Don’t Believe the hype – A tight-fisted photographer’s approach to compact cameras – By Tony Smith

The only cameras I took on holiday, total cost £31 (excluding film).

When Hamish mentioned writing this article after a tweet I posted, I decided early on that it wasn’t going to be a review. More a fan letter to the cheap & cheerful, often overlooked, plastic point & shoot cameras.

I am old enough to remember when a celebrity was someone who was outstanding in their chosen field, not just someone who oils their arse and sticks it on the front of a magazine. So perhaps that makes me somewhat immune to the celebrity premium that certain cameras attract. But if you are reading this relishing a bashing of celebrity culture and film camera endorsements, best to move on now.

If you can afford the likes of the Contax point & shoots, and really, really want one, go for it. Whatever you use, & whatever the reason you bought it, another member joining the film community is something to be applauded. But it’s just not for me.

Given the fact that cameras released when I was in my 20s are now regularly listed as ‘vintage’ we have to face an irrefutable fact, they are old and probably getting close to, or past, their expected life span. As such buying any second-hand camera is like gambling on a horse, but you know very little about how it’s been looked after or what life it has had. So my approach is to only spend what you can afford to lose without particularly caring.

My other concern is that people who may be new to film are starting from the viewpoint that it’s an expensive hobby, and it really doesn’t need to be. If someone has spent a fortune on a ‘premium’ compact they may not have as much to spend on film and the money they have spent is going into a secondary sellers pockets and not the ongoing industry. Plus when the camera inevitably dies they may drift away from film photography altogether rather than spend another eye watering amount to replace their chosen camera.

That’s why I embrace the cheaper end of the market.

Define quality?

If I want quality, or more control over the variables, when capturing an image I would use my Nikon F4. But the majority of day to day film shooting seems to be destined for nothing bigger than a 5×7 print or sharing on social media.

As such are you really going to see the difference in a £1,000 compact compared to a £10 compact? I would defy anyone to explain to me how that difference, whatever they perceive it to be, is worth an extra £990.

Canon Z135, Kodak Colourplus

I have been doing a photo blog since January 2008 without missing a day, it taught me an important lesson about what photography means to me. At first, I wanted to post the best shot I could each day but, looking back, the photographs that I am glad I took are the ones that stir memories not the ones that are more technically perfect, whatever that means.

I would rather have a less than perfect shot than miss a moment.

We need to stop comparing the output of cheap point & shoot cameras to shots from an SLR, or even from a ‘premium’ compact. I look at compact cameras as a cheap alternative to disposable cameras, but with much better quality.

With a cheap camera you don’t worry as much if an inebriated friend picks it up to take a shot or if someone drops it. So it can always be there on the table or in your hand ready to catch anything that grabs your attention.

Canon Z135, Kodak Ektachrome

The Canon Z135 I bought for £1, then loaded with a 36 exposure roll of Kodak Colourplus cost me less than a 24 exposure disposable camera. Even if you used ‘Buy now’ on the bay you can pick one up for between £10 & £20, if it dies after a few rolls it’s still comparable to the cost of disposables. But for the money you get a sharp zoom lens, autofocus, +/- 1.5 exposure compensation and spot metering. The fill in slow sync flash also gets some great results and has a great character to the shots.

Canon Z135, Kodak Ektar
Canon Z135, Kodak Ektar

Bang for your buck.

I think there can be a tendency to look down on 1980s and 90s plastic point & shoots but cameras like the Canon, Nikon and Pentax offerings are amazing value for money. When it was released in 1996 the Canon Z135s list price was 62,000 yen, at today’s exchange rate that’s around £450. It has always impressed me with its metering, so I decided to run my first roll of new Kodak Ektachrome through it. I daresay that a more expensive camera might have made a better job of the exposure when the light was a bit tricky and achieved sharper shots if I was blowing the images up to poster size. But the point is, because the camera was cheap it was always by my side. It sat there in 70F heat, it was dropped in the sand and got splashed when I was attempting to take a shot and entertain two Jack Russell’s at the same time. At the end of the day I was more than happy with the results.

