By Lester Ledesma
A couple of years ago when my Voigtlander Bessa R’s camera viewfinder window cracked during a shoot, I panicked and searched for a similar body that could serve as a backup. I wanted something that had a good reputation among film photographers; a reliable LTM-mount rangefinder that offered a user experience comparable to my beloved Bessa. It also had to be cheap.
While I am a fan of Soviet Leica-likes (I have half-a-dozen Zorkis and FEDs), I settled on a Japanese RF that turned out to be a real gem: the Canon 7. I got a good deal on mine (it cost around US$215), from a private collector who wasn’t too keen to compare it to my damaged workhorse. “This is a different beast”, he said as we exchanged cash for vintage chrome, “the Canon 7 is more like a luxury item”.
No doubt he was exaggerating, but not by much. The Canon 7 was the last and most advanced series of interchangeable lens RFs made by the Tokyo-based company in the 1960’s. This was a period that some enthusiasts call the “golden age of rangefinders” – when this camera went head-to-head with legends like the Nikon SP and the Leica M3. Leica had the upper hand with its patented M-mount lens system, of course, while many of its contemporaries stuck with the more cumbersome M39 screwmount family of optics.
This advantage aside, its surprising how the Canon 7 holds up to that era’s best, with features that Russian RFs and even the much-younger Bessa R have never heard of. In the hands the 7 almost feels Leica-ish, with the same respectable heft but the edges squared out. The film winding is buttery smooth, the shutter release is unobtrusive and even packs a polite, well-mannered “click”. It’s .80x viewfinder is bright and contrasty, with an even brighter RF patch and – check this out – FIVE clearly-defined, parallax-corrected framelines (35/50/85/100/135mm), activated by a dial on the top plate.
There’s more features in the camera that scream “pro”: the shutter curtain is razor-thin steel – a much more durable innovation at a time when rubberised cloth was the standard material – and the film door (it’s hinged like most modern film cameras) uses two locks to safeguard against unintentional openings. Film newbies, on the other hand, will appreciate the film advance confirmation window near the shutter button, and the fact that this baby counts frames all the way to 40.
Just above the lens mount, a built-in selenium cell meter (batteries not needed) lets you change ASA settings (range: 6-400) at the touch of a button. It’s coupled to the shutter speed, which recommends the aperture based on the selected speed. You’ll have to manually change your f-stops, though, and the meter isn’t TTL. The readings are shown on the top plate – and amazingly they’re still accurate after half-a-century!
Cheap and capable as this vintage RF might be, it’s also the gateway to an ultra-rare, ultra-exotic piece of equipment: Canon’s 50mm f0.95 prime lens which connects only to the camera via a built-in bayonet on the camera’s LTM mount. I’ve never seen this so-called “dream lens” before, but given that the six-decades-old optic alone goes for around US$2,000+ on eBay, I probably never will.
Now I did say I only wanted a backup for my Bessa, but I was beginning to think it was time to change the lead performer of my film crew. However there was a major issue that came up: my favourite lens – a Snapshot-Skopar 25mm f4 – won’t screw in properly on the Canon 7, resulting in wide-angle images that are never in focus. Not only that, the viewfinder frameline only goes down to 35mm equivalent, and the lack of a hotshoe means I can’t use an accessory viewfinder on it. Sadly, I had to pull the camera off the starting lineup, to be used only with semi-wide optics or for longer focal length portrait shoots.
The bright side to this is it made me buy a Jupiter-12 35/2.8 lens to keep the Canon 7 company. So, GAS FTW!
On the street
Covid-19 sent us all into lockdown last year, punching a big black hole in my film photography life. Throughout the months-long isolation here in Singapore, I found myself often pulling out the Canon 7/Jupiter-12 tandem from the drybox. I’d work the velvety film advance, focus and fire off a few empty frames while fantasising I was somewhere far away. Or I’d just look at it for a few seconds to admire its lines (trust me, all true film photographers do this). So when it was finally safe to go out, I took to the streets to record our local neighbourhoods getting on with life in the face of the pandemic.
Accompanying my Kosmo Foto Mono-loaded Canon 7 were the Jupiter-12 and Industar-61 55mm f2.8 lens, both fully-compatible M39 lenses with Russian pedigree. And in keeping with my vintage set-up I went for the oldest parts of town – the ethnic enclaves of Little India and Chinatown, and the gritty blue-collar locales of Geylang and Tanglin Halt.
The ubiquitous face masks were everywhere, instantly dating my photographs and lessening the impact of environmental portraits. Since the authorities here were strict about the mask rule, people were wary about being seen without half of their faces covered. Nonetheless, after the national quarantine it was heartening to once again see the touches of normality; the shopowners and street hawkers keeping everyday commerce going, the pedestrians going out-and-about despite the WFH orders, and the ornate antique houses that seemed unbothered by it all.
The Canon 7 cheerfully captured these scenes with Japanese efficiency. There were no loose fittings, jiggly parts or ratchety sounds – everything fit snugly, worked smoothly or clicked reassuringly. That measure of mechanical perfection, to me, felt like the photographic equivalent of driving a vintage ‘Benz.
To sum it all up, the Canon 7 turned out to be a bittersweet acquisition. It never played the role I bought it for, but this excellent piece of camera engineering is definitely a keeper. This unit, I dare say, I as close to a Leica experience you can get on an LTM platform without shelling out big bucks.
Despite the design “shortcomings” (or maybe Canon and I just had differing opinions on intended use), handling the 7 never fails to send waves of pure, geeky pleasure through my brain. No doubt photography is about what’s inside the frame, but sometimes you can’t help but want a deluxe high-end experience to go with it. When that nerd urge strikes again (and it surely will) I’m reaching for my Canon 7.