About a year ago, a single white truffle found near Turin sold at auction for €120,000 (just under £108,000), while the world’s largest sold for over $60,000 (£46,000) in 2014. The internet is awash with theories as to why truffles are so expensive, ranging from the skill and luck required to find them to their unique gastronomic qualities, but most explanations miss the key factor behind all ‘why is this so expensive?’ mysteries – perceived value. Ultimately, things have the value the market gives them, as ridiculous as that value may seem to the disinterested majority, and there’s nothing anyone can do to change it.
What does this have to do with film cameras, you might be wondering. Well, in a market where there are no new products (Leicas don’t count) and no new technologies to impact prices, perceived value is everything. Where this gets problematic for buyers is when high prices gloss over glaring issues. The Minolta CLE, for example, can rarely be found for less than £1,000 with a lens thanks to its Leica-adjacent appeal, but suffers from unreliable electronics that can make its meter and auto exposure useless, while the Olympus mju i usually goes for around £100 due to the popularity of its successor, but has very poor low-light autofocus and a flimsy sliding cover that renders the camera unusable if it breaks.
Where, then, should a savvy film enthusiast invest their cash? Given that it tends to be intangible appeal that drives prices so high, the wise move now is to hunt out those film cameras that have yet to be rediscovered, or were never very popular in the crowded market of their time. Enter the Olympus AF-1 Mini – a compact plastic wonder from 1995 that’s stayed remarkably cheap thanks to being lumped in with the hulking AF-1 line of the 80s, with which it shares a name, even though it actually has more in common with its 90s brethren in the pricey mju line.
Let’s start with the basics; the Olympus AF-1 Mini weighs around 300g with a 35mm film and a CR123 battery loaded, and is 11.5cm wide, 6cm tall and a slender 2-3cm deep for the most part, though the point of the wavy front panel that sticks out most comes in at 4.5cm deep. In a way, this feels like a downside – it makes the camera slightly too fat to fit comfortably in a shirt or trouser pocket. However, this protrusion provides a nicely shaped edge to grip when sliding the cover open, making the process (which also turns it on) smooth and definite. In use, this means you can grab the camera, move it to your eye, position your finger over the shutter button and slide the cover open in one fluid motion with one hand – great when speed is of the essence.
And now that you’ve got the Olympus AF-1 Mini in position, we can move neatly on to the camera’s actual functions. These are extremely simple, but no less smooth than the physical experience. A clear black square in the centre of the viewfinder frame marks the autofocus spot, with a green light confirming focus and auto-exposure. Unfortunately, there’s no indication of what distance you’ve focused to or what settings the exposure system has dialled in. The former would have been good to have, the latter is actually something of a blessing not to have. Exposure information is only really useful if there are settings to adjust, and if the aperture and shutter speed of the Olympus AF-1 Mini were adjustable, it would be a different, much heavier, much more expensive, much more fragile camera. And besides, who really bothers with the clunky manual settings on compact cameras anyway?
Humble setup, premium results
What you’re left with here is a fast, comfortable camera with zero distractions – just slide it open, focus, recompose and shoot. Simple. Until you flash your candid street photo subject full in the face, attracting the confused attention of everyone around you. Yes, the Olympus AF-1 Mini also automatically decides when to throw some flash into the mix. There’s a little red warning light in the viewfinder next to the focus lock indicator, and the flash can be turned off entirely with a couple of presses of the flash button (the only button apart from the shutter release and the self-timer), but it resets to auto-flash as soon as you close the cover and open it again. This is fine at, say, a wedding or with a group of friends, where you might keep the cover open for an extended period anyway and the potential for embarrassment is far lower, but for street photography or the odd chance snap, it can catch you out.
Get used to setting the flash mode with a couple of taps though (assuming you want it off), and you can rest assured the Olympus AF-1 Mini is an absolute joy to use. The viewfinder is clear and crisp, though a little small and prone to blackout unless you look through it dead-centre, and the focus, shutter and film advance are all pretty quiet for an automatic camera (though don’t expect Konica Hexar AF levels of stealth). Perhaps most importantly, the 35mm f3.5 lens, which is the same as that housed in the mju i, renders sharp images with good contrast and pleasant colours – neither is overly pronounced in the Lomo LC-A style, but photos have that vibrant compact camera look that you’re likely to be in the market for if you’re hunting down a copy. As a side note, though I doubt it’s a feature many will use, the Olympus AF-1 Mini also has the red eye-reduction flash system from the mju i, as advertised memorably by Dawn French and David Bailey.
Truffle or turnip?
There are one or two things to look out for, of course, not least the little plastic window that shows you what film you have loaded. It’s glued on, so can pop out under moderate pressure, but glues back in pretty easily too. Popping it out shouldn’t ruin your roll either, as there’s a nice bit of light seal foam around it which sits directly against the film canister. Interestingly, this is the only foam used; the rest of the light sealing is provided by plastic channels and grooves on the body and the film door, which lock together when the Olympus AF-1 Mini is closed and mean one less thing to worry about when perusing the second-hand market, since they won’t really deteriorate in the way foam does.
Do these issues mean the Olympus AF-1 Mini isn’t worth a punt? Well, consider that I got mine for £35 on eBay, and they’re regularly available for under £50. Whether or not you think this is worth it given the minor negatives and overwhelming positives is a reflection of one’s own expectations. What’s undeniably true, however, is that the artificially low prices of five or 10 years ago have spoiled us. Nobody should expect to find a decent, working film camera of this quality for much less than this price point any more, and the perceived value of capable, sharp-lensed models is so high now that an mju/Konica Big Mini rival for £35 has to be considered a steal in 2020.
