The Canon AF35M was the world’s first fully automatic compact camera, sturdy as a rock, heavy as a brick and fast as lightning – but boy, is it loud.
“Another compact on the hefty side, the Canon weighs 14.2 ounces (400 grams). But it may not be so weighty if you consider that it has everything you can think of: autofocus, autoexposure, built-in pop-up flash, and built-in motorized film advance and rewind. The cost of absolute automation: $ 240.” That was all that Popular Science magazine had to say in 1979 about the introduction of the Canon AF35M, aptly nicknamed Autoboy in Japan and the first of a long and successful series of cameras named Sure Shot in the US.
And sure it shot. Canon claimed their Autoboy was the world’s first 35mm autofocus camera. But was it? Not quite: competitor Konica had beat them to it two years prior, when they introduced the C35 AF, equipped with Honeywell Visitronic, a mechanical autofocus system that used light-sensitive detectors comparing the two images in its rangefinder. The Canon was equipped with the patented Canon Auto Focus System or CAFS, which used an infrared beam that reflects from the nearest object back into the camera. The ‘passive’ Visitronic system was primitive compared to the ‘active’ CAFS system, which immediately became the standard for all autofocus cameras yet to come.
Canon’s autofocus system was innovative, but not very smart. As long as your subject is dead in the centre of the frame, the autofocus is accurate. But when I took the camera along for a lazy summer day in the park and took a picture of two of my friends sitting side by side, the focus wasn’t on them, but the bushes behind. The way to work around this is to use the self-timer, which doubles as pre-focus: pull the lever, point at the subject, press the shutter button all the way down, recompose the picture as you want it, press the shutter button again and the picture is taken. Of course, this was a hassle and pre-focusing by pushing the shutter button halfway down would soon be invented – by Nikon.
I purchased my Canon AF35M at an online marketplace for 20 euros – a bit too much for my taste, but it did come with three original screw-on lenses; two wide-angle and one tele-photo, plus an adapter for the viewfinder.
Although the Autoboy won the Good Design Award from the Japanese Ministry of Industry in 1980, the camera isn’t particularly well designed – it’s more form follows function in 80s fashion. It’s shaped like a big black plastic brick, with windows for the autofocus system above the fixed Canon lens with a red ring around it as a symbol of quality, a dial for setting the film speed and switches for automatic rewinding and the pop-up flash – switching the flash on or off is left up to the photographer and it can also be used as a fill flash, which is a good thing. Other than that, everything is automatic.
The Autoboy’s most notable feature, though, is the noise it produces. When I took it to the park, heads turned after every photo I took, as the camera automatically forwarded to the next frame. When the roll had reached its end and was automatically rewound, it sounded like a squadron of fighter jets flying low over the Vondelpark. Fortunately, panic and chaos did not ensue, when people realised it was just my camera, rather than the start of World War III. The camera does have a built-in feature to delay the noise by keeping the shutter button pressed after taking a picture and the rewinding only starts after you’ve pulled the switch.
Still, this is not the kind of camera you would want to use for some stealth street photography. But it is a groundbreaking camera; the first one with an autofocus system that is still used today in modern digital cameras. And when you know how to work the pre-focus, it produces sharp and contrasty pictures. It’s a keeper.
- Lens: Canon 38mm, f/2.8
- Film speed settings: 25-400 ISO, set manually
- Shutter and aperture: automatic; EV 6 (f/2.8 at 1/8 sec) – 17 (f/16 at 1/500 sec)
- Focus range: not known
- Manual loading, automatic advancing and rewinding of film
- Built-in pop-up flash, recharge time: 5-7 seconds
- Electronic self-timer
- Power: 2 AA batteries for everything