Black Canon F-1 film camera on a black background

How to Use: Canon F-1

Reading time: 22 minutes

Hey everyone! Welcome back to our ongoing series on how to use different popular 35mm cameras. This time we’ll cover the illustrious Canon F-1! This professional-grade SLR has plenty of interesting features that you may not notice even if you’ve used one. We’ll go over the basic features of the camera, what each button/dial does, how to load film into the camera, and what you’ll see through the viewfinder.

Without further ado, let’s get started! Click below to watch the video or keep scrolling for the text version of this Canon F-1 guide!

Table of Contents


The Canon F-1 was released in 1971 as Canon’s first true attempt at a professional system SLR. While Canon had produced SLRs for a decade before the release of the F-1, they found middling success compared to contemporaries like Nikon, Miranda, Topcon, and Minolta. It took the introduction of the F-1, and the then-new FD lens mount, to really put Canon on the SLR map.

Black Canon F-1 film camera on a black background

The Canon F-1 is regarded as a great camera. It’s simple, easy to use, and has great lenses. It’s definitely worth using if you find one. Let’s get into it!

Preparing the Camera for Use

Before you get shooting, there are a few things you should check on your camera. We have to make sure we have our lens mounted properly and a battery installed at the very least. Let’s figure out how to do that together!

Installing a Lens

The Canon F-1 can use various lenses, from fisheyes to portrait lenses to ultra telephotos. Canon used the FD mount from 1971 until the late 1980s, so there are many lenses available and many different versions of each lens.

Check the photo below for an example of what the back of an FD mount lens looks like. There are two main versions of FD lenses, breech-lock (S.C. / S.S.C) and New FD (FDn). There are slight differences in how you mount them, so let’s go over that here.

two camera lenses with Canon FD mounts
lens with Canon FD mount
lens with Canon FD mount

First off, let’s find the red dot on the camera body. It should be directly between the Canon logo and the lens mount itself. Next, we should find the red dot on the lens. It will either be on the large silver ring at the base of the lens (breech-lock) or near the silver button at the base of the lens (New FD). Align this red dot with the one on the body and press the lens to the body. Then you can rotate either the lens (New FD) or the silver ring (breech-lock) to the right (looking directly at the front of the camera) until it clicks into place.

red dot on a Canon F-1 camera

Dismounting a lens is very similar. For a breech-lock lens, just rotate the silver ring backwards until the red dots align again. The lens should come right off after that. For a New FD lens, press the silver button near the lens’ red dot and rotate the lens backwards. Once the two dots align, the lens will come off.

attaching lens to Canon F-1 camera

You may be wondering why there are two different versions of FD lenses. You may even find the same lens with both breech-lock and New FD style mounting mechanisms. The truth is that Canon switched away from the breech-lock due to some issues with its reliability and it being slightly finicky when compared to the competition. The New FD lenses rectify this and work very similarly to lenses from Minolta, Olympus, and Nikon.

Hopefully, that makes sense. It’s a relatively simple operation, but maybe the video above will show it better. Next, let’s install a battery!

Installing a Battery

The Canon F-1 does not need batteries to function. Batteries are only needed for the light meter. Technically, the F-1 was designed to use a 1.3v mercury battery that is no longer produced. Mercury was used in older batteries because it provided very consistent performance for its entire lifespan. Modern alkaline batteries tend to lose voltage slowly over time before dying, so their performance is a bit more inconsistent. Regardless, there are a few options.

PX625 battery and MR-9 battery adapter

The easiest choice is to use a modern PX625 alkaline battery. It’s the same shape with a slight difference in voltage at 1.5v instead of 1.3v. This will cause slight issues in light metering, but between flexible color film and modern scanners, you’re not likely to notice the difference in your photos.

The next choice is to use an MR-9 battery adapter. These adapters take the 1.5v from an LR44 battery and convert it to 1.3v. This gives you proper voltage for accurate light metering but still suffers from the inconsistent voltage of alkaline batteries.

