One day, some time ago, I hatched a plan to do the biggest comparative test of compact film cameras that had (possibly) ever been done in the history of the human race. Surely it must have been done before? Well, not quite. Not as broad as the one you’re reading this very minute.
This test covers almost 15 years of 35mm compact cameras, so it’s not something anyone would have been able to back in the day because the cameras did not all exist at the same time. Then, of course, digital took over and no one really cared about these cameras until now. So here it is, what might just be the biggest compact camera test ever: 12+ cameras ranging from the very high end to budget consumer models, all released between 1990 and 2003.
By way of some background, I bought all the cameras being tested and used them for a year or so. I have kept some, sold others and repurchased others still. Here’s the complete list of links to the individual review articles:
- Contax T2 (1990)
- Contax T3 (2001)
- Contax TVS III (1999)
- Fujifilm DL Super Mini (1994)
- Konica Big Mini (1990)
- Leica C1 (1999)
- Nikon 35Ti (1993)
- Olympus Mju II (1997)
- Olympus Mju Zoom 120 and other Mju Zoom cameras (1993-2003)
- Ricoh GR1s (1996)
- Samsung Vega 700 (2002)
- Yashica Zoomate 115 (2000)
If you’re a regular reader of this website, you’ll have seen at least a few of these mini-reviews pop up over the past six weeks or so. I’ve been running over their main features and my impressions of them in use; the point being to get them out of the way and use this longer article to compare them all based on the factors that matter (to me at least).
In this article I’ll be running through the main features we all want from a compact camera, such as lens quality and autofocus quality. I then go on to rate each camera for each feature, based on my personal testing of these cameras.
- Lens sharpness
- Autofocus accuracy/speed
- Speed of use
- Hit rate
I have awarded each camera points from a maximum possible score of 100. I guess the points risk being controversial, but my suggestion is not to worry too much about it: take it as a bit of fun, like a Eurovision Song Contest of cameras!
Here’s what I cover in full. To jump to a specific section, just click on any of the links here:
Here we go.
Individual camera reviews recap
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know what the cameras covered by this mega test have all been reviewed here on EMULSIVE over the past few weeks. You can use the links below to jump into each specific review for some extra detail and my thoughts:
Grading criteria and scores
I have graded each camera across five criteria. These are: lens sharpness, autofocus accuracy/speed, speed of use, hit rate and reliability. This is, of course, subjective and I have done my best to help you understand how these criteria relate to me.
Here’s how they all break down.
Factor one: Lens sharpness
The sharpness of a camera’s lens is obviously an important feature. The really sharp cameras produce photos that have that ‘wow’ factor. My hope for this test was that maybe, just maybe, I might be able to find some affordable cameras that produced impressively sharp results. I photographed general scenes to check whether sharpness differences were visible to me in the real world. Plus, I took a few shots of a test pattern with every camera – you’ll have seen them in the mini-reviews linked above.
I won’t bore you with endless photos of test patterns, but here is one example, showing a sharp camera and a less sharp camera.
The three cameras that produced incredibly sharp results for me were the Contax T3, the Nikon 35Ti and the Ricoh GR1s. I couldn’t tell them apart. The results were limited by film grain and focusing accuracy more than by the inherent sharpness of the lenses. All three lenses seemed to be sharper than the 35mm format is capable of showing. They were all startlingly sharp corner-to-corner. The Contax T2 was as sharp in the centre as these top three cameras, but perhaps a tiny fraction less sharp in the corners. Personally, I’m not concerned about extreme corner sharpness, so for me, the Contax T2 was just as good as the top three.
The big surprise for me was the premium zoom I tested, the Contax Tvs III. I assumed this zoom could not be as sharp as the prime lenses. But I found it to be wonderfully sharp – as sharp as the Contax T2. Perhaps there are some subtle differences that I could not detect without lab tests, but my general impression was ‘WOW!’ I believe using the Contax Tvs III premium zoom lens means you lose no sharpness, you just lose maximum aperture. That is an amazing result.
