Gear Theory

3 Canon Compacts Compared – ‘Supreme’ doesn’t mean Best – By David Hume

July 30, 2021

This is a follow-up piece to one I wrote here about what to look for when buying cheap compacts. In essence that was about the delights of $5 compacts with prime lenses, flash and auto wind. I collected these cameras from op-shops for a couple of years, kept a few and gave the rest to friends of my daughters.

Isn’t this what these cameras are made for? Portra 400 in the Canon Prima AF-7. Photo by Issie.

Some of them were Canons and I thought it would be interesting to compare lower, mid and upper level cameras from the same maker. These Canons are in my opinion all good cameras, but more expensive is not necessarily better. This piece also got me coming back to the essential but easy-to-forget truth that a good camera is one that suits you and suits what you want to do with it. The other take-home message is that if you feed these things nice 400ASA film they thrive, but use anything else only if you have a good reason to do so.

Note too please that all the images here are shop scans from my local lab. I’m hesitant to say anything about colour neg stocks, because I’m not qualified to do so.  Two of the stocks here are Portra 400 and Ektar 100, both shot at box speed, and I will say, that looking at their spec sheets on the Kodak Alaris website there’s not much difference in dynamic range between them, but Ektar is claimed to have higher saturation and finer grain. More on that later.

Photographer unknown. Portra 400 in the Canon Prima AF-7.

That’s the nub of it really – use a P&S camera you like and put ISO 400 colour neg stock in it. The important stuff has now ended, but if you want to come on a journey through space and time and a meditation on Ektar 100 vs Portra 400 then let’s go!

The first thing I usually do when I get a new camera like these is download the specs so I know what film speeds they read and what their focus distances and shutter speeds are.

So; going from most basic to most advanced:

Basic – Canon Snappy LXII 

This is the camera I use myself. I’ve written two Full-Roll-Fridays about it here and here, and a 5 Frames here. For the past couple of years I have been shooting an ongoing project with it and I’ve stuck little flags in the film frame so it shoots square 24mmx 24mm like an Instamatic. (One observant commenter here called it my Snappyblad – which I think is great)

  • Lens: 35mm f/4.5 (3 elements in 3 groups)
  • Focus: fixed – 1.5m to infinity
  • EV 10 (f/4.5 at 1/45 sec.) – 16 (f/11 at 1/180 sec.) 
  • DX: 100 or 400
  • Battery 2xAA

This camera really suits me because it has a sensational viewfinder and it’s really easy to disable the flash. The lack of focus is not an issue because I’m usually shooting at infinity. Likewise the lack of DX. Unless you put 400 in it, it shoots at 100 (that’s the way I read the manual anyway) For my ongoing project I am shooting Fuji C200 in it, so I am effectively rating that at 100 which suits my purpose.

These three frames are all Fujicolor C200, which this camera will shoot at ISO 100.

You can see that the lens is sharp enough, the thing works, and that’s really all there is to it.

This is HP5 for a fun little project of storytelling on holiday. It’s in my 5 Fames story.

Mid Range – Canon Prima AF-7

  • Lens: 35mm f/4.5 (3 elements in 3 groups)
  • Focus: Three-step AF with near-infrared beam. 0.8 m to inf
  • EV 10.5 (f/4.5 at 1/70 sec.) – 16 (f/11 at 1/180 sec.). 
  • DX: 100 or 400
  • Battery 2xAA

For my money (all $5 of it)  – this is the pick of the bunch. Pick of the bunch for a general people snaps camera that is. I gave this one to Issie and she uses it alongside her Nikon FM/FE. So she does know about things like exposure triangles and depth of field, but she only uses shop scans and Portra 400. This is the camera that gets taken to parties, music festivals, nights out on the town etc. All those things young folk do. It’s essentially the same camera as the LXII, but with autofocus down to 0.8m.

Photo by Issie. Portra 400 in the Canon Prima AF-7. What more could you want for a shot like this?

Photo by Issie. Ilford XP2 in the Canon Prima AF-7.

