35mm compacts are an interesting thing. Though they are often cheap, plastic-ey, and lack the controls of more “professional” cameras, they are somewhat of an obsession for many film photography gear junkies. The good ones can gain a cult status almost akin to that surrounding early Leicas. Famous models like the Contax T2/T3, minolta TC-1, and Yashica T series can be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. You don’t always need to spend the price of a new dslr for a descent point and shoot though, and there are hundreds of good ones that can be found online for less than 50 bucks.
The Minolta AF-Big Finder is one of those cameras that nobody gives much thought to. Whether its because of the odd look, lack of controls, or the admittedly slow lens, few have ever used, or even heard of it. Its not the most common camera either, possibly due to the cheap plastic construction. But if you do find one, they usually go for ~$20 online, or <$5 at a thrift shop. I wouldn’t recommend paying any more than $20 though, as this camera wasn’t exactly built to last, and will probably break after a few years of actively using it. Perhaps thats why they are somewhat uncommon. Don’t get the wrong idea though, I actually like this camera quite a bit for several key reasons.
On paper though, this camera is far from perfect, especially compared to some others out
there. The biggest turn off is the lens which tops out at a measly f/4.5. I believe it is a fixed aperture, but I could be wrong about that. But the advantage to this is that the depth of field is nearly infinite at any distance, which is good because like many lower end point and shoots this camera appears to have a pumped up zone focus af system. If I had to guess I would say it only has a few focus zones as well. While It appears to be more precise at close to moderate distances, when focusing on far away objects the sharpest point in the image often appears to be in the 15-20 foot range – about what I imagine the hyperfocal distance would be. At its closest focusing distance(a little over 4ft) however, the images are actually very sharp. The edge contrast is good overall, but micro-contrast is virtually nonexistant, and the lens “resolution”, if such a thing really exists, is somewhat low, making irregular objects look rough at times. Because of this, I don’t think I would feel comfortable printing anything over 8×10 or 11×14 with images from this camera, but even then images will be quite sharp despite the(at times) lack of fine detail. I find that it does best in good lighting conditions, and interestingly, many of the shots that were overexposed were also the sharper of the bunch.
The body of the camera is odd as well. It feels cheap and a bit rickety, however up to this point I have not found any light leaks or other issues. The biggest flaw to me is the massive size of the thing compared to other compacts. I understand that it needs to be big in order to accommodate the viewfinder, but the body of the camera dwarfs the lens, and to be honest it looks a bit ridiculous. The handle is also a bit strange feeling. As it is smaller than the rest of the camera, I have found myself holding it in odd ways and my fingers tend to drift dangerously close to the recessed lens. I have let my finger get in my shots a few times, so you have to be mindful of your grip when using it.
My last qualm is the shutter button. Though this is an issue with the majority of compacts I have used, soft buttons like the one on this camera are especially finicky. It has an almost joystick-like feel to it, and half pressing can be tricky at times. I have found that to get consistent focusing, I have to press on the edge of the button until it locks focus, then press down on the rest of it for the camera to fire.
Now that we have the downsides out of the way, There are several things that I really like about this camera. The first is its automation. This camera is fully automatic, and has no controls other than a self timer button. while this may be a negative to some, I like the thoughtlessness of shooting with this type of camera. I find that it gives a very consistent look to my photos, which I really appreciate. I also like the shutter speed range, which goes from 1/40 to 1/400. It may be a bit limited, but I take comfort in knowing that no matter the light conditions, I can always hand-hold it without fear of motion blur.
As it’s name so subtly hints at, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolutely massive viewfinder on this camera. This thing is easily 2-3 times the size of other point and shoot viewfinders I have used. Because of this, the af-big finder makes a great camera for people with glasses, or those who don’t feel like straining to see through the tiny viewfinders on other cameras. The framelines are clear and bright too. Rather than the on and off mirror-like framelines, it has the classic thick green ones similar to those on the Yashica T3.
Another big plus is that this camera takes normal AA batteries. I hate having to use special batteries with most of my cameras. Not only are they expensive, they are hard to find in my area and there are only a few stores near me that carry the cr123a batteries that a lot of my cameras take. With the af big finder, I can find batteries for it virtually anywhere, and they actually last a while. So far I have put 3 full rolls through the camera without changing them, and the winding speed is the same as when first put the batteries in. While the 18 roll estimate I found online seems a bit high, I feel comfortable saying that they will probably last at least a few more rolls.
Overall, to me this is a good camera. Not great, but certainly usable as a general purpose compact. If they can get past the downsides, I think most people will really enjoy it though, and these days, I doubt you’ll find many better cameras online in the sub $25 price range.