Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

The Canon QL17 Giii – Discovering cameras I’d Missed Along the Way – Part 1 – By Steve Ember

Canonet QL17 Giii

Over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying rediscovering a type of camera that I’d somehow “leapfrogged” past in my youthful headlong rush to transition from more basic equipment to the vaunted SLR – the compact rangefinder types including models from Canon, Konica, Minolta, Olympus, and Yashica.

Perhaps you’ll enjoy journeying along with me for some experiences – and photos – with each of my “new” compact rangefinders in months ahead.

This post is about my Canon Canonet QL17 GIII, which I feel to be an excellent exemplar of the genre.

I should point out, I did sojourn briefly with rangefinders on the way to the SLR, with a couple of big beefy models from Konica and Minolta. But this newly awakened interest had to do with that popular (and often even elegant) sub-specie of the “full-size” or traditional rangefinder camera, hence my reason for italicizing the word “compact.”

It’s not as though this “rediscovery” has caused me to turn away from the SLR. No chance of that! What they have done, though, was to bring another enjoyable dimension to the shooting experience. As in, let’s build a shoot around seeing the world around me exclusively through a 40mm perspective. No zoom-zoom. We’ll do that with the feet.

As someone who has “schlepped” his share of heavily stuffed camera bags on this or that photo jaunt (or trek), this can be nothing short of liberating. No worries about what I might be missing by leaving that heavy f/2.8 70-200mm professional lens or the variety of primes at home. Just the one lens – the one on the camera! – and perhaps a few filters according to the film I plan to shoot.

Neck to photographer – “Thank you, my dear, thoughtful friend.”

About those compact rangefinders…

These cameras were designed for “casual” shooters for whom the allure of interchangeable lenses was not a big thing. They also pre-dated cameras with built in – but often rather so-so – zoom lenses. And the form factor fit right in with the intent – not threateningly large and bulky, but pleasingly compact, yet with an undeniable solidity.

The Canon Canonet QL17 GIII – now there’s a great big name for a small camera! – was a line of compact rangefinder cameras built by Canon in the 1970s and targeted at those “casual” shooters.

Now, in this era of camera phones, selfie-sticks, Instagram, instant-bloody-everything, “casual shooter” is likely to have a vastly different connotation than it did in the era of the compact rangefinder film camera.

Back in the day, the user was expected to expend at least the modest effort of determining that the subject was in focus. Oh yes, and to set the film sensitivity on the camera’s ISO dial (back then, it was actually called ASA, but same values). And, if it wasn’t asking too much, to make other inputs to the process that would ensure that the camera would create the kind of image they were seeking. And that required at least a casual knowledge of the relationships between f/stops and shutter speeds to determine desired motion stopping, or depth of focus.

We probably didn’t appreciate it then, because, at least in the ‘60s and ‘70s, camera manufacturers had not yet transitioned to lightweight plastic. These were precision machines – lots of metal, inside and out, with lovely, fast lenses of serious design. They were not the throwaway “commodities” we see nowadays along with their built-in obsolescence. The solidity of build means there’s a pretty good chance that – even after hibernating in someone’s drawer or being cast off, Velveteen Rabbit style, in some thrift shop – inserting a fresh battery for the meter might just wake up the little guy to where he’s ready to go on that photo walk with you. And, if not, well, he’s certainly worth the cost of a professional CLA with some new light seals thrown in for good measure to ensure another 50 years of happy use.

Now, how many of today’s “casual-use” consumer goods can you say that about?

Colorful blossoms in the warm sunshine of a May afternoon, as seen through the 40mm f/1.7 lens of my little Canonet

So, on to my “new” 1970s vintage Canonet QL17 GIII and its maiden outing.

But first, if you’re at all curious about all those letters and numbers in the camera’s name.

QL stood for the quick loading mechanism, whereby the user simply pulls a short length of film out of the cassette and across the back of the camera and closes the door.  No, there’s no whizzing sound as the camera winds off the first few frames to get to Frame No.1. The process is manual, so a few strokes of the nice solid winding lever (making sure the rewind crank is turning backwards) and you’re ready to shoot.

