The Magnificent Beast
The other day, I had not one, but two early versions of Canon’s F-1 film SLR on hand. One had come in for cleaning and service. The other I had purchased. But both were in spectacularly excellent condition, given their age.
Photographers these days take it for granted that Canon makes a wide range of camera equipment, from basic up to pro level. But it wasn’t always so.
Apparently, in the 1950s, as the 35mm format really took hold – mainly with the success of the Leica M3 and M2 – it was recognized that what was needed was a pro-grade 35mm SLR. The rangefinders were wonderful things, but were miserable to use with lenses over 90mm. There were SLR adapters for the rangefinders, such as Leica’s Visoflex, but it seemed the writing was on the wall to make the 35mm SLR turn pro.
Exakta brought out the first proper 35mm SLR back in the ‘30s, and by the ‘50s the Exakta had company from Pentacon, Asahiflex, and others – but none were rugged enough, elegant enough, or had bright enough viewfinders to go up against the rangefinder.
At least not until 1959 when Nikon introduced a truly pro-grade SLR. It took a beating (as many photojournalists delighted in proving), it was bright and easy to focus, and it took a motorized drive.
Nikon really had the 1960s to themselves, it seems. There were a few contenders from such as Topcon, Pentax, and even Leica – but basically, if it was 1967 and you shot 35mm professionally, you wanted a Nikon F.
Canon had soldiered on during this time with their very nice rangefinder 35mm’s. Sure, they had a few SLRs, but they never pretended they were pro-grade. But if you look at the steady improvement in Canon’s SLRs through the ’60’s, it was apparent something big was coming.
And in 1971, Canon dropped their bomb on the photo world. The F-1 was big, shiny black, very cleverly designed, and obviously tough.
Canon definitely stuck it to Nikon in several ways – at least compared to the original F. The F-1’s finders slid in on well machined grooves. With the Nikon you had to mash them down and listen for a “click”, that sometimes never came. The Canon took a motor drive or winder, right out of the box. It didn’t have to be sent in to Nikon to get fitted and calibrated.
And it had accessories. Tons of them. For quite some time, Canon’s advertisement campaign for the new camera was a black and white ad that ran on the back of most photo magazines. It showed a sea of lenses, finders, focusing screens, backs, motor drives, and more. And almost hidden in the middle was the F-1 body itself. The message was clear, the F-1, like Canon, had fully arrived.
There’s a lot to admire on the original F-1. I love how the meter cell is positioned at the back edge of the focusing screen, siphoning off some light from the partial area metering rectangular patch you can see in the finder. It meant you had to use a new-fangled circular polarizer, but so did the Leica R3. Oh, and those focus screens have machined frames that perfectly snap into the body. So nice. On a Nikon you sort of push the release button and watch them rattle into place.
Funny thing is, the F-1 didn’t really take over the photo world at that time. It would take longer for Canon to truly take their position alongside Nikon at the top of the 35mm SLR heap. Why was that?
There’s no denying the allure of the F-1 body. It was definitely durable and tough. I’ve seen a few well worn examples over the years, but I’ve seen a lot more looking like the one in my photos here. It lived a pampered life in the soft-lined gadget bag of an amateur enthusiast. It didn’t get tossed around in a pro’s photo studio, and certainly didn’t get clattered around against other equipment in a press scrum.
Of course, Nikon had more than a decade’s head start over Canon in the pro SLR world, and many news rooms and photo studios already had a stock of Nikon lenses to put on the new F2 Nikon brought out around the same time. That was one obstacle.
It didn’t help either that just around the same time Olympus took a shot at the pro market with their OM-1 – and tried to convince journalists and the like that smaller cameras, not bigger, were the way forward.
But the biggest hurdle Canon had was the lens mount on the F-1. Newly updated, the FD lenses had all kinds of linkages and tabs that Nikon would take years to catch up with, but there was no denying Canon got their mount from those earlier lightweight SLRs. The breech-lock “R” mount was updated for open aperture metering with the “FL” mount, then came the “FD”. All shared that wonderful wear-resistant breech lock – but spend a few days with one, and you’ll realize that it was more fiddly to change lenses than with a traditional bayonet mount. You could get it wrong, especially in a dimly-lit room.
And then there was just the fact that the camera end of the mount was decidedly thin and wispy compared to the Leica R mount, or Nikon’s F mount. It worked fine for smaller lenses, but big long, heavy telephotos could work the mount loose on the body.
Also, at that time, Canon were ahead of the curve by using more plastic parts in their lens barrels. We’re used to it now, but at the time, professionals expected all their lenses to be all-aluminum barrelled, with maybe a rubber focus grip.
Well, and there’s that motor drive. The F-1 could accept either a nicely sculpted motorized “winder”, or a full-tilt beastly “motor drive”. To compete with the Nikon, you needed the big one, and my, it was big. The large grip actually stood off from the right side of the camera, and you held the grip, not the camera at all. Together, the rig weighed a ton, and took up several compartments of room in a camera bag. When I come across them, most look like they were never used at all. No surprise there. Jokes about boat anchors abound when old guys talk about that old Canon motor drive.
Canon wouldn’t make that mistake again, though. When they brought out the totally redesigned F-1 (dubbed “New F-1) ten years later in ’81, it had a smaller neater motor drive. Trying to listen to the whining of professional customers, Canon kept the new camera as a full-manual match needle SLR. But adding a winder or motor gained you shutter priority automation. Swapping out the prism could get you aperture priority auto as well. By fiddling with focusing screen choice, you could have partial area metering, averaging, or spot metering. Needless to say there were tons of focus screens in Canon’s catalogue, with three versions for each style.
But we can’t forget that only a few years later, Canon brought along the T90, that could switch meter patterns and exposure modes with the push of a button. It also had what Canon oddly left off the New F-1 – TTL flash exposure. Oh, and the T90 only needed four AA batteries to run it all.
Still, the T90 and the New F-1 continued with the shortcomings of the FD mount, and as a result never quite reached the top tier of pro acceptance.
With the coming of autofocus, Canon knew the gig was up on the FD mount, and went back to the drawing board, much to the gnashing of teeth from all those well-heeled amateurs who had invested heavily in some very nice FD lenses.
The new autofocus-capable EF mount was not compatible with FD cameras or lenses, but it was the way forward. And with just a couple of generations of pro-grade EOS camera bodies, Canon had achieved widespread acceptance among working pros.
And they haven’t looked back since.
I had plans to find some other nice FD lenses to go along with the pretty FD 50mm 1.4 SSC this F-1 came with. Well, I had plans, but a young fellow spotted it on my shelf and promised me he needed it more than I did. I had to agree, and so parted with it.
Maybe I’ll find a way to hang on to the next one longer.