A Rangefinder Beginner’s Thoughts on the Canon 7

A Rangefinder Beginner’s Thoughts on the Canon 7

2000 1125 Timothy Lebedin

“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.

Sample Photos

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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Timothy Lebedin

I make a living off of boring writing, occasionally enjoying putting together a piece about music or photography. Also keen on cooking, video games and all things '80-90s: synth pop, cars, movies, walkmans... cameras. Fun fact: I live in the town which produced about 80% of the soviet camera gear (Zeniths, FEDs, Zorky's - that's the name of the local team) - Krasnogorsk. Hashtag representing. Practically everybody's grandma has an old film camera here.

All stories by:Timothy Lebedin
  • All very nice.

  • (A) Your girlfriend is a jewel. Go out and find an 85/1.9 Canon lens and make lots of nice portraits of her. (B) For a rangefinder newbie, you’ve figured out the Canon 7 pretty well. (C) Your lens isn’t a “Serenar” — Canon stopped using that trademark in 1952, which is why yours is engraved “Canon Lens” instead of “Canon Serenar.” Makes no difference except that it helps with dating the production years of lenses. (D) The reason the lens has an infinity lock is because there’s no room on the barrel for a separate grip area so you can unscrew it. Using the lock lets you grab the focusing ring instead. (E) The only reason the 7 is so inexpensive is that they sold a lot of them and a lot of people now are put off by selenium-metered cameras, so it’s a buyer’s market. It has nothing to do with the quality of the camera, which was professional grade and was considered the equal of the Nikon SP back in the day. (G) Now stop reading and go take more pictures.

    • Thanks for the kind feedback! I thought the lens was still viable to call a Serenar even without that branding, I think I stumbled upon a similar discussion on some forum.

  • Great review, I love my Canon P! It’s as much fun to use as it is to just look at sitting on a shelf it all it’s beauty.

  • The fact that you wrote this is going to make your girlfriend feel like a million bucks.

  • The shutter won’t wrinkle if you keep your fingers away from the curtains!

  • Great review Timothy and wonderful photos – I agree with others, your lady is a keeper!

    I’m primarily a SLR shooter, but I got hooked after buying my Canon IId with the 50mm f1.8. I bought my Canon 7 a few months ago and the meter is still surprisingly accurate.

    The 50mm f1.9 has the same filter thread as the f1.8 so (if you haven’t already,) you might try looking at Kodak Series VI filters. The 1-5/16″ slip on ring is the one you want. Series VI filters and hoods can be had inexpensively. This will allow you to avoid the ridiculously priced Canon rangefinder accessories.

    I found the leather case from a Japanese seller on the ‘Bay for $20 in decent condition. I refinished it with some leather dye and it looks terrific now.

    • Thank you, Rob, I’ll definitely look those up.

    • Great post! I have a VT with a 50mm/1.5 that uses a 40mm filter too. For the Series VI / Series 6 adapter, Canon did make a “Series VI 40mm” adapter which you can sometimes find on eBay for fairly low cost. Also, the Ednalite “617” and Tiffin “603” adapter is for 40mm threads…if you can find a nice silver adapter and a petite Series 6 hood, it will look pretty good too.

  • 😉 Bravo : very great and useful.
    I am a Leica, Contax, Nikon, Rollei user, just a few Canon gears.
    But, but, I believe since long time that Canon 7 and Canon P are great camera as capable than Leica III and Leica M. I will find one for sure. Thank you so much.

  • Nice review with a nice story around it. I had a 7 briefly a few months ago and it was a great camera but for some reason I didn’t love it enough to add it to an already swelling collection and let someone else enjoy it. I hope you enjoy yours it sounds as if you will.

  • Great camera and photos. I love the story behind it, it’s one you’ll be telling your grandchildren!

  • I really enjoyed reading this and lovely photos too. Well done!

  • Buddy, marry this girl! No, really!
    I borrowed a Canon rangefinder w/a 50mm f/.95 from my graphics professor in 1974. I was forever corrupted. I have an ancient Leica M2 w/a 35mm f/3.5 Summaron. These cameras are too much fun.
    The available light pics in color are my favorite ones. Wishing you continued good luck w/the camera & you and your friends/loved ones stay healthy!

  • Nice review and images! I have the Canon 7 myself and a few other rangefinders too, so I can make a comparison. The Canon 7 is a very solid camera with a few technical features that I find more convenient than the traditional Leica design: single framelines that can be switched manually, easier film loading, shutter button can be locked. The light meter would also be great, if it would work. The downsides are for me the more edgy design, which simply doesn’t feel as smooth as a Leica in the hand and the loud shutter sound. That’s why I don’t use it very often for street photography, but I keep it as a back-up rangefinder.

    Anyway, the Canon 7 is still a great camera for its market price and much better for practical use than most older screwmount rangefinders.

  • Hi Timothy, great article. I don’t have a Canon 7, but I have a IVSB2 as well as a Leica M3 and M6. Even without the fact your girlfriend bought it for you, your camera’s special. You have everything you need. Enjoy!

  • Hi Tim,

    I owned a Canon 7 before buying my M2. I must have gotten a good one as the film advance was beautifully smooth on the Canon. Easily as good as the Leica. In use the Leica has a better rf patch and hangs better as the strap lugs are more sensibly placed. I found it easier to use the 35mm framelines on the Canon though. If you can bear to be parted it could be worth sending yours out for servicing.

  • Hi Tim, great review! It’s a great camera, that I use regularly. My has a functioning meter too, which is always nice. The one thing I don’t like about my Canon 7 is the way it tends to point upwards when attached to a strap. I guess it’s because it was designed to be used with one of the super heavy 50 f1.2 or 0.95 lenses. The Canon 35mm f2 ltm is one of my favorite lenses. It’s tiny but handles wonderfully well. Get yourself one if you ever find a decently prized one!

    • Yes! The strap thing is definitely painful! I read that one can get a screw-in strap holder (screws in the tripod socket) and hanging the camera vertically (like one would a pentax 67). Kind of makes sense to me but I still haven’t got around to buying one.

  • I think the Canon 7 is my absolute favorite rangefinder. I have a pretty good Zeiss Contax collection, a Nikon S2, and some FEDs, along with smaller Canon and Yashica rangefinders. But the Canon 7 is my go to rangefinder camera when I want the photos to be great. As far as that selenium meter, mine is dead on. Most of my selenium meters on other cameras are also good, even my Contax III from 1936. It’s the cameras that need a 625 or PX 13 battery that never seem to work quite right now a days and good batteries are expensive and die right away. To be honest though, I love my Exaktas. Rangefinders are lots of fun and have a “really cool” factor, but a look through the surprisingly bright and 100% viewfinder of an Exakta and it’s “good to be back home again,” not to mention the ease of extreme close-ups and long long shutter speeds. Plus it is the only right handed camera. Yes, it is actually easier to focus with your right hand and trip the shutter with your left hand, unlike those left handed Leicas, Canons and Nikons!

  • The Canon 7 is great as an indestructible and ltm lens platform. The choice of lenses is legendary but there are downsides to this hefty beast. The rangefinder patch is fuzzy and has an annoying halo around it. The selenium is not working for most of those available on the market but then again it is a 60 year old camera! With a modern lens you can focus down to .8 meters which is not bad. Enjoy!

  • Great review! I love my 7 – the meter even works perfectly and the rangefinder patch is really pretty bright and distinct as well. I’m sure you’ve discovered this in the time since you wrote your review, but get yourself a 40->40.5 mm step-up ring for the 50 f1.8 and the world’s your oyster in terms of filters, hoods, caps, the works. I searched for 40mm bits for awhile and came to the conclusion it wasn’t worth it. 40.5mm bits are copious.

  • Richard Armstrong August 20, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    Tim, You are correct in thinking your lens is the same as the earlier Serenar 50mm f1.8 lens, optically it is identical. Late in 1952 decided to drop the Serenar and name all their lenses “Canon Lens” The Canon Lens name was introduced in December 1952 around serial No 80800 and the chrome 50mm f1.8 continued until March 1956 when it was replaced with the more common Black 50mm f1.8. The Black 50mm f1.8 is optically Identical and is actually the correct lens for your 7. I enjoyed your review of the, it’s a great camera, I got my first in 1976 with a 50mm f0.95. My favorite lens to use on the 7 is the 50mm f1.4. Regards Richard

  • I’m glad you like it. I took mine on holiday with a trio of canon lenses it was a pleasure to use. The 50mm f1.8 of that type wasn’t supplied with the camera, it would have looked similar to the 50mm f1.4 featured elsewhere on this site. However your lens cap dilemma can be solved by using a 40.5mm cap, they fit perfectly. Mine do anyway. Or use a 42mm push on cap. Don’t forget however to take it off before using the camera.

  • Thank you for the excellent (and not boring at all) review. I’ve owned a few of these, and was impressed by their quality and design. You have to put up w/ some faults that the higher priced cameras don’t have, but these are excellent values for a 35mm rangefinder that takes so many wonderful lenses. The Canon 7’s are big, heavy, and as mentioned, their shutters do indeed clack. Think of them as the Nikkormats of the rangefinder world, tey just keep on going. Your portrait shots in low light came out very well, w/ smooth rendering, I assume the lens was wide open? The pics are not too sharp, just what you would want for that sort of thing.

  • Would be nice to hear from you your experience with this camera after 3 years of using 🙂 I am actually looking for some good non-leica rangefinder.

  • A 40.5 lens cap will fit just fine even though a 40.5mm filter won’t.

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Timothy Lebedin

I make a living off of boring writing, occasionally enjoying putting together a piece about music or photography. Also keen on cooking, video games and all things '80-90s: synth pop, cars, movies, walkmans... cameras. Fun fact: I live in the town which produced about 80% of the soviet camera gear (Zeniths, FEDs, Zorky's - that's the name of the local team) - Krasnogorsk. Hashtag representing. Practically everybody's grandma has an old film camera here.

All stories by:Timothy Lebedin