After trying out a dozen great cameras from various manufacturers since I re-immersed myself in 35mm photography this year, I’ve fallen back in love with my first serious camera, the Canon FTb, which might just be the best and most affordable single lens reflex camera for beginning analog photographers interested in the creative freedom provided by manual controls.
Full disclosure: my beloved and brilliant mother, Jane Pak, taught me how to shoot 35mm film on her Canon FTb almost four decades ago and I’ve shot thousands of images using Canon FTbs ever since. So I’m deeply attached to the camera out of habit and sentiment. But I think its advantages are real. Read on and see if you agree!
Aesthetically, the Canon FTb is a metal bodied 1970s film camera that comes in black and silver or all black. If you’re looking for that unmistakable, classic retro look, this is your baby.
THE BASIC FUNCTIONS
The FTb is a workhorse SLR camera with a sturdy metal body, manual focus, manual exposure, shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second, and a combination self-timer and stop down lever. The camera is fully mechanical and everything but its light meter works without a battery, so you can continue taking pictures even if the light meter or battery fails.
What the camera doesn’t have is as much of a bonus for me as what it does. I love the lack of autofocus and autoexposure features. When I’m shooting film, I want instant, intuitive control over focus and exposure so I can shoot in the moment, making aesthetic choices on the fly and implementing them as fast as my fingers can move. Manual focus means that I chose what part of the frame I want to emphasize and don’t risk missing a moment while the camera searches for focus. Manual exposure means I can purposefully over or underexpose the image to accommodate unusual conditions, like heavy backlight. It also gives me better awareness and control of my aperture, which determines depth of field, which can be a deeply important part of the aesthetic impact of a photograph. So weirdly, autofocus and autoexposure slow me down. The all-manual FTb lets me move at just the right speed.
Canon made two versions of the FTb. I’ve used and loved both. My mom had the original version, which she gave me when I first started shooting film; when that camera got stolen a short while later, she bought me a used, second generation FTb.
In her fantastic FTb review, Mel at high5cameras writes that the original FTb’s mechanics run more smoothly than the second version’s due to all metal interior parts. On the other hand, the updated FTb shows the numbers of your chosen shutter speed on the bottom left of the viewfinder, which is a nice bit of extra information to have. But I honestly never noticed any functional differences between the cameras when I was in high school.
You can distinguish the two versions at a glance by the shape of the self-timer/stop down lever. In the original FTb, the lever has an asymmetrical shape designed to accommodate your thumb. The updated FTb has a straight, symmetrical shape like the lever on the original Canon F-1. The cameras are similar enough in form and function that when I say “FTb,” I’m usually talking about both of them.
I love the handling of the FTb. Again, I’m biased by my long history with the camera, but every knob feels like it’s in exactly the right place and responds in exactly the right way for me to shoot freely and seamlessly, setting exposure and focus nearly instantly while never having to lower the camera from my eye.
I also love the literal feel of the camera in my hands. The FTb’s silver metal has a kind of satin finish that just feels good to touch. The metal of black version is more polished and slick, but feels just as good. The camera’s solidity also creates a feeling of trust that means I don’t have to think about the FTb or its similarly sturdy Canon FD lenses when I’m shooting. I can move fast, spin that solid focus ring, and crank that film advance without even subliminally harboring doubts about the camera’s ability to hold up under pressure.
VIEWFINDER AND METERING
The FTb’s metering system features a circle and a needle on the right hand side of the viewfinder. The circle travels up and down the edge of the frame depending on the aperture you set — the lower down on the frame, the wider your aperture. The needle rises and falls based on your shutter speed — the lower your shutter speed, the lower on the frame the needle falls. When you get the needle to cross the circle, you’ve got a good exposure.
I love this system because I can set my exposure without lowering the camera from my eye. In contrast, when exposing manually, the viewfinders of the much more popular (and expensive) Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1 only indicate the aperture the camera suggests, not the aperture the lens is actually set to. So you have to check what the camera suggests in the viewfinder, then lower the camera to confirm your lens is set correctly. I don’t have to take that added step when shooting with an FTb, so I stay in the moment, have more fun, and don’t lose shots.
