In 1971, a shooter looking for the best Canon camera had two choices: the top level F-1, and its little brother, the FTb QL. I own both, and the two cameras produce images that are indistinguishable from one another. Apart from integrated light meters, both are free of electronics, and can easily be shot without any electronic aids. Both take the same film, and both are fully compatible with the 134 different lenses of the Canon FD family, plus any number of third party lenses.
If I didn’t take notes, I’d have no idea which pictures came from which camera. Why then, are we bothering to compare them?
Put simply, it’s a matter of utility. 40 years on, it’s too easy to look at the top camera in a manufacturer’s range and say “well, that’s the best one.” In this case the price jump from the second-tier camera to the top tier camera is pretty reasonable, so your lizard brain wants you to climb right to the top of the food chain. But is that smart?
Becoming A Major Player
It’s hard to fathom now, but Canon was not always a go-to brand in the professional camera market. With the launch of the F, Nikon became the name to beat in professional grade SLRs. Nikon’s cameras were rugged, adaptable, reliable, and easy to use in a way that few preceding SLRs were. While Canon released quality products, such as the Canon P and 7, as well as their first SLR the Canonflex, they simply weren’t competing for the pro photog’s dollar. That top tier was occupied almost exclusively by Nikon and Pentax. This all began to change in 1964 with the launch of Canon’s new FL mount.
The FL mount system was a breech-style mount. Like Nikon’s bayonet mount, it allowed for fast, precise lens changes thanks to a silver locking ring. Most FL cameras offered TTL meters with a CDS cell, and stop-down metering. Pretty standard fare for the era, and functionally the cameras were pretty comparable to the Pentax Spotmatic. Capable, but not yet on Nikon’s level for professional shooters.
In 1971 Canon released their first truly pro-spec SLR, the F-1, and with it the FL mount evolved slightly to become the FD mount. The FD mount used an identical mounting ring to the earlier system, but allowed for open aperture metering using a small arm positioned inside the mount ring. This seemingly minor change to the lens construction showed remarkable foresight on the part of Canon engineers, as it would ultimately allow the lens aperture to be controlled by the camera body (a trick that wouldn’t be realized in a Canon SLR until the EF of 1973). For now, shooters were stuck deciding between the F-1 and FTb.
What’s the difference?
In many ways, the two are more alike than they are different. Both have unusually quiet and smooth horizontal shutters; titanium for the F-1 and rubberized silk for the FTb. Both have accurate CdS meters. Both have bright viewfinders. Both are rugged and dependable, and both use Canon’s excellent FD glass. The betting man would look at the lineup, see the F-1’s place at the top, and decide it’s the better of the two.
But right out of the box the FTb has several advantages over the F-1. The FTb is slightly smaller, slightly lighter, and has a built-in hot shoe positioned on top of the pentaprism. The F-1 gets by with PC sync and an easily lost accessory shoe which sits atop the rewinder. If you thought the Olympus OM-1 had an easy shoe to lose, at least that shoe screws in. The F-1’s shoe just clips on, and is about the size of three stacked quarters. It’s easy enough to lose in your bag, to say nothing of use in the field. The FTb gives up just one shutter speed to the F-1, with a maximum speed of 1/1000th rather than 1/2000th .
The F-1 does bring minor advantages – it affords the user a wider range of metering (up to ASA 3200 in late production F-1s vs ASA 1600 for the FTb). And as Canon’s first full-fledged camera system, it launched with a baffling array of accessories. Almost all were incompatible with any other camera then in the range, and were designed with a wide array of uses in mind. The number of available accessories is staggering, and when we’re loading up the F-1 with a bunch of gadgets, these can seriously differentiate the two cameras.
The F-1 had no less than four available prisms, numerous focusing screens which could be interchanged without tools, bulk backs, power winders, motor drives, and provisions for rudimentary automation, including shutter-priority or aperture priority shooting. The novel Booster T finder gave accurate metering down to EV -3.5.