If I had paid four figures for the camera it would have probably been treated with more respect, protected in a bag or kept safe until the time I decided to use it, and that’s the point. Having a camera you ultimately don’t worry about means it’s always there and the extra stage of getting it out is removed from the equation.

Canon Z135, Kodak Ektachrome

Every camera is unique

Point & shoots with a 28mm lens are less common, a lot top out at 35mm. The Nikon Lite Touch zoom shows why, the edges give a lot of distortion & smearing at 28mm, but even that is fun if you work with it, see it as a ‘look’ rather than a shortcoming. It’s a small price to pay for the extra width and tends to lessen in bright light, presumably as the lens stops down

Nikon LiteTouch, Kodak 200

In bright light it also has a tendency to underexpose, saturating colours and throwing some vignette into the mix. But sometimes technical perfection is a lot more boring than character.

Nikon LiteTouch, Kodak Ultramax
Nikon LiteTouch, Kodak Ultramax
Nikon LiteTouch, Kodak Ultramax
Nikon LiteTouch, Kodak Ultramax

Embrace imperfection

Even if you move up the price scale to a more popular camera like the Olympus XA2 you are still spending less than a tenth of the price of a Contax Kardashian or Yashica Influencer. Mine has quite spectacular light leaks which I will probably get around to fixing with new seals at some point, but again it gives a unique look that works. That is partly the point of these cheap compacts, I can use the same film in different cameras and get very different looks.

Olympus XA2, Lomo Xpro in E6
Olympus XA2, Lomo Xpro in E6
Olympus XA2, Lomo Xpro in E6
Olympus XA2, Fomapan 400
Olympus XA2, Fomapan 400
Olympus XA2, Fomapan 400

Final Thoughts?

It’s your money, if you think that a 4-figure price tag compact will make you happy, make your photography better, or a mix of the two, go for it. I really hope it does, but I know that to me it makes absolutely no sense.

It boils down to which would make the biggest difference to most people’s photography. Buying a £1,000 compact or spending the same money buying a cheap compact & working your way through dozens of rolls of film learning composition and how to see a shot?

So rather than bypassing cheap P&S cameras and then using the annoying shootfilmstaybroke hashtag, embrace their quirks, imperfections and cheapness. Think of the difference film stock can make to a shot, in colour rendition, grain & sharpness. Then apply that same criteria to the camera itself and see the look that a cheap compact can give as something to be embraced in the same way.

About me? – Just a chap who has always shot film, even when seduced by digital, and tries to remember it’s supposed to be fun, not a competition. I put whole rolls, even the duffers, on and spend more time than is probably healthy on twitter @AS0151


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50 thoughts on “Don’t Believe the hype – A tight-fisted photographer’s approach to compact cameras – By Tony Smith”

  1. This Tony Smith seems to be a brother in mind. To this read I have to say : “Amen !”
    Once I read about this Kardashian Contax hype I laughed my ass of while I clicked 1 buck p&s at three or four times on ebay. Since then I played around with those overlooked little stunners and enjoyd them a lot.
    To that 28mm Nikon thing: If you have some tip to spare for a new toy, get your hands on a Konica z-up28w for example or a Pentax Espio 928. Trust me. I got a second copy of each, only for the case one of it could die in the future. Love it.


  2. Some interesting images, well seen and composed. Don’t get me wrong, I realise some contributors to 35mmc are just snapping any old scene just to show how their cameras perform and I’ve done that myself loads of times.
    It’s just refreshing to see some better thought out images, (with dust spots and hairs removed!)

    Thanks Tony Smith,

    1. There really is a world of difference between an XA or XA2, and a typical thrift store p&s, and the crux of it is the absence of leetle fiddly motors and auto exposure on the Olys. I’ve bought dozens of $1 p&s cameras over the past decade, only to have motors fail and auto exposure crap out. IMHO stick with the most fully-manual p&s you can find … or buy a Nikomat and some pre-Ai lenses.

