2.09.2012

Canon Designers Fail Again. My Overdue Review on a "Retro" Product.

When will all this retro nonsense stop?

I watched the Nikon rollout of the D800 a few days ago and it reminded me that Canon is on the ropes. For good.  Oh sure.  They're the biggest camera company in the galaxy (right now), design and produce their own incredible sensors, and just a few years ago the Nikon users were jumping in droves to get the white lenses, the super video, the full frame, the high ISO.  But now everything has changed and there's no such thing as continual "leapfrogging."  Canon is doomed.  DOOMED !!!  We all know it.  And I think I found the genesis of their hideous decline.  Someone asked me to review this camera (above)  and I was shocked with the primitive feature set.  I know it must be a current camera because it's so........retro.

It's called a Canonet QL17.   How cutesy.  It sports a prime 40mm lens with a fast, 1.7 f-stop but that's just about where the feature set ends....

Well,  here's my review:  The damn thing is unusable.  Let's go down the list of unredeemable flaws.  To start with, all that satiny metal finish is way too retro-ly conspicuous.  I've applied ample stealth tape in an attempt to tone down this grasping, faux modern design aesthetic as best I can.

The lens is FIXED.  Not that it was broken but,  I've learned now that any camera with a fixed lens is inferior to an interchangeable lens camera.  And zooms are best of all.  Who can do any kind of work without a fisheye and an extreme telephoto?  Read no further.  I'll warn you off right now.  This is not a birding camera.  Unless you relish the idea of tiny birds hidden in the recesses of your frames.  Dots, really. There's no reach at all. The lens is just a 40mm and that's on full frame !!!!  

But I just found out that the "full frame" imager is the same as the one used in the Nikon F full frame that we reviewed earlier.  It's not re-usable.  It's WORO.  Which means "write once, read once."  They used a sensor called "film."  It's very noisy over ISO 400,  and the camera doesn't have a lot of post processing tools built in.  In fact, it has none.  It's a very expensive way to run a camera.  But it's offset by having a MSRP of $149.95, new.


Continuing with the flaws you would have to add the lack of autofocus.  See the little knob just to the right of the lens in the photo above?  You pull that up or down to effect focus.  And the confirmation that you're doing a damn bit of good in the pursuit of focus is in a little window you look through.  Apparently this is a "rangefinder" camera.  Like that other retro copy, the Leica M9.  Come on, if you need the retro styling just get a Fuji X-100.  That's the real retro deal.

This camera may be one of the very few in the world without a menu. In fact, there's no electronic interface I could find.  You wiggle the stick for focus.  You watch fuzzy yellow blocks come together for focus and while I think there used to be a meter in the camera but the designers chose a battery that didn't "jump the shark" into the 21st century.  So your meter is all mental.  Kind of an "Abundance Metering" philosophy.  If you "think" good exposure then surely you will manifest good exposure.

The camera has a limited range of shutter speeds and those are only available in full stops.  Wanna shoot outside?  I don't think so.  The top shutter speed is 1/500th and God knows you can't do anything with that.  And get this.....the slowest shutter speed is 1/4th of a second.  Jeez.  No star trails here.



 There is a bulb setting and a self-timer but my test camera's self timer was obviously defective.  It buzzed like a savage honey bee every time I tried to use it.  Notice the steel and alloy construction.  Sadly it adds a lot of weight to what should have been a lightweight camera.  Don't those designers know about the joy of plastic?


Speaking of hopelessly retro, get a load of this.  It's a PC terminal for a sync cord.  And it's a "dumb terminal" not an interactive connection.  All it's good for is triggering flashes.  And, you guessed it, Canon "cheaped out" and didn't include any provision for "smart flash."  (Although they do have a provision for a primitive "guide number" flash.) Could they be more painfully retro?


And I'm sure you saw this coming...No LCD screen.  No way to preview or review your images.  It's almost like this camera is "capture averse."

This unit may represent an older part of Canon's line but it's an example of the company's obvious misdirection.  If they had launched products like this in the 1970's do you think they'd even still be in business today?

I'm waiting for an improved, eighty five megapixel verison with auto Hipstergram, auto HDR, auto Compose and auto Banter.  And, if Canon ever dumps the tired ass retro thing and comes into this century of camera design, let them know that I'm waiting for a red one.  Fire Engine Red.

