Olympus AF-1 Super and Fuji DL-300
Gear Theory

A Tale of Two Compacts – Emotion and Camera Choice – By Octavia Vans

September 16, 2021

This article originally began its life as separate reviews of two different not-so-compact cameras. However at some point they merged into a comparison, and then evolved, like a hulking black plastic 80s and 90s point-and-shoot sort of Pokémon. Besides the two cameras having quite a lot in common, I found that I kept circling back to what I was looking for in the experience of using one of these cameras. What has emerged is a largely superficial comparison with plenty of self-indulgent musing, and reflections on how emotional response to an object can possibly impact experience. Humour me then, if you will, and read on.

The age of wisdom, or of foolishness?

I was, for a couple of years, very happy with my Olympus mju-V as my primary point and shoot. It is a zoom, and no doubt, not the sharpest or fastest lens, but I’ve enjoyed using it to varying degrees of success. I like shooting with it’s compact weight, the tactile brushed finish of its metal shell. The bulky black plastic bricks of the 80s and 90s are pretty much it’s antithesis, so how exactly have I ended up with 2 of them? Whether wisdom or foolishness, I can only think I slowly developed a case of the infamous GAS, a hankering for a fast prime lens compact, but without the price tag of the Contax Ts, the Fuji Klasses etc.

I started combing through less feted prime compacts, first plumbing for a Panasonic / National C-600 AF after reading a good review here. Sadly the pop up flash no longer functioned properly, with the battery compartment instead getting so hot I felt it was in danger of spontaneously combusting. I couldn’t source another for a reasonable price, and so the hunt continued.

This time I settled on the Fuji DL-300. I couldn’t find any reviews of this exact model, but after looking at specs for the Fuji DL range, I felt it ticked most of my boxes. It has a 35mm f2.8 lens, you can disable the flash, and it doesn’t have a wired-in battery, unlike the slightly wider DL-200 which initially tempted me. It took a couple of months for a working example to come up on eBay, but I got it for a steal. Shutter-happy, I soon got through the test roll of Kodak Gold. I had some reservations about the shooting experience that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, starting with the teasing way the frame counter went up to 26 on inserting a roll of 24, before gleefully retreating back to the box number of shots. I pushed those niggles to one side as I keenly anticipated the return of my scans.

Of course, keenly anticipating anything is always tempting fate. The shots were often just slightly over or under exposed, colours occasionally bright but often washed out, and somehow flat. There was the odd shot that I was pleased with, but it wasn’t a good success rate. I later realised when comparing specs that the overexposed shots might be because the DL-300 doesn’t have a 200 ISO step, using 100 instead, so my initial disappointment in the camera may not be its fault. I am yet to find a definitive answer as to what steps it actually uses between 100 and 1600.

Flowers

DL-300 / Kodak Gold 200: A shot that I was quite pleased with.

Wheelbarrow of Twigs Behind Fence

Kodak Gold 200: One of many that disappointed me due to being flat – but this is may be to do with the film being unintentionally overexposed.

My reservations about the experience of shooting with the camera only grew. Maybe I was just incapable of getting over my apathy for its black, bricky design, even though there was nothing really wrong with it functionally. The sliding lens cover shuts just a bit too easily, and the lack of moulded grip means it’s fairly easy to end up with a giant fuzzy finger in the shot; the flash off button is fiddly, and of course the camera doesn’t remember the setting when turned off.

However, these niggles are fairly common across point and shoot film cameras. I have nearly all the same gripes about my Olympus mju-V, but I have learnt to adjust my grip, to try and remember about the flash when I turn it on, etc. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with style over substance, or that dodgy first roll had cemented my feeling of slight apathy towards the DL-300, despite the odd gem of a shot.

Pink Peonies

DL-300 / Kodak Ultramax 400: Not a good photo in any sense but I was slightly more impressed with colour etc on this roll, which I think the peonies show nicely.

A handsome dachshund posing flawlessly!

Kodak Ultramax 400: Having looked at these photos all together, I definitely feel that the DL-300 (or at least my copy) has a tendency to overexpose slightly.

I put a new roll of film in it, feeling I should give the camera another chance, but found I was increasingly reluctant to pick it up, and anyway, now there was a new camera in town.

The Spring of Hope

During the winter lockdown of 2021, in our house, we finally resorted to trying to sort out the large jumble of family photos that span just short of a century. Entombed in woolly jumpers, I came across one of my mother on a summer holiday, and hanging nonchalantly from her hand was a camera. I couldn’t make out what model exactly, but it was black, plastic and boxy. Despite coming from a family of savers  (or hoarders, depending where you stand) the camera was nowhere to be found, but, neatly rolled up in its original case was a manual, for an Olympus AF-1.

Of course I couldn’t resist reading up on the camera, watching a couple of videos on YouTube and scrolling through the Instagram hashtag, as well as looking through our own family albums. I was so tempted to buy a working copy, but one thing stopped me: an automatic flash, with no way of disabling it. Enter the Olympus AF-1 Super, released in 1991, and in nearly all respects the same camera, but with the important addition of a flash that could be turned off. Through a perceived proximity to the feted Mju i and ii, both the AF-1 and its less common ‘Super’ sibling command quite a high price tag, somewhere between £50 – £100, but I managed to snag one at auction for a much better price; largely, I suspect, because it happened to end during the Euros football final.

Olympus AF-1 Super and Fuji DL-300

The AF-1 Super and DL-300 together. The Super is slightly more compact. I was on the fence about the dark grey plastic as opposed to black, but it’s grown on me.