The third choice is a zinc-air battery. These are commonly referred to as “Wein Cells” and offer identical voltage to the old mercury batteries. They also have voltage curves more similar to the mercury batteries, so performance doesn’t change very much over the lifespan of the battery. The main issues with zinc air are poor battery life compared to alkaline options and high cost.

As you can see, there are many options for which battery to use in the Canon F-1. It can be a complicated decision with no clear winner. Once you have one selected, though, actually putting the battery in the camera is pretty easy.

Canon F-1 camera battery compartment
opening a Canon F-1 battery compartment with a coin
Canon F-1 camera battery compartment open
battery compartment diagram for Canon F-1 camera

The batteries go in the bottom of the camera. There’s a circular cover with a coin slot on it. Use a coin to turn this counterclockwise and it’ll eventually come off. Look for the diagram on the cover to see how to insert the batteries. Be sure to put them in the right direction or they won’t work!

Features & Identification

Now that we have the battery and lens installed, let’s take a look at the features of the Canon F-1! There are a lot of dials, switches, and other things on the camera that may be intimidating, but fear not! We’ll break down everything you’ll need to know to use the camera. Let’s get started with the top of the camera!

Rewind Knob

Going from left to right on the top of the camera, the first thing you’ll see is the rewind knob. This knob is how we rewind film and open the back. It’ll be very important when we learn how to load/unload film later.

It should have a small fold-out lever in the middle of it that can make it easier to turn. To open the back, hold the silver button above the rewind knob down and pull the rewind knob towards you. It’ll extend a bit and then stop. Pull a bit harder to open the film back. Don’t do this when there’s film in the camera!

Canon F-1 film camera rewind knob
Canon F-1 film camera rewind knob

Flash Connection & Power Switch

Surrounding the rewind knob are some electrical contacts. These are for the flash system. Since the Canon F-1 lacks a standard flash shoe an accessory must be attached over the rewind knob in order to use a flash. If you’re not using a flash, you can ignore these contacts.

On the side of the camera nearest to these flash connections is a PC Sync port. Older flashes will need to connect to the body via a cord and this hole.

Canon F-1 film camera power switch

On the back of the camera underneath the rewind knob is the power switch. It has three positions; On, Off-Flash, and C. On and off are self-explanatory, on means the light meter is on and off means it’s off. C stands for battery check, and gives an indicator in the viewfinder if your battery has enough charge or not. The “Off” says flash next to it because it’s recommended to turn the light meter off when using the flash to conserve battery power.

Meter Window & Film Plane Indicator

Further right we have a marking and a semi-obscure window. The marking is our film plane indicator and the window is for the light meter.

Canon F-1 film camera meter window and film plane indicator

For very precise work, particularly macro photography, it may be necessary to measure the distance from the subject to the film plane. Professional cameras like the F-1 tell us exactly where in the body the film is so that these precise calculations can be made.

The window allows ambient light to come in and illuminate the light meter in the viewfinder. We’ll cover the viewfinder a bit later, but you’ll notice that in dark areas the light meter can be hard to read. Try not to cover this window if you can avoid it!

Interchangeable Prisms & Focusing Screens

One of the main selling points of a professional SLR at the time of the F-1’s release was flexibility. The F-1 came with a number of optional accessories that could completely change how the camera handles in order for it to work better for different types of photography. This includes interchangeable prisms and focusing screens.

The prism is the big bump on top of the camera. It’s also where the viewfinder is, so you look through it to see the photo. Instead of a prism, though, it’s possible to attach a number of other things to the Canon F-1, including a waist-level finder, a low-light-only boosted light meter, and more.

backside of a Canon F-1 camera and camera prism
button for removing Canon F-1 prism
Canon F-1 camera prism

To remove the prism, press the two black buttons on either side of it and slide the prism down, away from the lens. It should come off and reveal the focusing screen. To re-install the prism (or put on another accessory finder) just slide it back on in the same way. It should click into place.

