Buyers Guides

Hunting for Compact Film Cameras – What to Look For / $5 Diamonds – by David Hume

April 6, 2021

The op-shop $5 compact is very much an endangered species where I live in Australia but it is not yet extinct. In the twilight of its days it may be instructive to look back at what it gave us…

In  recent years my daughters and some of their friends have been furnished with point and shoot cameras found in local op-shops for $5. Sometimes I’d get a text and a photo. “Hey – just saw this for $5. Should I buy it?” Generally the answer would be yes. The ones I didn’t like were given back to the shop so they could be sold again, a couple were kept for me, and the good, working ones were given away to the gang. “Everyone I know has a film camera. Everyone.” Said Issie recently.

Isn’t the the kind of shot these cameras were made for? Canon Sure Shot AF-7, Portra 400. Photo by Issie.

Times change quickly, and the $5 op-shop find might now be the $30 facebook marketplace find or a $50 eBay offer.  That’s not really the point – it was fun looking out for these cameras and  buying and playing with a whole bunch of cameras I didn’t need. Maybe the opportunity for this has passed; I would not have done this if they weren’t so cheap.

In any case I guess my curiosity is now pretty much satisfied and I’m not that much into compacts any more.  It’s not about gloating, “Oh and I just bought a Contax T2 for $5!” I think it’s more about how handling and using the cameras  has given me an insight in to the type of camera I’d recommend to someone else. If you don’t get to use the cameras how do you know what you like?

Mostly when researching cameras you have to do it by the specifications; “This lens is faster, that one has a more powerful flash” or whatever – and specs alone do not a camera make. What I’ll also try to do in this piece is put some of those features and specifications into perspective – sort of as a way to flag the kinds of thing I think are worth looking out for.

And it could be said that there never actually was a $5 camera. These were all bought on first inspection, no warranty, no returns – no claim made that they worked at all. Film testing will cost $20 or so depending on the scanning. So really, whether  you paid  $5 or $50 doesn’t much matter once you’ve put a few rolls through it; a good working compact bought with a little care should put a smile on your face.

A decent one will also give enduring pleasure and may introduce another person to film photography.

Here are some thoughts – along with three case studies – of some of the cameras we’ve come across and that worked out well:

Preamble:

In an op-shop you’ll need to decide on the spot, so you’ll have to take a punt. But until you buy batteries or put a roll of film through it, at $5 you’re really only gambling with the cost of a coffee. Of course op-shops are becoming way more canny about cameras and pricing them higher, but that’s fine by me. I’m sure the people who donate stuff would rather the true value of their donation went to charity and not to an eBay reseller.

If you’re buying from fb marketplace it’s tough. I have not yet bought any cameras from these groups, but I’ve bought some film from nice people for sensible money. It’s good to have an idea in advance of the sort of camera you’re looking for, as the good value ones tend to go quickly of course, and you’ll need to jump if you want one.  I’ve also seen for sale posts that made me cringe and  hope sincerely that a well-meaning person would not lose their money on a dud or vastly overpriced camera. The problem is,  I guess, that you need some experience to navigate the territory.

So here’s my little guide:

Firstly, I’d steer clear of the low-low end cameras that have only one aperture and one speed and no focus. Essentially they are like disposable cameras but you can refill them. I’m not saying they don’t have a place, but they don’t offer the same opportunities as something a bit better. Or perhaps I should clarify – If you understand their limitations and likely results and choose to buy one anyway then you are probably knowledgeable enough that this guide is not really for you.

I’d pass on the Booze Brothers give-away, even though it does have an “Optical Lens”.  (I’d hang out for the version that came with the Radio Lens.)

The sort of cameras I’m mostly concerned with are auto-loading, auto winding point and shoot cameras with built in flash from the end of the last century. These are not the trendy Olympus mjus or stratospheric Contaxes, they are plastic, maybe a bit bulkier than ideal, but they are solid, reliable cameras that deliver great results. And they’re cheap.

This is more like it. I’d forgotten I bought this until I was writing this piece. Whoever we gave this to got a nice camera.

1: The brand:

If it’s something you recognise, keep interested. Canon, Olympus, Nikon, Fuji, Pentax, Ricoh – All good. Again – If more brands spring to mind and I’ve neglected your favourite compact then you probably know all you need to know already.

Another good find and forgotten give-away.

