Canon F-1n: First Impressions

I've been dabbling in photography since the early 1970s and for as long as I can recall, there's been a Nikon camp and a Canon camp. I've always belonged to the former, never warming much to most Canons I've tried. I had a TL once. It was clunky. And none of the 1990s era plasticy blob-like Canons appeared interesting enough for me to try. A friend of mine, firmly rooted in the Canon camp, loaned me one of his pro-level DSLRs once to try, but its multi-function switches and fiddly menus turned me off. The only exception so far was the Canon P rangefinder, a circa 1960s Leica screw mount jewel that's a minimalist joy to shoot. But that's it; one lone photographic antique from a time when SLRs weren't even a glimmer in Canon's eye.

Until now, maybe. You see, I've been keeping a casual eye out for a Canon F-1 or F-1n ever since my photo-blogging friend Jim Grey matter-of-factly mentioned this camera to me a year or so ago. Jim knows I lean towards metal, gears, minimalism and great glass.  He was the one who suggested I try Pentax. It was a great suggestion. I've since fallen hard for the Spotmatics. So I trust this guy and when a fine, slightly brassy Canon F-1n presented itself, I took the plunge.

The original Canon F-1 was to the Canon camp what the Nikon F2 was to Nikon shooters; an overbuilt, heavy, metal, pro-level workhorse. The F-1 came out in 1971, around the same time as Nikon's second F. The F-1 was a manual focus, manual exposure system camera. Canon promised they'd keep the F-1 in production for a decade and they did. As Nikon closed out the F2 era with the introduction of the F3 in 1980, Canon debuted their "new F-1" not longer after, in 1981. The New F-1, soon to be called just the F-1n, offered several finder options including aperture-priority auto-exposure with the AE-FN finder. My F-1n came with this finder and a very nice Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens.

I've just loaded some Tmax 100 into the F-1n and here are some thoughts so far...

1.  It's a heavy camera alright, but it is well balanced and easy to handle. Canon seemed to really like putting those big 6V batteries in cameras of this era so, like the AE-1 Program, it has a raised compartment on the front of the camera to accommodate the battery chamber. Unlike the consumer-oriented AE-1 however, the battery chamber on the F-1n fits better, feels nicer and seems to be more part of the camera body rather than an afterthought. This compartment also provides a secure place to grip the camera.

2.  This camera has an unusal dark gray matte finish, similar to what you might find on a gun or rifle. It is very different than the black enamel finish on my Nikons and Spotmatic bodies. The camera I bought is starting to reveal some nice brassing on the top and bottom plates. The more I handle this camera, the more I like the finish. With use, based on how it's wearing now, it should develop a wonderful patina.

3.  The viewfinder is big and bright. Super easy to focus with the standard split image focus screen. In manual mode, the match-needle exposure information appears on the right side of the viewfinder screen. Switch to AE and the manual information disappears and the AE information appears on the bottom of the screen. Nice--you always know what metering mode you are in!

4.  Shutter speeds are from B to 1/2000th. This is a hybrid shutter. Electronics control the slower speeds and the rest are mechanical--good news if that big 6V battery hanging out front dies. 

5.  Shooting in either manual or AE modes is pretty intuitive, even for a visitor from the Nikon camp. The camera controls all feel nice, firm and clicky. The Canon FD lenses, which were phased out after the F-1n, are well built with a nice focus feel.

6.  Ever since I had my laser cataract surgery, I don't need viewfinder diopters any longer, but if you do, this camera will accept screw-in ones like the Nikon F2. There are also a number of different focus screens available.

I'm shooting my test roll in the F-1n both in manual and AE modes, carefully logging each shot in a little notebook. I bought this camera from a very reputable camera shop down in Marin County and their in-house camera tech checked this camera before I bought it, so the meter should be accurate, but it'll be nice to have good notes when I get the scans back from the lab.

Unlike the Nikon F2, you won't find page after internet page or oodles of YouTube videos gushing praise on the Canon F-1n. Nikon really dominated the pro photography world at this time, so I imagine a lot more F2s were sold than F-1s, meaning lots more survivors. Or the film photographers still shooting their F-1s aren't as vocal a bunch. I'm not sure. What I do know is that this is the first Canon SLR I've really liked right from the start. Thanks Jim!