      1. Yep, in agreement with what you say about XAs, but for a few £ on a cheap plastic P&S it doesnt matter if they die after a few rolls. I have some that have been going for years.


    Just a brilliant post, loved the incisive observations, a breath of fresh air, thank you.
    Oh, and the photography is excellent!

  4. I’ve got a couple of Sure Shot models (A Telemax and the aformentioned Z135) and both give great results. I trust them enought that, on a recent trip to New York, I took the Z135 rather than a more capable SLR and it gave excellent results. I have an album of shots here:

    I also have a Pentax Espio 140M that cots me £1 that gives similarly nice images.

    I usually just chuck one in a coat pocket or bag so that I always have a film camera on me when I’m out and about. I don’t want them to be damaged, but at least I know they’re cost effective to rplace if needed.

    1. Some great shots in the Flickr album. There are a lot of very underrated affordable P&S out there, especially if you like gold effect plastic.

  5. I’ll go one further to recommend that like-minded people give another look to those plastic-bodied SLR’s from the “late-film era” c. 1990-2000. I’ve been a bit of a gear snob, but recently picked up both a Nikon N65 and a Canon EOS Rebel 2000, for under $10 US each. Whoa! These take great photos! Results compare very well with my Nikon F’s, etc. , with much less weight to carry around and with more features like multi-mode TTL metering, exposure compensation, Av and S priority, Automatic and Program modes as well as full manual. And the fill-in flash isn’t too bad either! The only difference between these and a modern DLSR is film vs. sensor. So I’m no gear snob anymore. I’m proud to walk the streets with my garage-sale plastic SLRs!

    1. Totally agree, I have a Nikon F50 that I generally leave on programme with a 28-70 zoom I use it like an advanced P&S. Its superb but with a menu system designed by a lunatic who had never used a camera in their life.

    2. Totally! I have the Canon EOS Rebel GII I bought for $8, mint. Found the EF 50mm 1.8 lens at a thrift store, mint, for $5. Weighs in at 382g w/ batteries and can perform equally to everything else I own.

  6. Great article & and photos, Tony. I have a couple of tips for people looking for 35mm compacts. I shop at thrift stores that usually have 50% off sales once a month. I keep an assortment of common P&S batteries in my pocket to test with before I buy. I bulk load my black & white film, so I keep 50, 100 and 400 ISO in my loaders and match it to the default ISO of DX cameras. Samsungs usually default to 25 ISO, so I use the 50 ISO film for those. Konicas seem to have lots of electrical problems, so heads up.

  7. ” I am old enough to remember when a celebrity was someone who was outstanding in their chosen field, not just someone who oils their arse and sticks it on the front of a magazine”
    Just stopped laughing at that one!
    I’ve not really done point and shoots since my XA died, but it seems a far more spontaneous way to shoot – that really comes across in your images.
    As much as I love my mechanical Nikon’s, some random point and shoot cameras is definitely the way to go.

  8. This was a great roundup about the three cameras, and the images are well done. I especially like the Canon images. An allure for me is the oddity of many old point and shoot designs. I have not been able to bring myself to purchase one with a lens that extends out to the moon, I have stuck to prime lens models. The allure draws me to the photo section of every antique store I go into. Last weekend I found a roll of chrome inside of a very old camera. I always ask if I can take it home to be developed, but for the first time I was told no. I guess the roll was considered part of the camera’s soul. Ya know, the salesperson was right. I love reading the never ending stream of experiments with old point and shoots. For the record, I resisted for a long time but got a nice Olympus Mjuii recently and had a ton of fun with it and got some beautiful images to boot. That camera along with the XA was a true design stretch to the compact end of things, and both cameras were graced with gorgeous lenses.

    1. Cheers, re recommendations, the list is too long, I think they all have their own unique charms & its what works for you. I love my Canon Z135 but its a bit too big for a pocket, people love the Olympus Mju but i dont like the handling of them, I have found old Fujis really reliable but with very flat rendering that i don’t enjoy. Just do what I do, search for anything under a cheap max budget and give it a try.

