Canon Canonet 19

The Canon Canonet 19, perched atop a tan and khaki Billingham Stowaway Pola bag.
The Canon Canonet 19, perched atop a tan and khaki Billingham Stowaway Pola bag.

The Canon Canonet 19 is the only Canon camera I’ve ever owned (and likely will ever own). I picked this up at a second hand shop for less than $50 in my final year of high school. Besides price, the major attractions were a fast lens, metal body and utilitarian styling. Idiosyncrasies include a film advance lever mounted on the bottom plate, minuscule controls to release the film door, and shutter priority automatic exposure.

Boat sheds at Purakanui, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19 loaded with Kodak BW400CN film.
Boat sheds at low tide, Purakanui, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19 loaded with Kodak BW400CN film.

The Canonet was one of the first affordable, higher quality 35 mm cameras available, and went on to sell in great numbers. The Canonet 19 is the original model, launched in the early 1960’s, and so named for its non-interchangeable 43 mm lens’┬ámaximum aperture of f/1.9. As time went on, other models were launched, including some with f/1.7 and f/2.8 maximum apertures, along with a “quick-loading” system to speed up film loading. While I have been tempted, at times, to add one or more of these to my collection, I’ve avoided it. They’re all good, well regarded cameras, but I’ve always found something never felt quite right about them. I suppose it’s that “personal preference” phenomenon rearing it’s ugly head again…

Under the macrocarpa trees at Long Beach, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19, using Kodak BW400CN film.
Under the macrocarpa trees at Long Beach, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19, using Kodak BW400CN film.

This particular camera is the first rangefinder camera I bought, as I’d been curious for some time about the differences in use between rangefinders and SLRs. The experience has been interesting, and probably the cause of my continued reluctance to use rangefinders on a frequent basis. It’s nothing against the camera; it’s capable of photos that can shame some new cameras, but I’ve never found it straightforward to reach that level of performance, especially compared to any of my older film SLRs. The problem is two-fold: firstly, I find the rangefinder patch too small and dim to be used with rapidity; secondly, the focus lever moves a little too freely, making it all too easy to over-shoot the actual focus point by quite a margin. This can be mitigated by working with less haste and more deliberation, but that goes against the grain of rangefinder cameras being perfect for spontaneous captures (such as those of Cartier-Bresson using a Leica). The meter is also a bit off, as is to be expected from an old (and probably very badly depleted) selenium cell. I normally manually meter the camera now, especially as the maximum ISO is limited to 200, which is half that of the black and white film I generally use. With more frequent use, I could become familiar enough with the camera to successfully learn my way around these niggles. However, given I have cameras I find more straightforward to use, which put out images on a par with the Canonet, I’ve never really seen the point of getting to know the Canonet any better.

Boat sheds on the estuary at Purakanui, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19, Kodak BW400CN.
Boat sheds on the estuary at Purakanui, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19, Kodak BW400CN.

With all that diatribe against the camera, you’re most likely wondering why I’ve kept it. My primary reason can be summed up in two words: the lens. Used with due deliberation, the 43 mm, single coated lens on the front of this is quite sharp, not too flare prone (surprising, given the single coating) and generally renders things rather nicely (to my eyes, anyway). Considering its brick-like aesthetics, it’s quite a nice camera to hold and use, especially with the bottom-mounted advance lever, which ergonomically, feels better than a top-mounted one. It’s also lightweight for its size, and certainly doesn’t have the “heavy for the sake of heavy” feel of my erstwhile Leica R4 SLR (which, while blessed with fantastic optics, was too clunky and neck-damaging in use for my lighter build to cope with).

A beached boat on the Purakanui Estuary at low tide. Canon Canonet 19, with Kodak BW400CN film.
A beached boat on the Purakanui Estuary at low tide. Canon Canonet 19, with Kodak BW400CN film.

So, in short, the Canon Canonet 19 is a decent camera, blessed with a lens whose benefits outweigh the niggles I’ve come to bear against the camera over the years. If you find one, and it’s a good fit for you (or you feel motivated enough to persevere with it), it represents a fine entry into rangefinder photography. As ever, it all comes down to personal preference: what you like, what you want to persevere with, and how it all melds into your photographic vision.

Otago Harbour, viewed from the road to Purakanui and Long Beach, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19 on Kodak BW400CN.
Otago Harbour, viewed from the road to Purakanui and Long Beach, Dunedin. Canon Canonet 19 on Kodak BW400CN.
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