2: The lens:

Much is made of the prime lenses in some of the high-end compacts.  (Yes, I’m looking at you Contax T2.) Mythic quality – the stuff of legend. But really, will you notice it? I’ll stick my neck out a bit and say mmm, yes, but not that often, and probably not unless you’re really looking for it. If you’re shooting scenes out of doors where the lenses are stopped down, it does not take a great lens to give you really good sharpness. If you’re shooting in low light without flash, motion blur or camera shake will likely be the limit. If you’re using flash, then accuracy of the AF and how good the flash exposure is, and whether there’s red-eye etc, will likely determine whether or not you get a shot you like.

In short, the designers of these cameras knew what they were doing. Times were different and the user demographic was different of course, but there’s no reason a cheap compact can’t give really great image quality.

In general I’d suggest favouring  a prime lens over a zoom lens (with caveats of course).

Why? Well a nice simple prime will give good image quality while still being fast. (Fast as in wide aperture – not AF, but that too.) In compact-land a 35mm f2.8 is fast, a f3.5-4,5 more likely. Without getting super-involved with it all, it is probably fair to say that if a manufacturer went to the trouble of putting an  f2.8 on their compact they were trying to make a camera that would satisfy people who cared about that sort of stuff. (i.e. you – if you’re reading this.)

Approach a zoom with caution. It can be a good place to get a bargain because the zooms are less popular, but there are reasons for this. Zooms are more complex, require more compromises and add cost and bulk to a camera. A simple analogy can be made with slrs – a cheap “nifty fifty” will have great image quality and be fast (say, f1.8)  whereas the pro quality 28-70 f2.8 is big, heavy and expensive. Putting a zoom that costs the same as a standard prime is going to lead to image quality compromises.

Another thing to consider with compacts is the viewfinder. A good viewfinder is pure joy and something you appreciate every time you put the camera to your eye. If the viewfinder needs to zoom with the lens  then there’s a whole lot of optical work being done there as well. The finder may be smaller –  the image not as bright, distortions creep in – you get it.

A nice camera – even though technically it’s a zoom it’s a goodie. This one now belongs to Kate (next photo)

Kate and Save snapped by Issie: Canon Sure Shot AF-7, Portra 400

3: The batteries:

If it takes AAs good. If it takes something like a 2CR5, a battery will cost you way more than a $5 camera did. Have a look in the battery compartment. If the battery compartment opens OK and the inside is not corroded, all good. I sometimes bought compacts that took different types of battery, but I knew what I was getting into by following that path. If you’re out hunting regularly it might pay to keep a couple of AAs with you. Pop them in and see if the camera makes promising noises. The other side of this coin though, is sometimes the higher-end cameras took the more exotic batteries, and that might lead you to something nice.

4: Everything else:

I mentioned viewfinders in the section on lenses, but I’ll restate it here because I believe it is such a part of the shooting experience.  Is it bright and clear? Are the frame lines distinct? And how does the camera feel in the hand? Things like whether it has a lens cover are important too, as compacts spend much of their time in bags and pockets bumping into other stuff. Apart from that – if nothing is cracked or broken, if it’s not too scraped and looks OK, it probably is. If you like the look of it, take the punt.

An interesting and pretty camera but  maybe a bit complex for our purposes. Anyway, it turned out that the flash does not work.

5: I bought it. Now what?

When I began this article it started out as a kind of buyers’ guide and I guess it’s still a bit like that, but these days personally I’d be looking mostly for cameras to give to new film shooters rather than cameras I’d use myself. This means I’d favour the easy to use reliable mainstream cameras rather than quirky exotics that pique my own interest. That being said it’s pretty hard to leave a good cheap camera sitting there in the shop.

Way more specialised than the cameras we’re looking for here, but hey, who could not buy this at $5?

So if you’ve bought a camera or been given one that was found in the back of a wardrobe in the family home, your best resource is a friend or relative who’s into cameras. Ask them to have a look at it with you and explain to you what is good about it and what is bad, and whether it’s worth putting a roll of film through it. They will be able to tell you how much a battery will cost if it does not take AAs.

I have a few different types of battery in a few cameras, so I can often pinch one of those to test a new camera before buying a new battery. I also keep a spoiled roll of film on hand to pop in and see if the camera fires and advances the film before trying a real roll.

Be wary of advice though. I have observed that people posting questions on fb groups or fora like “Hey! looking for recommendations on a good first camera!” end up with lots of bad information really quickly.

