Learning to Use a Rangefinder With the Canonet QL17 G-III

Learning to Use a Rangefinder With the Canonet QL17 G-III

2000 1125 Aidan Bell

As I entered my second year of shooting film, I wanted to find a new way to spice up the experience. Naturally, I did what any normal photographer does to fill the camera-shaped void in their life: buy another camera. I began searching the treacherous internet for a new toy. Nearly all of my images until now were made with SLRs, both in 35mm and medium format. It felt like a good time to spread my wings and try a different type of camera. And that meant trying a rangefinder.

Since all of my two years’ experience was had using an SLR, the prospect of using a rangefinder was initially intimidating. I was already nervous with the idea of leaving my single lens reflex comfort zone, and the staggering abundance of choice in the rangefinder segment didn’t make things any easier. I had to pick a specific model from amongst the hundreds. Countless YouTube videos, blog entries and Instagram feeds later, I at least knew that I wanted the most bang-for-your-buck rangefinder companion. Something small, inexpensive, and capable.

While browsing for my new old camera, I found a Canon Canonet QL17 G-III being sold for $80. I learned as much as I could about the camera, including from our 2014 review of the camera’s first iteration, and was impressed with its moniker as the “poor man’s Leica.” And after learning that my friend was the one selling the listing I found (quite the coincidence), I paid the $80 and my search was over. 

It didn’t take long for the camera to make an impression. Only moments after first picking it up, I started to realize why so many people love this camera. 

What’s in a Name? What’s Under the Hood?

My initial impressions were based solely on the camera’s build quality. In my first walk-around with the camera, I was quite impressed with how much of a punch this thing packed. I didn’t expect it to feel so nice to hold, especially with its focus ring on the left of its non-detachable, fixed 40mm lens. 

So what’s in a name? I learned that the QL comes from the Canonet’s “quick-loading system” that makes loading film as foolproof as possible, and that the 17 indicates the 40mm lens’ maximum aperture of f/1.7. Finally, the G-III indicates that this is the third version of the QL17. While The QL17 G-III looks almost identical to the previous model, the new version offers a battery test light, a stronger rewind lever, and, as claimed at the time of release by Canon, a general “improved quality.” 

Initial impressions and name etymology completed, I loaded a roll of Cinestill BWXX and took the Canonet to a local park. Walking around, I immediately noticed the camera’s inconspicuous approach to taking photos.

As someone used to the slapping of the mirror in a reflex camera, the near silence of the Canonet and its leaf shutter amazed me. A leaf shutter has multiple metal blades that overlap each other, making a sort of spiral that opens and closes when the shutter button is pressed. Later I would use this to my advantage and shoot in situations where I normally wouldn’t with a louder camera.

The Canonet has two modes: shutter priority mode and manual mode. I was surprised that the battery powering the light meter was still working, and from what I was able to test, the light-meter was spot on. As such, the shutter priority mode was a truly pleasant experience. 

The mercury batteries intended for use in the Canonet have long been discontinued, but an alkaline battery with equivalent power is on the market. But because the reliability and accuracy of the meter with such batteries has a checkered reputation, I simply meter externally, which is something I normally do anyway.

The fastest speed that the camera shoots is 1/500th of a second, moving down in standard increments to 1/4th of a second, and there’s the customary bulb mode for long exposures. Its lens aperture closes to f/16 and opens to its namesake f/1.7. The camera even has a nice little self-timer built into the lens itself. Users will pull the lever back, which will be released when the shutter button is pressed, and fire the leaf-shutter when it reaches its original position.

The Canonet in the Wild

Earlier I mentioned the low profile of the camera and how I was excited to use that to my advantage. Well, that’s exactly what I did. I took the camera to my high school graduation and took pictures I probably wouldn’t have been able to take with a monstrous beast that wouldn’t fit comfortably under my gown. 

