The rise, rise, rise... and fall of the compact film camera

compact film camera
(Image credit: Future)

While the transition from film to digital was a major upheaval for the photo industry, it was arguably the demise of the compact camera that had the biggest economic impact. Many of these cameras may have been cheap and cheerful, but they sold in vast numbers and all the major manufacturers promoted extensive ranges of models.

Compared to the compact camera business, the SLR was small fry, but the revenue generated by the sales of point-and-shoots financed the development of higher-end products, many of which would not have been financially viable otherwise. 

• Read more: Best film cameras

Australian Camera feature

(Image credit: Future)

This article originally appeared in Australian Camera magazine, one of Digital Camera World's sister titles Down Under. Click here to find out more about Australian Camera magazine, including how you can subscribe to the print issues or buy digital editions.

At the height of the 35mm compact camera’s popularity – spanning from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s – the choice of models available at any one time would easily have been a couple of hundred with prices starting at under $50. 

In addition to the camera-makers, the film companies were involved too – Kodak, Konica, Fujifilm and Agfa. Even Polaroid marketed entry-level 35mm compacts for a while and, at the other end of the market, there were Leica, Minox, Rollei and Contax. 

Many of the Japanese camera brands that are no longer around today were major players in the 35mm compact camera market, including Minolta, Konica (again), Yashica and Chinon. Even Mamiya offered a line of compact cameras in the early 1980s and, of course, locally in Australia Hanimex marketed a huge selection of mostly budget models. 

Samsung and Panasonic were involved long before the arrival of the digital era (the latter’s models initially marketed under the National brand). Perhaps tellingly, all this time Sony was working on electronic ‘filmless’ projects.

Format for success

As photography became steadily more accessible and affordable, there was a growing demand for cameras that were smaller and easier to use. The 35mm format was the logical choice, especially as, since 1934, it came in pre-loaded cassettes that were easier to load than roll film and much more convenient than the self-loaded, reusable types that needed, among other things, a darkroom. 

The Leicas and Zeiss Ikons that were instrumental in popularizing 35mm film were expensive, but in the late 1930s more affordable designs – such as Kodak’s Retina and Retinette models – began appearing and the format rapidly gained in popularity. Post World War II, a number of Japanese camera makers began to produce 35mm rangefinder cameras – many based on the basic design of either Leica or Contax – and from these evolved simpler, less expensive models with fixed lenses. 

• Read more: Best film for 35mm cameras 

By the early 1960s, most of the Japanese brands offered compact and affordable 35mm RF cameras; including Canon, Fujifilm, Konica, Mamiya, Minolta, Olympus and Ricoh (while both Asahi Pentax and Nikon concentrated mostly on the 35mm SLR). Kodak pursued the idea of even easier film loading via the 126 cartridge on which was based its Instamatic series of point-and-shoot cameras and the format was subsequently taken up by quite a few others. 

In Japan, enhancing affordability was seen as a key priority as well as creating smaller cameras, and this gave birth to the half-frame 35mm configuration, most successfully exploited by Olympus with its Pen series, but also adopted by quite a few others including Canon, Fujifilm, Konica, Petri, Ricoh and Yashica.

The half-frame 35mm format enabled a still largely mechanical camera to be made much more compact but, by the time the 1970s rolled around, this was being made possible via electronics. Automation also allowed for operational simplicity without sacrificing capability, whereas previously, point-and-shoot had meant either fixed-focus lenses or zone focusing, and maybe even a single speed shutter or a least a very limited range of exposure settings. 

Built-in metering in affordable RF cameras started appearing in the early 1960s and led to varying levels of auto exposure control – often dubbed ‘Electronic Exposure’ or EE for short – but film loading, frame advance and rewind were manual, and flash was an add-on. 

Running on auto

Konica was the pace-setter from the mid-1960s onward, firstly pioneering most of the steps towards fully-automatic exposure control in compacts. In 1974, it introduced the C35 EF, the first 35mm compact with a built-in flash, and it all culminated in early 1978 with the C35 AF, the first model with autofocusing – using Honeywell’s passive Visitronic module – and, of course, a built-in flash. 

However, it still had a manual film transport, although Konica had been experimenting with the idea as far back as 1966 and introduced the first 35mm SLR with a built-in autowinder, the FS-1, later in 1978. 

Line honors for the first fully automatic 35mm compact is claimed by Canon for its AF35M announced in November 1979 – and known in Japan as the ‘Autoboy’ – which was the first to use active triangulation-type infrared autofocusing. For the record, Chinon had launched the first motorized 35mm compact in 1978, but this model, the 35M, still had zone-type manual focusing. 

