“Come on! Open it,” she said, nodding at the gift-wrapped box which I was holding in my arms. I knew exactly what was inside. Or at least, I thought I did – film. I’m not big on spoiling surprise gifts for myself, but I accidentally found a package in my girlfriend’s fridge a few weeks earlier while grabbing some eggs and bacon for breakfast. I knew for sure that the box of Portra and a few foiled up Vision 3 rolls inside were not for her. Same applied to the Sriracha bottle placed with the rolls of film (she can’t tolerate the hot stuff). But this is not a hot sauce story.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve and I’m standing there with a box in my hands and an expectant girlfriend watching. But now I was stumped. The gift box was clearly too big for the film I saw in her fridge – more than twenty rolls of film would fit, and judging by the feel of it, something chunky was in there as well. Opening it up, I discovered a ton of film rolls scattered amidst paper stuffing, a US Polo shirt which I’m still too fat to fit in, and most important of all, a bubble-wrapped Canon 7 rangefinder camera.
She knew that I’d had my eyes on this camera for over a year. As any other retro camera geek prone to severe collector’s syndrome, I decided that I needed a rangefinder because… well, because I’d never actually used one. For obvious reasons, Leicas were out of the question. So were Voigtlanders, Zeisses and other machines which some (myself included) would consider luxurious.
I didn’t want to settle on a compact rangefinder, the form factor which was very popular in the 1970s. I don’t mind those, and I probably will buy one at some point and hopefully get to review it for Casual Photophile. But I wanted the first rangefinder experience to be something more unique, if that makes sense. I started researching the full-size Canon rangefinder cameras – including the Canon P, Canon 7 and Canon 7s.
The story behind these cameras is simple. Just like every other camera manufacturer at that time, Canon wanted a piece of the Leica rangefinder glory. And there is one thing I know for sure about the Japanese – if they copy something, they do it pretty damn good. Even better than the original, sometimes. That’s what they did with Toyota, and Suntory whisky, anyway.
One very interesting thing about the Canon 7 is that it was first released in 1961, which is after the debut of the Nikon F, the SLR camera which basically toppled rangefinders from the peak of photographic Everest. Yet the Canon 7 still succeeded despite being old tech released at the dawn of the era of the SLR, selling well more than 100,000 units.
I decided on getting a Canon 7, and was left with only one question; how the hell are these cameras so cheap? Of course, being a passionate enthusiast (nerd) I immediately told my girlfriend about the Canon 7 and my sudden urge to buy it. Long story short, she talked me out of it. Her argument was fair – with winter months coming and practically nothing to shoot anyways, this was not the perfect time to buy a new camera. But I didn’t know she was just dissuading me so that she could surprise me with such a great gift. Well, I should’ve noticed the unusual level of interest shown by my girlfriend for all the details and specs of the camera. After unwrapping my new old camera, I immediately popped one of the gifted rolls of Tri-X into the Canon 7 and started blasting, learning the thing on the go.
Not that there’s all that much to learn. Functionally, the Canon 7 is a pretty simple camera. It’s a classic rangefinder with all the usual buttons and dials, the only somewhat unusual piece being the old school selenium light meter. It works, but I never relied on it – I’m pretty comfortable with my external Sekonic l-308s. The top plate also houses the shutter speed/iso dial, the frame lines selector, and the rest of the usual suspects – a rewind crank, film advance lever and shutter release button, film release and shutter lock on the collar.
The film advance is shy of being smooth, and has a rigid, chunky feel to it. The shutter speed dial, while being small, is easy to operate with just one finger, nicely clicking into place at a gentle nudge. The front of the camera features a self-timer, a basic rangefinder layout and that huge selenium meter (careful, trypophobiacs). The back plate has one tiny button which unlocks the ISO dial, and a switch which lets you choose between high and low sensitivity of the light meter. Apparently, it was designed for use in low light conditions – it ranges from 6 to 13 EV on the higher sensitivity side, which I don’t think is really that dark. But, as I said, selenium meters tend to arrive dead.
