We’ve talked about the Canon New Canonet 28’s faster relatives twice before; our reviews of the New Canonet QL17 and that camera’s successor, the Canonet G-III (QL) 17, both spoke in glowing terms. And rightly so. They’re great cameras. Unfortunately for those of us on a budget, these tiny rangefinders can be pricey, often fetching more than $200 for quality examples. This is where the value of the Canonet 28 proves itself – they can easily be bought for under $50, and I often see them sell for as low as $15. But does the lower cost of entry make up for the New Canonet 28’s compromises?
One of the quintessential arguments for shooting film is the direct manual control that often comes with the medium. It’s why photography students are regularly instructed to learn photography on all-manual 35mm SLRs. Manual control is what Ansel Adams felt created “intense images that are consistently above the average.” But can automatic cameras like the New Canonet 28 be as suited to serious film photography?
Adams was split. On the one hand, automation “permits greater concentration on subject and less on mechanics,” but on the other hand, automation means giving up a level of creativity necessary to the realization of “higher than average” photos.
This article isn’t an apology for automation. It is, however, meant to be an apology for the Canonet 28, a camera that essentially functions as a fully automatic one.
History and Nomenclature
Canon began the Canonet lineage with the eponymous camera in 1961. The original Canonet was fast, with a maximum aperture of f/1.9 and featured Canon’s unique Electric Eye (EE) light metering technology, a design that featured photocells positioned around the entire lens. The EE mechanism of the camera led Canon to voraciously market the device as fully automatic. So the original Canonet’s manual says, “No need to figure out correct exposures ever – the Canonet does it for you… automatically. You are assured of perfect pictures… always.” Quite the selling point.
According to Canon, a week’s worth of Canonet camera stock sold in the first two hours of its release, which, of course, is still the case with most new camera releases today.
By the time the next actual iteration of the Canonet was released with the Canonet S in 1964, more than one million Canonets had left the shelves. The Canonet S was a bit faster, at f/1.7, and added one additional lens element in its six elements in four groups formula.
In 1965, Canon released a comprehensive Canonet line differentiated by inclusion of the new Quick Loading feature. The three primary models included the QL17 (with an f/1.7 lens), the QL19 (f/1.9), and the less expensive QL25 (f/2.5 and 1/15 of a second as the slowest shutter speed). These Canonet QLs eradicated the panoptic-like EE and instead swung to the other end of the spectrum with a minuscule metering cell positioned at the top of the lens – a design feature that would remain through the end of the Canonet series’ evolutions. These QLs also introduced full aperture and shutter-speed control, along with a shutter-priority auto-exposure mode.
The original Canonet 28 arrived in 1968 as an economy Canonet model. It was the slowest Canonet yet at f/2.8 and possessed the fewest lens elements, at four in three groups. It also featured a Seiko LA shutter as opposed to the Copal SV shutters found in every other preceding and proceeding Canonet model, save for the QL 19E, which had a Seiko SE electronic shutter. The body was reinforced plastic and, rather than a coincidence rangefinder, the camera relied on zone focusing through a few zone marks in the viewfinder. Without any rangefinder mechanism or (obviously) autofocus, the Canonet 28 forced uncertainty into the focusing process, similar to the far superior Rollei 35 SE.
1968 marked the end of the Canonet’s second batch of iterations with the S, QLs, and 28. A third wave of iterations began in 1969 with the “New” Canonets; the New Canonet QL17 (and “luxury” QL17-L), the New Canonet QL19, and the New Canonet 28, the latter two released in 1971.
Finally in 1972, Canon produced its magnum opus Canonet and said goodbye to the Canonet line forever with the Canonet (QL) G-III 17 and 19. These “grade up” third generation QLs (hence the G-III) were the best Canonets produced by Canon, and cemented the Canonet legacy in the annals of compact rangefinders.
The proper Canonet nomenclature, then, goes from earliest to latest models, first, no qualifier (e.g. just QL or 28), to second, “new” (e.g. New QL or New 28), to finally third, G-III, noting that there was no G-III 28.
Having slogged our way through the rich history of the Canonet’s cumbersome identification methodology, we can now begin to think more closely about whether the New 28 represented a major jump in quality from the pitiful original 28, and if it truly rivals the quality of the faster and newer models.
