Updated Jan. 10, 2023
Although Canon was not the first to the 35mm lens-shutter AF (auto focus) party with their Sure Shot (aka AF35M in Europe, aka Autoboy in Japan) model, with it they did introduce the auto focus technology that would come to dominate that burgeoning market until digital came on the scene. Not to mention, the Sure Shot was the first compact 35mm to combine AF with automated film winding and rewinding at the push of a button, i.e. the first proper Point & Shoot. The Sure Shots would go on to be the most commercially successful P&S lineup for the next 25 years.
The Beginnings of 35mm Lens-Shutter AF
Honeywell, just freshly divorced from being the American distributor of Asahi Pentax, was the foremost pusher behind the technology of AF for cameras in the mid-to-late-'70s. So it was of little surprise when the Konica C35 AF debuted in 1977 that a Honeywell Visitronic AF module was present inside. Soon, a flood of other Japanese manufacturers followed suit with their own Visitronic-equipped, Cosina-manufactured models (Chinon 35F-A, Fujica Flash Auto Focus, Mamiya 135AF, Minolta Hi-Matic AF, Rolleimat AF, and Yashica Auto Focus, to name a few) with Canon conspicuously absent. Come late-1979, however, Canon announced their entry into the 35mm AF fray with the Sure Shot and a different take on how to achieve AF with these consumer-oriented cameras.
The name of the game when it comes to determining focus is: distance from the subject to the film or sensor. That precept formed the basis for developing usable AF systems. The question was how to do it. The most basic way that has been used for centuries to calculate distance is by means of triangulation, where distance to the subject is determined by obtaining measurements (aka rangefinding) from two different points at a known distance (aka the base length) from each other. And that's as far as the math will go, I promise ;-). And that operation is what Honeywell sought to automate with the Visitronic system by using a rangefinder (with one fixed mirror and one that pivoted with a fixed prism between the two mirrors) with the addition of two photosensor arrays behind the rangefinder that produced voltages based on the incoming light. Once the voltages from the two arrays matched, the focusing motor was actuated to move the lens to the correct position for focus. Easy? Sure. Simple? Not so much, and here is where Canon saw an opportunity: the Visitronic module consisted of seven basic components (the two mirrors, two miniature lenses, the two photosensors, and the prism), which doesn't sound like much, but we are talking consumer cameras here. Any way to reduce complexity and cut costs was the name of the game. And nobody played that game better than Canon (refer to the AE-1 of 1976 ;-)).
Canon pursued consumer AF on two fronts with CAFS (Canon Auto Focus System): 1) using SST, and 2) using IRED (oh yeah, it's already getting acrimonious with the acronyms in this article ;-)). We'll start with Solid-State Triangulation as it was developed first and more closely resembled Visitronic, while utilizing one less component. There were two mirrors, two miniature lenses, a prism, and a CCD (Charge-Coupled Device). The main differences with SST versus Visitronic were that both mirrors were fixed while the prism pivoted, and the CCD replaced the dual photosensors. SST was theoretically capable of higher accuracy but was nearly as complex to produce as Visitronic and was also just as dependent upon sufficient light levels to function properly. It was originally developed for the Canon AF514XL-S Super 8 movie camera, which was not an inexpensive unit (about three times the cost of the Sure Shot). Thus, the SST module only made it into one 35mm model (the Super Sure Shot/Autoboy Super/AF35ML) with its 40mm f/1.9 lens. It also found its way into a single FD-mount 35mm SLR lens the New FD 35-70mm f/4 AF of May 1981. A much-improved version of SST would appear for the last time in 1989, when Canon introduced their top-end Sure Shot Zoom XL, a physical giant among 35mm Point & Shoots. But it would borrow heavily from the second coming of CAFS in order to improve its performance... ;-).