If you ARE on your own – good luck. A battery might cost you $15 and a film and processing another $20, so your $5 find is more like $40 by the time you’ve put a roll through it. (I’m talking Australian dollars here) If you google your camera you are bound to find out something about it, and this is a good way of starting to work out what you have. In most cases you’ll be able do download a manual for it.Bear in mind that the same camera could be called different things depending on where it was sold. But really – troubleshooting 30 year old compact cameras is not a game I’d  sign up for except as a fun puzzle.

The Canon canon

It so happens that three of the more recent compact purchases I’ve made are Canons (featured at the top of this article). They are lower, mid and upper level cameras from the same maker, and I think they serve as really good exemplars of how a manufacturer might increase the feature set as price goes up. (New price that is – all these were $5). To wrap up here, I’ll  end with an image from each of them.

Canon Sure Shot AF-7, Ilford XP2

Canon Shureshot Supreme, Kodak Ektar 100

Canon Snappy LXII, Fujicolor C200

Make of those what you will. In a follow-up to this piece I’ll look at each of them in a bit of detail and talk about what they’re like to shoot.

Thanks for reading!

 

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Bastian Peter
    April 6, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Oh I love to browse trough those when I see them. Unfortunatley all the markets outside are closed.
    But I also really have a problem with buying those older point and shoot whenever I find some. Great article and
    the photos look great.
    You had me at “Generally the answer would be yes.” haha awesome. Best regards

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 6, 2021 at 9:30 pm

      Cheers Bastian – Yes, it’s hard not to buy them, isn’t it. Perhaps there needs to be a support group…

  • Reply
    Mats
    April 6, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Nice article! I’m going down more or less the same path, collecting cheap cameras Ias they come by. And I agree that ultimately how much you enjoy using the camera and handling is more important than the lens or specs. I also agree that the lens is more likely than not going to be good enough.

    I belive the AF7 and the Snappy LXII is more or less the same camera with a slightly different body. At least the lens and the specs are the same. I have the LXII (called AF8 in Europe) and I really like it. That viewfinder is insane! And the lens is more than adequate.

    I also recently acquired a Sure Shot Supreme and I’m going to scan the first roll tonight.
    I have to say the shutter button is one of the more temperamental I’ve tried. And that flash cancel button on the bottom? Must be the most impractical solution known to man. Not something I’d recommend to a beginner. Who designed this stuff? The lens is supposed to be a very nice 4 elements in 4 groups design though..

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 6, 2021 at 9:37 pm

      Cheers Mats. I’m doing a follow-up piece where I compare the specs – all the manuals are on line. I do think the LXII and AF 7 have the same lens, (and it’s just fine as a lens too) but the AF7 is auto-focus while the LXII is fixed… but more on that in the next piece. And yes, that flash cancel button on the Supreme is a nightmare; clearly they didn’t want anyone to use it! I put a roll through mine on the weekend so I can use it for Part II. I put Ektar through it, so we’ll see how it went with that. Hope you got some good shouts out of yours,

      • Reply
        Mats
        April 6, 2021 at 10:20 pm

        Ah, so the Snappy LXII is the BF-8 in Europe then. The AF-8 has AF as the name implies.

        Looking forward to that follow-up. I have some shots in good light where this lens really shines! Great contrast and color.
        Do you like the button system on the Af-7 or the wheel on the LXii better?

        • Reply
          David Hume
          April 6, 2021 at 10:37 pm

          I like the wheel. The LXII is the camera I actually use (there’s a full-roll-Friday coming soon about it, and I’ve done a couple of other pieces on it on 35mmc already.) But I use it in a very specific way for a long-term project I have going. For my money (all $5 of it) the AF-7 that is my daughter’s P&S now is the best of the bunch for its intended purpose. She gets great results from it, and the flash works nicely too, as you can see in the shots above. That viewfinder too!

          • Mats
            April 7, 2021 at 11:10 am

            Got around scanning the Supreme roll. I wanted to like this camera as it has a feature that few of it’s 80’s brethren has (I can only think of the Nikon L35AF3 on top of my head). Close focus to 55cm.
            I do a lot of people/portrait style shots and like to get in close, so this is very useful.