Incorporating a film transport motor, AF drive and flash a built-in while maintaining external camera dimensions that could still be described as ‘compact’ was the challenge and quite a number of 35mm compacts – particularly those promoting smaller sizes – retained manual film advance and rewinding well into the 1980s. But the race was soon on to offer more capabilities in more compact packages, and the next challenge was to squeeze in a zoom lens. 

The first step was dual focal length lenses (typically standard and short telephoto) – the Minolta AF-Tele from 1985, with 38mm and 60mm settings, being an example – then a manual zoom and, finally, the Holy Grail of a powered zoom that was first realized in 1986 with the Pentax Zoom 70. 

While it was quite an achievement for the time, the Zoom 70 wasn’t exactly small (and became affectionately known as ‘The Brick’), weighing in at a solid 460g before the battery pack or a 35mm film cassette was loaded. For this reason, the dual lens designs remained popular throughout the 1980s with Nikon’s TW2 (1987) – which had 35mm and 70mm settings – even claimed as the world’s thinnest 35mm compact camera at the time. 

However, the zoom lens soon became the key obsession of the camera makers, first with ever longer telephoto focal lengths and then, although trickier technically, wider-angle zooms. Once the techniques of manufacturing inexpensive aspherical lens elements from optical resin were perfected, the zoom compact really took off. However, many of these cameras were still pretty big and bulky, leading to the idea of the ‘bridge camera’ which was marketed as a fixed-lens alternative to a 35mm SLR fitted with a zoom lens… so it didn’t need to be compact! 

The concept was short-lived and only pursued with any seriousness by Ricoh (Mirai series from 1988), Chinon (Genesis series, also from 1988), Yashica (with the half-frame Samurai series from 1987) and Canon (with the Epoca/Photura series from 1990).

At the other end of the size scale, there were concerted attempts to make the 35mm compact camera as small as possible, most notably by Olympus. The company had already demonstrated its mastery of down-sizing with the half-frame Pen cameras and, in 1972 with the OM-1, the camera that influenced the next generation of 35mm SLRs. The designer of both, Yoshihisa Maitani, now turned his engineering skills to a full-frame 35mm sub-compact and the result was the XA, introduced in 1979.

The XA used an ingenious clamshell cover for the lens and the viewfinder which incorporated a rangefinder. The clamshell design made the XA easily pocketable – remarkable for what was still largely a mechanical camera – but the miniaturization came with compromises such as an add-on flash and the film rewind crank was set in the base.

A decade or so later and with IC chips now at his disposal, Maitani created the mju-series of ultra-compacts that launched in 1991. These models again employed a clamshell-type design and were slimline enough to be pocketable, but now there were no compromises – the original mju (Olympus actually used the symbol μ) had programmed exposure control, autofocusing, a built-in flash and a fully motorized film transport. 

It sold five million units, and two zoom-equipped versions followed, but it was the next-generation mju-II (launched in 1997) that gained cult-camera status and is still prized today. It had multi-beam autofocusing, a wider exposure range, a faster 35mm f/2.8 lens, and auto color-balanced flash with a red-eye reduction mode. All this in an even slimmer body that weighed just 135g. Olympus sold 3.8 million of them.

Taking the load

Despite all the automation, consumer surveys revealed that the biggest problem with 35mm compact cameras was film loading errors resulting in the missing of precious photographs. 

In the early 1990s, Kodak began work on a more fool-proof cassette design and was joined in this project by Fujifilm, Canon, Minolta and Nikon. The Advanced Photo System (APS) used 24mm wide film, but with this as the longest measure, so the standard image size was 25.1x16.7mm, representing a 1.44x crop compared to a 35mm frame. 

There were no perforations and all transport activities were managed via a transparent magnetic coating that allowed different format frames – dubbed Classic (the origin of today’s APS-C sensor size), Panoramic and High Definition – on the same roll. Some APS cameras allowed for the cassette to be stopped, removed and reloaded later, all with no risk of accidental exposure. In practice, consumers never actually saw the film itself… the APS cassette self-loaded once dropped into the camera and, after processing, it was returned containing the negatives. 

APS cameras pre-loaded the film onto the take-up spool – all automatically, of course – and it was then ‘reversed’ back into the cassette, ensuring the exposed frames were always safe. A number of 35mm compacts also had pre-winding, including later examples of Fujfilm’s ‘Drop Load’ or DL series models – another attempt to minimize film-loading errors via a simplified drop-in arrangement for the 35mm cassette with auto-threading. It wasn’t, however, as goof-proof as APS. 

After launch, the system expanded to include Agfa, Hanimex, Konica, Olympus, Pentax, Yashica and Contax. The one major camera brand that didn’t sign up to APS was Ricoh, but by that time it was enjoying huge success with its ultra-slim R1, another 35mm compact that gained cult status and, incidentally, is the spiritual ancestor of today’s GR series digital models.

