Autumn at Lilly Lake Canon Canonet QL17 G-III Agfa Vista 200 2018
This photo was featured in Flickr Explore on November 19. It’s always fun to see all the likes and comments when one of my photos makes Explore.
I wonder how many Flickr viewers had any idea that I was shooting film? To know, they’d only have to click through to my image’s page and read the description.
Can an experienced eye guess that this is a film photograph? To me, the sky is the tell. It has a nuance to it that digital cameras seem unable to capture. They tend to render skies almost too perfectly, with wispy clouds against a sea of perfect azure.
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While I was looking for work I had a lot of coffee, lunch, and drinks appointments with people in my industry, as I tried to find opportunity. Even though this exhausts me — I am a pegging-the-meter introvert — I really love catching up with colleagues and getting to know people in my industry whom I hadn’t met yet. My appointments had me driving all over Indianapolis and its north suburbs, and I always brought a camera along. One of those cameras was my Canonet QL17 G-III. Agfa Vista 200 was inside.
I met the VP of Engineering of a well-known local startup one morning near his South Meridian Street office Downtown. This little sliver of Indianapolis’s main street has been isolated from the rest of Meridian Street thanks to resolving an awkward fork with another major street. It has allowed two blocks of charming old houses to remain.
Here’s where northbound Meridian Street ends, with its view of the Indianapolis skyline. The building at the photo’s center is Salesforce Tower, housing the largest employer of software people in Indiana. It was built in 1990 as Bank One Tower.
A little park stands where Meridian Street used to. After you cross through it you reach the Slippery Noodle Inn, Indiana’s oldest bar. This is its south wall.
Here’s a quick look down an alley, toward the old Union Station. A whole bunch of tracks run through Downtown, elevated since before anybody can remember.
Bird and Lime electric scooters litter Downtown’s streets. I rode one once. It was kind of fun, but not worth what it cost.
I strolled looking for interesting scenes to photograph. I forget where this scene is exactly, but it’s within a couple blocks of those scooters.
Same with this festive scene devoid of customers on this chilly, gray morning.
I know exactly where this restaurant is, however: on Meridian Street just north of the tracks. My wife and I come here from time to time, as we like fresh Guinness, Irish whiskey, shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips.
I made a point of walking the few blocks over to St. John the Evangelist Church to photograph this great door. Then I walked back to my car and drove to my next appointment.
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When I started collecting cameras again in 2006 I decided to specialize in fixed-lens rangefinders. I expected that in time I’d own one example of each of Canon’s extensive Canonet line, with the Canonet QL17 G-III as their centerpiece. I soon found a good deal on this one.
My Canonet had its faults. Leading the way was a wicked light leak from degraded seals, an common affliction with this camera. The shot below of my departed friend Gracie (on Fujicolor 200) shows my Canonet’s light leak in full bloom. After this I sealed the camera’s seams with electrical tape after loading film. Also, lower shutter speeds were suspect, the meter was probably a little off, and the ISO selector was stiff. Yet my Canonet always returned good images.
I adored this camera for several years. It easy to carry compared to the much larger and heavier fixed-lens rangefinders I had been buying and the controls all fell right to hand. I loved the sharp, detailed images the lens projected onto any film I threw at it. Here I used Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros.
I suspected I was going to want to keep this camera as part of Operation Thin the Herd, but not in its sickly condition. So I sent it out for CLA, and then put two rolls of Agfa Vista 200 through it. Wow, what a CLA will do for how a camera feels in your hands. Every control worked as smoothly as the factory originally intended.
The fellow who did the CLA sent it back to me with a zinc-air 675 battery inside. It powered the meter accurately. But this Canonet was designed for 625 mercury batteries, which have a different form factor. Alkaline 625 cells share that form factor, but because they don’t deliver a consistent voltage across their lives they can lead to misexposure. The films I typically shoot have enough latitude that it doesn’t matter, and the alkaline 625s last a long time. The zinc-air 675s die after a few months.
I pulled the 675 out and inserted a fresh alkaline 625 cell — and it didn’t work. I tried another, and it didn’t work either. Puzzled, I contacted the CLA guy, who apologized and said he’d fix the issue if I shipped it to him, but suggested I just use the 675 cells for their always-accurate voltage. I decided it wasn’t worth the cost and hassle to mail the camera back for adjustment. So I just got to shooting.
