The Canon P is A Beautiful, Functional 35mm Rangefinder Worth Shooting Today

What adjectives describe a modern Canon camera? Rugged? Purposeful, maybe? I’ll bet beautiful seldom comes to mind. That’s not a knock. Canon today produces cameras that survive when guys like Larry Chen strap them to the outside of an angry drift car, and a design brief that plans for that sort of abuse doesn’t leave much room for good looks.

But the Canon Camera Co., Inc. of 1958 was a very different company to the Canon Co. of today. No surprise there; the whole landscape of photography was different back then. Lots of companies, some of which don’t exist today, were producing entirely new machines as the race to determine which type of camera would reign supreme.

Leica was churning out their IIIs in great numbers. The Leica M-series had been on the market for five years. The Nikon S series brought a modern bayonet mount to the incredible Nikon rangefinder. The Ihagee Kine Exakta, the first consumer SLR, had been on the market since 1936, and had been continually updated in the intervening years. As if this challenge to the rangefinder wasn’t enough, a new type of SLR was being quietly whispered about. The Nikon F would debut mid-1959 as the first SLR “system” camera, totally changing the game for the next fifty years. Lots of choice, lots of legendary machines in this dynamic landscape. 

At the same time, a camera shopper could also buy a brand new, full-featured, thread-mount rangefinder made by a small company in Tokyo. This camera was the Canon P.

But why on Earth would you do that?

It’s true that in some ways the Canon P was decidedly old-tech. Even though Leica were still producing their old-hat thread-mount cameras, they’d not been significantly updated since a self-timer was added in 1954. But unlike the Leica, Canon’s camera offered a number of new features. The viewfinder showed frame lines for 35mm, 50mm and 100mm lenses, all parallax-corrected and labeled within the finder. The finder itself was large and bright, and full life-size. The rangefinder and viewfinder were contained in a single window, a feature which Canon debuted with the Canon III in 1951. This feature made focusing and framing as easy as on the Leica M3, and simpler than on earlier Leicas or the Nikon SP.

So the Canon P’s big sell was that shrewd buyers were spending less money to get a camera that was in most ways superior to the Leica screw-mount cameras, and even comparable (at least by the specs) to the much pricier M series. Oh, and Canon’s lenses were pretty amazing – more on that later.

Good stuff for smart shoppers back in the day, but it’s 2017 now, not 1958. What was impressive at the time of the camera’s launch is pretty unimportant if the camera is unnecessarily difficult to use. Just pick up an Ihagee Exakta, a venerable camera in its day, and puzzle over its seemingly upside-down and backwards controls for a while. After a few short minutes it becomes readily apparent how far our understanding of ergonomics have come.

The P isn’t a perfect camera (as if such a thing exists), and it does stumble into a few pitfalls. The P does not have an internal meter. For this, we’d need to upgrade to the Canon 7, which is a much more expensive camera even today. While a coupled Selenium meter is available for the P, and really looks quite handsome atop the machine, most of these meters no longer function. Aside from light metering, there are some other niggling issues. The shutter curtains are made of steel and are prone to wrinkling. While this doesn’t seem to impact performance, it is certainly a bit odd to see when you open the camera. The strap lugs seem to be positioned ever so slightly too far forward, and with all but the heaviest lenses the camera will want to tip back towards you while hanging from a neck strap. I use the same strap on this camera as on my Fuji X-E1, and the Canon wants to swing about and crack me in the ribs, while the Fuji does not. But perhaps the most significant stumbling, the P’s frame lines are easy to knock out of alignment. Thankfully, they are simple to adjust, but inaccurate framing can be a nuisance.

Despite these faults, the P is an extremely intuitive camera to use. Where a screw-mount Leica, or an earlier Canon rangefinder for that matter, can feel bewildering thanks to multiple rotating shutter speed dials, the P feels quite modern. The shutter speed dial can be adjusted after the shutter is cocked. The film is wound with a large, single-stroke lever. Film rewind is handled via a clever crank recessed directly in to the camera’s top plate, which incorporates a handy orange indicator to show that the film is advancing correctly.

The rangefinder shows three frame lines, though if you wear glasses you’ll struggle to see the full 35mm frame line without moving your head slightly. Even with my glasses on the 50mm and 100mm frame lines are bright and easy to make out in all but the brightest conditions.

