Canon Canonet QL17 GIII was the first camera I learned about when I began shooting film. It was recommended to me as a top-choice rangefinder for a new photographer.
The legends of its “Leica-like” performance in an affordable Japanese-made all-metal body enticed me, yet I could not afford one.
Ten years into my film days, I finally got to try the premium all-black version of my dream camera.
A brief history of the Canon’s Canonet series.
Since its founding in 1937, Canon has continuously shaped its production line to suit avid amateurs and professionals. But in the mid-twentieth century, the brand found a new niche: casual photographers.
The camera industry went into an uproar upon learning that Canon, maker of high-end cameras, was to introduce a mid-class 35mm camera with a fast f/1.9 lens for less than 20,000 yen… A week’s worth of stock was sold out in only two hours. It was the start of the Canonet boom.
— Canon Camera Museum (archived).
Canon’s QL series comes from the first era of premium film compacts — the latter taking part in the 1990s after some significant advancements in autofocus and miniaturization. Aimed at users looking for results that match pro gear without having to lug heavy equipment and a manual, these types of cameras enjoyed immense success. And in the mid-‘60s to late-‘70s, Canon’s Canonet series were a top choice; the GIII alone sold over 1.2 million units — and that’s just one camera out of the 12.
All cameras marked with “GIII” are a part of the third and final release of the Canonet cameras. Confusingly, the previous generations were not marked. But as expected, Canon improved their offerings by first switching to a smaller and more sensitive CdS exposure meter and then reducing the size and weight of their cameras by 30%.
Some improvements were superficial, like the battery check that was marketed as a “luxury” feature. Others needed no updates as they were perfectly executed from the start, such as the quick-loading (QL) system which later became a standard in all modern point-and-shoots.
Notably, Canon made great efforts to ensure that the value of their product is further driven by pricing. Canonet QL17 GIII sold for 29,000¥ in 1972 or $615 in today’s USD — a much better deal than the 2022’s PowerShot G1 X Mark III (a similar product in a modern Canon lineup) that goes for $1000.
Better yet, most used Canonets cost less than $200 in 2022.
Let me tell you more about this camera so that you can decide if it’s a deal or not. After all, it’s not the only camera with an attractive price tag.
Controls and ergonomics.
Watching the film advance indicator move was my first QL17 joy.
The two vertical red lines sway left to right inside the little white rectangle as the film advances to each new frame. If they stand still, that means that there’s no film in the camera or that it wasn’t loaded properly. A small but significant innovation to help avoid shooting blanks — a horror most film photographers experience at least once.
Canon’s QL (quick-loading) mechanism makes loading film even safer and faster as there’s no need to clip the leader. Just align the leader with the orange mark on the right.
Like many modern cameras, the QL system will have you advance about 4 frames before unlocking the shutter. This is to ensure that the first frame doesn’t get cut off. Unfortunately, this means that you will be losing some bonus frames that older mechanical cameras usually benefit from (you can squeeze up to 40 frames from some rolls marked as 36exp).
Once you complete the winding, a smaller white vertical rectangle will get filled with red to indicate the shutter’s readiness. However, the shutter will stay locked if your GIII is in “Auto” mode and there’s insufficient light.
If you don’t have a special battery made for this camera, QL17 will function perfectly well as a fully-mechanical camera. Given that its light meter isn’t particularly advanced, I feel that this camera works best in manual mode.
The film advance lever on QL17 returns to a half-engaged position. In that position, it leaves space between the lever and the camera body for your right thumb. This shaves off milliseconds off the delay between each frame as you crank the film by hand. An obsession of some manufacturers which persisted until electric motors were introduced into film cameras.
The rangefinder window is fairly comfortable. The bright lines and the exposure indicator are clearly visible with glasses on. Note that the exposure indicator only works when the camera is in “Auto” mode.
Another subtle but nice feature found on the top plate of the camera is the film plane indicator (marked ⏀, next to the hot shoe).
QL17’s “Auto” (shutter priority) shooting mode is a decent assist for those who’d rather not use an external light meter. Once engaged by moving the aperture ring into the “A” position, the camera indicates which aperture it will select in the viewfinder. If you’re out of bounds, the camera will not let you shoot.