The shutter speeds range from 1 second to 1/1000th, plus Bulb and T mode, which will pretty much cover 90% of lighting conditions. Well, not if you brought 800 ASA film on a bright July day to shoot some creamy bokeh portraits, of course. In bulb mode, we press the release and the shutter stays open until we release the button. In T mode, we don’t have to keep the release button pressed – push it once to open the shutter, push it again to close it. This helps if you don’t have a locking cable release for long exposures.
The Canon 7 is a solid chunk of metal, and you will know it on first touch. It fits nicely in the hands, leaving no real need for additional external grips. The hinged back is opened by turning the lock on the bottom plate and flicking a tiny lever on the side. The viewfinder is bright and big, with 35, 50, 85 and 135 mm frame lines, parallax corrected, of course. The 35mm frame takes up the viewfinder almost entirely. For those, who enjoy wider lenses, this can be a tricky camera to use since it lacks a shoe where one can mount an external viewfinder. There’s an accessory piece which adds a shoe to the camera, but they’re quite rare these days.
Having researched a substantial amount on rangefinder cameras before deciding I wanted one, I knew that their focusing mechanisms can be fragile. I was concerned that this one may have been misaligned over time or, god forbid, knocked out of alignment from fall damage. But the first roll was a success – everything was in sharp focus. The focusing mechanism of the Canon 7 itself is kind of tricky at first, given a not-so-bright patch, but over time focusing it has become second nature for me to the point where it’s maybe even more comfortable than focusing with an SLR. It seems almost counter intuitive, but the other day I read that it is easier to focus a rangefinder than an SLR because you don’t focus with your eyes, but with the mechanism. If the lines line up, you’re in focus. Whatever the case, I don’t think I ever missed focus with the Canon 7, but I do miss every now and again with SLRs.
One of the main points of interest in a rangefinder for me was always the ability to shoot slower shutter speeds because of the lack of a mirror slap. I was never able to get a sharp shot lower than 1/30th with my Nikon or Minolta SLRs. With the Canon 7 though, I’m perfectly capable of getting shake-free shots at 1/15th, and on a good day I even get away with 1/8th.
The metal shutter, however, is rather clunky and loud. But truthfully, I don’t really mind. In fact, the metal shutter is a benefit compared to cameras with a cloth shutter. It’s more durable, and as I’ve found out, you can actually burn a hole in a cloth shutter if you don’t put a lens cap on in bright sunlight. The only possible downside is that the Canon 7’s shutter is somehow prone to wrinkling over time. While my copy doesn’t have this flaw, I’ve read that even the Canon 7s which do have a wrinkly curtain still work perfectly fine.
Speaking of the lens cap – it is one of the few issues I have with this camera. Well, actually, there is no issue, because there is no cap either. It turns out that the Canon Serenar LTM 50/1.8 lens (which is the lens that I own) has a very rare 40mm filter tread, so the lens cap alone costs about the same as a mid-tier point-and-shoot. This uncommon filter thread diameter also makes using color filters problematic. I gave up on trying to find any long ago.
And since we mentioned the lens – I’m not much of a lens expert, but to me this Serenar is really good. Sharp and full of character, wide open or stopped down. It just makes magical shots. The aperture has tens blades, which helps to smooth highlights and creates swirly bokeh that was sufficient to impress even a DSLR-bokeh-35/1.4 lens apologist, who was sure that the lowest F-number possible makes or breaks the character of the image. The aperture ring itself is, I would say, on the tighter side, but nothing too uncomfortable, with light clicks, which allow setting the diaphragm between the actual numbers. The Serenar has a long focus throw, which might take some time to get used to, and an infinity lock. The latter seems to be a somewhat typical rangefinder thing, which I just can’t seem to understand the need for. But what do I know?
Well, I know that this camera and lens has combined to help me create some really beautiful photos. In low light, bright light, on the street or in more controlled environments – it’s a camera that does what it’s supposed to do with style and surety. I think it’s great.
When talking about interchangeable lens rangefinders, comparison between the camera in question and the Leica M series is most likely inevitable. So how does the Canon 7 compare to a Leica? Probably like a brick compares to a polished piece of granite. I don’t know, really. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a Leica was an Olympus Pen-F, dubbed “the Leica M of SLRs” by the man himself.
Should we even compare? I don’t like to think about it. I wouldn’t want a clean Leica M6 to ruin the Canon 7 for me. Well, for now, at least.
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All very nice.