Pick up a Voigtlander Bessa, or even a modern Leica, back to back with a Canon P and you’ll find that the control layout is nearly the same. Unlike even modern Leica Ms, the Canon P has a hinged back, which is accessed via a clever double-locking system.

On top of the superb ergonomics, the P is extremely well put together. While not on the level of a contemporary Leica, the P is every bit as good as a Kodak Retina, and a big step up from a Voigtlander Bessa. Speaking within the brand, apart from the tank-like F-1 of 1971 none of Canon’s FD mount cameras come close to the P’s level of quality.

It’s also, and this is in stark contrast to today’s Canons, beautiful to look at. It’s a simple camera, free of superfluous lines and bulges, and each of the P’s design flourishes is born of function. The rewind crank is recessed, the end plate houses the back latch, which is itself guarded by a tiny cam-driven lockout. The shutter release is shrouded by a knurled knob, and the knob actuates the rewind release. All of these little touches make for a very uncluttered camera that could easily be regarded as an icon of industrial design.

Like using a Leica lens on a Leica M, Canon’s native lenses just look and feel right on the P. The build quality of Canon’s own lenses in M39 can leave something to be desired. Optically, however, Canon’s M39 lenses are some of the best of the period. They’re also tiny. Just look at the difference in size between the M39 50mm f/1.8, and the FDn 50mm f/1.4 (the f/1.8 and f/1.4 50mm lenses in this mount are roughly the same physical size). With some of the smaller pancake-style M39 lenses, the P is downright pocketable.

Shots in this gallery were made on Kodak Ektar 100 and Ilford HP5 film.

Need more reasons to shoot the P? Okay. Remember that we’re not just limited to Canon-made lenses. Apart from Pentax basically every camera manufacturer in the 1950s produced M39 rangefinder lenses. Nearly every lens made in this mount by Canon, Nikon, Leitz, Zeiss, Schneider-Kreuznatch and more will work on the P without issue. Only a small handful of exceptions exist, and are pretty much limited to collapsible lenses which will impact the P’s steel shutter if retracted.

The P is a camera beyond the sum of its parts. If a Leica is a Porsche 911, then the Canon P is the original VW Golf GTI. No single part makes it special, but the seamless way everything works together lets this simple camera deliver a surprising amount of performance, and makes it a ton of fun to shoot with.

Like the GTI, the P excels in actual use, and delivers well beyond what the spec sheet might imply. After a few shots framed through that massive, bright viewfinder, it becomes extremely hard to go back to any other rangefinder.

The P is not perfect, but it offers a shocking value. Where a decent Leica IIIf body might fetch $300 or more, a decent P can be found for under $150, and often with a lens included. Put those savings towards your choice of lenses, and no one will ever know you weren’t shooting a far more expensive camera.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Mayank Gautam
    August 11, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    What are you saying, I love current Canon cameras for their beauty. The waya 24-105 looks on a 5D is simply gorgeous. One of the reason I could never pick a Nikon was for it’s ugliness(subjective). But for the beauty I got an AE-1 too recently 🙂

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      August 11, 2017 at 12:41 pm

      I guess that’s a matter of opinion. To my eye pretty much all of the Canon and Nikon SLRs are functional, but certainly not handsome. The Nikon Df is better than most modern SLRs, but still has too many lumps and buttons to be really good looking. The Sony A7s are better because they’re not quite as bulky, and most of the Fujis are similar (X-E2, X-T2, etc). I have a half dozen older Canon SLRs as well, and while they are also functional, apart from the FTb most of them aren’t particularly nice looking.

      What the camera looks like isn’t that important if it is a quality item, and a good partner in making quality images. I certainly wouldn’t be able to forgive a good looking camera for being poorly made.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      August 11, 2017 at 2:19 pm

      I’m sort of in the mid-camp on this one. I seem to appreciate old design, but don’t totally dislike the new stuff. Just different flavors I guess.