After taking a lot of photos with these five premium compacts, I consider all them equal winners in terms of lens sharpness. They are totally professional-quality lenses, as sharp as any film camera at any price. That’s right: as sharp as any film-era Leica or Hasselblad or anything else you care to name. I guess some people will doubt that, but it’s true. The manufacturers put their best lenses into these little cameras. The film negatives won’t match the best medium format film negatives due to the grain limitations of 35mm film, but the lenses themselves seem to be a match for anything. Amazing!
Of the cheaper cameras, the only one that came very close to reaching the quality of these premium cameras was the Fujifilm DL Super Mini. It’s a really impressive lens for a mid-range camera. The Olympus Mju II and Konica Big Mini were very good, but not quite in the top league.
What about the zoom compacts? Well, I have to be honest, I found them disappointing. The Leica C1 had a zoom lens that was quite impressive optically, but the camera’s somewhat unreliable autofocus meant that only some shots achieved excellent sharpness. Other cheap zoom compacts, such as the Mju Zoom range, were okay … but not great. They seemed to perform reasonably well at the wide end of the zoom range, but not very well at the long end. Perhaps the long zooms were marketing gimmicks rather than truly useful lenses.
Sharpness grade, all marks out of a possible 20:
All Contaxes, Nikon 35Ti, Ricoh GR1s: 20
Fujifilm DL Super Mini: 18
Leica C1, Konica Big Mini, Olympus MJU II: 15
Everything else: 10
Factor two: Autofocus (accuracy/speed)
Something that was very noticeable in these tests was that lens sharpness and autofocus accuracy are interlinked. You can have the sharpest lens in the world, but if the focus is a fraction off, you’re not capturing the full ability of the lens. Many of the cameras I tested showed slight variations in picture sharpness due to tiny focusing errors.
The two cameras that achieved 100% accurate focusing in my testing were the Nikon 35Ti and the Contax T3. I shot over 300 frames with each camera, and these two never mis-focused even once. That is so good it is positively eerie! I guess they must miss a shot eventually, but even when they do, it will still be an awesome hit rate.
Perhaps the test-topping performance of these two cameras should not be surprising. The Contax T3 is the most expensive camera in this test. It is also one of the youngest, so it has the advantage of newer autofocus technology. The Nikon is fitted with a highly sophisticated auto-focus module derived from Nikon’s SLRs. In its day, I think the Nikon must have been the world’s best autofocusing compact camera.
The other premium prime-lens cameras nailed focus at least 95% of the time. The Contax T2 was almost as good as the T3. The Ricoh GR1s was usually excellent, but would occasionally completely miss-focus for no obvious reason. However, this only happened on about one shot per roll. I can live with that.
The Contax TVS III zoom matches the performance of the T2 and GR1s, which is impressive for a zoom. In fact, all the premium compact cameras focused better than I expected. I was really impressed with all of them.
The affordable prime-lens cameras such as the Olympus MJU II focused well around 90% of the time. I felt this was acceptable. However, the cheap zooms had a noticeably poorer performance. To be precise, at the short end of the zoom range, they focused well. However, at the long end, their performance was weak, achieving accurate focus perhaps only 50% of the time. That is pretty awful! I guess back in the day, users were less fussy about focus. These days, we are used to sharpened digital images, so a slightly miss-focused shot looks wrong to us.
The problem with the zooms at the long end seemed to be aperture-related. I suspect no camera can focus well at any aperture smaller than about f/5.6. This means the cheap zooms – which all have apertures smaller than this at the long end of the zoom – focus badly at the long end. The Contax Tvs III was the only zoom that performed well. Partly this is due to the fact that it has a short zoom lens with a reasonably large aperture. So it has an easier time focusing.
The only slightly cheaper camera that seemed to focus as well as the premium cameras in my testing was the Fujifilm DL Super Mini. It focused really well, and the lens was inherently sharp, so it produced consistently strong results.
