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.
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.