            But I’m not too impressed. Too many missed shots due to the camera just not focusing right even when the subject is in the center. Several accidental shots where I only wanted to half press the shutter button, but the camera decided to take a picture anyway. A few shots with my thumb in it, due to me trying to force fill flash by covering the light meter and then pushing that above mentioned moody shutter button. And a few blurry ones I blame on me trying to use that horrible flash cancel button, making the camera unsteady to operate in low light.

            On the few good shots I did get the lens seems pretty good. But I have other cameras that would do just as good without all the fuss and missed shots. I think it’s a good example of why specs do not make a good camera. My AF-8 would have done better on most of the shots.

          • David Hume
            April 7, 2021 at 12:17 pm

            Thanks Mats – this is a terrific comment and I have to say I was hoping I’d hear back from you with your results. At time of writing I’m waiting on a roll of Ektar 100 (which should be a good test of exposure) but I’d have to agree this camera is not to my taste. I wonder if you’ve read the manual? It seems very directed towards “We will make sure you don’t miss the shot” which in all fairness might make sense to the demographic the camera was aimed at when it was released – it took away almost all manual control – flash being a shining example. My thoughts are currently that now people who are using it want way more control and info than the users would have when the camera was current. I tested the “close focus to 55cm” and found it worked. But it told a tale – in that the manual it said “useful for your hobbies like fishing and flower arranging.”
            Let’s keep this conversation going.

          • David Hume
            April 8, 2021 at 4:40 am

            Okay – I got a roll of Ektar 100 back today and my experience pretty much mirrors yours. I’ll write it up for the next piece. BTW did you know that there’s a little rubber thing on the strap for sticking in the meter to force flash? But then it wouldn’t be fill flash would it? It would be full on flash? I don’t think the manual says anything about that. I think I once made a bit of plastic to stick in the flash-cancel spot so it wouldn’t fire. I’ll have to dig that roll out.

          • Mats
            April 7, 2021 at 12:03 pm

            I’m impressed by the flash performance of the AF-7 in your daughters photos BTW. On my AF-8 the flash seemed a little weak and made some slightly underexposed and ugly shots. The only thing I didn’t like about it. Here it looks as good as any point and shoot I’ve seen. Maybe the latitude of Portra 400 helps a bit as well?

          • David Hume
            April 7, 2021 at 12:26 pm

            Agreed. And this raises another point. We now have the advantage of these great ISO 400 films that perhaps make the cameras seem better than they did? I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to research this to my satisfaction but it is something that certainly was in my mind. I’ll try to tease this out in the follow-up. Thanks Mats – I value your input.

          • Mats
            April 11, 2021 at 8:57 am

            Thanks David! I haven’t read the manual but I’ve seen it paraphrased so yes, I did know that there is supposed to be some kind of rubber thing made for jamming into the light meter. On my copy it’s missing though. Anyways, unbelievably user unfriendly and just an all around horrible design.

            It’s kind of baffling that it took the camera makers so many years to come up with sensible flash settings. A switch that lets you set Auto, On or Off. How hard is that? My Minolta Talker has the most straight forward flash system of these early compacts. On or off. With a low light warning led.
            I’m looking forward to your piece on the Supreme and the others!

  • Reply
    David S Kassnoff
    April 6, 2021 at 10:04 pm

    Wonderful post. My weakness for ’70s era point-and-shoots goads me now and then. In my region, we have Savers’ stores that sell 35mm point-and-shoots for around $5-$6, and I’ve had interesting luck. Agree on your recommendations on Canon and Olympus models. Ricohs for some reason aren’t nearly as well-built. Kodak P/S cameras are all over the map, ranging from the chunky-but-sharp VR35 K12 to the simpler but cheaply built Kodak Star series. Many Kodaks have a Chinon lineage.
    A couple of watch-outs:
    o Avoid APS cameras. Even if they work, the film’s hard to find, the negatives are smaller than 35mm, and processing might be very hard to find.
    o The Minolta Hi-Matic F is a lovely rangefinder, but versions I’ve encountered have circuit degradation that’s often attributed to their original mercury batteries. I’m also impressed with the $5 Minolta Freedom P/S short-zoom cameras I’ve found here and there.
    o If a camera body has rubber cladding, it’ll often be deteriorating and sticky. This ruins the experience, unless you’re willing to apply gaffer’s tape over the rubber parts.
    o I use white vinegar and a child’s slender paintbrush to dissolve alkaline battery leakage residue. Allow the battery compartment contacts to dry thoroughly.

    Thanks again.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 6, 2021 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks for the input David! I should have mentioned that about the APS! (I didn’t even consider them actually) And nice tips all round thank you. My Hi-Matic had original mercury cells still in it and the compartment looks fine, but I have not even bothered hunting down new batteries for it so I don’t know if it still works. I think I’ll let someone else sort that out. It’s a very pretty camera but for the type of stuff I do my Trip 35 is perfect and I get on really well with it. Cheers

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    April 7, 2021 at 1:25 am

    Hi Dave,
    Your article brought me back to my teaching days. I ran a high school photo program in a lower middle class town in Connecticut. I’d put out a call through the local PTO for any old 35mm cameras. I got buckets of p&s cameras! I’d have 30+ kids and everyone had a camera. People were generous and so supportive. This went on for years until I retired a few years ago. The point: never underestimate the power of a cheap camera – it opens up an unknown world for so many & it’s fun!
    BTW, what’s an op-store? My Aussie is a bit rusty 😊!

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 7, 2021 at 1:39 am

      Cheers Dan – Yes, these cameras are great are they not? I’m observing that the new generation of photographers who are not film-natives really appreciate the process and the aesthetic that they offer. “Op-Shop” is short for opportunity shop, which is a shop run by a charity and staffed by volunteers that sells donated goods and gives the proceeds to the needy. I think it’s the same as a thrift store, but I’m not sure about that. Always do my bit to keep the Aussie vernacular alive. (Sorry gotta shoot through now, said I’d take the sheilas to Uni in the ute.)

  • Reply
    Huss
    April 8, 2021 at 1:18 am

    I have two of those Konica EF-3s. On one the flash doesn’t work, and it seems that is how they are for most of them.
    Great lens, but it is a good light camera as the slowest shutter speed is 1/60 sec.

    “If you’re out hunting regularly it might pay to keep a couple of AAs with you”..
    not only do I do that but I also take 2 SR44 (the standard cell size used by most pre AF slrs, 2 CR2s, 2 CR123s, a 2CR5.. they only take a little space in a side pocket and that way I’m ready when I go to flea markets/swap meets/boot sales. Yes, it’s a problem…

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 8, 2021 at 3:24 am

      Cheers Huss – that’s next level! Maybe there does need to be a support group here. Thanks for the info on the Konica; they feel nice in the hand though, don’t they?

      • Reply
        Huss
        April 9, 2021 at 4:27 am

        I really like the Konica, it takes great pics, like you said feels great in the hand, and is very pretty. I have two because I couldnt resist a red and a blue.
        Only downside is the 1/60 sec slowest speed, But loading 400 ISO film into it allows you to shoot into the late afternoon.

      • Reply
        Mats
        April 11, 2021 at 8:35 am

        I’m going to admit that I too carry all the common batteries if I’m going to a shop looking for cameras. I should also mention that I have no problem with the 2CR5 or CR-P2 batteries people seem to hate. You can find them relatively cheaply online, and once you have them they last for AGES. And they recharge the flash a whole lot quicker than AA batteries. Or CR123 even. Not somehting that matters to everyone, but with my shooting style it does.

        Coincidentally I also have two Konica EF-3s, one where the flash isn’t working and one with a working flash, but where that orange light that tells you the when flash is charged is broken. I also recently got an Agfa Optima Sensor Flash cheaply and it’s going to be fun to compare these cameras.

        • Reply
          David Hume
          April 11, 2021 at 12:09 pm

          “Hello, my name is Mats, and I … ” (OK we won’t say it, but there are coffee and biscuits on the table. Pull up a chair and join the group when you feel comfortable. You will not be judged.)

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    April 8, 2021 at 3:36 am

    Sound like you’re off to college with your ladies in your SUV! Drive safe, shoot some pics! 😆!

  • Reply
    Jeff
    April 9, 2021 at 2:23 am

    Fun topic! My wife and I have a few of these we call “adventure cameras” to take on a hike, canoeing, or to the beach. My priorities are prime lens, AA or AAA batteries, dirt cheap, and on/off control of the flash. Favorites so far: Minolta Talker, Canon Sprint, and the Minolta AF2 (though that last one is a bit large).

    • Reply
      David Hume
      April 9, 2021 at 3:51 am

      Cheers Jeff – I think those priorities you list are spot-on.

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