17 was Canon shorthand for the bright – and very sharp – f/1.7 lens.

And the GIII simply signified this was the third (and final) “grade-up” in this long and very successful line that debuted in 1969. The GIIIs were manufactured between 1972 and 1982 and, according to Canon, more than 1.2 million of them were sold.

In stepping into the compact rangefinder waters, my approach has been to look for very clean examples that have recently been adjusted, checked, and had their light seals replaced. I suppose this goes counter to the bargain-hunters’ happy tales of picking up a fully-functioning example at a rummage sale for a few bucks and bringing it back to life by simply inserting a new battery. For every one of these bargains, my hunch is that there are twenty or more with age-crumbling seals, sticking shutters, and the dreaded black tendrils of fungus blooming in the lens or the viewfinder. No, thank you.

Thus, my Canonet arrived in lovely condition with a clear and bright viewfinder and smoothly functioning controls. I fortunately had a PX-625 mercury battery, around whose voltage and stability the Canonet QL17 GIII was designed, so I felt confident in using slide film for the camera’s maiden shoot. That medium would also confirm important information as to shutter and metering accuracy.

The destination was the Historic District of Annapolis, Maryland.

The calendar may have said early spring – it was March 29 – but the trees and sunlight definitely said “winter.” I loved the well defined shadows that those bare-limbed trees were casting on walls and sidewalks as I explored along Duke of Gloucester Street. In the foreground is the inviting Georgian House bed and breakfast, which occupies a handsome pre-Revolutionary home built in 1747.

Georgian House Bed and Breakfast in the Historic District of Annapolis, Maryland.
Ektachrome ©Steve Ember

The rich earth-toned textures of old brick and the harmonizing deep blues of shutters, door, and sky in the crisp late winter sunshine provided an inviting motif for the Ektachrome to capture via the Canonet’s lovely and bright 40mm lens.

Georgian House Bed and Breakfast occupies a pre-Revolutionary brick dwelling in the Historic District of Annapolis, Maryland.
Ektachrome ©Steve Ember

Canon designed the QL17 as a shutter priority camera.  Thus, one sets an appropriate shutter speed for the type of shot and an easy to read scale along the right side of the viewfinder tells you the aperture the meter has selected. If you prefer more (or less) depth of field, simply readjusting the shutter speed on the lens barrel will allow such changes. As I recall, in the Annapolis shooting, I favored 1/60 of a second to set smallish f/stops, allowing a nice depth of focus for the type of  cityscapes I was shooting.

As I’ve become more comfortable with the Canonet QL17 GIII, I’ve occasionally used slower shutter speeds, as the combination of leaf shutter and camera heft – along with the (almost) wide-angle focal length of 40mm – allows successful shooting where those slow speeds are necessary or desired for small aperture depth of field.

Incidentally, the Canonet QL17 GIII can also be used in full manual mode, should that be your preference for special effects, tricky lighting where the meter might get fooled, or if the battery should die. One simply rotates the aperture ring from “A” (Auto) to the chosen f/stop and selects an appropriate shutter speed. In this mode, the camera’s meter does not function.

For this exigency, I did carry along my tiny Voigtländer clip-on meter. I was actually quite pleased that the 30-odd year old meter in the Canonet agreed with the new Voigtländer in most situations. Incidentally, all five photos included here were shot with the Canonet’s own meter.

Up Duke of Gloucester Street from the Georgian House B&B was another handsome brick dwelling, this one whitewashed, with a magnificent old tree beside it casting dramatic shadows in the winter sunshine. The motif suggested the black and white treatment I subsequently created from the original Ektachrome frame on that first roll.

Created from an Ektachrome color transparency. ©Steve Ember

From Duke of Gloucester Street, my Annapolis perambulations led to some nearby aspects of Maryland’s capital city.

