Another five dollar beauty – and it works
The five dollar Canon Canonet QL17 GIII in all its glory
This is the Canonet QL17 GIII I scored at the same time as the Nikon FM I have blogged about a week or two ago. It is a great little camera, and it is in absolutely perfect condition – the lens is clear, the shutter works, all speeds seem OK, the auto exposure side functions properly, it is cosmetically perfect, and it even came with the original printed book and the correct lens cap. Those of you that know me understand that I have a particular lust for Canonets, and the GIII is the daddy of them all.
I like small rangefinder cameras for a special reason – this class of camera has become a favourite of mine, as they represent Oskar Barnack’s ideal small pocketable camera which can easily be taken everywhere. According to Canon, the development of the high-grade 35mm camera had been its great milestone from the start of the 1950s constituting Canon’s mission – these cameras are typified by the Canon P and 7 Leica screw mount bodies. During the late 1950s there was an effort made inside Canon to produce a simpler camera that could be used by anybody. That effort would be the development of the 35mm lens-shutter camera.
It all began in 1958 when there were heated discussions within Canon as to whether the company should take the route confined to the manufacturing of high-end cameras typified by the then-current Canon VI-L and VI-T models, or whether it should also enter the market for intermediate-class cameras. Gradually, the voices of young engineers expressing the opinion “we want to make cameras we can afford” gained strength. This resulted in a tentative decision to produce a prototype of an intermediate-class camera before the company’s overall policy guidelines could be developed. With this background, the development of the 35mm lens-shutter camera started. This camera was the “Canonet,” which swept the entire camera market with the slogan “anyone can buy it ,and anyone can an take pictures with it“.
Although the plan was to market the Canonet camera in August 1960, its debut was delayed until January l961 because of strong criticism from Canon’s competitors complaining that the price of under 20,000 yen was too low to compete with. When the camera was introduced for the first time at the display and sales counter on the 7th floor of Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, the number of people interested in seeing the camera was so great that they overflowed onto the staircases. The total inventory for one week was gone within 2 hours after the sales counter opened. Its sales were so astronomical and its customer acceptance so overwhelming that the February 6, 1961 issue of Shukan Bunshun (a popular weekly magazine) covered the sensation in the article entitled “Go To Hell!! Canonet.”
The Canonet was a mid-priced camera that could be manufactured at high volume and low cost; the 1961 sales price was ¥18,800 or $55. The Canonet was technologically superior to any other Japanese camera at that time, and given that it was mass produced it was a technological marvel. Amateur Photographer (in October1960) called it “one of the most ambitious” cameras introduced at the 1960 Photokina Show in West Germany. Canon challenged accepted production methods through the use of new mass production techniques. Precisely because the process innovation used to make the camera dramatically cut total production costs, the market for the Canonet, and thereby high-quality cameras, was significantly broadened due to the increased affordability of the new Canonet. Canon in effect challenged other firms to follow suit or lose market share.
The other firms did not let the Canonet challenges go by unnoticed. They criticized Canon claiming that the Canonet’s retail price was in violation of the manufacturers’ agreement of October 1959 to fix prices industry wide. This behaviour – that of a cartel – surprised me when I learned of this fact. It was brought about as competition among the JCIA member firms had intensified throughout the 1950s to such an extent that between 1957 and 1961 ten firms were forced to declare bankruptcy. Part of the problem was an incessant proliferation of new camera models and aggressive retail price cuts. The instability that this had caused motivated the JCIA – with the support of MITI, the all-powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry, to agree to fixed retail prices. Canon’s competitors were also highly critical of Canon because the Canonet was introduced in West Germany at Photokina, not at the Japan Camera Show in Japan. The JCIA member firms, including Canon, had agreed to biannual product introductions at the Japan Camera Shows beginning in March 1960, meaning that new products were to be introduced in Japan, not overseas. This upset the photographic cartel.
To settle things down, in a show of good will and in the spirit of cooperation, Canon agreed to withhold the camera from the Japanese market for six months while the other JCIA members caught up. When on January 24, 1961, the Canonet was finally introduced at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Tokyo, all 300 units sold within 30 minutes. Despite the efforts of the JCIA, Canon succeeded in scooping the market changing the competitive playing field.
The effect of Canon’s move was to intensify efforts among the Japanese companies to cut production costs and increase production levels. The result of this effort was clear by the end of the 1960s. Manufacturers that did not begin to use mass production methods but instead sought to compete using traditional and far more labour-intensive production methods lost market share. Canon set the trend for decades to come, and in doing so, just about doomed the German camera industry.