As another huge bonus, the FTb’s light metering system works like a semi-spot meter, which allows for more precise creative decisions on the fly. Most cameras of the era averaged the light throughout the entire frame. But the viewfinder of FTb shows a rectangular area in the middle of the frame that takes up about 12 percent of the viewfinder. That’s the area the camera is using to measure light. So, for example, if you’re shooting a backlit subject, you can fill the subject in the foreground with that smaller rectangular area, set the exposure accordingly, and run less of a risk of underexposing that critical part of your frame.
The only minus for me with the FTb’s metering system is that in very dark environments, it can be hard to see the needle and circle. The Canon New F-1, based on the same body as the FTb, has an internal light that illuminates the metering indicators. The Canon T60 uses tiny LEDs that are always easy to see. But in the dark with the FTb, you may have to squint a bit or work a slightly lighter background into the edge of the frame for a moment to see the settings.
Finally, the FTb’s viewfinder is big and bright and, according to the manual, shows 94 percent of the actual picture area. I have terrible eyes and wear glasses, so it’s hard for me to work with cameras with dim, small viewfinders. The FTb’s viewfinder is a joy — I never feel like I’m struggling to see when I’m using the camera.
I’ve been shooting 35mm film for decades, and I can still screw up loading film into my cameras. But it’s very hard to mess up loading an FTb. The inside of the camera’s fitted with a special brace that flips down and locks the film leader into place as you close the film door. So instead of threading the leader into slots on the take up reel, you just line up the end of the leader with the red film set mark, partially close the film door until the brace locks the film in place, then close the door completely and you’re good to go. Canon cameras with this system are marked “QL” for “Quick Loading.”
Another advantage of the FTb’s QL system is that it rolls the film along its natural curve on the take up reel. Many other cameras, including the Canon AE-1, roll the film against its natural curve. This is really only an issue for me when I’m developing film at home — film from an FTb that’s been rolled along its natural curve is just a bit easier to load into a developing reel.
A great camera body will help you nail your exposure and release the shutter at just the right moment, but the final image quality depends on your lenses. Fortunately, the FTb uses interchangeable Canon FD lenses, which is a huge advantage in my book. Different photographers have different favorite lenses, but I’m hard pressed to think of a better overall system for analog photographers on a budget than Canon FD primes. Vintage Canon FD lenses can only be used on modern Canon cameras with an adapter that contains an extra glass element, which decreases image quality. So FD lenses have typically been cheaper in the resale market than many other premium vintage lenses of similar quality. Some more recent digital cameras can use FD lenses with glass-free adapters, which has bumped up their value a bit. But I’ve still found plenty of bargains.
I also love Canon FD lenses because they feature intermediate clicks between f-stops. Some lenses from other manufacturers have just one click per f-stop. So if your exposure really wants to be between f4 and f5.6, you have to pick one or the other and hope for the best. With an FD lens, you can click to the intermediate spot and get a more exact exposure.
SHUTTER SPEED LIMITATIONS
So far I’ve primarily sung the FTb’s praises, but some photographers with specialized needs might reject the camera because its fastest shutter speed is 1/1000th instead of 1/2000th of a second and its slowest shutter speed is 1 second. But I’m not trying to freeze hummingbird wings, so 1/1000th of a second feels fine to me. And if I wanted to try long exposure night shots, I could do a little more math for the exposure time and use a shutter release cable and the camera’s “B” setting, which keeps the shutter open as long as you’re depressing the shutter release button.
THE BATTERY ISSUE
A bigger disadvantage of the Canon FTb is that its light meter was originally designed to be powered by a 1.3 volt 625 mercury battery, which is no longer sold for environmental reasons. There are two modern replacement batteries, each with small drawbacks. First, Wein makes a 1.35 volt MRB625 zinc air replacement battery that costs about six dollars. The WeinCell’s advantage is that it’s about the same voltage as the original battery and will theoretically get the most accurate results from the light meter. The disadvantage is that WeinCells react with oxygen and only last a few months after being exposed to air. Since they’re pricier than other batteries and expire a little faster, they become a more expensive option.
