Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus: Noisy but good

Chinon 35F-MA front
The Chinon 35F-MA is unassuming. Not as sleek as the point-and-shoot cameras that would follow it in just a few years, it’s still a decent little camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Chinon 35F-MA, a point-and-shoot I received from my EMULSIVE Secret Santa, turned out to be a lot better than I first expected.

It was the first autofocus point-and-shoot 35mm camera I’ve used since my family bought a Ricoh FF-9, which must’ve been shortly after they were released in 1988. I was going on a school trip and wanted to take a camera along, but Dad wasn’t ready to trust me alone with his Pentax ME Super for a week just yet. If I recall correctly, I shot about six rolls of film that week. I haven’t got a clue where the photos are now, but I remember the camera quite well.

Now, of course, I prefer a much greater deal of control over my exposures and use manual cameras — mostly models designed for professionals. Much as I remember the Ricoh, I haven’t even considered buying any of the FF-9s I’ve seen in thrift stores.

And so it was that, for just a moment, I was a little disappointed in the receipt of the Chinon. Truly — just a moment. Once I checked it out a little more closely I got more interested pretty quickly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my Secret Santa had included a printout of a photograph of Andy Warhol with his Chinon 35F-MA.

Scooter gang
Some sort of scooter gang — possibly just some friends out for a Friday drive — tooling through Denver’s Larimer Square in midwinter. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I never would’ve counted myself among Warhol’s fans, but his art and presence are deeply intertwined with many other things I’ve long awed. He was a near-constant figure in New York’s art and music scenes from the mid-1960s on, collaborating or rubbing elbows with other stars at his studio, The Factory. Regulars through the years included Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Brian Jones, Madonna, Debbie Harry and Lou Reed — as well as New Topographics photographer Stephen Shore.

Warhol also designed the album covers for The Velvet Underground’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and The Rolling Stones’ triple-platinum Sticky Fingers. Both were formative works for me, whose echoes are clearly evident in a lot of what I listen to today.

So yeah, I was quite a bit less disappointed after I took a second to open my mind.

Specifications

What’s probably most noteworthy about the 35F-MA is the early near-infrared autofocusing (“Infrafocus”) system and its bulging orbs on either side of the camera’s lens, making it look a bit like it’s holding its breath, ready to explode. Production began in 1981 after the 35F-MA was introduced at Photokina in 1980.

I discussed some of the history of the company when I announced my receipt of the camera in January. I’d previously made some negative assumptions about Chinon, but later learned the company was a lot more reputable than I’d realized.

Chinon 35F-MA viewfinder
Looking through the viewfinder of the Chinon 35F-MA. The brightline framing guides are very bright, and the focus target and indicators are large and readable. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The 35F-MA comes equipped with a 38mm f/2.8 lens with a minimum focusing distance of just under one meter (2.9 feet, to be exact), in front of a Seiko electronic shutter. The lens cap is a bit unconventional, covering the autofocus sensors as well as the lens, but is latched into a standard 46 millimeter filter thread.

The auto-focus system determines focus distance with the two near-infrared sensors, and features autofocus lock. Engage the autofocus by half-depressing the shutter release button. Holding it halfway down keeps it locked once the focus is determined. Release and half-depress the shutter again to reset focus and exposure.

A green LED just outside the frame of the viewfinder indicates when focus and exposure have been determined. A red LED indicates underexposure — pop up the flash or find more light. The Chinon’s auto-exposure system uses a CdS photoelectric sensor, and supports film speeds from ASA 25 to 400 (selected with a ring around the lens).

The selected focus distance is displayed in the viewfinder by a needle indicator and a series of pictographs similar to those of a scale-focus camera. The viewfinder also has a brightline frame with parallax correction marks and a circular autofocus target in the center.

