Plastic Fantastisch: The Leica AF-C1 Reviewed

My beloved Olympus µ[mju:]-II is on its last legs. With increasing regularity, I encounter the dreaded ‘lens stuck out’ error, where the camera will take an exposure but the lens will not retract back into the body. I’ve written elsewhere about how much I love my µ[mju:]-II, but replacing the camera with another µ[mju:]-II is prohibitively expensive, especially as any other model will exhibit the same error sooner or later.

So a change is in order. But what to look for?

Time has not been kind to the compact 35mm cameras of the 1980s and 1990s. Whether it’s their—erm—bold aesthetics or the questionable state of their automatic electronic systems, finding a functioning, quality and affordable compact camera is becoming more difficult with each passing year. The µ[mju:]-II I picked up for A$80 back in 2011 now goes for A$400+ and you can forget the higher-specced cameras such as a Contax or Ricoh.

So I went back a bit in time—to before the µ[mju:]-II made its debut in 1997—and began looking at ‘compact’ cameras that were far less svelte and much more 1980s.

Plastic fantastic

In the 1980s, photographic technology was on the march. Electronics were becoming commonplace, heralding innovations such as autofocus and multizone metering. Mechanical dials and needles were giving way to multi-function buttons and LCDs. On the outside, heavy and uncompromising metals were substituted for durable and lightweight modern plastics. Innovation, as ever, was often met with scepticism from the photographic old guard.

One early SLR to use substantial amounts of plastic in its construction was the Mamiya ZE. In a 1981 Popular Photography review of the camera, Jon Gilbert Fox wrote ‘I am yet to put my whole faith in “high-impact” plastic…I did fear for its life as substantial rock barriers came its way…I was careful to avoid bruising or knocking it’. Somewhat shockingly, the Mamiya ZE survived just fine and many continue working to this day.

Even famously innovative companies like Olympus avoided mentioning the dreaded P-word in advertising for the tiny and brilliant XA series (despite plastic materials being the only reason those cameras could exist).

Instead, they went out of their way to tout their classic (and by early 1982, woefully outdated) OM-1 SLR as a real camera—it’s made of ‘Metal, Not Plastic’! Here, the OM-1’s lack of modern photo technology was repositioned as a selling point (it’s ‘a camera, not a computer’). You, the photographer, were in control, not some second-guessing microprocessor.

By the late-80s, however, all this anti-plastic and anti-automation bias was moot. Professional and consumer cameras alike used plastic in their design and computers in their innards. Most cameras … except for those from Leica.

Leica had been on the brink of financial disaster throughout the 1970s and survived, in part, due to the relocation of camera and optical manufacturing from Germany to Canada. By the mid-1980s, things were looking up for Leica, launching the Leica M6 (the first all-new Leica M since the lacklustre Leica M5 in 1971) and relocating most manufacturing back to Germany. 

But the Leica camera lineup was decidedly old school. No point-and-shoot cameras, no auto-exposure cameras and nothing with autofocus—this is despite Leica having patented a number of autofocus technologies in the 1960s and 70s.  The Leica M6 merely added a lightmeter to the tried-and-tested 1950s rangefinder formula and the Leica R SLRs were manual focus beasts a generation out of step with their contemporary rivals. To continue being relevant, Leica needed a compact autofocus point-and-shoot camera that had a broader market appeal. Not possessing the technology or know-how to make it themselves, they turned to their longtime collaborators, Minolta, to help them along. 

If you love it, put a red dot on it

Since the early 1970s, Minolta had been Leica’s partner in developing anything with a circuit, from the Leitz Minolta CL rangefinder to the Leicaflex and R series SLRs and lenses. In fact, Leica never made an M-mount rangefinder more advanced than 1980’s Minolta CLE until the M went digital in 2006. So Leica took a look at Minolta’s point-and-shoot offerings and must have been enticed by the Minolta AF-Tele Super, ordering a whole bunch to be delivered to Germany with a marginally nicer design and a red dot (and, of course, a much higher price tag!). OEM FTW!