I think these shots are great; but why is that? What makes this a good camera for this purpose?

OK: The auto focus seems to work. Tick. The flash exposure seems good (or very good). No red-eye problem. Tick. The lens is good enough. Tick. 

But think a bit more about these shots and you’ll notice stuff. Using flash gives separation of subject and background because of illumination. We’re not looking at a bokeh-monster here. At f/4.5 the DOF is going to be quite forgiving too.

I also need to talk about Portra 400. (The reason will become apparent when we move on the Sureshot Supreme.)

Photographer unknown. Portra 400 in the Canon Prima AF-7.

Now – imagine for a moment these shots were with Ektar 100 instead of Portra 400. All of a sudden the flash is effectively two stops dimmer, the shutter two stops slower balancing fill flash; all that stuff. It is my belief that cameras like this really rely on good, fine grain ISO 400 films to work well. Have a look at the top shutter speed. If instead of a nightclub you’re shooting outside in summer with 400 ISO at f 11 and 1/180s you’ll be at least two stops over, so you need a film that can handle that. In the shots with flash above, if you look at how the highlights are not blown and the detail is held in the backgrounds you’re looking at a three things.

  • How well the camera exposed and how the mix of flash and ambient was handled.
  • What the dynamic range of the film was.
  • How good the scanner was at pulling info off the film and how clever the algorithm that made the jpegs was.

Photographer unknown. Portra 400 in the Canon Prima AF-7.

Someone who knows more about film history than I do can probably help here, but it seems to me that the increase in film quality and grain structures in ISO 400 colour neg film that we saw in the late twentieth century was symbiotic with these cameras and their specs.

Top End – Canon Sureshot Supreme

You can’t get better than Supreme surely?

  • Lens: 38mm f/2.8 (4 elements in 4 groups)
  • Focus: Canon ACTIVE with near-infrared beam. 0.55m to infinity
  • EV 6 (f/2.8 at 1/8 sec.) – 17 (f/16 at 1/500 sec.). 
  • DX: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 
  • Battery 2CR5

Look at all those features! Closer focus, faster lens, greater metering range, extended DX reading. What’s not to like? Well – if you’re me; the camera. I just didn’t get on with it.

Here’s how the Canon wanted to shoot it. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

And here’s when I disabled the flash. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

The dealbreaker is how hard it is to disable the flash. If it had a simple flash-off switch that would be fine, but you have to stick a fingernail in a slot on the bottom of the camera while you’re pressing the shutter. This camera really does NOT want you to shoot without flash.

But as I said,  I was not fair on this camera. Because it proclaimed itself as “Supreme” I immediately set out to test its limits in a way I did not with the others… How sharp is the lens? How good is the metering? How accurate is the focussing?

Testing close focus and bokeh; you can’t really pick your focus point in a shot like this. I wanted it 10cm behind what I got. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

With the others it was just, “Yeah, judge it by the shots; it’s fine for this stuff.” Whereas with the Supreme I guess, by pushing its limits I wanted to see how versatile it could be. Could it do more than casual snaps? I put Ektar 100 in it, figuring that being two stops slower it  should make the lens work a bit harder with shooting wider open (but this is a guess seeing the manual does not give any clues as to how the camera calculates how this all works.)  And shooting close subjects with a faster lens and finer grain should provide an opportunity to see how that lens renders. I knew I was being tough on the camera, so to continue the test more objectively I brought in a guest tester. I decided to give it to my nephew Jack to see how it worked for him.  

Guest tester Jack and his sister Poppy. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

I gave Jack a quick intro using my X-Pro 3.  “Look through here and press the button when you want to take a photo.” Then when he’d shot a couple I gave him the Supreme. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

Take it away, Jack:

Photo by Jack. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

Feeding milk to the calf. Photo by Jack. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

Photo by Jack. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

Photo by Jack. Ektar 100 in the Canon Sureshot Supreme.

