Street photography, both easily accessible and frustratingly fickle, is one of those wonderful artistic pursuits that can be entirely rewarding even if mastery eludes you. Clichés be damned, street shooting is truly about the journey and not the destination. Enjoying a well-known city or exploring an unfamiliar one, shooting with friends or experiencing the paradoxical solitude found shooting alone amidst a bustling crowd; street photography always offers something new, exciting, and unique.
But what’s the best camera for street photography? This is a common question, and one which many would reflexively answer by trumpeting the supremacy of Leica machines. Those are amazing cameras, no question, but surely there are other alternatives.
I recently took an early summer stroll through Providence, Rhode Island, and brought with me a Canonet QL17 for some casual street shooting. Expecting little, I came away very impressed. This diminutive machine has been called a “poor man’s Leica”, but I’ve heard that phrase uttered so often about so many cameras that I tend to dismiss the notion offhand. After spending the weekend shooting I’m ready to admit that the Canonet might actually deserve the title, and could in some ways surpass the venerable M series as the ultimate 35mm street shooter.
The Canonet was one of Canon’s greatest commercial successes, and production in various models and trims carried on uninterrupted from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s. Whenever the design was upgraded the name would be changed to reflect this. As such, there are now around 17 individual models produced under the Canonet nameplate, and many confusingly share identical or similar nomenclature. Canonet, Canonet Junior, New Canonet, QL17, New QL, and so on.
It can all get very confusing, so for the purposes of this review we’ll focus on the “New QL” models. These naturally followed the original QL cameras, which were marked with “QL” to indicate inclusion of Canon’s “Quick Load” technology. In the late-1960s the Canonet QLs were upgraded, and to further differentiate the models from one another the “QL” badging would be followed by the number 17, 19, or 28. This in turn would indicate the maximum aperture of the camera’s fixed lens at ƒ/1.7, 1.9, or 2.8, respectively. Our test camera happens to be the fastest of the New QLs, the QL 17.
In street shooting, size matters, and one of the more remarkable traits of the QL17 is its minuscule size. Canon’s goal when developing the New QL was to make the camera substantially lighter and smaller than its predecessor, and they did just that. At 620g it’s 30% lighter than the original QL17, and at 120 x 75 x 60mm it’s 20mm narrower and 4mm shorter. Functionality was altered as well; the original QLs featured a 45mm lens with the New QLs favoring a wider 40mm focal length. These design changes are for the best since the shooter gains ultimate compactness while still retaining a focal length that is arguably perfect for street photography.
Of similar importance in street shooting is the ability of the photographer to inconspicuously melt into his or her surroundings. This can be difficult with massive, shiny cameras. Even the stealthiest Leica will draw the attention of those subjects whose radar are acutely attuned to glimmering baubles of conspicuous wealth. While the chrome Canonets can stand out in a crowd as attractive vintage machines, the all black version is damn near invisible. This version is fairly rare and excellent examples will fetch a premium, but the added invisibility will be a big draw for the serious street shooter. In black enamel the Canonet is one of the most innocuous vintage cameras on offer.
Canon’s “Quick Load” mechanism is a thing of beauty, and it’s unsurprising that they’d choose to boast its existence with the “QL” badge. To load the film the photographer opens the film door on the back of the camera, lays the film leader flat, and closes the film door. An ingenious metal flap springs down across the film ensuring through the use of two rolling pins that the film engages automatically in the take up spool. Once the film door is closed, a simple winding of the advance lever puts everything magically in place. The photographer fires a couple of shots while keeping an eye on the “Film Loaded” window. When the diagonal red lines start to move you’re ready to take some photos. Simple.
Also notable is the Canonet’s Copal leaf shutter, which makes the Canonet one of the quietest cameras around. It’s virtually silent, and there’s simply no chance this shutter’s going to alert or alarm any candid subject, no matter how close you manage to get. Automatic shutter speed is available with manual speeds being covered from 1/4 to 1/500 of a second and Bulb mode. A rarity in cameras of this vintage but common in leaf shutter machines, flash sync occurs at all speeds.