The Olympus Mju II and Konica Big Mini prime-lens compact cameras focused well enough. For many frames they seemed to focus 99% correctly rather than 100% correctly. This suggests to me that they might lack focus steps compared to the premium cameras (over 880 in the case of the Nikon 35Ti!) – in other words, they are focusing ‘close enough’ by design.
Autofocus grade, all marks out of a possible 20:
Contax T3, Nikon 35Ti: 20
Contax T2 & TVS III, Fujifilm DL Super Mini: 18
All other prime lens cameras: 15
All other zoom lens cameras: 10
Factor three: Speed of use
For me, a really important aspect of the success of a camera is the shutter delay. If you press the shutter button and there is a significant pause before the camera takes the shot, that is incredibly annoying.
If you are used to an autofocus SLR camera, you will be used to the camera focusing when you half-press the shutter button. Then, when you fully depress the shutter button, the camera takes the shot almost immediately. That’s obviously how a camera should work, right? Yet most compact cameras do not work like that. They do nothing when you half press the shutter button (in fact they are silently working out focus and exposure). Then, when you fully press the button, that’s when they start to move their lenses into focus. How annoying is that?
Four cameras buck the trend by focusing like an SLR: the Ricoh GR1s, Nikon 35Ti, Contax T3 and Contax Tvs III. These were the fastest cameras in these tests. This feature alone made these four cameras a joy to shoot with.
One thing to note about the Contax T3 and Contax Tvs III is that, as delivered, they are set to focus only on the full press – just like any cheap compact camera. You have to change a hidden setting (Custom Function 2) to set them to focus on the half-press like an SLR.
Among the other premium compacts, even those that don’t focus until the full press did a fairly good job of minimising shutter lag. The Contax T2 was very good. Not quite as ‘street fast’ as the top three, but certainly good enough. The Fujifilm DL Super Mini focused as fast as the T2 – the only mid-range camera I tested that achieved that sort of speed. Below that, the MJU II and Konica Big Mini did an okay job. At times they were a little slow, but not too bad.
I consider all of the above cameras acceptable. The ones I consider unacceptable are the zooms. The Olympus, Yashica, Leica and Samsung zooms were all too slow for me. I guess I must be impatient because I found these cameras really annoying. I felt like I was coaxing a sullen toddler. Who needs that?
A note about the Nikon 35Ti: some reviews claim its focusing is rather slow. I was surprised to find that my Nikon 35Ti was fast, so I bought a second Nikon 35Ti to be sure. They turned out to be identical: fast. I think perhaps some people judge speed by the sound the camera makes when you press the button. But you can’t do that: you have to check at what point the shutter actually opens. You can do this by taking selfies (with film in the camera because some cameras behave differently without film). Watch when the shutter opens.
Let me tell you, I wasted a lot of film on ugly selfies to compare the Nikon 35Ti with the Ricoh GR1s and Contax T3. I am convinced that all three are equally fast.
Speed grade, all marks out of a possible 20:
Contax T3 & TVS III, Nikon 35Ti, Ricoh GR1s: 20
Contax T2, Fujifilm DL Super Mini: 15
Konica Big Mini, Olympus Mju II: 10
Everything else: 5
Factor four: Hit rate
Some of these cameras just had the ability to nail the shot. The more I tested these cameras, the more I realised it is the synergistic combination of many aspects that achieves great shots. This ‘Hit Rate’ section exists to recognise that fact.
The mark I have given each camera covers all aspects working together, including lens quality, autofocus, shutter delay, exposure accuracy, and even things such as viewfinder quality and the ability to hold the camera well: whatever it takes to nail the shot.
Hit Rate grade, all marks out of a possible 20
Contax T3: 20
Contax T2 & Tvs III, Fujifilm DL Super Mini, Nikon 35Ti, Ricoh GR1s: 18
Konica Big Mini, Olympus Mju II: 15
Everything else: 10
Factor five: Reliability
This last section troubles me. All these electronic cameras can fail, and all of them are very difficult to repair. That is very bad. If one of these cameras was the best but had a high failure rate, and another camera was second best but had a low failure rate, I would recommend the second best camera every time.