The alternative is a 1.5 volt alkaline battery like a Loopacell 625A, which is cheaper and lasts longer than a WeinCell. But its slightly higher voltage will typically make the light meter a bit more sensitive, which could lead to slightly underexposed negatives. Professional camera repair shops can recalibrate the FTb’s light meter to give correct readings with these 1.5 volt batteries. But these alkaline batteries also supposedly provide less voltage as they age. That means the light meter might become less reliable towards the end of the battery’s life, so you’ll need to pay a bit more attention and replace the battery before the meter starts giving false readings.
I’ve used WeinCell batteries in my FTbs without issue for months at a time and have taken many lovely pictures with them. But most of my WeinCells are currently on their last legs, so I now have 1.5 volt Loopacell 625A batteries in all three (yes, three — I told you I love the camera!) of my FTbs, even though I’ve only had one of those cameras recalibrated to 1.5 volts by a pro. Strangely, all three cameras are giving me identical light meter readings. It could be that the light meters on my uncalibrated cameras are simply off a stop and the voltage difference between a 1.35 volt and 1.5 volt battery coincidentally provides the exact correction needed. Or maybe these used cameras were recalibrated for 1.5 volt batteries before I acquired them. It’s a mystery!
Regardless of exactly what’s going on with my own cameras, the lesson here is that it’s important to check the accuracy of a used FTb’s light meter regardless of which battery you go with. If you have a light meter or existing camera you trust, you can just compare the measurements you get from your trusted device with the measurements from your FTb. If there’s a big discrepancy, you can adjust the ISO on your FTb until the measurements match.
A practical example: I have a Bell & Howell FD35, which is the same camera as the Canon TX, which is basically a stripped down FTb with the highest shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. With a 1.5 volt battery, my FD35’s light meter recommends f5.6 when my trusted Minolta Spotmeter F recommends f4. So I reset the ISO on the camera from 400 to 800 to accommodate.
If you don’t have a trusted light meter or just don’t have the patience to muck with all this, you can shoot a test roll and adjust your ISO for future rolls accordingly if you think the negatives look over or underexposed. For what it’s worth, you can often over or underexpose 35mm negatives by a stop or so without really noticing it that much, so the differences between a 1.35 and a 1.5 volt battery might not matter a great deal in the end for some shooters.
My only other serious quibble with the FTb is its weight. Without a lens, my old high school FTb weighs 744 grams. With my old Canon FD 50mm f1.8 breech mount lens, that jumps to 996 grams — over two pounds! When I was a teenaged photojournalist, I never thought twice about that kind of weight. But at the age of 54, it’s more of a commitment for me to toss an FTb in my satchel when running errands in New York City. So as an everyday-take-anywhere camera, I’ll often pack a Canon T60 instead — it’s less than half the weight of an FTb. (Please know that I love the T60, but that camera has its own quirks and can be trickier to find than an FTb, so before recommending it to beginners, I have a few more caveats, which I’ll try to detail in a future article.)
The counter-argument to the weight complaint is that little heft can be a good thing. The solidity of the Canon FTb may help me avoid blurry images at low shutter speeds. I feel pretty confident shooting at 1/30th or even 1/15th of a second with a standard 50mm lens on an FTb.
If the weight of the FTb still feels a bit intimidating, there are several very similar, cheap Canon cameras that are a bit lighter. The Canon TLb, the Canon TX, and the Bell & Howell FD35 are all based on the FTb but have a slower top shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. My Canon TLb weighs 695 grams; my FD35 weighs 706. These aren’t radically lighter than the FTb, but an ounce or two might make a difference over the course of a long day.
(As a weird footnote, I’ve discovered that my different FTbs have slightly different weights. My high school camera is 744 grams while my two more recent acquisitions are about 730. All three of these cameras are second generation FTbs, so I have no idea what’s going on. My high school camera has a lower serial number than the others; maybe it’s an earlier version that uses the all metal interior gears that Mel at high5cameras mentions and thus weighs a bit more? Another mystery!)