The carefree promotion of the Minolta

The family-focused Minolta AF-Tele brochure is a little bit different from the Leica version

Although it was ultimately a Minolta, the Leica AF-C1 represented a lot of ‘firsts’ for the iconic German brand, including:

  • Its first autofocus camera.
  • Its first auto-exposure camera.
  • Its first point-and-shoot camera.
  • Its first camera with a proper handgrip.

Of course, Leica didn’t refer to it as a ‘point-and-shoot’—that would be far too prosaisch. Instead, it was all about ‘The Compact Idea’. The Leica AF-C1 was billed as a camera that ‘enables you to become acquainted with a legendary name in the photographic world, while enjoying photography the easiest way possible’. That is to say, this was a consumer point-and-shoot with a red dot so you can tell your yuppie banker friends that you too are a Leica Man™ with more dollars than sense (the Minolta AF-Tele sold for about US$149; the Leica AF-C1 sold for around US$400).

The Leica AF-C1 in marketing literature

The AF-C1 represented some very important firsts for Leica and therefore represents a change in how their marketing materials were presented. For instance, the target market for the AF-C1 was not the usual Leica photographer (a reasonably well-off professional white male aged 50+ who missed his calling as a war photographer), but rather younger affluent professionals who knew the Leica name and wanted a red dot for their family snaps. 

Thus the Leica AF-C1 brochure demonstrates the features of the camera with images of happy smiling families, travel-style photos and shows the camera held by an elegant model.

‘Compact photography’ required an ‘uncomplicated camera you can take anywhere’. And—the literature assures us—the AF-C1 was just the camera.

Leica Fotografie International magazine featured the AF-C1 twice in their 1989 volume, describing the camera as ‘intended for those who with to record everyday events around them without the drag of technicalities’. In a field test in issue 4, noted Leica author Günter Osterloh took the AF-C1 on a field test ‘in the tropics’ (read: on a comfy Caribbean cruise). As a casual snapshot camera, in Osterloh’s opinion, the camera scored full marks. Not too hard—Minolta were pretty experienced with making these types of camera by this time.

Unsurprisingly, Leica made little mention of the AF-C1’s non-Germanic origins. This is a trait that is repeated to this day, with the proudly German company coy about the sourcing and manufacturing of products that do not bear the ‘Made in Germany’ mark. For more recent Leica compact digital cameras manufactured by Panasonic, the terminology is ‘cooperation partner’, even though these cameras are little more than reshelled Lumix products. Conversely, Panasonic lenses that bear the Leica DG name are ‘manufactured using measurement instruments and quality assurance systems that have been certified by Leica Camera AG based on the company’s quality standards’. Whatever that means.

You can view the full Leica AF-C1 brochure below or download a PDF here. I guarantee it has everything you love about late-80s marketing collateral.

The Leica AF-C1 in use

The more I use my Leica AF-C1, the more I like it. It exemplifies late 1980s and early 1990s camera design only slightly less than the Minolta it is based upon. The handgrip, although chunky, makes it the first easy-to-hold camera in Leica’s storied history!

Probably the most notable feature from a photographer’s point-of-view is the lens. Unlike many compact cameras of the day which used zoom lenses with compromised optics, the Leica AF-C1 employs a normal lens with what is essentially a built-in teleconverter. At the wide end, you get a 40mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Hit the conveniently-located ‘TELE’ button, and the lens extends, giving you an 80mm focal length with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. Although this interesting design precludes the use of any intermediate focal lengths, it does keep the telephoto end relatively sharp compared to other compact zoom cameras of the era. 

Now, this is hardly an APO-Summicron-quality lens, but it’s decent enough for a compact camera. The edges are quite soft, particularly using the TELE setting, but there’s enough to like in the optics to get a nice snap. I particularly like the 40mm (38mm in the original Minolta—who knows whether there’s an actual difference between the two) standard focal length, a field-of-view rarely seen in compact cameras since the fixed-lens rangefinders of the 1960s and 70s (think cameras like the Minolta Hi-Matic and Olympus Trip).

