Firstly, the name is a bit of a mouthful, but every part of this camera’s long name actually means something:
- QL stands for Quick Loading, a clever system that makes loading film fast and foolproof
- 17 refers to the six-element 40mm f/1.7 lens, highly praised for its “Leica-like” sharpness and ability to focus as close as 2.6 feet
- G means “grade up” and recognizes quality improvements over the earlier Canonet QL17
- III represents the third (and final) generation of Canonets
Secondly, although it’s often dubbed the “Poor Man’s Leica” this is a fantastic little camera which can stand shoulder to shoulder with much more expensive rangefinder cameras. The Canonet GIII QL17 was Canon’s best-selling camera for over 11 years, and is the world's top selling rangefinder (with inbuilt light meter) a record unlikely to be broken. According to CameraQuest.com …
For me the attraction to buying this camera was its classis 70s styling. When I take this out around the town, it elicits admiration from people who don’t even know anything about cameras. There was a saying in the early days of flight that if a plane “looked right, it will fly right”. Well this little camera just looks the business, a no-nonsense camera, which just oozes vintage style. For me, who grew up in the 60s and 70s modern camera no matter how good the quality of the image just feel like cheap, plastic rubbish. There is something extraordinary satisfactory in holding a rangefinder camera; the weight and metal construction, the quality of construction and the fact it doesn’t even need a battery to work means this is something that was made before designed obsolescence. If - God willing - film is still around in 100 years you can still create document the world with a rangefinder camera.
The Canonet QL17 GIII is the last Canonet produced, and the culmination of Canon’s quest for a better camera. In recent years it has attracted a cult following, and has received glowing reviews from litany of rangefinder enthusiasts such as The Mijonju Show, Steve Huff, Chase Jarvis and of course Bellamy Hunt, the Japan Camera Hunter who owns multiple black models.
There are two variants of the camera, one produced in Taiwan, and the other produced in Japan. The black lacquer model is the rarest and most sought after of all, which is likely to cost you 3-4 times the cost of an ordinary chrome model. However, don’t get too obsessed about just owning a black model, or even the GIII. The earlier models are still very fine cameras, and the only difference between the QL17 and the GIII is that it has a battery indicator light.
CANONET VS. LEICA
The Canonet QL17 GIII, often referred to as the “Poor Man’s Leica” is much better than that, but it’s not fair to compare it to Leica as it was never intended to compete with it. But for what it was designed to be - a small, easy to use rangefinder - it was the best-selling of its type in the world, and it offers some great features.
Unlike the notoriously difficult film loading system of the Leica the Canon’s QL (Quick Load) film-loading system is a joy to use, taking only seconds before you’re ready to shoot the first frame.
The Canonet’s 40mm lens is the closest to a true “normal” lens, which is roughly 42mm. I know purists will tell you 35mm, or 50mm, but scientifically 42mm is as close as you can get to the camera taking what you see through the lens, and thus the little Canonet outperforms many of its more expensive counterparts.
Another distinctive advantage that the Canonet offers over the Leica is its internal leaf shutter that allows you to sync its flash unit at all shutter speeds - particularly useful for outdoor, fill lighting. It also boasts a shutter priority ‘Automatic’ mode (with exposure lock), while still offering full manual control - like the Leica, yes - but unique among relatively inexpensive rangefinders of its day.
Best of all, if for some reason your Canonet breaks down, or gets stolen, you can pick up a chrome model for as little as $50 on eBay. Even a poor quality Leica will set you back 10-20 times that much.
Canonet gallery courtesy of Kevin Lim. Take a look at his Canonet review.
- 400 ISO seems to give the best results in the Canonet, but it will produce great results with any film.
- Be warned that it is very common for the battery indicator light to be broken, and they run on 1.35v mercury cells which you need to get modern equivalents. But the Canonet works perfectly as a manual camera with no battery whatsoever, just like a manual Leica you will need a separate meter, or use the Sunny 16 rule.
- Beware when buying second-hand Canonets that invariably the light seals will need replacing, kits are available from as little as $9 on eBay.
- Turning the meter off – virtually … While Canon recommends that you place a cap on the lens when not in use to conserve the battery associated with the meter (acting as something loosely akin to an ‘off’ switch), simply rotating the aperture ring away from the ‘A’ (automatic) marking to any manual f-stop will also extend the battery life by the same amount.
- The Canonet uses an uncommon 48mm filter thread, buy a 48-49mm step up adapter.
1 Camera 1 Year
If you want to see the quality of images that the Canonet QL17 GII is capable of capturing, have a look at James Hooton’s - 1 Camera 1 Year project http://www.1camera1year.tumblr.com
Canonet QL17 GIII Flickr Group
The “CANONET mon amour” group on Flickr
Downloadable PDF Instruction Manual
Cheyenne Morrison is a photographer and purveyor of Polaroid art. He writes for Pryme Magazine.