Canon P: My First Rangefinder

A few years ago, I picked up a Canon P from a Japanese eBay seller. It included the 50mm f/1.8 LSM lens, along with its 40mm glass filter, but missing the slip-on cap. This was my first rangefinder camera.

The Canon P

History

The Canon P ("Populaire") was released in 1958 as a lower cost model, below the VI series rangefinders. It had a production run of about three years and sold very well despite the growing popularity of single lens reflex cameras. Canon would discontinue this and all VI model rangefinders in 1961, making way for the 7 series rangefinders which ran until 1968, alongside the company's growing SLR lineup. 

The P was a 39mm Leica screw mount rangefinder, and Canon was well known at the time for producing quality rangefinders in this mount, along with lenses. It lacked some features of the higher end VI and VI-L models, such as selectable framelines. The shutter curtain is metal with a plastic coating, designed to prevent constant sunlight from damaging or burning the curtains. However, these curtains are prone to becoming crinkled from use.

1959 saw the release of the Nikon F, along with Canon's less well received Canonflex. This sparked a drastic change in the preferred equipment for photographic professionals at the time - the F had lenses ranging from 21mm to 1000mm and a 100% accurate through the lens viewfinder, all incredible features at the time. Canon launched several short lived models (R2000, RP, RM) which had ended production by 1964, transitioning into the more consumer oriented FL amount SLR bodies such as the FX. 

This transition into SLR system led to the early demise of the P and VI series, which lacked built-in light meters. Take a look at this site for more information: Photoethnography

Film door open, showing the metal coated shutter curtain

Specifications

  • Horizontal travel stainless steel shutter
  • Shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s
  • Flash synchronization at 1/55 (marked as "X")
  • Combined viewfinder - composing and focusing through the same view
  • Circular focusing patch
  • 1.0x magnification
  • Parallax corrected Framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 100mm at ~85% accuracy
  • 39mm screw lens mount
  • Cold accessory shoe
  • Single stroke film advance
  • No on-board metering system, accessory meter attaches to top plate
  • Shutter speed selectable via dial on top plate
  • Self timer on front, approximately 8 second maximum delay
  • Weighs 650g
  • Takes 135 36x24mm film

Ergonomics

Top plate controls

The P shares much in common with the later FL series SLR bodies, such as the similar film advance lever and film rewind release encircling the shutter button. The shutter speed dial gives options in whole steps, ranging from one second to 1/1000 of a second, with the added options of bulb and "X," which is the flash synchronization speed (about 1/55). Aperture is controlled by turning a ring on the front of the lens, and it stops down as you turn it. Since composing and focusing is not done through the lens, this does not darken the viewfinder or affect metering. Self timer is accessed on the front of the body by twisting the silver lever, then pressing the shutter button to begin the delay to fire.

The rewind knob, with orange marker to verify correct loading

The accessory shoe is cold, offering no electrical contacts. On the side of the body opposite the shutter button is a PC sync port, which is required to trip a flash unit. The shutter mechanism is very quiet, somewhere in between your average SLR and a leaf shutter mechanism, with a distinctive metallic ping. The tripod screw is not centered, and instead placed on the bottom plate below the film advance lever. This offset allows the user to easily replace film while the body has a plate attached.

Opening the film door requires pulling out and twisting a locking mechanism on the bottom of the camera body, then pressing down on a small tab on the side of the door to release it. Loading film is easy, and familiar to anyone who has used an SLR in the past. The film rewind knob flips up from a recessed area in the body, allowing full rotation to wind the film. When the rewind knob is retracted, there is a small orange marking that rotates as you advance the film, assuring you that film is correctly advancing. Rewind is achieved by twisting the ribbed ring around the shutter button so the marking points towards the advance window, then working the rewind knob clockwise until the film is back inside the canister.

As this is a rangefinder, it does require more maintenance as far as focus calibration. Just above and left of the lens mount is the focusing window, and this has a knurled silver ring which can be removed. Beneath this is a tab that can be rotated to adjust the focus calibration horizontally. Vertical adjustment is more difficult and requires opening the top plate, something I have not had to do yet.

Focusing

Viewfinder 35mm, 50mm, and 100mm framelines

This camera has a large, life size viewfinder that I find easy to compose with. Unlike most leica finders sporting magnifications like .58x, .72x, or .85x, which offer various trade-offs, this one doesn't distort or widen the view - it looks the same as the naked eye, just with framelines overlaid.  This also offers an advantage over other rangefinders when using longer lenses, but at the cost of not being able to see anything wider than those 35mm lines, which are basically the edge of what you can comfortably see while using it. This means that for lenses wider than 35mm or so, you may want to use an add-on viewfinder.