The City Dock was home on this afternoon to the 1902-built skipjack “Stanley Norman” which speaks to the Chesapeake Bay’s oystering tradition. When not visiting the City Dock, she’s tied up at the Annapolis Maritime Museum, across Spa Creek from downtown Annapolis in Eastport.

And, up Main Street from the City Dock, one finds one of old-town Annapolis’s shopping and restaurant stretches, leading up the hill to Church Circle. A stop here for the fifth of my five frames with the Canonet and a motif warm and fuzzy in the sunshine of this late winter afternoon.

Stuffed animals and shopper along Main Street in Annapolis, Maryland
Ektachrome ©Steve Ember

After Annapolis…

A subsequent outing with the Canonet QL17 GIII involved a visit to the Baltimore Herb Festival at Leakin Park on a photo-enticing May afternoon, this time using some (freezer-stored) Agfa-manufactured ISO-200 color negative film. I loved the character in this woman’s face, as she sat on a shaded porch and wove some tales.

She was skilled in spinning tales.

And, while I did have a rather large film SLR along on this visit, I really appreciated how the Canonet’s smallish lens allowed me to maneuver the camera inside the wire mesh fence to photograph this sun-warmed “pile” of goats. Their owner was vigilant in keeping these furry “lawn-chompers” where their “munching” tendencies would not interfere with the day’s commerce.

On an equally pleasant sunny afternoon, this time closer to home in northern Virginia I stopped at the gleaming Silver Diner in Merrifield to capture a bit of Americana in the bright afternoon sunshine. For this one, I decided to use a polarizing filter to make the sky a bit more dramatic. Using such a filter on a compact rangefinder is a bit more labor intensive than doing same on an SLR, as there is no way to assess the desired polarizing effect through the camera’s viewfinder. Fortunately, my Heliopan polarizer has index markings, so after holding it off-camera, noting the number at the top center position on the filter’s rim, and screwing it back onto the lens, making sure that number appears in the same position, it can be done – just a bit of patience required. And, as the Canonet incorporates its meter sensor in the lens mount, there are no worries about calculating a filter factor to dial in.

A glistening icon of timeless Americana on a bright sunny f/11 kind of day.

Incidentally, Canon designed a companion flash unit for the Canonet QL17 GIII, called the Canolite 14. When attached, it can be used with the camera’s very helpful flash mode, which sets an appropriate f/stop according to the focused distance. I tried this out on my cousins’ very large and inquisitive cat “Chuckie,” who was intent on finding some catnip growing among the flowers on their deck.

I KNOW there’s catnip in there!

By the way, about that compact rangefinder nomenclature, I should mention that the Canonet QL17 GIII is actually one of the “larger” cameras of this class, at least compared to the others I added during my voyage of re-discovery. Compared to the Konica C35 and Auto S3, the Minolta HiMatic 7SII, and the Olympus RD, it is a bit beefier, but it feels just fine in my large hands. Let me take you along for some shoots with those “smaller” compact rangefinders another time.

Cheers, and happy film shooting!

©2018 Steve Ember

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21 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Danny
    December 21, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane. This was my first 35mm camera, I purchased it after being taught 35mm film photography by my father with his Miranda Sensorex in the late 1960’s. The Canonet is a lovely rangefinder camera, I used it all throughout the 1970’s. It still works perfectly and I gave it to my son this year, Nice to see that the photography gene has passed down through three generations.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Eric
    December 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    Great write up on this gem of a camera. I like how you get the point of using these types of cameras across without getting stuck in technical details. I have a Canonet QL 17 (without the GL III, but with the single light meter sensor); it is one of my favorites.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 21, 2018 at 9:29 pm

      Hi Eric, and thank you for your comment – I’m happy that you enjoyed the article. And yes, as you know, the QL17 is easy to love!
      Cheers, and Happy Holidays!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 21, 2018 at 9:35 pm

