Cameras That I Love: Canonet QL17

December 12, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

 

Canonet QL17 black paint

 

I have little experience shooting with a rangefinder.  I do have the venerable Olympus XA and while it is technically a rangefinder camera,  it's user experience is more like a semi manual point and shoot.  There's even a set-it-and-forget-it indication on selecting aperture and the focus lever to treat it as such.  

 

 

As I continue along into my film odyssey the urge to try a "proper" rangefinder camera beckoned.  To get my feet wet in the segment, I knew I wanted one in the Japanese fixed-lens variety.  These were all the rage back in the 1960s and 70s.  As an alternative to a big heavy SLR and the much pricier cameras coming out of Wetzlar, the cameras coming out of Japan were far simpler and often times lighter.  They are (were?) the perfect cameras to have at your side when going abroad.  All the legacy brands had their own interpretation of the ideal travel camera and they more or less followed the same formula: a fast-aperture, kinda normal-ish lens and some form of automated exposure control.  Yashica, Olympus, Minolta, Konica, you name it.  These marks produced these cameras in the millions. 

Canonet QL17 black paint

 

Then there's the Canonet. 

 

Having the XA and a pair of OM's, I considered an Olympus 35 SP or a 35 RD but since film is film, I want to be as brand-agnostic as possible.  I trolled eBay for months until a black paint(!) QL17 popped up in New York City of all places.  It had a Buy it Now price for $200 which may seem a bit steep at first glance but because these cameras haven't been produced for nearly 40 years and the parts to repair them for when things go wrong grow scarcer by the year, along with the Renaissance of Film in full-swing it's a relative bargain.  I've seen copies from Japan go for about the same price usually with hazy lenses.

 

There are a lot of QL17 variants and Canon can't seem to name their products in a way that makes any sense or exude any kind of emotion to their potential customers, I did some sleuthing to figure out which QL17 I have and figure out when it was made.  Best guess is that this camera was made in Japan around 1969.  It's got a molded frame advance lever with a brass base, a shutter made by Copal and a battery check button that points the needle to the green spot in the finder to let you know there's a charge.  Today's influencers say to go for this one because the Made in Japan Canonets are made of higher quality plastics and brass. 

 

Canonet QL17 black paint

 

When you pick it up it's cool to the touch.  Something a bit surprising in this day and age when most cameras are a mix of plastic and metal warmed by the electronics on the inside.  Another surprising tid-bit is that it's heavier than it looks.  Holding it in the hands gives this solid feel.  Not quite tank-like but definitely a substantial machine.  The beauty of any black paint camera built before the transition to plastic is that the paint eventually fades to reveal the metal underneath.  It just screams workhorse like a pair of well-worn jeans.  How I wish I could say that I put it through its paces to get to where it looks today, but I'd be lying.

 


Canonet QL17 black paint Canonet QL17 black paint
 

Things they mention about the leaf shutter is how near silent it is.  A little unnerving at first when you're used to the viewfinder going black accompanied by a "thwack" of the mirror traveling up and down in an SLR, it's not as quiet as the XA but it's close.  The true joy that is glossed over in what's already been said about the Canonet is how butter-smooth the frame advance is.  It doesn't ratchet, but the stroke resistance is somewhere between the grating-through-sand OM and well-honed Nikon F.

 

Another interesting feature? The aperture ring is step-less.  Click-stops are missed if you're the type of shooter that is always looking through the viewfinder and you make adjustments tactilely.  Though it should be said that if the ring is set to Automatic or any of the other values to the right of A, those values are felt with a click-stop, as is the shutter speed ring.  I suppose these ergonomic decisions are completely related to the automatic exposure system.  More on that now.

 

During my DSLR days, I found myself only ever using shutter priority when I wanted to convey movement in the shot.  I would pan and drag the shutter to get streaking and motion blur.  But when it comes to using a film camera from the 1960s with all the competing manufacturers creating new innovations to get that exposure right, one has to wonder what exactly it was what Canon was thinking when they stuffed shutter-priority into the Canonet.

 

Like the XA, its top user-selectable ASA value is 800.  Which is fine considering that 400 back then was already considered plenty fast.  An added benefit is the bright f/1.7 maximum aperture.  Without fail, when set to 400 and the shutter to 1/30s indoors in adequate artificial light the aperture needle will point to f/1.7.  More or less a standard exposure setting for those capable of holding still for as long as they dare.  Having a leaf shutter only helps in minimizing camera shake.  It just feels so inherently backwards to select a shutter speed and have the camera work out what aperture is required.   Then again, this camera was most likely marketed as a travel camera.  Perhaps Canon was thinking of its potential buyers handing the Canonet off to strangers so their photo could be taken in front of landmarks.  A trick I've always used on the rare occasion someone offers to take a picture of me with my camera is that I'll set the shutter to something just fast enough for a handheld snap to account for the fidgety hands of a stranger.  I would go so far as to pre-focus.  All they have to do is hit the shutter button.   But outside of all these potential uses, I think going the shutter priority only route is wasted.  Fortunately the shutter is mechanical, so it works just fine selecting your own exposure values.  Unfortunately, the light meter only works in A mode.  Sunny 16 is your friend.

 

What they tell you about the focusing patch is that it's not all that well-defined.  In other words, it's no Leica.  Focus throw however is short and the lever makes finding focus very easy.  One thing I wish the lens barrel had was a Depth of Field scale.  This would make zone focusing easier, much less actually doable. 

 

This camera is often miscast as "The Poor Man's Leica."  That's so lazy and a bit of a slight.  For starters, the Canonet was more or less an archetype that spawned an entire segment.  Imagine if Canon never thought of producing a high-quality camera for the masses, would we have the Electro? The Hi-Matic? The 35 SP?  If there were ever a poor man's Leica and it had to come from Canon, the Populaire seems more fitting.

 

I've never owned a Leica M, so I can't speak to the experience of actually shooting with one.  What I can say is that I'm three rolls in with the Canonet and the yearning for a Leica is at its lowest.  It's nearly perfect. 

 

Easy to load, check.

 

Easy to focus, check.

 

What would make it perfect?  A DoF scale so you can zone focus or better yet, a hyperfocal setting like the XA would be great. Also a more common filter thread size.  48mm, really? 

 

With the film camera revival in full swing, these things are no longer the bargains they once were.  In 2019, paying anywhere between $150-$250 seems about right.  $150 gets you a chrome version with a lens in decent shape.  $250 gets you a black paint one, with a case.  Sometimes you get lucky and score the lens hood.  The Canonet is probably the only time in Canon's history have they ever made something that's genuinely cool.  Its resale value and infamy are a testament to that.  Find yours on eBay.

Canonet QL17 Running Album

 


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