Chinon 35F-MA top cover
The top cover of the Chinon 35F-MA is simple, featuring the mode/power dial, frame counter, and three indicator LEDs. They used the rest of the space for a really big label. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The automatic loading and winding features are endless. To load, simply lay the film leader across the film plane, engage the perforations on the teeth of the small sprocket, and close the back. You’ll hear the camera whine — it’s not quite as loud as a Boeing, but if you were near the edge of the runway, it might not be drowned out.

The film advances automatically between frames, and can be rewound automatically, too. When the film can no longer be advanced, a film end indicator LED on the top cover illuminates. Rewinding can by initiated by a combination of controls on the bottom cover: slide a small switch over, press the rewind button and listen to the whine again.

The frame counter resets automatically when the film back is opened, and there’s even a film transport indicator on the back similar to the ME Super — a red panel with angled white lines that wiggle as long as the film is moving.

The shutter automatically locks when the batteries are dead (or installed incorrectly), and during loading and rewinding.

Broncos fans await parade
Fans of the Denver Broncos football team fill the streets at Colfax and Broadway, waiting for the team’s Super Bowl victory parade to begin, Feb. 9, 2016. Super-duper expired film of some kind. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Chinon’s mode switch, on the top right, has only two selectable settings — “Off” and “A.” This obviously stands for Automatic, but since there’s no manual mode, it might as well be thought of as simply, “On.” Additionally, there are two momentary settings — past Off is the battery check, and past On is the self-timer. The electronically-controlled timer runs 10 seconds, and flashes a red indicator on the front of the camera, blinking faster in the last three seconds.

There’s a built-in flash that pops up with the press of a small button on the front of the camera. The flash is listed in the user manual as having a seven-second recycle time with alkaline batteries. An orange indicator light on the back of the camera illuminates when the flash capacitor is charged. Flash power adjusts automatically according to the focus distance.

The whole camera is powered by two AA batteries, and nothing functions without them. For those times when you need to power through roll after roll with the flash on, there’s also an external power adapter socket on the left side of the body.

There is a tripod mount on the bottom cover, and strap lugs on the left side below the external power socket.

Shoulder-surfing Broncos kids
Kids ride their dads’ shoulders to get a view of the parade as Denver and the Broncos celebrate the team’s victory in Super Bowl 50, Feb. 9, 2016. (Daniel J. Schneider)

What I think

I’m going to start with my complaints first, just to lay them out there, and then move on to the good stuff.

The lens cap: it’s awkwardly shaped and attached. The little tabs on the side to lock or release it need some fiddling to be locked in all the way on, and if they aren’t all the way in, the cap falls off. Due to the size and shape, it’s hard to do that thing where you kind of hold the cap in the palm of your left hand while making a photograph and then slap it back on.

The flash button: it can be depressed accidentally in your bag, and once the flash is popped up, it starts draining your batteries. Left on, it will kill them dead overnight with ease. This happened to me during my first test roll, and led to a bit of paranoia throughout the rest of my testing — I was flipping the mode dial over to battery check every time I intended to turn it on, and carried two sets of spare batteries.

Broncos fans line Broadway
Broncos fans line Broadway, mostly blocking the sidewalk. More fans crowd to the edge of United Nations Park in Denver, atop the Civic Center bus terminal. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The batteries: just the fact that they’re required. Of course they are, right? But you know I still prefer a camera that can operate without them. This is a me thing, not an open criticism of the design of the camera, which I totally get.

The mode dial/power switch: it’s another me thing — I just sort of hate having to turn the camera on and off all the time. Of course, I do this uncomplainingly with my Pentax 6×7, so I’m not even completely certain why this complaint made its way to my Moleskine.

Power indicator: there isn’t one, which is why I kept flipping it to battery check once my dead-battery paranoia set in. It just would be nice to have an indicator of the camera’s on/off state. Of course, what didn’t make it to the notebook was that you could pretty easily just turn the camera on, lift it to your eye, and half-depress the shutter release to see if it focuses.

Weight: it’s shockingly heavy for its size and feature set. A little big, maybe, too. This isn’t really a con — call it an observation worth considering when you compare the Chinon to competitors like the Olympus Stylus series point-and-shoots, or even later Chinon models.

