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The Canon P (Populaire) Rangefinder Camera. A review by Greig Clifford.

The Canon P (for Populaire)... This camera feels like it has become part of my 'photographic soul' over the few years I've owned one, an artistic partner and favourite of mine to use, especially for making street and documentorial images. So, as people occasionally ask about the cameras I use, I thought I'd talk a little about this one in particular...

Firstly, and although it doesn't really matter, I feel it needs to be said... the Canon P is one beautiful looking camera! In my opinion only the Leica Ms match it for style. It is fair to say during the 1950s Canon took a leaf out of Leica's design book. The Leica M3, released in 1954, was proving to be hugely successful, and Canon's similarly sized series V and VI ranges from 1956 onwards definitely jumped on those style ideas, the flat top-plate form in particular, a simple, timeless, iconic look. Great design doesn't grow old, and Canon can thank Leica for that.

The Canon P (Populaire)  Rangefinder Camera in a Mr Brizzles half-case

It is a camera almost entirely made of metal so it can take a knock but even so, I always like to use it with a half-case for a little extra protection to the body. The images above show the leather half-case I made for it in 2016. Incidentally, I continue to make cases for other owners in my spare time (including for some Leica and Nikon cameras too) under the Mr Brizzles label. Some people comment they prefer how the case gives the Canon P a rounded form (much like a Leica).

The Canon P was made between 1959-1961, in direct competition with the Leica M3 and M2, and became Canon's best selling camera at the time. I believe the manufacturing quality to be a match for those Leicas too. There's a wonderful surety to the moving parts and a feeling of mechanical precision throughout, like all Canon rangefinders made to this point in time.

So, with all the mentions of Leica, is the Canon P a Leica M3 wannabe? Well, a better comparison might be with the M2 as the M3 doesn't have 35mm framelines. However, although there is much in common, the Canon P is most definitely a camera with its own distinct spirit. Much of its design was forward thinking, which had advantages over the Leicas of the time, perhaps the most obvious being the swing door back, a radical change from the traditional bottom loading design. Film can be loaded quickly without needing to remove parts or cut film leaders to a different shape.

As the above photo shows, the Canon P has a self-timer, something that I rarely use, which is why my half-case design covers the lever, offering extra protection. The timer is a fine example of the mechanical quality of the camera though... the ticking sound when activated, an unwavering and precise count-down, projects an air of refinement and reliability.

Where Leica switched to its new 'M' mount bayonet system for its lenses, Canon continued to use the old Leica Thread Mount (LTM) system (also known as Leica Screw Mount, or M39). Although modern lens choices are fairly limited there is a weath of excellent vintage lenses available, and Canon's own lenses were regarded as some of the best in the world at the time, even better than much of the Leica glass. I think those lenses from the 1950's have a really nice mix of vintage feel and modern clarity.

My Canon 35mm f/2.8 lens has a focus tab attached which I love. These lenses have such a long focus throw I find using the tab helps with much quicker adjustment.

The markings on some lenses appear off-center when properly attached. This is usual and enables easier viewing of the settings when a viewfinder or accessory is attached to the camera's cold shoe.

I have always liked using ND filters and high ISO film (or digital sensor rating) to give myself a larger possible exposure range. However, I find changing filters annoying so I have recently acquired a couple of 5 stop variable ND filters for my main LTM lenses. I have been impressed in the past with filters I bought from K&F Concept directly, and these ND2-32 filters seem really good too. They are well made and accurate. I even like how the indicator mark matches up exactly with those of the lens. As this is on a wider angle lens I have used a bigger filter (with a step-up ring) to avoid vignetting.

By rating the film (currently Ilford HP5+) at 1600 ISO I can shoot in lower light conditions and for bright daytime use I can adjust the filter to a denser setting to keep the shutter speed less than the camera's maximum. The higher ISO creates an image with higher grain and contast but that is my preferred look anyway.

The ASA/DIN dial on the film door has no purpose other than as a reminder of the film speed loaded. There is no in-camera lightmeter so the dial does not link to one as with a typical metered camera... here, the dial just rotates. I rarely bother to change it.

The viewfinder has three silvered albada framelines, showing the view for 35mm, 50mm and 100mm lenses. They move with focusing to automatically adjust for parallax error... the viewfinder does not see through the lens so there is always a difference in angle of view (think of the difference one sees when looking through each eye individually).

The wonderful thing about this viewfinder is its true 1:1 view. Other cameras come close, the Leica M3 has 0.92x magnification, the M2 has 0.72x. The 1:1 view means one can compose with both eyes open, the framelines floating in a true 3D scene. It is a different experience from the usual 2D view, and for me when I shoot this way I feel more connected with the scene and I can see more outside of the frame too, useful for timing and reading how a scene may play out.

The viewfinder does flare a little under more extreme conditions, and the framelines are sometimes not as easy to see as those in a projected frameline viewfinder, but it is something one adjusts to, and the view has 'real world' brightness and excellent clarity. The 35mm framelines are placed right in the edge of peripheral vision, basically the edge of the viewfinder view, so I tend not to pay much notice of them... what I see through the whole viewfinder is essentially what I find ends up on the film.