I didn’t stick with rangefinders. One person gifted me a Minolta X-700 and someone else an Olympus OM-1, and I fell in love with the 35mm SLR. That’s where my collection has gone, and as a result I haven’t shot this Canonet in six years.
It’s a shame, really. There’s still a place in my shrinking collection for a couple good rangefinder cameras. I love my Yashica Lynx 14e for its sublime lens, and my Konica Auto S2 just feels great in my hands. But this Canonet is smaller and lighter than both of them and delivers quality results through its 40mm f/1.7 lens.
Many other fixed-lens rangefinder cameras have passed through my hands, and this little Canonet is the best user of them all. It’s a good size even for my largish hands. The little lever on the focusing ring is right where my finger expects it to be, and it glides precisely. Slung over my shoulder I hardly notice it’s there. I’m more likely to grab it for an impromptu photo walk than any other rangefinder I’ve ever owned.
For this camera’s turn in Operation Thin the Herd I took it on several impromptu photo walks: downtown Zionsville, Lilly Lake at Indianapolis’s Eagle Creek Park, Coxhall Gardens in Carmel, and on a rainy day to the hip intersection of 49th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. in Indianapolis. It was a fine companion on them all. I only wish that the rangefinder patch were brighter. In dimmer light I struggled to see the split image within it. Maybe that’s just middle-aged eyes.
In the decade since I bought this Canonet I’ve been blessed to use some truly outstanding gear. I have a lot more experience now against which to compare this camera. It’s a nice camera. It feels good to use. It gives fine images. But I don’t experience it as great in any of these measures. For most everyday photography I’m going to reach for something like my Pentax ME anyway, mount one of the many excellent lenses I have for it, and get results no less than equal to these.
There’s nothing about this Canonet that makes it my best choice for a particular situation. In contrast, my cumbersome Yashica Lynx 14e has a killer use: its giant f/1.4 lens returns brilliant photographs indoors on black-and-white film. I can imagine future scenarios where I’ll be glad to have that camera in my arsenal. Not so this Canonet.
Given this Canonet’s cult status, I feel like I should keep it in my collection. When I put film into it I really thought I’d fall in love all over again. I managed, disappointingly, to fall only in like.
I’ve waffled for weeks about this camera’s fate. I’ve rewritten the end of this post four times, flip-flopping between Keep and Goodbye all the way. What I finally decided is that because I’ve become an SLR guy, any non-SLR has to blow my socks off in some way to stay in the collection. This Canonet just didn’t do that.
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James Monroe School Canon Canonet QL17 G-III Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros 2010
Banking off yesterday’s post, with the photo of me in my second-grade classroom, I thought I’d share this photo of the school building itself, on the south side of South Bend, Indiana. The building was built in stages, the first of which was erected in 1930 and was funded by the Studebaker family. This is the original main entrance in the 1930 part of the building.
Additions in 1946 and 1959 brought the building to its footprint at the time I attended (1972-79). A 2010 renovation and expansion added a great deal of space and relocated the main entrance.
It was on Thanksgiving three years ago that I lost Gracie. She was very old, at least 17, and had been in declining health for a few years. She was a difficult dog, but we were deeply bonded. I grieved her passing for a long time.
I took this photograph in 2009 while testing a Canonet QL17 G-III I had just gotten. I didn’t know it leaked light. I was disappointed at the time that the leak marred this photo, because I like this composition. Today, it feels like looking through the mists of time upon my old friend.
Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. One more camera review for you, of a very well known rangefinder. A buddy of mine gave me a complete set of new light seals for this camera four years ago, to solve its light leak problem. I still haven’t gotten around to installing them. It’s a shame, because this camera is a peach.
Just after I bought my Canonet 28, I scored the Canonet QL17 G-III I wanted. Yee hah! I’d been looking for one for over a year. It’s not like I had any trouble finding one – Canon made 1.2 million QL17 G-IIIs between 1972 and 1982, and I swear half of them are available on eBay at any given time. But either the price was too high or the seller couldn’t represent the camera’s condition. I hate buying a camera and finding out it’s broken! A tip for all you eBay sellers: Know something about your camera before you list it. If you want me to bid, don’t write “I don’t know anything about cameras and so I don’t know if it works” in your description!
