Nikon Pikaichi L35AF Review

Photophiles in the 1980s enjoyed a camera industry that was in the midst of a surge toward greater automation, ease of use, and affordable quality. At the head of this surge was Canon, a masterful designer of sophisticated and desirable machines for border-line enthusiasts and amateur snappers. Not one to play catch-up, Nikon quickly launched their own point-and-shoot, the L35AF.

This machine was everything consumers wanted. Small, durable, simple, and affordable, it also offered something many of its competitors lacked; a truly excellent lens. Marketed by Nikon as a superb do-it-all piece of glass, the 35mm was fairly quick and deceptively simple. Nikon’s new lens combined with a number of automatic features, including Nikon’s first-ever auto-focus system in a compact camera. Add to the package automatic metering, automatic aperture control, automatic pop-up flash, and automatic film wind, and it was clear that the L35AF was looking to usher in a new era of automated Nikon compacts. This was a promising machine for a new type of shooter.

At the time of its release, Nikon nicknamed it Pikaichi, meaning “top notch”. Self-imposed nicknames rarely catch on, but this one did, and the camera became synonymous with top notch quality. But time marches on. What was top notch then may be on quite a lower notch today. Last week I spent some time with the L35AF, to determine whether or not it still deserves the name Pikaichi.

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The L35AF is a nice looking camera. Inoffensive, simple and clean, it’s essentially a black rectangle that takes photos. The hand grip is small and effective, allowing casual, one-handed operation. The lettering is nicely printed in contrasting white, and the trademark red accent is present surrounding the front grip pad. With a count of three, switches are subtle in both style and quantity. There’s an On/Off switch, a self-timer lever (10 sec.), and an exposure compensation lever (+2). That’s it.

A tiny footprint and diminutive weight of 345g make the L35AF a compact machine. With modern mirror-less cameras there’s a lot of talk about “pocket-sized” this, or that. I can’t help but wonder where many reviewers are buying these pants with such spacious pockets. I know mirror-less cameras are smaller than the previously in-vogue DSLRs, but to call the XE-1 or Sony A7 “pocketable” is a bit optimistic. My Fujifilm X-E1 is anything but, and compared to the L35AF and its virtually flush-mounted lens, the Fuji is downright clunky. And while the Nikon point-and-shoot will actually squeeze into a pant pocket, it fits a lot better in a jacket; both impossible with the Fuji. A verbose paragraph to say; this thing’s small.

Size comparison between the Nikon L35AF and today's small, mirror-less cameras.

Size comparison between the Nikon L35AF and today’s small, mirror-less cameras.

In a time when many manufacturers were looking to plastic for cost-cutting, it’s nice to note that the L35AF is refreshingly metallic. While not completely metal, there’s enough of the solid stuff here to give peace of mind in rough environments. Even sections covered in plastic benefit from a metallic structure underneath. It makes this little Nikon one of the more robust and long-lived point-and-shoots of its era.

Shooting the L35AF is simplicity itself. From aperture setting, to focusing, to metering, to whether or not to use a flash, the L35AF is about as automated as it gets. This was Nikon’s first autofocus camera, and the AF system works well. The camera uses an AF spot in the center of the viewfinder. Half-pressing the shutter release button locks focus on whatever’s framed under this center spot. It’s an incredibly accurate system, and the viewfinder uses a charming, analog lever and diagrams to show focus distance*. Also contained within the viewfinder are frame-lines and parallax correction frame-lines to help keep your shots composed.

TTV of the Nikon Pikaichi.  *Focus indicator shows (I think) a lifecycle. Single person, couple, family, tombstones?

TTV of the Nikon Pikaichi.
*Focus indicator (or possibly a lifecycle showing a single person, a couple, a family, and tombstones?)

ASA/ISO is set by turning a small ring surrounding the lens. Early models covered film speeds from 50 to 400, while later versions bumped the maximum speed to 1000. Today the 1000 ASA version is more desirable (and more expensive), though the two versions are identical in every other way.

Loading the camera is similarly simple. Pull out the film leader and lay it on the red patch inside the film compartment. Make sure it’s flat and close the cover. Press the shutter release button and the camera takes care of the rest. After loading, the camera’s capable of .8 exposures per second. While this isn’t very fast, it’s still pretty notable for a camera coming from a time when most machines were still wound by levers and thumb power. Rewinding the film is a simple one-two process of sliding a switch and pressing a button, both located on the bottom of the machine. Full rewind takes approximately 25 seconds.

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The winding mechanism, AF system, and every other function are powered by two AA batteries, which are thankfully common compared to other cameras and their sometimes annoyingly specialized batteries. Using two AA batteries, the economical L35AF is capable of shooting 100 24 exposure rolls of film. That’s pretty fantastic.