Next to each other, the Olympus AF-1 Super and Fuji DL-300 are not dissimilar, both in terms of specs and appearance. Yet my feeling for the AF-1 is completely different. It is also bulky, also plastic, if slightly sleeker, and similarly noisy. But most importantly, It is a camera I want to pick up and point at things. I’m not sure I would even say that the lens is ‘better’ than that of the Fuji, but when I got the first scans back I was impressed by its character, warmth and depth.

The more emotive way I came to this camera probably predisposes me to like it, and others might prefer the DL-300, but ultimately that becomes irrelevant. For whatever combination of reasons, this is the camera that I find myself reaching for.

The AF-1 Super has a reassuring solidity, and while it is plastic, it is more streamlined compared to the distinctive 80’s flavour of the DL-300. It also has the advantage of being weatherproof, though I’m not sure to what extent I would test this 30 years later! I appreciate that it leaves the film leader out of the canister after rewinding, even though I don’t home develop. I actually enjoy the pronounced clack that the shutter makes, if not the whir of its motor. And of course there is something appealing (or maybe saccharine?)  about handling a similar camera to my mother, to think of all the times she pressed the shutter button whenever I do the same.

Dark Bay Horse Eating in Stable

AF-1  Super / Kodak Gold 200: This was taken in difficult low light with no flash, and of a fidgety subject as part of the test roll. I only wish I had changed angle slightly to get the horse’s ears against a lighter background, but they can still be picked out.

Corner of Parasol against Sky at Dusk

Kodak Gold 200: Final frame on the test roll. I don’t think I can explain why I like this shot so much, but it does demonstrate again how the camera performs in low light. One of the few bits of writing about the AF-1 I found online claims it uses Electro-Selective Pattern metering, which had been introduced on the OM-40 SLR, which might interest those more involved in the technical side of things than me!

Bay Horse Head Half Hidden behind Stable Door

Kodak Gold 200: My favourite shot from the test roll due to the lighting, colours and the rendering of the different textures.

Tracy Emin Painting seen over person’s shoulder

Kodak Ultramax 400: Painting by Tracy Emin

More Solitude in neon, piece by Tracy Emin

Kodak Ultramax 400: ‘More Solitude’ by Emin. This was taken under the same lighting conditions as the previous shot, both without flash. I wasn’t sure how this one would come out at all, so I’m pleased it’s legible, though I probably would have framed it differently if I had known it would black out the background.

Electricity Pylon against cloudy sky

Kodak Ultramax 400

Two dogs lookout out of a car window

Kodak Ultramax 400: The Super decided to use Flash here. Mainly included because I couldn’t not include the dogs! I have to say that looking at all these shots together, I think I will be sticking with Kodak Gold in this camera, at least for daylight.

And so here ends the hunt, at least for now! The AF-1 Super (affectionately known as the ‘Super As F…’) has established itself as the compact of choice out of my trio. The Mju-V hasn’t had a new roll through it since it’s older sibling appeared, and I’m not quite sure what will happen to the DL-300. My initial disappointment in it has softened, especially after getting back scans of a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400, which it seems to have got on better with than the Gold. I might keep it as a backup camera, or possibly sell it on.

However while there’s no doubt it’s a firm second to the Super for me, I won’t end by pronouncing it the lesser camera of the two. If the cameras had swapped places, and the DL-300 first appeared in a holiday snap of my mother, maybe then I would be singing its praises over the Super. In many ways though I don’t think it matters which is the better camera technically, because I’ve already found having that affection for the Super makes me more enthusiastic about using the camera, and ultimately (hopefully) taking better photos.

(If anyone does  want to offer the DL-300 a new, more loving home, let me know in the comments)

 

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Nick Lyle
    September 16, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    I know how you feel, being lucky enough to have my dad’s Crown Graphic, which he used as a cub reporter in the 1950s. I do like using old press cameras in general, but there is an extra connection with the camera my dad used. This connection may be all the stronger because the world was so different then, when the old wooden camera was new, a few years before I was born. This makes me think about how the memories we retain, at once vivid and far away, like looking through binoculars the wrong way, are a lot like photographs. Old memories, like some old photos, or old cameras, are semi-random windows kept open by emotional attachment. Thanks for this article.

    • Reply
      Octavia Vans
      September 16, 2021 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks Nick, you’ve described so eloquently the similarities between photographs and memories, especially the idea of looking through binoculars the wrong way!

  • Reply
    Lee
    September 16, 2021 at 3:47 pm

    The one thing I don’t enjoy about many point and shoots from this era is the fact that the flash is on by default when you open the sliding cover. It appears to be the case with the AF-1 and with the DL-300. I know it’s the case with my Olympus Infinity Twin. And I’ve wasted numerous shots, having the flash fire when I did not intend it to, simply because it is on by default when the camera is activated. That is one “feature” that I would absolutely rather be rid of. That being said, I’m happy enough with the images from my camera, that I’m willing to live with it.

    • Reply
      Octavia Vans
      September 16, 2021 at 9:47 pm

      Yes the auto flash feature is an irritating one! I believe the AF-10 Super has a manual switch for the flash which might be less of a hassle, but the specs are not quite as good as the AF-1.

  • Reply
    Tom Perry
    September 16, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    The DL-300 was a favourite, but I no longer have it – it was supplanted by a long list of compacts, as it was an absolute chonk of a camera. There was definitely a slight softness in the lens that the grain of 400 speed films helped against. My copy also overexposed bright scenes – it might just be the top shutter speed wasn’t quite up to scratch. 1/330, another odd Fuji top shutter that may have lost speed over time.

    • Reply
      Octavia Vans
      September 16, 2021 at 9:35 pm

      It is definitely chunky, and I would say my copy has all the same quirks as yours. I did wonder if the top shutter speed might have something to do with the overexposed shots on 200 speed film. It’s definitely a camera that makes shots with a certain aesthetic.

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