Cameras,  Reviews

Canon Sure Shot A1 – Summer Love

Summer means sunshine, longer days, heat, sun screen, swimming and fun.  During this time, a camera that can be used at the beach, the pool, on land and is not overly expensive or complicated is quite a wish list.  The Canon Sure Shot A1 aims to fulfil this, all the time maintaining quality in both the water and on land.  The A1 even projects the fun feeling as its design reminds you of a toy with the very distinctive colours, oversized red shutter button and toy truck style selection dial.

Apart from the above lofty aims, at its time of release it was also the lightest and smallest waterproof 35mm camera. It is no surprise that it was quite successful in what is effectively a sub category of the compact camera category of cameras.

It is worth mentioning that the A1 is not only aimed at water sports.  It is also a camera to use when enjoying anything where there is likely to be water from snow sports through to even street photography in wet weather.

The latter is something that is a bit of a surprise but well acknowledged now.  It is considered a very capable camera all round and with a 32mm wide lens, quite a favourite of some street photographers.  The quality of the lens which leads to this conclusion is what is most surprising, considering it needs to capture the light through the cover of the front element to keep it watertight.

The A1 is also known by quite a few other names around the world, including Sure Shot WP-1, Autoboy D5 and Prima AS-1.  It is not quite clear why Canon took this approach, as most of the models are identical with some optional differences.  Not all claim to also be waterproof to 5m, but this may also be due to classifications of the word waterproof in different countries, which may have contributed to the name differences.

Being able to have this camera everywhere you would normally go, really leads to the saying, “the best camera is the one with you”.  This is a great convenience, and having a reputation as a good quality shooter helps, but let’s have a look at its background and determine if this reputation stacks up now.


The first part of the background leading to this camera is the history of underwater photography.  The first recorded underwater photograph was in 1856. That is correct, 1856.  This was done by William Thompson, an Englishman, by housing his wet-plate collodion camera in a metal box on a pole, lowering it on the side of the boat at a depth of 18 feet to the sea floor and exposing for 10 minutes.   This was in Weymouth Bay, not exactly the clear tropical waters ideal for this, not that at 10 minutes it would have mattered.

The real breakthrough in underwater photography occurred in the 1890s by the Frenchman Louis Boutan.  He was able to, with the help of his brother who was an engineer, design and build a camera to be used submerged.  Due to the loss of light that occurs underwater even in the clearest waters, they developed a then new dual carbon-arc lamp flash housed in a way it can fire in water.  This was revolutionary in that up to that point magnesium based flash required oxygen and produced smoke obscuring filling the housing.

He would descend into the water wearing a heavy diving suit, the ones with the metal bulb head gear.  His efforts produced work which was published in 1893 and led to the ability to this day for people to see wildlife in its natural habitat right to the lower depths of the sea.  He also published a book in 1898 called “La Photographie Sous-Marine” (Underwater Photography) which detailed his underwater photographic work.  The book came with many photos taken over the years.

Underwater photography took an impressive innovation curve and by 1916 the first movie showing fish swimming in the background was released, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.

Colour photography of the submerged world made its debut in 1923, when botanist W.H. Longley worked with photographer Charles Martin who generally took pictures on non-moving subjects.  He had a picture featured in the July 1927 issue of National Geographic of a hogfish.

Commercial housing for cameras to be used in the water came out in 1950 by the French company called Beuchat. The housing was called Tarzan.  Since technology developed with the housing was readily available it spurred on further innovation.  In 1957 Jean de Wouters, who worked with Jacques Cousteau on his famous ship the Calypso, developed an underwater 35mm camera also called Calypso.  This was bought out by Nikon and in 1963 Nikon re-released the camera as the Nikonos.  This ensured Nikon remained at the forefront of underwater photography for decades. From there underwater photography followed a fairly straight line in developments with a few little side tracks, for instance the Rolleiflex TLR underwater housing (!!??).

The second part to the history of the Sure Shot A1 is the Canon Sure Shot range of cameras.  By the late 1970s, compact cameras had well established themselves.  In 1979 Canon released the original Sure Shot, also known as the AF35M and Autoboy. From this original model, the subsequent models were updated and in some cases had their own sub range.  Some included fixed lenses, some zooms, some were high end models, some very basic lower end and some with date and panoramic features.

These evolved through the decades, with each iteration making picture taking easier and easier.  There were very many models and variations on the model names right through to 2005 with the final model the Sure Shot 90u II Date.  The Cyber Shot series was based on the premise created by the Sure Shots.

It is not much of a surprise in that these two lines of history would at some point intersect.  Canon released the Sure Shot A1, with its multitude of names, in April 1994.  Canon was not the only manufacturer to release waterproof compacts in the 90s and it competed with Nikon L35 AWAF (in which Nikon leveraged its Nikonos knowledge), the Minolta Weathermatic and Konica Mermaid (part of the Big Mini range).

The Sure Shot A1 model was a big hit, and judging on how many are still available and working with seals which are up to 24 years old at the time of writing, it is quite amazing.

Camera Specifics

The Canon Sure Shot A1 (aka Sure Shot WP-1, Autoboy D5 and Prima AS-1) is a small waterproof fully automatic 35mm compact.  It can be used on land and in a depth of up to five metres (roughly 16 feet).  It is encased in a waterproof lightweight plastic body utilising rubber seals at both the camera back and the battery compartments. It has a very distinctive styling of white with red seals including the O-rings around the lens and viewfinder. The shutter release is also red as is the catch to open the back of the camera.