The 50mm f/1.8 LSM lens

The focusing patch is round in shape, which provides a fairly seamless focusing experience. It doesn't have a window for added light however, so it can be a bit dimmer than those that do. Additionally, the round focusing patch has fuzzy edges, unlike the rigidly defined rectangular shape of a Leica. While I haven't had any issues with focus accuracy with the P's setup, I would prefer a more defined shape as well as a brighter patch while indoors.

The mechanical action of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens I have is smooth, and has a release that clicks into place when the lens is focused at infinity. This release also sticks out enough to use it for some leverage while focusing, making it easy to travel the long focus throw quickly if necessary. The minimum focus distance on this lens is a long 3.5 feet, so the parallax correction is not very noticeable.

Image Quality

I have found the camera to take good quality photos, with little issues focusing. The 50mm f/1.8 lens is fairly sharp stopped down to f/4.0, and lacks any noticeable distortion. As an older design, it lacks coatings and corrective elements. It isn't particularly contrasty, but this provides pleasing tones for portraits or calm scenes. It has developed a bit of a following around the web, and it is rumored to be based on the old Leica 50mm f/2 Summitar. It is also tiny, and has nice aesthetics with the white distance scale and aperture ring against the black of the barrel and focus ring. Samples below, shot with either Fuji Provia 400F or Kodak Ektar 100.

Final Comments

This is an excellent camera to get into rangefinder cameras without shelling out for a similar Leica kit. It does lack a light meter, but this also means that it is not dependent on batteries. I've used it mainly with the Sunny f/16 rule with pleasing results. For a small amount more, you could also find a VI or 7 series rangefinder if those added features are important. The 39mm screw mount has a wide array of interesting lenses, many of which are usable on modern mirrorless cameras with an adapter as well. Popular lenses for these are the Fed/Zorki/Kiev/Jupiter eastern block made Contax/Zeiss copies. There are several interesting designs available, but some of them are not properly calibrated to Leica's rangefinder coupling standard (which this Canon P uses). Essentially this means that some of these lenses may need to be disassembled and shimmed to achieve proper focus alignment on non-Russian bodies.

A few things to look out for though: Canon did release a black painted P body, but these are very rare. They go for much higher prices, but be wary of silver bodies being repainted and sold as black ones. Crinkled shutter curtains are very common but don't have a drastically negative effect on performance or accuracy. The top plate is easily dented as well, and the viewfinder glass is prone to fungus - the sample used for this review has some visible upon close inspection. I have also seen a number of Canon 50mm lenses for this system with haze or spotting on the rear element group, and I have been unable to clean these effectively without damaging the glass clarity. These lenses are still usable but likely don't perform at optimal sharpness and contrast levels.

The P can be a fascinating addition to any vintage camera collection, and its similarity to traditional mechanical SLR's make it easy to use. Here are some current eBay listings for Canon P's.

Olympus OM-1: My Favorite 35mm SLR

Back in 2012, I bought my first OM-1, a chrome MD model from ebay. Although I had prior experience with some leftover film SLR's handed down from my parents, this camera rapidly became my favorite and really activated my passion for film photography. At the time, I was using the Nikon D800 for digital work, and the OM was the first camera to slow me down, helping me focus on the art of composition. It's hard not to get excited writing about this camera... it is the pinnacle of SLR design to me. Since then, my OM collection has grown to include a black OM-1, an OM-4T, and several lenses.

The OM-1 MD in Black

History

In 1972, Olympus released the M-1 body, beautifully designed by a Yoshihisa Maitana. Shortly after, Leica expressed concern about the name being too similar to their M-series rangefinders, so it was renamed the OM-1. By 1974, this was replaced with the OM-1 MD, which added a coupling on the bottom plate to allow the use of electronic motor drives and winders. Some standard OM-1's were also modified to add this linkage as well. The OM-1n, with several updates including automatic flash synchronization and a smoother film advance lever, was released in 1978, but by 1988 most of the single-digit professional level OM's were discontinued, except for the OM-3T and OM-4T lines.

