I found some unexpected shallow depth of field effects when I developed my rolls. My views on cameras have definitely been changed by my experience with this camera and, I'm proud to say, I no longer hold prejudiced positions about any type of cameras. After all, the real beauty of this, is the magic of capturing light in a moment so you could relive that moment over and over again.