GUIDE TO BUYING A USED CANON FTb
If you’ve got the money, the most straightforward, efficient, risk-free way to get your hands on a fully functional FTb is to buy a tested, serviced camera through a reputable store or online site with a return policy like Keh.com. You might pay anywhere from $100 to $250 for a guaranteed FTb under these circumstances, which is pricey, but a lot more affordable than the $300 to $400 you might pay at the same store for a more popular camera like the Canon AE-1.
But if you’ve got the time and inclination to do some bargain hunting, the skills for a little DIY cleaning and repair, and the willingness to risk blowing a few bucks on a dud, it’s possible to nab FTbs for ridiculously low prices through auction sites. A Canon AE-1 with a decent lens will typically go for over $150 on ShopGoodwill, my favorite place to buy used cameras. In contrast, I’ve picked up Canon FTbs through ShopGoodwill with great lenses for as little as $30 to $50.
The risk of course is that a camera from an auction site might have big problems or not work at all. I study the listings pretty carefully before bidding, but I’d say that about 10 percent of the used cameras and lenses I’ve bought online have turned out to be unusable, and almost all the working cameras I’ve bought have required some DIY maintenance like replacing foam light seals. But one advantage of a vintage mechanical camera like the Canon FTb over a more complex electronic camera is that there are fewer things that might have gone wrong with it over the years.
That being said, your average FTb is about 45 years old, so here are a few things to keep an eye out for when buying.
Do the light seals and mirror bumper need to be replaced? (Probably!) Light seals are black foam patches along the sides of the camera door that keep light from leaking into the body and fogging the film. The mirror bumper is a strip of foam along the top of the inside of the front of the camera that keeps the mirror from slapping into the metal camera frame. Over time, all this foam decays and can get gummy or crumbly. You can pay a camera repair shop to clean the camera and replace the foam. Or if you’re a little handy, you can save money and do it yourself. You can find loads of great videos and guides online to learn how.
How clean is the viewfinder? It’s rare to find a perfectly clear and clean viewfinder in a 45 year old vintage camera, and most photographers can live with a few specks of dust. But if you’re bothered by dust in your viewfinder, it’s possible to very carefully clean the mirror and focusing screen — again, I’d recommend searching online for some good videos and guides before you dive into this, and I wouldn’t risk a DIY job like this on a very expensive camera. An even bigger viewfinder problem is interior fungus or debris that you can’t reach because it’s inside the eyepiece glass or in the prism that connects the focusing screen to the viewfinder. It’s a big job to open up the top of the camera and disassemble the prism at home and expensive to pay a camera shop for the job, so I’d recommend not buying any camera with those kinds of issues.
How does the battery compartment look? If a battery has been left in a camera for years, there’s a possibility it’s cracked and leaked. If you can’t inspect the camera yourself, I’d highly recommend asking the seller to confirm that the battery compartment is clean in order to avoid buying any camera that contains a corroded battery or residue from corrosion. This is particularly important with the Canon FTb, since it originally used mercury batteries, which are now banned for environmental and health reasons. I can’t remember ever finding a leaky mercury battery inside a used camera, but if I did, I’d probably seal the whole camera body in plastic bags and get rid of it at a municipal safe disposal event. Safety first!
How does the shutter fabric look? If you open up the back of the camera, you should be able to see a rectangular black fabric shutter curtain. The curtain is made up of two parts, but under normal conditions you should just see a single sheet of black fabric. If you can see the vertical metal edge of one of the curtains, that means one of the shutter curtains isn’t fully retracted or extended. That’s not normal and could indicate a shutter problem that could lead to bands of overexposure in your negatives. I’d avoid any camera with shutter curtain irregularities.
Can you test the aperture and shutter speed operation? If you’re looking at used cameras in person, you should test a few basic functions. There probably won’t be a working battery in the camera, so you might not be able to test the light meter. But the FTb’s a fully mechanical camera, so you should be able to crank the film advance lever to charge the shutter and fire the shutter release. If you look in the front of the camera with the lens off when you fire the shutter, you should see the mirror flip up and down. If you look through the back of the camera with the camera door open and the lens on, you should see a brief flash of the open aperture when you fire the shutter and the mirror lifts. The size of the aperture should change when you change the f-stop on the lens, and the length of time it’s open should change when you adjust the shutter speed. A professional shop can time the shutter speeds precisely to see if they’re on target, but even with the naked eye you can get a general sense of how well they’re working. If you notice big discrepancies, like the shutter remaining open for a full second when it should only open for 1/8 of a second, maaaaaybe don’t buy that particular camera.
