The traditional aesthetic of cyberpunk as a sub-genre of science-fiction has remained largely unchanged since William Gibson’s Neuromancer of 1984 crystallized the genre; dystopian future, low-life characters, high tech trappings. But that was forty years ago. And while the low-life characters and dystopian themes in the fiction are as relevant as ever, some of the high technologies prophesied back then aren’t.
Take the well-known example in Neuromancer; Gibson’s favorite scene in the novel involves long banks of pay phones, their ringing bells ominously shadowing the protagonist as he stalks the city streets. In the novel’s year 2035, cell phones haven’t been invented. In ways like this, the aesthetics of Neuromancer (and the cyberpunk genre at large) remain mired in a future limited by the world as it was in 1984. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s this very low-fi high-tech aesthetic that makes me love the novel and the genre. And this same aesthetic reminds me of the Canon MC.
A compact and expensive point-and-shoot 35mm film camera that incidentally released the very same year as Gibson’s Neuromancer, the Canon MC was indeed high tech in its own time. But just a few years after its release, let’s say by 1990, there were very few reasons for anyone to buy the Canon MC. For photo geeks today there’s really only one. It’s an aesthetically pleasing reminder of how far technology has come.
What is the Canon MC?
The Canon MC is a motorized, battery-powered, compact point-and-shoot 35mm film camera. Exposure control is automatic, with shutter speeds from 1/8 of a second to 1/500th of a second. Focus is automatic as well, using Canon’s trademarked CAFS (Canon Auto Focus System – a primitive automatic triangulation focusing system that the brand first used on their first point-and-shoot, the Canon AF35M of 1979). The lens is a 35mm F/2.8 prime comprised of four elements in four groups.
It’s got a manually retractable body cover, a self-timer, and an attachable accessory flash called the MC-S flash unit, with a guide number of 11 meters at ISO 100. ISO metering is manually set between 64 and 1000 ISO (though 800 ISO is missing). It weighs about 300 grams and is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Power is supplied by two AAA batteries, and there’s a strap attached to the right hand side of the camera.
The camera was originally packaged in a handsome cardboard box printed in classy, reserved tones. Within this box was a stylish clamshell display case with a luxurious felt bed in red with a gold Canon logo proudly emblazoned on the top. Upon this felt bed laid the Canon MC and its accompanying flash unit. It looked great then and it looks just as good today; very stylish. In 1984, this package would come with a price tag of $700 (adjusted for inflation). A steep price for a stylish piece of the future.
Let me get this out of the way – the Canon MC is far from perfect. In fact, it’s one of the least reliable cameras I’ve ever experienced. In my position as owner and manager of a fairly popular camera shop I handle a lot more cameras than the average “professional camera liker,” and in the past six years of doing this job I’ve had more than fifty Canon MCs come through the shop. Of this number, only five have been functional enough to sell. That’s not a typo or an exaggeration to make a point. They really are that bad.
It’s a camera that’s prone to electronic failure, prone to mechanical failure, and on account of its power source (AAA batteries), prone to battery acid corrosion from improper storage. Though let’s be clear – even properly stored Canon MCs with dry and pristine battery compartments are just as likely to be dead on arrival.
Because of this unreliability I’ve long shied away from the Canon MC. I don’t seek them out for inventory in the store, and when they do come in I’m sure to rigorously test the very few that actually power up, and to continue testing them for weeks before finally listing them for sale. Even so, I sell them with trepidation. I don’t want to sell someone a lemon. Luckily the five that I’ve sold in five years haven’t yet been returned.
My reluctance around the Canon MC carried over to Casual Photophile for years – I didn’t want to write about the MC. When I finally decided to do so earlier this year, I was ready to hate it, to lambast the thing, and to tell my readers to steer well clear. The first Canon MC that I bought from a private seller for the purposes of this review died after one day of use. The second one, shown here, has survived a bit longer. I gave it a shot, my opinion hasn’t changed. And with one specific exception, I don’t suggest that anyone buy this camera.
Shooting the Canon MC
Using the Canon MC is as simple as film photography gets. Like many point-and-shoots of its kind, the user simply points and shoots. There’s no controlling anything, aside from manual setting of the ISO and activation of the self-timer. To make a photo we look through the relatively decent viewfinder, frame our image, and press the shutter release button. The camera does all of the work except in very specific situations.
