The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Canon’s Camera Systems

The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Canon’s Camera Systems

2400 1350 Chris Cushing

Talking about the best Canon film cameras isn’t easy. The brand has a long history. But everything changed in 1987. That’s when Canon introduced EOS, their first dedicated autofocus system, a move that in one fell swoop made decades of FD and FL mount lenses obsolete. For EOS shooters this is terrific news. New lenses for your film EOS bodies can be purchased new-in-box with a warranty from B&H, Amazon, and virtually anywhere Canon lenses are sold.

For those of us soldiering on with older Canon systems the story is a little different. FD died long before the age of the internet, and FL died when most people still had five-digit phone numbers. Before that Canon made cameras and lenses with the long-lived Leica Thread Mount, some of which are reportedly the best ever made for that archaic mount. 

Across these three major mounts and systems, deciding on a camera or lens can be a challenge. Fortunately, we’ve compiled a list of the greatest Canon film cameras for your viewing pleasure. 

Best Professional Film Camera – Canon F-1 and T-90

Some vintage camera fans have a pretty substantial distrust of anything electronic. Most camera electronics cannot be repaired with a screwdriver and magnifying glass, and an electronic failure can mean turning a previously valuable camera into a brick. I acknowledge that I often share this bias, and the bevy of all-mechanical cameras in my personal stash seems to support this. 

That said, the original Canon F-1 is the finest pro-level camera produced by Canon in the pre-EOS era. The original F-1 (and the lightly revised F-1n) are simple, rugged, and heavily configurable. Josh described the original F-1 as something like an updated Topcon RE Super, which is not a bad thing in the least. 

The T-90 is something else entirely. It’s wholly electronic, and as far as user interface is concerned it is very much a modern camera. It shares its layout and modes with the first generation of EOS cameras, but instead uses the classic manual-focus FD mount. It offers several metering modes (spot, center weighted average, and partial area metering), eight exposure modes, and an integrated motor drive. For EOS users this is the best FD mount camera with the least difficult learning curve. 

Best Enthusiast Film Camera – Canon A-1 

James has recommended the A-1 over the AE-1 and AE-1 Program before, and I wholly support that viewpoint. The A-1’s feature set leaves the AE-1 in the dust, and still offers additional functionality over the AE-1 Program. 

The viewfinder is bright, shutter speeds are displayed with a simple red digital display, and modes can be easily switched without ever taking your eye off the viewfinder. Couple the A-1 to a power winder and continuous shooting is a breeze. 

Of course, it’s not perfect. Like the other A-series cameras the A-1 has a plastic body. Though it offers a reasonable facsimile of metal (and a brassy coating is visible under the black paint), it lacks the feeling of density and real quality found in F-series Canons. That said, having dropped a few myself that apparent lack of heft doesn’t count for much. Apart from a flimsy battery door, these are seriously tough cameras that take their tumbles in stride.

One undeniable benefit of all that plastic is a noticeable reduction in weight. The A-1 is no flyweight, but it is noticeably easier on the back and neck than the all-brass F-series cameras like the FTb and F-1. 

Best Interchangeable Lens Rangefinders – Canon P and VI

Canon is a stubborn brand. They kept at it with Leica Thread Mount longer than virtually anyone outside of Russia. While early Canon LTM rangefinders were primitive Leica copies, the last few models saw Canon come into their own to combine updated ergonomics and improved user experience with the venerable mount. 

The Canon P and Canon VI come very near the end of Canon’s LTM production, only the 7 outlasted this pair. The P and VI are similar, with angular bodies, large viewfinders, and a similar control layout on the top plate. Where they differ is in viewfinder magnification (like some of Leica’s M variants) and film advance methodology. 

The P has a 1:1 viewfinder with fixed framelines for 35mm, 50mm and 100mm lenses. The finder is large and bright, but the lack of magnification makes it hard for users with glasses to see the 35mm lines. The VI has switchable framelines and switchable magnification, and pairs 35mm framelines with 0.65x magnification, 50mm framelines with 1:1 magnification, and offers 1.55x magnification for use with telephotos. 

Where the P and VI-L came with traditional thumb advance levers, the VI-T did not. The VI-T features a bottom-mounted trigger advance similar to the Rapidwinder available for Leica M-Mount cameras.

