As I’m sure anyone who listens to the Pdexposures Podcast will know, I am somewhat infatuated with my Leica IIIf. The reasons are many – compact size, high-magnification rangefinder, the way it fits into my hand – but whenever there is talk of rangefinders on Twitter, I appear to be in the minority. Most people go straight to the Leica M range, many opt for the Voigtlander Bessa series and a few outliers go for the Voigtlander-made Zeiss Ikon, but regardless of their particular poison, people often find my choice odd:
“But it’s so difficult or awkward to load!”
(I’ve personally never found that to be the case.)
“It’s slower having to deal with a separate rangefinder and viewfinder!”
(When you’re focusing, your eye isn’t looking at the composition or extent of the frame anyway; you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get used to moving to a separate window.)
“Don’t you miss having a winding lever?”
(I rarely take two photos in close enough succession that it’s a problem.)
Nevertheless, my long-time Twitter friend (and fellow rangefinder obsessive) Dan K. decided he would try and lure me away from the IIIf by teasing me with his oversized collection of Canon rangefinders. In fact, he went one step further and flat-out gave me a Canon 7. Why? Because he’s kind, likes fuelling GAS and has far too many Canons lying around.
So, what do I make of it? Well, first off, it’s big. Big, fat and angular. The Canon 7 is not only bigger than the Leica IIIf (which isn’t difficult), it’s also bigger than a traditional M. To put things in perspective, I have a Fed 5 (often regarded as the biggest, ugliest LTM rangefinder ever), and the Canon 7 is only just smaller. In fact, if the Fed 5 didn’t have such large knobs protruding from the top deck, they’d practically be identical in size.
Size aside, the Canon 7 does feel surprisingly good in the hand. As it’s got an SLR-style swing-back (for “easier loading” – more on that in a minute), the ends are angular instead of the traditional rangefinder curve, and while I’ve never liked the way that feels under the hand, the lever wind and shutter button are in exactly the right place. I find it much easier to double-pump the lever wind, rather than let it complete the full throw; this prevents me from having to move my hand at all, which is a nice bonus.
But while I can get over the angular corners and hinges, I can’t excuse the SLR-style take-up spool. Why feeding a leader into a slot on a fixed spool is considered easier is beyond me; with a IIIf – or even a lowly Fed – I just remove the spool, snag the end of the leader into it, and put both pieces back. SLR loading just seems to be an easy way to shoot 36 exposures on the first frame to me. But hey, it seems to work for everyone else. I just never really got it. On this particular Canon 7, it’s even more infuriating; the one slot for the film is actually at the back of the take-up chamber and inaccessible when the shutter is fully cocked or fired, so you have to do a part wind to load the camera. Even worse than that minor inconvenience is this design’s tendency towards light leaks; my first roll was shot on a grey day and the old Japanese light sealing foam in the hinge managed to hold back the dim British sun. The next two rolls – shot in bright sunlight – didn’t fare too well, so it’s yet another surgical sprit and replacement seal job. Of course, Leica-style bodies (whether with the M’s flap or without) aren’t perfect, but this is such a common issue with swing backs that I’ve got a large stockpile of adhesive-backed foam which I’m steadily burning through.
The Canon’s shutter – despite being metal, and not cloth like a Leica – is surprisingly subtle. It’s much more pronounced in this Vine comparison than you’d notice in real life.
Where the Canon really wins out is the finder. It’s big, bright, and with clear framelines – no M6-style corner “nubs” in a 50mm finder for rare 75mm lenses or paired-up 35mm and 135mm lines here. There’s no clutter at all; instead you’ve got 35mm, 50mm, an 85mm & 100mm pair, and 135mm, all selectable by a dial above the eyepiece and all parallax corrected. The .80x rangefinder magnification brings it close to the legendary M3’s .91x finder (and is a noticeably higher magnification than the standard M .72x finder!), but the fact the viewfinder is big enough to comfortably accommodate a 35mm frameline should explain just how good it is. In fact, there’s so much room around the 35mm framelines that I can see them easily with my glasses on, which is rare. In fact, it’s markedly easier for me to use with a 35mm lens than most M finders (with the exception of the M5), and considerably better than the popular Canon P. I did need to cover the metal eyepiece with a felt ring to prevent it from trashing my glasses, however. That’s not a criticism of the Canon 7 – that’s pretty much standard for cameras of this era, and I’m used to it by now. That said, there are a couple of minor flaws; the tiny 135mm framelines are just the corners – which makes no sense considering they’re on their own and not paired with anything – and, as I found to my expense, it only takes a tiny amount of light rain and the framelines will “stick” and struggle to change until they dry out.
Other perks I should mention are the on-board light meter (selenium, with two ranges – on this particular Canon it doesn’t work, but I’m sure it’s just as awkward to use as most on-board non-TTL meters) and the general smoothness of use. It’s not at Leica standard, but it’s better than almost anything else. For a bulk-loader like myself, it’s worth noting that while it can’t use Leica cassettes, it will take the relatively rare Canon cassettes – but will also comfortably use the common Shirley-Wellard “universal” cassettes, which are so ubiquitous in the UK that you can typically get them for pennies if you know where to look (clue: not on eBay). I’m sure most won’t care, but I’ve been looking for something worthwhile to use those in for years. Something most people will care about, however, is that it’s also the only camera (barring the later Canon 7 variants) that can natively mount the huge Canon 50mm 0.95 lens.
Shame that’s not a good thing.
See, the first thing that I noticed was the lens incompatibility – and I don’t just mean the light baffles inside that obstruct collapsable lenses and deep rear elements like the Jupiter 12 (mine just scraped in. Literally.). The outer bayonet that the 50/0.95 mounts onto extends out beyond the standard lens mount exactly where the infinity lock of many old LTM lenses happens to be, causing the infinity lock to be difficult to use or completely impossible on some lenses. Much worse than this, however, was that the size and weight of the 50/0.95 seems to have influenced the position of the strap lugs; the only lens I can find in my collection where the Canon 7 will hang correctly from a strap is the original brass Elmar 90mm f4. Everything else in my collection – ranging from light aluminium Soviet lenses through to heavy 50mm f2 Leitz lenses – produces a backward tilt of the camera when it’s hanging from the strap. As you can imagine, this becomes really bloody annoying when you’re carrying it around for an entire week during a business trip to Las Vegas. You find yourself constantly having to shift the damn thing around to stop it hanging completely horizontally with the top plate either resting on or pushing into your hip bone. The only way to rectify it (without shooting stupidly fast or long lenses) would be to use some of the bigger Canon lenses, but being as that makes the Canon 7 even more SLR-like than it already is, I’ve since opted to improve the design by using a tripod-mounted strap lug and hanging the camera vertically. This makes it considerably more comfortable to carry and use for an entire day; without this add-on, I’d probably never use it as an everyday camera. Now it actually feels usable.
The final issue is that – for some bizarre reason – there’s no accessory shoe. There’s a PC sync terminal on the side, but no goddamned way of actually mounting a flash! The wide body means Leica’s tripod-mount flash bracket won’t fit and the end-mounted tripod socket means most standard flash brackets won’t reach, so you’re stuck with the prospect of pretending to be Gilden and holding your flash in your left hand while you shoot. Even more irritating is that no accessory shoe means you’re stuck with 35mm to 135mm as your lens choices. Want to use a 28mm on a Canon 7? Forget about it. The Canon 7s, the upgraded Canon 7 with a CDS light meter, does have an accessory shoe – and a relocated tripod mount, allowing the use of standard flash brackets but removing the vertical hanging option. Expect to pay a premium for that model (if you can find it). Another option would be to buy the accessory shoe add-on, but the only one I’ve ever seen was almost twice as expensive as the average Canon 7!
Overall, what’s my verdict? Honestly, I think it’s great. I know I’ve been critical but in many ways I think I prefer this over an M2 or M4 – now I’ve added the extra strap lug, anyway. If you wear glasses and are considering either of the aforementioned cameras, this is probably going to be a better option for you. Sure, it can’t mount M lenses, but there are plenty of LTM options available, including some fantastic Voigtlander lenses if you wanted a more modern look. However, is it going to replace my IIIf? Well… no. The IIIf is still easier to focus with the high-magnification rangefinder and is a smaller, more versatile machine. But what the Canon 7 does – i.e. natural light shooting between 35mm and 135mm – it does well, and will make a great second body for my LTM outfit. I’ve already photographed one gig for a friend’s band with the two cameras, and they compliment each other nicely – but the IIIf still wins out.