Before we re-install the prism, though, we should mention the interchangeable focusing screens. Focusing screens are what you see when you look through the viewfinder. They’re a piece of glass that can have a number of aids on them, including a split prism, grid lines, microprisms, and more. Canon offered a number of different screens for the F-1 and you can find the best one for you and your photography!

Canon F-1 film camera focusing screen

To remove the focusing screen, use a narrow wedge (or your fingernail) to pry the screen up. There are two indents near the rear of the camera that should let you get the screen up. To install a new screen, slide it under the silver guide at the front of the camera and then press it down from the back. Be careful when changing focusing screens because they’re easy to scratch!

Removing the focusing screen of Canon F-1 camera
Canon F-1 film camera focusing screen

Now that we have our prism and focusing screen set up, we can continue with the top of the camera!

Shutter Speed Dial & ISO Control

The section to the right of the viewfinder and flash shoe houses some of the most important functions of the Canon F-1. Let’s start with the shutter speed dial.

Canon F-1 film camera shutter speed dial

This dial contains all our shutter speeds. These correspond to fractions of a second and tell us how long the shutter will be open. If you set it to 1, that means the film will be exposed to light for 1 second. If you set it to 1000, it means the shutter will be open for 1 one thousandth of a second.

Aside from the numbers, there’s also “B”, which stands for bulb. In this mode, the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold the shutter button down. This can be useful for long-exposure photography.

Different shutter speeds affect your photo in a number of ways. Fast shutter speeds (1/250s and above) are able to capture motion without blurring the subject. The downside is that the subject has to be quite well-lit for you to use these speeds. In low light, you’ll have to use slower shutter speeds.

You may notice that 60 is a different color. That signifies that 1/60th of a second is the flash sync speed for the Canon F-1. If you ever find yourself using flash with your F-1, set the shutter speed to 60!

The other thing of note here is our ISO control. Notice the window between “B” and 2000. It says “ASA” near it, but this is just an older name for ISO. This describes the sensitivity of the film being used. Most film canisters will have a large number on them. To change your ISO, lift the outer ring of the shutter speed dial and rotate. The number in the window should change without changing the shutter speeds. I would recommend setting the ISO to the number on the film canister.

Canon F-1 film camera shutter speed dial and ISO control
Canon F-1 film camera shutter speed dial
Canon F-1 film camera shutter speed dial

The original Canon F-1 can handle films from ISO 25 to ISO 1600 without you having to do anything aside from setting the ISO properly. Midway through the F-1’s production, Canon introduced a revised version of the camera that can handle films up to ISO 3200.

Film Advance Lever, Shutter Button, & Frame Counter

Next to the shutter speed dial are a few more essential controls. We’ll start with the film advance lever. We need to pull this lever after every shot. It turns out to the right a bit over 180º and should snap back when it’s released.

This lever moves the film inside the body and gets the shutter ready to fire. The camera won’t let you take a photo if it hasn’t been pulled properly, so if your shutter button isn’t doing anything it’s a good idea to check the advance lever.

Canon F-1 film camera shutter speed dial, film advance lever, and shutter button

Speaking of the shutter button, that’s above and to the left of the advance lever. It’s a small circular button with a threaded socket in the middle. When you pull the film advance lever and then press this down, the shutter will fire. The threaded socket is for an off-camera shutter release cable.

Next to the shutter button and advance lever is our frame counter. This counts up as you advance the film and resets whenever the film back is opened. It should count up to around 40 even if the roll inside can only be ~36 exposures. If you’re careful with your loading, you can squeeze a few extra photos out of each roll. We’ll get to loading later!

Canon F-1 film camera frame counter

Now let’s look at the lens!

Aperture Ring

We have a breech-lock lens attached to our example camera. This lens has the large silver ring that acts as the mounting mechanism. Just above this is our aperture ring.