The camera’s autofocus triangulation system is locked to the center of the frame, which means we’ll not be able to focus on any subject outside of the small box in the center of the viewfinder without tricking the system. To do this, we flick the self-timer switch on the top of the camera, frame our subject in the center of the frame, press the shutter release button, and then reframe the subject to our desired place off-center. We can then either wait for the ten second self-timer to trigger the shutter release or press the shutter release button a second time.
It’s also possible to over or under-expose our film via makeshift exposure compensation by setting the ISO to a value more or less sensitive than the native ISO of the film loaded in the camera. After which we can push or pull process our film to achieve various desired effects (increased contrast, better low light capability, etc.). There’s also, of course, the attachable accessory flash. Installing this onto the camera… allows us to use flash. Not much more to say about that.
The sliding lens cover actuates nicely, settling into its opened and closed detents with a surprisingly satisfying click despite its plasticity. The blinds which extend over the auto-focus triangulation sensors flick into and out of position with the same satisfying motion. The shutter release button is responsive and large. The autofocus and the automatic exposure systems work as well as they do in any other point-and-shoot camera from 1984 – which is to say that the Canon MC gets it right about 75% of the time.
The frame lines in the viewfinder have stationary parallax correction indicators, and a centered focus indicator. When the user presses the shutter release button and the camera makes a photo, an indicator in the viewfinder points to the general focus area (close, middle, far). This only happens after the photo has been taken, an annoying system that I first experienced in Canon’s earlier AF35M. It’s just as annoying here, since we don’t know if the focus has hit where we intended until after the exposure has been made.
Film advance and rewind are automatic, and both are abnormally loud. Film advance can be delayed by the user if desired. He or she simply presses the shutter release button and then holds it. The camera won’t advance to the next frame until the photographer releases the shutter button.
The camera is undeniably tiny. It’ll fit in tight pants pockets, jackets, and any car’s center console. This makes it a great travel camera, a portable point-and-shoot for party duty or fun times out with friends. If it doesn’t die.
The lens, a 35mm F/2.8 prime, is fine. Distortion doesn’t seem to present anywhere, though chromatic aberration will occur in high contrast areas with color film. There’s also notable vignetting and softness around the corners of the frame. A significant loss of contrast occurs when shooting directly into the sun. In addition, sunlight striking the front lens element will always cause noticeable flaring.
Color images made with the MC tend to be a bit low in contrast, resulting in images that look generally flat. This, combined with the relatively wide focal length, left me feeling that most of my color shots were dull and pointless. Boosting contrast and saturation in Lightroom helped get closer to acceptable final images. Shooting with black-and-white film seems to yield more interesting images from the Canon MC, for whatever reason.
On the spectrum of point-and-shoot image quality, the Canon MC isn’t a standout. It won’t make images that are better than a hundred other point-and-shoot cameras that I could name off the top of my head. It does a good job, for a point-and-shoot camera from 1984. But images from this lens don’t motivate me to forgive the camera’s criminal unreliability. Remember – these cameras hardly ever work. If yours does, I’m sorry to tell you this, but it won’t for long.
[Images in the sample gallery below were sent in by Matt Evans and are published here with permission. For what it’s worth, his MC is broken too (won’t focus to infinity – classic).]
There’s only one reason to buy a Canon MC today. It’s a nice camera for someone who loves the way it looks, and loves the way looking at it makes them feel. It’s a good camera for someone who collects cameras, and who loves his Sony Walkman DD with a broken gear, even if it only sits on a shelf in the office looking pretty; someone who regularly types on an iMac G4 because it was the fanciest computer he’d ever seen in 2002; someone whose favorite cars have an LCD digital dashboard; someone who genuinely prefers the dull green dot-matrix screen of the original Nintendo Game Boy to whatever Xbox Microsoft just announced. It’s a camera for someone who loves old tech, and forgives that tech for being so damn old. That person sounds a lot like me, but it might not sound like you (you might have better taste).
For half the price of a Canon MC we can buy any number of incredible point-and-shoot cameras from the 1990s or 2000s. And these cameras will bring more features, more user controls, better lenses, faster brains, and more reliability. Cameras like Pentax’s IQ series, the later Canon Sure Shots and Nikon One Touch cameras will work better, cost less, and importantly for a camera, make better pictures.
The Canon MC is a nice camera to own and to collect, to look at every now and then and to admire as an angular time capsule from an era of high technology that is, today, very low tech. It’s a beautiful object and a decent photographic tool, when it works. Problem is, they never work. What may be most telling of all about the Canon MC, is that the most fun I had with it was the hour that I spent shooting product photos of the camera for use in this article.
Want your own Canon MC (what are you even doing…)?
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