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Automation is systemic with the L35AF, but there are some manual options available to the intrepid photographer, both by design and by  jury-rigging. For photographers who demand full artistic control of every aspect of photography, this may not be the camera for them. But those who are willing to bend their notion of how a camera should operate can still achieve their artistic goals.

Nikon only designed the camera with one manual adjustment; that is, exposure compensation in the form of a +2 exposure lever for use when shooting back-lit subjects. If the photographer thinks a subject will be underexposed due to excess background light, he depresses a lever to the left of the lens and holds it down during shutter release. Beyond this meager artistic input, the camera’s going to do whatever it feels is right to achieve a proper exposure.

Aside from this +2 exposure compensation lever, the only other way to manipulate an exposure is by hijacking the camera’s automation through physically altering the information fed to its “brain”. Hold down the automatic flash to force long exposures, or partially cover the metering window with your hand to force over-exposure or day-light fill flash. It’s also possible to under-, or over-expose a shot by adjusting the cameras’s ASA dial mid-roll. This takes experience to get right, but luckily 35mm film is reasonably inexpensive, encouraging experimentation.

The most minimal of controls.

The most minimal of controls.

It’s also possible to use 42mm diameter filters to aid artistic shooting. These screw-on filters will be familiar to any photophile, especially those who cut their teeth shooting film. Since the metering window is located within the circumference of the camera’s filter threads, any adjustment to light produced by fitted filters will be naturally calibrated by the camera. Use neutral density filters to choke the light, or colored filters for better black and white shooting. Trying to coax artistic shots from the L35AF isn’t difficult, it’s just incredibly analogue. This camera brings us back to the days in which producing exacting images required the focused physical manipulation of light and camera.

If all this seems too tiring, uninterested photographers can simply point and shoot, the way Nikon intended, and enjoy outstanding results. For these shooters, the L35AFs systemic automation allows for a concise and focused style of photography. Composition takes precedence over everything, which could lead to stronger photos and a greater ability to stay in the moment. Street photographers know the importance of awareness, both spacial and cerebral, so the camera may work perfectly in this discipline of photography. When there’s nothing coming between the photographer and the subject, beautiful things can happen.

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While cameras like the Nikon 35Ti sport the Nikkor badge with pride, the L35AF does not. It’s long been the way of things at Nikon that their Nikkor lenses could be considered of a higher quality than lenses marked “Nikon”, so one could be forgiven for thinking this point-and-shoot houses an inferior lens. Given this preface, it’s surprising to discover that most photo geeks consider the L35AFs lens to be one of the best in the world of point-and-shoots. But does it deserve this enjoyable reputation?

Designed in-house by Koichi Wakamiya, the Sonnar-type 35mm ƒ/2.8 lens consists of five elements in four groups. Shooting into bright light results in minimal flaring, and distortion is a non-issue. Contrast and color rendition are very nice, though not as good as the Nikkor mounted to Nikon’s 35Ti. This is forgivable, given the 35Ti costs more than ten times what one will pay for a perfect L35AF.

Bokeh is possible, though its quality is short of amazing, and achieving it reliably is difficult due to the camera’s full automation of aperture. Subject isolation isn’t a strength, and with a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 and a relatively weak flash guide-number of 20, it’s not the best camera for low-light shooting. Images can also suffer from light fall-off, mitigated as the aperture stops down, though never perfectly resolved.

Images taken with a Nikon L35AF. *Not indicative of image quality due to factors such as processing, scanning, and my poor photography skills.

Images taken with a Nikon L35AF. *Not indicative of image quality due to factors such as processing, scanning, and my poor photography skills.

It seems, on paper, that one could expect to be optically let down by the L35AF. When one tries it, however, this expectation will go unfulfilled. What was most notable in the 1980’s about the L35AFs lens remains its most notable feature today; outstanding sharpness. How Nikon coaxed such sharpness out of this lens is a question, the answer to which I’ll happily stay oblivious. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All that matters is that this little machine creates some of the finest detail, and sharpest images of any point-and-shoot.

There are times when this camera works its magic so well that images seem almost “medium-format” in their fineness. Shoot this camera as a street shooter in midday sun, and bask in the sharpness, as city railings and foliage pop with distinct and lifelike detail. Shots of dogs look fluffy enough to pet, with whiskers clearly defined. Travel shots reveal things travelers never noticed, or long ago forgot. To state it simply; it’s a wonderful lens, and it’s the only reason necessary to own a Pikaichi.

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L35AF TLDRMore than thirty years ago photophiles in Tokyo and around the world crowned Nikon’s L35AF with a moniker; Pikaichi. What was then considered “top notch” has aged gracefully into a cult classic, and one of the most collectible point-and-shoots in the world. Its reputation for quality, simplicity, and optical prowess was a deserved one, and it continues to this day. It’s one of the best classic point-and-shoots, and a truly wonderful camera to use. Its quality, affordability, and the vintage appeal of its analogue nature prove once again that what was pikaichi then, is even more pikaichi now.

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