The OM-1 was designed as a professional level, fully mechanical camera, but with an emphasis on a small form factor. Unlike the beastly Nikon F, F2, or Canon's F1, which had set the standard for pro-level SLR's at the time, the OM was far smaller, lighter, and nicely refined. It also came announced with a wide system of lenses, many of which followed the same size philosophy as the bodies. It also offered flash integration, with a removable shoe that screws in to a socket on top of the prism housing, much like a modern SLR.

The small size and quality of optics really endeared this camera to a number of photographers, and is at least somewhat the inspiration for later small-bodied mechanical cameras such as the Pentax MX (1976) and Nikon FM (1977). The later OM-2 is also highly praised, offering aperture priority automatic exposure and several other interesting features, but relying on batteries to control it's electronically timed shutter mechanism.

Eventually the OM-1n evolved into the OM-3 and then OM-3T, although they were sold alongside each other for some time. The OM-3/T bodies are the same size as the OM-1, offer a marginally smaller viewfinder, have a fixed hot shoe, a similar mechanical shutter with a higher top speed of 1/2000, but most notably an advance spot metering system accessed on the top plate next to the shutter button. These cameras have prices that outweigh their practicality, but it's impossible to ignore the level of innovation and accuracy of the spot metering systems they include.

Mir.com has an extensive history, listing of lenses, and other information on the OM series in great detail. See here: Mir.com

And in chrome, the more common finish

Specifications

  • Horizontal travel cloth shutter
  • Shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s
  • Flash synchronization at 1/60s and below, shown by blue shutter speed numbers
  • Pentaprism viewfinder with 97% accuracy and 0.92x magnification (it's huge!)
  • Interchangeable focusing screens
  • OM bayonet mount
  • Hot shoe socket
  • Single stroke film advance
  • Through the lens, full aperture metering, with needle shown on left side of viewfinder
  • Shutter speed selectable via a ring around the lens mount
  • ASA/ISO speed for meter selected via a locking dial on the top plate
  • Self-timer on front, approximately 12 second maximum delay
  • Removable film door
  • 1.35v PX625 or equivalent battery powered meter (can be modified to use modern 1.5v)
  • Weighs 510g
  • Takes 135 36x24mm film

Ergonomics

The blue shutter speeds, which allow flash synchronization, are clearly visible on the black body.

Probably the most remarkable attribute of this camera is its deviation from many of the conventions to operate a camera at the time. Not only was it far smaller than any full frame SLR at the time, it also contained almost all of the features of larger cameras. It also offered an enormous and bright viewfinder, complete with thirteen different, interchangeable, focusing screens to tune the camera for a specific purpose or preference.

The other feature most noticeable at first glance is the shutter speed ring surrounding the lens mount, as opposed to being on the top plate as many other SLR's. Instead, the area usually designated for shutter speed is replaced by an ISO dial, allowing the shooter to choose from 25-1600. This has no effect on exposures, only the calibration of the metering needle. The metering system can be turned on and off by a rotating switch on the top plate, between the prism housing and the rewind knob. This simple switch makes it easy to use the meter only when necessary, saving batteries and time.

The ASA dial rests on the top plate, an interesting departure from traditional camera design.

The lens mount release and depth of field preview buttons are both mounted on the lens itself, so the body also has a minimalistic front panel. The self-timer lever is mounted to the front panel, and this is controlled by turning the lever to point away from the lens or down, then pressing a tiny lever over which is exposed after turning the timer lever. This begins the countdown to fire, and unlike other SLR's with a similar mechanism, pressing the shutter button will immediately fire the shutter, so care must be taken to remember to trip the small lever on the self timer instead of using the top plate shutter button.

The film door is opened by pulling up the rewind knob, then another upward motion against a spring loaded mechanism releases the door. Rewinding requires the user to turn the small dial just under the shutter button on the front plate so that it is facing the "R," then flipping out the rewind knob and turning it in a clockwise direction until the film is completely inside of the canister.

The bottom plate is home to the battery compartment and motor drive connections, if available. Early M-1's and OM-1's did not have the coupling cap or electrical contacts to allow usage of motor drives or winders. However, many OM-1's were modified to add this functionality. These are sometimes identified by the small "MD" name plate being added on the front of the body, but unlike models produced as "OM-1 MD," it is located on the opposite side near the top, outside of the film rewind switch. I have used the Winder 1 before, which is limited to single shots and takes AA batteries, but I doubt I would ever use a motor drive with these bodies - it increases the noise and size drastically, taking away its best advantages. However, I can see why this would have been important at the time, marketing this to compete against other professional level cameras.

