In 1989, Canon released a new, not-so-compact point and shoot 35mm film camera called the Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL. Canon sales brochures of the era claimed that the XL could reliably produce photos with image quality to match the pro-level Canon FD zoom lenses of the brand’s SLR cameras. A bold claim for a 1989 point and shoot, and one which Canon’s online museum repeats to this day.
I’ve shot the Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL many of times over the years. Each time I’ve found it to be a charming, interesting camera. It’s paradoxically large and delightfully ugly. It buzzes happily and pops pictures reliably. It feels nice to use, and the images that I’ve made with it are sharp (enough) and pleasing.
During my latest fling with the Sure Shot Zoom XL, I thought it would be fun to put it to the test, to prove or disprove Canon’s claims of parity between the lens of this old, chunky point and shoot and those of its SLR-mounted contemporaries. I picked a Canon zoom with virtually identical specs, mounted it to a decent Canon SLR, loaded each with identical Kodak Ultramax 400 film, and slung both outrageous cameras around my neck for a few weeks.
Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL Specifications
- Camera Type: Fully automatic point and shoot 35mm film camera with zoom lens
- Autofocus System: SPC linear-array sensor for SST passive AF using the AF-assist near-infrared beam. Prefocus enabled
- Lens: 39-85mm f/3.6-7.3 (9 elements in 8 groups). Power zooming with wide and telephoto button
- Shutter: Electronic programmed aperture and motor driven shutter
- Viewfinder: Direct zoom viewfinder with projected frames. 0.42x – 0.81x magnification and 84% coverage
- Viewfinder Information: AF frame, close-up AF frame, and parallax correction marks; LED indicator for focus and flash ready
- Metering: 3-zone metering from EV2.5-19 (ISO 100). Automatic exposure compensation of +2EV (for backlit subjects)
- ISO Range: 50 to 3200 ISO film with DX coding; Non-DX-coded film speed is set to 100 ISO
- Flash: Built-in fixed flash. Guide number 11.8 – 14.4 meters at ISO 100. Auto zoom flash to suit zoom focal lengths. Fires automatically in low-light and backlit conditions. Slow-speed sync and fill-flash enabled
- Power Source: One 6 volt 2CR5 lithium battery
- Film Loading and Advance: Automatic, single frame advance and ~2 frames per second mode available
- Information Display: Top mounted LCD shows frame count, flash status, mode status
- Dimensions / Weight: 161 x 150 x 78mm / 1510 grams (with battery)
Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL Overview and Features
In practical use, the Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL functions much as any other point and shoot film camera from the late-1980s and ’90s, offering nothing that would surprise photographers who are familiar with the type.
Most everything is automated. Focus, aperture value, exposure, film advance and rewind, and flash are all automatic, with limited user control over each of these functions. For the control freaks among us, here’s what we’ve got to work with.
The On/Off switch is on the back, just under the film door. Slide this from “L” to “A” to start the camera. After that, we simply look through the viewfinder and point and shoot. To zoom in or out, we use the cute and convenient two buttons on the front of the camera, positioned just where our left hand would naturally sit when holding the camera with two hands. With the simple press of either button, we can zoom the lens in or out. Markings on the top of the lens barrel indicate our approximate focal length in demarcations of 50mm, 70mm, and 85mm (the resting wide focal length of 38mm is not marked). A third front-mounted button sets the focus to infinity.
The top of the camera has five buttons. One of them is the shutter release, which we half-press to focus and full-press to take a picture. Aside from this big, round button, we’ve got four smaller ones which sit at the four corners the LCD.
The first of these smaller buttons lets us cycle through the camera’s flash modes. When the camera powers on, flash is automatically On. Pressing the button cycles through Flash Always On Mode, Flash Off Mode, and Flash Slow Sync Mode (useful for night shooting when we want to capture both a foreground subject and a background environment). Every time the camera is powered down, the flash mode resets to Automatic On.
While the incessant reset of the flash mode during the camera’s power cycle can be annoying, especially for those of us who prefer to use natural light or no flash, it quickly becomes second nature to press the flash mode button twice every time we turn on the camera. Still, slightly annoying.
Luckily, the camera handles itself fairly well when left to its own judgement over when and how powerfully to employ its flash. Flash lit subjects look reasonably natural when shot at the appropriate distances. No doubt this is accomplished by the flash power being mated to the lens’ zoom distance. The takeaway, for me, has been that I primarily keep the flash in its native automatic mode and let the camera decide. The results can be seen in the sample shots included.
The next of the camera’s top-mounted buttons cycles through the camera’s auxiliary modes. These include Continuous Shooting Mode (at about 2 frames per second), and Intelligent Framing Zoom Mode.
This latter mode sets the camera’s chosen focal length so that it will always shoot the subject at the same relative size within the image area. Essentially this means that in IF Mode, if we take a shot of a friend and that friend fills about a third of the image area, even if we walk away twenty feet and take the same photo, the camera will automatically pick the correct focal length so that that friend still occupies a third of the frame. Confused? Me too. That’s why I never use IF Mode, and you won’t either.
The third of the camera’s top-mounted buttons lets us activate the camera’s self-timer, which fires after ten seconds. (There’s also a delightful little remote shutter release stored in the bottom of the camera which can be removed and used to trigger the shutter via the mind-blowing technology known by NASA scientists as INFRARED.)
