By Andy Clad
You’re interested in photography. You want to try your hand at film photography. You have a look on the usual auction sites for a “good 35mm compact camera”.
What do you find? Anything that seems to be any good going for silly money. Anything reviewed with a decent spec needs a bank loan to buy and that’s via the 3rd, 4th, 5th even 6th-hand auction market. Buy one that’s been serviced through a dealer and it’s hyper silly money.
What you need is a camera with a decent lens and all the other stuff that for some reason has remained unpopular. Well, good people, you’re in luck.
I did a bit of research and after a couple of days wait it arrived. The Minolta AFZ. What a camera from 1986. “The sleek and slim styling of Minolta technology”, that was headline on the advertising blurb back in the day.
More camera reviews:
- FED-50: Take a Trip, Soviet style
- Fujifilm DL Super Mini: Little luxury
- Olympus Mju-II: Fantastic plastic?
So why isn’t it considered as a major player in the 35mm film compact camera market? Well, the reason it’s unpopular is you can’t turn the flash off. No manual flash control whatsoever.
I’ve owned my copy of the AFZ for around a year and have probably shot some 10 rolls of both black-and-white and colour. Surprisingly enough, for me, it’s consistently produced excellent results and has become my go-to film compact.
It’s bigger than the hipster compact favourites. Minolta said that the camera was styled for function as well as beauty. Apparently, the AFZ reflected the latest advances in hi-tech camera design. The sleek, flat, top surface incorporates a large, flush-mounted LCD panel that provides easy-to-understand indications for all camera operating modes and the film frame counter.
Also on top is a soft-touch mode selector and shutter-release button. Pressing the selector button cycles round the options (normal, self-timer, fill-flash & continuous shooting). A label next to the viewfinder explains all.
On the left side sits a contoured rubberised handgrip with a couple of metal loops to thread the strap through. Nothing to report on the right.
At the front is the sliding front cover which protects the coated F2.8 lens, auto focus sensors, viewfinder and to wake the camera up. Under the lens is the 10-second timer light. When it’s set it lights up constantly for eight seconds then starts blinking for the last couple before the camera focuses and takes the image. To the right of the lens is the exposure photocell and above it the flash.
Film loading is automatic, and a doddle. You pop the film in, pull the leader across the sprocket holes to the mark and then press down the film threader flap. The motor then partially winds the film leader onto the take up spool. This keeps the film in place and tight when you close the back. When closed, the film is wound the first frame and “1” is shown on the LCD panel. A great idea and my example hasn’t failed a film load once.
The viewfinder is bright and a nice size. I wear glasses and have no problem composing a picture with them on. Incorporated in the viewfinder are framing guides for normal focusing and close focusing.
Nothing about the camera is too small and fiddly. It’s got active infrared autofocus from 0.65m to infinity – that’s better than passive and works in the dark. The camera’s nice to hold, with a decent grip.
Being an 80s-era snapper, it makes a bit of noise when the motor advances the film on and when rewinding at the end. But isn’t that all part of the nostalgia?
The AFZ has DX-coding and will cope with DX codes from ISO 25 through to 1600. Non-DX films are set at a default speed of ISO 100.
Once the film has rewound, the motorwinder spits an inch of leader back out, which is perfect for home development as there’s no need to break the film cartridge open. Just cut and load the film leader directly on the spool before placing in the changing bag. There’s also mid-roll rewind button if you want to change films before reaching the end.
Now for the lens. It’s super sharp and has great contrast. (Four elements, four groups) and just the right amount of vignette. Shooting direct into sun produces some interesting flare and len distortion doesn’t seem to be a problem at all from the results I’ve had. No obvious sign of barrel or pincushion to speak of.
Exposure is taken from the auto focus zone in the middle of the view finder, which is probably somewhere in between DSLR spot and centre-weighted metering.
As with other auto focus cameras of the era, a focus/exposure lock can be taken elsewhere in the frame by holding down the shutter button halfway, the green LED is the indicator. The usual example is given in the manual of a two-person portrait, focusing on one and then recomposing in the middle and pressing the shutter all the way down to take the photo.
Power-wise, the camera takes either four AAA batteries or a CR-P2 Lithium cell, good for around 50 rolls of film.
And now that flash that you can’t turn off. The default setting is auto, but you do have an option to use it as a fill-in if need be. The range is decent at 4m with 100iso, 8m with 400iso and up to 16m with 1600iso. You’d think that the red LED in the viewfinder would indicate that the flash is required when composing a picture. The answer to that one is no, the red led actually means that the flash is in need of charging, blinking red meaning that the flash is charging. Be aware though, the camera won’t let you take a picture when charging is in progress.
Therefore the only indication you have when the flash is required is when it actually fires, which is a shame and it’s a real downfall.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve found that in reality the light level needs to be a fairly dim exposure to bring the flash into action. For example, an overcast day shooting indoors with natural light would indeed fire the flash. But then again with the same room lit with brighter natural light, it’s possible to shoot flash-free with 100-ISO film. The camera can manage 1/40s @ f/2,8 in low light and a maximum of 1/800s @ f18 in the brightest conditions. I’ve found that when using 400-ISO film, the flash never came on until the conditions were very dark.
I’ve used this camera a lot for street photography on a dull day around London and the flash hasn’t been a hindrance. As there’s no manual ISO control you can’t push your film when light levels become too low. Choose your film speed wisely and you won’t have a problem.
When the flash does come into play exposure is still very good with nothing being blown out as long as there’s nothing overly reflective in the frame. In daylight the fill flash works very well too.
I’ve been really happy with the Minolta AFZ. For me it’s performed just as well as better-known Olympus or Pentax compacts, in some circumstances better than those and at a far cheaper price.
Out in the real world the AFZ sits good in the hand, loads easy, rewinds even better, has battery options, no fiddly buttons, I don’t find the auto flash a problem and it has great picture quality.
You may be surprised that you can still get a quality film compact with a tack-sharp F2.8 lens for currently around £40 on auction sites. If you come across one that looks good from a decent seller I’d definitely give it a go. I can only recommend it.