This can be turned and clicks into place at various numbers. On our 50mm f1.4 lens here, we have options from 1.4 to 16. So what IS an aperture?

50 mm f1.4 Canon lens mounted into Canon F-1

The aperture is an opening inside the lens that closes right at the moment when you fire the shutter. This controls how much light is let through at once, which mainly affects depth-of-field.

A larger aperture number correlates to a more narrow opening. This lets less light in, but gets more things in focus. Apertures like f8, f11, or f16 will give you a wide area of focus, which is great for landscape photography and environmental portraiture.

Smaller aperture numbers let more light in and contribute to a more shallow depth of field. If you’re looking for a sharp subject and a blurry background, try wider apertures like f1.8 or f2.8. Lower aperture numbers will also make it possible to take usable photos in low-light environments.

See the photos below for examples of an aperture at f1.4, f2, f8, and f16.

aperture of f1.4 of Canon FD 50mm f1.4 lens
aperture of f2 of Canon FD 50mm f1.4 lens
aperture of f8 of Canon FD 50mm f1.4 lens
aperture of f16 of Canon FD 50mm f1.4 lens

Canon FD lenses will also have an “automatic” setting. This is achieved by setting the lens past f16 to the green “A” or “O”. The F-1 cannot take advantage of this automatic setting, so you can ignore it!

Focus Ring & Hyperfocal Scale

Above the aperture controls are the focus controls. Both the focus ring and the hyperfocal scale are used in combination to make your subject sharp and in focus. The Canon F-1 is a manual focus camera.

The focus ring tells us what distance is in focus. As you turn it, the number that lines up with the orange line below is the distance your subject should be. If you set it to infinity, anything far away will be in focus. This 50mm lens can focus on anything from infinity to 0.45m, making it great for general photography and capable of decent close-ups as well.

Surrounding that orange line are some other markings. These make up our hyperfocal scale, and can help us do some zone focusing. Just as the white line indicates precise focus, these marks indicate a range of distances at which a subject will be in focus when using a given aperture. Sounds confusing, I know. Maybe an example will help.

focus ring and hyperfocal scale of a Canon FD 50mm lens

If you set the lens to f16, then you can use the widest lines on the hyperfocal scale to determine your focus range. If you put 10m on the mark on the right, you can see that the mark on the left is around 2 meters. That means that everything between 1.5 and 10 meters will be in focus! Hopefully, that makes sense. If not, feel free to ignore the hyperfocal scale entirely and focus inside the viewfinder only. We’ll cover that shortly!

Self-Timer, Mirror Lock-Up, and Depth-of-Field Preview

On the front of the camera is our self-timer lever. It looks pretty similar to most other self-timers, but this one hides a few secrets including a mirror lock-up function and depth of field preview!

The self-timer works similarly to other SLRs. Twist the self-timer to the left (when facing the camera) and it will basically “count down” before firing. When you press the shutter button, the lever will begin to move back towards its original position. Once it gets back to where it was, the shutter will fire. Great for group shots or self-portraits!

Canon F-1 film camera self-timer lever

If you push the lever in the other direction, though, you’ll see the lens’ aperture close down. This is our depth-of-field preview. It’ll make your viewfinder very dark but will give you an accurate view of your depth of field. It can be useful if you want to be very specific about what objects are in or out of focus. To disengage this feature, move the switch on the bottom from the red “L” to the white square. The aperture and self-timer lever should snap back to position.

Mirror lock-up is probably the most unusual of these features. This allows you to force the mirror up. You won’t be able to see anything through the viewfinder, but the camera will shake a lot less. This is very useful for super-long exposures for things like astrophotography. To activate it, push the self-timer lever to the right again and then push the switch on the bottom from the red “L” to the orange “M”. The mirror should slide up!

Canon F-1 film camera mirror
Canon F-1 film camera mirror

These are all pretty specific features that aren’t so useful for general photography but make the F-1 versatile and usable for all kinds of specific photography. That’s what separates a professional camera from a non-professional one.

