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Film, Not Digital, Gear Discussions, Rangefinders, Tech Talk

The Canon P Rangefinder: A Review of Sorts


The Canon P (Populaire) is a super old 35mm rangefinder camera, made by Canon from 1958-1961. It is the only rangefinder I currently own and use – after the Canon 7 (my first rangefinder), it is the only one I have ever owned – and it is probably my favorite vintage camera in my collection. You can get one for not too much on eBay these days – in comparison to a Leica, at least – with something like my Canon P + 50mm f1.8 costing around $500, and Canon 7 sets going for around $350. Not bad for a camera and lens of this quality – even though they’re ancient – and they still works perfectly…so I’d say it’s a pretty good deal

The Canon P Rangefinder Camera

This rangefinder was one of the best selling Canon cameras of its time, and was originally intended as a low-cost model for average users – not good enough for the pros back then, I guess. It uses the Leica Screw Mount aka Leica Thread Mount (LTM) or M39 for its lenses, and therefore works with all Leica lenses of that era, along with a bunch of Canon lenses made for this mount during the period. It originally came bundled with a 50mm lens – f1.4 I believe – and was quite a good bargain buy back in the early ’60s. I got a 50mm f1.8 with mine, so it isn’t the original Canon P lens…but it works beautifully and is in amazing condition for a piece of glass this old

Although it was made as a lower end model, by today’s build quality standards, this remains one of the best quality cameras I’ve used, superior to many high end professional cameras of today. Heavy metal plates are used in the construction of this camera, and feels like it could withstand a bomb blast. I read some people comment that the build quality is superior to even the slightly newer Canon 7, and while I can’t really confirm this, it is definitely built to last

On the top of the camera, you’ll find a nicely laid out set of basic controls: there’s the film rewind crank, the shutter speed dial, the shutter button, the film advance lever, the film counter…and there’s a little rewind release ring around the shutter button. This ring has two positions: the “A” position lets you shoot normally, and the unmarked dot allows you to rewind your film. The Canon P doesn’t have a shutter lock feature, but I find that setting this rewind release ring between the dot and the “A” position locks the shutter button. The rewind crank is very nicely designed, and quite different to any other manual film camera I’ve used before. Oh, and there’s an accessory shoe on top as well. All these controls are large, and feel nice and solid, almost brand new…a real pleasure to use

The beautiful controls and exterior of the Canon P

The back is opened by releasing a little key on the bottom of the camera, then releasing another little lock on the side…so your film is very safe in there! The back of the camera is clean, except for a little wheel where you ‘set’ your ISO speed. It doesn’t do anything – it’s just a reminder for you to know what speed of film you’re currently using. Oh and there’s the viewfinder

not sure why I added this -looking through the Canon P viewfinder

The viewfinder is a nice 1:1 life size one, which really makes a difference. What this means is what you see through the viewfinder is the same size as what you’d see with your eyes. You can look through the viewfinder, and keep your other eye open…and you’d hardly know the camera is in front of you! And this means that you will be aware of everything that is happening around you, not just what you see through the narrow field of view through the finder. Very useful for street photography. This finder comes with parallax corrected frame lines for 35mm, 50mm, and 100mm lenses…and I’m pretty sure you could use the entire viewfinder as a (less accurate) frame line for a slightly wider lens, maybe a 28mm. After 50 years, it is still nice and bright. The rangefinder patch on my P is fairly bright too, and has reasonable contrast…so focusing in normal or fairly low light is no problem. A bit of cleaning might help, but I don’t feel the need to right now. The only thing I miss from the Canon 7 is the viewfinder with selectable frame lines. On the P, all 3 frame lines are always visible…whereas on the 7, you can select which lens you’re using and it shows only that frame line. I’ve never had a problem with this, but it’d be stupid not to admit that selecting just the one frame line would be better

The bottom of the camera looks like a solid block of metal – really solid stuff. Like I said before, the entire camera seems to be made of thick metal plates, and this can really be noticed on the bottom. The only things you’d find there will be the tripod screw and the little key that opens the back. The front has just the timer…which still works on mine…and of course the lens!

The Canon P uses a coated stainless steel shutter curtain that fires from 1/1000 to 1 second. Shutter curtains of most Canon P cameras today are wrinkled…but this really doesn’t affect its performance. Mine fires at all speeds, and sound perfectly accurate…and results show that it probably is perfectly accurate. It also has a Bulb mode and X sync flash (1/55) mode…and if you’re wondering, there’s a PC terminal on the side of the camera to attach a flash unit

The Canon P – with the back cover opened

Unlike the Canon 7, the P doesn’t have a light meter built in. Instead, it comes with an external meter that attaches to the top of the camera. However, light meters of this age almost never work accurately today…even the built in meter on my old Canon 7 was dead..and to be honest, the little thing clipping onto the top of the P completely ruins the beauty of it. Some prefer the look of the camera with the meter attached, but I don’t. I just took mine off and carefully put it away, and use my Sekonic L-308s instead. If you’re looking for a cheaper meter option, you could also check out the Sekonic L-208…if you don’t mind using an analog meter with actual needles…maybe you do

My lens is a Canon 50mm f1.8 Leica Screw Mount. It feels extremely well built too…all metal and glass. The focus ring is super smooth, the aperture ring clicks very satisfyingly into place, and there’s no wobbly nonsense that’s sometimes found on some of today’s lenses…I love it. My lens has absolutely no haze on it, which is very rare for a lens of this age (lucky me), and no fungus or any sort of cleaning marks/scratches. A real beauty, I have to admit. The pictures that this lens takes are very sharp…and the bokeh is lovely. It produces images which…well, look exactly like the beautiful shots I’ve seen from the ‘60s. It’s got that old-fashioned look, somehow…and I love it. I use it mainly for black and white work, so I can’t really comment on the colors (this depends on the film too, of course) but all in all I really enjoy using this lens

The beautiful 50mm f1.8 LTM lens – 50 years old!

I got it with its original leather case which, for a 50 year old piece of leather, looks amazing. It even includes a little hump for the light meter to fit in! I also got the original Canon UV filter, and a non-original Canon lens hood which works alright. The leather case still amazes me…the quality control back then was unbelievable, wasn’t it? Yeah. This kit is one of my most treasured in my collection


Using a Rangefinder camera

For those of you who don’t know what a rangefinder camera is or how it differs from an SLR/DSLR, I’ll break away from the main topic and briefly explain the key parts (I have a dedicated post on using rangefinders if you want more on the topic)

First of all, the name comes from the focusing method it uses. A rangefinder uses a ‘rangefinder’ device built into the camera, which judges the distance between your subject and the camera, and tells you where to focus. Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds…what this involves for you, the user, is this: You look through the viewfinder. In the middle of the viewfinder is what is called the ‘rangefinder patch’. This is the area of the viewfinder that you use to focus your subject. In this area, you see a superimposed patch of your subject/scene that appears on top of the actual subject/scene you’re capturing. What you then need to do is turn your lens’ focusing ring until the superimposed image perfectly lines up with the actual image. Once this happens, your subject is perfectly in focus. Pretty simple. Newer cameras adopted this focusing system too, like my 1980s Nikon FM2n, and improved on it by doing away with the superimposed-image method and instead uses the spit-image rangefinder focus method. This works the same way, but instead of the superimposed image, on these cameras the rangefinder patch is split into two halves: top and bottom. You turn the focus ring until the bottom half is perfectly in line with the top half. I find this method far easier to focus, but both work fine I guess

Well that’s the rangefinder name. But what else is different? Well, in your SLR, the viewfinder uses a complex method using a mirror and a prism and all that, to allow you to look through the viewfinder, and actually see through the lens. On the rangefinder, there’s no such thing. You look through the viewfinder, and see through the other side. And as this viewfinder is above the lens, and to the left, it doesn’t see through the lens, and doesn’t tell you exactly what the lens is seeing. This has its advantages, and disadvantages…but I’ll go through those later…I’m supposed to be keeping this short. But if you’re ever using a rangefinder, I need to tell you a couple of super important things to watch out for, because you might be used to using a DSLR, and make stupid mistakes like I first did when using a rangefinder. Here are two tips that you need to take note of:

Remember to focus: You’re not looking through the lens, right? So what you see through the viewfinder is always focused. Your eye is doing the focusing. It’s like looking through a window. You don’t see depth of field, you don’t see what’s in focus, nothing. The problem that can arise from this (for me, at least) is that when you’re in a hurry, you might forget to focus! On a DSLR, you look through the viewfinder, and if its out of focus, what you see will be out of focus. That, and you always half-press the shutter and it focuses automatically. On a rangefinder, focus is manual and you need to remember to do it

Check your lens cap: Another more embarrassing problem that arises due to the fact that you’re not looking through the lens is that you might leave the lens cap on! Yeah, it happened to me. When I was taking a picture of a friend. I guess she was too embarrassed to tell me that I had the cap on

So basically, run through a little mental check list before you take your shot. I know this can be hard, especially for those quick shots…but it’ll help you, initially at least:

  • Check that your lens cap is off
  • Remember to focus
  • Make sure you metered your scene, and set the correct exposure settings on your camera

And as I’m going through a few tips here, remember the one about using the rewind release ring (the ring around the shutter) to lock your shutter (so you won’t accidentally press it and waste a shot). Just turn the ring between the “A” position and the dot.

One more thing to watch out for when using that rewind release ring: once you move it to the dot position, and rewind your film – RETURN THE RING TO THE “A “POSITION. When the ring is in the dot position, advancing the film advance lever doesn’t cock the shutter…which is fine…but once, I advanced the lever with the rewind ring in the dot position, and then moved it back to the “A” position and advanced again…and the shutter still wouldn’t cock. I had to mess with the levers and rings for a few minutes before it cocked again. I don’t know if it was a one-off thing, but it’d never happen if you just return the ring to the “A” position immediately after rewinding! Gave me quite a shock that one time


Alright, so that’s it for the Canon P “review”. Obviously most of this stuff is pure Canon P stuff…but the last bit, about using rangefinders, and the embarrassing problems that you need to watch out for…that applies to most rangefinders of this age (or all film rangefinders?!)

I hope you enjoyed reading this. If you have any questions, leave a comment. And check out some of the related articles I’ve linked below, for more on the Canon P and other Canon rangefinders. They’re really special! Alright, until next time

Canon P – my favorite Japanese rangefinder – by Karen Nakamura
Canon P Rangefinder – CameraQuest

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By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own

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Discussion

16 Responses to “The Canon P Rangefinder: A Review of Sorts”

  1. Have just bought one looks great!
    FM2n a rangefinder?

    Posted by Norman | May 15, 2012, 17:59
    • thanks! im sure ur gonna love using it.. if u love using manual film cameras, that is. the FM2 is an SLR, but one of the manual focusing options u can use is the split-image rangefinder type. though ‘rangefinder’ technically refers to the type of focusing system, a rangefinder is a different type of camera

      Posted by pixelogist | May 16, 2012, 17:37
  2. Thanks for reply, I’m considering lenses for it, Canon LSM lenses are a bit like hens teeth here in England. I have a question you may be able to answer. I have precisely one Leica lens a collapsible Elmar 50mm F3.5. Is it safe to mount it on the Canon P? I’m scared of it hitting the shutter curtain.

    Posted by Norman | May 16, 2012, 17:57
    • it’ll fit, but dont try collapsing it. thats when it might hit something inside. u might be able to safely collapse it but i dont think i’d risk it.

      yeah, canon lenses can be hard to find.. i got a very nice Canon 50mm f1.8 for my P on ebay.. u might wanna check there. but for now, i think ur Elmar should work fine :)

      Posted by pixelogist | May 16, 2012, 18:05
  3. Keep up the great work , I read few posts on this web site and I think that your blog is rattling interesting and contains sets of excellent information.

    Posted by Toni Lovergood | June 4, 2012, 20:52
  4. A good rangefinder that looks just like SLR/DSLR camera.
    range finder reviews

    Posted by godstatus2012 | August 8, 2012, 19:32
  5. I just came into a Canon P with standard Canon 50 mm lens….a Tanaka Kogaku -Tanar 1:35 telephoto lens ..hidden inside the original case for telephoto lens is a 13.5 cm view finder that slides on to the flash mount as well as a Sekonic Auto Lumi light meter, also in original case…..also an extra Tamar Kogaku HC 1:2 lens
    After reading your review I’m excited to try this bad boy out….sounds like I stumbled upon a nice old camera.
    Out of curiosity what is this worth ?

    Posted by Henry | December 18, 2012, 13:28
    • hi Henry. that sounds like a great setup you’ve got there! very nice indeed! i’m not sure how much this would be worth together with the finder and the meter…and of course it depends on the condition of the camera (if it’s clean, with accurate shutter etc.) and the lenses (dust, scratches). i got my pristine-condition canon P plus 50mm f1.8 and i paid $500 for it. if your stuff is in good condition, i wouldn’t be surprised if it could be sold for around $1000 at least..but again, i can’t be sure!

      Posted by pixelogist | December 19, 2012, 17:43
  6. I use a canon P & three different Leica’s I love the 1-1 lifesize rangefinder/veiwfinder

    Posted by rorygibbons | July 4, 2013, 15:22
    • I love the rangefinder/viewfinder too! Didn’t realize how cool the 1:1 life-size ‘finder would be until I used it. Which Leica lenses are you using? I’m still with my Canon 50mm f1.8!

      Posted by pixelogist | July 4, 2013, 16:02

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