Canonet QL17 GIII – This camera almost has it all

By Simon Cygielski

For years, I’ve been searching for a fast, easy to carry, inconspicuous film camera to take with me wherever I go. I’ve gone through a number of the usual suspects, including the Lomo LC-A, Olympus XA, Voigtlander Bessa R, and the Canonet QL17 GIII, as well as a few medium-format folders. Each had something worth recommending it, but all had small annoyances that made me question my choice, and over time I’ve disposed of most of them in one way or another.

Of the bunch, the Canonet is the only one I’ve thought of getting back. While it wasn’t as pocketable as the Lomo or Olympus, I could still carry it pretty much anywhere I went, and it had both of the little guys beat by a mile in terms of optics, and therefore image quality. So when I saw one in a local camera store a year or so ago, I couldn’t resist. A quick viewfinder cleaning later, I have one of my favorite cameras of all time back and ready to go.

Man riding bike in rain holding an umbrella.
One advantage the “poor man’s Leica” has over an actual M-Whatever is that a mere mortal can take it out into inclement weather and not worry about what the rain will do to it.

The Canonet QL17 GIII gets a lot of hype on the internet, but it’s well-deserved hype. My first one really impressed me with the crispness and tonality of the images it produced, and I tend to be pretty picky about that when I’m not playing with pinholes or toy cameras. The only time the little Canon really failed me was on a trip through Milan some years ago. I set the lens to wide open in manual mode to maximize shutter speeds at night, and everything I did turned out hazy and soft – and not in a good way.

While at first I thought there was something wrong with my particular example, it turns out this is part of the design. The lens is marked as f/1.7, but that appears to be mainly marketing spin. The image quality becomes passable only around f/2 (and really nice from f/2.8 onwards). Most of the time this doesn’t become an issue, since the camera never fully opens the aperture in automatic mode, which is what the Canonet was intended for. Even when the readout in the viewfinder shows f/1.7 and just barely misses the underexposure lock, the lens shuts down to about f/2. An f/2 lens is still pretty great for available light photography, and I’ve decided that the extra half stop isn’t worth playing with considering the quality trade-off.

People walking by underground bike parking in Leuven, Belgium
The contrast, even at medium-to-large apertures, is everything you’d want it to be, even shooting against the light. Just don’t get silly and open it to f/1.7 in manual.

With that caveat, though, the QL17 GIII is a really great little go-everywhere photography tool. I recently took it as my only camera on a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. A couple of shots taken into the sun show significant lens flare, but nothing you wouldn’t get with any lens of that vintage, no matter who made it and how much you paid for it.

Picture of people on the street showing lens flare.
A bit of lens flare appears when shooting directly into the sun without a hood. Few cameras would have done better under the circumstances.

Obviously there are limits to what this camera can do. Its permanently mounted 40mm lens isn’t going to capture either extreme wide angles inside, nor long close-ups across a busy square. But for general and street action photography, it’s about as close to an ideal camera as they come. The rangefinder is accurate, and with the focusing lever prominently under your fingers, it’s easy to zone focus for action shooting. The lens is just a hair wider than the “normal” 35mm focal length of 43mm, resulting in a really intuitive field of view – it’s not so wide as to require you to step into people’s personal space to fill a frame, and not so long as to prevent you from getting wider views of scenery.

Close up of electric scooter on street in Brussels, Belgium.
For street photography, the QL17 GIII is much less conspicuous than the bearded stranger squatting behind you to take the picture.
People riding bikes in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Zone focusing goodness – no ultra-fast AF needed.
Picture of building against sky.
At typical apertures, the lens is simply brilliant, with corner to corner sharpness and no noticeable distortion of any kind.

One minor hang-up I have with this camera is a feature that was clearly intended for the amateur target user: the under- and over-exposure lock on the aperture in automatic shooting. I’d dearly love to know if this can be disabled somehow, since I always prefer to get an imperfect exposure of a great moment than nothing at all. But with some forethought, this rarely becomes a problem, so it’s definitely not a deal-breaker for me.