The original Canonet, and the Demi – note the bottom level wind on the Canonet
While the boom sparked by the Canonet had not quite cooled off yet, the “Canon Demi” camera was introduced in February 1963. It was a compact and lightweight half-frame camera that permitted twice as many pictures per roll of film. This camera was also a hit with its catch phrase “let’s draw our ‘Demi’ from our pocket.” Also released in October of the same year was the “Color Demi,” which was popular among users because it was available in three different colours: red, blue and white. With the debut of the Demi”series, the variety of the lens-shutter cameras increased. The important thing was that the technologies acquired during the development of these 35mm lens-shutter cameras were fully fed back into the products that followed.
The original Canonet was well-featured – it had a very fast 1.9 lens, EE shutter-priority auto exposure and full manual operation, and a price tag consumers could sink afford – it was priced at 18,800 yen, which was about fifty 1961 dollars, a price low enough that it actually angered other camera companies! No wonder then that the Japanese camera industry went into an uproar upon learning that Canon, maker of high-end cameras, was to introduce a mid-class 35mm camera with a fast f/1.9 lens for less than 20,000 yen. When the Canonet went to market in January 1961, and a week’s worth of stock was sold out in only two hours, it marked the start of the Canonet boom. Two and a half years later, a million Canonets had been sold.
Many models appeared in later years, all sired by the original Canonet, leading to the introduction of the final model – the venerable QL17 GIII – in 1972. The “G” in the camera designation stood for “Grade Up” which referred to the quality improvement, although surprisingly, all were made in Taiwan. The “III” indicated the third-generation of the series, following the original Canonet and the New Canonet lines. Manufactured from spring 1972 to summer 1982, it was a long-selling bestseller over 11 years. About 1.2 million units were made.
There’s a reason why Canon sold so many of this particular model in their long line of successful 35mm rangefinder cameras: this is definitely a high end camera, and a breathtaking lens and rich feature set are only two factors in its success. Introduced in 1972, the GIII designation indicated the third in a series of successful compact rangefinders of this type; this is one of the models most avidly sought after by collectors and users of fine compact 35mm rangefinders of the ’70’s era. It was the most refined and improved of the three, being the culmination of continuous enhancements and strengthening to produce one of the slickest cameras of its time, one that was justifiably referred to more than once as “a poor man’s Leica”. It’s not without its quirks, however, as you’ll see shortly.
The camera is noticeably larger than the really compact 35mm rangefinders of that time, along with the Konica Auto S2, Olympus 35 RD and Olympus 35 SP: each of these cameras was aimed solidly at the high end market, professionals wanting a second camera without compromises, and serous amateurs wanting the best, most full featured cameras they could afford as non-working photographers. These cameras all distinguished themselves to that end with lenses that were typically a full f-stop faster than more compact ones (F/1.7 or 1.8 were the norm for these lenses); the larger physical diameter and length of these lenses in made them distinctive in appearance (they also provided aperture, shutter speed and focusing rings that were easier to grip and move with certainty). The faster lenses, coupled with the typically longer range of working shutter speeds on the low end made these cameras wonderful low light shooters, greatly enhancing their desirability. The camera bodies themselves were correspondingly larger too, as more features were packed into them, and beefier, stronger parts for long life and rugged reliability were used: all this required a larger body to make it all work. Still, the cameras are not that much larger, and remain very light: at the end of the day, you still barely notice their presence hanging from your shoulder strap.
The lens itself is the heart of the camera: a slightly wide, 40mm F/1.7 optic composed of 6 elements arranged in 4 groups gives razor sharp and nicely contrasting photographs, with a very nice focusing range of 2.6 feet to Infinity (most cameras of this type normally close focused at 3 feet). The metering cell is located at the 12 o’clock position in the lens barrel, offering automatic filter factor compensation with 48mm screw thread filters mounted. The lens barrel becomes the “control centre” for the camera, in a sense, as 90% of the operating functions are selected from one of three rings mounted on the outer periphery: (from outside in toward the camera body) shutter speed selection ring, aperture/guide number selection ring, and focus ring.
The Copal leaf shutter offers speeds ranging from a low of 1/4 of a second to a top end of 1/500th of a second, with a B(ulb) time setting included. The shutter speeds are click stopped along the ring, marked in white, with the 1/30th of a second position marked in blue. The Bulb setting has a stud lock further along the lens ring to prevent accidentally selecting this setting when working with the camera at your eye: press and hold the lock in while rotating the shutter speed ring to the B setting.
Just behind the shutter speed ring, a small window appears in the lens barrel sleeve displaying the selected film speed in ASA. This is one of the quirks of this camera: the film speed is indicated only in ASA: no metric DIN equivalent is indicated. Even odder is the fact that the guide numbers offered are indicated solely in meters, not in feet: very unusual for a camera of this quality and particularly in light of the extensive attention to detail given to numerous other features throughout the design. Further along the lens barrel sleeve is a small, notched stud protruding from a slot cut in the sleeve: slip a finger nail in the notch, press down and hold while sliding the stud one way or another to line up the desired film speed against an indicator in the film speed window. Release the stud to lock in the setting (it is click stopped). The range of ISO speeds available to be selected is a broad 25 to 800 (many cameras offer only 25 -400), further enhancing the Canon’s ability as a low light shooter.