Shadows at Writer Square
A pedestrian and the deep shadows of the arcade on the north side of Writer Square, along Larimer Street in downtown Denver. Expired HP5 loves the contrast. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Alright, that’s it for the digs. Now for the props.

Automatic winding: Okay, I admit it, this is really, really easy. The Chinon is the first camera I’ve tested with auto-loading, too. When all you have to do is lay out the leader and go, you can change film really fast. I can kind of see the appeal of cameras designed after 1982 (when the Nikon FM2n was introduced).

38mm lens: it’s a bit wider than the 40-45mm lenses on a lot of other point-and-shoot cameras. It’s not a full-on wide-angle lens, but it’s a lot closer, and unless you’re trying to take a picture of Delicate Arch from the viewpoint (a mile away), it’s a great focal length. It’s good for street shooting, group shots, and even a lot of landscapes.

Crowded bicycle rack
An overcrowded bike rack on Larimer Square in the days leading up to the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 appearance. Bars were crowded in the tense weeks before the team’s victory. (Daniel J. Schneider)

That lens: it’s really very sharp, and free of noteworthy distortions and aberration. It might not quite compare to your Leicas and Nikons, but it’s a fine piece of optics and it can take a nice picture. My example shots here are grainy and color-shifted, but that’s just the expired film talking.

Filter thread: conspicuously absent from virtually all point-and-shoot cameras after the early 1980s, the ability to utilize simple, interchangeable threaded filters with a basic auto-focus, auto-exposure camera is quite a boon. 46mm is a less-common size, but is by no means impossible to find.

Size: I actually really like the substantiality of the 35F-MA. It feels like a camera in my hands, unlike a lot of cheap, lightweight point-and-shoot cameras from the mid-1980s on.

Kate, frustrated
I spent too much time fiddling with cameras on our walk around Lake Mary at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge and Kate is justifiably frustrated. Next time I think I won’t take a camera at all. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Easy: just everything about the Chinon 35F-MA is easy to use. It’s not quite a modern and automated as the Nikon N70, but it’s really no more difficult to use. You can switch off your brain and just focus on your photographs.

I find myself pretty neutral on the viewfinder overall, and the autofocus/auto-exposure. The half-press activation is simple and functional, but not especially unique. The viewfinder is very usable — the brightlines are bright — but it’s not all that big. The exposure indicator LEDs next to the viewfinder are visible with the camera up your eye and work nicely.

So, to sum up, this is a pretty solid little camera. I think it’s probably a little too new and too automated to earn a place in my permanent collection, but since it was a gift I also won’t sell it. I’ll probably re-gift it so someone else can get a feel for it.

Some more test shots:

Arsenal homestead
The Egli home is the only one left standing of about 200 that were seized to create the Rocky Mountain Arsenal for the war effort in 1942. (Daniel J. Schneider)
John Deere tractor
A nicely maintained vintage John Deere tractor in the loafing shed at the DeLaney Farm Historic District in Aurora, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Tracks on Lake Mary
Wildlife tracks crisscross the snow to and from a small island in the middle of Lake Mary. The late afternoon sun stretched the shadows far across the frozen surface of the lake at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Gully stable shadows
Deep shadows in the corners of the stable at the John Gully homestead, a historic farm house and outbuildings that was moved to Aurora, Colo.’s DeLaney Farm Historic District for preservation in 1980. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Trees at the Arsenal
Leafless winter trees stand sentinel along the shore of Lake Mary at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in the evening sun. (Daniel J. Schneider)
DeLaney Farm across creek
Taking in the view of the DeLaney Farm in Aurora, Colo. Built as a grain silo and converted into a two-story dairy barn around 1912, the milking shed across West Toll Gate Creek may be the last original round barn in the state. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Chinon 35F-MA Infrafocus camera
Author Rating
41star1star1star1stargray
  • rpmadrid

    we call this camera Bug Eyes