At the beginning of the seventies, every camera maker had to have a super-compact camera in its line-up. They were designed for the amateurs who did not want to carry a heavy, expensive and complex single lens reflex, but were still looking for good quality camera offering more control than a Kodak Instamatic.
The most successful camera of this category was Canon’s Canonet series (which sold in the millions), but German camera makers also tried their luck – in cooperation with Minolta in the case of Leitz.
Manufactured in Japan by Minolta, the Leica CL was a sort of mini-Leica M5, with a similar semi-automatic exposure system, the same M bayonet, and a large viewfinder equipped with a coupled rangefinder. The CL was much smaller than the rather bulky M5, the base of its rangefinder was much narrower than the M5’s, and it only accepted two specifically designed interchangeable lenses (a 40mm and a 90mm), as well as the standard 50mm Leica lenses. The CL had a short sales career, but its general design was refreshed by Minolta a few years later, when they launched the Minolta CLE, which supported a dedicated 28mm Minolta Rokkor lens (in addition to the 40mm and 90mm lenses), and offered Minolta’s first flash system with on the film (OTF) metering.
Apart from having interchangeable lenses and a Leica price tag, the CL’s characteristics were pretty much in line with what the other manufacturers of compact cameras were offering.
Canon was the undisputed leader of the “super-compact” camera category, with its highly successful line of “Canonet” cameras. The GIII is the last iteration of the Canonet series, and the QL17 (named for its impressive 40mm f/1.7 lens) formed the top of the line. Let’s compare the Leica CL (from 1973) with the GIII QL17.
What they have in common :
- rangefinder compact camera
- focal length = 40mm
- Fast Maximum aperture: F/1.7 (Canon); F/2 (Leica)
- Size/Weight: Canon: 120 x 75 x 60 mm / 620g / Leica: 120x 76 x 32 (no lens)/400g without the lens; 510g with the lens
- Same PX625 battery (unfortunately)
- CdS cell
- both can work without a battery
There are significant differences though:
- the Leica has a curtain shutter and offers a range of interchangeable lenses. But the Leica only supports 3 focal lengths (40mm, 50mm, 90mm) – it does not have the viewfinder markings needed to support Minolta’s Rokkor 28mm.
- The Canonet has a central shutter, and a fixed lens (40mm F/1.7 in our case, but cheaper versions of the cameras were equipped with a slower lens). A big plus of this super-compact is Canon’s exclusive Quick film Loading system (hence the “QL” acronym), which is so much better than Leica’s film loading process – which at best can be described as acrobatic (it requires a table, a chair and 2 hands, at a minimum).
- Canon is either auto (shutter speed preferred) or fully manual (the meter is off if the camera is set to manual); the Leica is a semi auto camera (the well known matching needle arrangement).
Both cameras use CdS sensors for metering, and because they were using Mercury batteries producing 1.35v (the PX625 model) which are now absolutely unavailable, workarounds are necessary. The Leica only seems to work with Wein’s 625 Zinc-Air cell. The Canon seems to be a bit more tolerant, but I still recommend using a Zinc-Air battery, as they provide the same voltage as the original PX625 Mercury battery.
To tell the truth, I don’t really trust the exposure system of any of the cameras, and I use an app named Pocket Light Meter on an iPhone to determine the best exposure. With a tolerant film, the exposure will be OK.
Hands-on with the Canonet GIII QL17
I bought this camera at an antique market, from a specialist who used to own one of the two or three remaining photo equipment stores in Atlanta, and was dispersing what was left of his inventory – he said he had completely reconditioned the camera (the combo lens-shutter in particular) but that he could not guarantee that the metering and the auto-exposure system would work.
The camera was expensive (at the top of the range for such a model) – but when I received the scans, I was happy I had spent my money on it: the optical quality of the images was really impressive – it’s difficult to beat a well-designed 40mm prime lens.
Being small, silent and graced with a good viewfinder, it’s a good camera for street photography, provided the subject is not too mobile and leaves you all the time you need to set the focus and the exposure.
I was very favorably impressed by the technical quality of the pictures I shot with the Canonet – obviously the film plays a role here (I like Kodak’s Ektar 100 for its color rendering and high definition) but this 40mm f/1.7 is definitely a great lens, and the mechanical shutter/iris combo is accurate enough for the shots to be correctly exposed (I was using an external light meter, though).
Would have the pictures been better if shot with the Leica CL? Probably not. The lens of this Canon camera is that good.
- Leica CL : it sold well, aged well, and does not seem to be in high demand. In addition, even if the CL’s Summicron-C 40mm lens can be physically mounted on the full size M cameras (M5, M6 and the like), there is no corresponding frameline in their viewfinder, limiting the practical interest of the lens for the other Leica photographers. Therefore, the CL and its 40mm lens form the most accessible combination to enter the Leica M system. Interestingly, the non-Leica alternatives supporting the 40mm lens (Minolta CLE, Voigtlander Bessa R3) are all more expensive than the CL. Expect to spend at least $300.00 for a nice body and $400.00 for the lens.
- Canon – the Canonet line was sold over almost 15 years, and specific models like the GIII QL f/1.7 are rather sought after. Most of the copies are either “untested”, or “cosmetically perfect”, but few vendors promise that the metering system and the shutter are going to work, let alone be accurate. You can find a nice “untested” copy for $50.00. Fully functional cameras are more expensive (typically above $150.00).
I’ve never been much of a rangefinder guy – I like the clear view and the fact that the viewfinder shows more than what will be captured on the film, but I always tend to forget to set the focus – or if I set it right at the beginning of a series of pictures, I forget to adjust it if my subject moves or if I change the angle of view. My success rate at that exercise is abysmal.
The rangefinder of the Leica CL tends to be easier on the eyes than the Canon’s (the focus zone is significantly more luminous than the rest of the viewfinder and pops out, as opposed to the Canon where it’s simply a yellow patch). But the Summicron-C lens on the Leica is smaller and its focusing ramp stiffer than the lens of the Canonet, so it’s more difficult to operate for the casual photographer.
All in all, the Canon is definitely easier to use than the Leica, and the quality of the images roughly equivalent. But just a few years after those two cameras were released (in the second part of the seventies), automatic exposure SLRs had become so small and light (think Olympus OM-2, Pentax ME or Nikon EM) that provided you paired them with a tiny pancake 35 or 40mm lens, they were almost as compact as those two rangefinders, and so much easier to use.
At least for me, SLRs will produce better results, with more consistency and a lower effort. Rangefinder cameras of the film era require a lot of practice and muscle memory to produce images of quality – and in the hands of a casual photographer who simply shoots a few rolls of film per year, I feel that they simply leave too much to chance. Truth to be told, the only camera equipped with an optical finder that I can really live with is the Fujifilm X100t – it gives you the best of what the Canonet and the Leica CL offer (image quality, direct optical view, compactness, silence), but has enough automatic systems (reliable auto-focus, reliable auto-exposure, switchable digital viewfinder) to overcome the lack of practice of the occasional user.