The aperture ring immediately behind the film speed selection window allows you to select apertures from F/1.7 down to a standard F/16. An “A” for automatic setting sets the camera into shutter preferred exposure mode: you select the shutter speed, the exposure system automatically selects the best aperture. Bear in mind, as with most cameras of this type, when selecting the aperture manually, the exposure meter is disengaged; only the “A” setting provides exposure control and indications. Further along the ring are 3 numbers marked in blue:28, 20, and 14, all metric guide numbers for the built in, flashmatic flash exposure control system (American equivalents are 92, 66 and 46, respectively, for ISO 100 film). Just to the left of the F/16 aperture setting (looking down on the lens barrel, as in the photograph above) is a small lever protruding from a slot: the self time actuator. Slide it to the other side of the slot with the shutter cocked, press the shutter release button and it will count off approximately 9 seconds delay before opening the shutter. Like most cameras of this type, the mechanical self timer cannot be cancelled in mid-operation. There is no “Off” position for power to the CdS exposure metre photocell, so, as with most cameras of this type, the lens cap serves as the “off” switch to conserve power by covering the lens.
The inner most ring is the focus setting ring, the thick black index mark for which is actually engraved in the metal of the camera body itself, just below the left end of the rangefinder element glass. Distances in feet are marked in an eye-catching forest green, while metric equivalents directly underneath them are marked in black. The silky smooth focusing is aided by a thick, half-inch long lever protruding from the focusing ring on the left side (as you’re holding the camera in shooting position). The idea is to grip the lever between two fingers and simply rock it up or down; with a minute or two of practice, you can quickly “snap” focus with spot on accuracy in a split second. This is an enormously attractive feature; if you’re new to cameras, you’ll fall in love with it, and miss it on other cameras that lack it. In actual use, though, I found it downright disconcerting: I’ve spent years using cameras without it, and have grown strongly accustomed to the traditional, Single Lens Reflex (SLR) method of focusing whereby you cradle the camera in your left hand, with the tips of your thumb and forefinger gently pinching the focus ring. The focus lever on the Canon makes this almost impossible, so if you’re at all like me, it will take a wee bit of getting used to. Fast shooting photographers and journalists love it, however, and it remains a unique and extremely useful feature.
The viewfinder is a joy to work with (or through, as the case may be), being roomy, bright and clear with a large, easy to pick up yellow rangefinder focusing patch dead centre. A yellow vertical strip on the right side shows the F/stops, indicated by a floating black needle; red over- and under-exposure warning patches at the top and bottom of the scale give you a good indication of why the shutter won’t trip in Automatic exposure mode: if the needle is in either of those areas, the shutter release button locks to prevent badly exposed photographs. There is no indicator in the viewfinder when the flashmatic system is engaged, which is a bit disappointing on a camera of this calibre; not having shutter speeds indicated is also a puzzling omission, given the level of sophistication that went into the design and engineering of this dream camera, but then again, I did indicate at the beginning of this article that this camera is not without its quirks. On the other hand, this is one of the very, very few compact 35mm rangefinder cameras ever made that had bright frame lines that moved with the focus lever to provide automatic parallax compensation: kudos to the engineers on this one!
Many relatively small things, at first glance, seem to have been thoughtfully designed to provide the easiest to use camera Canon could make; they grow on you quickly as you begin to realize exactly how fully featured and comfortable a camera this is to use. Take the top deck, for instance: beginning on the far right side, the film advance lever has a large, comfortable black plastic extension for fast and reliable film advance. The “stand off” position is more than adequate, and the single stroke, short throw lever is very smooth; the lack of a ratchet film advance, while unusual, is not a major factor here. There is a tiny bit of side to side slop in the large shutter release button (threaded for a universal cable release), although it releases the shutter crisply at the bottom of its stroke. The button is noticeably stiffer than other cameras: you won’t take a picture accidentally with this camera. The metal ring concentric to the release button provides a very comfortable rest for the entire pad of your fingertip.
Immediately to the left of the shutter release button is a large film counter window, and what a pleasant surprise it is to note that the glass in the window slightly magnifies the numbers for easier visibility, a very nice touch indeed. The flash hot shoe has spring clips under each wing to help clamp the flash foot into place more reliably; a second, smaller electric contact in the shoe is for the dedicated Canolite D electronic flash unit that was marketed for the camera: totally automatic flash control was possible with this unit simply by slipping it into place (it used the flashmatic feature of the camera, but the second electrical contact signalled the camera that a Canolite D unit was being used, which meant that the shooter could leave the aperture ring set in the “A” position and not have to set a guide number; removing it returned the camera instantly to Automatic exposure control).
