Five Dollar Deal : Canon FTb

Most film camera collectors may dream of hitting a yard sale or thrift store and finding a Leica priced for a nominal $5 or so.  I'm not even a Leica-phile, but would gladly welcome such luck in my sojourns through the various places in my area where I might spot film cameras for sale.

Still, I certainly can't complain.  I've been fortunate to encounter a few very reasonably priced acquisitions at some of my favorite local haunts.  These include the Tower 60, the Ricoh Five·One·Nine, the Olympus OM-2, and the Yashica T2.  Still, while all of these were great pick ups, I think one camera stands out as the most stellar deal that I've ever stumbled across...

Handsomely clad in all-black, the Canon FTb is a well built and handsome model for its time. 

On the way home one evening, I capriciously elected to stop in a Goodwill near me at which I had never previously seen anything film related, save a fixed focus point and shoot... once. My cynicism was obviously high, expecting it to be wasted time and effort, but as the entire effort would take no more than five minutes, it wouldn't be a huge loss.

To my sheer surprise, a pair of SLR cameras (one manual and one auto focus) were haphazardly tossed onto the shelf in the electronics section, both priced at $4.99, having just been placed there judging by the price stickers having been printed and dated on the same day.  I wasted little time in quickly snapping them up and getting in line to pay.

Both were really good deals, but, to be honest, I only knew what the auto focus model actually was. The older model had most of its definitive markings oddly concealed by black electrical tape.  All I knew was that this was a Canon SLR (as the lens marking was still visible) and that it had the nice fast FD 50mm f/1.4 lens.  

Thrilled did not begin to explain my elation at this find.  Still, I managed to find JUST enough patience to get this concealed "mystery" camera home to snap a few photos to post to the Facebook Vintage Camera Collectors group to have a fun game of "Guess that camera."  Despite my close cropping of these photos, the experts on the group quickly delivered multiple replies that almost unanimously suggested I had just picked up a Canon FTb.

A pair of quick snaps taken of this camera in its "incognito" attire.  Though I could make out the Canon impression on the pentaprism, I skipped trying to see just what I had until the actual "reveal."  Note the tape residue over the metric "0.6" measurement on the lens.  Pretty weeeeirrrrrd. 

Those very educated guesses turned out to be 100% accurate.  I was indeed the proud new owner of a Canon FTb SLR.  So why was this camera made to go "incognito?"  My initial guess was that it's last "duty" prior to heading to the Goodwill was that it may have been a "prop" camera in a photo shoot in which it was desirable not to have the distraction of the branding visible in the photos.  However, it turns out that this doesn't really jibe, as small details such as the film plane marker and focusing distances on the lens ring were also carefully concealed.  All I can guess is that this FTb's former owner was a bit on the eccentric side.

Even if this is so, I'm quite fine with this, as the camera was well taken care of.  A quick change of batteries, and I was able to validate that the meter seemed to work perfectly.  The shutter, focus, and film advance all seemed to work properly as well.  This Five Dollar Deal was working out just fine! 

Control deck of the FTb is simple and not too complicated.  Around the shutter release is a collar to lock the shutter.  Film ISO is set on the same dial as the shutter speed is selected.  On the left is simply the ability to turn the meter off, and as well to check the battery. A simple window near the film advance hub indicates the frame. 

So with the "reveal" aside, I now had a functioning Canon FTb to use and evaluate.  My initial impressions were that this was one of the most rugged cameras I had ever handled. The metal body construction and associated heft make this a camera that is worlds removed from modern plastic SLR cameras like the Minolta Maxxum 5.  Even among its contemporary competitors like the Minolta SRT-101, the FTb feels more tank like.  This is not a light camera.  As such, it doesn't seem to suited to being tossed in a large camera bag with a few other cameras in tow, and tends to be easier to carry on its own.  

Yes, the 1971 vintage Canon FTb is an impressive and precisionate machine that seems to carry no relation to the hordes of plastic EOS cameras that would bear the same maker's mark decades later.  It lacks much in the way of fancy extras but makes up for that with a solid and reliable build that performs its job effectively.

The FTb is a fully manual camera with a mechanical shutter and a TTL meter powered by a single PX-625 cell. Shutter speed range is typical of better cameras of the era, with speeds from 1/1000 to 1 second, plus the ubiquitous "Bulb" setting.  The camera also has depth of field preview and a self timer, as well as the typical hot shoe mount for flash.  One other feature is a "quick load" plate that steers film from the film path onto the take up spool without the need to thread it.  

