The 1980s were the heyday of the quality, yet relatively affordable, automatic auto focus (AF) 35mm camera. Competition was intense between manufacturers, and they were constantly trying to leapfrog one another in features and capability. Every year saw some kind of improvement until about 1988 or so, when the inevitable "race to the bottom" really started to heat up. Within this era, the years from 1983 to 1987 were arguably the high-water mark for quality and innovation, and some ingenious engineering. In this article, we are going to key in on a quirky category of cameras that served as a bridge between the original, fixed-focal-length AF point & shoots and the first P&S zooms: the temporary titans of P&S technology..the twin-lens (or bifocal) AFs.
The Twin-Lens AF era started relatively quietly in the fall of 1985, with the introduction of three models at the Salon de la Photo de Paris: the Fuji TW-300, the Konica MR.70, and the camera that got the most publicity...the Minolta AF Tele. The Salon was not the largest of the photographic trade shows, and Fuij and Konica were smaller fish among the Japanese camera manufacturers, while Minolta was the hottest brand in photography at the time due to its introduction of the Maxxum (Alpha) AF SLR system earlier in the year. The AF Tele got a full-page in the September '85 issue of Popular Photography, while the TW-300 made do with a half-page in the November '85 issue, and the less-fortunate MR.70 seems to have gotten nothing in Pop Photo in 1985 (it's possible that it got some love in early 1986, but I cannot confirm or deny that at this time ;-)).
The ripple effect of these three cameras would not be long in coming: by the fall of 1986, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Vivitar had joined the party. By 1987, virtually every Japanese camera company (Pentax being a notable exception) had at least one twin-lens model and many had also spun off lower-tier versions. Quite a few were even on to their second-gen models by that time. Come 1988, however, zooms had already begun to displace the twins as the top offerings in the P&S market. Dual-lensers hung around for the next few years, but most were mere shadows of their mid-'80s parents. Can you say ob...so...lete? But could there be some hidden gems amidst the rubble of the once-towering Twin-Lens Empire?
In the early 1980s, rapid strides were being made in the miniaturization of motors and other components in cameras, but putting a miniature, motorized zoom lens in a compact AF camera was still a bit beyond the technology of the time. The Japanese camera makers had first engaged in a pitched battle in the 35-38mm f/2.8 single focal length category. Where to go from there was the next question, and with zooms seemingly momentarily out of reach as far as variable focal lengths were concerned, that left the age old solution used by interchangeable lens cameras to change the focal length of a lens: bum...bum........bummm - the teleconverter. A teleconverter is an auxiliary lens placed in the optical path between the primary lens and the film. They are classified according to the magnification increase they provide, for example, a 2x teleconverter doubles the focal length and maximum aperture of the original lens. So, a 35/2.8 effectively becomes a 70/5.6. Teleconverters commonly came in magnifications between 1.4x and 2x for SLR lenses, but they could be found up to 3x or so. As a general rule, the higher the magnification...the greater the negative impact on image quality. A 2x teleconverted 50/1.7, for instance, would not be able to match the quality of a straight 100/3.5 lens, due to the compromises inherent in the teleconverter design. But, given a good-quality teleconverter, the loss might be small enough to live with, especially when the photographer really needed the extra magnification.
The big technical achievement of the twin-lensers was to make it possible to swing a miniature internally-located teleconverter into the optical path of the fixed lens on a P&S. Most did this by means of a tiny motor, while a few used a lever-actuated mechanical system. Physical extension of the lens assembly was also involved to set the proper distance between the primary and auxiliary lenses and the film plane. The primary lens was usually 35 - 40mm (a very mild wide-angle) in focal length and had an aperture of f/2.8 or f/3.5. It was generally a Tessar-style with four elements, but some consisted of the more-basic triplet. Such lenses had been the standbys of the viewfinder camera segment for decades. The first-generation dual-lens point & shoots went with teleconverters in the 1.6x - 1.8x range, in an effort to keep image degradation as low as possible while still providing a meaningful bump in magnification. Most teleconverters had three elements, but a couple of manufacturers went with four to further combat image degradation in telephoto mode. "Telephoto" was stretching it a bit, as these 60 - 70mm lenses were really more of a stretched normal lens rather than a true telephoto, but were the camera companies going to downplay their achievements? Ha...ha...ha...I laugh.
