Canon’s Canonet Rangefinder Does the Impossible – A Canon Camera That’s Not Boring

Canon’s Canonet Rangefinder Does the Impossible – A Canon Camera That’s Not Boring

2200 1238 Chris Cushing

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.

Shots in the above gallery were made by CP writer Chris Cushing using Kodak Ektar 100 and Ilford HP5 Plus

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.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
19 comments
  • Nice piece- these 70’s fixed lens rangefinders are getting harder to find in clean condition. I have olympus , minolta and Rollei versions, but need to find a Canon. In terms of “un-canon” canons, I’m a big fan of the Sureshot Multi Tele- their 80’s autofocus camera with a choice of full or half frame. it’s serious fun to use. Not a word I normally associate with Canon for some reason

  • Great article! Spot on about the price too. Bought mine a year ago and paid a bit under $90 for a decent working example. You can never have too many rangerfinders, can you? 🙂

    • You really can’t. We’ve featured a bunch lately, and it’s amazing how versatile and handy these fixed lens rangefinders really are. I always try to nudge new film shooters towards this class of camera because the price of entry is reasonable, and the cameras themselves are so easy to carry around that it’ll encourage a newbie to shoot more.

  • Nice article! I have to disagree, though. Mine was boring. It just worked. I didn’t have the worry of smashing my finger with anything–like the shutter cocking lever of the Argus, I didn’t have the “thrill” of finding out the shutter was so quiet because it didn’t fire–like several other compact rf cameras I’ve owned, There wasn’t the joy of hunting for some weird filter/hood size, and the meter seemed to be ok with non-mercury batteries–not much wondering if I was going to get a decent exposure or not: https://flic.kr/p/CSqjd

    To be honest, I am getting to the point where I quite like using boring cameras, they do best at getting out of the way and letting me get what I want on the negative. I have plenty of excitement thinking about subject, composition, exposure, and focus and really do not want to have to think about how–or if–the camera is functioning.

    🙂

    • It’s possible that it’s a perspective thing. My Canonet is typically the backup to either my A-1 or F-1, depending on what I toss in my bag on a given day. I like reliability and simplicity, which is probably why I tend to shoot old Canons. To me the Canonet is the foil to the more serious nature of the A-1 and F-1, which are 100% business. It offers the same merits of reliability without the bulk and seriousness of the company’s SLRs.

    • HA! I love this.

  • I’d love one of these. Boring is good: boring doesn’t get in the way. And it’s certainly smaller than my Hi-matic 9, which is larger than any SLR produced after the late 70s, and feels like a blunderbuss with a shutter that travels about a half inch before it fires. The Giii is much more refined, it left the 60s back where they belonged.

    • The Hi-Matic 9 is a different animal. I actually held my GIII back to back with a friend’s 7sII before writing my review, and the 7sII is slightly smaller in every dimension than the Canonet. The tradeoff is that the 7sII has a worse viewfinder than the Canonet.

      I do agree, the Canonet doesn’t feel “old” in the same way that many vintage rangefinders do.

  • Gotta say the venerable Canonet has two things that rub me just a little bit (one specific to my copy, one to the design – but both related) the rangefinder in mine is devilishly faint which really isn’t the biggest deal with a 40mm lens… but there’s no focus scale! But it is great little camera, and I’ve had great luck handholding the camera down an 1/8. That goes against so much myth about heavier equals more stable cameras!

    • There is a “fix” for that dim rf patch. Fiddly but non-invasive and inexpensive: on the outside of the front viewfinder window, either draw a spot with a dark marker or stick a piece of tape that matches (as closely as possible) the rf patch. This is temporary and not ideal–that would be a competent cleaning, at least–but it will make the rf patch appear brighter.

  • Nice article, I would like to see one on Yashica 35 electro! 🙂

  • It is interesting how popularity of Canon cameras is driven by some hipster icons and Instagram posters. Take AE-1 Program for example. Even though A-1 is a more capable machine, people still crave AE-1, just because it’s AE-1. With no aperture priority. With excruciating shutter priority. With lazy program mode… Come on… As for the rangefinders, I much prefer Oly 35 SP in spite of its price.

    • Don’t even get me started on the AE-1. I can’t abide sluggish Canons, especially when the A-1 is more capable and typically priced either the same or cheaper than the AE-1P. There is a reason the only auto-exposure Canon SLR I own is the A-1.

      I haven’t even mentioned the annoying dial placement on the original AE-1 yet…

      • Only one of my friends owns AE-1 program and he’s craving for my OM-4 and my other firend’s X-700. Others call him a fool for that. Life is strange.

  • What an enjoyable read with my morning coffee. Chris consistently posts great pictures here with his articles. I am laughing right now because I have tried to like this camera before and never bonded with it, but just got a roll of film back from my AT-1 and the pictures are great and I loved every minute of using it.Different strokes as they say. Sadly, my pictures are not nearly as good as Chris’s.

  • Thanks for your thoughts about this classic camera. I liked my QL17 a lot. We should not forget to mention its “little” sister, the QL19. Having used both, I think the 1,9/ 45 mm lens of the QL19 is of similar quality.

    • My two ‘boring’ rangefinders are a Canonet QL19 and a Yashica 35 GSN Electro. I just received my test color photos taken with the QL19 and I am impressed with the results. I read about the mystical QL17 prior to buying the QL19. For the bargain price $30, I am not going to lament not buying the QL17.
      It will be going with me on trips. Another test film roll was split between a Canon A1 and AE1 Program. I will be happy using the AE1 ‘lazy’ program feature.
      Nothing was bad with the A1 either.

      • The A-1 is an excellent camera. And yeah, the QL19 is every bit as good as the 17. Internet hype is a fickle mistress.

  • Canons are very reliable, long lasting cameras. In 1990 I bought an F1n, made in 1976. Slightly shabby and brassed edges but fully functional. Someone gave me a card with six PX625 1.35v mercury cells. These lasted many years. I took this camera to Yugo when the fighting started. Just the F1 and 28, 50 and 135 lenses. Took a Weston too. Did not need it. Pix spot on, sold around the world. Still have it and it’s in regular use with 8 lenses now and will be taken on my summer trips. I now buy packs of a hearing aid battery from Boots, size 675 that are 1.4v. If I use the alkaline cell PX625A the meter under exposure is about 1.5 stops.
    Never had any trouble from anyone when using the camera but if anyone messed with me I would not hesitate to hit them in the face with it! Not worked out what I would shout on the moment of impact? Now if it was a Nikon F I could shout: ” Nippon Kogaku!”

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing