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.
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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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.