Does the self-timer/stop down lever work? If you push this lever towards the camera lens, you should be able to see the aperture of the lens contract to whatever size you’ve set it for. If you turn the self-timer lever around the other way until it stops, it should charge a spring-powered timer. If you crank the film advance lever and press the shutter release, a buzzing sound will commence and the lever will start to travel back to its original upright position. As it draws near to its fully upright position, the shutter should fire.
Does the lens focus properly? The focusing ring should move smoothly and you should be able to focus on objects when looking through the viewfinder. Objects in the far distance should come into sharpest focus when you hit the furthest mark on the lens, usually signified by an infinity symbol. If you hit infinity and objects in the far distance go out of focus, there’s something wrong.
Is the lens radioactive? Sadly, this isn’t a joke. Certain vintage camera lenses include glass made with a radioactive substance called thorium. Different people have different opinions about the dangerousness of this kind of glass, and some collectors actually go out of their way to acquire thorium lenses because they tend to have great image quality. But I personally avoid any thorium lenses. According to the Camerapedia Wiki page on the subject, Canon lenses that supposedly contain thorium include the Canon FL 50mm f1.4 and f1.8, the Canon FL 58mm f1.2, the Canon FD 35mm f2 (with the concave front element), the Canon FD 55mm f1.2, and the Canon 17mm f4. It’s up to each person to make their own decision about whether they’re comfortable handling or owning these items. Thankfully, the most common lenses that come with used FTbs are the Canon 50mm f1.8 and the Canon 50mm f1.4, which I’ve never seen listed as containing thorium.
UPDATE 04-25-2023: I recently saw a post in which an Italian photographer measured radiation slightly above background levels for the Canon FD 50mm f1.8, which I’d never seen reported anywhere else. So I bought a dosimeter and tested my own lenses, and while I am not a scientist or expert, I also found levels slightly above background levels for the Canon FD 50mm f1.8 and the Canon FD 50mm f1.4 when placing the dosimeter directly against the glass elements and measuring for at least an hour. I haven’t fully tested them all, but I believe it’s possible other Canon lenses of this vintage, including my Canon nFD 28mm f2.8, may similarly register slightly above background levels.
For comparison, the level of radioactivity I got from these lenses was considerably less than what I measured from a bathroom sink and a granite kitchen counter and vastly less than what I’ve seen reported for known thoriated lenses. My best guess at the moment is that the lenses may have been made with lanthanum, which according to what I’ve read was used as a replacement for thorium and is much less radioactive. The Canon FD 50mm f1.8 is one of the most popular and common vintage lenses ever made and I’ve never seen anyone report any health concerns associated with it, and I’ll personally continue to use it and my other vintage lenses. But everyone has different comfort levels, so I’m sharing the information, with the caveat once again that I am not a scientist or expert and everyone should do their own research and make their own decisions.
How clean is the camera lens? Some grime and scuffing on the casing and rings of decades-old thrift shop lenses are to be expected, and much of that will clean up nicely with a little isopropyl alcohol. The real question is the glass. Any scratches on the surface of the lens, particular on the rear element, can be bad news. But you should check the interior of the lens as well. If you shine a flashlight through the lens, you’ll almost certainly see some flecks of dust between the lens elements. Some dust is normal and typically doesn’t interfere with image quality. But you may also see a more fine and generalized mist — that’s haze, and it can sometimes result in foggier, lower contrast images, especially if you’re shooting into the light. And then there’s the possibility of bigger chunks of detritus — I once found a spiderweb inside an old lens!