Canon targeted sports shooters with the F-1. In the mid-1980s, the middle of the product cycle for the new F-1, Canon became a major sponsor of Williams F1, and used the mustachioed visages of Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell to push their cameras and massive white FD L telephoto lenses. In the 1970s Canon even created a crazy 14FPS motor drive system for photographers at the Olympics. If you can find one of these, and decide you need it, say a quick prayer for your bank account.
Out in the field
Straight out of the box, the two cameras are almost identical. The F-1 is a bit thicker, and quite a bit heavier, but the two cameras share a common control layout. My personal FTb is a later production camera, and is finished in black to match the F-1. Earlier models were a more traditional two-tone silver with more stylized hardware.
The FTb has slightly softer detents on the shutter speed dial than the F-1, making it a bit easier to turn. The F-1 has a round eyecup mount, for which it can be annoying to find correct replacements. The FTb has a square eye cup, which is identical to the one used on modern Canons. Seriously, a removable rubber eyecup from a Canon EOS will snap right on to the FTb.
The FTb also has Canon’s novel “Quick Load” system. Like the Canonet, the QL system allows film to be loaded very quickly, without needing to thread the leader in to the spool. In the FTb(and the preceding FT QL), the system actually works better than it does in the Canonet because the camera is physically larger, and the film wants to lay flatter. I’ve had my FTb for many years, and I’ve loaded film incorrectly exactly one time. The system is almost fool proof, and that one mistake proved that I am a better than average fool.
Once you hold the F-1 to your eye, it starts to become clear where the extra money went during development. The F-1’s standard pentaprism viewfinder is no larger than the FTb’s, but it is brighter. The titanium shutter in the F-1 is substantially quieter than the rubberized silk shutter in its lower-priced sibling. Both shutters are very smooth, and I’ve never had an issue with mirror shake during long exposures with either camera.
Forty years on, most of the available accessories are seriously rare, and can carry a hefty price tag, or an equally heavy weight penalty. If you want a motor drive, prepare to add not only the weight of the drive, but twelve AA batteries to the already hefty camera. Some of the finders are also extremely rare, and can be substantially pricier than a nice F-1 body and a good CLA combined.
Part of the reason I bought an F-1 is because I wear glasses. The addition of Canon’s “Speed Finder” prism for the F-1 was a game changer for me. That little addition means I no longer need to worry about bumping my glasses with the camera, and focusing can be done accurately more than three inches from the finder. I can focus accurately with the camera just above ankle level without laying on the ground with this little clip-in piece.
Is there a winner?
If you aren’t already invested in the Canon FD system, but want to try it out, buy the FTb QL. Seriously, buy it today. If you already have another FD mount camera and want a backup, buy an FTb. It’s a wonderfully utilitarian camera, and combines everything that makes classic Canons great. It also avoids virtually all of the pitfalls that can make them annoying to own (I’m looking squarely at you, AE-1, AV-1 and AT-1).
Mount some of the brand’s excellent S.S.C. or L glass to the FTb, stockpile your favorite film, and you have a camera that will last a lifetime. While it isn’t classically beautiful like an OM-1 or a Nikon F, it is rugged, dependable, and incredibly easy to use.
The F-1 is a wonderful camera, and more capable in some ways than the FTb, but the added cost to buy doesn’t net better results or functionality. If you have some particular need met by one of its accessories or prefer a non-pentaprism finder, the F-1 is delightful. Like the FTb, it’s functional, tough and user-friendly. If you find a screaming deal on an F-1, snap it up, but for most shooters it isn’t worthwhile to seek out the F-1 over its little brother, especially if budget is a concern.
I’ve owned both for many years, and tend to use the two interchangeably. If I toss both in my bag, one isn’t the main or backup camera by default. Generally I’ll choose which one to use first based on which has the lens I need at the moment already mounted. That said, while writing this review I started scouring eBay for a second FTb. I did not look for another F-1.
Of course, more often than not one or the other of these cameras ends up in my bag as a backup for Canon’s very best SLR – the incomparable A-1.