A recent news story titled ‘The end of an era: Canon kills off last film camera’ prompted me to write this. Is it the end of film and film cameras? Don’t make any predictions. The end of vinyl records and record players was predicted long ago, but they are back.
I’ve used different makes of camera in my life, from Asahi Pentax to Zenit SLRs and Fed rangefinders made in Russia. But my mainstay was always Canon.
It was quite by accident. I first took to photography when I was working as a subeditor and writing my first articles for the Jordan Times in Amman.
Feeling an urge to learn photography, I went to the only photographic course in town, at the Alliance Francaise. The young Jordanian photographer in charge, a Canon user, advised me to buy one. I was thinking of buying a Minolta but bought a Canon instead. It seemed a good decision once I returned home, as Minolta was almost unknown here, and had no agent and almost no second-hand market.
The photography class didn’t last long, by the way. The director disliked the teacher, for some reason, and stopped the class after two sessions. I learned photography on my own.
I’m not sentimental about the names stuck on cameras. Camera owners, like some vehicle owners, are fiercely loyal to brand names. At the time, the mass of press and other pro photographers bought Nikons. The Nikon was discovered and elevated to this mythical status by American press photographers during the Korean War. The top end models were rugged, but there were other equally rugged cameras in the market. But the American press corps loved the Nikon and the make achieved demi-god status in the US and elsewhere.
I wasn’t a professional photographer by any means, just a writer in love with photography, and I saw a used Canon FTb in a camera repair shop for Rs. 5,000, and found it to be as rugged and reliable as any Nikon. Thereafter Canon became my main workhorse until my lab stopped processing film two years ago.
That FTb was lost when I was cornered by a mob in Pettah the day the Indo-Lanka accord was signed. My friend Douglas Curran, the dreamy American, who signed me up as a free-lancer for AFP in that fateful year, paid me Rs. 5,000 for a replacement FTb, which I still have.
The Canon EOS, the last film-loading camera mentioned in the news story, is a world apart from that FTb.
The EOS 650 launched in 1987 finally knocked Nikon off its demi-god status. It’s almost indestructible (Unless you set fire to it or use a sledgehammer) and was much easier to use to than its top end Nikon rivals, and many Nikon fans switched to Canon. To avoid misunderstanding, let it be said that the EOS range offered low-end products too, cameras hardly built to last. But that’s marketing for you.
Nikon was discovered and elevated to this mythical status by American press photographers
As Canon Inc. said in its press release:
“By the way, we finally decided to end sales for the film single lens reflex camera EOS-IV.”
That ‘by the way’ sounds as if Canon feared being rebuked by fiercely loyal EOS users. It will continue to repair EOS models till 2025. But a French photojournalist I met recently told me that in France, many young photographers prefer to use film-loading cameras, with film processing labs available in all cities, and there would be plenty of EOS and older Canon workhorses like the FT and FTb, Canon F, AE-1, A1 and T 90 available to enthusiasts. If that is the case in France, it may be similar all over Europe.
My FTb with its fully manual controls (with a tiny battery just for the light meter) was already archaic in the 1980s, with photographers cockily carrying their Nikon F3s and FM2s, Pentax K-1000s or (more rarely over here) Canon AE-1s or A-1s to work.
That match-needle metering system was restored to life buy a quiet genius who had a repair shop at Bristol Street, Fort. It required only a cheap Mercury Oxide 1. 35v battery the size of a 25 cents coin (Remember those? Anyone?). They say today’s DSLRs have greater computing power than the Apollo 11 space mission.
The FTb was designed when the first IBM desktop was still science-fiction and produced really good images provided you knew how to recognize a good picture when you saw it. It had mirror lock and a shutter with very low vibration. It was the platform on which all other legendary Canon cameras which followed were based.
Good luck to those who need computers to take photographs.
In the midst of that 80s electronic glitter (albeit in plastic bodies except for the metal body Nikon F3) the metal body FTb with its pre-ergonomics styling worked without grumbling. Just to test its limits, I once wrapped it in cellophane and stored it in the deep-freezer for a day.
Feeling just a little damp after being taken out, it worked perfectly, and does to this day, the whirring beauty of its clockwork mechanical shutter sweet music to one’s ears.
It could even be conceivably used in self-defense if it came to the crunch. One can imagine the prosecuting lawyer telling an incredulous judge: “Your Honour, this man, under the guise of photographing the world at large, harboured murderous intentions, and we have ample proof here in the form of this metal brick thinly disguised as a camera.”
It isn’t just Canon or Nikon or Pentax which made good cameras in the film-loading era. All major camera makers offered a range, from high end to low. The top dogs of the camera business, mostly Japanese except for Leica, Kodak, Voigtlander and a handful of others, too, made rather simple-minded cameras along with the legends, even awful ones.
My FTb with its fully manual controls (with a tiny battery just for the light meter) was already archaic in the 1980s, with photographers cockily carrying their Nikon F3s and FM2s, Pentax K-1000s
My first Canon, the low-end AL-1, had nothing distinguished about it. But, as with many other things, cameras have their mystique, and not all cameras have it even if the quality may be very good.
That’s why a handful of camera makers become the top dogs of the business, just as it is with photographers. Some are immensely successful and achieve mythical status, while the others are just photographers. I guess that’s life.
To wind this up, I have lost two Canons in my life. One, a friend’s prized A-1, when I forgot it on top of my car on a hotel parking lot. Repaying that debt left me broke for a while. The other was a Canon AE-1, bought cheap when film-loading cameras were no longer fashionable.
I left it behind with my backpack after photographing the scenery along the Ella-Wellawaya Road. When I remembered a couple of minutes later and returned, it was gone. I’m happy to say my memory has improved tremendously with age.
Canon EOS was so pricey when the range came out that I didn’t even dream of buying one. A few years ago, one of these gentlemen photographers who return from work overseas with expensive cameras exchanged his now idling Canon EOS for an old violin.
It was for his daughter and I hope she’s still using it. That EOS was shelved when I stopped using film, but the camera’s in good shape.
People forget that cameras are only as good as their lenses. Some of my best photos were taken with a Zenit, a camera derided by our professionals. Anyone of free market orientation could claim that, like much of those cheap goods mass produced in classless societies, they were shoddy.
The brand new Zenit I bought for two thousand rupees in the mid-90s broke down after a couple of years, and the camera technician told me it wasn’t worth the repair. But I kept using the screw-threaded Helios lens with the 60s vintage Asahi Pentax discovered for sale in the technician’s window, and it can compare with the best of Japanese lenses. Later, I found an adapter ring which allowed the Russian lenses to be used on Canon bodies.
And so it is with Canon or whatever demi-god camera one may buy. Without the best of lenses, the pictures won’t be worth much (technically speaking; artistry is another matter, something money can’t buy) and these days you need a bank loan to get the perfect match.
I miss my Rs. 2,000 Zenit, Rs. 5,000 FTb, the Rs. 6,000 Pentax and my bartered EOS. They don’t deserve to be sitting there on the shelf, doing nothing.
As for the end of film photography, though, one can imagine Canon (and other camera makers) resuming a limited production of their film cameras just as new record players are being made and millions of new vinyl records are pressed out of old East German machinery shipped to the UK and elsewhere.
Nuwan Thursday, 07 June 2018 12:35 PM
Loved it. Thanks for sharing this beautiful article.
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