Camera Reviews

Canon Dial 35-2

Canon Dial 35-2

Hate. Is that too strong a word? I think I hated using my Canon Dial 35-2.

Everything about this camera’s function is nonstandard. I had to puzzle over the manual to begin to know what to do, and even then I struggled.

For example, to change the shutter speed on this shutter-priority autoexposure camera, I always had to take the camera away from my eye and hold it at an awkward angle to see the markings on the lens barrel. It slowed me way down.

Ten shots in, the battery died. To change the battery (a banned 625 mercury cell; I used an alkaline equivalent) I had to open the camera, which ruined a few frames of film.

Canon Dial 35-2

Rewinding the film was maddening. A spring-loaded knob on the bottom of the camera controls film winding and rewinding. You wind it all the way and the camera automatically advances the film for 20 shots. To rewind, you wind the knob and then press in and twist an awkward, recessed rewind button on the camera’s side, repeating until the frame counter returns to 0. It didn’t rewind the film all the way. When I opened the camera it ruined a few more frames.

Prolonging the misery, the Dial 35-2 is a half-frame 35 mm camera, meaning that you get 48 exposures from a 24-exposure roll of film. So I got to not enjoy this experience for twice as long as normal!

Well, almost. For some reason, I couldn’t get the camera to advance past the 40th frame. It was a relief.

Half-frame 35 mm cameras were all the rage in the 1960s. Olympus created the market with its Pen series, which buyers snapped up. Canon wasn’t about to stand idly by, so in 1963 it issued the original Dial 35. The Pen series’ conventional design led to portrait-oriented photos by default. Canon wanted to be different, so they designed a vertical film transport for landscape-oriented photos. The Dial’s resulting unusual looks carried to the slightly improved Dial 35-2 when it was released in 1968.

I’ve been curious about the Dial family for many years, but high prices kept me away. Then late last year I bought this one for chicken feed because the eBay seller misspelled its name as “Dail” in the listing. Tip: Proofread your eBay listings before you commit them!

Before I go on, I’d like to invite you to look over all of my camera reviews here. I’ve collected and shot old film gear for more than 40 years!

I shot my go-to color film, Fujicolor 200. As I dropped the roll off for processing, I expected to immediately relegate the Dial 35-2 to the box of unloved cameras I keep under my bed.

But then I got some really delightful images back from the processor. Yes, they’re grainy; you’ll have that with little 18 x 24 mm half-frame negatives. But just look at how the Dial 35-2 rendered that delicious light reflecting off this swing seat. The colors, though muted, are true.


The Dial’s focusing lever is awkwardly placed. But because the viewfinder shows the focus you’ve set on a typical portrait-group-landscape scale, it’s not too bad to use. The viewfinder also shows the aperture the camera selected.


The Dial 35-2 fit into my coat pocket, so I carried it everywhere for several weeks. The Dial’s f/2.8 lens let in enough light even on the grayest winter day. The lens pairs to a Seikosha shutter that fires from 1/30 to 1/250 sec.

Monon Bridge

I even got some decent available-light indoors shots with the Dial.

5  0 E 91st

I took this photo of light falling on my laundry hamper minutes after I took a similar shot with my Polaroid Automatic 250.

Hamper Shadow

Because I didn’t enjoy using the Dial, I just wanted to get the roll over with. My “what the heck” attitude led me to take photos I might otherwise not have, not caring much whether they turned out or not. Several of those worked out just fine, such as this sunset shot. The puddle in which the bare trees reflect is left over from a giant rainstorm that had passed through a few days before.

Sunset over the 14th Fairway

That’s not to say every shot was a winner. Almost half the photos on this test roll weren’t good enough for me to add to my gallery of Dial 35-2 shots on Flickr — and the bar for inclusion in any of my galleries is mighty low. I’m sure that if I kept at it I’d learn the Dial’s weird ways and have more consistent success. But that’s not going to happen. Life’s too short to not enjoy the photographic journey.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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39 thoughts on “Canon Dial 35-2

  1. Lone Primate says:

    Hmm, truly interesting. Every once in a while someone tries to introduce a new paradigm to photography, but yeah, it’s rare people make the switch in the long run. It needs to be a definite and long-awaited improvement in some aspect and that comes along about once in a generation. Obviously, this wasn’t one of them, and in spades.

    Still, I’ve come to expect better judgement from the Japanese, who usually have world-leading sensibilities in such things. I suppose even they make a bad call once in a while… 1963, 1941… it happens. :)

    Your story about getting a bargain on the basis of someone’s typing error (I wonder if people looking for memorabilia from the Irish parliament were frustrated?) is one that’s going to stay with me a for a long time. Mazel tov on that one. :)

    • The whole half-frame thing seems to have been mostly confined to the 60s.

      Better judgment from the Japanese? Have you seen the wacky automobile designs they tried in the 60s and 70s before figuring out what North American buyers liked?!!

      • Lone Primate says:

        Oh, we just hadn’t caught up with them yet. ;)

        Seriously, though, our first “second” car was a late 70s Civic. It was painted eye-searingly the colour of a new penny, and I remember hearing a few neighbourly cracks aimed at it… till it turned out to be the only thing that could creep up the hill on our street one stormy winter day past the Chevs and Mercurys furiously drinking gas by the gallon not to advance, but just to keep from sliding backwards down the hill. My dad kind of enjoyed that. :)

        But yeah, I suspect you’re talking about something rather more, um, ‘exotic’ than the Honda Civic. …A future post in the works here? :)

    • The bad judgement from the Japanese carries over to a number of things. For instance they insist on continuing to manufacture big road motorcycles for the American market with only 5-speed transmissions. Quite boneheaded – probably because Japan is so small that they don’t need an additional gear there like we do, particularly when riding west of the Mississippi…

  2. Jim,
    It certainly is an unusual camera. I haven’t yet found one that worked properly, but I have to say that yours performed well. My only foray into 1/2 frame was years ago with an Oly Pen D. Built like a little tank. It seemed to take forever to shoot a roll. I found myself not using it, and sold it after a few years of sitting idle. Obviously the right film for these would now be the fine-grained Ektar 100 or even Tmax 400.

    • Excellent advice on the film to use in the Dial. Fujicolor 200 is my go-to film, especially when testing a camera, because I can get it for less than two bucks a roll. But if I were to try again, a finer-grained film would be a good call.

    • I’ve actually become partial to half frame film cameras because of the grain. I’m shooting on grainy film and developing it aggressively in order to achieve that coarse gritty look. The extra enlargement demanded by the half frame format only serves to enhance the effect.

  3. I think that high prices for color film and improved emulsions back then fueled the craze for half frame. It does look like a camera that wouldn’t be too fun to use. Although it does seem to be redeemed somewhat by the canon lens. I remember reading that when 35mm first started being used for still cameras they used the 24×36 frame size because the 18×24 size used in movies looked bad due to the limitations of that times film. The new 24×36 was called double frame in those days.

      • He’s right: what we called “half frame” was originally single frame. The format change had a couple of reasons behind it. The first being increasing the resolution, the second being improving the aesthetics (ratio going from 1:1.3 to 1:1.5 which is more pleasing to the human brain). The movie industry itself did this with its multiple experiments in wide-screen video – after the still cameras had made the switch in the 1930s.

  4. Paul Myatt says:

    I thought these were/are amazing cameras. How about this. I shot a picture of Hollywood actor Leslie Nielsen and the advertising agency in London made it into a 48 sheet billboard advertising Red Rock cider, this was in the 1990’s. Look it up. And it won an award. I also think they are a beautiful design. I shot many celebrities with it and they always wanted to have a look at the amazing camera. I only ever shot Kodak Tri x rated at 320 on it.

    • Paul, how cool is that! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed using your Dial. I’m not sure why mine and I didn’t get on so well. I gave mine away to someone who is currently enjoying it very much. And what a nice honor to have your photo used in billboard advertising!

  5. Paul Myatt says:

    Hello Jim. I looked it up and the poster won an award in the D and AD annual 1995. I first saw this camera in a specialist 2nd hand camera shop in London, my friend gave it to me as a present, I was struck by its James Bond gadget appeal. I put a big vivitar flash on it which dwarfed the camera however, just on its own I got some great shots. It was interesting to read your story. Thanks.

  6. Flemming Laursen says:

    I know the Canon Dial 35 from the amazing American Pictures by Jacob Holdt. He took more than 15.000 pictures in the 70’s with this camera. Check it out if you want to see what’s possible with this camera.
    I like the grainy documentary quality of the pictures. I’d love to try out the camera myself.

  7. Jim, the images really are rather good! But, like you, in fact probably even more than you, if a camera just puts up too many barriers to my enjoyment of using it, I give up on it. The balance of investment of time and energy versus reward is too far on the wrong side of the scales!

    I guess for each of a camera’s “quirks” we could ask – “is this something that’s just different to what I’m used to, and once I’ve learned it, it’ll become second nature? Or is it always going to annoy me every single time I use the camera?”

    • That’s exactly it: too many barriers to enjoyment. If I could find a half-frame camera that was a pleasure to use, I’d probably keep it loaded all the time and just shoot when I felt like it!

      • Have you not used any of the Olympus Pens? I had one for a while, lovely little thing, just like a Trip but smaller and obviously you get double the shots per roll.

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