      Thank you, Danny. It was so nice discovering the Canonet and it’s lovely to hear from another of its happy users. And, yes, I do remember the Miranda Sensorex from the late ’60s, although at the time I was shooting with two Pentax Spotmatics and a Canon FT-QL. Happy to read that the Canonet has such a fine and continuing history in your family.
      Thanks for commenting and all good wishes for the Holiday Season!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry Sankey
    December 21, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    Great article but in the first section did you mean to say “Depth of Field’ and not ‘Depth of Focus’ ?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 21, 2018 at 9:09 pm

      Thank you, Terry! I tend to use those terms interchangeably – Probably a result of listening to DVD commentaries by director John Frankenheimer talking about the great “depth of focus” he’d get by using very wide-angle lenses such as the 18mm in his films. In any case, I do mean what we still photographers traditionally refer to as “depth of field.” Thanks for reading and commenting and Happy Holidays!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Laurie
    December 21, 2018 at 10:51 pm

    Very nice! I have the QL19 version that I bought for all of $4 at a garage sale (the guy running the sale said “um, that’s a film camera”. I said “oh how interesting”. LOL. I was blown away by the first roll through. I need to get it out into rotation. It’s in nearly perfect shape, I really lucked out! Thank you for sharing your photos and experience with the QL17, I really enjoyed your photos!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 21, 2018 at 11:14 pm

      Thank you, Laurie! I enjoyed reading your comment, and congratulations on your bargain. A QL19 for four bucks – and in nearly perfect condition! I should go shopping with you 😉 Thank you for your kind words on my story and photos. Wishing you a lovely Holiday Season, and continued happy shooting with your QL19.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Brian
    December 22, 2018 at 2:42 am

    Beautiful images that show what a fixed-lens Rangefinder is capable of. The Canonet Ql17L and GIII have the nicest shutter releases of almost all of the Shutter-Preferred automatic cameras. Most of them rely on the shutter release to provide the force to “trap the needle” and stop down the aperture. The Canonet has a short-throw/low-force release.

    I’ll be interested to see which cameras you select next. Many great ones to choose from. My first 35mm camera is the Minolta Hi-Matic 9, bought in 1969. Still works. It is a full-sized camera, a 45mm F1.7 lens- same basic optical formula as the Minolta 50/1.8 in Leica mount. The latter will run 10x what the HM9 cost.

    I remember “in the day” several Wedding Photographers that I knew kept a Fixed-Lens RF with them for shooting weddings. They are quiet, and have fast lenses. Are great for candid shots.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 22, 2018 at 3:01 am

      Thanks for your comment, Brian, and for the kind words on my sampling of photos taken with this camera.
      I completely agree with you about the feel of the GIII’s shutter release. Indeed, I love everything about the ergonomics of this camera and, most certainly, its lovely lens and quiet shutter. I can see how this type of camera had an appeal for wedding photogs.
      Cameras of this type have been such a joy to discover. As to which one I select to write about next, I’ll welcome your input from among these little guys: Konica Auto S-3, Olympus RD, Minolta HiMatic 7S II, Yashica Electro CC, Konica C35, Yashica Lynx 5000 (f/1.8 version). Then there are the Rollei Prego Micron, Contax T2, Nikon 35Ti…
      By the way, I did have a brief stint back in the ’60s with one of the full-size Minolta HiMatics, on the way toward getting into SLR, but I forget which model it was.
      Thanks again for your comment and hope you have a lovely Holiday Season

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Brian
        December 23, 2018 at 4:33 pm

        I kept the Minolta Hi-Matic 7S-II over the Konica S3. Both are more lightly made than the Canonet, be careful of stripping gears. The Minolta and Konica are based on the same body, but have different lenses and viewfinders. The Minolta viewfinder is easier to clean. The Konica C35 is Program Mode only. I’ve not shot with the Olympus RD: but have the Olympus SP, the lens is very sharp but the advance mechanism was lightly made with some very light springs under constant pressure. I’ve not shot with the newer compact 35 cameras, the Contax T2, Nikon 35Ti, or Rollei. I had the Contax T kit- very sharp lens. For the Nikon – the original Lite Touch with fixed 28mm F3.5 is worth looking for. I would suggest the Minolta Hi-Matic E, BUT- hard to find one with working electronics and batteries are hard to find.

