Canon got off to the slowest start of the original Big 4 Japanese camera makers when it came to SLR development and sales. This was partially due to their commitment to interchangeable lens rangefinders for longer than their competitors. By the mid-1960s, however, they had embarked on a slow but steady climb that would lead them to market dominance by the late-1970s. Their first truly competitive SLR was the FT of 1966, and it would spawn one of the finest series of mechanical-shuttered enthusiast SLRs of the age and Canon's most successful non-A-series manual focus model. The second- and third-generation FTb & FTb-N would prove to be the backbone of Canon's amateur lineup in the first half of the '70s and sold extremely well while both Pentax and Minolta were facing declining sales of their excellent Spotmatic & SRT mechanical SLRs at that time. That alone makes it a pivotal model in Canon's history. But it is much more than a sales footnote, it was one of the finest enthusiast-level SLRs of its day, and that makes it a great choice today for the film-SLR aficionado. You could call the FT the analog 5D of its era :-).
Long before the advent of the Mark II, III , and IV DSLRs we see today, Canon instituted its practice of incremental improvements of the same basic model with the FT. There would end up being three iterations of the FT, with the final one, the FTb-N (1973), being the best and most fully-featured. First, let's take a quick look at the evolution of the line and then we'll take the FTb-N for a spin.
The FT was Canon's first SLR with TTL (through-the-lens) metering and was designed to be used with the FL line of lenses first introduced in 1964. Until the introduction of the professional F-1 in 1971, the FT was the top-level conventional Canon SLR. The basic soundness of the FT's design was borne out in the fact that the metering pattern, shutter, film transport system, and overall control layout went virtually unchanged in its successors. Here are the basic specifications:
FTb (FT Mark II in modern Canonspeak)
The major disadvantage of the FT was the lack of full-aperture TTL metering. Full-aperture metering eliminated the stop-down process, allowing the user to set focus and exposure with a bright viewfinder because the lens could stay at full aperture while the meter reading was taken. While the FT was on an equal footing with the very successful Spotmatic, the Nikkormat FT (1965) and Minolta SRT 101 (1966) both offered full-aperture metering in the FT's market segment. By the late-'60s, Canon could not ignore the success of these two models, so it decided to update the FT with full-aperture TTL metering. This meant more than just an updated SLR, though. The FL lens mount also needed modifications to allow the lens to convey aperture settings to the camera's meter, thus the FD mount was introduced along with the FTb and F-1 SLRs in 1971. FL lenses could be used on FD-mount cameras with stop down metering and FD lenses were completely backward-compatible with FL-mount SLRs. Changes from the original FT are as follows:
FTb-N (FT Mark III)
The final iteration of the FT family brought small, but welcome ergonomic changes to the very successful FTb which had sold 100,000 more units in its two years of life than the original FT had moved in its entire six-year existence (and the FT had been the first half-million-seller in Canon's history). The FTb-N (1973) would go on to double the total sales of the original FT in just three and a half years, making the most successful mechanical-shutter SLR model in Canon's history and their first million-seller. Final tweaks included:
Hands-On with the FTb-N
The camera feels very much of its time in size, weight, and layout. Compact had not come to SLRs yet, which means that the FTb-N is quite roomy, but still very manageable for my midsized hands. Film loading is a breeze with Canon's proprietary Quick Load (QL) system. Although the film-wind travel is nearly a half-turn, you can use multiple short-strokes to fully advance the film, and the lever's action is smooth and light. The shutter-speed dial is nicely weighted, allowing you to turn it with just your forefinger, but has strong enough detents to prevent accidental activation. The shutter release is very consistent and predictable, aiding stability. The DOF preview is easily activated with your middle finger. The years of development and subtle refinements show...the FTb-N just feels right in my hands and to my eye.
The viewfinder is very nice and will be a revelation to anyone that has only used a crop-sensor DSLR. It is uncluttered and reasonably bright, especially when compared to its contemporaries. The match-needle meter is easy to use. The 12%-partial meter is very effective...just place the darkened central area in the viewfinder over a mid-tone in the scene, set your exposure accordingly by matching the needle with the "lollypop", and shoot. Converting either of the FTb models for use with modern 1.5V silver-oxide batteries is relatively straightforward. The top cover needs to be removed and the correct diode (such as a Schottky 1N5711) soldered into the power circuit in the top-left shoulder of the camera. It takes about 20 minutes requiring only a small spanning wrench with pointed tips, a #0 JIS cross-point screwdriver, fine-point tweezers, and a small soldering iron (with flux, lead-based solder, and 4mm heat shrink tubing). Throw in a 357/SR44 battery with an 8mm (5/16) ID o-ring surrounding it, and you have a fully functional meter in your FTb-N. Here is a video demonstrating the process:
If you are not so technically-inclined, there is always the C.R.I.S adapter, which sells for under $40 USD, but uses the smaller 386 cell (it won't last as long as a 357 in a diode-converted camera). It installs directly into the battery chamber and that's that. One issue with the FTb and many other SLRs of this era is that there is a physical OFF/ON switch for the meter, which means you have to develop the habit of checking to make sure it is OFF when you are finished with the camera. Otherwise, the meter will drain the battery in short order.
If you are attracted to full-size, heavy-metal, mechanical SLRs, you owe it to yourself to check out an FTb-N (you may as well get all the upgrades, although the original FTb is certainly no slouch). They are easy to find, and they open the way to the orphaned FD & FL lens lines, which are full of bargains (the 28/2.8 S.C., 35/3.5 S.C., 50/1.4 S.S.C., and 100/2.8 S.S.C. come to mind) and also top-quality "L" optics if you are willing to spend the dough on them. The meter is one of the best of its era and the camera just flat out works beautifully. Truth be told, I even prefer it to the F-1 :-). YMMV, of course.
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.