A blast from the past, a blast from a ca(n)non?
My most-used cameras are Nikons, so according to the sadder parts of the internet, I should be actively against Canon somehow. Well, sorry to disappoint. I’ve owned one, and liked it a lot. I sold it, and still wonder why at times.
Now this is not going to be a review. I don’t have any fibre in my body wanting to shoot testcharts, measure linepairs or figure out technical details beyond what interests me. It’s just an opinion based on using it – but if it can help anyone, perfect. As mentioned in an earlier post, I do believe that gear matters for a photographer, as a part of the joy of making images and as part of being the best tool for enabling creation of particular images.
Hence it shouldn’t be a surprise that over time, I’ve had a fair number of cameras, and especially lenses. Every now and then, I’d just like to share my experiences using them. What worked for me, what didn’t, what I felt it was really good at, what maybe was a weak point.
First up is the Canon Canonet QL17 – a small, fixed-lens rangefinder camera with a 40mm f/1.7 lens and a reputation as ‘Poor Man’s Leica’.
A tiny bit of specs
The QL17 was the top of the range of the Canonet models, with the widest aperture lens at f/1.7. It exists in 3 generations, the first having a 45mm lens and the last one being the most ‘famous’ GIII model, easily recognised by an additional badge on the front. This one is a second generation model, which in terms of specifications is pretty much identical to the last generation, but no badge. Which makes it less desirable on the market, hence more affordable. Personally, I also find it a bit better looking without the GIII badge.
Overall, it’s a pretty small camera, highly portable. Not extremely lightweight, but most certainly not heavy. It feels solid, assuringly sturdy. It features a Quick Load mechanism, which makes loading film really a breeze and helps explain the product name too. It’s a silent camera in operation, so it’s very good at not drawing attention to itself.
It has coupled built-in metering; the eye on the top of the lens is in fact the light meter; the camera by default works in a shutterspeed-priority mode where you set the speed, and the camera will set the aperture automatically. But of course, it can also be used fully manual. I typically used it that way, because I never had an idea whether the light meter was accurate at all (nor how old the battery was that sat in it – it was in there when I bought the camera). Plus, when using a filter, the light meter would probably be affected by vignetting (in my mind anyway). Hence I used it with an external light meter (be it a real one or an app on my phone). In manual mode, it would work without battery too.
The battery is a bit a topic, as it’s a PX625 mercury battery. Replacements do still exist (Wein cells) but they cost quite a bit.
There it is: a discrete, small camera with a versatile lens.
A potential elephant in the room: it is a rangefinder. For those used to SLRs or mirrorless digital cameras, a rangefinder may take some getting used to. It is a different way of focussing, and the viewfinder is giving you less of a pre-visualisation as other cameratypes may give.
It’s very accurate at focussing, though. Once used to it, it’s pretty fast and the focusthrow on this camera is not that long, helping again making it pretty quick. On my camera, the rangefinder patch was a bit fuzzy and not always easy to see. As a low-light camera, it didn’t work very well.
At heart, I’m a SLR shooter, so rangefinders for me do remain something of a hobby camera – cameras I like, I like to use them but they’re not likely to become my main tool. Despite this, I did put quite a number of rolls in this QL17, so clearly it was working for me.
The reason why it has seen quite some use in the time I had it, comes down to a couple of factors.
Key factor: it is a simple, small and sturdy camera. Ideal to carry when you just want to have a camera with you, but aren’t specifically going somewhere to make photos. There is no effort in bringing this camera. Put some medium-speed film in it, and you’re ready for a lot of opportunities.
Next to that: it’s a very reliable, dependable camera. It just works. It’s easy to operate, no strange quirks, no complications. Very functional, always.
Related to that: the lens is really good. Solid performance throughout. Its focal length is really nice. There is a real difference between 40mm and 50mm, and being that bit wider adds appeal. I am a 50mm shooter, it’s a focal length that works wonders for me. But the additional bit of wideness made the QL17 a distinctly different camera to me too.
Put really short: this camera is perfect, for what it is. Rangefinder focussing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, a fixed lens likewise. But if those things aren’t an issue to you, this camera is pretty much perfect.
Operating the camera is pretty easy; both aperture and speed are set via rings on the lens. The difference between each ring (including the focus ring) is easy to feel. Good resistance on all of them means things stay the way you left them. Viewfinder is large enough – not an all immersive experience, but no need to squint either.
While the camera is fairly small (and my hands are not), it doesn’t feel cramped. Again, this camera nails it pretty well. This camera doesn’t get in your way.
The natural habitat for this camera is the city, I think. It is a perfect match for streetphotography, the only downside the difficulties focussing in lower light.
But even if the camera screams ‘street’, it’s more versatile than that. Its focal length is also very usable for a lot of landscape situations. The lens is capable enough, and landscapes do not always need wide angles, despite popular belief 😉
The lens has good contrast, keeps pleasant colours, and doesn’t suffer too badly from flare or glare, though having the sun inside the frame is asking for some trouble. And when those flares happen, the hexagonal shapes created due to the aperture blades aren’t very attractive. Steer clear from those situations, and it’s all really fine.
One small caveat: the lens takes 48mm filters. Those are hard to find. Once I found an orange filter for it, I got two immediately, in case I’d ever damage one. In the end, I never found a yellow filter for it either.
So what’s with the past tense?
Collecting my thoughts and memories on this camera again makes me wonder: why did I ever sell this camera? There isn’t a single significant negative about it. Who would not want to have a camera like this?
Apparently me. But it is a head-scratcher.
The period I sold it, I was severly trimming down my cameras and lenses. It had become a bit of a collection almost, and I am not a collector. The abundance of choice started to get in my way.
The reason this camera had to go, was its key virtue: it’s such a competent camera. Reliable, free of strange behaviours. So good, it got boring. It really was just a tool. A very, very good tool. But a bit lacking in the fun department somehow for me. It was ideal at not getting in my way, but that also somehow made it less memorable to work with.
If we’d be talking about a relationship, you would say the chemistry wasn’t fully there. Once you discover which rangefinders I decided to keep, you will find the madness in the decision – what I have left now, isn’t as reliable or well-rounded as the QL17. And yet, for myself, I made the right choice. Whoever bought mine, got a terrific camera though.
I wholeheartedly recommend this camera to anyone who wants a solid, reliable, affordable filmcamera and can live with a 40mm fixed lens. You cannot go wrong with this camera; it ticks nearly all boxes.
So is this camera a blast? Well, a cannon-blast of quality, yes, it is. Did I have a blast with it? No, just not enough. But that’s due to my quirks, not the camera.