I still love this little camera, which has brought me back to 35mm after years of almost exclusively using medium format when shooting film.

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About The Author

By Simon Cygielski
I'm a former photojournalist who can't break the photography habit. I've been working mostly in medium format, but have dabbled in anything from digitally manipulated video to 8x10 view cameras. I live in Chicago. My kids tell me I look angry all the time. Check out my Instagram for more pics.
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Comments

Röd White on Canonet QL17 GIII – This camera almost has it all

Comment posted: 07/02/2024

A friend lent me one of these cameras to try out, he was talking about selling it and offered it to me. I'd just picked up a new Leica M-A fully mechanical camera (great in the rain by the way) and I was a bit smitten. So, I rushed a film through the Canonet and gave it back the next day. After developing the film, I realised it took terrific pictures and had actually been a delight to use. That f1.7 lens is a gem and in hind-sight, I missed a trick not buying that Canonet from my friend. It's a cracking bit of kit, I love 40mm as a focal length and if I ever come across another opportunity to get one, I'll grab it with both hands. Nice images by the way, thanks for sharing.
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DANIEL J CASTELLI on Canonet QL17 GIII – This camera almost has it all

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Hi Simon, My favorite shot of your series is the backlit cobblestone street scene, The Canon successfully recorded the image you saw. Can't ask for much more in a camera than that. These days, with everyone snapping away with cell phones, a small camera doesn't attract much attention. These cameras, at first glance seem to be the same size as an iPhone 14. My EDC is a Leitz-Minolta CL with a 40mm lens. I originally bought it as a briefcase camera - it tucked into my work bag that I carried to school and from class to class. After I retired from teaching, I rehoused it in a tiny canvas Domke bag. There are a number of high performance, small cameras available to fit the needs of people looking to still work with film. You just need to find the one that fits your needs.
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Simon Cygielski replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Yes, the Leitz/Minolta cameras are definitely treasures. Though I have no way to justify buying one at this point, I've certainly been tempted.

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Brad on Canonet QL17 GIII – This camera almost has it all

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

The only complaint I've heard about this camera is that the rangefinder patch is rather indistinct, as with many other Canon rangefinders (I have the Canon P and find focusing difficult unless there are strong vertical lines in the scene). But if you're mostly zone-focusing the rangefinder patch is irrelevant anyway.
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Simon Cygielski replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Zone focusing is the way to go for me in fast-moving situations, but the RF patch on my Canonet is not terrible by any means.

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Shaun Edwards on Canonet QL17 GIII – This camera almost has it all

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Hi Simon. Nice article and great pictures. I bought one last year and really enjoy using it. As you say it produces great results. If only the meter worked in manual mode, that would make it a killer camera!! It always take me a little time to adjust to shutter priority as I use manual or aperture priority on my other cameras. However, it satiates my need to get a Leica. Plus saving a load of pennies.
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Simon Cygielski replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Shaun, Thanks for your comment. Yes, a metered manual mode would be great, as would be the ability to disable the under- and over-exposure locks on the aperture. Still, for the friendly price you get an outstanding little camera with really first-class optics.

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Oli replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

I’m leaving this here to find out if anyone has a solution to the under/over exposure locks. I sometimes circumvent them by using what amounts to a exposure lock-in by “half pressing” the shutter. Metered exposure won’t change after that and you can use a lighter part of the scene to “trick” the camera into letting you take the photo. Or set it to 1/60 f/2 and let the films latitude do the rest. Stand development is your friend. Cheers!

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Simon Cygielski replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

I agree, and have used your method in a pinch, but that doesn't solve the problem if you're trying to capture a dynamic scene with no time to pre-lock your exposure, or of there isn't enough light to bring the needle out of underexposure zone at night. That said, I just got a parts camera off ebay to poke around in, and will post my findings if I come up with anything useful.

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Simon Cygielski replied:

Comment posted: 09/06/2023

Oh, and I've never used stand development. Doesn't souping your film for that long result in grain the size of Texas?

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