Even something as simple, and almost universally standard as the film rewind lever and knob has been made a touch differently: instead of traditional flat sides, the metal on either side of the fold down crank has been milled away to provide a nicely sloping surface on this large, easy to grip knob. Mere styling? No…should the folding crank ever break off, the easy grip knob will allow you to carry on with minimum fuss; what a wonderful thought for anyone who has ever endured the frustration of a broken rewind crank. Pulling up on the rewind crank/knob assembly unlatches the back cover for film loading and unloading.
On the far left side of the camera body, just behind one of the two extremely sturdy camera strap lugs, is a small, oval, spring loaded plastic cap. Gently pull out on the end closest to the viewfinder eyepiece and swivel it down 90 degrees to reveal the PC flash synch cord contact socket; it will swivel back in place when the cord is removed, providing an efficient dust cover. I believe the Canon was the only one of the classic compact 35mm rangefinder cameras of the ’70’s to ever have this feature.
Just to the left of the viewfinder eyepiece is a small red button with a tiny blue light bulb above it, both centred under the word “Check” in white letters. Press the button in briefly and the blue light will light up to indicate a good battery. Still along the back deck, directly under the tip of the film advance lever, is a small rectangular window with alternating red and white strips showing in it: the band of stripes move as the film is wound, providing positive indication that the film is properly threaded onto the take spool and moving through the camera – another wonderful touch, and one whose utility will become even more apparent in another moment. Just to the right of that is a smaller, square window that shows red when the shutter is cocked; it returns to white when the shutter is tripped, something very rare on cameras of this type.
The bottom deck is graced with a traditional film rewind button (press this in to disengage the clutch prior to rewinding the film back into its cartridge at the end of a roll; it will pop back out again and the film counter will reset to zero once the back is opened). In the centre is a tripod socket, and just to the left of that is another really nice design touch: a spring loaded rectangular battery chamber door that requires no coin or other tool more sophisticated than a fingernail to open. Simply place your fingernail into the slot, slide it to the left and pull down to open. A tug on the clear plastic leader will slide the PX-625 type battery (or it’s equivalent) out for easy replacement. At last: a battery cover that doesn’t need a coin or screwdriver to unscrew, and no more unsightly scratches or mars to the finish when it slides out of the inadequate slot in the traditional circular screw in covers of
I’ve saved the most unique feature of this camera for last, and will now reveal the meaning behind the “QL” designation of these cameras: Q(uick) L(oading). The only camera of it’s kind at the time to have it, the GIII has a unique quick film loading feature that is both fast and positive. When you open the camera back and look to the right side, you’ll notice that the take up spool is covered by a metal plate, and the door only opens out 90 degrees from the closed position. Place your film cartridge in the left side chamber as usual, gently push the door further open to a 180 degree position, and an odd looking take up spool with strange looking, spring loaded lugs on the shaft will appear. Directly under this is a small bright orange rectangular index mark; stretch your film leader out across the lens chamber and lay it across the spool, with the end lined up at least half to 3/4 of the way across the orange index mark. Now return the film back to the 90 degree position, so that the metal plate is closed over the take up spool chamber (a nice little illustration plate secured to the inside of the back cover clearly shows the process involved). Look through the little cut out window in the left side of that metal plate and verify that the sprocket holes of the 35mm film are actually engaged by the teeth of the white plastic film advance spool. Close the door completely until it latches, and you’re set: simply wind the shutter and release it twice to advance the leader to a fresh piece of film (watch the red/white striped band in the film advance window discussed earlier to verify proper film advance) and you’ll be ready to take photographs. This was one of the most innovative features ever put in a 35mm camera, and the Canon was the only one like it in this regard.
In actual use, I find a lot to love about this camera: It’s slightly larger size makes for a comfortable and sure grip, and a slightly faster and more positive operation of the controls. The extra f-stop of speed, coupled with two more shutter speeds than many other cameras provided at the time makes it better to use in lower light situations, as does the extended ISO film speed selection range. The viewfinder is a joy to work with, although the addition of a shutter speed readout would have greatly improved operation. Focusing is faster than I would have thought possible by just the addition of the focusing lever. The QL feature is undeniably superb, as is the overall fit, finish and incredible attention to design details. It’s no wonder this camera was a favourite of working professionals and serious amateurs alike.
The G-III QL17 was made in both a brushed silver and a “professional” black finish; they turn up on eBay regularly in mint to excellent condition for between $60 and $120 for silver, while black ones routinely fetch $200 – $300 in the same condition. The matching Canolite D electronic flash unit is a highly recommended accessory, as is the special, made specifically for this model, Canon lens shade (it is uniquely designed to not intrude in the viewfinder area when attached, and will actually lay flat on a table.