In All Seriousness...The Canonet QL17 was my first real camera and was a constant companion for years.  I finally retired it to a place of honor in the equipment drawer when I bought my first Leica M3 with a 50mm Summicron.  The Canonet went with me to Paris back in 1978 and many of my favorite images came from that little, wonderful box.  It loaded quickly (hence the QL) and it gave me easy to print Tri-X negatives, roll after roll.  It was small, unobtrusive and quick to use.  The meter was acceptable but we took advantage of a useful tool, provided by Kodak, when we wanted fast and accurate exposure setting advice.  Every roll of Kodak film came packaged with a sheet of paper, and on that sheet was a little set of illustrations showing different light sources and recommended settings.  We'd tape the little paper strip onto the bottom of the camera, under Scotch tape, for quick reference.  And it worked better than matrix metering nearly every time.


The fast (and sharp)  lens and vibration free leaf shutter (flash sync to 1/500th), in concert with ISO 400 film, let me shoot with impunity in low light.  The rangefinder never front or back focused and was equally good in bright or dim light.  Your battery could go completely dead and all you would lose is the metering.  In all it was an incredibly condensed and compressed tool for shooting real life.  If you find one in good shape for a good price you might consider snapping it up.  It's a good intro camera for people who've never had the pleasure of using real film.





29 comments:

Trevor said...

I really enjoyed my QL17 as well...nice review!

Richard Skoonberg said...

A wonderful and wondrous camera. I used to sell these. A perfect design and wonderfully engineered. It was one of only a few fixed lens rangefinders that sported something brighter than a 2.8 lens. Very well built, quiet and, for a rangefinder, a breeze to focus. But I do think the camera's mystique has grown over time. The other Canonette with the 2.8 lens was nice and smaller, but not in the same kettle of fish.

Kirk, you have such a way with prose, I enjoy your posts.

Avram said...

Ah I bought one of those last year for a hundred bucks (with flash unit as well) - I enjoyed it immensely and shot a number of good frames with it. Really fun camera to use. Too bad the shutter keeps being broken, I'll fix it though, one of these days...

I also had a Yashica Electro 35 GSN - I bought it after dumping my cheap canon dslr a year and a half ago.

Btw, I'm 29, just to let you know, there are some young(ish) people appreciating these wonderful cameras.

Pete U said...

Back in the 80's, working for (San Antonio-based) Fox Photo in Richmond VA, even my employee discount wouldn't let me afford the Minolta CLE, so I got the QL17 instead. Still have it, works great, images are terrific.
Pete U.

Ed Lara said...

Bravo! The QL 17's lens is razor sharp and the body nice and compact. And with its very quiet shutter, a lot stealthier than another great fixed lens RF "retro wannabe" in our household, the Oly 35 SP. My 17 year old loves ihis QL more than his Oly E-410.

Joey said...

So I'm reading this and thinking that some a#$ stole this from your earlier "F" review and thinks he cute. Damn; he's even trying to steal your humorous style..

Oh!!! I'm reading Kirk's blog... I need a day off, or at least shouldn't interact with any humans tomorrow.

;)

Jan Klier said...

I carry one of these most days as my street shooting camera. Love it in its simplicity. Really doesn't need any more features than it has. And who cares about the battery. If I'm outdoors it's mental. If I'm indoors my iPhone app assists on occasion as a meter.

MichaelT said...

What a beautiful image (not the camera but your life partner)!!

Clay said...

and we shot the same film all the time back then, so after the first battery died you pretty much didn't need it any more.

hugo solo said...

Hideous decline doomed ? me and mrs jones we got a thing going on (the elph 530 and the iphone) we both knows thats it´s wrong but it´s much too strong to let it go now.

Jean-Yves Mead said...

But seriously, folks, where's the connector for my iPhone? What a gyp!

bobfoto said...

With no on/off switch you can continue to shoot out the window during landing or takeoff and still be in compliance with the Flight Attendant's requirement to have everything with an on/off switch turned off.

typingtalker said...

I never appreciated the Quick Load feature until I bought a camera that didn't have it. Thought all cameras had it. Should have.

Don Jagoe said...

My QL17 quietly sits and watches me while I post process. It has a grace that stills the whole room. Great post.

Alan said...

I've always wanted a Canonet! Nice tape job!
Very nice shot to close the article, very nice!

kirk tuck said...

I like the end photo very much but need to let Michael T know that this is not my wife of 26 years but a girlfriend from college with whom I traveled extensively on year. I still have the Canonet. :-)

Albano Garcia said...