Depth of field markings are missing on QL17’s lens. Its remarkably short 45° focus throw and a focus lever that you can only move with your left hand aren’t for everyone. Nevertheless, the lens controls are fairly straightforward — a little hard to grip but in a compact, almost-pocketable (620g/1.37lb) package.
The light sensor is conveniently located next to the lens, below the 48mm filter thread. Thanks to that placement, QL17 will compensate its metered exposures properly whenever you use a filter.
Fitting QL17 with the exact battery is difficult, and thus by default, the light meter on the camera may not be reliable. If you get it to work, you’ll need to set your film speed on the lens barrel — the camera accepts ISOs 25-800.
Canon Canonet batteries and replacements.
Though I prefer to use the Sunny 16 rule with my mechanical cameras, I still wanted to try the shutter priority on my QL17. I made a special effort to find a copy with working electronics.
Canon’s Canonet QL17 GIII uses the 1.35V M20 batteries that are no longer in production due to their main ingredient’s toxicity (mercury). Alas, replacements aren’t common.
The simplest solution is to stick an LR44 (button) battery along with a small piece of folded tin foil. The battery fits under a small door on the bottom plate. Its plus side needs to face the same way as the camera lens, and the foil should fit between the plus side and the wall (LR44 isn’t thick enough to reach both contacts). This worked well for me with the exception of the light meter being off by 1-2 stops due to the difference in voltage (wanted: 1.35V, LR44 provides: 1.5V). The solution to that problem is to set the film ISO 1-2 stops lower than it is. For example, if you’re shooting an ISO 100 film, set the ISO to 25 or 50.
A more reliable way to power Canon’s Canonet cameras is to use a modern replacement for the M20 battery.
Note that not all M20 replacements work. Canonet’s battery compartment is too small for some oversized Wein cells. I would also avoid buying passive battery adapters as they are no more useful than the tin foil trick.
Canon Canonet lens image quality.
Canon’s QL17 lens is sharp, versatile, and it can generate very nice bokeh. The quality of its out-of-focus highlights, especially when shot at 𝒇1.7 at the lens’ close focus distance of .8m reminds me of the German Voigtländer Ultron. It’s smooth, dreamy, and swirly, with liquid-like qualities.
Most vintage lenses become soft when shot at their maximum aperture; QL17’s does as well but to a lesser degree. It’s impressively sharp, even more so when stopped won to 𝒇4-𝒇8.
The lens appears to be very good at correcting chromatic aberrations and other distortions.
But it’s not particularly good at countering flaring. In some cases, this can become distracting. This is very common on lenses of this age but fixable using something like Adobe Photoshop’s Curves layer.
Overall, I found Canonet QL17 GIII easy and fun to use. Flaring aside, the images I got with this camera are some of the best I’ve seen from rangefinders of this age. It’s also nice to have a quality metal body that doesn’t weigh as much as a brick.
Canonet QL17 GIII, particularly the ones in the black finish, are nearly indistinguishable from much pricier cameras of the time in terms of finish, reliability, tolerances, and feel-in-hand.
Like a premium-finish Leica, the black QL17 wears out beautifully. Paint chips and scuffs reveal golden brassing, which looks pretty and is a desirable trait by collectors. Canon achieved this in the 1970s using affordable (at the time) materials in huge quantities, giving these cameras the power of an affordable, practical head-turner.
Japan Camera Hunter’s Bellamy, a prominent collector and retailer, admits he can not resist buying these cameras whenever he sees one on sale.
Canonet’s ultra-quiet leaf shutter can sync with flash at all speeds (4-1/500s). QL17 makes flash photography even simpler with a dedicated Canolite D unit that automates exposure using a method similar to through-the-lens flash metering on modern SLR cameras. Once connected it just works.
The final innovation that makes the GIII a camera suitable for novices and avid amateurs alike.
Where and how to find a good, working Canonet QL17 camera.
Canonet QL17 GIII is not a difficult-to-find camera in 2022 — even the fancy black version. These cameras last without many issues, though you’d still want to ensure that the shutter works and that the rangefinder patch has decent contrast. Today, these cameras can be found on sale for $150-350 depending on their condition.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Canon Canonet QL17 GIII camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!