The Canon F-1 35mm SLR
Canon F-1
The 35mm SLR

The Canon F-1 35mm SLR; A Real Pro Of Its Time

Robert E. Mayer, April, 2007

When the Canon F-1 SLR 35mm camera system was introduced the spring of 1971 it was a full-blown system containing a brand-new, truly professional camera plus every extra accessory that any photographer could need or desire. The entire system was dramatically introduced at the unique Photo Expo ’71 held at McCormick Place in Chicago. In the early ’70s Canon products were imported and distributed by Bell & Howell Corporation, where I managed the company photo services. My staff and I all used these cameras extensively both in and out of the studio and also took publicity still photos for press releases.

This was back in the era of manually operated, mechanical cameras long before battery-powered electric motor drive and extensively computerized cameras existed. Thus some of the features touted for this new camera system 25 years ago seem antiquated today, but were actually advanced for that era.

Canon F-1 with some of the accessories. When introduced in 1971 the Canon F-1 SLR was a full-blown system camera with over 180 accessories available. These included user interchangeable focusing screens, five penta-prisms, a motor drive for 3 fps continuous shooting, and a 250-exposure film back.

Among the major features was an unusually fast top shutter speed of 1/2000 sec with a focal plane shutter. It also featured increased accuracy of the manually set lower shutter speeds, down to 1 second, which were set on the combined shutter speed/ASA film speed dial on top. A new series of Canon FD bayonet-mount lenses could be metered through the lens, either by full-aperture opening for brighter viewing or stopped-down to check depth of field. Both meter readings and the shutter speed were visible on a long vertical rectangle outside the right edge of the viewfinder field. The CdS meter read the center of the frame and used a match needle system to set the exposure.

Although exposures were set manually on the basic camera, automatic exposure control could be achieved by adding a bulky Servo EE viewfinder. This would also function when used with an accessory electric motor drive, all without needing any special factory servicing or modifications. With the motor drive exposures up to three per second were possible. The drive included a built-in timer that could be set to intervals up to 60 seconds. When outfitted with the accessory 250-exposure long rollfilm back, unmanned fully automatic photography could be obtained.

Interchangeable Screens And Finders

There were four user interchangeable focusing screens located just below the removable viewfinder penta-prism, and five interchangeable viewfinders. Naturally there was the standard conventional eye-level prism. A really helpful Speed Finder contained two prisms with the back one capable of rotating so the extra-large eyepiece could either point straight up or straight back. This could be used easily with glasses or goggles and made ground-level or over-the-crowd shooting simpler. A Booster T prism amplified the meter sensitivity for shooting under low-light level situations. The Servo EE viewfinder made automatic metering possible. A conventional folding waist-level finder rounded out the optional viewfinders.

There was a PC flash terminal on the left side of the body, but no built-in hot shoe. Two versions of a small accessory hot shoe, called the Flash Coupler D and Flash Coupler L, easily slid over the rewind knob and made contact with two electrical contacts so hot shoe flashes could be used. The rewind knob had a safety lock button, which must be pressed down before the camera back could be opened. All components were extra rugged for long service under demanding professional uses.

Canon F-1 with eight interchangeable lenses. There were more than 40 Canon FD mount interchangeable lenses introduced along with the new Canon F-1 SLR. Those shown here range from a 7.5mm fisheye up to a 200mm f/4.

A Degree Of Flash Automation

Since electric eye sensors for flash automation were still years away, an unusual accessory provided a degree of flash automation with specific lenses when used with the Canon Speedlite 133D hot shoe flash. Called the CAT (Canon Auto Tuning) system, it consisted of the small shoe mount flash unit plus the Flash Coupler L (with two batteries inside), the Flash Auto Ring A2 that fit onto the filter threads on the front of most of the different speeds of 35mm and 50mm Canon FD lenses. A cord connected the flash and auto ring, then after the lens was focused the aperture was manually turned so the needle in the viewfinder would bisect the metering ring in the viewfinder, indicating proper flash exposure. This sure was simpler than using a flash GN (Guide Number) and having to divide the distance into the GN, then setting this number on the lens aperture whenever the intended subject was at a different distance! Since single-use flash bulbs were still commonly used, there were optional flash units that accepted Flash Cubes (a 1” square having four tiny flash bulbs in one housing) that rotated to a unused bulb after each one fired and a folding reflector V-3 flash that accepted the small M-3 peanut flash bulbs.

At the time there were 40 different Canon FD breech-lock mount interchangeable lenses, most of which were prime (single) focal length ranging from a fisheye 7.5mm up to a 1200mm long telephoto. A couple of zoom lenses were initially available, and many more came along later. Among the first system zoom lenses offered were a 55-135mm f/3.5, 100-200mm f/5.6, and 85-300mm f/5.

Motorized Advance

Two motor drives were offered. Both were easily attached by simply removing the bottom cover plate on the camera and attaching the motor drive housing, which coupled with camera drive mechanisms located inside the F-1 body. Other system cameras back then required factory modification before a motor drive could be attached. One model had a handle protruding from the bottom for easier gripping and an external battery pack for AA-size batteries. The later Motor Drive MF had a thicker base plate and a side grip that housed the batteries. The side grip had a convenient shutter release button on the top and could drive the film for 3.5 fps continuous shooting.

The F-1 was truly modular since the viewfinder could be removed and changed. The base plate came off for attaching a motor drive, and the entire camera back could be removed when the long roll, 250 exposure, film magazine was attached. Among the numerous optional accessories were two different bellows, various extension tubes, close-up lenses, a copying stand, slide duplicating bellows, and microscope tube attachments.

When introduced, the suggested list price of the Canon F-1 with the FD 50mm f/1.4 lens was $500. The Motor Drive was $345; the Servo EE Finder $280; the Booster T Finder $225; and the Speed Finder $150.

Lens Mounts

The new Canon FD bayonet mount lenses featured an improved mounting system from the earlier Canon FL lenses. There is no unlocking button or lever. You simply turned the large knurled ring closest to the camera body about 75Þ counterclockwise to unlock the lens, then pulled straight out to remove it. The spring-loaded locking mechanism automatically locked in the open position. To reattach a lens, you aligned the red dot on the lens with a red dot on the top center of the body and gently pressed the lens in toward the body. The locking ring then partially revolved clockwise toward the locking position. You then continued turning the locking ring slightly until it stopped to properly seat and lock the lens in place. The spring mechanism made it much quicker to remove and lock the lenses onto the body. Each lens had a click-stop for both full and half stop aperture settings. It takes about a 180Þ turn of the rubberized knurled ring at the front of the lens to focus from infinity to 2 ft (on the 50mm f/1.4
normal lens that is).

Through the decades since this camera was introduced I have exposed many hundreds of rolls of all types of film in the two F-1 bodies and dozens of FD mount lenses I still own. It has proven to be both rugged and reliable under a wide variety of weather and use situations both in studios and on location. The sharp detail and excellent quality of these images was always consistently superior to those made with the many other makes of 35mm SLR cameras I have used or owned.

Later upgraded models included the F-1n in ’76 and the new F-1 in ’81, each with more internal electronics and more sophisticated metering. To keep the system concept intact, they accepted all Canon FD mount lenses and most of the numerous accessories designed for the original Canon F-1.

The Canon F-1 was a leading professional SLR camera that was competitive in all aspects with the other SLR models available in the early ’70s. It had an extensive following with photojournalists and active pro photographers of all types in its heyday. It is still a very competent camera today if you like a manually operated camera.


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