Later, I took it to a Philadelphia Phillies game where I was able to watch the game like any other fan, without the feeling of a heavy chain around my neck. At the same time, I felt like a sports photographer as I leaned over the fence next to the bullpen, snapping photos of the Phillies pitchers warming up. 

I brought the camera with me when I moved from Philadelphia to New York City, where I was prepared to show the Canonet some sights it had never before seen. Rangefinders, as I came to learn, were a New Yorker’s best friend as it offered quick, quiet snaps. On a trip to Washington Square Park I was able to photograph performers, musicians and artists without disturbing anyone. I also found that Washington Square Park is one of the most popular spots for photographers in NYC, and on that particular day I truly was a “poor man” amongst a sea of stealthy Leicas.

Rangefinder focusing was difficult at first as I adapted to using a rangefinder. But the Canonet made it easy with its technique of lining up what I like to call “the yellow ghost.” Soon enough, zone focusing became my friend and I learned the true capabilities of this fixed lens. After seeing the results from my first rolls, I felt that the Canonet’s 40mm could rival many of the SLR lenses I own.

The Canonet has become my best friend whenever I’m shooting street photography. For conceptual projects, I still reach for one of my medium format cameras. But I grab the Canonet when I want to tell stories of random people or random things around me.

My Canonet has proved to be an amazing camera and I’m grateful it fell into my lap so easily. With its solid build quality, form factor and the quality glass that’s fitted on the front, this tiny rangefinder holds its own against far more expensive cameras. Features like the quick loading are icing on the cake, and once I adjusted to shooting a rangefinder, using this camera now feels like second nature.

For those just started on their road to rangefinder mastery, the Canonet is a great place to start. It’s a fantastic camera to have in your camera bag and it will have a place in mine until the day it falls apart.

Get your own Canonet QL17 GIII on eBay here!


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Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell
22 comments
  • Excellent homage to a worthy camera. And great photos! What stock color film did you use? I am constantly impressed with the images my Canonet makes.

    • This looks like Cinestill 800T to me, but I’m sure Aidan will chime in.

    • Thanks William! For the shots in color, all featured were shot on either Cinestill 800T or Kodak Gold 200! Probably two of my favorites next to Portra 160.

  • The entire concept of “Casual Photophile’ is an oxymoron.
    What is the point of elevating ignorance to an art form?
    If you are going to shoot with film, you need to work harder and be a Formal Photofile. You might as well smear vaseline on a LOMO if all you want to do is make blurry dutch angle snapshots.
    The QL17 has a great superior lens, but your shots look like something out of a toddler camera. Film does not respond like a digital camera. Avoid high contrast compositions. Do not underexpose. Try shooting at f5.6 or smaller if you are wanting a sharp picture. Use a tripod and get better film to do justice to that lens if you want a sharp enlargement. This lens greatest attribute is at closest focus wide open for portraiture with an interesting highlight filled background. There is almost no other point to shoot this camera besides that, for me.
    The Canonet had several useful features in its day, but today are merely quaint idiosynchrosies. For example. no one cares that it will shoot high shutter speeds with a flash or that the flash used a highly accurate and easy GN flash exposure system when employing the proprietary flash. No one cares that it had a great advanced QL film loading system. It was packed with many features that made it attractive at the time, but the only reason to shoot it today is the price and the super f1.7 lens. The lens has the ability to make stunningly sharp landscapes and compelling soul-filled portraits, but not when wielded like a LOMO and the ‘live life without a plan’ philosophy.

    • Hi John. Thanks for your opinion, truly. I think you’re misunderstanding the name of the site, however. Casual Photophile was founded by me as a response to a relative scarcity of welcoming and encouraging discourse in the photography community. I had spent years on forums and other sites trying to learn about photography, learn about cameras, and see other peoples’ photos, and throughout that time I was consistently struck by how grumpy and judgemental the photographers in those places were to anyone who was new, anyone who tried to do something different from the usual, established norms of sharp landscapes, bokeh portraits, naked models, etc. There was a massive amount of gatekeeping and discouraging stuff being spouted by supposed know-it-alls, and I hated it. It made me not want to talk about or share my photography.

