I didn’t expect to like the Chinon Splash. Like so many other auto-everything point-and-shoot 35mm film cameras from the late 1980s, I assumed that it would be clunky, unreliable, and limiting. I assumed that the images it made would be low quality; low in contrast, high in flares, and heavy on vignetting due to the plastic weatherproofing permanently mounted in front of its lens. In all of these assumptions, I was dead wrong. The Chinon Splash is fantastic.
I was supposed to shoot the Splash during a family trip to Florida. World events and a global pandemic tempered our enthusiasm for travel, however, and we canceled the trip. So instead of getting watery travel photos from the Chinon Splash while plummeting down Disney World’s Splash Mountain or while sight-seeing at Dry Tortugas National Park, as planned, I shot the Splash at a bleak and wind-swept just-above-freezing Massachusetts beach roped off by police tape.
I’m not complaining, mind. With millions of people infected and more than 150,000 dead from the novel virus that’s currently dispiriting humanity, I’m exceedingly lucky to be able to shoot a camera. I’m only giving context to why my sample images may not be the most exciting during this time. To those who give me grief about my photography, come on man.
That’s enough of whatever those last two paragraphs were all about. Let’s talk about the Chinon Splash!
What is the Chinon Splash
Released in 1988, the Chinon Splash is a compact, weatherproof, dust and sand resistant, fully automatic 35mm film camera. It’s not waterproof (meaning that it can’t be submerged underwater, like some other cameras that I’ve written about) but it’ll handle splashing and can be cleaned under running water when required.
A 35mm F/3.9 lens comprised of three elements in three groups (the classic Triplet) is suspended in front of a programmed electronic shutter capable of speeds from 1/90th of a second to 1/410th of a second. Focus is achieved automatically via infrared triangulation, with a minimum focus distance of 1.3 meters. Exposure times and aperture values are entirely automatic.
The viewfinder features bright frame lines, a central AF target patch, an LED to indicate when focus has been achieved and another to warn of under-exposure due to low light. When this under-exposure LED illuminates, the user should flick on the built-in flash. This flash has a guide number of 10 at a range of 1.3 to 3.5 meters, and can be used (or not) whenever the shooter chooses, making it good not only for low light situations, but also as a fill flash in daylight.
Film speed is set automatically via DX code, and when loaded with film canisters that lack DX-coding the camera defaults to ISO 100. Film transport is automatic. The user places the film lead on the marked area within the camera, closes the waterproof film door, and presses the shutter release button two or three times to advance to unexposed frames. Film rewind is handled by the user flicking a switch on the bottom of the camera once film no longer advances. All power is supplied by two AA batteries. There’s a tripod socket on the bottom, and strap lugs on one side.
Later, Chinon released the Splash AF-2. This camera is the same camera as the Chinon Splash, except a different color. The Splash original is grey with blue accents while its sequel is black with yellow accents. There’s also a simpler version for which this review is inapplicable, the Chinon Splash GX, which is a fixed focus camera with a slower 35mm F/4.5 lens and a single mechanical shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. I bought one of these but it’s not yet arrived from Japan. Perhaps another review.
Build Quality and Styling
I’ve shot plenty of point-and-shoot cameras, and across these there’s a distinct spectrum of quality. Some are made of metal, with reliable electronics. Some are nicely made, but prone to electronic failure caused by flexing solder or an extreme compactness that stresses ribbon cables and the like. Others are intentionally cheap and primitive, but work forever. I decided to pull apart the Splash to see if I might discover where it lands on this spectrum. Again, the Splash upended my expectations.
I assumed that the build quality of the Splash would fit somewhere among the cheaper cameras. I expected the plastic shell to be brittle and thin, like it is with the Canon AF35M. I expected the innards to be a mess of sloppy solder. I have no idea why I expected this. But I did.
In reality, the Chinon is impressively made. With all of its mechanical and electronic components removed I was able to focus solely on the plastic body shell. I flexed it, tried to break it, stood on it, and even when using excessive force (far greater force than a simple drop from eye height), it didn’t so much as crack. Breaking this shell would require real impact. Twisting the film door off of the body would take extreme pressure. The strap lugs didn’t even flex when I tried to rip the strap off the body. My barbarian stress test left me with absolute confidence that the Splash’s plastic body shell is remarkably durable.
The rubber seals around the film and battery door are still pliable and plump. They’re not flattened or dried or cracked, even after more than thirty years of use and storage. The seal around the lens is impressive in its complexity. Rather than a single o-ring, it’s redundantly sealed with an internal o-ring and shield, and an external rubber ring that’s wrapped around a threaded metal flange. The internal electronic components are made mostly of printed circuit boards (PCBs) and there’s ample real estate so that no individual component seems stressed or crowded. The solder points look cleaner and more precise than some Nikon point-and-shoots that I’ve opened.
With the camera back together, everything feels tight and solid. The heavy rubberized coating surrounding the top and the lens barrel give the Splash a feeling of density and durability. The film door lock is a double actuation device that inspires more confidence than my bank account’s two-factor authentication. Even the on/off switch, made of plastic, clicks into its detents with mechanical certainty that’s often lacking in the point-and-shoot world. Wow. What a surprising camera.
Shooting the Chinon Splash, and Sample Images
The Chinon Splash is made for summer. Sand and splash-proof, it begs to be shot at the beach. But it would be equally in its realm hiking through the Pacific Northwest, or on a construction site, or, like, at a bubble rave (are those still a thing?), or in the winning team’s locker room after Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Championship. Look, I don’t know. I’m just a dad and a camera nerd. I don’t really do stuff. The Chinon Splash can get wet and dirty. I used it to shoot portraits of my kids and some abandoned public spaces. It can handle whatever debauchery you get up to.
It’s a camera that’s unapologetically of the point-and-shoot camera class. There are only three ways to interact with this thing. Pressing the shutter release button naturally allows us to make a photo. A main switch on the front turns the camera on or off, and selects the flash if desired. Another switch on the bottom rewinds the film when we’ve shot through a roll. That’s all there is. There’s nothing else to do except point and shoot.
Which is sort of a nightmare for a professional camera liker, like me. It’s much easier to write about a camera when the camera has things about which to write. With the Splash, we have a shutter release and an on/off switch. Chinon, throw a guy a bone.
The only expertise that one must possess to get the most out of the Splash is to know when and how to use the flash. Actually, we don’t really need expertise. The camera tells us when to use the flash, and the manual tells us how – compose your shot with your subject between 1.3 and 3.5 meters away, and shoot. As the subject moves closer to the lens, the flash will appear more powerful in the final image. The sweet spot, for me, is to have my subjects about two meters away when using flash. Closer than that and we’re getting blown out images reminiscent of the worst pop-fashion photographers.
It fits amazingly well in the hand. Not too small, not too large, and with proper grips in all the right places, it’s a camera that shoots well one-handed in both landscape and portrait orientation. The mid-size and mid-weight keeps things steady, and the strap does what a strap does. The camera shoots and winds and shoots again. Simple, quick, effortless.
But what sort of images does it make? In two words – holy, quacamole.
The core triplet lens design used in the Chinon Splash has been around since the late 1800s. This early lens design, three lens elements separated by air spaces, was the first to eliminate nearly all distortion and optical aberrations, specifically improving the outer edges of the lens’ image area. I’m unclear on whether or not the Chinon employs the exact Cooke Triplet formula (two biconvex lenses on the outers and a biconcave lens in the middle), but I do know that the images I’ve made with the Chinon Splash are unbelievably sharp and show no distortion or vignetting.
The lens in this camera is, simply put, stunning. It easily matches the results I’ve gotten from any number of more popular point-and-shoot film cameras. Those cameras of quality, the names of which everyone endlessly parrots, the Nikon L35AF, the Contax T series, Yashica’s T series, and the Olympus Mju II – images from these cameras are no sharper than those from this Chinon. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve seen more uniform sharpness from a point-and-shoot camera. This Chinon lens is fantastic.
At least, it’s fantastic outdoors and in good light. Indoors and when things get dark, it begins to suffer. This is of course due to the rather slow maximum aperture of F/3.9. With the camera’s built-in flash, today’s more forgiving high-speed film, and modern film photographers’ obsession with push-processing, this slower max speed is less of an issue than it may have been in 1988. But it’s true that faster-apertured point-and-shoots exist, and if the Chinon has a weak point, this may be it.
[Sample shots in the galleries were made with Ilford HP5+, processed with Cinestill DF96 Monobath and scanned with a Plustek Optic Film 8200i SE]
Buyer’s Guide and Final Thoughts
Buyers searching for a Chinon Splash today should be aware that these cameras aren’t as common as the Canons and Nikons of the world, yet they do have a small cult following. As a result, prices for pristine models from reputable sellers can be as high as other cult-classic point-and-shoot cameras (comparable in price to the Mju II and Nikon L35AF).
The only hard advice when buying one is to ensure that the camera being sold is advertised as tested and fully functional. Don’t waste your time and money buying an as-is point-and-shoot camera. You may get lucky, the camera may work, but more often than not, when someone sells a camera that takes common AA batteries as “untested,” what they really mean is “I put batteries in it and it didn’t work, but I still want to make $45.”
The Chinon Splash surprised me at every turn. It’s more weather resistant than I expected it to be. It looks great. Disassembly revealed quality that I didn’t expect in a 1980s point-and-shoot. And most important of all, the images it can make are stunning. The Chinon Splash may be my sleeper point-and-shoot of the year, and I’m glad I bought one. Now we just need the weather to turn and for this pandemic to end. When that happens I plan to celebrate at the beach, a Chinon Splash in hand.
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You have an uncanny ability to make all of your articles entertainingly and technically interesting. Love your photos, man.