Over the years a number of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras have passed through my hands. A friend asked me recently which ones I recommend.
That’s a useful question because this field is huge, and the cameras range from stellar to awful. Just because a camera is from a major brand does not guarantee greatness. The Nikon Zoom Touch 400, for example, is one of the worst cameras of any kind that I have used.
Bear in mind: Used point-and-shoots are 20 to 40 years old now, and are full of electronics and plastic parts. They will eventually fail. Nobody can repair them. Think about this before you drop big bucks on a popular point and shoot. Enjoy your point and shoot while it lasts.
I judge a point and shoot on these characteristics:
- Cost — Some point-and-shoots cost four figures used. Nuts to that. I like to pay $20-50. For one with a well-known excellent reputation, I’ll go to about $100. I hate to pay more than that for a camera that is going to die, irreparably, one day.
- Lens — Sharp with little or no distortion. I appreciate both fixed-focal-length and zoom lenses. For fixed-focal-length lenses, 35 to 40mm is ideal.
- Form factor — Small and sleek. Ideally, it fits into my back jeans pocket..
- Viewfinder accuracy — I expect the lens to capture just what I see in the viewfinder. So many point-and-shoot viewfinders are inaccurate: show more than the lens captures, or aren’t centered the same as the lens. Bah!
- Usability — The controls are crisp and sure. Functions respond with reasonable speed. The camera makes no more than moderate noise when winding or zooming. Flash is not automatic, or if it is, it’s easy to turn off.
- Battery — Batteries are reasonably priced and easy to come by.
There are lots and lots of point-and-shoot cameras to choose from, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of them in my time. But of those I have owned, these are the best.
Pentax IQZoom 170SL
This camera is a sleeper. Its lens is very sharp with minimal distortion. It zooms from 38mm to a whopping 170mm. You can see halfway across town with a zoom that deep! It fits in my back jeans pocket. The camera turns on fast, and zooms fairly fast. There’s only a tiny bit of lag when you press the shutter button.
The downsides: Flash is automatic, and to turn it off you press the flash mode button five times. A pricey CR2 battery powers the camera.
You can pick up an IQZoom 170SL for as little as $20 on eBay. $40-50 is typical. Pentax made a version of this camera with a 150mm zoom lens, the IQZoom 150SL. I expect it performs much the same.
Pentax’s IQZoom series of cameras is a mixed bag. I thought the IQZoom EZY was a middling performer, for example.
I got my Stylus (called the mju in some markets) many years ago when they cost $20 or $30. Today the least expensive of them go for about $100. But these are straight up terrific — sleek and fast, with a great 35mm f/3.5 lens.
The downsides: The flash is automatic and will fire when the camera thinks there’s not enough light. You have to press the flash mode button a few times to turn it off. A pricey CR123A battery powers the camera.
Olympus’s Stylus/mju series of cameras all seem to be very good. I very much enjoyed the other two I’ve owned, the Stylus Epic Zoom 80 and the µ(mju:) Zoom 140. A word of caution, however, about the zooming Stylus cameras: many of them develop a strange curved light leak. It’s thought that the seal around the lens deteriorates and lets light in. This can’t be repaired. It’s why I no longer own those two cameras.
Here are a few point-and-shoots that don’t tick all of my boxes, but are pretty good and still worth looking at.
Kodak VR35 K40
This is part of Kodak’s VR35 line of cameras from the mid-to-late 1980s. I received one as a gift in 1986 and it was my primary camera for a long time. It’s too large to carry in a jeans pocket, and the lens is fixed focus rather than autofocus. The lens is sharp and distortion-free, but sometimes vignettes a little. But flash is off by default — hooray! And it runs on AA batteries.
Canon AF35ML (Super Sure Shot)
The AF35ML is a very early point-and-shoot, introduced in 1981. It’s large with a prominent lens — there’s no way you’re putting this in any pants pocket. The on-off switch is fiddly and the auto winder is loud. Also, these go for about $100 used. But its 40mm f/1.9 lens is terrific, flash is off by default, and it runs on AA batteries.
Canon Snappy 50
Canon made a whole series of Snappy cameras, but the 50 (and its lower-spec companion, the 20) was the first, in the early 1980s. Its form factor is funky and it has settings only for ISO 100 and 400 films, but its 35mm f/3.5 lens performs well. It takes AA batteries, and the flash is off by default. It’s very pleasant to use. You can pick these up for $20-40.