      So I started this site and named it Casual Photophile with the vague idea that it would be a place where people can be welcome, can learn about cameras and how to use them in a way that was not overly technical or intimidating. For the last seven years I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.

      At the same time, I do acknowledge that some people simply love making super sharp, by the book landscape shots, the perfect out of focus background, and metering EXACTLY correctly. This is why we have many, many articles on technique by people who really care about the nuance of shadow detail and darkroom technique. There’s a whole series on how to meter, shoot, and print like Ansel Adams. And in my review of the Canonet I mentioned all of the features that you mentioned, if that gives us a little more credibility in your eyes. We also have thorough articles on the Canonet 28, and another on the Canonet series as a whole, all of which have some nice photos to accompany them.

      All of that said, Aidan’s shots here may not be to your taste. Some of them aren’t to my taste. Some of them are missed focus shots and some of them aren’t perfectly exposed. The point of the article is to encourage people who maybe have never used a rangefinder to try to use one and see if they like it. These new rangefinder shooters WILL MISS FOCUS. And they’ll make imperfect shots. We publish those here when applicable to let people know that nobody is perfect, and that no one nails every photo. It’s okay to screw up, and it’s okay to shoot Cinestill 800T in broad daylight simply because you like the “look.”

      And I would also say that some of Aidan’s shots here have a definite look. They’re sort of banal subjects shot with unusual framing and unusual light. At first you could say they’re done with a toddler camera (whatever that means), but if you take a closer look you might just see something new, or something evocative of other photographers who made “ART” out of unspectacular photos of everyday life.

      Anyway, I hope you like the site and find something useful here. We have thousands of articles from hundreds of photographers and a core team of repeat writers. Surely there’s something you’ll like on Casual Photophile.

      • Amen, James. It’s been said before, but your site fills a gap in what could be called a horror trove of an online landscape. CP is one of my favorite resources out there, and I hope you and your team keep doing what you’re doing. And thanks Aidan for the great article and photos today.

      • Yes! Long time reader, first time commenter — Casual Photophile always has a thorough-yet-approachable style that makes anybody feel welcome to shoot film (even if they don’t have a Leica M6) and which lets it stand out amongst the various photography pages. The only downside is the camera reviews are so good I’m constantly scheming about how to shoot with everything that comes across the site.

      • Bravo. Well said.

      • Great reply James, and that’s why I like Casual Photophile so much, for it’s diversity of opinions about photography and styles, the open mind of everyone and some of the best storytelling articles I read about photography 🙂

        Keep on the great work James and thanks to the whole CP crew of talented writers for being so passionated about analog photography!

    • (a) Quit being a gatekeeping jerk.

      (b) There are many reasons to shoot film instead of (or in addition to) digital. Many of those reasons do not require one to be a Formal Photophile. You may not see any point to doing it another way; but we’re not required to agree with you.

      (c) It takes a lot of guts to expose your photos taken with a new type of camera to the view of the online world. Responding to that by jumping up and down on the kid and telling him all the ways he did it wrong is a dick move and doesn’t accomplish anything anyway but make you feel all superior. (Toddler camera? Seriously?) The only way to learn something new and challenging like film photography is to do it, make mistakes, and learn from them. To go off all insulting when someone tries something new and doesn’t do it perfectly is to miss the damn point.

      (d) You may not see a point in shooting a fixed-lens rangefinder w/a fast normal lens for reasons other than “at closest focus wide open for portraiture with an interesting highlight filled background”–ok, congratulations, so what? That’s your take; and it’s a perfectly valid one. But phrasing it as if it’s some universal law that the piece transgressed by doing it differently? To hell with that. And pictures taken with a camera can be interesting, well-done, and worthwhile whether or not they’re making full use of the camera’s capabilities anyway.

