So, why should you use the Canon FD system versus some of the other lens systems out there? The system has some notable strengths. First, I think it offers the best quality lenses of all the manual focus camera makers. Nikon has some lenses that are better than their individual Canon counterparts, and some of the other mounts have a few good lenses in their lineup, but if you put together a whole kit for any particular budget, the Canon kit will probably be the best. Secondly, with the T90 they offer perhaps the best manual focus body ever made. Thirdly, the system is very cheap and readily available on ebay. Lenses are significantly cheaper than Nikon or Olympus offerings; slightly cheaper than M42 lenses, and run about comparable to Minolta lenses. And at any given time, there are dozens of each common focal length lens available on ebay.
Canon Manual Focus Cameras and Lenses (FD/FL mounts)
This guide will try to give a brief "lay of the land" of what Canon manual focus cameras and lenses are out there and what will give you the best bang for your buck buying into this extensive but affordable system of cameras and lenses. It is geared towards the budget-minded potential ebay purchaser of a Canon manual focus camera or lenses who understands some of the basics of aperture, shutter speed, focal length and flash. If you don't understand these things, though, you can still benefit from my suggestions of what kits to try to put together for various budgets at the end of the guide. Note that this covers only Canon manual focus equipment - not the autofocus EOS system, which has a different camera body/lens mount.
Notable disadvantages of the system: The lens mount to film plane distance is the shortest of all the manual focus SLR’s, so this makes it difficult to adapt these lenses to more modern digital bodies. For all digital SLR's you can adapt the lenses one of two ways: 1. with an adapter that has an optical element in it (this will slightly degrade your optical performance and may not work with the fastest lenses) or 2. With a so-called macro adapter that without an optical element that leaves your lens farther from the film plane than intended, and thus your focusing distances are all shifted in and you lose infinity focusing. However you can adapt to the micro 4/3 system without this problem. If you’re a digital SLR user, this is a significant problem, and by itself could be good reason to buy into a different manual focus camera system. This is also probably a large reason why the lenses are currently so cheap. Secondly, only the T90 camera body offers through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering; which is very handy.
FL versus FD lenses: The early Canon lenses were designated FL and the newer ones are designated FD. Starting with the F-1 camera in 1971, the FD lenses let you have your lens set at, say, F8, but the lens would stay open at full aperture and only close down when you press the shutter. This let you focus and compose your image with the full brightness of an open aperture and take your picture whenever you wanted. With the old FL system, the actual aperture was always what you had it set at. You would generally compose and focus with the lens set wide open, then stop the lens down to whatever aperture you wanted to shoot at, meter, then take your picture. The FD system is a lot nicer, and hence the FD lenses command a premium to the FL ones. Note that if you’re adapting to a digital body, you’ve lost FD capabilities anyway, so you’d use both types of lenses the same anyway.
In thinking about the camera bodies, it is probably best to group them in terms of their series. The following is kind of a whirlwind tour of Canon FD bodies; if you want more in-depth info on a particular body, check out the links at the end of the guide.
The T series: This is Canon’s newest series (from the ‘80’s mostly). The T90 is the last and most advanced Canon manufactured manual focus body. It is a true professional camera offering better sealing and impact resistance, 30 sec - 1/4000 sec shutter speeds, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program metering modes. It is also the only Canon manual focus camera offering through the lens (TTL) flash metering, which in and of itself presents a compelling reason to use a T90, since it enables much more accurate flash. The list of features goes on and on. It has some reliability issues (i.e. don’t get an untested, as-is body and expect it to work) and costs from $100-150 for a working body on ebay. The T70 is a step down from the T90; it still offers automatic film transport (no winding the film), but doesn’t have the number of metering modes, TTL flash, or the professional durability of the T90. The T60 was a 1990 Cosina made budget SLR that offered aperture priority metering; no-frills and not terribly reliable. Avoid the T50 as it only operates in program mode (camera sets shutter speed and aperture).
The A series: The A-series bodies were introduced between 1976 and 1982 and are very common on the used market. They are electronically controlled, mostly metal, shutter priority bodies. The AE-1 is most common and offers a basic feature set with 2 sec-1/1000sec shutter speeds. The A-1 and AE-1 Program add a program mode (camera automatically sets both shutter and aperture). The AV-1 was aperture priority instead of shutter priority. The AT-1 was an AE-1 with the shutter priority mode taken away. The AL-1 offers aperture priority and a focus confirmation feature that was the predecessor of modern autofocus cameras.
The F series (full aperture metering): These are the cameras made after 1971 and designed around the FD lenses (see the FD/FL discussion above). The F-1 was Canon’s first truly professional SLR. It is a metered manual exposure camera that was designed to be highly durable and has a lot of customizable parts (backs, focusing screens, viewfinders, etc.). Because it’s so customizable and because it had two major updates over the years (the F-1n and the New F-1) you should be sure you take a good look any F-1’s you’re buying and make sure the have the features you’re expecting. The FTb and FTb-N were essentially mass market F-1’s without the durable housing and customizability. The TX and TLb were budget cameras with fewer features than the FTb’s. The EF was Canon’s first shutter-priority camera. There are also a couple ridiculously expensive F1 motor drive cameras.
The F series (no full aperture metering): These cameras (the FX, FP, Pellix (QL), FTQL, and TL) all require stop-down metering, and thus are a bit annoying to use, so I’d recommend using something newer for your main camera body that you use. Similarly, the even older “Flex” cameras also do not have full aperture metering.