Notice how the word "compact" has not come up yet in regard to the first twins? And for good reason...it is not an appropriate descriptor ;-). They may have been fully automatic, but the top-of-the-line, first-gen dual-lensers were almost as big as a contemporary consumer SLR with a 50mm lens mounted, although weighing about 30% less. They dwarfed their fixed-focal length parents. Definitely not "fit in your shirt pocket" material! Also, this was the '80s, man. We are talking loads of bodacious black plastique. Like, seriously, who would want to carry that kind of ew...ew...ewww around? Well, if you could get past the looks, and live with the size and weight, you might just end up with some of the sharpest images available out of an automatic AF 35mm camera at the time. Say, what?!
Well, that brings us the final technological piece of the twin-lens puzzle: AF. Canon had introduced active near-infrared AF in its Sure Shot/Autoboy/AF35M (1979) series of cameras. (Active AF bounces one or more beams of near-IF light off of the subject to triangulate the distance from it to the camera and then focuses the lens accordingly.) Active AF came to dominate the P&S market due to its accuracy, simplicity, and speed all at a relatively low cost. It did have issues with reflective surfaces (IF doesn't pass through glass) and other minor limitations, but it was the best solution for the automatic AF cameras' target audience. And it could focus in the dark, too :-).
Anyways, by the mid-'80s, active AF was becoming a mature technology. Prior to the AF revolution, manual zone focusing was the order of the day for smaller viewfinder cameras. On the lens, there would be symbols representing different focusing distances: 1) a single person for the closest distance, 2) two or three persons or trees for middle distances (most often in two separate settings), and 3) mountains for far distances to infinity. Depth-of-field (DOF) was used to cover (hopefully) any slop in the actual distances to the subject. So you could call such cameras three- or four-zone cameras. The first AF cameras automated this process. There were three to four zones or steps that the lens could be focused to and after getting the distance measurement via the near-IF beam the camera would set the lens to the zone closest to the figure it had calculated. The problem with this was obvious. If the actual distance fell in between zones, you would not get a precisely focused picture, only a ballpark one, and if it was in a lower light situation, the aperture wouldn't always be able to close down enough to get sufficient DOF to make things passable. The problem was precision.
The solution was simple: add more zones. But there was a catch, more zones required more precision in design, parts, and manufacturing which meant...more money. So, only the premium P&S models would get the best AF systems. And that is where the first two generations of twin-lens models sat in their respective lineups. From 1985 until 1988, the bifocals had the best-specified AF systems of any P&S cameras. A case in point:
Any of the top-of-the-line bifocals had at least 15 zones for focusing, with the majority sporting 20 - 25, with the aforementioned Nikon TW/Tele-Touch having the highest-specified stepless system. Interestingly, when Nikon introduced the TW2/Tele-Touch Deluxe in 1988, they reduced the precision to 20 zones (still quite good, but a significant reduction, nonetheless) from the stepless range of its ancestor. This was indicative of the cost pressures that were already rising (due somewhat to the introduction of single-use (read: disposable) 35mm cameras), and more de-contenting was to come in the third-generation models, if they even appeared at all. 1988 also brought an onslaught of zooms from the manufacturers, following in the wake of the groundbreaking Pentax Zoom 70 of 1986 (there is your reason why Pentax did not hop on the bifocal bandwagon :-)). And the all-too-brief reign of the twin-lens P&S was over. And "reign" is being used here in terms of technical capability; the bifocals never were popularity contest winners due to their higher cost and larger size compared to their fixed-focal length contemporaries.
Some general trends emerged over the short history of the top-tier twins:
Let's now take a quick look by manufacturer at the most desirable models they offered. What isn't covered by specs is how each camera would feel in your hands, ease of operation, and image quality of the different lenses at different focal lengths, among other things. Try and get your hands on one if possible, or pay close attention to the remarks of careful reviewers as to how each model handles and their sample images.
Canon produced three mid-to-top-level bifocal cameras from 1986 to 1991 (along with a few bottom-feeders). The third model, the Sure Shot Tele Max/Autoboy Mini T/Prima Tele S was heavily de-contented, sold for 40% less than its predecessors and is the least desirable of the bunch. So that narrows it down to the original Sure Shot Tele/Autoboy Tele/Top Twin (1986) and the Sure Shot Multi Tele/Autoboy 6/Prima Tele (1988). Canon was the first to introduce a user-selectable soft-focus filter with the Sure Shot Tele, and Nikon, among others, followed suit with their second-gen top twin. Here is a specification breakdown:
Now, specs never tell the whole story, but let's see what we can derive from them.
