The Canon FTb SLR 35mm film camera

The Canon FTb SLR: My new camera (from 1971)

Wish you could afford one of those amazing full-frame mirrorless cameras with a fast, juicy lens? You know what I’m talking about. Yeah. The Sony a7R III. Compact, easy to transport. Big, lush sensor. Creamy glass. Quick operation. Improved battery life. That’s the dream, right?

But… It’s expensive. Too pricy for you and me. Right? Maybe not.

On a recent episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, co-host Marco Arment was talking about the Sony a7R III he had recently purchased, and was rightfully gushing about its performance and the beautiful images it made. He went on to explain how this kind of camera is prohibitively expensive. You can listen that section here:

“…no camera that offers this level of performance is cheap.”

—Marco Arment

Now, I’m not here to state that Marco is wrong. He’s correct. But, if you’re willing to give up several of the conveniences of modern photography, you can get an amazing, ultra-compact, full-frame camera for well under a hundred bucks. Oh, and an amazing lens too.

That’s right. I’m talking about old 35mm film cameras. Do they have autofocus? Nope. Automatic modes? No. Does it take a couple of weeks to see the pictures you shot? Yup. But, the battery life destroys the a7R III (they’re totally optional).

If you read my hands-on review of the Canon 7D Mark II, you know that a cropped-sensor camera was a big compromise for me. I very much wanted full-frame, but I simply couldn’t afford to get the 5D Mark III and keep my marriage. I chose not to have my wife lop my head off.

I’m a happy 7D Mark II owner, but I often daydream about shooting full-frame with a fast prime lens. As much as I love my 17 – 40mm f/4 L, it simply doesn’t deliver the depth-of-field and bokeh that I desire. The APS-C sensor on the 7D doesn’t help, either.

Then one day it hit me. Full frame… Fast glass… I want an old 35mm film camera! For the cost of a single a7R III battery, I could scratch my photographic itch — and feel more accomplished doing it.

The only things I knew about old-school SLRs is that I used my mom’s Canon AE-1 for my photography classes in high school, and that I liked the Nikon F. I had seen a Nikon F years earlier in a photography store, and something about it just spoke to me. I told myself I would buy a Nikon F one day. When researching for this latest purchase, I learned that the F was a rather famous camera.

The Nikon F 35mm SLR

I was surprised how much there was to learn about the Nikon F, but at the same time I was surprised how little there was to learn about the history of SLR (Single Lens Reflex) 35mm cameras. There isn’t that much to it.

The Nikon F was a game-changing camera for pro photographers. It featured interchangeable focusing screens and had many other advanced accessories. The majority of the images from the war in Vietnam was shot on the F, and it was the camera of choice for use on the Apollo space missions.

The Nikon F dominated the entire 1960’s in pro photography. It wasn’t until the early 70’s that Canon released their answer to the F, aptly named the F-1. It was announced with great fanfare, and it had a budget-friendly model announced alongside it: the Canon FTb.

My buying process went like this:

  • I want a Nikon F. Research. The one I want is $400. Too much.
  • I want a Canon F-1. Research. The one I want is $350. Too much.
  • I want a Canon FTb. Research. It’s $60. Ding! Ding! Ding!

The moment I realized I could use the Canon FD lenses that I have for my Panasonic GH2 on the FTb, it was all over. This was the obvious choice. I have a very nice 50mm f/1.4 S.S.C, and a 24mm f/2.8 as well. The steepish price of the F-1 was a turn off, but the FTb was absurdly cheap. You can get them on eBay for next to nothing.

Luck was truly on my side when I discovered that a local camera shop had a black FTb in stock. I stopped by the store (Peace Camera in Raleigh, NC) and checked it out. They had cleaned it up and put a fresh battery in. It was beautiful and worked like a charm. $60 and I was out the door. Amazing.

The light meter in the FTb is so easy to use, it’s just a pure delight. When you look through the viewfinder, you see a physical circle on a stick, and a little needle (similar to a VU meter on an old stereo). When the light changes, the needle either moves toward or away from the circle. When you change aperture, the circle moves. For perfect exposure, you just need to get the needle in the center of the circle. It’s great fun, and it charms me every time. I love it.

If you can’t afford a fancy mirrorless camera, I honestly think the Canon FTb is an excellent substitute. If you also want Marco’s Tesla Model S, I don’t know of a $60 alternative to appease you. If you want Marco’s new 10-Core iMac Pro, $60 won’t get you anywhere. But, if you want to shoot with Marco’s new Sony a7R III, there is an awesome $60 approximation worth checking out.

Perhaps the premise of this post is bullshit. I don’t know… Just do the world some good and go buy a film camera. Buy some film, shoot it, and send it to a company that will develop it (I’ve used mpix, and will try The Darkroom next). It’ll make you feel good, and you’ll soon have lots of actual photographs in your home.

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Writer, musician, photo taker and video maker. When not writing somewhat longish articles for this blog, I write incredibly short things on Twitter: @SamMallery

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