Last summer I met a young very nice American guy at my office. He had been hired as an English teacher to coach my colleagues (and me!) in a bit of his native language.
As he soon knew my pronounced affinity with photography, he proudly showed me some prints he’d had made from a disposable camera, the kind you can buy in any drugstore nearby. He told me he always carries one of these little plastic wonders in his bag to capture memories of his everyday life.
Some of you might to smile at this, I did too, upon first hearing it. But on a second viewing of his prints, I noticed that beneath all these personal memories were some really well composed shots. So I asked him, “why not shoot digital or with a smartphone?”
Oh, “I don’t like digital and don’t use smartphones”, he replied. “And film has much more life and soul”, he answered smiling.
I thought to myself, this really is an analogue guy. So, I recommend that he invest in some glass and use a more serious camera (without a crappy plastic lens) because some of his prints were obviously unsharp and also underexposed and very gritty. As a benefit, I stated, he would be able to discover the world of film with all of that nice stuff you can get: black & white, color negative, slide film, cross-processing and so on.
And I suggested he look at a point and shoot camera, e.g. one of the Olympus XA series, the Trip 35, or or or….
….”is there a flash built-in?”, he interrupted.
He got me.
I recommend the Olympus µ[mju:], which I also own among those mentioned above, and immediately began scanning the market (I, unlike this gentleman, like Smartphones 🙂 )
Sadly, my excitement diminished just as fast as it had been raised. You see, the prices for those long used items, marked and scratched over years were simply an affront. Nothing in comparison with a disposable, so nothing at a price to convince this guy to invest and get more quality from his photography. It was a shame. We disbanded without any result…it sucked.
Searching for alternatives
I now had a challenge. Could it really be true that there was no cheaper way to bring the whole world of analog film to this talented enthusiast? I couldn’t believe it.
The crux: after years of reading forums, tests and reviews, raising my skills and needs, shooting up-to-date digital and also a some amazingly crafted analogue cameras from the past, I realised this: I know nothing about consumer point and shoot cameras!
I don’t know about the needs of young people, who only want to have some fun and shoot friends and family on vacations in a simple way because that’s not my particular need. I want top notch lenses and mechanics.
I’m not a rich guy and I don’t want break the bank to buy a new (used) rangefinder or medium format equipment. But this kind of consumer point and shoot simply doesn’t match my requirements on image quality and the possibilities to manipulate the process of light exposure. So, I had to ground myself and reflect.
Restricting my options
After some time in thought, I stumbled on an idea. I would scan the market again with only one restriction: the camera had to be 1€ & shipping!
Would it be possible to purchase a consumer point and shoot camera as cheaply as a disposable but as potent as an Olympus µ[mju:]?
After scrolling past all of those “out of the question” lower quality brands, Hanimex, Inst Plus, Chinons, Panorama, Vivitars and Praktica to name a few, as well those expensive examples of high quality brands such as the Contax T2 or Contax T3, I stumbled over a tiny white “Canon Prima Mini”, which is known as the “Canon Autoboy F” in Japan and the “Canon Sure Shot M’ in the USA.
Regardless of the name, it’s a really nice, sporty-looking little compact camera.
I’m not very familiar with Canon in general, but they usually do a good job with their SLRs, so why not?
Bidding started at 1€, so began searching for some example shots on Flickr with the camera. The results were promising, so I bid. By the way, a serious recommendation if you want to check the skills of lenses and cameras: let pictures speak!
…3, 2, 1, got it! For only 1€ & shipping it was mine.
A few days later I found myself holding this little Canon in my hands and took my first look through its tiny viewfinder. I wondered how this baby could keep up with my abortive recommendation for the much more expensive Olympus µ[mju:].
So, follow me and discover a side by side comparison of these two little consumer compact cameras of the nineties, the Olympus µ[mju:] vs the Canon Prima Mini!
Overview and handling
Both are cameras are typically representative of the 1990s and similarly equipped:
- Plastic body
- 1x 3V battery
- Fully automatic, motor driven film advance
- Autofocus and programmed exposure control
- DX-coded film ISO settings (defaulting to ISO 100 for non-DX coded film)
- Built-in flash
- Tiny viewfinder
- A few LEDs and knobs
Both cameras are armed with slightly-wide prime lens with a starting aperture of f/3.5. The Olympus µ[mju:] comes with a 35mm lens, while the Prima Mini has a 32mm focal length. The Olympus also comes with a little extra luxury in the form of an LCD display.
The greatest obvious difference between the cameras is the lens cover of the Olympus µ[mju:], which also acts as a power switch. A cool feature, original developed by Olympus’ genius engineer Y. Maitani for the legendary Olympus XA back in 1979. The Canon’s lens is protected by a built-in UV Filter. Nevertheless, I suggest carrying the Canon in a case.
Both are designed as fully automatic cameras, nonetheless you are able to control the flash modes, e.g. “Off” or “Fill”, etc.
Handling is a bit different for each. The µ[mju:] sports a little LCD display to show the flash mode. Each press of the button switches the mode and retains settings as long as the camera remains switched on. The Canon however, needs a press of a dedicated button while shooting! This is bit tricky in practice and not as comfortable as the Olympus way. But it works.
Advantage Olympus for handling.
To compare as fairly as possible, I dropped in a roll of the same type of film into each camera for the shooting portion of the test. The film was expired but cold-stored AGFA Portrait 160 / 12 exposures (from a little eBay purchase).
Due to the limited number of exposures, I was able to finish both films during a short walkabout at Berlin’s most crowded place ever; the Alexanderplatz and its train station U5.
I stumbled for about an hour around that busy, huge place, searching for worthy shots. And here we have the first surprise. The µ[mju:] was able to squeeze one shot more out of the AGFA canister. That’s what I experienced in the past, when we got the prints back from the lab after a vacation. One, or sometimes two shots more than the canisters were labeled.
Slight advantage for Olympus for film economy.
After my test shooting session I immediately took the films to a drugstore in the basement of the aforementioned train station nearby.
This drugstore is a member of one of the greatest drugstore chains in Germany, which sends my canisters to the biggest photo service lab in Germany – CEWE. My assumption was: only machines will touch my shots. All processes there are automatic and programmed. No human influence will edit the process of developing and scanning. So the outcomes will as comparable as possible.
A week later I got two CDs and a set of prints of each film for a couple of €. Altogether less then one order without any prints at my preferred pro lab! It’s a deal!
Judging the images
Ok, now let’s talk about an important issue, as it comes to camera reviews: pictures. Most important is surely composing the subject/object. That’s always a matter of taste, and not a topic of this review.
But to reliably judge the quality of a camera’s skills only the captured images can show you the sharpness of the lens, or how well the exposure control does its job. So let’s have a few looks at some of the images both little cameras have captured. Olympus left, Canon right.
Impatience got me after picking up my film and I opened the envelopes at the store to have a quick look, I noticed some unsharp prints from the Olympus’ shots ☹ . What the heck is goin’ on here? Ok, calm down and have a look at the scans at home.
Unfortunately the scans were even worse. It seems the Olympus was not able to precisely focus to infinity. All shots with objects nearby are sharp as excepted. But the rest are more or less unsharp.
What a pity!
As I’m familiar with the abilities of my µ[mju:] from its past performance, I’d like to go ahead nevertheless. Seems there is something broken or dysfunctional while storing the µ[mju:] on the shelf at home. I have to check this later.
Olympus top and Canon bottom:
Let’s talk about portraits.
As you can see in the shots of the angel below, the lenses of both cameras are not as similar as I excepted (due to the very close focal lengths). While the difference of 3mm between the two lens seems not that big, the look of both lenses is quite different. As you can see, you are able to shoot closer and get slightly more bokeh with the Olympus.
Notice the colors, too. As I mentioned above, I used the same film emulsion and same development method, scanning and printing. Nonetheless the colors are different. That could be due to that built in UV-Filter of the Canon (bottom). Colors of the Olympus (top) are a bit more pinkish , while the colors of the Canon are more realistic in my opinion.
Sadly I shot no portraits of real people, so we can’t consider the way skin tones were captured might be compared…
But wait… one portrait I still shot at the end of my walkabout… 🙂
Same result if it comes to close-ups. Both are not really designed for shooting macros, but with the Olympus (top) you can go a bit closer to that lovely flower down at the roadside. (In german we called the froth of a beer “Blume”…a little joke 🙂 )
Low light performance
Low light performance with and without flash. As you can see, the upper left shot, taken by the Olympus without flash is a bit gritty. The dark colors are not as clear and contrasty as the dark ones of the Canon shot. That’s due to two reasons.
- The Olympus’ longest shutter speed is only 1/15s, while the shutter of the Canon is able to expose up to 2 seconds.
- The scanners of big consumer labs are programmed to rescue even underexposed shots and readjust 1 or 2 stops during the scanning process. So the shadows in underexposed shots comes more grey but not really dark and black.
On the right hand lower side (shot on the Canon with full flash), the room is obviously much brighter and illuminated until the lowest corner of that wall down stairs. Chapeau!
Advance definitively to Canon
So let’s judge the cameras on their outcomes based on the topics above:
Image quality and impressions: while the Olympus is able to get closer to subjects and produce a nicer bokeh, the Canon can capture more of wider scenes and give you a bit more realistic colors. So that’s a question of taste. Some people want to shoot more portraits, others want to shoot more landscapes. The capability of both lenses relating to sharpness, vignetting and distortion seems to be a standoff to me (past experiences with the aolympus and current infinity focusing issues aside).
That said, there is slightly more contrast from the Canon lens. So that topic is more or less drawn. One point each.
Low light: Clearly Canon.
The question was: Is there a point and shoot camera that can be purchased for a similar price to that of a disposable camera but is as potent as an Olympus µ[mju:]?
Answer to me is a definitive YES!
I am a long standing Olympus fanboy, I have shot Olympus cameras since back in the 80s. I have owned a few of their “strokes of genius” like the XA, the Pen FT and the awesome Rangefinder 35SP, and as mentioned, the original µ[mju:].
Remember the introduction to this comparison review; my primary search was for a replacement for a disposable camera! And in that case I highly recommend this little Canon Prima Mini. If you need a cheap everyday carry P&S camera and hesitate about the more expensive and more famous competitors, give it a go.
If you ask me if I will take my Olympus µ[mju:] to a repair shop to fix the autofocus issue (for more money than I can get another copy), my answer must be that I will not.
If my µ[mju:] is maybe not self-repairable, will I replace it with another copy? I will not.
Instead, I would get one of these underrated and cheap Canon Prima Minis for 1€ & shipping for myself, too….in fact, I did just that! You see, this nice white Prima Mini went to that young American English teacher I mentioned at the beginning of this article teacher as a gift.
He was very excited about it, but unfortunately, we have not been in touch since the classes he was hired for finished.
I wonder how his experience has been?
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