It’s interesting just how well specced this damn thing is. If you surrender to its power it will deliver very high quality photos. As long as you don’t mind flash. Is it smart enough to disable said flash when focussing at infinity though? Nup. It’s a funny camera – one I don’t like, but yet one I cannot quite bring myself to discard. I can’t really see myself putting another roll through it (even though I stumped up close to $20 for a battery for it.)  It’s a camera with a bit of a story too – when I found it at the op-shop it had a roll of film in it, and I had that processed and found shots taken 8-10 years before I bought it showing a family Christmas and a wedding in a town about 100km from where I live. I got the feeling looking at these that it was a bit of a special camera for the guy who owned it. It’s funny what you can tell from a roll.  I’m not about to make those personal photos from people whom I suspect have now died public, but yeah. Cameras, hey.

Maybe I’ll just give this camera to Jack when he turns five or something; I have a couple of years to decide. Thanks for reading.

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    Dave Mockford
    July 30, 2021 at 10:47 am

    I’ve used my Sureshot Supreme since new so it’s over 30 years old now. I’ve made big enlargements with FP4 and they are really sharp. Nowadays it’s still my go to P&S camera and normally loaded with Ektar 100. I own both of the other Canon compacts but the handling and results are nothing like the Supreme, in my opinion, others will think differently.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      July 30, 2021 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks Dave – It’s great to read this. I’m glad that you get on so well with what is demonstrably such a good camera. I wish I did! Very much a case of finding the camera that suits you I think. Cheers and thanks for adding to the conversation.

  • Reply
    David Usher
    July 30, 2021 at 5:05 pm

    Somehow I acquired 2 AF-7s with different switch arrangements. As a speccy 4 eyes i really like the large viewfinder. As a snapshot camera it is great even with Kentmere’s 100 and 400. My Olympus mu-II is more compact and takes a wider range of film, but the Canon is great for snap shots.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      July 30, 2021 at 8:30 pm

      Yes, those viewfinders are something else, are they not? It does come down to suitability for purpose I think.

  • Reply
    Justin Kingery
    July 30, 2021 at 8:24 pm

    I have two copies of the Canon AF35MII (AutoBoy II) that I carry to back-yard BBQs and float trips (kayaks and canoes) all summer long. I load Ilford film and announce to my friends that I’d love for everyone to feel encouraged to pick it up and take a photo or three anytime they like. And they LOVE it. They routinely comment on the nostalgia of the viewfinder or the sound of the film auto-winding. It’s a fun experience to share. This camera also has a focus lock lever that allows you to lock the focal point and recompose, which is handy.

    I also have my mother’s Canon SureShot Supreme, and while I like it okay (your pics are lovely, David), it seems to drain expensive batteries. The flash can be bypassed shot by shot by pressing the tiny rubber button on the bottom of the camera, which is hard to do. I taped a piece of toothpick over the button, which is easier to press it in, and that seems to work okay in a pinch.

    The Prima AF-7 I will be on the lookout for!

    • Reply
      David Hume
      July 30, 2021 at 8:40 pm

      Ha! I also made a defeat for the flash of the Supreme by taping a stick into slot on the bottom and used it for a roll, but did not mention that. According to the manual, the battery is supposed to last for 50 rolls of 24 exp, or 5 years. At least there’s an indicator to show battery life. I imagine you were supposed to take back to the shop to get it replaced; unless you were prepared to carry a spare and a jeweller’s screwdriver…

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    July 31, 2021 at 8:03 pm

    Your results from the Prima AF-7 say it all really. Mine’s called the Sureshot AF-7 (UK) and features the mode dial on the front. I have a Supreme, but just don’t like it. I don’t like expensive batteries and fiddly battery covers. Does not bode well for fast handling which is what snap shooting is all about. Nice body of work and viewpoint David. Thanks.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      July 31, 2021 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks Brian. I wonder what the contemporary reviews of the Supreme had to say about it. I might try to find some.