I found there was (is) one drawback with this viewfinder... no in-built dioptre correction, and Canon's original dioptre adjustment lenses seem impossible to find nowadays. So, I fashioned my own replacement! The rear viewfinder lens housing is designed to be removed (a small screw holds it in place) and the lens to replace is held in the housing by a small plate and glue... I carefully removed it and filed down the edges of a replacement dioptre lens... a -2 dioptric adjustment lens 'S' designed for Canon's A series SLRs. Once the lens was a perfect match I fitted it into the housing and back in place. A perfect solution, just a little patience required.

A closer view of the framelines, and the focusing spot in the center. The focus spot is a good size and has a soft edge. Some may prefer it to be more defined. It isn't something that bothers me either way. I find the Canon P spot quite subtle and natural, blending with the scene with minimal distraction.

An even closer view of the focusing spot, which seen here can sometimes be hardly noticable at all... except for the double image of course. As with all manual focus cameras (and autofocus cameras too) areas of higher contrast are the easiest to focus on. In rangefinders, when the two images are perfectly overlaid then focus is achieved.

One of the things I like about rangefinder cameras is that the view is always natural, as opposed to seeing through the lens with SLRs where out of focus areas appear less sharp. For street / documentary type photography I really prefer to see the whole scene clear in the viewfinder all the time.

The Canon P shutter button is threaded to accept a cable release. This is the only way to lock the shutter open for timed long exposures. It isn't something I use very often so I usually screw a soft release button in place, to extend the size of the shutter button and give it a very slight convex shape. This not only adds a smoother feel but allows me to trip the shutter with a gentler pressure to the edge of the button.

Like later Leica cameras the Canon P also has a red dot! It lives in the small window towards the rear of the shutter button and turns when the winder lever is actioned. It revolves the opposite way when rewinding film, stopping when the film comes off the sprockets. A useful indicator. Around the shutter button is the rewind collar. Turn it to enable the film chamber sprocket action to reverse before rewinding film.

The camera can make multiple exposures. A little awkwardly but it works, and again the little red dot plays a useful role. After the first shot, turn the collar to the rewind position and rewind the film watching the red dot... once it has completed a whole rotation (and a little bit more) switch the collar back to 'A' position (for 'Advance'?) and wind the film on... the frames will perfectly match.

The camera's quality is particularly felt when using the wind-on lever. A single long stroke (or multiple smaller strokes) will ready the shutter and wind the film one frame onwards. The action is smooth and quiet with no ratchet sound... a very refined feel indeed. There is a frame counter in front of the lever. This resets automatically whenever the camera back is opened.

The shutter dial is unusually designed with deep slots around it. These slots are for coupling with the camera's matching accessory lightmeter, which I have never owned. I find these slots make the dial easy to adjust with one finger. The shutter dial shows speeds from 1 second to 1/1000, with B (Bulb) exposure and X (the maximum flash sync speed) which (quite oddly) is rated at 1/55 second.

The Canon P has a standard Prontor/Compur (PC) Sync connector which makes it very usable today, able to work perfectly with modern electronic flashes and studio systems. The PC Sync port surround is designed to lock on a vintage Canon flash bulb unit, which allowed flash use with shutter speeds up to the camera's maximum of 1/1000s.

The rewind lever is a wonderful design that folds away when not in use. The middle part has an orange line that turns as the film is wound on, a useful indicator that the film is loaded correctly inside.

Although the Canon P has a swing open film door there are still elements of the old traditional bottom loading system present... a non-central tripod screw thread (although it is a contemporary 1/4 inch size) and a lock that needs to be turned before the film door catch can be operated.

Compared with bottom loading cameras, this is much easier to load. The shutter curtains are metal and it is usual to find them wrinkled but this does not affect their operation. A major benefit of the metal shutter is that the sun cannot burn holes into them, a common issue with the cloth shutters found on the Leicas, and earlier Canons and Barnack copies.

Most swing open camera backs have a light-seal around them... not so with the Canon P. Its design makes it light-tight without the need for seals.

I have used my Canon P for work and pleasure, live music shows, street and art photography, family holidays, and as an everyday walkabout camera. I suppose it feels more personal to me because I have customised it a little... the viewfinder dioptre lens, half-case, and soft release shutter button but I wouldn't have bothered had I not felt an instant affinity with this camera.

It feels an ideal size for my hand, it has absolutely no unnecessary features, it is fully mechanical and precise, and manufactured to an exceptionally high quality. It is quiet to use and despite being 60+ years old has contemporary features... modern tripods fit without adapters, film doesn't need to be trimmed as it does for bottom loading cameras, and it has a standard PC Sync port so modern flash systems work (wireless flash on a vintage camera always raises an eyebrow or two!).

Basically, the Canon P is pretty much everything I need in a camera for 99% of the time, a near perfect blend of style and function. So, what does such a great camera cost? Well, a look on eBay for a Leica M2 (body only) in good condition shows several ranging upwards of £1200. A good Canon P will cost £150. My own one cost me £70 in 2015. I think it's been worth it.

Some favourites from the last roll of film...

B-030. A Determined Inclination - by Greig Clifford

B-025. Starlings heading to roost - by Greig Clifford

B-033. As the tide closes in - by Greig Clifford

B-031. A walk in the snow - by Greig Clifford

B-034. Future World Champion - by Greig Clifford

And some older examples...

A-004. If At First... - by Greig Clifford

A-027. Child, and a beach hut made of mirrors - by Greig Clifford

B-028. HMS Alliance - by Greig Clifford

The Five Hundred - by Greig Clifford

Star Scream - by Greig Clifford

(Published 03/03/2021)

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