Black-Paint Canon P - The Pursuit Of Darkness
I ignored rangefinders for the longest time, even after returning to film cameras in 2008. Many seemed overpriced, made worse by the lenses not working on my digital cameras of the time (DSLRs). It was mostly the idea of using that silly, disconnected screen that mostly put me off, but once I finally did start using them it was that aspect that I find very appealing. It ending being a $10 Konica C35 (from a thrift store), that pushed me into the world of rangefinders.
After trying a couple of old ltm rangefinders (Leica IIIa & Canon IVSB) I found myself frequently searching for the Canon P model. Something about the styling was so appealing to me and that gets dialed up to eleven when it's in black.
An original black-paint Canon P, worn to brass (not all are brass underneath)
with matching Canon ltm 50mm f/1.2 also in black-paint
The circular plate on the self timer has been replaced at some point, it should not be silver
Canon started out in 1933 with the idea of making small cameras for a Japanese market were Leica's were largely unaffordable. Their first decade was largely experimental, not taking any models to market for several years. Nippon Kogaku (Nikon), who started out in 1917, was a big company by then and they influenced Canon's early designs due to making several components for their early "Hansa" Cameras; until 1947. Before 1956 Canon cameras did not carry model identification on the camera bodies.
Although Canon started out making rough copies of the Leica II (Called Kwanon), they were also keenly interested in innovation. They slowly formed an identity as an important camera and optics manufacturer, forging ahead towards being the largest manufacturer once they left the rangefinder designs.
"P" FOR POPULAR
The Canon P was named as such in the hope that it would be have great appeal to a mass audience due to it's lower price. They managed this by removing the more complex viewfinder of the 'L' series. The Canon P's viewfinder is fixed and uses frame lines for three focal lengths rather than separate optics. Other than this not many corners were cut and the P was otherwise a solid camera with a reliable shutter and many other aspects, borrowed from it's more expensive siblings.
Being from 1958, there is no integrated meter in the Canon P, so the camera is entirely mechanical. Canon did make an external light meter than fitted into the hot shoe. Which was also made in black to match the camera (also rare of course). Apart from making the camera considerably more bulky (and ugly IMO), they were rather clunky to use and are not very reliable these days due to aging components.
By modern standards the Canon P feels like a solid brick of a camera. The operation is not as smooth and precise as a Leica of course, but in good condition they still feel decently reliable and confidently sturdy. I'm a big fan of the locking mechanism for the door on the camera's base, similar to an original Nikon F (also from 1959), although this door swings open like a modern SLR rather than sliding down.
The shutter mechanism is made from aluminium. These are frequently buckled now, but often still fully functional. The viewfinder is fairly large and bright, with markings for 35, 50 and 100mm, but not optical re-framing options.
With a smaller lens I found the Canon P comfortable and fun to handle in use.
The original black Canon P you see at the top of this article is wearing down to brass, but this was not always the case. I have seen other black versions wear down to silver (aluminium?) and I'm pretty sure were also real. I am not sure when this transition happened but heard somewhere that Canon made this transition to a cheaper and lighter material during the model 'P' manufacturing period.
The vast majority of the Canon P models were silver. Even now these can be easily found for a reasonable price, but the same cannot be said about the original black-paint version. It is extremely rare to see those versions come up for sale and if you do they will be 10 times the price of a standard one, even in poor condition (40 times or more for one in good condition).
Searching for a black Canon P on Ebay will net you a few results but the chances are they will be repainted by someone else. It used to be easy to spot them due to the strap lugs being silver, but this is not so easy any more, as you can see by the repainted example you see here (above and below), by Shueido Camera in Taiwan.
Unlike one of the older black repainted Canon P's you used to find on Ebay, this has more black components than an original black-paint. The colour differences here, from an original model, are:
Red line marking the film plane - should be white
Port connection on the left - should be silver
Locking mechanism for the film door (underneath) - should be silver
Red line in the middle of the film rewind lever - should be sat on a silver pivot
Although this version is very similar in tone to an original black model, it's likely that none of these custom repaints were trying to get everything 100% the same. Shueido do have a massive range of colour options! I actually really like this particular design for having most of these differences, but if you have anything specific in mind they can do any colour combinations that you want to order.
When I bought the original black Canon P I also purchased a matching black Canon ltm 50mm f/1.2, that you see in the first two images of this article. Canon ltm lenses always had silver on them somewhere. The standard version of thw 50mm f/1.2 has silver on the front, so this rare edition (only sold with black versions of the camera) was a little more stealthy from the front, but still has a silver depth of field scale ring at the rear.
To entirely avoid the silver colouring there are a couple of options. Firstly, like the above image) you could buy ltm screw lenses from other manufacturers (that do make all-black lenses), like Leitz, Voigtlander, or Jupiter. The other option would be to have a Canon lens custom painted, as you can see here, it's this latter option that I ultimately went for...
There is something about the simplicity of the Canon P design that makes its deign compelling even now. It has many elements that are used in modern retro designs (a la Fuji X100) that it almost looks like a modern camera from some angles. With relatively small lenses I can see some modern cameras trying to get back to this point some day.
I've run a few different film rolls through the FM3A now, both black & white as well as colour. Below are some examples shot on both the Nikon and the Voigtlander lens.