The Canon F1 and Its Curious History in Cinema

The Canon F1 is well-known to many of us. But let’s be frank, it’s not as popular as the Canon AE1 that sits in attics and garages. The Canon F1 (also referred to as the Canon F-1 in this article) came out in the 1970s and was a mainstay for around 20 years. Today, you can find them used and in fantastic condition. These cameras are gorgeous–so much so that they appear as popular props in the movies. But if you know anything about the Canon F1, you’ll probably wonder why it’s in the movies.

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Lots of vintage cinema uses period-specific props and cameras. It’s truly only in the 90s and later that movies started to not pay so much attention to detail. The detail became even less critical once everyone began using phones instead of cameras. Yet, the Canon F1 is clearly noticeable in the movies if you’re a photographer. As you’ll see, the Canon F-1 indeed appears in movies, but much later than the era in which it was released. Why it appears is up for debate, and for that we asked a few experts.

Why the Canon F1?

Image by Peter Harris. Used with Creative Commons Permissions.

What’s to love about the Canon F1? For Canon shooters, this is probably the closest thing we have to the Nikon F. However, it lacks the pure gusto the Nikon F exudes. The F1 is prized for its versatility, durability, beautiful viewfinders, and the incredible Canon FD mount lineup of lenses. Despite this, the Canon AE1 was a more popular camera. It was considered a professional standard for the Canon lineup for several years.

According to the Canon Museum, here’s what you should know about the Canon F1:

  • Canon FD mount, which enabled fully automatic exposure metering
  • Four-axis, horizontal-travel focal-plane shutter with metal curtains. X, B, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000, 1/2000 sec . Built-in self-timer (self-timer lever also functions as a stop-down lever). Multiple exposures enabled.
  • Interchangeable eye-level pentaprism. 0.77x magnification and 97% coverage.
  • CDS cell for TTL full-aperture. But the camera works perfectly fine without a battery.
  • One 1.3 V HD mercury cell
  • The camera was built to endure 100,000 picture-taking cycles, temperatures ranging from -30 C to 60 C, and 90% humidity.
  • The F1n is an F-1 with a few improvements. The film advance winding stroke was reduced from 180 to 139. And the advance film lever’s ready position was widened from 15 to 30. This made film advance faster. The film advance lever also had a new plastic tip. The film speed range was also increased from ISO 2000 to ISO 3200. The PC terminal had a fastener to prevent the PC cord from disconnection. In all, thirteen improvements over the old F-1 were made.
  • There was also an Olive Drab variant of the camera.

“…I’ve always thought it as the MacGuyver of cameras: multiple finders, interchangeable focus screens, interchangeable backs, add-on bellows, multiple flashes. It was a geek’s dream,” says Roger Cicala of Lensrentals when asked why the Canon F1 might’ve been popular in movies. “I wonder if maybe that’s why some of the popularity as a prop, that they could change it up and make it look extra cool?” Indeed, this was the closest thing Canon had to the Nikon F1 in terms of interchangeability and customization. The only other majorly iconic Canon FD mount camera is the Canon AE-1.

With that said, it’s still a fact that the Canon F-1 was the top dog of the Canon SLR camera line for around 20 years. Part of that was due to the referenced design.

Image by Peter Harris. Used with Creative Commons Permissions.

“…the F-1 broke new ground in being designed from the ground up as a solution for working professionals and demanding enthusiasts,” explains Rudy Winston, Canon Technical Advisor to The Phobographer. “Superb body strength and durability, and wonderful operational smoothness, were F-1 hallmarks. Additionally, the original F-1 of 1971 was engineered as an integrated, pro-level system camera — where numerous (and for the time, innovative) accessories worked together, broadening the range of solutions for the pro-level user.”

And, the F-1 gave Canon a visible presence in the world of photojournalism, and among pro photographers in general. Even casual TV viewers began to see the camera, used in a professional context. Along with the development of the FD lens line, the Canon F-1 laid the groundwork for Canon’s presence in the professional camera market — and over 50 years after its initial launch, Canon continues to maintain that strong commitment to our professional users.

Rudy Winston

Despite the Canon F-1’s beautiful looks, when it’s used in movies is still debatable. When it came out, Nikon was the top dog. Just glance at eBay listings! So, why would make someone use it in a movie?

“I think it’s important to remember that when the F-1 came out in 1971, Nikon was the dominant brand for professionals,” explains Joey Miller at Lensrentals, a Nikon aficionado. “The Nikon F came out in 1959, and the F2 followed in ’73. PJs (photojournalists) in Vietnam were using them.” Joey proceeded to tout Nikon’s superiority with NASA sending them along on space missions before returning to Canon.

“…But the F-1 was a beautiful camera in its day, and real Canon heads love them. I think you’ll find far more Nikon bodies in movies and TV of the 70s and 80s, but period pieces produced more recently, you’ll have prop managers that probably grew up loving particular cameras and like featuring them. And what better classic Canon model than the top end F-1?”

Joey Miller

When the Canon F-1 is used in cinema seems to line up with what Joey states.

A Look at the Movies

Screenshot from the movie Spider-Man

Here’s a list of movies where the Canon F1 appeared, according to Mike Eckmann, who pulled it from Reddit user u/polaroidz.

  • Mindhunter (2017, Season 2 Episode 8) – Garland Periwinkle
  • Moonraker (1979) – Holly Goodhead
  • Crocodile Dundee (1986) – Sue Charlton
  • Groundhog Day (1993) – Background reporter
  • Spider-Man (2002) – Peter Parker
  • Jericho (2006, S1) – Robert Hawkins

Despite the Canon F-1 being a camera of the 1970s, it wasn’t as popular in cinema, but started to become more prevalent later on. This adds weight to Mr. Miller’s statement that some photographers grew up with Canon and wanted something vintage from the brand they grew up with. In the 1990s and 2000s, Canon was topping the charts.

So, why pick the Canon F-1 instead of the AE1? Well, the AE1 wasn’t meant for professionals. However, in 2015, we reported that it majorly appealed to passionate photographers for the build quality. The Canon AE1 was made of plastic that was designed to look and feel like metal. Conversely, the Canon F-1 was made of metal. To both Mr. Winston and Mr. Cicala’s points, the Canon F-1 gave a level of customization that also makes it a very fun prop.

There’s something to be said for the fact that, even today, the Canon F1 is used in movies. Is it just a prop? Is there something iconic about the choice? Indeed, in today’s world, props can mean a whole lot. For example, it’s no mistake that James Bond has been wearing Omega Seamaster watches for many years now. If Bruce Willis didn’t use a katana in Pulp Fiction, would he have grown to the popularity he enjoys today in pop culture? Granted, there’s a higher barrier of entry for cameras.

Lead image by Gene. Used with Creative Commons Permission

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