Canon F1 Review (Where the war with Nikon began!)

Luminar 4

Last Updated on

The F1 was the first (successful) professional SLR camera from Canon. Released in 1971, it marked the beginning of the F1 series, and fired the first shot in a decades-long rivalry with Nikon.

Throughout the early 1970’s, the Japanese juggernaut, Nikon, dominated the professional SLR market. The Nikon F and Nikon F2 cameras were state-of-the-art. Canon was able to technologically supercede these cameras with the conveniently named Canon F-1 (or, the one Nikon missed).

My great uncle recently passed away and I was handed his Canon film camera. As is the tradition here at culturedkiwi.com (and to do right by the original Cultured Kiwi, my great uncle) I thought it best to spend some time with this camera, and give it a full review.

If you’re in a hurry to check out the prices of this camera then click here.

canon f1

Body & Design

The Canon F-1 is built like a tank. If I was to end this paragraph here, that is all you would need to know. You can skip down now…

But, unfortunately, with a tank-like construction, comes weight. When compared to something like an Olympus OM-1 at 540g body weight, it is about 300g heavier. With this weight, you gain confidence in the ability of the camera to withstand almost any environment.

The body is made from solid brass. As the camera wears, the black painted exterior wears through to a beautiful yellow brass. This makes the wear (caused by using the camera) become a feature, reminding you of all the times you’ve held it. While newer plastic cameras need caution when handling, this camera will take drop after drop, shedding only a fleck or two of paint.

Operation & Controls

Unique for the time this camera has an almost all manual approach to photography. The Canon F1 New that I am reviewing does have the advantage of aperture priority mode and an electronic shutter. However, should the batteries go flat you are able to operate the camera down to a shutter speed of 1/125. Below that, you need the batteries.

You can set the aperture on the lens and the camera will calculate the required shutter speed. I shoot around 95% of all my photos (with a digital camera) in aperture priority mode, so this is makes a huge difference. When in aperture priority mode the meter looks as is shown in the image below. The needle swinging across the bottom to designate the correct shutter speed.

AE metering canon film camera

The metering system on this camera isn’t as intuitive as other consumer grade cameras. However, once you understand how it works, you are able to glean more information than that of just about any other camera of this era.

There are two modes of operation for the meter when in manual shooting mode. The first, match-needle metering will present you with a circle over the current aperture. You then need to select the shutter speed to intersect the needle.

The important point to note here is that the centre of the graph, isn’t correct exposure. Correct exposure at f16 (for example) would be when the needle and the circle are both on f16. See the excerpt from the manual below:

canon f1 metering

The secont form of metering is Stopped-down (Fixed Index) metering. This form of shooting will be familiar to any film shooter. This mode is activated by ensuring that the stop-down slide is in the “open” position. See the manual exertpt for a detailed explantion below:

canon film camera metering

Features

This camera is very rugged. They very rarely need any servicing and (like the more modern Canon 5D series) they are workhorses. Designed from the ground up to be a professional level camera, with professional level features.

Shooting without the prism detached is also possible as you can see below. There is a crystal clear display of what you see through the lens. Although focusing can be difficult at lower apertures while shooting like this, it is possible!

removable viewfinder

Removable Viewfinders

The removable viewfinders allow you to exchange the prism at the top of the camera with your preferred viewfinder. There were an array of focusing screens which can be changed without any tools. Simply press the two buttons either side of the prism and slide it back out of the way.

Double Exposure Mode

What good is a professional film camera without double exposure mode? Dubbed a gimmick by a lot of photographers, this technique allows an immense level of creativity to the shots you can achieve.

To shoot double exposures using the Canon F 1 you need to first take the initial shot. Then depress the ‘R” (rewind) button, located directly below the shutter button. Once this is depressed you can cock the shutter (without advancing the film), then take the next shot.

To get better results it is recommended you use exposure compensation to underexpose both shots by at least one shot. Therefore, when both images are overlaid, you’ll get one complete exposure.

Exposure Compensation

As noted above, exposure compensation allows you to overexpose or underexpose your image. You can over expose by 2 stops by rotating the exposure compensation to “4”. See the wheel to the left of the prism below:

best canon film camera

To under expose a shot by one stop you would rotate the wheel to “1/2” and 2 stops to “1/4”. In more modern cameras this is portrayed by -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2 stops of exposure compensation.