The better question, then, is to ask yourself what you need. If you’re after an adjustable, full-control experience that oozes quality and craftsmanship, even £35 might be a waste of money considering the Olympus AF-1 Mini won’t really give you that buzz of a luxury item. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a light, small, weather-proof camera that’s ergonomically designed, fast to use, sharp and reliable with minimal fuss, then few, if any, 35mm film compacts offer better value for money. Long-term reliability may come to be an issue with any electronic camera, but being from the relatively recent (in film terms) year of 1995 means you should have a few extra years on the more premium-feeling but less trustworthy options from previous decades too.
Ultimately, the Olympus AF-1 Mini is a camera to be used and enjoyed; an unobtrusive tool that makes it easy to take good photos and doesn’t cost the earth – what more could you want?
Temoor Iqbal is a street photographer with a passion for 35mm film and cameras – check out his work on Instagram.
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22 thoughts on “Olympus AF-1 Mini review – The Hunt for a Hidden Gem – By Temoor Iqbal”
The Olympus is a fun camera. But few things roll my eyes more than careless writing. The camera uses either a CR123 3v Lithium Battery or two AA Batteries, not the small CR2 battery. The writer’s rambling build-up about truffles screams “get to the point!” I usually enjoy the 35mmc blog, but fact-checking and editing were absent in this post. Thank you.
I’m not sure that confusing a cr2 and cr123 battery is “more than careless”, and whilst I do check over some facts and details as I edit, I think you are grossly underestimating the effort I already put into this website if you want me to check every single detail of every single article to the degree of checking battery type. As for the 279 words prior to the mention of the camera – ~1:30 reading time – one of the key messages I like this website to perpetuate is that the trends for certain cameras over other very similar ones often leads people down wrong purchasing paths… Which is why I was happy to leave that relatively short preamble in.
I agree, if I wanted to read a spec sheet I’d go on Wikipedia. 🙂 Thanks for the article.
Hamish, I apologize — I generally enjoy the posts on this site. I was bothered by the inaccuracy in this post, and thought readers would benefit from a correct interpretation of the camera’s specs. I don’t rely on Wikipedia for such details, as its content is often fully unedited. Thank you.
No worries ????
I have edited the post based on your feedback regarding the battery 🙂
A most interesting review Temoor. Image quality speaks volumes for the integrity of this little beast!
Thanks Brian! Glad you enjoyed it. The camera really is a pleasure to use and it got me excited about finding more under-the-radar gems
I enjoyed reading about this apparent “hidden gem” of a point and shoot camera. The AF-1 Mini was on my short list when shopping for a reliable and less-hyped point and shoot. However, after publicly exposing the easy-to-use aspects of the camera and the good image quality the AF-1 Mini is capable of, I hazard to say that this article will directly contribute to increased demand and therefore increased prices for this solid little camera. So much for keeping it on the down-low. Sad face.
Thanks Lee! Very kind of you. Yes, I see your point when it comes to this specific model – pointing out that it’s a hidden gem might be exactly what stops it from being that! However, take heart from the fact that if there’s one hidden gem then there’s bound to be more – I’m sure a few others made your shortlist, and I wouldn’t blame you for keeping them under your hat 😉
A good article, Temoor, thank you. Someone commented about an apparent confusion regarding battery type. I took another look and couldn’t see any reference to any other than the correct ones in the article (or should I have gone to Specsavers?)
One of the things about this site I enjoy is the diversity in it’s content, both “home grown” and that of guest contributors. Keep up the good work, one and all.
Thanks Ralph! Appreciate your comments. It was my mistake with the battery type, but I believe Hamish has now amended the text to specify the correct one.
Seems like yet another decent option to put on my list 🙂
About the Mju i, does it really have poor low light focus though? I thought its active, infrared auto focus system wouldn’t really care if the light was low or not?
I find my Mju i are better in lowlight and all around, I absolutely hated the 3 Mju ii I ever owned and they all ended up failing
Seems like yet another decent option to put on my list 🙂
About the Mju i: Does it really have poor low light focus, though? I thought its active, infrared auto focus system wouldn’t really care if the light was low or not?
Thanks Mats, yeah definitely a good option to consider. The mju did have poor autofocus for me – it seemed worse in low light, but maybe it was just generally sluggish? Either way, it wasn’t nearly reliable enough and seemed to struggle most in pubs/bars/clubs for me.
Hmm yeah, maybe the autofocus is just unreliable in general on the mju i. I’ve seem people complaining about it. I take it that you are more happy with the AF of the AF-1 Mini?
Absolutely – the AF-1 Mini’s autofocus didn’t really let me down and didn’t seem to hunt much. It’s much quieter and less chuntering, if that makes sense, which means as well as being faster it also *feels* faster.
The “Hidden Gem” status of the AF-1 Mini has been found with prices over €100. One on ebay is going for 164,05 as I write this.
I’m glad I snagged mine for under €30 a while back. I actually like it a lot more than the MJU1 if only for better handling.
In the United States this camera is known as the Infinity Mini. Other than the name on the front it is identical. If you cannot find a “AF-1 Mini” look for it under the U.S name.
Thanks for the interesting article, I’ve just managed to find one probably from someone unsure of its true value for £25 delivered here in the UK; only issue seems to be that the battery door requires a selotape modification to keep it shut! Looking forward to getting my mitts on it and running through some rolls of film.
Hey, great review! Loved hearing your thoughts about this camera and im thinking about getting one for myself. However, would you recommend the olympus infinity mini or the olympus infinity? Im currently using a canon autoboy 3 but am unsure if my camera is better or worse in comparison to the olympus’?
I’ve owned a couple of these babies, and “hidden gem” is spot on! One downside to the “hidden” part of the equation is that it’s hard to find information about the specs beyond the basics. I am dying to know what the range of shutter speeds is, for one thing!