Nostalgia. Not all it's cracked up to be. Looking at the Canon FTb QL.

A shutter noise like the pounding of metal garbage can lids and minor explosions.

I had such great memories about my early film days in general and the Canon cameras I used in particular. At the time the cameras seemed almost magical. Robust, quick to operate and satisfying to have in one's hands. Then came all the ensuing years of AF film SLRs which atrophied many peoples' abilities to manual focus lenses at all. After that came digital cameras with quieter shutters, endless potential frames, instant feedback, higher sharpness and ample resolution. But I never thought about those progressive changes until I confronted them last week. My nostalgia got head-butted by reality. 

I'd ordered an inexpensive 1970's era, manual SLR mostly just to get the lens that came bundled with it. I like the lens a lot. It's a Canon 50mm f1.4 FD lens and it's tons of fun to shoot with. The colors and tonalities of the files it creates are different from contemporary lenses and fuel a healthy nostalgia for one version of how images looked back in earlier times. With a good adapter the lens becomes more or less transparent to use. Almost.

But not so with the camera body. Oh...I've forgotten so much.

The FTb QL was a very popular SLR for Canon. It was the step-up camera from the very, very rudimentary Canon TX. While the TX topped out at 1/500th of a second the shutter in the FTb soared all the way up to 1/1000th of a second. The model I just received was the second version of the FTb which had a badge on the front reading, "QL." That stood for quick load. It has a mechanism that allowed one to put the film leader over a sprocket and then a spring loaded plate came down to hold the film in place while the back of the camera was closed. On the TX you have to finagle the end of the film into a slot, hold the film with one finger while you wound a bit on and gingerly closed the back, then said a little prayer to the camera gods asking that the film would not slip out of the slot and fail to go through the camera. A failing you generally discovered when you started wondering if Kodak had really started to put 50 or 60 exposures on a roll instead of the usual 36.... The QL function saved a lot of newbies a lot of embarrassment and ego-shattering failure...at least when it came to getting the film installed. 

The FTb, like most bigger cameras of the time, was built like an absolute tank. Not a Russian tank, the pentaprisms don't tend to fly off,  but more like one of those really cool Swedish tanks. Solid metal everywhere and all the weight that goes with it. 

I would call all of these earlier cameras semi-automatic because, with a matched, branded lens you could actually meter an exposure. And the exposure was pretty much in the ball park ... if you aimed it at the right target. In my mind, at least back then, a fully manual camera was something like a Leica M4 or M3, or a non-metered prism Nikon F. You had to figure out your exposures on your own with one of those non-metered bodies. With the FTb you could set the ASA (now ISO), watch a needle move in the finder and try to match up the needle with a lollipop/indicator that was hooked up to the aperture to that needle. If everything lined up you were probably going to get somewhere in the ballpark with your film shots. 

These old cameras charge the shutter when you use the film wind lever to move the film to the next frame. In fact, when you wind on to the next frame a whole series of things happen. The shutter curtain returns to its ready position, the mirror spring is tensioned and the camera waits breathlessly for your next move. 

And you can do all these things for days, months and years without ever needing a battery. No need to plug in a USB 3 cable. No auxiliary battery pack needed. In fact, the only thing the small, mercury battery ever did was to make the meter work. That's it. And now, since mercury batteries were outlawed in most countries about 40 years ago you'll need to find a silver oxide replacement and recalibrate your metering system for the camera. It's easier just to either memorize the most useful, general exposures for the film you like best or to buy and learn to use an external light meter. 

I thought for a while (a day or two) that I'd enjoy buying a dozen rolls of film and trying my hand at the craft as I had practiced it in my youth. I checked on the price of Tri-X film and almost fell off my chair. It's between $12 and $14 a roll, depending on the snootiness of your retailer, and that doesn't include processing or printing. Here in Austin, done right, I'd have to drop about $25 just to buy, process and contact print one roll of film. To revisit the darkroom I ended up working in would mean re-buying a Leica V35 enlarger, sodium vapor safelights, a couple thousand dollars worth of plumbing, etc. I started to realize the folly of even thinking about it especially since I'm very happy making black and white images with my digital cameras, along with a little nudge from Lightroom.

But the final blow to my own nostalgia came when I operated the film wind lever, pulled the camera up to my eye, tried to frame something through the dark and dingy viewfinderfinder and then, with much anticipation, fired off the shutter. I had completely forgotten just how loud, how harsh and how kinetic those old cameras were in actual use. There's no way I'd put up with that now. In fact, I should probably go and have my hearing checked after having clicked off the shutter ten or twenty times in a short session of cameras induced time travel. 

It reminded me that doctors in the 1970s were still working with re-useable syringe needles back then. Cars belched smoke with abandon and without the benefit of catalytic converters, people smoked in airplanes and hospitals, and railed against having to use seatbelts in their automobiles. I'll now add loud, busy cameras to that list. 

It was fun back then because I didn't know any better but from my perch here in the future I can only feel pity for the photographers of that age. Who, of course, were busy pitying those older photographers carrying around Graflex cameras and flashbulbs, and those few were just glad not to be coating their own plates. And those plate coaters were happy not to stand over a steaming mercury bath to finish out their work. And accelerate their mortality...

Be careful what you wish for...you might get it. It might be attached to that cool lens you thought you wanted it. Almost sounds like the lyrics in "For the Roses" by Elvis Costello...

So there is my modern day assessment of the Canon FTb and its ilk. Take it with a grain of salt.

Wrapping my brain around just how cool I thought 1/1,000th of a second on 
a shutter speed dial seemed back in the middle of the 1970s. 

A massive move forward. The quick load mechanism.

And in several places on the camera are little signs instructing the user in how to
take advantage of these modern engineering breakthroughs. 

Anybody need a decent FTb body? Let me know....