If you’re interested in a Canon F-1 then check out eBay for the local prices.

Canon F-1 Accessories

Because Canon was late to the professional camera market, they entered with a bang. The Canon F1 was able to be used for just about any type of photography. At launch there were over 200 different accessories available. Some of the key accessories include:

Canon AE Motor Drive FN

Canon AE Motor Drive FN
Image courtesy of: https://global.rakuten.com/en/

The AE Motordrive FN provides you with automatic film winding and power rewinding as well as adding a Shutter Priority AE mode to the camera.

It can be powered by three different battery packs, which determine the number of shots you can take per second.

Designed for Sports, Action and Candid photography it allowed frame rates of up to 5 frames per second (with the high power battery pack).

Canon AE Power Winder FN

Canon AE Power Winder FN

If the thought of shooting 4-5 frames per second with the motor drive is too much for you, fear not, they released the Power Winder FN too.

With a maximum of 2 frames per second and a much more compact body, it was most likely aimed at the prosumer market.

This is much more compact running on AA batteries and also allows the camera to operate in Shutter Priority AE mode.

Canon Film Chamber FN-100

Canon Film Chamber FN-100

For some people, one roll is never enough… The Film Chamber FN-100 was designed for the New Canon F-1. When used with the Motor Drive it allowed continuous shooting of up to 100 frames!

This was aimed at Sports, Action and Documentary where you can’t waste time changing rolls of film still need something rather compact.

Canon Data Back FN

Canon Data Back FN

The Canon Data Back was again designed for the New Canon F-1 and enabled the film to be imprinted with up to 6 characters.

This could be used to record the date on photographs, or other information for scientific purposes.

Canon Wireless Controller LC-1

Canon Wireless Controller LC-1

Canon entered the wireless realm for the first time with this beauty. This allowed an infrared remote to control the shutter at a distance.

Used for sports, wildlife and news photography this would allow up to three cameras to be operated on three different channels!

canon fd 70 210

The Canon F1 Series

Canon needed to release a a sturdy workhorse of a camera in order to compete with Nikon, and they did just that. It feels like you’re holding a tank, but not in a bad way. It is made to handle a knock and keep taking photos.

The Canon F-1 series consisted of two distinctly different cameras. The original F-1 in 1971 (revised F-1n in 1976) and the new F-1 in 1981. The key difference between the two was that the earlier models were solely mechanically controlled. While the later New F-1 was electronically controlled, with the option to use it mechanically should the batteries fail.

To fully understand the three (two and a half really) different models, let us have a quick look at each camera first.

Canon F-1 (Old)

canon f1 old

The Canon F1 is a 35mm SLR brought to the market in 1971. It launched the Canon FD lens mount which enables full communication between the lens and the camera.

It has an in-built through-the-lens (TTL) meter which allows the light to me metered exactly how the camera sees it. This allowed the development of various prisms with different metering (and focusing) screens that you could use.

As I mentioned the prism viewfinder on top of the camera can be easily removed. This allows you can use it in a top-down camera which makes it much easier to work down low.

Canon F-1 Specifications

Lens Mount:
Canon FD
Viewfinder:
Microprism (removable)
Aperture Priority:
No
Shutter Priorty:No
Shutter Speeds:
B, 1-1/2000s
Film Speed Scale:
ASA 25-2000
Self-timer:
Mechanical 10s
Exposure Compensation:
No
Meter Battery: 1.3v M20 Mercury Battery
Weight:820g

Canon F1 Manual

Download it here

Canon F1n

Canon f1n

The Canon F-1n came to the market in 1976 and offered minor improvements on the original model. All improvements (while minor) were carried through into the Canon F-1 new. These features included:

  • A new split image focusing screen which allowed for faster focusing of the lens.
  • The film advance lever was tightened to reduce how far you had to wind the lever in order to wind the frame on.
  • The ASA was increased from 2000 to 3200 to allow for more modern films.
  • A soft rubber cup was added to the eyepiece making it more comfortable to use (although not very useful).
  • A film speed reminder was added to the back window. This allows you to tear the bottom of the film box your using and mount it so you are reminded every time you put the camera to your eye).
  • The multiple exposure method was simplified as described in the features section above.

