Most of my old SLRs are from the 1970s and early 1980s and, as such, offer full through-the-lens metering and often aperture-priority autoexposure. I wanted to get grittier, more elemental, more raw. So I started scanning the auctions for SLRs from the 1960s. Not only are these beasts bigger and heavier than those that came later, they also lack some of the niceties we’ve come to take for granted. This camera has one (1) nod to convenience: a coupled light meter, center-weighted, that meters through the lens.
That was a big deal in 1966, when the FT QL was introduced. Competitor Pentax had pretty much blazed that trail in 1964 with its seminal Spotmatic, and all the other SLR makers rushed to keep up. But on these older cameras you had to stop down to activate the meter.
On most stop-down SLRs, you activate the meter by by moving a lever. On the FT QL, that’s the big lever right next to the lens – but before you use it, be sure to twist the ring on the lens marked with A (aperture) and M (manual) to A. When you move the lever, the camera activates (stops down to) the lens’s selected aperture. This dims the view and activates a needle inside the viewfinder. You set aperture and shutter speed such that the needle points at a “good exposure” mark. This snippet from the FT QL manual shows that mark is a circle, and that when exposure is good the needle is inside the circle. Bear in mind that this is a center-weighted meter, meaning that it meters the light at the very center of your frame. More modern meters read several points of light in the frame and do a little math to figure out the best exposure.
If your frame of reference is automatic everything on a camera, or even easy aperture-priority shooting (as it is for me), the stop-down process feels so slow. But in the mid-1960s, it was a big deal because it sped up shooting. And when you got to shooting, the FT QL was a well-specified camera and a fine choice. Its cloth shutter operated from 1/1000 to 1 second, and could sync with an electronic flash at 1/60 sec. You could also lock the mirror in the up position, which was necessary when using wide-angle lenses which intruded deeply inside the camera body.
The FT QL features Canon’s FL lens mount, which had been introduced a couple years earlier. New FT QLs could be had with 50mm lenses at either f/1.8 or f/1.4. My FT QL came with the 50mm f/1.8 lens.
Additionally, the FT QL boasted Canon’s quick-loading system, which explains the QL part of this camera’s name. You lay the film’s leader across the camera until it reaches a red mark on the body, and close the door. There’s no pesky threading of the film into the takeup spool. Unfortunately, I seem to be incapable of using this system properly. Just as I screwed it up on my quick-load-equipped Canonet QL17 G-III, I screwed it up here, too. I dropped in a 24-exposure roll of film and clicked away happily, not knowing that the film wasn’t advancing. I figured it out when I noticed that the frame counter atop the camera read 30. Argh!
I pulled the film out a little farther, shut the door, and felt a little more resistance when I pulled the winder. Success! And so I got busy shooting, using good old Fujicolor 200. I’d also dropped in a Wein cell 625 battery to power the meter.
After I got the film wound right and shot a few photos I took the lens off the camera to look it over. I’m glad I did, because I found a hazy fungus creeping across one of the elements. Poor little thing. The photo below is from when I was about to go on eBay to find a replacement lens. Another f/1.8 appeared in my mailbox about a week later for about $20 shipped. Considering that I spent $45 on the camera, I invested a little more than my usual $50 limit this time.
And then I wasn’t very impressed with the lens. Many of my images came back very soft; Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask helped them all along. And when I shot the lens at or near wide open, I got a little weird darkening on the right side of the photo. Both happened in this early-morning photograph of my elementary school in South Bend. After sharpening it up, I cropped out most of the edge darkening.
The lens performed a lot better from f/4 on down. The petals on these lilies did blow out a little bit, though.
Here’s a wider shot of my front yard. We couldn’t catch a sunny day here in Indiana while I had film in this camera.
Out for a drive on another gray morning I stopped by Sycamore Row on the old Michigan Road. This original alignment is lined with sycamore trees. This section of state highway was bypassed and abandoned in the 1980s, much to the relief of drivers, who reported harrowing experiences in here encountering oncoming trucks.
Here’s one of the sycamores overlooking a cornfield. There’s lots of corn in Indiana!
I made a couple of trips to the Indianapolis Museum of Art with the FT QL. The first trip happened before I discovered the fungus on the lens. This photo doesn’t seem to suffer any, though. I even got a little bokeh here, and it’s pretty pleasing.
This photo, from the same statue, is from the second trip using the clean lens I bought.
I had my best luck with this camera on that second trip to the IMA. I was near the end of the roll, which tells me that I was finally getting comfortable using it. In contrast, I felt comfortable using my Minolta XG 1 after about the second frame, thanks to its easy aperture-priority shooting. If you want to see more from this roll, check out my Canon FT QL gallery on Flickr.
I have mixed feelings about my FT QL. It’s clearly very well made and heavy, but that made it fatiguing to wear around the neck. I wasn’t happy with the f/1.8 lens when it was wide open. But shooting the FT QL brought me plenty of zen moments as I had to take my time to get the exposure right. It reminded me of using my Yashica-D recently – the time it took to frame, meter, set exposure, and finally press the shutter button gave me a moment to take in the sounds, smells, and scenes around me. Cameras with less automation simply give you a moment to connect with your surroundings. I’m not likely soon to forget the few minutes I spent at Sycamore Row, for example – the morning air was cool and damp and a few birds chirped and fluttered among the trees. Any time photography can help me connect with my world, it’s a great thing.
Do you like old cameras?
Check out the rest of my collection!