My first Canon

by Todd on May 19, 2012

A few weeks ago I was visiting the lab where I used to work. My boss found out I was shooting a lot of film and getting into old cameras, and he kindly offered to give me his old Canon A-1 and 50mm lens. Obviously I took him up on it…free gear is great. To be honest, I was happy to be getting some free stuff, but not exactly drooling over an A-1 or anything. Not to mention 50mm is far from my favorite focal length. While I like old cameras, I don’t know much about them, and I figured…eh…a free camera and lens from a brand I never shoot. Maybe I’ll take it apart and try to learn something. A couple of weeks later, when I stopped in to pick the camera up, I became somewhat more eager to shoot it, for a few reasons. First, it was kinda cool-looking and it was really clean. Second, the 50 was a 1.4, so that’s pretty cool; I didn’t have a lens that fast for any of my film bodies. Come to think of it, since selling my Nikkor 85/1.4 a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a lens that fast at all! Third, he also brought me the Canon FD 70-210/4, and my longest lens is currently the Pentax 135/2.5. Finally, that latter lens has a 58mm filter size, and he included a set of color filters. I have an old roll of Kodak HIE infra-red film lying around, and I’ve been debating whether to spend $20 or more for a red filter, or just eBay the HIE for $40, which is about what the current market will fetch. This made my decision for me: I’ll shoot the film and see what happens! So, here’s my new gear:

I haven’t spent much time with it yet, but I’ll offer a few initial thoughts. It’s a great-looking body. It’s mostly metal and feels mostly very solid, but there are a few cheesy plastic parts trying to spoil the “pro” feel: the silly AT dial guard, the add-on grip, the stop-down mechanism, and the battery door. This last thing was broken, and the only thing that appeared to be wrong with the camera. Apparently broken battery doors were very common on the Canon A series cameras (go figure), and I easily found someone selling replacements, in pairs (LOL) for $5. So I ordered a pair of doors, and a battery (couldn’t find one locally).

While waiting for them to arrive, I was inspecting the lenses. The aperture tab on the lens mount doesn’t open the blades. When I first noticed this on the 50, I assumed it was just oily and had frozen up, but when I saw the 70-210 was the same way, I started to suspect maybe this is the way FD lenses are. Sure enough, a bit of Googling confirmed that. Weird, but whatever. These lenses both look and feel great. Solid quality, excellent focus rings. The battery arrived yesterday and I replaced the broken door and inserted the battery. I loaded some film and began to try to figure out the different exposure modes. I soon noticed there was no LED readout in the viewfinder. After trying a bunch of things to see if I could get the display back, I was ready to accept that as nice as the camera was, it had some serious electrical issue, and I wouldn’t be able to use it. But just in case, more Googling. Lo and behold, it turns out Canon offered a switch to turn off the display. I rifled through the manual (which I normally read thoroughly, but hadn’t found the time in this case) and identified the lever. Flipped the switch, and YAY! Fully functional camera, ready to shoot.

But the A-1 was not finished throwing me curve balls yet. As I fired off a few test shots, I was surprised my the shutter sound. Very high-pitched and whiny. At first I thought Canon just made it whiny to be more in sync with the average user of their gear. OH SNAP did I just go there? Hehehe…kidding guys, couldn’t resist. But I quickly determined that this “shutter squeal” was actually a common issue with the A/AE series of cameras. You can hear the sound, both before and after repair, HERE. It’s actually not the shutter, but rather the gear involved in raising the mirror. It’s impossible to access without a major disassembly of the body, but I found a post where the guy mentioned exactly how far the gear pivot was from the bottom of the camera, and on another site I found that with the shutter cocked and the bottom removed, you could just get a WD-40 straw inserted. I didn’t use WD-40, but a synthetic lube I had in my toolbox from my days as a Harley mechanic. I marked the straw for 30mm, and tested the sprayer in the sink. It’s not possible with the button on the can to get only a small drop to come out, so I was worried about shooting too much oil into the camera and having it spread to the mirror box or the film transport area. But I noticed that after spraying the smallest possible shot, little droplets of the oil collected in the straw and moved to the end due a bit of back pressure, eventually dripping out the end of the straw. Using that to my advantage, I sprayed it into the sink, then as the droplets were moving down the straw, I quickly inserted it into the bottom of the camera. It took me three tries, and about a hundred shutter clicks, but eventually the squeal disappeared! So, I think I’ve fixed it, but I haven’t shot another roll yet, so we’ll see.

However, I wanted to test the camera and the lenses as soon as possible, so before I did the fix (I already had loaded film into the camera anyway), I shot a roll of Plus-X 125. Happy to report that everything seems to be working nicely, although shooting in Av mode the meter seems to overexpose by at least a half stop. No big deal. I’ve posted a few snaps from that roll below, including a gratuitous mirror shot of myself with the 50. The others are all with the 70-210 at f/4.¬† The first two shots of Diane look so different because I had the Tiffen red filter screwed on for the second one. I was surprised at how much light was blocked by the filter, and that one was shot at 1/30s. The first shot of her had no filter, and I used the orange filter for the close-up. I was hoping to get a better idea of when and why to use these filters for B/W photography, but I will need to do more reading and shooting. I’m not sure how much¬† of the difference between the red filter and no filter is due to TTL exposure issues, and how much is from the actual filtering.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

eva June 22, 2012 at 3:38 am

I have a pretty bad Canon T90, my dad bought it for me when I was a teen. Later I found out it’s the last Canon camera made for the manual lenses and it was meant for 3rd wold countries only. Anyway I enndep up getting all my dad’s canon lenses and honestly they are really great. The crappy body almost doesn’t matter in the end.
I always thought the red filter was good for making the sky look really dramatic, like in Ansel Adam photos.

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Todd June 22, 2012 at 6:56 am

The T90 actually looks pretty great to me, on paper anyway. I started looking at other Canon bodies to see what else I might be able to pick up, and that’s one of the ones I have my eye on. Seems to have the heavy metal build I’m partial to, and Stephen Gandy gave it a great review: http://cameraquest.com/t90.htm

Is there stuff wrong with your specific camera, or the version of it? Or you just don’t like the design?

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Eva June 22, 2012 at 10:02 am

Ha, I mixed up the numbers, I don’t have a T90 , I have a T60, which hardly has anything in common with the T90. It’s plastic, only has aperture priority, everything is very basic and manual, but it still takes great photos with the right lenses and it’s very light and it still works perfectly after almost 20 years.
I took these with it:
http://www.photosfromhongkong.com/2011/04/easter-sunday-in-macau.html

Todd June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am

A-ha! That makes more sense. If I had several great Canon lenses, I’d be looking hard for a good T90. I’ve seen them go on eBay for $100, though closer to $200 is more common. Anyway, you’re pretty much living in the Mecca of used camera gear, aren’t you? I’m jealous of that, as well as all of the photo ops you must have. Great photography on your blog!

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