APS had considerable potential, but was hampered by a couple of factors, including the challenge of selling a smaller image size – and hence a reduced picture quality – than the still hugely popular 35mm. Image quality issues had seen the demise of both the 110 format and another Kodak creation, Disc Film, and it was the reason APS was never going to attract professionals or, indeed, most enthusiast-level photographers even though Canon, Minolta and Nikon launched 24mm SLR systems. 

By far the biggest problem, though, was the emergence of digital imaging, which initially arrived on the consumer market as compact cameras and overlapped APS during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The beginning of the end

Kodak lost interest in APS almost immediately after it had been announced in February 1996 and it’s easy to see why as, not much later, in June, it launched the first of its Digital Compact (DC) series cameras, the DC20 (incidentally, made by Chinon). This was the first truly compact – and comparatively affordable – digital camera and, while it was primitive by today’s standards, it represented the beginning of the end for the film compact.

With just about every major consumer electronics company – not just Sony and Panasonic – gunning for a slice of the new digital compact camera market, the ‘traditional’ photo brands rushed to be ready for the new competitors. There was a transition period that lasted into the middle of the Noughties, but all R&S resources were being thrown at the new category of DSC – digital still camera – which in those early days meant a compact. 

The digital configuration allowed much more freedom with design and styling, but these cameras were still comparatively expensive, keeping the sales of 35mm and APS compacts ticking along for a while. Kodak pulled the plug on APS in early 2004, prompting the other participants to progressively bail out over the next few years. It was officially pronounced dead in 2011 when all APS film manufacturing ceased as well. The number of new 35mm compacts started to dwindle very rapidly too, with most of the major brands out of the sector by 2010 and some – such as Chinon, Konica-Minolta and Kyocera (Yashica and Contax) – also out of the camera business altogether. 

Today the digital compact camera is an endangered species, largely wiped out by a threat the camera makers didn’t see coming (or greatly underestimated) – the smartphone. 35mm film remains available in both colour and B&W – including from a number of boutique brands that have sprung up in recent years – but new 35mm compacts are virtually impossible to find (Lomo’s weird and wacky products aside), creating a thriving second-hand market. Consequently, some 35mm models are enjoying a second round of popularity, such as the Olympus mju-II series and Ricoh’s R/GR family.

Little gems

As a camera reviewer during the 1980s and ’90s, I considered compacts to be a bit of a chore… there were so many ‘me-too’ models and they just didn’t seem as exciting as an SLR or rangefinder camera. Ah, the shallowness of youth! 

In fact, the compact camera pioneered a lot of technologies that only found their way into 35mm SLRs much later, autofocusing being a prime example. Volume sales drove these developments, creating the returns that actually enabled the enthusiast-level products, which actually sold in very low numbers in comparison. Looking back now, some of these cameras were truly remarkable designs for the day, with the added challenge of packing everything into an as-small-as-possible form factor.

What’s more, point-and-shoot operational simplicity had to be backed up with capable camera systems to deliver the correct focus and exposure no matter what the situation. There may have been plenty of similar models – all the main brands tried to compete at all levels – but many of these cameras also had their own little touches of individuality or character, either in terms of styling or gimmicky features that the designers dreamt up as a point of difference… a talking camera, anybody? 

For the record, that was the Minolta AF-S V, launched in 1984, and which didn’t so much talk as issue stern commands such as “Load Film”, “Too Dark, Use Flash” or “Check Distance”. Needless to note, it wasn’t a huge success, but a very collectible curiosity today. 

In fact, there’s been quite a revival of interest in the humble 35mm compact camera (and even APS models) that represents a very affordable way into film photography. Most were pretty reliable and many work with battery types that are still readily available, such as the AA or AAA. Better still, as was the original intention, they still deliver good results at the push of a button.

However, what makes the golden era of 35mm compact camera worth acknowledging is the many millions of memories and special moments that these little gems recorded and preserved.

Read more:

Best film cameras
Best point-and-shoot cameras
Best disposable cameras
Yashica is back… and let’s hope it’s better than last time

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Australian Camera

Australian Camera is the bi-monthly magazine for creative photographers, whatever their format or medium. Published since the 1970s, it's informative and entertaining content is compiled by experts in the field of digital and film photography ensuring its readers are kept up to speed with all the latest on the rapidly changing film/digital products, news and technologies. Whether its digital or film or digital and film Australian Camera magazine's primary focus is to help its readers choose and use the tools they need to create memorable images, and to enhance the skills that will make them better photographers. The magazine is edited by Paul Burrows, who has worked on the magazine since 1982.