More commonly, you may see weird irregular blotching on the glass, which may be fungus that’s grown inside the lens due to storage in humid environments. I’ve successfully opened up Canon lenses and cleaned out patches of fungus on my own. But sometimes fungus etches the lens, damaging the actual glass. Remarkably, you can often get pretty decent images from pretty dirty lenses. But if the lens is filled with fungus, the camera was probably stored improperly as well and the chances of unseen problems increase.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD I GET WITH AN FTb?
It’s easy to go hog wild with lenses and accessories. But sometimes keeping it simple is the best. Many of my best photos have come from walking around with just a camera and a standard 50mm lens. If you’re on a tight budget, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 is a great first lens. I grew up shooting with an older breech mount model with the silver mounting ring. But now I mostly shoot with the all-black new FD (or nFD) version of this lens, which has a plastic body but feels sturdy enough and weighs much less than the older breech mount version.
A step up would be a Canon FD 50mm f1.4, which is usually much more expensive, but the lens is beloved by portrait shooters for its wide aperture and will allow you to get about a foot closer to subjects for tighter, almost macro-feeling shots. The nFD version of the 50mm f1.4 is a bit lighter than the FD breech mount version, but as far as I know, the optics are the same. Both the FD and nFD versions of the f1.4 are heavier than their f1.8 counterparts, so I’ll often carry the nFD f1.8 instead of the f1.4 when I’m traveling light, but the f1.4 really is lovely.
When I want to have more options, I’ll also carry a wide angle prime and a telephoto prime. My favorite wide angle right now is a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8, which is a bit wider than the 28mm lens I grew up with and feels a touch more dramatic, which I like. I got a very good deal on it, but it can be a pricey lens. The Canon FD or nFD 28mm f2.8 can still be a bit pricey, but it’s cheaper and more common than the 24mm. A much cheaper but solid wide angle alternative is the Vivitar 24mm f2.8. I somehow picked up two copies of this lens. One of them’s fantastic; the other’s not quite as sharp. But both were cheap!
For a telephoto lens, I grew up using my mom’s Canon FD 135mm f2.5, which I later learned is very highly regarded. Unfortunately, the aperture on mine locked up in the 1990s and I gave it away instead of having it repaired. Now my standard telephoto is a Canon nFD 135mm f3.5, which is a slower lens, but it’s much lighter and feels just as sharp as my mom’s old f2.5. It’s also frequently sold for ridiculously low prices.
Many used cameras come in bundles with old zoom lenses. I’m not a big fan of zooms. I loved them when I was shooting 16mm documentary film back in the day. But I’ve never gotten into a good rhythm shooting still images with the extra variable of zooming, and zooms tend to be heavier and produce slightly softer images than primes. So I don’t have any particularly good recommendations for you here, other than to note that Canon branded FD zooms tend to be cheap and are generally considered to be pretty good. I’ve also heard good things about Vivitar Series 1 zooms.
If your lenses don’t come with skylight protective filters, I’d recommend picking some up. Some photographers don’t like any unnecessary filter between the lens and the subject. But I’ve never seen any loss of picture quality from a clean glass filter, and I like the anti-scratch insurance when I’m quickly changing prime lenses. If you’re shooting black and white film, I’d highly recommend a yellow filter, which darkens blues and makes skies a bit more dramatic. And I like slightly warmer colors in general, so I’ll often use an 81A filter when shooting color negative.
The other essential accessories would be a camera strap and some kind of protective camera bag. The FTb is heavy, as we’ve discussed, so I recommend a wide camera strap to distribute the weight more evenly over your neck and shoulders. I use old, vintage, so-called hippie straps that are two inches wide. I still have a couple from when I was fifteen years old. Most of the rest I got as bonuses in recent old camera auction bundles.
I don’t have an actual camera bag these days. Instead, I picked up a small, inexpensive, padded camera bag insert that I drop into a satchel or backpack. Eventually I may need to upgrade if I go on a bigger trip with multiple cameras, but for now it’s been great.
CONCLUSION AND THANKS
Thanks so much for reading so far into an article that ended up about 4000 words longer than I anticipated!
I’ll leave you with a few more images shot with my Canon FTbs over the last few months. All the best and happy shooting!