Swift shooter: The Chinon Auto 3001 has the functions and ergonomics to ensure you don’t miss the decisive moment

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“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again”, Henri Cartier-Bresson once said. We are, perhaps, overly keen to give credence to bits of wisdom from the old masters — hindsight can make every passing thought and truism seem inspired. In this case at least, though, it’s hard to argue that Bresson had a point. Whether the goal is a portrait, a candid documentary shot or capturing a landscape in changing light, moments are everything in photography. And when they’re gone, they’re gone.

what does it take to capture a moment?

The ability to frame in the mind and see a photo before it’s even taken is a key skill, and one that only comes with practice and patience. An equally important factor, though, is the equipment. A large-format camera with bellows will take a long time to set up for a shot, but so too will a compact 35mm camera with clunky controls, slow autofocus or a delay after being switched on. Even some of the best film SLRs and rangefinders are simply not usable for quick shooting, given the amount of time it takes to remove the lens cap, turn the camera on, adjust any manual settings, focus and fire. This isn’t so bad if you’re out specifically to shoot and have the camera already set up and zone-focused, leaving only the shutter activation to worry about. But this doesn’t suit a more casual, reactive approach to photography -– sometimes you just want to carry a camera around in your pocket, only to whip it out to capture a passing moment.


Great expectations

The best option for this type of shooting is, of course, a 35mm compact camera. But not all compacts fit the bill; the Contax G1, for example, suffers from unreliable, slow autofocus, while at the opposite end of the spectrum the Olympus XA series is notorious for sticky shutter issues and fragile, fiddly sliding covers. There are expensive options that offer a better experience –- the Contax T2 and the Ricoh GR among them -– but I’d hazard a guess that these are outside the price range of an everyday carry for most casual photographers. Narrow the search down to cover both nippy, reliable ergonomics and an affordable price point and the list of popular results is short indeed.

Thankfully, hundreds (if not thousands) of different film camera models were produced during the medium’s heyday in the latter half of the 20th century, and only relatively few have reached the dizzying price heights of the Olympus MJU-II / Stylus Epic (going for around £200) or the Minolta TC-1 (upwards of £1,500). That means plenty remain just under the popular radar and some, it stands to reason, will offer snappy usability and high-end performance without costing the earth.

I recently happened to come across just such a camera in the Chinon Auto 3001, a plastic brick from 1987 that fails to stand out visually among that decade’s host of blocky, black 35mm compacts. Looks aside, though, this one is (and was) a unique item, featuring an infrared triple-beam autofocus system, solid build quality and, most importantly of all, incredible speed and ease of use.

Weapon of choice

The Auto 3001 is a rectangular plastic camera typical of its time. It’s 132mm wide, 71mm tall and 47mm deep, and weighs in at 350g with a film and a 2CR5 battery loaded. To interpret this bunch of numbers, that means the Auto 3001 is fairly large for a compact –- too big for a trouser or shirt pocket, but slim enough to easily slot into a jacket pocket. It’s also quite light, so can be carried or worn around the neck all day without much strain. In spite of the light weight, however, this is no cheap throwaway – the body is hard and well designed.

The film door and battery compartment both open with simple, firm switches on the sides and the button arrangement on the top plate is pleasingly straightforward. You’ve got a large, round shutter button, a medium-sized fill flash button and self-timer button, and a small film rewind button, all of which are very normal and work firmly and easily.

The two less ordinary (but not more complicated) controls are the flash override (top plate) and spot AF (back). These are where the design of the Auto 3001 really shines, as thought has been put into not just the availability of these options but the ergonomic positioning of the controls. The flash override is a great feature that I only wish more compacts had adopted. Rather than forcing you to select a flash mode every time you turn the camera on, the Auto 3001’s auto exposure system decides when flash is needed; if you’d rather not flash your subject, you simply hold down the ‘flash off’ button with your left index finger while your right index finger presses the shutter.


This is highly intuitive and very quickly becomes second nature, giving you instantaneous flash override without having to look down at the camera even once. The spot AF button, meanwhile, allows you to use the central autofocus point in the viewfinder to focus and recompose, overriding the camera’s fancier autofocus system (more on this later). Again, it’s a doddle to use, being positioned so that you can press it with your right thumb while your right index finger trips the shutter.

With these simple manual overrides learned in the space of a few seconds, the rest of the experience is an absolute pleasure. The camera is turned on by sliding open the lens cover; this is no flimsy hotspot for errors like on the Lomo LC-A or (sad to say) most Olympus clamshells, but rather a strong barrier with a raised plastic lip for grip and a satisfying click to confirm that it’s fully open or closed.

The design leads you to do this with your right middle and ring fingers, meaning that you can be ready to reach all the other controls in the same instant that you turn on the camera. This allows for extraordinary speed of use, moving from an off position to taking a shot in less than a second (ok, I haven’t scientifically measured this, but trust me – it feels very fast).

Up to scratch

As mentioned above, if you don’t want to use the spot AF override to focus on the central square, you’re at the mercy of the Auto 3001’s three-beam infrared autofocus system. Thankfully, it’s a very useful system indeed, and far less offbeat than it sounds. All it means, in practice, is that the camera sends out multiple signals to detect what to focus on, meaning that you don’t need to start with your subject in the centre of the frame and then recompose – instead, you can compose as you like and trust the camera to nail the focus. After using the camera for a number of weeks I only found this to fail once or twice, which is about the margin of error for any autofocus film camera anyway. It’s reliable enough that it makes the camera even faster to use and reduces the risk of blur from shaking while trying to rapidly recompose in the moment.