Focusing is another strong point. Those shooters accustomed to long focusing actions will have to make an adjustment, as the Canonet’s action is incredibly short. The barrel-mounted lever is positioned perfectly for thumb-actuation, and it takes only the smallest movement to effect accurate focusing. This is useful with spontaneous shots when focus must be achieved in just a few seconds, and a painted focus scale makes it easy to shoot from the hip.
The camera’s ability to quickly and accurately focus is further aided by a well-designed viewfinder. It’s not the largest viewfinder, but it is exceptionally bright, features a decent 0.6x magnification, and the rangefinder window is clear and well-defined. Automatic parallax correction is another nice addition, and it’s fun to watch the frame lines shift with the focusing action. On the right side of the viewfinder window is the light-meter needle, the aperture scale, exposure warnings, and battery check indicator. The information is laid out in an extremely clean and clear way, again representative of a well-designed camera that does well to stay out of the photographer’s way.
The camera features a capable automatic exposure mode, using a CdS cell for shutter speed priority. This automatic mode coupled with symbols on the lens barrel to indicate sunshine, clouds, and indoor shooting, make the Canonet completely accessible to inexperienced photographers. More advanced users will quickly take advantage of full manual mode, setting aperture and shutter speeds by twisting the concentric rings on the lens barrel. Metering is unavailable when shooting manual, but experienced shooters won’t miss it. In the hands of a master street photographer it all comes together like magic. Aperture and shutter speed are quickly set, frame the shot, focus in seconds, and in the next moment the shutter silently opens to capture the image.
Lens quality is very good, and non-photo-geeks will never notice a difference between a photo shot with a Canonet and a photo shot with a Leica using a 40mm ƒ/2. There will be Leica fans who would have my head for saying this, but it’s true. The average guy isn’t going to know the difference. With the Canonet, there are some softness issues when the lens is shot wide open, and its maximum sharpness comes in around ƒ/4, but overall the lens on this camera is entirely capable of creating gallery quality images in the right hands [not my hands].
The lens creates an interesting dichotomy when it comes to bokeh. Out of focus areas are properly blended, and it’s possible to get nice subject isolation and bubbly bokeh balls when shooting the lens wide open. But when you stop the aperture down a bit the characteristics of the bokeh change dramatically. Points of light rendered in bokeh are less the balls of colorful light that everyone loves, and more pentagonal in shape. This is caused by the five non-rounded aperture blades of the iris. Some people will find the effect interesting and others will find it vulgar. I consider it fondly to be one of this camera’s charming eccentricities.
Build quality is exceptional. The camera is compact, as mentioned, but solidly built. The entire body, including film door, is made of brass. Weight is centralized and balanced, creating a shooting experience that inspires total confidence. Strap lugs are positioned perfectly, negating the off-balance swinging that hampers similarly sized rangefinders such as the Minolta CLE. The film advance lever ratchets in one smooth stroke accompanied by a satisfying mechanical note. The entire package oozes class and sophistication. The longer one uses the Canonet the more one feels that it’s been undeservedly overlooked. This is the kind of timeless machine that will look fantastic forever.
When looking to purchase, watch for the usual issues afflicting cameras. Excessive dust, evidence of improper storage, obvious physical damage, and fogginess in the rangefinder or viewfinder are all things of which to be weary. If you’re holding the camera in hand, inspect the light seals on the film door and look for fungus on the lens by holding the camera to a light and holding the shutter open in Bulb mode. Examples suffering from fungus should be disregarded, though light leaks are easily fixed at extremely minimal cost. The black enamel version is more worthy of the cost of a CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust), with the chrome version being more expendable.
In many ways the Canonet QL17 is the ideal street photography camera. Compact, phenomenally built, easy-to-use yet capable of the artistic stuff, it seems to have it all. Couple these inherent superlatives with the reality that these cameras can be purchased for under $100 and it’s almost as if we’re living in a street shooter’s paradise. Technical prowess noted, the QL17 also manages to be one of the sexiest vintage cameras out there. It’s the kind of camera that becomes a perfect companion on the street. Uncomplicated, inconspicuous, and artistically relevant, it provides amateurs and serious photographers alike the ability to directly capture the essence of the moment. And isn’t that what street photography is all about?