We’re back with another installment of Desert Island Cameras, the recurring article in which we answer the question, “If you could only have one, which would it be?” In our quest to help you choose the very best from the most popular camera brands, we’ve taken on the near-impossible task of paring down and choosing just one camera and lens we’d be happy to have for the rest of our lives.
Last time we talked about Pentax with that company’s former President, Ned Bunnell. Today we’re focused on the camera company that put high quality SLRs into the hands of countless amateurs across the globe – it’s Canon. And here’s the Canon camera we’d each pick as our stuck-for-the-rest-of-our-lives camera.
Being asked to pick a desert island camera from the world’s largest camera manufacturer is like asking me to choose my favorite guitar player from the 1980s. It’s gonna be tough. Canon’s long history of camera wizardry and market dominance has left us with a seemingly bottomless selection from which to choose. I’ve owned many a Canon in my day, and while all of them have served me well as photographic tools, there is one that stands out in my mind as a desert island no-brainer; the mighty EOS-1v.
A solid, well-built, quasi-weather sealed, film pac-man of a machine, the EOS-1v is about as close to perfection as one can get in a 35mm professional body. It’s the only 35mm camera I’ve ever felt comfortable using for paid work, secure in the knowledge that pairing it with my L series glass will undoubtedly produce results I can be proud of. It’s captured multiple weddings, family events, and the birth of my third son. It’s traveled with me internationally, been bounced around camera bags and off of walls, and still performs as if it just rolled off the assembly line back in 2002.
The familiarity of the EOS platform has allowed me to switch back and forth between my digital EOS bodies without a second’s pause, and the ergonomics are truly best in class. It’s my only 35mm film body that I can shoot all day and not come home with hand cramps or sore biceps.
Want specs? It boasts a 45 point AF system and predictive AI servo mode that tracks moving subjects surprisingly well. And with the HS hand grip add-on, this film-munching mongrel will devour a roll of film in roughly 4 seconds flat. That’s right – 9 FPS. Boing! Couple that with a top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second, and you’re ready to shoot anything from sporting events to extreme bar mitzvahs.
Feature-rich film bodies have a limited audience nowadays, but if you’re someone who still shoots paid gigs on film, or if you’re an EOS digital shooter looking for a film body, or you simply want the most advanced 35mm camera ever made, the Canon EOS-1v is as good as it gets.
Canon was a nobody in the professional camera market prior to the release of the F-1, and their first effort is still their best. The F-1 exemplifies everything that’s special about a pro-level Canon; it’s durable, configurable, versatile, and just as handy in a bar fight as your average chair leg. This brick of a camera might not be Canon’s handsomest creation (that honor goes to either the P or the 7), but it is a functional delight.
The F-1’s high level of configurability allows it to be the perfect tool for nearly any job. Typically I use the camera with a power winder (the Winder F) and the swiveling Speed Finder. The latter permits me to shoot with my eye several inches from the finder, and makes shooting from very low or very high angles much simpler.
Of course, the F-1 is not perfect. There’s no hiding the fact that it’s extremely large and cumbersome when compared to machines like the Pentax LX and Olympus OM-1. It’s also substantially larger and heavier than the brand’s own excellent Canon A-1. But what it lacks in compactness it more than makes up in ruggedness, and since this desert island situation likely means I’ll need a camera that is as at least as useful for documenting my suffering as it capable of cracking open the occasional crab.
I don’t choose the F-1 easily. Indeed, I’ve already recommended the FTb over the F-1 on this very website, for many very good reasons. In most shooting situations the junior Canon is every inch the F-1’s equal, and it comes with a much smaller price-tag. But if we’re talking the rest of my life, if I’m forced to choose just one camera to be stuck with forever, I don’t intend to settle. I want a power winder and a titanium shutter.
Of all the Desert Island posts I’ve collaborated on, choosing my preferred Canon was the easiest. I often gripe about Canon being unimaginative with their product design, and I admit I don’t give the brand enough credit for their technological mastery. But in one shining moment they achieved both gorgeous style and ultimate capability with the Canon Canonet G-III QL17.
That’s a big name for a small camera, but don’t let the size of this compact little rangefinder fool you into thinking it’s a cheap and featureless machine. The GIII is so good it’s become known as the “poor man’s Leica.” Dubious nickname notwithstanding, the camera’s reputation is completely deserved.
The Canonet’s shutter-priority auto-exposure system ensures every exposure is accurate, and the meter reading displayed in the viewfinder shows which aperture is being used. It has a leaf-shutter-equipped 40mm f/1.7 lens that’s tack sharp. Focusing is fast and accurate with a short focus throw, and a contrasty focus patch sitting in a bright viewfinder. The shutter action is super quiet, and unlikely to startle any island wildlife. And even though it’s a petite camera, it brings a satisfying heft that lets you know that it’s not a toy (though it may not be quite strong enough for cracking coconuts).
The technical capability and build quality of the Canonet are in line with Canon’s brand, but for me, the Canonet is really special because it’s also a beautiful machine – something to gaze at as well as gaze through. And that’s a rare and wonderful thing when we’re talking about Canon.
I love serious machines, and that should come as no surprise. The cameras I keep for myself are often the ones that are complicated and impressive; cameras for people who like to disassemble and reassemble British twin-cylinder motorcycle motors, if you know what I mean.
That’s why I struggle with Canon. There’s no denying that they’re one of the most important camera manufacturers to ever exist, but at the same time, they’re a company that’s made nearly all of their money selling less-than-serious cameras. If Alpa is Rolex, Canon is Timex. The quartz watch costs less and is more accurate than the Rolex, but I know which one I’d want to wear.
Don’t get me wrong – the AE-1, the EOS lineup, and so many of Canon’s other cameras are amazing cameras capable of making fantastic photos. But they just lack that kind of unquantifiable feeling of old-world machinery that really makes me fall for a camera.
So which Canon would I choose if I could only have one? Something a bit odd; the Canon Demi. This half-frame camera is tiny, looks gorgeous, and allows 72 exposures to be shot on a 36 exposure roll of film. The 28mm f/2.8 lens is sharp enough on such a small frame (there’s also a faster version with a 30mm f/1.7), and its contoured, all-metal body just feels great in the hands. I love it for its uniqueness, and for the rare reaction it produces when I use it (a Canon camera that makes me feel something!).
And those are our picks. Pretty amazing machines. But what do you think? Was your favorite Canon passed over? Let us hear about it in the comments.
If you like this piece, check out the rest of our Desert Island Cameras series to see which camera we’d choose if we could only have one Leica, Pentax, Minolta, and more. And let us know which brand you’d like to see us tackle next.