As promised here, I am reporting back with my Canonet experience.
The Canonet is one of if not the most popular compact 35mm camera from the 1970’s. It was introduced in 1972 as the top of the line in Canon’s Canonet series of fast fixed-lens rangefinders. According to CameraQuest.com:
The G-III became a best seller with over 1.2 MILLION SOLD from 1972 to 1982 per the Canon web site. This probably makes the G-III the best selling 35mm rangefinder with built in meter OF ALL TIME.
What this translates to today is that you can find Canonets today in good condition and for a good price. The 70’s seem to have been a great time to find a fast, fixed lens rangefinder. Too bad I wasn’t born yet. Other notable cameras in this class are the Minolta 7sII (drool), the Olympus 35RC (very small), and the Yashica 35 Electro. I had been bidding on Minolta 7sII’s on eBay for a while, but the prices were just too steep for me. I have no doubt the 7sII would be worth it, but I knew there were other excellent rangefinders of a similar size and build for a lot less money. As often happens, once I stopped looking for a compact rangefinder, I found the Canonet at a thrift store for $30.
Rangefinder cameras are small, but they’re not as small as the latest digicam or cell-phone. If you can accept that the Canonet won’t fit in your pocket without an unsightly bulge, then you will notice that everything about the camera is just right. The 40mm f/1.7 is fast enough and wide enough without being too wide or too big. The size and weight of the camera body are perfect: heavy enough to feel solid, but not too heavy. Goldilocks would love the Canonet. Like all fully manual cameras, the controls include only the necessities: aperture, shutter speed, focus, shutter release, and film advance. The controls for aperture, shutter speed and focus are all positioned around the lens. There is a learning curve to figure out which doohickey controls which thingmajigger but once you do it’s very intuitive. The focus is manipulated via a lever and the aperture and shutter speeds are adjusted using rings around the lens with a distinctive feel so that you can tell them apart.
The camera can be used in shutter priority mode, but I can’t tell you anything about the metering because I’ve worked sans battery since my first attempt at replacing the dead mercury battery. A lot of cameras from the 70’s used batteries that are now illegal in the US because of their mercury content. There are a few options for replacing the battery but luckily only one of them involves smuggling poisonous batteries across the border inside of the unpleasant body cavity of your choosing. The option I attempted was ordering a zinc-air battery. Supposedly the voltage matches well enough but the battery life is not so good. My order never showed up, but by the time I noticed, I was already having too much fun using the camera in manual mode. There is something liberating about taking pictures without electricity that has to be experienced to be understood.
The “QL” in “QL17” stands for “quick load”. It’s hard to explain, but the film loading system in the Canonet is easier than even the most modern film camera. If you swear while trying to load film into the Canonet, then maybe film photography isn’t for you. The quick loading is a feature I could do without, but it’s undoubtedly nice to have.
The whole point of compact rangefinders is their portability and stealth. It’s stealth where the Canonet shines. It stands out a bit visually today since the chrome and black color scheme screams “vintage”, but it’s small enough that most people won’t even notice you have a camera. The real stealthiness lies in the shutter sound or the lack thereof. Yes, it’s louder than a digicam with the fake shutter sound turned off, but it doesn’t rely on a bright LCD screen on the back either. The leaf shutter in the Canonet is so quiet that you’ll often wonder if you took a picture at all. It’s a nice change from the cacophony happening over in SLR-land. The drawback of the leaf shutter is the relatively slow max shutter speed of 1/500s. You’ll need some pretty slow film if you want to venture into large aperture territory during the day.
The Canonet GIII QL17 is a great example of a compact rangefinder from the 1970’s. It’s probably not as cool or rare as some of the other offerings of that era, but rarity comes at a price. Canonets are relatively easy to find and I guarantee that you’ll be surprised by the build quality. The fantastic 40mm f/1.7 lens and small size are just icing on the cake. Sometimes I wonder if the time and money it takes to process film are really worth it, but it’s cameras like this one that keep me coming back.