Canon makes boring cameras. Sometimes they make really boring cameras. I have an F-1 and I love shooting it, but like many Canons, it simply cannot be name-dropped. It’s a bit like trying to impress your coworkers by telling them that you’re best buds with the local news station’s mid-day weatherman. He’s probably great, but not intrinsically cool.
The classic Canon archetype is the rugged, dependable camera. The glass is often excellent, and the cameras typically boast deliberate ergonomics. With a few exceptions, however, Canons are seldom evocative, and while this trait isn’t so important in actual shooting, evocative cameras do tend to prod us to go out and shoot. Where an Olympus OM-1 beckons you to stuff it in your pocket and burn some film, carrying and shooting a bulky Canon SLR can feel a bit like work.
These stereotypes make what I’ve internally dubbed un-Canon Canon cameras all the more interesting. Like special tracks that have nothing to do with the rest of a band’s catalog, the Canonet is one of Canon’s unusual songs. And it’s just as different from the company’s usual fare as it is absolutely wonderful.
A Legend in a Small Package
Leica comparisons are tiring, and indeed virtually every rangefinder is hampered by this rhetoric. The Canon P is a poor man’s Leica just as the Zorki is the poor comrade’s Leica. And the Fuji GW690 is the Texas Leica (admittedly, I like that one).
But the Canonet is not a poor man’s Leica. This little fixed lens rangefinder doesn’t care what Leica’s doing. They’re incongruous. The Canonet created its own archetype, and along with its many competitors it deserves to be considered on its own merits.
When the first Canonet debuted in 1961 it used a meter that completely encircled the lens. Canon called this system the “Canonet Electric Eye,” and it was meant to capture light the same way the lens did. This system proved costly to manufacture, and was replaced after just a few years by the now-familiar single CdS cell atop the lens.
This original Canonet used a 45mm f/1.9 lens, and proved to be an extremely capable compact rangefinder. Indeed, it was one of the few with a maximum aperture faster than f/2. From 1961 until the series was discontinued in the 1980s, lenses ranging from f/2.8 to f/1.7 were offered, and at least fifteen Canonet variants were produced. Over the two decades that Canonets remained in production, many manufacturers built cameras in the same mold with varying degrees of technical and commercial success.
Eventually Canon decided to best their own work, and in the same stroke, best the work of all its competitors.
The Canonet QL17 GIII was the ultimate Canonet variant and incorporated a smaller, lighter body than its predecessor, a fast 40mm f/1.7 lens, a battery check light and Canon’s clever Quick Load system. Save for the QL system, virtually all of the Canonet’s competitors matched its spec sheet. This Quick Load system allows film to be loaded without the need to manually thread the leader into the spool. The Minolta Hi-Matic 7sII, Ricoh’s 500 G and the Olympus 35 RD all feature the same focal length and general layout, and two of those have the same maximum aperture.
In a sea of similar creatures, what makes the Canonet such an enduring specimen? In one of CP’s earliest reviews, James floated the theory that the Canonet is perhaps the perfect street shooter. Since then we’ve reviewed many cameras that seem ideally suited to dethrone it in that exact role.
Why then, should you choose the Canonet?
That question is answered by the most Canon-like attributes of this most un-Canon camera. Canon’s mastery of ergonomics helped to create a very effective camera that is extremely easy to use. Everything that you shouldn’t have to think about when shooting seems to have been considered before the camera entered production. For proof, consider how much functionality is crammed into the viewfinder of this small camera.
In addition to being large and bright, the 0.6x magnification viewfinder incorporates parallax-corrected framelines, an exposure readout with over/under-exposure indicators and a color-keyed rangefinder patch. All of this makes using the camera very intuitive, and allows you to more easily enjoy the 40mm f/1.7 lens.
In addition, the Canonet is very small, with a footprint about the size of a smartphone. Indeed my iPhone 8 is longer than the Canonet and only slightly narrower and this small size and light weight make it well suited for travelers looking to stuff it into a backpack, coat pocket, under a hat, wherever you like.
Optics and Performance
The Canonet is built around a 40mm lens with six elements in four groups. Shot wide open the lens does display some softness, though unless you’re under a loupe the images still tend to look very good. Bokeh tends to be very smooth when images are made at wide open aperture, but honestly, that is not what this lens is made for.
The lens really comes into its own around f/4, beyond which images become astoundingly sharp. When using the shutter-priority auto-exposure mode, the Canonet is not an ideal “f/8 and be there” camera. Simply selecting a slower shutter speed and forcing the camera to stop down a bit achieves roughly the same thing, and ensures excellent exposures in most situations.
Color rendition is also good, and I’ve found that this lens tends towards richer greens than my Canon FD lenses of the same period. As far as I can ascertain the coatings come from the same Super Spectra family as my FD lenses, so I’m not sure what accounts for this difference.
For street shooters, the near-silent Copal leaf shutter will prove a godsend. Though relatively quiet, not even the Canon P’s horizontally travelling steel shutter comes close to the Canonet. When paired with a black-finish Canonet this shutter makes it easy for the photographer to disappear into their environment. The shutter offers speeds from ¼ second to 1/500th of a second, with flash sync at all speeds.
The camera does have two major downsides; the limited ASA range, and a meter that does nothing outside of shutter priority mode. Speeds from 25 through 800 are available, but if you prefer very fast films this means ignoring the camera’s excellent shutter-priority auto-exposure. Josh likes to use this camera for shooting concerts, but my preference for Ilford Delta 3200 forces me to choose other cameras for that sort of work. The meter issue is more serious, and can be irritating if you want meter assistance and full manual control simultaneously.
Shots in the gallery below were made by CP writer Dustin Vaughn-Luma using Kodak Portra 400.
Why Buy a Canonet?
While the Canonet has always been popular, these cameras have remained relatively affordable. Prices hover around $100 for working chrome silver cameras, and just a bit more for black finish examples. If you poke around you can also find sellers who trade in Canonets that have been converted to modern 1.5v silver or alkaline batteries, rather than the traditional 1.35v mercury cells. Cameras that have not been converted will require an MR-9 battery adapter for accurate metering.
Choosing the Canonet over its competitors is a tricky thing. The HiMatic 7sII is smaller, the Olympus 35RD is lighter, and the Ricoh 500G has a meter that works even in manual mode. What the Canonet really offers is ease of use. The viewfinder is superior to the Olympus and Minolta, and the control layout is more intuitive than the Ricoh. While each of these cameras offers something special, the Canonet offers an excellent blend without making the user feel as though they’ve compromised elsewhere.