The Bottom of the Camera

There isn’t that much to cover on the bottom of the camera, just some accessory features.

As with most other cameras, there’s a tripod socket in the center. This allows you to attach the camera to a tripod for more stable shooting. The Canon F-1 has a ¼” tripod screw.

Next to that is the battery compartment we used earlier. It screws on and off to cover the battery compartment and complete the battery circuit.

Aside from those, there’s also a small silver button in a recessed hole. This is the rewind button. We press this when we’re done with a roll and want to rewind it. It releases tension in the body and allows us to pull the film back into the canister for processing.

Canon F-1 laying on a black background

That just about covers the buttons, dials, and switches of the Canon F-1! Now let’s get into how to use it.

Camera Operation

In this section we’ll discuss how to load and unload film, what you’ll see through the viewfinder, and how to know your photos will be properly focused/exposed. From there, all that’s left is to pick something nice and take a photo of it!

How to Load Film

Loading film in the Canon F-1 is very similar to other 35mm SLRs. If you’ve loaded one before, it’ll be easy to figure out. If you haven’t, no worries! That’s what this guide is for.

Start with the camera upside down, resting on the lens. Take the rewind knob we mentioned earlier, hold down the silver button above it, and pull it up. It should extend a bit and then stop. Pull it a bit harder and the film back should pop open! It’s spring-loaded, so it should have quite a bit of force behind it. If it doesn’t, there may be something wrong with the camera!

backside of a Canon F-1 film camera
backside of a Canon F-1 film camera
backside of a Canon F-1 film camera

Regardless, now we can fully open the back and see the inside of the camera. From left to right we’ll see the the film compartment, shutter, advance spool, and take-up spool. All of these work in conjunction to get the film in the right position and then capture a photo on it. It’s pretty complicated, and these are just the parts that are visible!

Loading the camera, thankfully, is pretty simple. What you’ll want to do is take your roll of film and put it into the film compartment. You can then press the rewind knob back down, it has slots that fit into the film canister to hold it in place. Make sure you put the film canister in the same way I did in the photo below (with the canister’s “bottom” facing upwards). It won’t fit the other way, but don’t try to force it!

a roll of film inside of a Canon F-1 film camera
a roll of film inside of a Canon F-1 film camera
film leader going into spool

Next, you’ll want to pull the film leader (the thin section at the end of most rolls of film) across the shutter. Try not to touch the shutter, it’s quite sensitive. Pull the film until it reaches the spool all the way to the right.

Taking a look at this spool, you’ll see it has vertical slits that go around ⅔ of the way up the spool. At the button of these slits is a tooth. This is what grabs the film and pulls it. For a demonstration, you can wind your film advance lever and watch the spools move.

Take the film leader and push it into one of the slits, making sure the holes on the film line up with the tooth on the indent. Once it feels secure, pull the advance lever. The film should be pulled tight against the inside of the camera. If the film comes disconnected from the spool, don’t worry! It can be tricky to line it up properly. Just try again until the film is pulled successfully.

a roll of film inside of a Canon F-1 film camera
backside of a Canon F-1 film camera

If this isn’t your first roll, you can close the film back here. But for a first-time user, I would recommend firing the shutter and winding the film one more time just to be 100% sure your film is attached properly. You’ll lose a shot or two from your roll, but that’s better than losing an entire day of memories because the camera wasn’t loaded properly, right?

Once you’re confident that your camera is loaded properly, close the film back. It should click back into place. Now we can pick the camera up and look at the top plate. Specifically, we want to look at the frame counter.

We need to advance the film and fire the shutter until the frame counter’s indicator lines up with the number 1. This will make sure our first actual shots don’t have light leaks from our loading procedure. After that, you’re ready to take photos!

How to Rewind & Unload Film

Basically, rewinding film is the same process but in reverse! Okay okay, there are a few extra steps.