Focusing

Focusing action is very smooth on the Zuiko lenses, although many of them are very small in size and thus have thin focus rings. Some of the body of the lens is also shared by the aperture ring, and a ring at the base of the bayonet which includes the lens release button and depth of field preview button. Lenses such as the 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 35mm f/2.8, 28mm f/2.8, 28mm f/3.5, 21mm f/3.5, and 18mm f/3.5 all have thin, though nicely dampened, focusing rings. Longer lenses, such as the 85mm f/2.0, 100mm f/2.8, 135mm f/2.8 or 135mm f/3.5 all offer wider rings.

Film door open, revealing the cloth shutter mechanism.

The camera itself offers interchangeable screens, allowing for a nearly endless set of possibilities. The standard screen is a horizontal split-image type, with a rough microprism collar, all over a ground microprism matte. This allows depth of field to be previewed on the entire frame,  easy focusing on vertical lines such as buildings and faces using the split-image, and the microprism collar for fine tuning on other subjects. Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller do darken one half of the split-image, but the other screens available, such as the 1-4 or 1-7 screens offer a brighter image field designed for use with smaller apertures on super telephoto or macro lenses (though these are microprism only, no split image).

Most importantly, the viewfinder image is extremely large and bright. While it doesn't show the shutter speed or aperture setting, this means the field is uncluttered and free from distractions or obstructions. I find this arrangement to be the pinnacle of viewfinder design, and although extra attention must be paid to avoid mistakes in exposure, it does not hinder composition in any way.

Image Quality

Due to the ease of composition and mechanical operation, I find this camera optimal for my shooting style. I have gotten a number of nice exposures with this camera, and these two OM-1's are my most used film cameras by a wide margin. It may seem strange to some, but I frequently carry one of these with me, and my focus is so much on composition that sometimes I come back having only taken a frame. There's something about these bodies that provoke an intimacy with the art of photography for me, and I enjoy this type of imaging, which has also had the outstanding benefit of improving my artistic eye with my digital cameras as well.

Technical quality is excellent on most lenses, and some such as the 35-80mm f/2.8, 100mm f/2.0, and 18mm f/3.5 all have high values on the market. In my experience, the 50mm f/1.8 is one of the best lenses available for any system, and it is somewhat sharper than the f/1.4 version at all apertures. I have not had the chance to use the 50mm f/1.2 or 55mm f/1.2's, but I hear these are excellent stopped down and have dreamy character wide open. I have also found the 28mm f/2.8 and 21mm f/3.5 to be excellent, the 28mm being one of the sharpest lenses I have adapted to use on my mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-E2. I also have an 85mm f/2.0, which I acquired very inexpensively due to fungus on the front element and an engraving around the lens mount. After removing the front element and cleaning off the fungus, I had some issues with the aperture ring occasionally locking up. This lens for me is quite sharp stopped down to f/4.0 or so, but has a slight dreamy haze at f/2.0, at least on the digital bodies I used to test. A more pristine sample is likely much sharper wide open here. I've also been lusting after the 135mm f/2.8, which from what I've seen has excellent optics and a nice built-in slide out hood.

Samples below taken on either Fuji Provia 100 & 400, or Kodak Ektar 100, or Portra 400, or maybe also Lomography brand 400 or 800 C-41.

Final Comments

This isn't exactly an unbiased review, but I really can't restrain my enthusiasm for this camera system. Some of my best memories were recorded with these, and I felt a lot of nostalgia perusing my library to decide which photos to include in the samples section. As a buyer, they are relatively inexpensive, and if the lack of automatic exposure modes is an issue the OM-2 isn't much more. It is very resilient, and mine have been to parties, out in the rain, and fired many times without so much as a single jam. I also measure my shutter mechanisms, and both of these are still dead on accurate at the lower speeds, and issue many older mechanical cameras have issues with. Black bodies exhibit beautiful brassing when worn in, and the chrome finish also ages nicely. There were enough black ones made that they don't cost much more than chrome. I suppose the only negative I can say is that they are dangerously addictive, and while I'd absolutely love to have some of the rarer specimens such as the OM-3T, 35-80mm f/2.8, or 100mm f/2.0, the prices are astronomical. However, I completely understand because for many, this system is unequaled in 35mm photography.

Looking to pick one up yourself? Check here:

Current OM-1 Listings on eBay