Remember last May when the shutter on my Bessa R2A failed during the Dragon Boat Festival Races? A few weeks later, after I was finally able to put together the cash to have it repaired, I discovered a very clean 1961 Canon Canonet in the front display case of the repair shop. While I didn’t get it at the time (had to pay for that R2A to get fixed first, after all), a mental image of that Canonet was etched into my consciousness and refused to leave until a couple weeks ago.
When I went back to the repair shop with NT$3500 (~US$100) in-hand and bought it.
Like everything else from the 60s not made from Bakelite, the Canonet is heavy and has a “rock solid” heft to it. Probably the most surprising visual characteristic of the rangefinder is the clean top plate. There’s only a nameplate and a coldshoe. How is that possible? Easy. Just move everything to the bottom, which is what Canon did. Although having something like the rewind crank on the bottom might seem odd, it’s not all that unique. Take the Zeiss Ikon, for example. What was actually odd for me was the film advance lever being down there. It’s really not well-placed for a “shoot, wind, shoot, wind” rhythm… until you fold down the small tab at the end of the lever. As someone who uses a trigger winder on my Bessa R2A, operation of the bottom advance lever became instantly intuative.
Contiuing on a similar point, if I hadn’t had prior experience working with more then just SLRs, getting adjusted to the exposure controls layout of the Canonet would have taken a lot of getting used to. For those of you who have used systems with leaf shutter lenses, like anything large format, most things medium format, or the occasional fixed-lens 35mm RF like the Yashica Lynx 14e, the placement of the controls should come as no surprise since the Canon Canonet is a leaf shutter camera.
For those of you that have existed entirely in the world of 35mm/digital SLRs, here’s something that will take getting used to: all the exposure controls are on the lens. Not only does the lens accommodate the aperture ring, but also houses a separate ring for shutter speed selection, a timer pin, and an ISO setting pin. Oh, and a focusing knob, of course.
One of the coolest things about this camera is that it has both metering and an AE mode (shutter priority), both while remaining fully battery-free. It’s not “mechanical with a battery required for metering”, but true battery-less metering and AE. The metering consists of dozens of selenium sensors surrounding the lens. Selenium is a photo-voltaic material, with each sensor producing a small amount of voltage proportional to the amount of light striking it. The more light striking a sensor, the more voltage it produces. The sum voltage can then be used to both determine the proper exposure and power anything needed for the metering & AE processes.
Ta-Da! No batteries.
But there is a caveat. Selenium meters are not known for their accuracy and their sensitivity diminishes over time… and 48 years is a long time. Take a look at this photo for example. It’s one of the first on the test roll:
Take a closer look:
See all that grain…err…”noise”…err…”fuzzy stuff”? That’s a classic symptom of an underexposed image “fixed” during printing at the lab. It took me a few shots to catch on to it, but eventually I realized that the meter was off. Fortunately, the amount that it was off seemed to be consistent at a stop under, so I simply changed the camera’s ISO setting from 400 to 200 and that fixed the whole issue.
The other big thing that is cool to me about the Canon Canonet is the fact that it has a leaf shutter. As previously mentioned, this does mean an odd exposure control layout if you’re not used to it, but that’s not the cool bit. The cool bit is the silence. Not just an audible silence, but a tactile one, too. Yes, the quietness of the shutter is overrated, but it is nice to have.
Two final positive points: Focusing, performed via a knob on the lens base, is smooth and consistent. The RF patch is contrasty enough…less then my Bessa R2A but better then my Yashica Lynx 14e.
For a hundred bucks, probably less if you’re an eBay elite, one would be hard-pressed to find anything negative to say about this camera. It’s built like a tank, has fully battery-free operation that includes metering and an AE mode, and it has a moderately fast lens. This is a piece of kit that’s worth picking up if you’re lucky enough to come across one in working condition.