Although the Sure Shot preceded the Super Sure Shot to market by about eighteen months, it sported a newer development in CAFS technology: Active auto focus. Active? You mean it worked out more than SST? Sorry, couldn't resist the lame Dad joke ;-). "Active" referred to the operation of the AF system being based around an InfraRed Emitting Diode (IRED). The key word here is "emitting" as the Sure Shot actively emitted a near-infrared beam that would be reflected back to the camera from the subject to provide distance information for triangulation instead of passively measuring the incoming light from the subject as Visitronic and SST relied upon. An easier comparison might be with SONAR. Passive SONAR involves using microphones to just "listen" for noise, while active SONAR involves emitting a sound signal or a "ping" from a vessel and then listening for its return from another object. Both SST and IRED used triangulation for calculating focus, but IRED was a much simpler method requiring no mirrors or prisms (only a swivelling IR transmitter, two miniature lenses, and an IR receptor). Four components versus seven to install and align properly meant for an appreciable savings in manufacturing costs.
The future predominance of this second method of AF detection was foreshadowed when Canon then went on to change the meaning of CAFS to Canon Active Auto Focus System while dropping SST for the next eight years from their 35mm P&S cameras. (When SST was reintroduced in the Sure Shot Zoom XL, it also utilized an active near-infrared AF beam to boost the performance of the vastly-improved passive SST sensor in low contrast situations. This hybrid SST/IRED AF system had a substantial range of 51 focusing zones, providing improved precision and accuracy.) This was followed by the universal abandonment of Visitronic by the other manufacturers with their simultaneous adoption of active near-infrared AF systems (e.g the Visitronic-equipped Minolta Hi-Matic AF morphed into the home-grown near-infrared Hi-Matic AF2). This coincided with the explosion of the P&S market, which was soon demolishing the SLR market in unit sales and would do so for the remainder of the film era. While there would be a few premium passive AF models (like our friendly Sure Shot Zoom XL) on offer during the next 25 years, active near-infrared AF was to rule the market with near-monopolistic might, particularly with the low to mid-range models that made up the bulk of sales. For example, in December 1994, Popular Photography listed 53 models in their year-end Top-End Point-and-Shoots Comparison. Only eight out of the 53 used passive AF systems, of which just three models sat in the mid-range-or-lower price bracket.
Besides the cost savings, there were other advantages to active near-IR focusing:
The downsides of using near-IR for focus include:
On the whole, it's not difficult to see why active near-IR AF became industry-standard for consumer-grade AF Point & Shoots. But let's now take a closer look at the first couple of generations of Canon's trendsetter that AE-1d the P&S market.
The Sure Shot in Detail
It was no coincidence that 1980 served as the final year of SLR sales dominance for Japanese 35mm cameras. With the arrival of the Sure Shot right at the end of 1979, the stage was set for the changing of the guard in consumer-targeted cameras. Canon had marketed the AE-1 for years with the byline "about all you do is focus and click", which stretched the limits of credibility just slightly:
Point & shoot? Close, but no cigar ;-). Let's compare that to the Sure Shot:
For the average consumer, it was a no-brainer. Obviously, the Sure Shot was not going to provide the same level of overall capability or versatility as an SLR, but how much did Joe/Jolene Snapshot really need. The Sure Shot had:
To call the Sure Shot a success might just be underselling it a bit. Canon sold them as fast as they could make them (over 3 million sold in three and a half years) and for all you Nikon L35AF lovers out there, the Sure Shot is its reason for being. Nikon was compelled by the sensation that the Sure Shot created to join the P&S party as SLR sales plummeted, post-1981. The L35AF promptly outsold all seven of Nikon's SLRs combined in its first year of availability, as the market share of SLRs versus P&S swung from 57%/43% in 1980 to 37%/63% by the end of 1983. With Canon leading the charge, surprise, surprise ;-). And they just steered into the corner even more with the introduction of the New Sure Shot. It featured:
So the original automatic AF point-and-shoot just got pointier-and-shootier. That is not to say it was P&S perfection incarnate. It was still noisy: noisy AF motors, noisy film transport motors, the typical early-'80s P&S weasels-with-tuberculosis type of noise ;-). They weren't any worse than most of their contemporaries, but they were no better, either. Both had the annoying "feature" (read "flaw") of only displaying the focus point in the viewfinder AFTER you have taken the shot (as long as you keep the shutter button pressed), serving some purpose beyond my feeble comprehension. The self-timer/pre-focus lever's action may charitably be described as "spongy". The original Sure Shot did not utilize the half-press focus lock (which debuted with the Chinon 35F-A of 1978 mentioned earlier) that came to typify AF point & shoots, so if you want to do the focus-and-recompose trick you have to go through these gymnastics:
And four years later...Canon chose to retain that system with the New Sure Shot (face meet palm), most likely to avoid paying royalties (a common theme with Canon) for the half-press focus lock. Both models also predated the introduction of Kodak's DX automatic ISO-setting system and so require the user to manually set the ISO. This actually is preferable for modern-day P&S enthusiasts who desire a bit more control in this area. The 25-400 range ISO of the original Sure Shot may feel a bit limiting to some, but works well enough for most circumstances. If you really need more, go for a late-model original or the New Sure Shot to get ISO 1000 capability (note that there are no intermediate settings for ISO 640 or 800, it goes straight from 400 to 1000).
If you have the luxury of choosing between the two, the second-gen version gives you improved optical performance (especially in the corners), better battery life, improved grip ergonomics along with its tidier and lighter packaging, and the improved metering cell. If you are bound and determined to use filters, get yourself a 48-49mm step-up ring for the original Sure Shot so you can use common 49mm filters and lens caps. For optimal battery and flash performance, I recommend Energizer Ultimate Lithium AAs/LR6s. They work great for faster flash recycling and five times more overall life than alkalines at room temperature, and even better performance in colder temperatures, while eliminating any issues with leakage and corrosion. Canon said "NO" to 1.2V Ni-Cad rechargeable AAs back in the day, and I cannot say that things would be any different with modern NiMH (Eneloop-type) 1.2V rechargeables. There may not quite enough voltage with such batteries for the camera to function properly, so I do not recommend using them.
The New Sure Shot hits the happy medium for me, personally. The succeeding Sure Shot Supreme switched to the more expensive 2CR5 lithium battery that doesn't last as long as lithium AAs (especially with flash use), and you need to remove screws to access the battery compartment (face meet palm again). The lens is identical to its predecessor...turning the flash to OFF requires jamming your left thumb into a small, recessed button on the bottom of the camera while pressing the shutter button to take the picture (arghh!)...to force the flash ON you need to fiddle with a stupid rubber gizmo that came with the original strap (how many do you think still have their original strap? ;-)) while not encroaching on the lens, and you are stuck with DX film speeds with the only override being to tape over the contacts on the film canister to force ISO 100. In exchange for that you get a closer focusing distance of 0.55m/22" versus 0.9m/36" and a quieter overall experience, which may be more important for you than for me :-).
The Sure Shots have none of the cachet of the Contax & Yashica Ts, the Olympus XAs or Stylus Epics (mju-ii), Nikon L35AFs (aka One Touch), or any of the other Interweb P&S darlings. That, together with their prolific production numbers, means they can still be had for peanuts, and if yours goes kaputsky, you will shed far fewer tears than over the original L35AF which is no more reliable electronically (rather less so in my limited experience), and that renowned Sonnar-type lens is not far ahead of the New Sure Shot's aspherical unit, if at all. Of course, it's a Canon, so it's gonna be a bit plasticky, but that's part of the charm for me. If you want the magic of Sonnars, Zeiss, and titanium, far be it from me to denigrate such desires, but when it comes to value the Canons will be tough to beat. Sure Shootin' :-).
Canon AF35M Dealer Notebook Pages @ www.pacificrimcameras.com
Canon New Sure Shot Dealer Notebook Pages @ www.pacificrimcameras.com
Canon Super Sure Shot Dealer Notebook Pages @ www.pacificrimcameras.com
Auto Focus Cameras - Popular Science Dec. 1980 pp. 96-99
Popular Photography May 1990 p. 24
Sure Shot AF35M II & AF35ML Instruction Manuals @ www.butkus.org/chinon/canon
Canon Camera Museum @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/series_search.html
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.