      (e) Quit being a gatekeeping jerk.

    • Aiden, loved reading your perspective! Thank you for adding to the photographic community and not trashing it.

    • lots of replies here sum up why this comment is not in the spirit of the site. i’d like to add that Canon was clearly not intending to design a camera that is only good for closeup, backlit portraits and tripod landscape photography. it’s very clear that the design of the camera is for this type of photography. and there’s no point in suggesting any limitation on how a tool could be used, especially as far as personal art is concerned.

    • John here’s a little advice for you, bless your heart: There’s no need to be so damn rude. When offering somebody a critical opinion one can do it in a lighthearted way, note that you mean well, be self effacing, and or add something positive as well. It’s not that hard. Aidan is young and has his whole life to learn about photography and everything else. I predict he has a great future and if he chooses to stick with photography and/or writing he is already ahead of the game. As for you, even one who is not so old can make some needed improvements.

  • Gorgeous shots, Aiden. I love slice-of-life photography, and I think you’ve captured the atmosphere in each image really well. I’m not a rangefinder fan personally, being much more at home with SLRs. But this article is making me wonder…

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach June 16, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    Great read and great shots. Late last year I was itching to get a fixed lens rangefinder for pretty much the exact same reasons, and happened upon a Canonet QL17 almost by accident, and what a great little camera it is. Small enough that you can carry it under a jacket or coat without drawing any attention to yourself, but with a full set of features, great lens and perfect focal distance for everyday and street shooting. It’s easily become my favorite walkaround camera and a perfect companion to my FM3a!

  • Great review and great advice.
    I have found a Canonet QL 17 III with an original battery and with a working metter … for … 40 dollars … I have used this camera with Ektachrome 100 G, I was impress by the results. I have sold it, with a package of others cameras to buy the incredible worst Leica M7 (Sorry, all my Leica, this is the worst), sniff, sniff, sniff, I have made a mistake I must keep it. I have replaced it with an other brand which has an equivalent lens but a smaller viewfinder. This camera can really replace a Leica M. The 40 mm lens is a perfect balance enter 35mm and 50 mm. I am agree for someone who want to start on the great world of RF, this is a great camera. Do not stick to find one with a working meter, … just check shooter speeds, and lens (no fungus or haze, or a little), maybe change the seals. Black one’s are expensive now, but are very beautiful.
    This is a camera to own for sure !
    I really loce this website because this is a place where we can speak freely … in this world, we must enjoy!

  • wow beautiful article with some gorgeous photos!!

  • Wouter Willemse June 21, 2021 at 5:42 am

    The camera in the images doesn’t look like it’s a G-III model, actually. It looks the 2nd generation QL17, which has the same optics as the G-III (the first generation has a 45mm lens). That second generation is (in my view), the sweet spot in terms of price: the GIII badge on the front adds costs, and no features worth having.
    It is an awefully nice camera, but somehow I never fully fell for it: https://www.ww-web.nl/a-blast-almost/.

  • Love these shots – they are memories! Great stuff Aiden.

  • My QL17 III does a great job, offering good bang for the buck. Kudos to Casual Photofile for recognizing its value. At the same time, though, I must admit to being disappointed by most of the photos above, which seem soft and off-color. But that’s probably due to the film, not the camera. Since most readers judge lens quality by sharpness, how about using a more familiar film when testing cameras? I’ve learned a lot from this excellent site, so please accept this as constructive criticism.

  • I loved this review! I was wondering what are your shooting settings for this camera. I own one and I’ve always wanted to get that bokeh in my pics, or just sharper ones. Thank u!

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Aidan Bell

Aidan Bell joined the CP team in 2020. He is a photographer located in Philadelphia, PA. When not making short films or digital portraits, he writes short stories for himself or shoots unique, conceptual film photography for his Instagram account, @bellboyphotos. He studies Film in NYC and is planning to pursue a career in film production or journalism.

All stories by:Aidan Bell