The magical little lever here does quite a bit, serving as a depth of field preview (that can lock if desired), a mirror lock, and a self timer.  It's not the easiest to explain its usage, but a few seconds of playing with this lever and it quickly becomes intuitive. The viewfinder is nice and bright, with a center rectangle that denotes the metering area, with a microprism circle in the middle.  The match needle is easily seen when composing and focusing. 

Lacking is a separate EV compensation dial, though the film speed can be adjusted readily by pulling up the shutter speed dial as a means to adjusting exposure reading from the meter.  It's not as convenient as a separate dial, but it generally works.  Film speeds that are accommodated range from ISO 25 up to ISO 1600, which is a bit limited but covers most of the typical range of films available both then and now. 

In order to deliberately overexpose 25 speed film however, the savvy shooter will have to obtain readings and then make manual tweaks to aperture or shutter speed to compensate. The same applies for shooting above ISO 1600.  It's not as elegant as many other cameras, but it works. 

These hindrances aside, the shooting experience of the Canon FTb are remarkably easy. Within its heavy interior, you'll be greeted with a large and bright viewfinder (though having an f/1.4 lens mounted to the camera helps a lot too) that is easy to use, if somewhat simple. The FTb lacks indicia for aperures or shutter speed, but the match needle and hoop in its manually metered mode is extremely simple to use and uncomplicated.  One need simply set their preference of aperture or shutter speed, and make adjustments to the other setting until the meter reads correct exposure. Though I don't always want to shoot in a manual mode, I found the FTb remarkably easy to use in this fashion.

Also missing in the viewfinder is a split prism focusing aid in the center of the field.  In its place is a microprism spot.  Again, it could be the f/1.4 lens, but I found critical focusing with the FTb to usually be a snap, and the FD lens to be fluid and silky.

I loaded the FTb with a roll of Efke KB25 on a surprisingly mild late Fall Sunday morning and headed to stroll nearby Middletown on foot to check out the FTb for myself.  The experience was rewarding to say the least.  Not only was it nice to simply dump the car and walk about and look, but it was also to have the FTb performing just as I had hoped it would. The metering was steady and right about where I'd have expected using "Sunny-16" rules. While shooting in these conditions would have been pretty easy with most cameras, I did feel that the FTb at the very least, never got in the way of trying to get an image.  The entire experience felt right.

The approach to Middletown with the South Mountain range behind was well captured by the Canon in these first two images, with the Efke film giving off a very clean look. 

My only focusing flub on the batch came with this shot.  Dang it. 

Though a bit more "claustrophobic" than my typical composition approach, I'm quite impressed by this image, and the wonderful sharpness it has. 

Yes, there is a focal point in this image, and I did hit it with a wider aperture.  I just didn't line up the image in a way to provide proper contrast between the darker fronds in the foreground with the lighter tones in the backdrop to contrast. 

The church provides a nice strong vertical element that is nicely illuminated in the late Autumn sun. 

A little bit of shutter capping possibly affecting me on this shot.  Still, a pretty interesting result nonetheless. 

I love when a wide aperture lens can focus on a spot at a distance that doesn't dominate the composition and still provide the desired shallow depth of field.  The FD 50mm f/1.4 did a great job of sharply portraying the sign while softening the historic houses in the distance. 

Ok, I may have botched focus on this one too, but I shot this over 6 months ago, so I can't recall what I was trying to focus upon.  Curious that it is the same building.  

Back to better results, and another example of the Canon lens doing its thing at wider apertures.  Admittedly, I'd have liked less definition in the backdrop. 

Bokeh on the FD 50mm f/1.4 is just nice enough not to be jarring or bothersome.  

Closing on an up note, I've lost a bit of shadow detail here, but the tonal curve barely keeps from dropping too far into the darkness. 

Writing the review for this camera months after first using it, and seeing the pictures it produced, admittedly makes me feel that I'm missing out in that I haven't used it since, but this was hardly intentional.  In fact, I had set the FTb aside for a certain special project in the height of Spring, only to have the events of life complicate my ability to follow through as I had hoped.

Fortunately, my tendency to like to write about my hobby as I am now has given me a nice gentle nudge to move this excellent machine back up into the queue for another pass that it most certainly deserves.  I look forward to seeing just what this camera will do, and expect much more than simply a sophomoric effort from the second roll though this once "anonymous" thrift store camera.  

And yeah, sure it's not a $5 Leica, but I'm perfectly fine with that, as I love it.