Having decided to shoot black and white in 35mm, I needed to buy a camera. At that time and to me, I wasn’t particularly interested in any particular model but as I had a collection of Canon FD glass that I had acquired for another project, any working Canon with an FD mount would do. There are a number of camera retailers I have dealt with before that trade in second hand cameras as well as new ones and I picked up a Canon Ftb QL from one of them that came with a 6 months warranty on the camera which is useful on a bit of kit from the early 1980s.
This was the era of mechanical cameras, the only electronics involved were to operate a very simple match needle metering system, the camera bodies were all metal and rather tough. All that said though on putting a roll of film through the camera, there was a problem with the film winder which required a second crank on occasions so I lodged a warranty claim and dropped the camera off for repair. To be fair to the company, the repair probably cost most of the £100 I had paid for the camera in the first place and it took some months before it was returned to me.
However and in the interim having got the bug for shooting wet film again and impatient to move on, I started exploring Ebay and found that a camera that I had lusted after in the late 80s early 90s but had never owned, the Canon A1 could be bought for between £100-200. I got lucky and picked up a very good refurbished one for £100 and what a delight it is to use, although still largely mechanical it employs a lot of sophisticated electronics in the metering/exposure system, it was to be the last of the rather jewel like cameras that Canon was to produce.
What followed over the following 12 months is rather odd in many ways but I became quite interested in the technical development of the Canon camera models from the late 1970s through to the present day. I learned to be canny in what I bought on Ebay but found that I could pick up working examples for relatively modest amounts of money and as a result ended up with an interesting collection of cameras each of which I make use of from time to time.
At the moment I send my exposed films off to a photo lab for developing only, I then scan the negatives myself into a digital format. Although it would be simple enough to do my own developing at home without needing a proper darkroom, I’m not yet at the point where that seems a ‘must do’ for me in terms of the volume of films I shoot each year but that may change in the future.
That Rabbit Hole
One of the things that fascinated me once I started looking into it was the technical development over the years which by sticking with one brand, in this case Canon, becomes obvious and guided which particular models I picked up so for amusement, the list of my 7 35mm cameras:
The Ftb QL – Totally mechanical, manual rewind of exposed film, minimal electronics only enough to power a match needle exposure meter. A model line that started in 1966 and evolved through various upgrades until it was replaced in 1975/76, my particular specimen probably dates from about 1971.
The A1 although primarily mechanical, manual rewind and so forth, it incorporated very advanced electronics for its time with regard to exposure and a ‘Program’ exposure mode. Gone is the match needle metering to be replaced by a totally digital read out in the viewfinder, it was in production from 1978 until 1985. A delightful piece of kit that I just love using, it is almost ‘jewel like’ and capable of great results.
There is one/two other significant camera bodies that used the FD lens mount which I do not have a copy of and although tempted shall probably never acquire but they deserve a mention and that is the F1 and New F1 because although very ‘old school’ in being largely mechanical cameras, they were Canon’s first pro system models. Very rugged and via a large number of accessories could be tailored to suit the needs of any working photographer.
The F1 was launched in March 1971 and remained in production for 10 years when it was superseded by the almost identical ‘New’ F1 which was also in production for 10 years from 1981 until officially discontinued in 1994. The significance of the F1 camera is less it’s technical specifications and more about this being the first time Canon seriously and effectively designed a camera system aimed at working professional photographers exclusively.
The Electronics Takeover
By the later 1980s circuit boards and electronic control of formally user activated mechanical functions started to come into play, even film cassettes came with what was called a ‘DX code’ on the outside so that modern cameras of the time could automatically set the film speed for the user. It was about this time that Canon made what was a very bold and at the time very controversial decision to change their FD mount lens to the EF lens system we are familiar with today. What isn’t controversial was the fact that for the first time the camera body and the lens could communicate with each other that was to have a significant impact on photography generally.
The T90 was a body I didn’t own when I first drafted this piece, I bought one in the past but had to return it due to a major fault however, I recently acquired a working one at a reasonable price because the T90 is well worth a mention. It was a professional grade camera which was the last major model to be launched with the FD lens system. Here the electronics had taken over, film loading and rewinding were carried out by the camera and technically, it’s controls and exposure mode systems spoke loudly of things to come as far as SLR and later DSLR cameras were concerned in the Canon line up.
Another key feature and a departure from the past was the introduction of moulded plastic/resin bodies rather than metal. These early examples were rather like the “Bakerlite” mouldings we were familiar with from telephone hand sets of the past. These materials were a bit heavy and clunky by the standards of the “engineering” grade and refined plastics used in these type of mouldings today.
The T90 had a shorter production life 1986-1992 than might otherwise have been expected due to the introduction a couple of years after it’s launch of the EF mount bodies but it was a pioneer for the control systems that we still see in today’s DSLRs and therefore historically a model that was an important milestone for Canon.