Advantages of the Multi Tele are:
Advantages of the original Tele are:
Fuji was a pioneer in the bifocal category and made four capable models that we will consider, the TW-300 II/Tandem II (1986), the DL-400 Tele/Tele Cardia Super Date (1988), and the very similar Discovery 400 Tele/DL-400 Tele Super/New Tele Cardia Super (1990) & Discovery 400 Tele Plus/DL-450 Tele Super/Tele Cardia Super III (1991). The multiplicity of model names was due to Fuji's policy of using different names for different regions (USA, Europe, Japan, etc.).
Starting with the TW-300: it was mentioned earlier that the TW-300 was introduced in 1985, but the TW-300 II (1986) is the one listed in the chart above. Why? Well, the original TW-300 had a dealer-replaceable-only battery, while the modified TW-300 II allowed the user to DIY easily, the way it should be. Any of the Fuji twins listed in the chart will do the job, but it is easy to recommend the last two models (the Supers) as Fuji was one of the few manufacturers to keep a top-end twin-lens into the early '90s. You got: closer focusing, more powerful flash, multiple focusing points (not just the old standby central one like most bifocals), red-eye reduction, and four more focusing zones in the final (1991) edition, not to mention more compact dimensions and weight.
The second of the our three pioneers in the category was one of the preeminent, yet often-overlooked, manufacturers of good-to-excellent P&S cameras. Konica was also the only other Japanese full-line photographic company (the other being Fuji), that manufactured film and other consumables together with cameras and other photographic hardware. Because of their relative anonymity nowadays (due largely to their disappearance from the market :-)), it can be hard to find accurate info on their products. To the best of my knowledge, there were three twin-lens models produced by Konica in the mid-to-late '80s: the MR.70 (1985), the MR.70 LX (1987), and the MR.640 (1988). They were no lightweights, but that meant they were quite solidly built. Here is a the breakdown:
Any of the Konicas should give excellent service if they are in operating condition. The MR.640, while offering a smaller jump in focal length, does offer closer and more precise focusing, along with a bonus: weatherproofing. Light rain or splashes of water are shrugged off, as long as the gaskets are in good shape (check them carefully before buying if you plan to test an MR.640 out in this regard). Both MR.70 models used AAs, which are less expensive than the 2CR5 lithium used in the MR.640. That reminds me...almost every AA-powered P&S from the '80s will not accept rechargeable batteries due to their lower 1.2V output per cell versus 1.5V for the alkalines. You can, however, use Energizer Ultimate Lithium AAs for improved cold-weather and flash performance and overall longevity.
Our third manufacturer to kick off the twin-lens tournament was Minolta. Arguably the most innovative of the Japanese Big-5 camera companies, Minolta in 1985 was at the peak of their prowess. They had caught the rest of the industry off-guard with their Maxxum (Dynax/Alpha) 7000 & 9000 AF SLRs, and they were right in the thick of the P&S battle, too. They would go on to produce three mid-to-top-end bifocals before the decade was out: the AF-Tele (1985), the Weathermatic DL (1987), and the Freedom Tele (AF-Tele Super in Europe and MAC-Tele in Japan) (1988). The AF-Tele was one of the rare models that could use a lithium DL223A, or AA (including Ni-cad) batteries. The Weathermatic DL was actually waterproof to 5m and had a non-waterproof counterpart, the Freedom DL, with otherwise-identical specifications. The Freedom Tele was also re-skinned and labelled with the red dot and the designation Leica AF-C1. And it only sold for twice as much (oh, sorry, my eyes got stuck in the back of my head for a minute, there. And you thought only Panasonic could do stuff like that ;-)). Okay, okay, now that I've taken my gratuitous run at Leica for the day, let's get to the comparo:
With the Minoltas, your choices will be dictated by: battery choices (or the lack thereof), waterproofing (or the lack thereof), and focal length reach on the long end. The Freedom Tele packs in the most features, but only takes the 2CR5 lithium battery. If you can live with that, you get the most telephoto reach and slightly better close-focusing than the AF Tele. If having multiple battery options is more important to you, the AF Tele doesn't give up too much in the overall scheme of things. The only reason to select the Weathermatic DL is for its waterproof capabilities. Otherwise, you get the same focus system and lens as the Freedom DL (which is pretty basic and a large step down from the top-end Teles). Here is a nasty piece of '80s advertising for the Freedom Tele. Don't say I didn't warn you ;-)
Although not among the first entrants to the twin-lens arena, Nikon quickly moved to get in on the action. They would eventually offer two levels of models, but we will key in on the two most advanced examples, the original Tele Touch (L35AF TW) and the second-generation Tele Touch Deluxe (TW2). Nikon had come late to the AF P&S party in 1983, but when they did with the original L35AF and its superb 35/2.8 Sonnar-type lens, everyone noticed. They sold more L35AFs than they did SLRs in the first year it was available. The P&S market was busting wide open in the mid-'80s and Nikon went all-in. 1986 saw the debut of the Tele Touch, and Nikon threw everything in their P&S cupboard at this camera. Nikon was one of the two manufacturers (Konica was the other) to use a 4-element teleconverter for the long lens setting, the rest made do with 3 elements. While having more elements is not a guarantee of improved performance, this was an indication that Nikon was serious about not being outdone when it came to image quality and they were willing to put a bit more money into the camera to do so. But it was in another area that Nikon really went to the wall when it came to pushing the Tele Touch to the head of the twin-lens class: AF. As noted earlier, the Tele Touch utilized a stepless (infinite zones) AF system, unique among Nikons, and indeed, any of the bifocal cameras from the other manufacturers. This required a more complex and thus costly, AF mechanism. The fact that the Tele Touch Deluxe (1987) dropped this mechanism for a more mundane 20-zone system, which was more in line with its competition, shows that within the space of a year, the premium twin-lens P&S was already on its way out due to cost pressures.
When it comes to choosing between the two top Nikon bifocals, you need to carefully evaluate your priorities. If ultimate performance is your thing, the original Tele Touch has a more precise AF system, a more informative and brighter (to my eyes at least) viewfinder, a wider shutter speed & metering range, and a closer focusing distance (0.4m vs. 0.7m) at its Wide setting. However, the Tele Touch Deluxe focuses almost twice as close (0.7m vs. 1.3m) at the Tele setting. The Deluxe also gets you a larger focal length range (3mm wider and 5mm longer), and a built-in soft focus filter option (for that cheesy '70s portrait look without having to smear Vaseline on the lens ;-)). It is more compact and considerably quieter than its forebear (especially when auto focusing & changing focal lengths). AF is totally silent and a bit faster (unsurprising due to the fewer focusing steps required) too, with the Deluxe. The lithium battery of the Deluxe permits faster flash recycling than alkaline AAs in the Tele Touch (1.8 vs. 6 sec.), however, you can cut the recycle time to 4 sec. in the Tele Touch by using lithium AAs which will give much longer life with flash usage than alkalines and will also outlast the more expensive DL223A in the Deluxe, to boot. For me, the original Tele Touch wins by virtue of its AF prowess, better viewfinder, closer focusing at the wide end, and AA batteries that give you the option of lithiums if desired. It also just fits my hands and face better. Your mileage may vary.
Olympus introduced their first twin lenser in 1986. The AFL-T (Quick Shooter Tele) was very much a first-gen design, with a 1.7x converter, and a boxier shape than its successors. The AFL-T also resembled its competitors more closely than the next Olympus entrant the weatherproof Infinity Twin/AF-1 Twin (1988), along with its otherwise-near-twin (sorry, couldn't resist ;-)) non-weatherized Infinity Tele/AF-10 Twin (1991). The layout of the two newer cameras differed from their forebear (with its single lens + teleconverter combination), in that they had two separate vertically-stacked lenses, each with its own shutter that both fired for every exposure, and used a mirror system to switch between the two focal lengths. It was a unique if somewhat complicated method of achieving a twin-lens design. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend the Infinity Twin, as Olympus issued a recall in 2006 for it and certain other models built from 1989 to 1995 that could overheat (in the flash circuitry) and cause burns. The chances that someone would have had the camera fixed that far into the digital era is quite small from my point of view, and I have not been able to find any information on how you can confirm whether a particular copy has been serviced. Better safe than sorry, and there are plenty of other bifocals to choose from, albeit few that offered weatherproofing. There appear to be no such issues with the Infinity Tele, as far as I could find. Both models use two CR123 lithium batteries.
Though their time in the silver halide sun was decidedly brief, the twin lens point & shoots served as a major piece of connective tissue between fixed-focal length and zoom P&S AF cameras. If you prefer a bit of quirk with your serving of 80's automation, give one a try, you may be pleasantly surprised at how capable it can be :-).
Popular Photography 1985 - September & November Issues
Various Popular Mechanics Issues c. 1985 - 1991
Canon Camera Museum @ https://global.canon/en/c-museum/
Nikon Product History @ https://imaging.nikon.com/history/products_history/1980
Various Instruction Manuals @ http://butkus.org/chinon/index.html
Suffers from a two-decade 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.