Reviving a Canon Canonet QL17

Months ago I became a bit obsessed with a particular Canon film camera manufactured back in the 60’s. I’m not sure where or why the Canon Canonet first surfaced on my radar, but it quickly became something I had to get my hands on, and I did. 

There's no shortage of Canon QL17’s on eBay. A quick search will yield dozens that are in great shape and ready to ship, and for good reason. Canon began manufacturing the Canonet back in the 60’s and production lasted until the 80’s. Millions were sold, and they were made well, so many of them are still clicking today.

As far as I can tell, the Canonet was Canon’s answer to the Leica, a rangefinder that could easily tuck away in a pocket, purse, or under the arm, and had a quiet shutter. It features certain “advanced” features like a built-in light meter, though that only works in shutter priority, and a cutting-edge film-loading system that made loading film much easier than with a Leica or other competing cameras of the day. 

A Toyota Land Cruiser of similar vintage shot with my Canon Canonet. 

If you head over to Flickr though you’ll see why I really became so obsessed with this little rangefinder. Aside from it being available for only a fraction of the price of a similar vintage Leica, the images produced, thanks to the fixed 40mm lens, are stunning. Something about the glass. Something about the focal length. For whatever reason, the Canon Canonet punches far above its weight when it comes to image quality. 

I was originally attracted to the Canonet because I wanted a camera I could tuck in my pocket that was not my iPhone, something I could begin to take street photos with and the Leicas were just too far out of my reach. I’m pretty married to my Canon digital system as well, so picking up a point-and-shoot (especially when that’s what my phone does essentially) or a Fuji X-T1 just didn’t make a ton of sense. Plus, I just loving shooting film and wanted an excuse to shoot more. 

This was the answer. 

The Canonet was made in silver and black, the latter fetch a bit more on eBay because of their scarcity though. I happened across a pretty inexpensive one (all black everything!) though and took a chance, even though I wasn’t sure the light meter would work. Turns out though I don’t even really meter on this camera, opting instead to take a reading with a light meter on my phone, and then just going for it. 

I did have to replace the light seals inside the film housing though, which really wasn’t that bad a process. Cleaning out the old foam seals is the hardest and dirtiest part. With a little patience though it can be completed pretty quickly. If you do replace the seals, apply some hand sanitizer to the the spot you want to stick the seals to so you can then slide them around a bit before they fully stick to the camera. All in all, I had the camera re-sealed and shooting after a couple hours of work.

And if you do find yourself in a position to actually buy one, make sure it doesn't have any fungus inside the lens. Turns out this is one of the most common problems. The mechanics might work well, but if the camera was stored in a dank place, chances are it will have fungus growing inside the lens or viewfinder. Not great. 

I’ve opined about the glory of shooting film a lot in these parts, but this camera deserves special mention. If you're someone who enjoys the process, loves film, wants a rangefinder, or just want to add (another) inexpensive camera to your quiver, I can’t recommend this one enough.