As objective as we are when reviewing unfamiliar cameras, our biases show when it comes to the cameras that remain with us permanently. My FD mount Canons have always been my benchmark, the cameras I keep coming back to. For Josh, it’s different; his forever system is Nikon’s F3 and their Nikkor lenses. Neither of us has spent much time with the opposite system. And so the swap was born.
The idea was that we’d each grab our favorite camera from our favorite brand and shove it into the hands of the other. I would ship my favorite Canon, the original F-1, and a handful of lenses to Josh in Los Angeles, and he would send his Nikon F3 and some lovely Nikkor glass to me in New York. We’d shoot one another’s camera for a month or so, see what happens, and write about our experiences. For added fun, we’d not share our thoughts with each other until the article posts.
Believe me, we’re as in the dark about what’s coming as you are.
Josh Shoots the Canon
I’ll be frank – Canon is my least favorite camera brand. I generally avoid writing about their cameras, and when I do it’s often in less-than-glowing terms. Readers of the site might chalk this up to my well-documented Nikon fanboyism. But I’m not so sure that’s the answer. Nikonian tribalism notwithstanding, I’ve found myself enjoying all sorts of machines from Rollei, Pentax, Minolta, and even Leica. I’ve just never truly enjoyed shooting a Canon. They work fine, but they’re just so dull.
That said, there was always one Canon camera which threatened to put my foolish prejudices to shame, and that was the professional-grade F-1. The F-1 always seemed to be the ace-in-the-hole for Canon fans, the one camera from the brand that could hang with the Nikon F-series and Leica M-series as a one-and-done pro-spec manual focus camera. So when Chris sent me his Canon F-1 with an incredible collection of FD lenses and accessories in exchange for my Nikon F3 setup, I was ready to be converted.
Out of the box the F-1 looked promising. The overall design is clean, and it feels just as solid in the hand as other all-mechanical pro bodies of the day. It’s got a meter built into the body (as opposed to the prism head a la the Nikon F) and a sliding interchangeable prism system, a configuration that seems to have been inspired by another great mechanical camera that I happen to love, the Topcon RE Super. Having used both, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to say that the Canon F-1 is a lot like an updated version of the RE Super, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
As a shooter, the F-1 performs admirably. Its light meter is accurate, its shutter is reliable (and free of the spectra of that annoying Canon squeal), and its controls are intuitive and placed well enough to be comfortable for experienced shooters. Apart from the slightly stiff shutter dial characteristic of Chris’ F-1, I have absolutely no complaints about the camera’s ergonomics. So far, so good.
The F-1 also boasts a good range of lenses, all of which perform well. Chris curated a stellar array of lenses for me to use, which included Canon’s FD SSC 50mm f/1.4, the Canon FD 24-35mm f/3.5L, and the Canon FD 200mm f/2.8. a kit of lenses that could conceivably handle any and all shooting scenarios. And for my purposes these lenses performed well, the FD 200m f/2.8 in particular being a real pleasure to use. As a big a fan of Nikon optics, I have to admit that these Canon lenses made the grade.
All in all, the Canon F-1 is a perfectly good camera. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. But that’s precisely where I start to have issues with the F-1 and vintage Canon in general; there’s nothing wrong with the camera, sure, but there’s nothing amazing about it either.
Canon’s brand of unsparing utilitarianism is both the F-1’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Its focus on functionality came at the cost of build quality and attention to detail. The black enamel finish is just okay, the viewfinder is mind-numbingly functional, and the shutter stroke and film advance lever feel painfully lackluster. It just seems like a by-the-book SLR camera. But where’s the stylish red-stripe? Where’s the design quirks born from the mind of an Italian? Where’s the soul?
Overall, the F-1 just feels good enough, which frankly isn’t good enough when your competition includes cameras like the Nikon F2, with its professional robustness, and the Minolta XK, with its personality and unique control system.
The F-1’s unglamorous and rather modern functionality means that it doesn’t have the charm that vintage mechanical cameras often possess; the special something that’s essential to the experience of shooting obsolete cameras in the digital age. This charm is present in just about every other mechanical camera I’ve ever shot, from the ratcheting of the ball-bearing shutter in the Nikon FM to the elegant density of the Pentax SV or the incredible compactness of Maitani’s masterpiece the OM1. Even many later electronic cameras offer some kind of magic or eccentricity, including my F3, which I began to miss more potently the longer I shot the F-1.
But is it just blind fanboyism that makes me so averse to the F-1 and Canon cameras at large? Is it the snobbishness that comes with shooting and reviewing cameras every week, for years? Or is vintage Canon really just that boring? I don’t know. All I know is that Canon and I still don’t mix. And I think i’ll leave it at that.