        I’d go with the Minolta next. A nice comparison would be with a Leica CL with 40/2 Summicron.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          SteveEmber
          December 23, 2018 at 10:01 pm

          Thanks, Brian, for the additional info on these cameras. Happy to plan a story around my 7S-II, but comparison with Leica CL with 40/2 Summicron will have to wait for someone else (with deeper pockets) 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Christos Theofilogiannakos
    December 22, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    A truly great camera. May I also the Yashica Electro 35GX: Same form factor, equally great (or better) lens of the exact same specifications, but with the all-important aperture-priority AE system of legendary accuracy.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 22, 2018 at 9:46 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Christos. I actually do have a 35GSN, but I need to get it worked on as the ASA dial spins freely so I don’t know which ASA/ISO is being set when I turn the control. I do love the build and feel of Yashicas of this era, although I’m still a bit “iffy” over whether I like not knowing what shutter speed the camera has set. Wishing you a happy Holiday Season and good shooting in the New Year.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ian Ronketti
    December 22, 2018 at 9:26 pm

    Hi Steve, nice article. It was one of these types of cameras that helped me rediscover my love of film photography – the Olympus 35RC – have you tried one of these yet? A cracking and solid piece of equipment. I use Wein cells in mine as it took the 625 mercury cell. Results have been great, its now regularly used along with my other 35mm cameras.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 22, 2018 at 9:39 pm

      Hi Ian, and thank you for your comment. I actually opted for the Olympus 35RD in this category and have been enjoying it as well. Whether the QL17 or one of my other compact RF cameras, I often enjoy having one along with the SLRs on a shoot or simply going out with a single compact RF for the “purer” experience of shooting with a single focal length and getting back more to my photographic “roots” – i.e., no menus, more basic approach, and simply enjoying that wonderful form factor from a time when even “casual” cameras were built for the ages. I’ve used the Wein cells in cameras designed around the 625 or 675 mercury battery, but find myself a bit frustrated by zinc-air cells’ shorter lifespan once opened – namely, if I put the camera on the shelf for a while, the battery may well have given up the ghost when I’m ready to use it! Thus, I will probably have such cameras modified in future so that I may use same size silver-oxide cells with their longer lifespans. Wishing you a happy Holiday Season with lots of photo-ops!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Brian
    December 23, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    The Canonet has a pot in it to calibrate the meter. I changed mine many years ago, using the F2AS as a guide. The trim pot is near the flag that shows the film is advanced. The worst part is removing the top, but this is fairly easy on the Canonet- no wires connecting the hot shoe to the body as in many cameras.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 23, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks, Brian, for this useful information. So far, lucky mine is accurate, but good to know meter is in fact adjustable.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    eric
    December 24, 2018 at 7:39 am

    I had the same canonet and it’s surprised me with Ektachrome G, nearly one year ago. I have sold it because I have several Leica, and Point and shoot, a Sony A7 r2, but I want more and more to shoot light and also my M3 my favorite is too heavy. So now I love my Contax T and my Minolta 7Sii with a meter which does not work but I use my old Sekonic and this a better handing camera with only one big default the small finder. But I prefer the Minolta to the Canon.
    With a mint rangefinder of this time you ate not going wrong. You will get equivalent results to which you get with a Summicron-c 40 or Rokkor 40 with a CL a CLE or Leica for half of the price.
    These cameras are top to discover or rediscover film photography.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      SteveEmber
      December 24, 2018 at 8:38 am

      Thanks for your comment, Eric. Nice to hear from a fellow fan of this class of camera.
      Wishing you a happy Holiday Season and lots of good light in 2019!

  • Reply
    The Canon Demi EE17 - A Surprisingly Good Half Frame Camera - By Phil Stefans - 35mmc
    February 22, 2019 at 9:01 am

    […] Canon Demi EE17 is similar in size to a Canon QL17 GIII or Olympus MJU. Standard Demi’s with the f/2.8 lens are slightly slimmer and smaller and the lens […]

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