Sometimes an SLR is just a bit too serious. It seems to impose an obligation to take a ‘photograph’, when sometimes you simply want the ability to take a ‘snap’. Enter the Chinon Belami AF.
It’s the very essence of a point and shoot compact; that’s just about all you can do with it once you’ve opened the ‘barn door’ cover that protects the lens. There are no frills: no LCD, no flash modes, no exposure compensation, not even a power on/off button. Motor wind aside, you could easily be shooting with a disposable camera. Press the shutter release button to take a picture, and the frame counter advances. At least for me, a pared-down spec. in this type of camera is a winning feature.
Other than having been made by Chinon in the 1980s (launched in 1989 at a list price of $250) the Chinon Belami AF has virtually nothing in common with its near-namesake, the Chinon Bellami (reviewed here) except for its similar lens cover. The Bellami has two barn doors; the Belami just one, which is fittingly emblematic of its ‘no more than necessary’ design. A double door could act as a lens hood, and a single door is just as capable of serving the same function (though you’d have to invert the camera if the sun were streaming in from your left). The flash is conceived with similar economy. It pops open when the lens cover door is opened, and automatically charges (irrespective of the available light level). To prevent the flash firing you push it back in again and hold it in place; if you’d never want to use the flash a dab of tape would conceal it semi-permanently and preserve the life of the battery (CR123A, widely available).
There’s no dedicated battery level indicator as such; instead you can place your finger over the exposure window, half-press the shutter release button and check if the low light level warning LED lights up in the viewfinder.
The Chinon Belami AF auto exposure system is equally guided by a ‘just enough’ philosophy; shutter speeds from 1/60 sec to 1/125 sec are available to set the exposure in conjunction with the Chinon 38mm f3.9 to f16.1 lens. DX coding support is the bare minimum; ISO 100 and ISO 400 DX coded films are shot at their respective box speeds, though ISO 200 stock is exposed at EI 100, and ISO 800 and ISO 1000 stock at EI 400. Non-DX coded film, like the Fomapan Creative 200 I used here, defaults to EI 100, which was perfect in this case. I’d been pleased with the results when using Fomapan Action 400 from the same manufacturer; it’s curiously capable of lending a look I’ve seen elsewhere described as ‘sombre’ to a photograph, and that surely has its place, but I wanted to avoid heavy shadows (and to have the film pull processed a stop to retain highlight detail).
So, the Fomapan 200 loaded up, I captured a few shots of the locality with my newly acquired gear.
I really appreciated the Chinon Belami AF’s pocketability and informality; there’s just no comparison with carrying even the most compact SLR and lens combination. All decisions regarding shutter speed, aperture setting and focal length are pre-made and unalterable, leaving you free to focus only on composition (if you want to). Speaking of focus, you can lock this with a half-press of the shutter release button and then recompose. Looks-wise, in its ‘door closed’ mode it’s sleek in an 80s kind of way, as smart as a clamshell design for my money (£8.99 paid for this example, with very minor cosmetic damage).
Granted, in operation, it may perhaps look like, well, a bit of a contraption – but that’s surely a part of its quirky appeal. As for the film, Fomapan 200 exposed and developed as if it were an ISO 100 film seems to work nicely. The photos were sharp enough, all things considered, and I was happy with the rendering of both shadows and highlights.
So there we have it, the Chinon Belami AF, a camera that is burdened with no more features than it needs, and doesn’t burden the user with any decisions to make (other than whether to push the flash back in or not). Simplicity itself. A keeper.