EOS RT – To be honest this is essentially a standard Canon EOS 630/600 body with the RT’s key feature which was that it has a pellicle mirror and it was the first auto focus camera to feature this, it was in production from 1989 to 1992. I certainly hadn’t intended to buy this particular model as in “I must have one of these” but I did because when I came across the camera it was pretty cheap and I really wanted to use an example of a pellicle mirror camera to see how effective it was.
In simple terms, in an SLR, the mirror has to swing out of the way when you press the shutter which obviously gives a slight time lag and possible vibration, where this might prove a problem is in sports and action photography where you need speed. What a pellicle mirror is, is a fixed mirror that doesn’t move and has a degree of transparency so that light passes through it on to the film plane whilst some light still passes to the viewfinder.
There are obviously some issues here with a reduction in light and brightness but never the less it works and delivers sufficient frames per second to make action photography far quicker though it means you might have to get very slick at changing film rolls because 36 exposures won’t last too long. This technology wasn’t exclusive to Canon, Nikon and later, even Sony have experimented or used the concept in their past products.
EOS 630/600 – EOS 630/600 – As an aside concerning the Canon EOS 630/600 body itself, it is not currently one of the most “desirable or fashionable” camera bodies from around that period. Clearly there are specific models from several brands that are highly rated for good technical reasons but that often comes with a price tag to match. However and having used the RT version, I was impressed with it’s handling and picked up an almost pristine 630 body on Ebay for £25 including postage, this wasn’t an unusual price at the time. For anyone used to shooting with a DSLR and wanting to try out 35mm photography, it is technically very good and why spend money on the “current fashionable” models when you can get in the game so cheaply ? Of course you will also need access to a Canon or other brand EF fit lens.
EOS 5/A2/A2e – All models are essentially the same camera with minor variations, originally launched in November 1992 and remained in production until late 1998 when it was replaced by the EOS 3. Originally aimed at the “pro summer” or enthusiast market, it quickly found favour with professional photographers because it was well built with a very good feature set that is very similar to modern Canon DSLRs in many respects. If you were buying a second hand 35mm camera today, this like the EOS 600 is another “unfashionable” model that is worth looking out for. In today’s second hand market, the model that replaced it the EOS 3 sells at a premium price of £200 or more and yet, the EOS 5 which is as good in practical terms, sells for a quarter of that price.
EOS 1n – Launched in 1994, it replaced the original EOS 1 which was launched in 1989 and was a substantial professional upgrade to that model in most respects although it looked pretty similar. The 1n remained in production until 2000 when it was replaced with the final version of Canon’s flag ship 35mm camera the EOS 1v because from that year onwards we saw the transition to DSLR cameras. Although actual production of the 1v must have ended some years earlier, it remained in the Canon catalogue as an available model until 2018.
Although rather chunky in terms of weight, I am particularly fond of the 1n because from it’s design and handling it both harks back to the earlier T90 as well as current DSLR designs such as the 1DX MkIII. If your only experience of cameras were something like a Canon 5D xx when it comes to the 1v SLR you would have no problem in getting to grips with it very quickly despite it being a wet film camera, it handles the same.
Owning Old Cameras
Shooting with each of these cameras is fun and each is a slightly different experience but there has to be a note of caution here too. If you want to get into 35mm then going for the most popular models from the “mechanical era” such as the Pentax K1000, Canon A series and a number of the Nikon and Olympus models is a reasonable bet, there are many about which can be cannibalized for spares plus there are people around with the skills to repair them.
The problem with some of my early electronic models which are newer than the above cameras is that there are not that many spares about and if circuit boards or plastic mouldings break, there are no replacements to be had easily. I had just this experience with a T90 I bought and was fortunate in having bought it with a warranty from a reputable dealer so that I was able to get my money back, you would not be so fortunate on Ebay in many cases.
On the other hand if you bought a Canon 1v and because it has only recently been officially discontinued (2018), spares shouldn’t be a problem but whereas a reasonable condition a 1n can be bought second hand for £100 – 200, a 1v second hand is more like £500 – 700 and they aren’t that common in the UK it seems, the majority offered on Ebay seem to come from Japan.
If we take the Canon T90 through to the earlier Canon DSLRs, due mainly to their electrics which obviously have become ever more complex, once they are done, they tend to be done, nobody makes or holds parts such as circuit boards and chips to revive them, cannibalizing other equally old camera bodies is the only way to keep them going and that inevitably will be a bit of a lottery.
There may well be a business opportunity for any, I suspect small company to get into refurbishing old cameras but what will come with that is far higher prices than currently on Ebay but, there may well be a market, who knows ? For how this is done in Japan, follow on YouTube “Japan Camera Hunter” and in particular the episode called “Camera Geekery: Visiting Kanto Camera” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=869PTTMkOw0&t=20s )