Canon F-1 : One Camera to Rule Them All

The Canon F-1 was the camera that led Canon into the professional market with a system of interchangeable lenses and accessories making it one of the best made and most versatile camera systems on the market. Unlike many cameras, the F-1 is not a derivative of another model, it was designed from the ground up to be robust, versatile and reliable; literally able to shoot in any situation.

First introduced in March of 1971, the F-1 was the culmination of a huge investment of money and 5 years of design and development. Along with the F-1, Canon introduced the FD mount, designed specifically to pair with the F-1 and introduce a new series of multi-coated lenses and persisted as the preferred mount for Canon cameras until 1987 when the EF series lenses and EOS camera lines became available, although they didn’t stop making new FD lenses altogether until 1992. With only 1 slight revision (F-1n), Canon continued to manufacture the F-1 for 10 years until 1981 when the New F-1 was introduced with electronic metering and shutter control.

Note: Canon didn't really do itself any favors by naming two cameras with the moniker F-1. The first model introduced in 1971 and it's accessories are not compatible with the New F-1 (often referred to "The New F-1" or the F-1N), and given that there is also an older F-1n (notice lowercase N) it's kind of a headache to get everything straight unless you're familiar with both cameras.

Designing the Canon F-1

It took Canon 5 years of design and development to fine tune the F-1 and the new FD mount lenses that were built to support this new professional platform 35mm SLR. It was purpose built to be a bomb-proof platform that could be used and abused for years, and it was this dedication to quality and usability that propelled the F-1 to a decade long production life. It’s not very often that a company the size of Canon publishes life-time statistics for its products but the F-1 was touted to outlast 100,000 shutter fires, temperatures ranging from -30° C (0° F) to 60° C (148° F), and 90% humidity.

Canon really went all-in on the design of the F-1 as a system. Somewhat behind the 8-ball when compared to Nikon and the Nikon F system which was released in 1959, Canon had over 200 lenses and accessories that worked with the F-1. The F-1 was only available in black.

Feature Rich

Canon F-1 controls
F-1 controls

Even though the Canon F-1 aligns more with the Nikon F (being the first in the system) it was released around the same time as the Nikon F2, and it’s features reflect that. The F-1 has shutter speeds ranging from Bulb (B) to 2000s and an ASA range of 25 to 3200, a 10 second self timer and all manual exposure controls. The self timer lever cleverly houses the controls for DoF preview and the Mirror Lock-up.

The built-in metering system is a bit different than your normal match-needle meter, but it’s the same idea. Simply switch the meter to the on position, compose your picture and adjust shutter speed and aperture settings to your desired settings. With the needle bisecting the aperture circle the exposure is “correct”. Adjust your settings if you wish to over or under expose the image. It’s super easy to use with the new FD lenses which give you TTL metering, and you can also use stop-down metering with the older FL mount lenses.

By now, you’ve probably noticed this odd little hatch on the left side of the lens mount, this is the Servo EE Finder Coupling Socket. The Servo EE Finder is an interchangeable viewfinder, which couples with the aperture metering mechanism, which gives you the ability to use the F-1 in Shutter Priority mode. There are 6 available finders for the F-1 which are listed below.

Shooting with the Canon F-1

Canon F-1 meter

There’s always going to be something about a camera that you love, and just as likely something that you hate. I despise the meter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s accurate and easy to read but I prefer the meter on the Nikon FE, FE2 and FM3a. This is a pretty minor thing however, and doesn’t affect the accuracy of the camera and its ability to produce images. Like other mechanical cameras of this age, the Canon F-1 is a beast. It weighs nearly 3 pounds with the 50mm SSC f/1.4 which is well north of what the New F-1 weighs and almost double the Canon EOS 1n; but don’t let that stop you. The F-1 is just lovely to shoot with. Everything feels like it should and the interface is properly designed with the controls in the right places. There are a couple of things that are a bit out of place making the self-timer easy to fidget with on the right side of the camera and the film speed dial is a pain to adjust. It could be that mine is just a bit sticky, but I have to change the shutter speed to it’s mechanical ends in order for the film speed dial to turn freely. Otherwise it turns the shutter speed dial before it changes the film speed.

The F-1n (NOT to be confused with the New F-1/F-1N) saw some minor improvements and is easily distinguished by the plastic end on the film advance lever and the film reminder on the film door. There were about a dozen other improvements, which to me, makes the F-1n a more usable and desirable camera.

For additional shooting controls you can use the Servo EE Finder which will give you the ability to shoot in Shutter Priority mode. The Servo EE Finder is one of 5 available finders for the F-1, each one designed to enhance the shooting control over the F-1. The other finder that I find useful is thew Speed Finder. It gives you a much larger viewing window allowing for faster compositions. It’s main use in for sports but I have found that it’s just nice to have. Like Nikon, Canon also offered a Waist Level Finder for the F-1. And just like Nikon I can’t really find a good use case for the Waist Level Finder. I makes focusing the camera awkward and just slows down the process.

self timer - mirror lock up
self-timer

Everything about the F-1 is robust. If you couldn’t determine it by the weight of the camera, everything is built to be able to withstand the rigors of being a professional level camera. The body is solid brass and weighs in at just under 2 pounds (845 grams) and was introduced with a litany of accessories. The standard prism allows for a 97% field of view which is close to the visibility of the F3HP. The controls are intelligently grouped to allow for more features and options without complicating the operation. The self timer pulls triple duty with the mirror lock-up and depth of field preview, while the shutter speed dial also houses ASA adjustments.

The new FD mount lenses introduced with the F-1 helped to propel the F-1s success. With available options ranging from 7.5mm to 1200mm and not to mention all of the FL and R mount lenses that can be used, you can literally use the F-1 for everything. Check the links below for more information on Canon FD lenses.

I think the only thing that Canon could have included in the F-1 is a finder shade to prevent light from seeping in through the finder eyepiece during long exposures.

Wrap-up

Using the Canon F-1 is simply a great experience as long as you don’t mind its weight. There are other cameras out there that do what the F-1 does, but there aren’t many that are as robust and adjustable. With 10 available screens, 5 finders, flash accessories, bellows all tied together by a massive selection of high quality lenses.

If you’re in the market for an F-1there are a couple of things to watch out for. I would focus on the F-1n (see the updates below) mainly because of the updates are nice to have. Be careful of mixing up the F-1n and the New F-1 or F-1N – the accessories are not compatible and they are two entirely different cameras. The New F-1 is an electronic camera, unlike the F-1. Other than that, there’s no reason not to get one and just enjoy shooting 35mm film again.

Prices are heading upwards again but it’s still possible to get a good camera at a decent price, but beware some of the overseas sellers who are trying to drive up prices. Also if you see a disclaimer like “unable to test” or “I can’t test it without batteries” or some such keep in mind that many times that’s code for “I know the camera doesn’t work right.” Ebay is still a good place to buy from, but Yahoo has some deals as do some of the Japanese auction sites, but for cameras of this type if you have a local camera shop, buy it from them.

Canon F-1n updates (1976)

• Changed focusing screen from the A style (microprism) to E style (split image w/ring).
• Widen the film advance lever offset from 15 degrees to 30 degrees.
• Decrease the winding stroke from 180 degrees to 139 degrees.
• Increase the maximum ASA from 2000 to 3200.
• Added a plastic tip to the advance lever.
• Changed the mirror to transmit more blue light, thus making the image brighter.
• Added a detent to the rewind crank to allow it to stay put when pulled out.
• Added the capability to take a screw-in type PC sync socket.
• Spring load the battery check position of the power switch.
• Increase the size of the shutter release cup.
• Added a soft rubber ring around the eyepiece.
• Added a film reminder holder to the camera back.
• Simplify multiple exposure procedure.


Specifications

General

Canon F-1n
Type : SLR – Single Lens Reflex
Lens Mount : FD, FL & R mount
Operation :
Mechanical
Format :
35mm
Shutter :
Focal plane
Shutter Speeds :
B, * 1s – 1/2000s
Shutter Remote : Mechanical
ISO Range : 25 – 3200
Shutter Lock : Yes
Self Timer : 10 seconds
Mirror Lock-up : Yes
DoF preview : Yes
Flash:
TTL
Flash Mount :
Flash Couplers D, L.
Field of View : 97% (standard finder)
Flash Sync : x – 1/60s
Multiple Exposure : Yes
Strap Lugs :
Yes
Battery : PX625
Production :
1971 – 1981
Weight :
845g (With FD 50mm f/l.4S.S.C. Lens: 1,1509)

Download the Canon F-1 manual

Accessories

Standard Eyecup & Type R
Magnifier – Angle finder B, A2 & R
Diopters : -4 to +3
Data Back A
Motor Drive MF, Film Chamber 250
Speedlight Flashes : 133D, Auto ring A & B.
Lens hoods in various sizes for the FD lenses
Macro Bellows FL & M

There are a large number of other accessories that Canon has produced that are more universal in nature as well. Close-up filters, filters, and straps.

Listed below are a couple of resources for more information about Canons FD lenses.

FD Lens specifications
Canon FD Resources

Date your camera : Canon has just about always had a date code system rather than serial number batches like Nikon, and other cameras. Looking in the film compartment there will be a 4 digit code on the left side where the film canister goes. Mine is V115, which places it at January (1) of 1981 (V). There is a small chart at the bottom of this post with more detail.

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