  • Reply
    Stéphane
    August 11, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Oh, one of my favorite cameras!!! I love the Canon P, it’s a beautiful looking camera (had a real crush on this cam as soon as I saw it!), very simple design and very reliable. The viewfinder (1:1) is perfect and the camera is a joy to use by it’s simplicity. The thread mount allows to use such great lenses (that are less expensive than their other mount equivalents). I use mine with the Voigtlaender Super Wide Heliar 15mm, the Voigtlaender Color Skopar 35mm and the Jupiter 3+ 50mm, and was never disappointed by the results! For the lightmeter I use the little Voigtlaender VC meter that you can attach on the top of the camera. You can have a look at the shots I made with this fantastic camera here https://www.lomography.com/search/photos?query=vicuna+canon+p

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      August 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm

      Awesome! I use a Sekonic Twin-Mate meter that you can shoe-mount, much like the Voigtlander VC.

      How do you like using super-wide lenses with this camera? I’ve actually never used a rangefinder with an external finder, as it seems a little clunky to me, but then I’ve never tried!

      • Reply
        Stéphane
        August 12, 2017 at 4:46 am

        It works very well with the Heliar Super Wide! The external viewfinder takes the places of the lightmeter of course (but you still can use it handheld) and for the focus it’s not so important with superwide lenses: shoot at f8 and the hyperfocal distance is enough to get a very sharp picture overall. Or you use zone focusing of course… And for such a superwide lens, the composition in the viewfinder is not as important per se, as it’s so large that you got more in the picture that you can see in ti… it’s more the general angle of view that is important. But I like the combo Canon P + Super Wide Heliar! 🙂

  • Reply
    Francisco Taborda
    August 11, 2017 at 6:10 pm

    My favorite camera! My introduction to RF was the Russian Fed 3a which after a while I learned to use without much thought. But when I got a Canon P a year back I just feel in love. Suddenly the Fed felt like a chore to use. Couple with the Canon 28 mm 3,5 and shooting using range focus felt like a truly extension of my eye. I don’t have any experience with the legendary cameras like the Leica cameras, but this is a camera that feels made with a similar quality and care that I can afford. Also it’s such a beauty!

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    August 11, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Very nice shots Chris.
    I had a Canon P very recently for about 2 weeks. I bought it because I fell in love with its style, and thought it would be great to have a body that could use my LTM lenses natively. I need an LTM-M adapter to use them on my M mount cameras.
    But there was a problem. I already had Leicas and they ruined me for the P. This of course is very unfair as my mint condition P w/ perfect wrinkle free shutter curtains cost me $200. A Leica M or Barnack would be at least triple that (for the Barnack) or 5 times that (for the M) to be in the same shape.
    Compared to the Leica, the P just did not fit well in my hand. It is heavy but weirdly does not feel as solid as a heavy metal camera should. The angles of the body were not as comfortable as the curves of a Leica. The indistinct RF glob/patch sucks compared to the defined rectangle in an M. Film winding isn’t as smooth. But the worst for me was the film rewinding. That cool lever that folds away does not clear the body enough when in use, so it is very hard for it to not contact the body as you try to rewind the film, scratching it. Maybe I was doing something wrong? But it was happening.
    Upside it sold very quickly for the same money. And really, if you don’t have a Leica it is great. If you do, for me there was no reason I’d want to use it over a Leica.

    🙂

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      August 11, 2017 at 8:59 pm

      Thank you!

      I should have discussed that- yeah, the rangefinder patch itself isn’t even as nice as a Canonet GIII. I completely agree with you there, and I am curious if the 7 is better in that regard as it has a rangefinder illumination window like a Leica, which the P does not.

      I normally use a Pentax Spotmatic or a Canon A-1, and to me the P falls very easily to hand, while the Leica’s rounded edges throw me off a bit. I think next to a Leica M the P does feel a little lighter, but it feels like a quality item. Leicas are solid like high end German cars- close the door an old Mercedes, or run a Porsche 911 through the gears and you get the same sort of feeling you do operating a Leica. The P reminds me of the original Volkswagen Golf, or an old Saab 900, because they felt light but not flimsy.

      This camera is my introduction to LTM lenses- do you have any lenses that you would recommend to me? Are there any that you’re curious about that you’d like to see us review? If the lens isn’t hilariously expensive I’ll definitely give it some consideration. I am looking to expand my collection of LTM gear!