According to the code stamped inside, my QL17 G-III was made in 1977. It’s dented in one corner and the rangefinder glass has a small crack in it, so this one’s clearly seen a bit of rough usage.
Every part of this camera’s long name means something:
QL stands for Quick Loading, a clever system that made loading film fast and foolproof (though I must be a sufficiently talented fool, because I managed to goober it up; more on that later)
17 refers to the six-element 4omm f/1.7 lens, highly praised for its “Leica-like” sharpness and ability to focus as close as 2.6 feet
The QL17 G-III overflows with goodies. Its very quiet leaf shutter fires from 1/4 to 1/500 second (though mine seems to stick at the slowest speeds). If you plug Canon’s Canolite D flash into its hot shoe, it syncs at all shutter speeds. Its viewfinder compensates for parallax. It has a self timer. And, most enjoyably, when you set the aperture dial to A and choose a shutter speed, it selects the aperture for you – shutter-priority autoexposure. Its CdS light meter is designed to use the banned PX625 mercury battery, but a size 625 Wein cell zinc-air battery will do, despite the slight voltage difference. To see if the battery has any juice left, press the red button next to the viewfinder. If the blue dot lights, the battery’s good to go.
I itched mightily to shoot a roll of film with my Canonet and see what kind of results I could get from the highly regarded lens. So I stopped at a nearby camera store for a size 625 Wein cell (for $8, gack), dropped in a roll of Fujicolor 200, and went shooting.
But for one flaw, this Canonet was a pleasure to use. It was fairly lightweight and fit into my jacket pocket. The winding lever worked easily and quickly. Inside the viewfinder, the yellow rangefinder spot was bright and easy to see. To focus, you move the focus ring until the yellow rangefinder image lines up with the viewfinder image. I especially liked how the focus ring has a little tab that falls right between your left index and middle finger as you shoot; it made focusing almost effortless. I found myself focusing without even realizing I was doing it, as if the camera was part of me. But I was jarred back to reality every time I pressed the shutter button. It had more travel than I expected, and I was constantly pressing down to no result. I kept having to reposition my finger at a steeper angle and press again. I expect that if I run another couple rolls through, I’ll get the hang of it.
I also managed to screw up loading the film. I was shooting happily away when I noticed that the counter said 29 – on a 24-exposure roll. I hadn’t stuck the film’s leader into the quick-loading mechanism far enough, the film failed to wind, and I had exposed the leader 29 times. After I reloaded, I snapped this shot. I turned on autoexposure and then fiddled with the shutter speed until I got a wide aperture. An f stop guide is inside the viewfinder; a needle points to the f stop the autoexposure system has chosen. I was deliberately trying to get some depth of field. I got it, but the subject could be more interesting.
I brought my dog outside (she’s a favorite subject) and kept experimenting with depth of field. Of all the shots of Gracie I made that afternoon, I like this one’s composition best, but it reveals that the camera has a light leak. A few other shots show it too. I knew this was a risk, as one of the camera’s light seals has disintegrated and the other is gooey. I wonder why light leaked on some shots but not on others.
When the camera didn’t leak light, however, I was very pleased with the colors, detail, and clarity. I took some fall shots in my neighborhood a week before with my Kodak EasyShare Z730 and I liked how they turned out, but I had to punch the shots up in Paint Shop Pro to get the depth of color I got straight out of the QL17 G-III. Also, it seems to me that the individual leaves in this photo have more definition than those on a similar shot from my Z730, and that it captured greater texture in the tree, created by the shadows the leaves cast on each other.
I visited South Bend while I still had a few shots left on the roll. I strolled through downtown in the late afternoon and shot these flags.
I just love the St. Joseph River bridge on old US 31 at Leeper Park. South Bend is fortunate to have several lovely bridges in the City Beautiful style in its downtown. By this time, I had gone beyond just trying out an old camera and had moved to just enjoying shooting with a nice piece of equipment.
I’ll load up the Canonet QL17 G-III again and again, there’s no doubt. After I replace the light seals, that is.