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.