The problem is, I don’t know which cameras are the most reliable. The internet is full of complaints about all these cameras. Everyone has a different view based on their personal experience. I do not see any clear pattern. I suspect that electronic components have a pretty consistent failure rate no matter what camera they are in.
My own experience is no help: all these cameras have been perfect for me. None has failed during the year I have been running this test. If you find any solid evidence (rather than internet hysteria) that a particular camera is more reliable, I suggest you run with that. In the meantime, I’m going to award all these cameras an equally low mark to highlight the fact that their lack of repairability is a major concern.
I should point out that these cameras are not completely unrepairable. There are repairers out there who will repair them. For example, I have had excellent results from Sendean in London. However, repairers often have to scavenge parts from donor cameras, which is expensive.
Reliability grade, all marks out of a possible 20:
All cameras: 5
Individual camera scores
The Contax T2
Overall, the Contax T2 disappoints me slightly in some ways, yet is still a camera I really like. The T2 has ‘it’ – that magic that makes technical considerations superfluous because it somehow manages to be a really lovely camera that produces really lovely results. Art above science, if you like.
The lens is excellent: one of the sharpest in any compact camera (although perhaps not quite the sharpest). More than the sharpness, this lens has that Zeiss magic. This camera simply produces gorgeous-looking photos.
Hit Rate: 18
Final score: 76
If you like the T3 but baulk at the expense, you might ask whether it worth the money. Of course not! Logically, no compact camera can be worth two Contax T2s or three Nikon 35Tis. Only if you are wealthy would I say to you: Contax T3 – just do it!
Hit Rate: 20
Final score: 85
Contax TVS III
I feel the Contax TVS models are great value for money – almost a bargain, if any Contax could be considered such. My hunch is that the TVS range might be the next big thing. Consider this: Mario Testino does photoshoots for Vogue using a Contax TVS III.
Hit Rate: 18
Final score: 81
Fujifilm DL Super Mini (aka Fujifilm Tiara)
Pricing seems to be all over the place with this camera, I guess because most people have never heard of it. It can be cheaper when labelled a Tiara or Cardia Mini Tiara. If you find one of these cameras at less than twice the price of a MJU II, or less than half the price of a Contax – I suggest you grab it!
Hit Rate: 18
Final score: 74
Konica Big Mini
Overall, I like the Konica Big Mini. It does a solid job. If you see one for a good price, I recommend it as a decent point-and-shoot option. I guess you might ask whether you should choose a Konica Big Mini or an Olympus MJU II. To me they seemed to perform identically, but since they look quite different, I suggest you go for whichever one you prefer the look of.
Hit Rate: 15
Final score: 60
Overall, I would say the Leica C1 is a rather annoying camera with a rather impressive zoom lens. If one comes up cheap, you should consider it. But don’t mistake it for a premium camera like a Contax. Just accept it as a mid-range camera with an iconic red dot, and you will enjoy it.
Hit Rate: 10
Final score: 45
Yes, the Nikon 35Ti has some downsides, but overall, I was amazed by how good it is. It is different from all the other cameras in this test, because it is almost like an SLR crammed into a compact body. It is probably not the best point-and-shoot camera, but it is a great all-round camera.
Hit Rate: 18
Final score: 83
Olympus MJU II (AKA Olympus Stylus Epic)
Perhaps the real question is this: do Mju II photos look different to Contax photos once they are downsized and compressed to go on the internet? The MJU II remains, as it always was, the people’s camera.
Hit Rate: 15
Final score: 60
Olympus MJU Zooms
However, let’s not forget that a cheap camera can be a wonderful thing. A stress-free camera is a fun camera. If you see a Mju Zoom at a bargain price, why not have a go? As a tourism poster for New Zealand once said, ‘Don’t expect too much – you’ll love it.’