Lenses: In terms of selecting what lenses to get, I would advise checking the MIT link at the end of this article and just seeing what lenses Canon made. See which ones strike your fancy and check their completed auction prices to see if you can afford them. Canon offered a full range of lenses, from $20-30 (current prices) lenses-for-the-masses to truly professional L series lenses costing thousands of dollars even today when they’re 30 years old.
Good kits to buy for various budgets: This section is for the beginner buying into the system.
Under $50: Try to find a seller with a complete outfit for sale (this will minimize your total shipping cost, and you generally pay less for a group of items together). Look especially at the T70’s or basically any of the full aperture metering cameras you can find cheap. The most important things you want your kit to have are a flash that bounces, a 28mm wide angle lens or zoom that covers this focal length, a 50mm prime lens, and a telephoto lens, although you’ll be hard pressed to get all of that for this budget. But at least make sure you get a good quality 50mm prime lens. You’ve got to be really opportunistic to actually get a kit at this price, but it can be done.
$50-$100: Same as for under $50, try to get the best lenses you can for the money. This is probably a more realistic dollar range to put together a full low-end kit with a Canon body and 50mm prime and generic wide angle and telephoto lenses, plus a flash. After your photography has progressed, you will be able to recognize the limits of the cheaper lenses this budget will get you and you can decide whether you can live with them or want to trade up.
$100-200: For this price you can be slightly more picky as to what lenses you want. Get a body whose features you really like (a T70, AE-1, or similar). Try for a 50mm f1.4 lens instead of 1.8. Get a good flash that has bounce and swivel capabilities. Get well rated cheap lenses. A good kit might be a T70, 50mm f1.4, 28mm f2.8, 135mm f2.5 or Canon tele-zoom, and Vivitar 550d or similar flash. Canon also has a couple generally well rated 35-105mm zooms, which may be a nice inclusion for a kit of this budget.
$200+: In this price range, start with a T90 and get lenses similar to the $100-200 range. Alternately, stick with the cheaper bodies and maybe go for a 24mm -35mm – 50mm – telephoto zoom kit. Add a macro lens if you like shooting macro.
Money is no object: Get a T90 and for lenses get the Canon 7.5mm fisheye, the 14mm f2.8L, the 24mm f1.4L, the 35mm f2, the 50mm f1.2, the 85mm f1.2L, a Kiron 105mm f2.8 macro lens, the 80-200mm f4L, and the 200mm f1.8. At least that would by my dream kit. There are more really nice lenses not even included here.
Buying on ebay: I've bought a lot of photographic gear on ebay and the following are some of the problems I've run into:
Light seals are often bad on bodies. This is more often the case than not, unless the seller specifically says the light seals have been replaced. Nevertheless, this is an easy fix. You just need to get a couple sheets of self adhesive light seal material, cut yourself some strips, clean out the old gunky light seals, and replace. It takes a half hour and anyone who has the mental capacity to figure out a camera can do it. Don't buy light seals marketed for your specific type of camera - get sheets of the stuff and cut your own. Try for pre-cut felt or foam strips to replace light seals and 2mm foam to replace your mirror bumper foam. I am a fan of Interslice's $10 light seal kits that he sells on ebay. The material all seems pretty good; you get a wide variety of stuff, and quantities are enough to do at least 8 cameras; probably more.
Sellers often don't know how to evaluate lenses. Some good questions for a buyer to ask (and for a seller to answer upfront) are: Are there any scratches or marks on any of the lens surfaces (front or back)? Does the lens have fungus or internal haze? When you look through the lens at a light, is there a lot of internal dust? (a little bit of dust is normal and makes little difference) Also when looking through the lens at a light, do the aperture blades move as they should when turning the aperture ring and flicking the aperture pin on the back of the lens? (sometimes the blades get oily and stick). Does the lens focus smoothly? A lot of sellers are lazy and won't check for you, but if they do and say the lens is good, 99 times out of 100, you'll get an acceptable lens. Also, note that lenses from humid places such as Florida and Hong Kong are prone to fungus if not stored in a conditioned space, so I would never buy a lens from such a place without a direct assurance of no fungus. Also,if you're looking for a particular lens and don't want the hastle of searching it out on ebay, keh dot com offers a very good selection of manual focus lenses for sale at a slight markup from typical ebay prices.
Camera bodies can be tougher to evaluate in an auction if the seller doesn't explicitly state what works and what doesn't on the camera. If you buy a camera body and need it to work, your best bet is to get one from a seller who sounds like he knows what he's talking about and at the very least says the thing has a battery in it and works currently. In the Canon lineup, it seems like each model has its own set of common problems (dust on some magnets on the T90; chirping shutter on the AE-1’s, etc.). Read up on whatever body you’re planning to get and test out and test out any new used camera for the common issues.
Those caveats to buying aside, the Canon manual focus system is a decent system to get into. There's a lot of quality gear out there with good features which is relatively cheap. My only other advice is that if you’re planning on adapting to digital, get your adapter and a cheap lens first to make sure you like that way of shooting before you blow a lot of money on L glass and discover manually focusing is more annoying than you thought.
For Further Information: I've found the following sites helpful (ebay doesn't like links; they're afraid I'll try to sell you stuff with them, so google the site title to find it yourself).
Canon camera museum - Canon's official website offering historical information on every camera they ever made
MIT dennis FD lenses - A simple list of every FD lens Canon ever made
mir fdlenses - Gives an overview of a lot of the FD lenses
photo dot net - A lot of good general photography information. If you just starting out in photography I'd recommend going through their beginning photography tutorial because I think it's explained well (i.e. - talk about lighting first, then move on to composition and technical information.) Additionally, if you're stumped for a piece of information on the net, a search of their site can sometimes turn it up.
There, enough writing. Happy shooting!
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