The Auto 3001 is also pretty quiet for an auto-winding camera, and you can delay the film advance by keeping the shutter button held down – this is a real advantage for candid street photography or any situation where subtlety is desired. The lens is quick to focus, and autofocus is confirmed by two different lights in the viewfinder: green ‘AF’ letters for normal autofocus or a little red flower for macro subjects (between 0.9m and the minimum distance of 0.6m). Put simply, this camera is a joy to use and almost foolproof in its simplicity.

However, none of this would matter if the results were poor or inconsistent. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

The 35mm f/2.8 lens offers the perfect field of view for general use and is a stop faster than most compacts in its under-£100 price bracket. It’s also sharp and contrasty, producing good colours and detail without making things too lurid. This thing should really be considered in the top bracket of compact cameras, as reflected in a glowing review in The New York Times from 1987 in which Andy Grundberg states: “The Auto 3001 Multifocus from Chinon stands at the top of its class of point-and-shoot cameras…it does best what fuss-free cameras are supposed to do: it produces a high percentage of sharp, well-exposed pictures without the help of any human intelligence.”

A Plastic Hexar

A cursory search for online information on the Chinon Auto 3001 will yield some informative insights from the camera’s small but appreciative fanbase. The main thing I noticed, however, was that it is often cited as an alternative to the Olympus MJU-II or Yashica T series premium compacts. Certainly, in terms of quality, this comparison is fair, but anyone buying an Auto 3001 with those other cameras in mind is likely to be disappointed by the size and, as a result, may fail to appreciate the superior ergonomics.


A better comparison, though this may be considered sacrilege by some, would be with the Konica Hexar AF. The Auto 3001 lacks the Hexar’s metal body and Leica-rivalling lens, but in all other respects it is a worthwhile competitor — equally comfortable to use, reliable and capable of consistently high-quality results. In fact, this plastic Hexar even has the same 1/250th fastest shutter speed as the Konica legend, though that might not be a feature to write home about.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Auto 3001 costs less than a fifth of a Hexar AF on the used market, and is likely to have seen less intense use. You won’t be scared to lose or break it, and it feels solid enough to survive everyday bumps and scrapes anyway. Copies are also available from other manufacturers – the Revue 900AF looks to have the same ergonomic setup, but I can’t speak for its build quality, while the Kodak S1100XL is much uglier and has a flimsy looking flip-up flash cover rather than the sliding lens cover of the Auto 3001. Personally, I’d stick with the original as, unless there’s a huge price gap, the Chinon Auto 3001 is unlikely to disappoint.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Auto 3001 costs less than a fifth of a Hexar AF on the used market, and is likely to have seen less intense use. You won’t be scared to lose or break it, and it feels solid enough to survive everyday bumps and scrapes anyway. Copies are also available from other manufacturers – the Revue 900AF looks to have the same ergonomic setup, but I can’t speak for its build quality, while the Kodak S1100XL is much uglier and has a flimsy looking flip-up flash cover rather than the sliding lens cover of the Auto 3001. Personally, I’d stick with the original as, unless there’s a huge price gap, the Chinon Auto 3001 is unlikely to disappoint.

Put simply, it’s the jack-of-all-trades camera that you’ll instinctively take everywhere, whether it’s a trek through the mountains, a wedding or a stroll through the city, knowing that you can rely on it to calmly and quickly capture any moments you throw at it without getting in the way. Models don’t come up for sale very often in the UK, but there seems to be a steady flow from Germany (where I got mine from) around the £75 mark on eBay. Grab one if your point-and-shoot journey has left you yearning for a reliable option to document life, and to capture moments before they vanish.

~ Temoor Iqbal

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6 thoughts on “Swift shooter: The Chinon Auto 3001 has the functions and ergonomics to ensure you don’t miss the decisive moment”

  1. I have 3 Chinon 3001’s and 1 Kodak XL – I prefer the Kodak. The controls are done through a little slide, rather than buttons. It means that you never have to check the LCD screen to see if you have flash off or not. The spot AF placement is also better. They also got rid of the strap through the battery door, which is a real weak spot.

    All in all I like them, but they fall short of a Mju in terms of color reproduction and size. 35mm f/2.8 is not rare at all by the way, most P&S I have are f/2.8 and I paid less than the 3001 for them. (20-30 EUR)

    Reply
  2. Those night shots are mighty impressive, Timoor! Really, all of the images in the article are. Thanks for this great discovery, I had never heard of this camera before.

    Reply
  3. I completely agree with your assessment. This camera looks like, well, a grey plastic rectangle from the 80s. Once you start using it, it turns out to be fast, tough, and precise. One thing: I decided to remove the strap from mine, because it worried me having it threaded through the battery compartment door. It’s not needed; I keep it in a pocket instead of around my neck.

    Reply
  4. Great article, glad to see some love for this camera. I own the Revue copy since 2019 and it is a joy to shoot. Bough it for 30 eur (plus shipping) on german ebay. My second P&S is the Nikon L35AF2 and I can’t see a difference in photos with this camera (but I am no expert).

    Reply

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