Hit Rate: 10
Final score: 40
There are three GR1 models: the GR1, the GR1s and the GR1v. They are all very similar, with the GR1v having one extra feature worth mentioning: the ability to manually set the ISO. The GR1s produces stunningly sharp images. Well, most of the time. Occasionally the autofocus accuracy seemed not quite perfect enough to totally nail all the sharpness of the lens. But that’s splitting hairs – overall, I found the Ricoh to have one of the very best lenses of any compact camera.
Hit Rate: 18
Final score: 81
Samsung Vega 700s
Regrettably, I did not find the Schneider-Kreuznach lens to be any better than the Olympus Zoom lenses. I got a lot of photos that were in the right ballpark for sharpness but were certainly not hitting a home run. It is hard to say whether mediocre optical quality or low autofocus accuracy is the main culprit. The Samsung Vega 700 is not bad, but not great. If you see one cheap, you could buy it for your kids to drop.
Hit Rate: 10
Final score: 40
Yashica Zoomate 115
There is a Yashica prime-lens compact that may be worth paying a premium for, this is not it. My personal view is the Yashica T4 would be a great option if you came across one fairly cheap, but if the price gets anywhere near a Contax, well…
Hit Rate: 10
Final score: 40
Summary scores and conclusion
Let’s start with a summary of the scores so we can see them in one place:
|Contax TVS III||20||18||20||18||5||81|
|Fujifilm DL Super Mini||18||18||15||18||5||74|
|Konica Big Mini||15||15||10||15||5||60|
|Olympus MJU II||15||15||10||15||5||60|
|Olympus MJU Zooms||10||10||5||10||5||40|
|Samsung Vega 700||10||10||5||10||5||40|
|Yashica Zoomate 115||10||10||5||10||5||40|
To be frank, I think those scores need to be taken with a pinch of salt. You could swing the 5 or 10 points, either way, depending on your personal preferences. For example, I have not taken looks into account. A particular camera’s appearance might appeal to you, and that is a valid part of the pleasure of ownership.
More importantly, the scores don’t take price into account. If one camera scores 70 and costs $50, and another camera scores 80 and costs $500, the cheaper camera easily wins in terms of value for money.
Whatever you think of my scoring, the overall pattern is clear: all the premium compact cameras are genuinely great. If you find any of these premium compacts for a good price with everything working well, I suggest you go for it.
A compact camera is undeniably tempting if you require the ultimate in compactness and automation. On the other hand, before you pay really big money for a compact camera, you might be wise to consider alternatives. Currently, you can get a Leica M3 with lens for around the same price as a Contax T3. Or a Contax G2 with interchangeable lenses. Or a Rolleiflex, with the advantage of medium format image quality.
If you are a student who can’t afford any of the premium compacts, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. There are good cheaper alternatives, such as the Konica Big Mini and Olympus MJU II. The lenses may be a fraction less sharp, but let’s face it, the photos look just the same once they are on social media.
In fact, perhaps the best compact camera is a modest compact camera: one you can enjoy without stressing about the cost of it. Stuff a cheap compact into your jeans, go to a wild party and capture some wonderfully crazy shots you would not get if you were being prissy about your camera.
Your best compact camera is about what works for you, so here are recommendations for what might suit various needs:
- If you need a camera small enough to slip into the pocket of your jeans: Contax T3, Ricoh GR1s, Fujifilm DL Super Mini, Olympus MJU II.
- If you are a fashionista who needs an ‘on-trend’ camera that produces images good enough for Vogue: Contax T2.
- If you need a ‘proper’ camera that provides the most information and control: Nikon 35Ti.
- If you are a street photographer who needs a high-performance stealth machine: Ricoh GR1s.
- If you are a shy street photographer who doesn’t dare to jam a camera right into strangers’ faces: Contax TVS III.
- If you are a millionaire who wants to show you are hip enough to be shooting film yet rich enough to be using a camera few hipsters can afford: Contax T3.
- If you want a cute point-and-shoot that produces ideal images for social media: Fujifilm DL Super Mini, Konica Big Mini, Olympus Mju II.
- If you want to swear at your camera: any of the cheap zoom compacts.
Those are my thoughts and I’m looking forward to reading about your own experiences below!
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