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Pocketable film cameras

The purpose of a pocketable camera is not to replace a larger SLR, but to complement it. It has to be small enough that you can actually slip it into a pocket and forget about its existence until you need it. If it is larger than that, you'll need to carry it into a separate pouch, in which case you might as well carry a good old camera. So only the smallest camera will do. This eliminates the vast majority of P&S cameras, in particular those with a zoom. In my quest for this perfect small camera, I have tried many. I have owned, or still own, each of the cameras reviewed in this page, and it is from experience that I comment. There are many other good small cameras that I have not tried.

In short, the Rollei 35 is a classic camera, mechanical and all manual, not very easy to operate, the Olympus XA, and Minox GT,GTE are AE cameras which give you almost total control but require you to open a cover, focus, set aperture, and cock the shutter, the Yashica T4 and Nikon Lite-Touch are P&S cameras with flash totally automatic with no controls, and the Ricoh GR1 gives you the best of the 4 previous cameras.

Rollei 35

Manual exposure, manual focus camera (no focussing aid other than scale). Dedicated or generic flash goes at bottom.

It is a classic 20 year old mechanical metal camera which is known to be very well built and rugged. That so many are still around and very usable says something about their design. The body is all metal (although some Singapore versions are said to have some plastic) and has a "classic" German engineering specimen look and feel that is very nice. The lens barrel can be collapsed into the body, a la screw mount Leica style. The shutter is of Compur type shutter has B, 2...500 settings. Silent operation. It is compact; the film transport sproket spindle so common in most 35 cameras almost disappearing into two sproket discs at the edge of the frame, thus reduce the width of the body by an ingenius idea. The film rewind crank is located at the bottom of the body,a distinct German style design, a la Zeiss Ikon Contessa of the 50s. The battery is used only for the meter, not for the shutter, which can fire without it at all speeds. In addition, the drain is very low. You can control the shutter speed and the aperture independantly with two dials. The lens does have filter threads. It comes in many different flavors, with a large disparity in price:

Problems: This camera is NOT a point and shoot. You have to pull out the lens and lock it, set speed and aperture (this cannot be done with you eye in the viewfinder) and remember to focus the lens, by guessing the distance. This works well for landscapes, but is difficult at close distances. It is also relatively heavy and thick. Because it has become a collector's item, the prices can be inflated, especially for the german models.

Olympus XA

An aperture-priority, manual focus rangefinder camera, generally well regarded.

35mm/2.8 lens, quite sharp. iso setting can be used for exposure compensation. Precise metering (good enough for slides). Dedicated side flash. sliding cover for the lens. This camera, long discontinued, is still a good choice for those who want to be able to control the settings themselves on a small, light (plastic) and relatively cheap camera (less than $150 used, not that easy to find). The rangefinder helps at close distance. Silent operation.

Problems: I didn't kept mine very long (the frame counter was defective), so I don't have an extensive experience, but I found that the rangefinder is pretty difficult to use because it is small and dark. I personnally thought that the Minox was sharper and I prefered its operation.

Don't consider the XAn for n=1,2,3,4, they have inferior optics to the XA's 6-element glass lens, and offer less control over exposure.

Minox GT, GTE

Minox is a german camera manufacturer that started with miniature cameras (spy-cameras) about 1950. They still build miniature cameras (special 8mm film), called LX.

An aperture-priority, manual focus camera (no focussing aid other than scale), 35mm/2.8 lens (Color Minotar, high quality 4-lens system, replaced on the GTE with a Minoxar with built-in UV filter, said to be even better), standard flash hot shoe (letting you connect a flash much bigger than the camera). iso dial can be used for exposure compensation in addition to a +1 switch (useful on snow and backlight). This camera is the smallest and lightest of all, with lens folding into (plastic) camera body. Silent operation. Dedicated or generic flash mounts on top. the focussing scale is visible in the viewfinder in the GTE model, which is helpful, and there is a good dof scale. Controversed reviews about their ruggedness, but most agree that the lens is extremely good. Precise metering (good enough for slides). I was pleased with the results, and I didn't think that the lens was second to the Tessars of my Rollei or T4. Many accessories. Minox make the cutest filters, lens hoods, tripods, gadget bags, to go with their cameras.

Different Models
EL 1975-79
GL 1979-81   + exposure correction switch (x2) on top
GT 1981-     + self timer

some later models are derivates of the GT (Touring..)

PL 1982-     low cost version, full auto exp. only
PE 1983-     PL+ built in flash

ML 1985-    different body, slightly bigger
            LED meter
            center weighted meter
            exposure hold
            aperture preset + full auto exposure

MB          ML without full auto exp.

Accessories for M-models are incompatible with the others (Minox flash,
filters, batteries)

Problems: fragile camera (the shutter of mine misfunctionned once, ruining an extremely precious roll of film). others have reported light leaks due to the folding lens and other mechanical problems due to bad quality control. At one point dealers said this was their "number-one repair camera", not only seeing it returned to them too often but also suffering from high repair costs. It could very well be possible that Minox improved their cameras in the last few years, and that the metal versions are more rugged. You have to guess the focussing distance, which works well for landscapes, but is difficult at close distances. The price is high (more than $300 new).

Yashica T4

A programmed exposure, active AF camera with winder. 35mm/3.5 lens + flash. DX. The new version is weatherproof and comes with a waist-level finder. This camera is very highly regarded, esp. in the US, mostly because of a good exposure system and its Carl Zeiss Tessar lens, and many consider it to be the best P&S under $200. Because it is a P&S it is easy to operate just with one hand. It is not as compact as the other cameras mentioned in this page.


Nikon Lite-Touch

A programmed exposure, active AF camera with winder. 28mm/3.5 lens + flash. DX. Recently this camera can be bought for less than $100, which is a real bargain. This camera does not have a particularly good reputation, but it is actually quite good, is among the smallest of all, and has a true wide-angle lens. The range of shutter speeds 1/4 sec to 1/250 sec looks rather small, but the fact that the top shutter speed is 1/250 will cause the program to stop down the lens more than if it was 1/700 (like on the T4), which is all benefits. Because it is a P&S it is easy to operate just with one hand.


Ricoh GR1

A programmed exposure or aperture-priority, passive AF camera with winder. 28/2.8 lens + flash. DX. Has many useful features among them exposure compensation, two metering/autofocussing patterns, focus lock (this can be used to simulate manual focus), time exposure, sophisticated flash control, flash warning, prewinding, and is the smallest of all automatic cameras (slimmer than the lite-touch) with a simple and clear control layout (unlike its more expensive competitors). It is a metal camera, made of magnesium, which doesn't look as good as titanium but is actually stronger. The lens is great, probably equal to a good SLR lens. In P&S mode it can be used with one hand.

In my opinion, this is the camera to get. True, it is among the expensive ones, but still reasonable (I had no problem to get mine for $435 at B&H when it came out, and believe the price has dropped since then), especially when compared to its competitors, the T2, Nikon 28Ti, and Minolta TC1. For this price, you get a small and tough camera which can either be operated as a true P&S camera with all the automation (like the T4 or Lite-Touch) or give you almost total control (like a XA or Minox) with good ergononics and optics.

The manual not very clear. Some points worth noting, which are not mentionned, or written in a confusing manner:


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