      • Reply
        Cory
        August 12, 2017 at 1:14 am

        For more modern glass, the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.7 ultron is an excellent lens and comes in LTM. Aspheric glass too!

      • Reply
        Huss
        August 13, 2017 at 7:05 pm

        As Zachary further down mentioned, you should check out the Jupiter 8 50mm f2. I got mine new old stock. It’s surprisingly good. I also use Voigtlander 50 2.5 and 35 2.5 in the ltm mount. The 50 is very sweet and made of brass so it is a chunky little monkey and will balance well on the P. The 35 is just a great lens. Voigtlander also makes/made the 50 1.5 asph in ltm. I’ve never tried that one but the M mount version has received rave reviews.
        Inreally would just dip into the Voigtlander catalogue.

        • Reply
          Huss Hardan
          August 14, 2017 at 6:42 pm

          Oh, forget to mention you should also try the Rollei Sonnar 45mm 2.8 HFT. It’s an LTM lens, but made quite recently.
          I’m diggin’ mine. Another glass and brass treasure. It says ‘made in Germany’ on it, but it looks uncannily like a Voigtlander lens, so I’m thinking it may have been assembled in Germany.

    • Reply
      Ľubomír Brindza
      August 12, 2017 at 9:51 am

      I’ve found myself in exactly the same position you speak of, and the saying a Leica ruined Canon P for me holds true for me as well. Particularly the wind-on action, there was nothing to complain about, until I got a beater M (and thus satisfied my GAS for good, it seems), now it feels like there’s sand in the gears. It’s sad really, because I can’t even get myself to part with the damn thing, the design is just so nice.

      • Reply
        Mathew C
        August 14, 2017 at 11:02 am

        It might be worth sending your Canon off to be serviced. I bought a Canon 7 in really nice condition earlier this year and only recently bought a Leica M2. The Leica beats it hands down for the sharpness and ease of use of the rangefinder patch but I think that the Canon 7 puts up one hell of a fight as far as the smoothness of the film advance is concerned. For a camera that cost me 1/6 the price of the Leica it gets surprisingly close. My Leica has been serviced as well. So it should be as smooth as possible. I have read repeatedly that the Canon P has a better build quality and finish than the Canon 7 that replaced it.

        My Leica sees more use because of the excellent rangefinder patch but the Canon is still a lovely beast to take out every now and again.

  • Reply
    Zachary James
    August 11, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Hi Chris, I’d highly recommend an ltm Jupiter 8 on the P, the lens weighs next to nothing which really helps out with the balance/ weight perception issues of the P. It’s also a great little lens to boot.

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      August 12, 2017 at 3:53 pm

      I feel the balance goes the other way- a heavier lens would help keep it more upright. The strap lugs seem to be too far forward. Like, a Canon 50mm f/1.4 or the Canon 35mm f/2 would balance it better than the small and light 50mm f/1.8 I have on it currently.

      • Reply
        Zachary James
        August 13, 2017 at 11:11 pm

        Hah, right on Chris -that’s simple physics! I guess I jumped the gun on the comment because I generally use my P without a strap -and I have the opposite problem of it being very front heavy (specifically with the canon 1.4, which is a monster lens for interior candids but will lose contrast quickly in sunlight,but I’m an awful person who rarely bothers with hoods, so take that with a grain of salt)

  • Reply
    bodegabayf2
    August 12, 2017 at 11:48 am

    I was not at all a Canon guy until I tried the P. I shoot mine with a Canon LTM 50/1.4 that I sourced from Bellamy Hunt. My P has a slightly wrinkled shutter curtain which does not seem to cause any issues. I will say that the P has one of the nicest sounding shutters of any camera I have tried.

  • Reply
    Jon
    August 12, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Another great review. Nice pictures too. My Canon P has wrinkles also, and is a little “dry” sounding. It still works fine though. A very nice camera, and really inexpensive.
    Half my Canon lenses have bad haze though….and not just the R.F. lenses either.

    • Reply
      Chris Cushing
      August 12, 2017 at 3:55 pm

      Have you had yours serviced? Mine has a slightly “dry” sounding advance, but after the service the shutter sounded perfect. The film advance may just sound clattery all the time…

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