  • Reply
    Louis A. Sousa
    August 1, 2021 at 12:34 am

    These are all nice images. My luck with these old point and shoots has been hit and miss as far as functioning. Many have had a hard life and a few of mine bit the dust prematurely (Rest In Peace Nikon L35AF, Canon zoom (model?) and Canon AF 35). My favorite in this genre has been the Olympus Mju ii. I know the camera is faddish, but for certain times it foot the bill nicely and had great image quality. I sold mine, but did take some nice images with it. Louis.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      August 1, 2021 at 12:48 am

      Cheers Louis. I’ve never used a Mju of any kind. My (only) camera when travelling back in the early 1990s was a Minox 35GT and I got used to guessing distance back then and never really lost the skill, so I have more faith in manual focus cameras. I do have an XA2 that is a nice carry-round if I need one. I used a Trip 35 up until recently, but these days (last few months) I’m using almost exclusively a Nikon f2 with plain prism finder and a 50mm f 1.8 pancake. A lot depends on what I’m shooting and I shoot almost only landscapes these days…

  • Reply
    Carl C
    August 3, 2021 at 2:07 am

    That square hack for the Canon is brilliant! Im off to modify my Pentax Espio now! Thanks!

    • Reply
      David Hume
      August 3, 2021 at 3:53 am

      Cheers. I’ve actually thought of doing it to my Fuji GA645 – but that’s worth a grand so the stakes are a little higher.

  • Reply
    cody
    August 3, 2021 at 3:16 pm

    Interesting I have been seeing more content on the supreme lately. There was a video I think by Moment on their youtube about it being one of the best “underrated” P&S you can pick up under $60 or so recently. I got mine from an antique shop for $10 recently and inevitably bought the battery for $15 as they had them at my local small town hardware store. I had bought an AF35 autoboy at the same time that ended up having a stuck lens cover and was inop after one roll…meanwhile, my supreme is clean as a whistle and going strong after my first 5 or so rolls with it and the battery indicator is still at full bars.

    It has become the perfect grab and go camera for me and taking photos of my family. Most arguments against it are tied to the shutter button being too spongey but I find it quite nice to use as well as the ergonomic grip of the camera. The only downside as mentioned is the flash disable but for the most part, I have just been letting the camera do it’s thing, i might have to experiment with more shots purposely disabling it. Compared to say a nikon lf35af2 which I also had briefly (broke after two rolls) I am really quite happy with and think it IS an underrated P&S.

    • Reply
      David Hume
      August 3, 2021 at 11:00 pm

      Cheers Cody – thanks for joining the conversation; you’re right I think. This is why I’d like to try and find some contemporary reviews. There was something in some blog posts about is getting “Camera of the Year” or somesuch, but checking the Canon site does not show anything and I suspect that’s a repeated internet furphy.

      I guess it fulfilled the role of a high-end “bridge” camera in the day, for people who were not wanting to bring out the slr or who wanted good photos but were not in to photography.

      These days of course, anyone who shoots film is ipso facto into photography so its target demographic has changed. I suspect that back in the day the owners would not have had a set of jewellers screwdrivers for the battery door for example, and just taken it back to the shop for a new one every few years. The manual says change the battery every 50 rolls of 24 exp or 5 years, so they’d think you’d be shooting a roll a month roughly.

      • Reply
        cody
        August 4, 2021 at 4:44 pm

        Very good last point David, being ‘a millenial’ who started film less than 2 years ago I don’t often think about the circumstances when which these cameras were released and who they were likely geared towards since today anyone who wants to take photos and isn’t a photographer just uses their phone. With that in mind, the camera was probably more frustrating for a parent in the 80s dealing with it haha. I don’t shoot a lot of 35mm but tend to waste a lot of medium format shots trying to get my one year old in focus so between that and the portability I found a good camera for bicycle rides and the like. I do miss my canonet ql17III i was using before but at 10 times the price and autofocus, the quality difference is pretty negligible.

        • Reply
          David Hume
          August 4, 2021 at 10:59 pm

          Yes – if you look at family photos from the 1950s to 1970s there are lots of posed group shots. Children were dressed up, sitting still with their hair brushed. Photos were much more special. My own family’s photos were no so special when colour mini-lab prints took over in the 1980s, and not so many survive, even though more were taken.

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