Collector’s Choice – Canon 7sZ

The final Canon LTM rangefinder may also be the most advanced LTM camera built until Voigtlander launched the Bessa R in 1999. Derived from the 7s, the 7s Version II (popularly known as the 7sZ) replaces the selenium meter used in earlier 7 models with a CDS metering cell mounted in the top plate. 

Due to the lateness of its launch the 7sZ was produced in extremely small numbers. Bear in mind that the Nikon F launched in 1959, bringing SLR photography to professionals, and the Pentax Spotmatic launched in 1964, bringing easy SLR photography to the masses. When the 7sZ launched in 1967 it was clear that the era of the LTM rangefinder was over. Just 4,000 were produced. 

Like all 7 variants the sZ features an external bayonet mount outboard of the primary central lens mount. This addition allows the fitment of Canon’s 50mm f/0.95 “Dream” lens, the brand’s fastest ever standard lens.

Though rare, these are extremely user-friendly cameras thanks to their CDS meters and reliable steel curtain shutters. If you can find one, service it and use it regularly; you won’t regret it.

Essential Lenses

Fortunately for shooters, the earlier manual focus Canon lenses tend to be relatively cheap compared to equivalent Nikon F-Mount and Pentax K-Mount lenses due to the lack of forward-compatibility with newer autofocus Canon bodies. The range of lenses in both mounts is extremely broad, covering focal lengths from 7.5mm circular fisheye to the gargantuan 1200mm telephoto.

At the lower-cost end of the scale, the 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 are excellent starter lenses. These were the most common kit lenses sold new with FD-mount bodies and can often be found still attached to used FD mount cameras. For most photographic situations these remain handy utility lenses. 

While the standard series of lenses offer strong performance at a reasonable price, the L lenses are the standouts of the range. Lenses like the 24mm f/1.4L, 85mm f/1.2L, 200mm f/1.8L, and 300mm f/2.8L are among the fastest and most sophisticated offered in any classic manual focus mount. Even the zoom lenses of the range, like the 24-35mm and 20-35mm f/3.5L, and the 50-300mm f/4.5L avoid the pitfalls of poor optical performance which often plague classic zoom lenses. 

FL mount lenses work with FD mount cameras, albeit solely in stop-down metering mode due to the lack of aperture control arm integrated into the lens body. Unless you really want to shoot an FL mount camera, such as a Pellix, I generally find little cause to recommend the older lenses over their FD mount descendants due to the inferior coatings and lack of open-aperture metering. 

For LTM users the story is quite different, as the broad compatibility of the mount allows shooters to pair their Canon film camera to quality lenses from any maker, including the wonderful lenses made by Leitz and Voigtlander. When choosing a Canon LTM lens, it’s typically best to find the newest variant of a given focal length as Canon continually updated their lenses. The 35mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.4 are reportedly among the best lenses for their given focal length in LTM.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
  • Have you been reading my mail? 🙂 Couldn’t agree more, I’ve went from VI-L, to A-1, to F1n, and then T90 & New F1.

  • I have been repairing and shooting Canon’s for a couple of years now. I usually bring the A-1 along for my film needs, I enjoy the AE-1 and AE-1P but the A-1 is the best of the bunch. Although, I have been tending back to the Olympus OM-1 as of late. Great write up as usual guys!

    • I choose any OM SLR over any equivalent Canon all the time, but I’d like to hear a reason from Canon user, if I may. Because if I hadn’t picked OM-1 before any other brand/model several years ago, I’d probably be shooting Nikon, Canon or Pentax now cause I would never go for Oly in that case.

  • I’m in pretty much 100% on this list. The Canon P led me to the Canon F-1 which led me to the Canon F-1n. Loving the pro Canons so much made me try the A-1. It’s a great camera too. The Canon TL series…eh. And I’ve not tried any of the newer Canons.

    • I have an F-1n and an A-1 as my two primary shooters- I don’t particularly care for the New F-1, as I don’t really like the modular approach to AE features. For my money the A-1 is a more “complete” camera than the New F-1 for my purposes.

      The lower spec Canons can be good as well. Apart from my Pentax Spotmatic my FTb QL is the camera I’ve had the longest. It’s very much like an original F-1 with no add-ons attached!