The final button is a film rewind button (the camera automatically rewinds the film after the whole roll is shot, so this button is simply for times when the user wants to rewind the film prematurely).
The viewfinder is a simple thing, but effective. Slightly larger and more legible than most point and shoot cameras, it zooms throughout the range of focal lengths in unison with the lens. Within the VF we find projected frame-lines, a center focusing patch, and parallax-corrected frame-lines for close shooting. There are also two LEDs to show when we’ve achieved focus, if focus has been missed, and when the flash is ready to burn.
The camera’s auto-focus works well. Half-press the shutter button and it quickly acquires focus. When this happens in the camera’s normal operating distance of one meter to infinity, the green light illuminates solid. If focus has been achieved in close-focus mode (closer than one meter), the green light flashes slowly and the user knows to frame their picture with the parallax-corrected frame-lines in the VF. If the green light flashes very quickly, focus was missed and we should try again.
Most of the time I see a solid green light and take the shot. Occasionally the camera misses. It misses no more often than any other point and shoot film camera from the ’80s or ’90s, and in fact it hits more frequently than most.
As mentioned earlier in the article, much of this feature set can be found on countless similar point and shoot film cameras. And many of them can be found in countless smaller cameras, too.
The standout feature of the Sure Shot Zoom XL’s spec sheet, and what the ad-writers would like us to believe sets the XL apart, is its lens.
The 39-85mm f/3.6-7.3 zoom lens offers a versatile range of focal lengths from wide-standard to telephoto. Hypothetically this means that the XL should be good for all types of general purpose photography, from snapshots and landscapes, to street photography, to portraiture. The relatively quick aperture (for a point and shoot) allows for decent low light shooting and surprisingly good subject isolation at certain focal lengths.
The lens’ advertised parity with equivalent SLR lenses comes from its complex construction. Made of 9 elements in 8 groups, it debuted in 1989 as one of the most advanced lenses that money could buy in the point and shoot market. It would remain among the most advanced zoom lenses in its class right up until the mid-’90s, when camera makers began to be proudly encircle their point and shoot lenses with text like “ED” and “Aspherical Elements.”
In the Hands
The Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL isn’t named that way for nothing. It’s eXtra Large, a big point and shoot camera, at least when compared to other point and shoots. And unlike so many of the cameras of the point and shoot class, the XL won’t fit into a pocket or seemingly disappear when not in use. Shooting, carrying and traveling with one is essentially the same as doing so with a 35mm SLR or modern mirror-less camera.
Photo nerds who are looking for a compact, pocket-able film camera would be better off choosing any number of smaller point and shoots.
The Canon Sure Shot series alone offers dozens of smaller options. The ever-popular Olympus Mjus exist (see our reviews for the Mju and its sequel, the Mju II), as do the point and shoot models within the Olympus XA family (more reviews here). And then there’s the under-rated Pentax point and shoots in the IQ Zoom range. Nikon makes the One Touch and Lite Touch models, and Minolta has their Freedom cameras. Any one of these many cameras will be smaller than the Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL.
That said, there’s something charming and comfortable about the XL’s bulk. It fits my hands well, and its voluminous rubber grip (which doubles as a battery compartment cover) is ergonomically pleasant in a way that few other point and shoots can match. In just an hour or less of shooting, the size and weight of the Canon Sure Shot Zoom XL quickly shifts from perceived liability to definitive asset.
I love this bulbous camera specifically for its awkward shape and its unsightly protuberances, and not despite them.
Image Quality Compared to the SLR Zooms
In the modern film camera market, Canon Sure Shot Zoom XLs from a reputable camera shop cost fairly close to the same price as a Canon EOS auto-focus SLR. This makes Canon’s late-’80s claims of lens parity even more interesting today, since the prices for each camera are so similar.
Last month I took both the Canon point and shoot and a Canon EOS Rebel XS out for a night in Boston. I shot a handful of shots from each camera using the same film at the same focal lengths. The resulting images show that the Canon Sure Shot XL does indeed match the image quality of a more sophisticated SLR, at least in this limited sampling.
Zoomed in, the XL tends to be a little bit softer than the similarly specced EOS lens that I was using. But it’s so close. If you’re the kind of person who wants a bulky norm-core point and shoot over a bulky norm-core SLR, the Zoom XL shouldn’t disappoint. In fact, at most focal lengths I find the Sure Shot made sharper images.
Additional Sample Shots
Canon’s bulky Sure Shot Zoom XL won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s large, heavy, unashamedly ugly. But that’s sort of what’s in style right now. Things that are intentionally uncool. And I love it. It’s also a pretty damn good camera. It takes good enough pictures on film, and that’s good enough for a lot of hobbyist film photographers in the modern era.
Film photographers looking for a compact camera should look elsewhere – point and shoots from the late ’90s and 2000s were much smaller and, frankly, better. And film photographers who want more control or higher image quality should naturally reach for something other than a point and shoot – more advanced SLRs, interchangeable lens rangefinders, and higher spec lenses will fit these types of shooters better.
That said, true to Canon’s claims, the Sure Shot Zoom XL does in fact offer image quality comparable to the kit zooms packaged with entry-level 35mm film SLRs of its own era (and beyond). I’m impressed.
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