You’ll know you’ve finished the roll because you won’t be able to advance the film anymore. It’ll feel quite tight and resistant. Don’t force the advance lever or you could rip the film.

Once the roll is done, you can rewind it. To do this, press the rewind button on the bottom of the camera. Then we can use the rewind knob to rewind the film. It makes it a lot easier if you flip out the rewind knob’s lever arm.

It may take a while to rewind the film, but eventually, you should hear a small click and notice that there’s much less resistance on the rewind knob. This means that the film has disconnected from the take-up spool! Just rewind a bit more and the film should go entirely back into the canister, just how a lab would want it. Once you feel confident the film is fully rewound, you can open the film back (just like before) and remove the canister!

backside of a Canon F-1 film camera on a black background

With that, you’re totally ready to bring your film to a lab for processing! Congratulations, you’ve successfully loaded, shot, rewound, and unloaded a roll! But wait, we haven’t talked about the actual shooting part yet.. Okay, let’s get inside the viewfinder!

The Viewfinder

The camera’s viewfinder tells you what the photo will look like when you take the photo. Since the Canon F-1 has a light meter, it can also tell us whether or not our photo will be properly exposed. A lot of information is conveyed by the viewfinder so it’s important to understand what the camera is telling you. Let’s start with focusing.

Focusing Aid

Our example camera has the Type E focusing screen installed, so there isn’t a traditional focusing aid. To get precise focus, we just have to turn the focus ring until the subject appears sharp. The Type E screen is made more for macro photography or other purposes where grid lines are more useful than a dedicated focusing aid.

view inside of a Canon F-1 film camera viewfinder

Try focusing on something close to you and then pointing the camera at something far away. The close-up object will appear sharp, but the far-off object should be blurry.

If this doesn’t work well for you, you can get a different focusing screen. They have options with many different focusing aids, like split prisms or microprisms, that may make it a bit easier to get critical focus.

With some practice you should be able to quickly and easily focus on most things! Now that we’ve got the subject in focus, let’s make sure the photo will turn out properly by looking at the light meter.

The Light Meter

The Canon F-1 has a standard match-needle exposure system. It turns on when the power switch is flipped to the “On” position. You can see the meter readout to the right of the frame when looking through the viewfinder.

A match needle system consists of a line and a circle, each tied to either shutter speed or aperture. When you change settings, you should see the needle or the circle move up or down. Your goal is to get the needle in the middle of the circle!

light meter in viewfinder of a Canon F-1 film camera

Directly below this readout is a number. This is our current shutter speed. This can be helpful to make sure we don’t use a bad shutter speed for the situation. Unfortunately, you have to take your eye away from the viewfinder to know what aperture is selected.

As long as your ISO is set correctly, this is all you have to do to get properly exposed photos with a Canon F-1! For a beginner, I’d recommend only choosing shutter speeds over 125 to avoid camera shake.


The Canon F-1 can be a reliable camera if it’s taken care of properly. They’re great cameras that were designed to be resilient and repairable if something goes wrong.

That being said, many F-1s haven’t received the care they need in order to work properly. It’s worth checking to make sure that the light meter works and that the shutter fires on all shutter speeds. In cold weather, you may have issues with the fastest shutter speeds on the F-1. If the camera isn’t properly maintained, black segments may appear on your photos. The mirror may also be slow to come up or slow to return. If this happens, the camera should be serviced.

black Canon F-1 film camera on a black background

If you're looking for a fully functional Canon F-1, visit our website. Our trained mechanics inspect and repair Canon F-1 cameras. While it may cost a bit more, it provides long-term savings and peace of mind.

That wraps up our brief overview of the Canon F-1. Thanks for reading; I hope you found it informative! If you have any questions about using your camera, feel free to contact us on Instagram (@Kamerastorecom), via email at, or through the chat function on our website. We're always here to assist you. (-:

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