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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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.