    2. The Nikon L35AF has a nice lens, good performer and is inexpensive. I have not shot the cameras, but many enjoy the Konica Big Mini and some cameras in the Pentax Espio line Canon AF35M. If you are looking for a moderate length zoom, any of the Olympus Mju will be good performers. All of these cameras have been reviewed on 35mmc. You must be prepared to get one that is a clunker out of the box, or that clunks during use – after all these cameras are getting on in years and have had different handling and care. Look for one that is advertised as being in good condition and has been film tested by a reputable seller. One guaranty, if it works well it will be fun.

  9. A great article, Tony, and really nice photos with it.
    Interesting to see photos of Manchester; I lived there until six years ago, and struggled to place some of your scenes – the city looks to have changed so much in those few years.

  10. Attracted by them for a long while, I got a bunch of them. Now I own more cameras than what I really use, and that’s less than what two hand fingers count. They take photographs, but at the end become rather an easy to carry toy. I shot film for more than two decades, and keep on doing it. But at the time to get a camera for strolling shots, I pick a digital nearly always.

    1. Whatever works for you is always the best solution, I tend to have a Panasonic lumix LX100 in my pocket as well as film cameras.

      1. George Appletree

        A great choice, I was tempted for a while to get, but finally Fuji’s are more versatile and have a real aps-c inside. There’s also a more recent LX100 II, or whatever is its name

  11. Yes, yes, and yes. My two Yashicas (Elite 70 and EZ Zoom 70) for a combined $5, and my Canon AF35ML (okay I paid $30, but it’s got a f/1.9 lens!) all take fantastic shots. All three of these cameras can compete with my more involved rangefinders and SLRs). Controlling bokeh is the only disadvantage in my mind, but the trade-off is complete subject focus. Everyone gets caught on specific models and drives the cost up when in fact one should look around more, there are hundreds (probably thousands) of models out there that might surprise you!

  12. Preach! Now I actually own a Kardashian Contax T2 and it’s a truly beautiful thing but I’m scared of breaking it; thankfully I didn’t pay anywhere near the going rate for it and if it were to break i wouldn’t be purchasing another. I also really love shooting my Canon AF35MII that cost me £3 in a charity shop, it’s slightly larger than the Contax so won’t slip in a pocket but slung over my shoulder it weights nothing and it was so cheap it doesn’t matter if it gets bashed about abit! This post has got me wanting a Z135 though, some zoom would be nice to go along with all my fixed lens cameras that tend to be about 35/38mm!

    Are you in the North West Steve? In addition to Manchester I couldn’t help but recognise the Southport Pier shot of the Funland sign!

  13. I love my SLR, but felt the need for a compact camera for a vacation earlier this summer. A local thrift store had a bunch of point-and-shoots, all priced at $2 regardless of quality. Naturally I grabbed the fanciest one, which also came with a mystery roll. The Pentax ESPIO 115 has become more of a go-to for its portability and simplicity, and lately I’ve been preferring it over my Minolta a303si for those reasons alone.

  14. Richard Williams

    I’ve liked this website for a few years now, but every so often a post comes along that is head and shoulders above the others. This is definitely one for me!

    Keeping it real and shooting with cheap cameras – fantastic. I’ve gone through quite a few cameras but pretty much my only film shooter now is a Canon Sure Shot Zoom 65 that I bought for 3 quid on eBay. It makes nice pictures, is light and unobtrusive, and if I drove over it tomorrow could be replaced without a shed tear.

    I’m working on a similar approach to my digital pictures too, because if I knackered my Lumix (albeit that it’s an older model) I would definitely be upset! I have a box full of cheaply acquired digital compacts to try out. Always good to experiment.

    The purchase of the aforementioned Canon (and subsequent drastic thinning out of my other cameras) was inspired by an earlier article on 35mmc. This one has just added a bit of life to my enthusiasm for film.


    1. I have to admit I tend to carry point & shoots and a Nikon F4 at the same time, but i do enjoy the liberation of a day/ night out with just a pocketable compact. I did have a Canon Sure Shot Zoom 65, good little camera but annoyingly chubby in my hands if that makes sense?

  15. Richard Williams

    I get what you mean Tony, yeah. There are more compact compacts for sure. The thing I like best is the control dial which lets you switch it on easily without flash rather than fiddling with tiny rubber buttons every time. I think that was a feature on a number of Sure Shots.

  16. I really like this piece. Mostly I agree with you. Although I use my SLR for big occasions I still have a handful of compacts which I love for different reasons and I always have one nearby. I’ve had a Z135 and a Lite Touch. I only put one roll through each. The Canon died less than half way through its first roll but still managed to give up 4 or 5 of my favourite pictures of all time. It’s quite a capable “compact” with a lot of options. Bit of a lump but very reliable. Generally.
    The Ektachrome shots are sensational. The colours are absolutely stunning even if the film costs 7 times as much as the camera!
    I have an XA2 that I haven’t used yet, mainly because It looks a bit tricky to use.

  17. A very good article, which I’m in total agreement with especially re the imperfect shot.

    When it comes to cheap compacts there can only be one winner for me and that’s my Pentax Espio 928 with its multiple exposure, Spot AF and Exposure compensation up to +/- 3.0 stops, which is topped off with a nice sharp lens. They are available very cheaply so i bought a couple as my first one went belly up after 5 years.

    1. I had one and did like it, much better results at 28mm than the Nikon. But I can be a bit of a tart with compacts and it was just too bloated looking for me to feel any joy about using it. I did really like the ‘easy pic’ mode though, focus fixed at circa 3 metres and lens fixed at 28mm, no lag just click and get the shot. A bit like Ricohs snap focus.

  18. Ahhh, one of the most refreshing articles I’ve read in a while. Sincere respect Mr Smith. Like you, I’ve owned and shot with some fine SLRs (mostly Pentax) for many years, but in the last few I’ve thoroughly embraced a number of p&s cameras. Out of habit I have at least one with me at all times, especially when I travel. Each has its own quirks and peculiarities that I have grown to work with to get results I like. All of this is a helpful reminder of what photography can be.

    1. Thank you John, I find it strange that I enjoy my Nikon & Pentax slrs, but don’t really get attached to them. I do get very attached though to certain Point & Shoots, mainly because (as you say) they have their unique quirks that give a certain look I like and can rely on

  19. Don’t forget the humble Olympus Trip 35 and the even humbler Lomo LC-A. Both cheap and easy to find. These cameras are capable of taking lovely, memorable shots. As long as you can guestimate distance they’re a breeze to use. The Trip 35 has an exposure lock and doesn’t even need batteries!
    Use either of these two models for street shooting and it couldn’t be easier.

    1. Agree on both of these choices. Part of the joy for me is that there are so many great small cameras around. I also wanted to partly point towards some of the cameras that don’t get recommendations, and therefore are often available for spare change.

  20. I’m a Olympus Infinity Stylus person with both the Zoom 140 and the 120. They’re perfect everyday cameras that I’ve taken on a trip once. Great article!

  21. Just for anyone coming to this thread as a complete newbie, in eBay speak ‘untested’ means its not working. Or at the very least, you should approach it as such. Another big one is conflating lenses, just because two lenses are both say 35mm f/2.8 doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same lens. ‘like mju’ ‘like yashica T3’ – hmmm yeah, that’s people trying to sell their Olympus AF-10 for 200 quid. Don’t fall for it.

  22. My tip would be to test the camera with a bad roll of film before your first use. You’ll be able to hear if motors in the camera are going bad.
    A film leader retriever will allow you to use the same bad roll over and over again. It is also my preferred way of removing film for developing. You can cut the film leader off in light instead of doing it in a changing bag or the dark.

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