Lovely review. I have one in semi permanent borrowing from a great friend. He loves it so much that told me: "use it as much as you want, but don't sell it or give it just in case I want it back". Please note he's using a couple of Leica M8s :-)
The image quality is excellent and the feel in the hands too. The design is so elegant that it gives pleasure just to sit and look at it.

Mike Shwarts said...

Very nice, but will it hold up to My FEDs and ZORKIs? They have interchangeable lenses. Those Soviets really knew how to desi....er...steal a camera design.

Alan Fairley said...

Great stealthifying with the gaffers tape!

mikaelf said...

My first real camera after a agfa iso rapid was a Canonet 28, and I loved it. Unfortunately I landed on it in a bike accident and it was instantly upgraded with a retractable lens ; ). I still have my fathers QL 17 but the obsolete battery is problem and probably soon also the obsolete film..

photoklarno said...

Entertaining review, loved it.

I have a Canonet 28 which is like a nerfed version of the QL17-- 40mm f/2.8 lens, and autoexposure only. It's kinda boring to use.

But I just bought some rolls of that funny WORO media to stick in my OM-1. And my Olympus XA2 might be my favorite camera ever (compact and designed with curves so it slides easily into pockets, autoexposure, zone focus, 35mm f/3.5 lens, exposure compensation via varying the ISO dial and it just /works/--where's the modern equivalent of the idiotproof camera that delivers a little extra to knowledgeable photographers just works no matter what? I think that ended when they invented DX encoding).

Mats N said...

1970 I was 11 yrs old, wanted this one, but thought the cheaper Canonet 28 might be a more likely present...but I got the Ricoh G500, which also had shutter priority like the QL17.

In mid nineties I got a used QL17 for some 200+ dollars equal...still have it but have to admit I have only shot 3-5 rolls with it. Hav eshot a few nice images *of* it since it is so beautiful (to my eyes at least).

Now I feel inspired to get a decent film scanner and go out and shoot a few rolls...

Thanks Kirk!

Mats, Sweden

Michael Ferron said...

As a guy who still loves to shoot 35mm B&W film I'd like to offer another choice. The Olympus RC rangefinder.

Just picked up two on the auction site for small $$ What gem. I try hard to like Rollei 35's but it's guess focus on top of other quirks. While bigger than the Rollei the Olympus is smaller than the Canonet. Slower lens but fast enough for this daylight shooter.

Load up a roll of Tmax 400 and be happy.

John W said...

Tuck, one of these days you are going to stick that tongue of yours so far into your cheek you'll need surgery to remove it.

Seriously, I sold these cameras back in the 70s. Wonderful little camera and built like a little tank out of REAL metal.

Daniel Zaleski said...

Amazing post! I have no words to describe my pure pleasure in reading that one (just as many other published by you). It was a strange mixture of fun and delight reading your words.

Chad Osburn said...

Ahrrggg!!!! It really pained me to hear you even try to make fun of the QL17.

For years my advice to amateur photographers who can handle the task has been to buy a manual camera (Nikon FM, FM2 or a QL17) leave the battery out of it and buy a cheap hand held light meter. Shooting 10 rolls of E-6 this way will teach you the basics of light and exposure. But more importantly you realize immediately how little the camera's meter should play in making decisions about shutter and aperture (provided you take good notes while shooting). We still, even in this day and age, must be smarter then our cameras. (Here's the more modern way of doing this, turn off your LCD and guess your exposure. No cheating till you see the results on the screen, or even better hand your card to the lab and get prints made!)

I've been waiting for a digital QL17 for almost a decade. Fuji was so close with the X100, but it's not a true rangefinder and doesn't sell for under $500. Remember when it was par for the course that you would have a back up camera that didn't require batteries "just in case"? For me the QL17 was not only that camera but it was also my "party, take along everywhere, travel" camera for years.

Is there any camera as reliable on the market today at any price! LCD's suck power. Touch screen AF? Don't get me started....

If Canon wants to get back it's mojo and keep it's "faithful" (i.e. invested $$$$) photographers happy they will shock us all and bring out a small solidly built mirrorless camera with an EOS adaptable mount. I'll buy it, but it won't be a digital QL17... and that's a real shame.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, but one comment: that film isn't WORO, it's WORM. Once you capture an image on it you can access (read) it for printing or other uses as many times as you want.

kirk tuck said...

I'm well versed in acronyms. I prefer WORO. You can only make one copy at a time.... And WORO sounds better than WORM...

Raianerastha said...

Kirk, I hurt myself laughing so hard. Pulled a muscle in my rib cage. My attorney will be contacting you shortly. ;-)