  • Your selections are right on the money. I have had or used all of the SLR cameras listed. I liked the F-1 and T-90. My only complaints were their size and weight and the noisy rewind on the T-90. I liked the handling of the A-1 somewhat better. If it had a mechanical backup shutter speed and a better manual mode, it would have been an almost perfect camera. (The T-90 was basically an A-1 with a redesigned body and a built-in motor drive.) I have to remind myself that Canon made some really nice cameras back in the day. Unfortunately, I never took to the EOS system. In their haste to become number one in market share, they left any passion for what they are doing in the dust. But that was not always so.

    • Armand- The T-90 is very intriguing, mostly for why you mentioned. It does get some updated metering modes that the A-1 does not, and the body is a bit less square. For people that use flash the T-90 is hands down the best FD mount camera for coupling with a flash system(or at least the simplest), as it was the first Canon with TTL flash metering.

      I happen to like the square FD mount cameras, and it sounds like you do as well.

  • I hope the next essentials article is about Olympus 🙂

  • I would vote for Olympus also for the next one. It is the system I always wish I had. I made up for it by using Olympus digital.

  • Why no mention of the Canon EF? Right up there with the Nikon FM or Pentax MX, the EF was solid brass, with shutter priority (not aperture priority), a Copal Square metal shutter, mirror lock up, self timer, and depth of field preview. Everything you need in an almost fully mechanical camera! Incidently, it was mechanical from 1/1000 down to 1/2, with slower speeds up 30 secs using two 357s. Yep, 30 SECONDS.

  • Along with Tim D, I also recommend the EF – 1973-78? I found my EF to be a battery eater so I’ve taken the batteries out and use it with a Gossen Sixtomat Digital. A smashing little meter, good clear display and runs on an AA battery that’s obtainable anywhere. I’ve started doing street photography with mine and a 50mm f1.8 BL FD lens.

  • I have used almost all FL and FD cameras in existence. The lack of Canon New F-1 at the top is disturbing. As for the amateur camera, the FTb is a better choice.Or the T70 which expands on the A1 while being cheaper out there.

    • Agreed. The F1N is a much more advanced camera than the F1, especially if motor drives are considered. Took all the best aspects of the F1 and A1, and fixed all of their irritating quirks. I much prefer shooting an F2 over the F1 (with motors attached it’s not even close) but I consider the F1N to be superior in handling, build quality, weathersealing, viewfinder layout, and features to the F3. It warranted a mention at least, no? (I love my A1 though, with all it’s idiosyncrasies, so no argument there!).

  • I just bought a Canon 7sZ on evil bay. I read that their viewfinder is an improvement over the older Canon 7 and reduces flare and ghosting around the rangefinder patch. Your thoughts?

  • Canon P, what a beauty!!

  • I looked for the Pentax Spotmatic review and did not find it. It´s the mother of Olympus OM1(it´s a feminine camera w/ it´s curved advance lever and gentle contours). C´mon: Pentax is more advanced in concept than Nikons. Who wants to replace finders these days? Who wants a heavy, boxish camera these days? Exactly.

  • Ever the contrarian, I avoided Nikon. My first Canon was a New F1n, bought new in 1982 and used semi-professionally for years, but with motor drive and long lenses it was heavy to lug around race tracks all day. When the T90 came out, I jumped on it: much lighter, built-in drive.Going digital in 2002 hurt: $$$ for new EOS bodies, lenses, and accessories, but it was worth it for publication use (no need for expensive color separations), and autofocus helped my fading eyes. Now I’m an old retired guy and have gone backward, to Canon’s historic rangefinders and LTM lenses, just for fun. Besides, I can’t afford to step into the Leica financial quagmire.

  • I’m clearly late to the party here, but my first 35mm camera (c1979 purchased in my local camera store!) was the Canon A-1/“new” FD 50mm f/1.4. I loved it. Still have it and added a couple lenses along the way. After reading this post I may look into adding an L lens, too. Went digital with the EOS 20D and then later with the EOS 5D Mark IV with a couple EF L lenses. I’ve been feeling nostalgic so a few years ago I got an EOS-1n film body and as I missed out on both the “new” F1 and EOS 3 film bodies I’m currently shopping.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing