Houston, we have a problem.
I admit it. This camera buying really needs to stop. Sure, I can rationalize it – I bought this camera for a specific purpose, I’ve wanted one for a long time, I’ve already got lenses to fit it – but it’s really got to stop. How many cameras can one actually use? Your Humble Filmosaur is not a collector. If it’s not being used, what’s the point?
With that out of the way, please welcome my new Canon P. And I do mean new; for a camera that’s 50 years old, it’s as close to new as one could reasonably expect. Even the coated steel shutter curtains, which are always wrinkled on these, are nice and smooth. This thing must have lived in someone’s closet since the Johnson administration or something. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
So why did I buy this camera when I have a bunch of other perfectly functional rangefinders? Well, the logic goes that it will be more reliable and more capable than my FED-2 (sort of a dubious premise) and that, with the lenses I already have plus a longer lens of some sort, I could have a very flexible system to take on vacation this summer (slightly less dubious, but still sketchy). That’s all well and good, but really, if I’m honest, I didn’t need it. I wanted it, and I’m a weak, weak man.
But now that I have it, here’s the good bits. It’s really solidly built; the FED-2 is as well, but the Canon has a more precise feel to it (though not quite to Rollei 35 standards). It’s got a big 1:1 finder, which means you can keep both eyes open when shooting, a huge benefit for street shooting or subjects in motion. With frame lines for 35, 50, and 100mm lenses, accessory finders are only necessary above or below those focal lengths. Overall, it just feels and looks like a properly serious camera.
Canon’s first few post-war decades were spent producing Leica-derived screwmount rangefinders. The P (short for Populaire, which in the plural sounds like the name of a band that had their one and only hit on the charts for two weeks in June 1961) was part of the sixth generation of those; by 1959 when it was introduced the design had evolved quite a ways from the original pre-war Barnack on which it was based. Aside from the screwmount, it was arguably fairly close to contemporary Leicas (though most would say the Canons still were not their equal). It is also considered among the last of the truly well-crafted Canon rangefinders; the 7 that followed it and marked the end of the line (SLRs were rapidly taking over) was bit less bomb-proof than the earlier models had been.
Observant readers may have noticed that the camera as pictured is wearing a Soviet Jupiter-8 rather than a Canon lens. This is, in fact, the same lens I bought originally for my FED-2. Part of the reason for getting this camera was to build a single system that I could pack and use in a wide variety of situations; along with the 35mm Jupiter-12 shown below, I will add a short telephoto (90 or 100mm) and a longer 135mm. I don’t really feel any compulsion to get a lens wider than the J-12, and rangefinder lenses don’t really go beyond 135mm, as longer lenses are too difficult to focus accurately.
So what’s the big advantage to the P over my FED, or any of my other cameras for that matter? Well, it’s a bit hazy, if I’m honest. The only truly concrete thing I can point to is that it offers a top speed of 1/1000, something only my Pentax SFX SLR can match (and better, actually, but it is also much larger and newer), and a full range of slow speeds as well (the FED-2 only offers five choices of speed, from 1/30 to 1/500). My Rollei 35 is smaller and has slow speeds, but is of course scale focus and, being a fixed-lens camera, is limited to the 40mm Tessar with its relatively slow f/3.5 maximum aperture. The Canonet QL19 has a similar range of shutter speeds as the Rollei, and the fixed 45mm lens is almost two stops faster, but it is almost the same size as the P.
If you look at it objectively, I just bought a not-inexpensive camera solely for the ability to shoot a rangefinder at 1/1000, which frankly would be pretty stupid. Your Humble Filmosaur is not above doing quite stupid things, but in this particular case, I think the appeal is more than what the numbers indicate. With only the 35 and 50mm lenses it doesn’t really offer much over the fixed lens cameras; throw in an additional longer lens or two and the whole thing starts to make more sense. The built-in frame lines for 35, 50, and 100 (close enough to 90 for government work) in the 1:1 viewfinder should not be undervalued – that arrangement is very handy when it comes to building an integrated system of body and lenses. Then there’s the question of which direction one goes with longer lenses – the Soviet lenses seem to work pretty well on Leica-standard cameras in wide and normal focal lengths, but once you get into telephotos the discrepancies become more pronounced. This means I would either have to buy Soviet lenses and commit to the FED-2 as the basis of my system, or go with Leica-standard lenses and build on something that matches that.
It’s all rather complicated. All I can say right now is that I have the camera and I like it.