The lens is a fixed 32mm f/3.5 (6 elements in 6 groups) with 3-point AiAF system auto focus, though it becomes fixed focus when the underwater setting is enabled.  The focusing range is from 45cm (1.5 ft) to infinity, but adjusted to 45cm to 1m (1.5 to 3.3 ft) in underwater/macro mode.  It has a programmed shutter which ranges from 1/250thsecond to 2 seconds.

The only controls the camera offers is the rotating switch at the front, which allows the setting of no-flash, forced-flash, off, full auto, and underwater/macro represented by a fish symbol.  At the top, the delayed shutter can be set for self-portraits.  All other functions, including ISO selection and exposure settings are fully automatic.

Frame advancing is also fully automatic and motorised.  A frame counter sits on top left of the camera which shows every 3 numbers.

The viewfinder is big and bright. It has been designed to be easy to view through with rubber all around it making it comfortable.  Frame lines with parallax marks sit in centre with considerable space around them to view what is outside of the frame.  That is also by design as most people will not be able to hold it to the eye underwater and need to view it with some distance. The autofocus mark sits in the centre of the frame lines.

The back is opened by a catch on left of the camera.  It requires some effort to ensure it does not get knocked open easily.  Once opened the seals can be viewed around the camera back clearly coloured red.  The manual clearly states that the seals need to be kept spotlessly clean as a single grain of sand can let water in and should be wiped with a damp cloth. Loading film is with a quick load method by placing in the film cartridge in the right side and the film leader to the left side.  When the back is closed and the camera turned on, it winds the film on to the first frame while reading the DX code from the film cartridge.

There is a built-in flash, with a guide number of 7.5m at ISO 100.  Obviously, this above water and in the water it is only effective if the camera is set to the underwater/macro/fish setting which tops out at 1.5m.

Underneath is the battery compartment in which the CR123A battery is inserted.  The battery compartment is also sealed and requires the same care as the seals on the back.  Also on the bottom is the tripod socket.

One feature which is the benefit of the camera body being mainly plastic is that it floats, even with a battery and film in it.  It is a good idea either way to use the bright red neck strap it comes with, but the floating is a great feature to be able to recover the camera if the shooter accidentally lets go of it.

The Experience

I had been looking at buying a waterproof camera for some time, but wanted to avoid the more expensive options as it is not something I would use too much in water.  I had heard about the Sure Shot A1 and that it was also very good out of water, especially by the plaudits of Tokyo Camera Style (@tokyocamerastyle) on Instagram where he uses them in street photography on occasion.  So, when I saw one for sale locally on eBay, I paid the AU$90 and bought it.

When it arrived, I inserted a battery, and awaited my chance to use it.  Unfortunately I left it on and when it was time to use the camera it would not fire up.  I feared that maybe the camera, being so electronic no longer worked and put it aside. Next chance I had, I bought a new battery and it fired up, which was a great relief.

Soon afterwards I got my chance to use it, so I loaded some Ilford HP5+ and left it to work out the ISO by using the DX settings at box speed of ISO 400.  First time taking it into my pool was a little nerve-racking even after following the manual to the letter in cleaning the seals with a damp cloth. When I heard the motor work in the water I relaxed a bit and we had a ball taking silly pictures of each other.

I finished the roll one lunch break a few days later and put it in for development, keeping my fingers crossed that the metering was still working properly and that all the motor sounds were of film actually moving through the camera.  When I got the film back it  looked quite good, but a little under exposed for my liking, but exactly what the camera should do. I prefer to overexpose HP5+ by setting it at ISO 250, but I had rushed in the excitement to use the camera and did not replace the DX code as per the technique you can see here.

Scanning in the photos I was really impressed with what this little camera had produced.  It handles itself well above and below water.  Not only that, it is a lot of fun and when out shooting it attracts practically no attention.

During the next few weeks I loaded the camera with a couple of rolls of Portra 400 and another HP5+, but in these cases I replaced the DX code to ISO 250 for both film types.  I used the camera as my take everywhere camera and then back into the pool.  The results, now that I was exposing the way I prefer, is covered in one word, “WOW!” The photos from a camera that is aimed to be used as a fun compact for the beach are really amazing.  I expected the results to be impacted because the lens has to shoot through the waterproofing front cover, but they are really clear and sharp.

There is some vignetting but insignificant on land.  As expected, in the water there is a lot of light fall off, mainly as the flash can only go so far.  It becomes obvious quickly from the middle but you need to remember that in water the subject must be quite central.

One gripe I do have is that while the frame lines being so central is handy, they do seem to get lost in bright light.  I struggled to see them on occasion leading to a few framing mistakes.  Have a look at the view through the viewfinder in the camera specifics section above, you can see how easily they disappear even though are well defined.

My other gripe is not about the camera itself but a reaction I got.  While entering the Chinese Friendship Garden, the attendant asked me if this was a film camera.  When I answered yes, she proceeded to tell me she had never seen a film camera before and that it is great that older people still use them.  I felt like I had aged 40 years on the spot!  Maybe I need to order my walking stick!

Frame lines aside, I loved using this little compact.  On the street, I did not have to worry about anything except composition.  The camera did all the work.  Not really something I could use for candid photography, the motor is quite loud, but a great camera to take on holiday or run about town.

Did I expect to enjoy it so much? No, I thought it would be some fun, but it was that, and a whole lot more.  The quality that it produces is way beyond what I expected and for such a low price.  If you have a chance to buy one, jump on it, regardless of the name printed on it.  Buy it, use it, and if you have more than one camera, keep it in your rotation during summer.

Now for me, summer is over, it is April, the weather is now more mid-20s Celsius rather than high 20s or 30s.  We probably only have a few more days of swimming weather, and have winter to look forward to, as much as Sydney has a winter (not that much).