Cameras, Photography

Canon FT QL

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.

Canon FT QL

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.

CanonFTQLViewfinderOn 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.

Canon FT QL

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.

Inside job

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.

James Monroe School

The lens performed a lot better from f/4 on down. The petals on these lilies did blow out a little bit, though.

Flowers in the yard

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.

Home

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.

At Sycamore Row

Here’s one of the sycamores overlooking a cornfield. There’s lots of corn in Indiana!

At Sycamore Row

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.

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art

This photo, from the same statue, is from the second trip using the clean lens I bought.

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art

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.

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art

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.

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18 thoughts on “Canon FT QL

  1. I have the FTB and right now it is one of my main cameras. I think the main difference between the FT and the FTB is the lens mount. I wonder if you FL 50 f/1.8 is a different design than the one they used on the FD version. I have found that one to be pretty good wide-open.

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    • The kinds of challenges I was getting with this lens make me wonder: was it attached properly to the camera? was the lens damaged in some non-visible way? Because I’ve never had a big-name lens that didn’t work good enough wide open and flawlessly at every f/stop below wide open.

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  2. RAM says:

    It’a easy to find a cheap but fungus-free lens in excellent condition to replace yours. It can be FL or FD (the latter an old breechlock mount or new mount).

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  3. Just grabbed this camera with a mix of Canon lenses on ebay. Thanks for the write up! I’m excited to get it in the mail soon :) I also really agree with your point about feeling ‘zen like’ when you use an older camera. I try to explain that to people when they ask why I like shooting film and trying out all these old cameras. It also teaches me to be patient and to really think about composition of a photo. Really great info! Thanks again!

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    • That’s for sure – these old manual cameras slow you down and give you space to think through your composition. I can’t tell you how many wasted shots I get with my digital camera because I don’t think! Good luck with your FT QL.

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  4. Bob says:

    Is there a digital camera body that will accept the lens from my old canon FT QL? I have a 1.2, a wide angle, and a 85-205 mm zoom. My cloth shutter has several pin holes in it and I get light spots.

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    • No DSR takes these lenses natively, but you can buy adapters for pretty much any major DSLR brand. Go to Amazon and search for “Canon FL lens mount adapter” and you’ll see. Bear in mind that your lenses will have a different apparent focal length than you are used to because the DSLR’s sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film. What I gather is that a 50mm lens is effectively a 75mm lens on a typical DSLR. Even with these adapters, I gather that these older lenses aren’t entirely plug and play. Honestly, if you want to shoot with your Canon lenses, I’d go look for a new compatible body on eBay. If you want a DSLR, go buy one and get new lenses for it.

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  5. — you wrote:

    Honestly, if you want to shoot with your Canon lenses, I’d go look for a new compatible body on eBay. If you want a DSLR, go buy one and get new lenses for it.

    — end of quote:

    i too have an FT QL with 58mm f/1.2, a 28mm wide angle, and a 400mm telephoto

    what’s a “compatible body” for these lenses?

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    • Your lenses are compatible with Canon FL-mount camera bodies. It turns out the list of those is short: Canon FX (1964), Canon FP (1964), Canon Pellix (1965), Canon FT QL (1966), Canon Pellix QL (1966), and Canon TL (1968). There might be adapters available for you to shoot those lenses on any number of other cameras, too. I see one on Amazon that lets you shoot FL lenses on EOS bodies.

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  6. James Taylor says:

    Thanks, Jim.

    — my FT QL body is still OK, and can be used with film

    re going Digital

    do you think it’s _worth it_ to get and adapter and an EOS body (on ebay? elsewhere?)

    if so, is there a chart that shows compatible or best choice EOS bodies for these lenses?

    i was advised that the Nikon D3100 and Canon EOS Rebel T3 were good choices if i wanted to move into the Digital SLR world

    right now i take all my photos with my iPhone 5s :-) i love conveneience & portability

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    • My advice remains: if you want to shoot a digital SLR, invest in lenses designed for it. If you want to shoot the lenses you have for your film SLR, just use that film SLR. You can buy adapters to make your film SLR lenses work on most digital SLRs, but I wouldn’t bother. It is probably more hassle than it is worth. Your DSLR won’t be able to autofocus those lenses, and might need to be metered in stop-down mode — a pain in the neck, both.

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      • James Taylor says:

        Gotcha!
        I’ll get a digital SLR — do you have any recommendations re the Nikon D3100, Canon EOS Rebel T3 or other under $600?

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        • I’d buy the Nikon. I like the D3100 because its two models discontinued (superseded by the D3200 and the D3300) but the specs aren’t much different from the newer models — and it can be picked up for a bargain, usually factory refurb. Check Adorama and B&H Photo online.

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  7. Pingback: Canon TLb | Down the Road

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