The autofocus mostly works, so long as you are aware of its limitations. The Leica literature on the camera claims the AF-C1 has a ‘multibeam infrared autofocus system’. This means, the literature says, that you don’t need your subject to be in the centre of the shot, rather your subject can be off-centre. I’ve not really tested this much, instead, I do the tried-and-tested method of holding down the shutter release button with my subject in the middle and recomposing. The most substantial change compared with my µ[mju:]-II is the increase in minimum focusing distance from 0.35m to 0.7m.

Olinda, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Portra 400

Kodak Portra 400

Port Melbourne, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Melbourne Museum, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Tri-X 400 400TX

Kodak Tri-X 400

Moorabbin Air Museum, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Gold 200

Kodak Gold 200

Moorabbin Air Museum, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Gold 200

Kodak Gold 200

Finn, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Gold 200

Kodak Gold 200

Docklands, Leica AF-C1, Kodak Gold 200

Kodak Gold 200

Auto-exposure, at least with colour negative and black and white film, is largely accurate, using an exposure zone that is much the same area as the autofocus frame. I’ve not shot any slide film yet, but it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

The only thing that doesn’t work as advertised is the integrated flash. On my 30+ year old camera, it takes an age to charge. Like 30+ seconds instead of the normal 5-second cycle. It’s probably a problem with a capacitor but I can live with it. When working, though, the flash functionality is actually quite clever. Like the lens, the flash has two positions. When used in the normal 40mm wide mode, the flash sits behind a diffuser. When TELE mode is engaged, it pops out from behind the diffuser to increase its range. It’s a neat trick. 

And despite the AF-C1’s plastic bulk, it’s not a chore to lug around, weighing in at about 400g with battery and film. It’s not the lightest camera around but with its large grip, it’s easy to carry.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get used to the Leica AF-C1, but it’s a perfectly cool camera. In fact, the addition of the 80mm focal length makes it a much more versatile compact than most. I’ve never been one for telephoto photography so it’s nice having the option to capture subjects a little further away without having to change lenses.

The first camera of Leica’s future

Then as now, some decry the Leica AF-C1 as not being a ‘real’ Leica. And it’s kinda true. While Leica had collaborated with Minolta in the past, this was the first time they’d taken a whole camera, lock, stock and two smoking focal lengths, and branded it as their own. This type of ‘partnership’ would define Leica for much of the 1990s and early 2000s for their non-M and non-R product offerings.

As the 1990s went by, Leica developed more cameras in partnership with Minolta, with engineers in Solms reportedly taking an increasingly active involvement in camera design, especially with the lenses. Soon, Leica started going to the ball with Panasonic and Fujifilm on later film and digital compacts while improving their own manufacturing know-how. Two particularly beautiful late-model Leica film compacts—the Minilux and the CM—were designed and manufactured in Germany as Leica developed skills that would be critical to their emerging digital product portfolio in the 21st century.

Today, Leica makes an impressive range of technologically advanced cameras from the timeless M11 rangefinder to the modern SL2 mirrorless camera. They still work in ‘partnership’ with certain companies including Panasonic, which produces Leica-branded compact cameras, and Sigma, which produces Leica-branded L-mount lens. And although there is still plenty of criticism of the rebranded ‘Panaleica’ cameras, they function in much the same way as the film compacts that came before them: an affordable way to ‘become acquainted with a legendary name in the photographic world.’ 

The Leica AF-C1 isn’t a stellar performer by any means but it’s an endlessly fascinating product from an iconic brand at the crossroads. If Leica had not offered entry-level products (and the attendant technological developments that came with them), it’s possible the brand might not be around today. It also marked one of Leica’s first forays into the world of ‘lifestyle’ products that traded on their reputation as the tool of choice for war correspondents and photojournalists, a positioning that they lean into to this very day. And although Leica is often criticised for its focus on lifestyle and brand, it is the expensive special editions and licensed products that have arguably allowed Leica to not only survive, but thrive in the 21st century. 

So hats off to the Leica AF-C1. Without it, we just might not have the red dot around at all today.

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