Chris shoots the Nikon
Perhaps fanboy is too strong a word. More accurately, I’m Casual Photophile’s resident Canon apologist. The staid and capable cameras of Canon are easy to overlook in the face of more evocative machines from Olympus, Pentax and Nikon, and if left to their own devices I suspect most of the Casual Photophile staff would place a model from one of these brands at or near the top of their list of perfect day to day cameras. Few Canons, if any, are likely to be in contention.
For decades Nikon has made capable, rugged cameras that quickly became the choice of professionals almost as soon as the modern SLR era dawned in the late 1950s. Nikon’s optics have appeared in the hands of countless professional photographers, in the massive rangefinders of the battleships Yamato and Musashi, and virtually anywhere else precision optics are required. Personal experience says it might be best to stay away from their eyeglasses, however.
Canon even owes some thanks to Nikon. One of the first Canon cameras, a rangefinder known as the Hansa Canon, was made in conjunction with Nippon Kogaku Kogyo (the brand that would come to be known as Nikon). Nippon Kogaku Kogyo made the 50mm f/3.5 lens that originally shipped with the Hansa Canon. Without Nikon, it’s likely that Canon as we know it would not exist.
I have no reason to knock the F3. I haven’t avoided Nikons out of contempt, just out of convenience. And who am I to bash the F3? This is one of the most beloved film SLRs. Knocking it too harshly would be like trying to tear down Goodfellas or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You may have some valid criticism, but flying too brazenly in the face of critical consensus more likely suggests that you missed the point.
That said, I really wanted to hate the F3. I desperately wanted to put a roll through the F3, and text Josh completely self-assured in my own superiority. “Josh, how in god’s name do you shoot this thing? This 100% coverage viewfinder makes accurate framing completely impossible. The controls are made for people with tentacles for fingers. What is the deal?”
When I took it out of the box in the kitchen of my apartment, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case. Giugiaro’s angular design has aged as well as the Lotus Esprit or the Volkswagen Scirocco he penned earlier in the 1970s. In hand the camera feels substantial and elegant in a way that the Canon New F-1 simply does not.
In use, the F3 does precisely what I ask of it. Setting exposure is swift. In most lighting conditions the small windows at the top of the viewfinder work beautifully, achieving the same thing as the A-1’s red LED readouts without spoiling your vision in the dark. The exposure compensation controls made me wish that the Canon was nearly as well laid out. The F3 gets out of the way and lets you work, which is all I really ask of a camera.
Josh sent me three lenses; a 50mm 1.8, a 35mm 2.8 and a pre-AI 105mm. I can’t find any serious faults with any of them, and the 35mm in particular I found especially enjoyable. I’ve never really bonded with FD mount 35mm primes (I don’t even own one at the moment), and this Nikkor was a treat. Vintage Canon 35s have always felt a bit harsh to me, and this Nikkor was the exact opposite. It was a buttery smooth treat to shoot with.
While I liked the lenses, the lens mount proved to be a cause of confusion with the F3. I’ve long admired Nikon for their adherence to effectively one lens mount since the 1950s, but I never appreciated how functionally clunky some of the middle steps in the mount’s evolution were.
For instance, why is the ring that reads the aperture value on the outside of the camera? Canon FD, especially in its early form, was not a functional masterpiece, but at least all the moving parts were inside the mount. This system clearly worked, and worked for a long time, but it’s a more cumbersome solution to communicating the aperture value to the camera than I’d prefer.
Most of my other quibbles with the F3 were ergonomic in nature. I’m pretty well-adjusted to my Canon F-1, which has fewer features than the F3 and as a result has a simpler control layout. The F3 felt quite busy by comparison, with three large buttons on the front face of the camera, and several nested and concentric controls that I didn’t particularly care for. Even the A-1, which functionally does more than the F3, has simpler controls. The rear door release lock was particularly annoying, and the lens release was unusually poorly placed. The oversized lens release is both in the way of your fingers and (in the case of Josh’s F3, which has a broken lens locking post) is little more than dead weight.
Despite all that, I did enjoy the F3 and I’m grateful that Josh sent me his. I don’t think I’ll be jumping ship to Nikon. Having a shot an extended test-drive didn’t so much confirm my biases as affirm that I’m not losing anything by staying with my current system.
James here. While our writers have clearly learned nothing and their fanboyism continues unchecked, I want to reiterate our commitment to unbiased and fair editorial content. And if you’d like to read about the best cameras ever made in the history of the universe, you can find all of our articles on Minolta here.