Canon F1n Specs

Lens Mount:
Canon FD
Viewfinder:
Microprism (removable)
Aperture Priority:
No
Shutter Priorty:No
Shutter Speeds:
B, 1-1/2000s
Film Speed Scale:
ASA 25-3200
Self-timer:
Mechanical 10s
Exposure Compensation:
No
Meter Battery: 1.3v M20 Mercury Battery
Weight:845g

Canon F1n Manual

Download it here

Canon F1 vs F1n

The older original Canon F1 and F1n are easily identified from the newer models by the increase in maximum ASA to 3200.

Canon New F1

canon f1 new

The New F 1 made substantial improvements over the original and revised cameras. It is mostly associated with the pentaprism finder which is shown in the review model. This is the most simple way to tell the cameras apart as previous models had to have a strange hot-shoe attachment off to the side of the camera.

The new model added semi-elctronic additions to the camera. This allowed the maximum shutter speed to be increased to 8 seconds and then move as fast as 1/2000. This is all powered by a small 6V battery placed under the hand grip on the front face of the camera.

There are three modes of operation to this camera, which are controlled by the small dial underneath the shutter button. When “A” mode is activated the camera operates as expected. The “S” mode which is to the left of the operational wheel enables self-timer mode. This allows 10 seconds to elapse before the shutter is clicked. Finally, the “L” in the centre turns the camera to lock mode in which the meter and camera are switched off.

Aperture priority mode can be used with this version by sliding the shutter speed dial all the way past 2000 to the “A” mode. The meter will then flip below the viewfinder and you can see the shutter speed that the camera is selecting. You can over, or underexpose this shot via the exposure compensation dial below the film-rewind crank.

Note: Aperture priority mode will not work properly unless the depth of field button is depressed. This is the large silver button on the lens mount (front of camera).

Specs

Lens Mount:
Canon FD
Viewfinder:
Microprism (removable)
Aperture Priority:
Yes
Shutter Priorty:Yes (with attachment)
Shutter Speeds:
B, 8-1/2000s
Film Speed Scale:
ASA 25-6400
Self-timer:
Electronic 10s
Exposure Compensation:
Yes
Meter Battery: 6-Volt Lithium
Weight:795g

Canon F1 New vs Old

Start with the pentaprism, if it stands out above the camera (as in the review model images) then you have a new F1. You will also notice a lack of a mechanical self timer on the front face of the camera and there is a battery cover is in its place. Finally, you can also check the ASA dial on the camera. If it goes up to a maximum ASA of 6400 then you have a New F-1.

Canon F1 New Manual

Download it here

Canon F1 Sample Photos

I have been shooting the Canon F-1 with a number of different films. For the sake of consistency, I have shot all of the following photos with one type of film (Fuji C200) in order for you to accurately assess the camera and lenses. If you’re looking to find the best 35mm films on the market I shot and reviewed a dozen rolls (and counting) here.

The lenses used were the Canon 70-210mm f4, Canon 35-105mm f3.5 and the Canon 50mm f1.4. All of which are exceptional lenses and can be had for under $100 each. In my mind this is the holy trinity of yesteryear lenses.

In Short: Canon F1 Review

The results that I have been able to achieve with this camera are second to none. It is by far my favourite film camera that I have ever used.

The focusing system works very accurately, and I found I could very quickly put the camera to my eye and snap off a shot. My only problems arose from switching rapidly between new Canon cameras and the F1. I found myself half pushing the shutter button expecting the lens to pull focus….

Once you develop muscle memory to focus the lens, you can be very fast at pulling focus. Especially with more light and a narrower aperture (a deeper depth of field).

The Canon FD lenses are available at very reasonable prices all over eBay so you are able to build a professional full frame kit. Complete wide angle, telephoto and prime lens for under $500. How could you resist? This is less than 10% of what you would pay for a modern professional digital camera system.

Continuing this thought experiment, you could shoot about $4500 of film before you’ve reached the same cost outlay of an equivalent modern digital camera system. With each roll you are forced to review your shots and make improvements. Therefore, you’ll be a better photographer, trust me.

Adding to that, your new $5000 digital camera system would now be worth a lot less. Your film camera would still be worth the same amount that you bought it for. It made me think, and it came as a welcome break to the overwhelming number of digital devices in my daily life.

I rate it 9/10. Basically that means I would buy one, for sure.

Anyway, thanks very much for reading. If you’re looking to edit your scans then I highly recommend you check out our Luminar Review, it’s great for quick film scan editing.

If you’re interested in a Canon F-1 then check out eBay for the local prices.