The Splendor of Simplicity
The New Canonet 28 is remarkably simple. In many ways, the camera embodies a minimalist aesthetic. It’s unsurprisingly lighter at 540 grams than the New QL17 or the G-III 17, both of which weigh in at 620 grams. Nonetheless, it features the same texturized metal and exudes a beautiful, almost constellate luster on its top and bottom plates. The lens barrel and focusing ring are a more muted satin metal that differs only subtly from, and therefore complements, the body’s finish.
On both the front and top of the camera we find engraved lettering filled with black enamel. The top is emblazoned with the stylized “Canonet 28” in a proprietary script typeface for “Canonet” and a digital-like typeface (comparable to Matthew Carter’s Walker) for “28,” while the front features the classic Canon logo.
The camera has few controls, mechanical or otherwise. A top-mounted film advance lever (coated in hard plastic in an appearance reminiscent of an aircraft empennage), a nondescript film rewind knob, a threaded shutter release, a plastic aperture ring (admittedly best left on “A”), a discrete ISO tab on the lens barrel, featuring a relatively sparse range from 25-400, and the metal focusing ring.
The viewfinder on the camera is fantastic. The parallax-corrected frame lines are yellow and easily discernible, the shutter-speed strip and meter needle are also bright and clear, and the split-image is perhaps the best of all – sharp and obvious when out of focus.
In terms of feel, the camera leaves nothing wanting. It is appropriately heavy, an archetypal boxy shape, and compact enough for easy carry (though the fixed lens does stick out farther than other compact rangefinders like the Olympus XA or other compact automatic cameras.) Recently, I took my NC28 with me while fishing in a canoe and I never felt distracted by the camera around my neck or weighed down when casting. Had I wanted, it would have been remarkably easy to slip the camera into a larger coat or flannel shirt pocket – it’s shorter lengthwise than my phone is tall.
My main gripe with the camera’s design is the plastic aperture control ring. It is colored a dingy baby powder white, and the feel of its actuation comes with a flimsiness found nowhere else on the camera. That said, when the aperture ring is moved to Auto it does nicely lock into place, which provides a satisfying mechanical comfort from an otherwise materially uninspiring piece. Overall, the camera is aesthetically and mechanically understated but, in an elegant manner.
Shooting the New Canonet 28
The New Canonet 28 features a 40mm lens, a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and five lens elements in four groups – the same lens formula found in the original Canonet, and one less element than those found in the QL models. However, at f/2.8 it retains the title of slowest Canonet. Even so, the NC28 is capable of a great degree of sharpness across all apertures and can handle lowlight situations fairly well.
Most of the images below, shot on Ilford HP5 Plus, were taken on overcast days closer to sunset than midday. In some photos, you can tell that the camera exposed for the lake or the sky as opposed to my subject, which highlights the frustration that comes with not being able to set one’s own shutter speed and aperture. Exposures aren’t miscalculated atrociously, but they’re just a bit off in certain light. An exposure compensation function would’ve fit nicely in the Canonet’s design brief.
Vignetting occurs here and there. That said, there is definitely prevalent softness around the edges of my photographs even when I get the focusing right. This could be due to the camera choosing a larger aperture to compensate for the lighting, but even in the brighter shots there is significant and obvious blur around the corners, and particularly so in the top right corner.
When it comes to bokeh, the camera is nothing special. In my shots, I can see really no telltale elements of “good” bokeh. Background and foreground blur is relatively fine (as in smooth) albeit there might be some swirl to the background here and there.
The optical excellence of this camera is essentially its tonal ability and the chance to capture a very sharp center of frame. The Spectra coating used in the lens construction allows for excellent contrast, which slightly makes up for what the lens and automation system lack in sharpness. At infinity, much of the frame is sharp, and it’s here that the camera produces its best photos.
All in all, the New Canonet 28 is a joy to use. As a model more under-the-radar than its manual and faster cousins, there’s not a great financial commitment attached to acquiring one. The photos it produces easily rival those of the pricier, faster QL17s. It may not be the perfect camera for feeling in control, but it just might be the perfect camera for letting go.