The Best Automatic 35mm Camera // Canon Sure Shot Ace

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The Canon Sure Shot Ace is the cheapest camera I’ve ever purchased. It also happens to be my favorite mass-market film camera. After my friend told me about this gem, I found one online & paid $10 for the camera with its original case and strap. A copy of Popular Photography that I dug up from February 1990 shows an original sale price of $135.

The camera might have fallen by the wayside along with the countless other automatic 35mm cameras of the 90s, had it not been for its quirky features. The Canon Sure Shot Ace features a detachable remote control built into the camera body, two viewfinders (a waist-level viewfinder & standard viewfinder), and a swiveling peg on the bottom.

It should be noted at the outset that this camera does not align with the goals of most photographers. Calling it The Best is a bit misleading. For one, it does not have a super sharp lens; just a simply constructed 35mm f/3.5. If you’re seeking to get the best technical image from a compact film camera, this one isn’t for you.

As such, this review will skip most of the technical specifications of the camera. All that can be found online by searching for the camera manual. We will instead focus on its use and images.

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STYLE

Compared to many small compact cameras of the time, this one is a beaut. My copy has a simple matte black finish, minimal white type, and a large red shutter button, which is a perfect accent. The rounded design was innovative; more like Canon’s future DSLRs than to its peers. The camera shape and shutter button style make it natural to hold.

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The Ace has a built-in lens cover, which is opened by moving a small switch that turns on the camera at the same time. A swiveling peg underneath allows you to prop the camera upwards on the floor or on a table, giving a perfect angle for a selfie. This feature was, apparently, way ahead of its time. Right next to the peg is a tripod bush, which I don’t see often on compact cameras like this one.

The viewfinder is well integrated into the style of the body. The only other compact camera I know of that has successfully executed a waist-level finder is the Yashica T series. While the Yashica is arguably the better (and more expensive) camera, the Canon has the superior waist-level, both in size and in that the focus point is clearly marked on the screen.

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USE

The camera itself is easy to use. It’s all automatic, from the metering & auto-focus to the flash. The primary controls are two buttons, one to uncover the shutter, and another to fire the camera. A 10-second self-timer button is also featured, but I’ve rarely used it. So you do have to be comfortable with allowing the camera to take over the technical functions. The photographer just points, shoots, and trusts that an image has been captured. The restriction is also freeing, allowing one to focus more on the composition or the subject.

The operation is likely too noisy for photographers that prefer to be discreet, such as street photographers. Focus is confirmed with a click, and then after pressing the shutter button, you hear the shutter firing and the film winding to the next shot. There is no way to hide the fact that you just took a photograph. This might even defeat the purpose of a waist-level finder, which promises secrecy.

The swivel foot and detachable remote the camera’s most unique features. They are intuitive and elegant.

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 Canon claims the Ace was the world’s first camera with wireless infrared remote control.

Canon claims the Ace was the world’s first camera with wireless infrared remote control.

Underneath the camera, you just turn the swivel foot and press the adjacent button to detach the remote from the body. The camera can sense when the remote isn’t there, and will activate a small red light on the front of the camera. Point, click; and after 2-seconds, the camera fires. Simple.

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PS. Something cool I discovered is that the remote that detaches from the Ace also works with DSLRs. When pointed at my 5DMKIV, the remote fired the camera after a 2-second delay.

COST

All cameras with electronic winding motors die eventually, and when this kind goes, there isn’t any hope for repair. A failed motor has killed each of my 3 Nikon Action Touch cameras. It doesn’t matter how much you take care of them. The good news is that you can always find another Sure Shot for cheap. Worry less about the camera’s well-being and more about the shot. Even as this camera becomes rarer and prices increase, you will still likely save on buying rolls of film over single-use cameras, both economically and environmentally.

LENS QUALITY & SNAPSHOTS

I love this little camera’s lens. It is a fixed 35mm, and sports a decently wide aperture of 3.5 (Most compact cameras only go down to 2.8). In this sense, the Ace outperforms similar cameras that contain a zoom. The fixed focal length lens also helps with composition. Once I knew my viewfinder, I could easily throw the camera up above me and compose a snapshot without having to look through the viewfinder for more than a second.

I’m always impressed with the result of images taken in daylight and in harsh light. I’m not sure how this camera meters light, but it does a damn good job.

My friend, Beth Cath, also shoots with a Canon Ace. She sent me some images for use in this review. They are an excellent example of how the Ace handles tough lighting situations.

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Photos by Beth Cath - Canon Ace with Kodak Portra 400

When introduced to low light settings, the flash will always fire, and the snapshot-disposable-unmediated aesthetic emerges.

I love it. The snapshot aesthetic is one of the best reasons to use a compact 35mm. It asks the viewer to consider the whole and not the parts. Grain, fog, stray light, and blurred details look like shit when enlarged. But if given to the viewer intimately in a small print, zine, or on a phone, the whole presents itself. As photographs become more ubiquitous, it will be the unexpected, the lucky moments, which becomes champion. Photography is the balance of art, science, and--luck.

Stephen Shore, in his forward to the book SHOOT- Photography of the Moment, puts it best; “A Michelangelo drawing of the turn of a wrist may not have the complexity of one of his frescos, but it communicates the spontaneity of his hand. The photographer adopting the snapshot vernacular recognizes the energy, rawness, and emotion this form can communicate and employs visual devices that reference it.” 

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Photos by Beth Cath - Canon Ace with Kodak Portra 400

 

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Photos by Josh Olson - Canon Ace with Kodak TMAX 400

FINAL THOUGHTS

The camera is minimalistic. With nothing to control or adjust; it just works. The Ace can be a cheap introduction to shooting 35mm, or it may just be a compliment to your growing arsenal of film equipment. Regardless, carrying a snapshot camera allows one to be prepared for many scenarios. It fits into a bag or sweater pocket with ease, giving one easy access to a 35mm quality shot. Contemporary film photographers argue that the process of shooting film invites a person to slow down; while a snapshot camera challenges this idea. The photographer can be unmediated, or deliberate. With any situation, the opportunity for both exists.