You might be wondering what the gosh darn this thing is. I don’t blame you, it’s a bit of an obscure and rare camera, with only about 8800 ever made in 1960. (and who knows how many have survived). And there’s a reason it’s a bit obscure; it went up against the king itself, the mighty Nikon F. Evidently it lost as we all know what the Nikon F went on to become, while Canon only started making a name for itself with its SLRs in the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s get into what this camera is, why it failed and what makes it special in this day and age.
Canon was making rangefinders throughout the 50s, but there were limitations in rangefinders such as parallax leading to close focusing limitations and difficulty in low light. The single lens reflex camera was being developed in Europe, and Asahi Pentax was the first Japanese company to release an SLR with the Asahiflex in 1952. It was clear that SLRs were the future, as companies like Miranda, Minolta and Zunow were releasing and developing SLRs. Then in April of 1959, Nikon came out with the Nikon F, the world’s first system camera. It got adopted by many professional photographers due to its ease of use, durability and various design choices.
The Canonflex came out a month later, in May of 1959. It shares a few things with the F. It had an interchangeable prism. They both have self timers and shutters that are synchronized with flash. The mirror returns by itself after every shot! This is all amazing features to have in the 1950s. But that’s where the similarities end. Unfortunately Canon made a few questionable decisions in regards to the design of the Canonflex in an attempt to set new standards in SLR design. They didn’t get adopted, as you will see later.
The most obvious from the get go is the advance lever. Most vintage SLRs you’re probably familiar with have the film advance lever on the top right. Not the Canonflex. Like how the Nikon F is based on the Nikon S3 rangefinder, the Canonflex was also based on a Canon VT rangefinder. Since the VT has a bottom advance lever or trigger, that’s what the Canonflex has. This presents a few interesting repercussions for the rest of the camera. The shutter speed dial is bigger and easier to operate. But the tripod mount is now shifted to the far right side of the bottom plate. Thankfully the rewind lever is still it the usual spot, being on the top left.
Canon claims that is lets you advance film at a faster rate than you would be able to with a top advance lever. It may seem awkward if you’re coming from other SLRs, but indeed as I went out to shoot it, it doesn’t take long to get used to. Essentially, I found myself quite enjoying the advance lever, using my left middle finger to pull it back.
Then there is the lens situation. Canon’s biggest mistake was not releasing it with a full lens lineup, like Nikon did with the F. The Canonflex was released with only two lenses for its proprietary R-Mount, the 50mm f/1.8 and 100mm f/2. They also released adapters for the screwmount lenses made for their rangefinders, but of course they didn’t have automatic diaphragm. Later, more lenses would be released but by then it would be too late.
Then there is the R-mount itself. Its a breech lock mount, which means you need two hands to mount and dismount a lens. And since its a weird preset-like lens, there’s two pins that needs to be armed by the film advance lever for the diaphragm to stop down upon firing. This only proves to be a problem when the shutter is fired without a lens on the body, and you try to mount a lens on as now the camera won’t stop the lens down properly. Most photographers won’t do this anyways but it’s deemed to be an unnecessary complication considering the F-mount of Nikon has no such step to take with lens mounting.
Yes, the preset-like lens. What does that mean? As you can see, there’s two aperture rings on the lens. The top one sets the aperture the lens will stop down to when the shutter is fired, while the other is like a depth of field preview that will close the aperture down for when you are composing. Think of it as a replacement for the depth of field preview button that most SLRs have. (Coincidentally the first Japanese SLR to have a depth of field preview button was, you guessed it, the Nikon F)
The standard Canonflex was only made for one year before being replaced by the R2000 version seen here. The major difference was the top end shutter speed, as it can now shoot at 1/2000th of a second in an attempt to compete with Nikon. But unfortunately the bottom advance lever that made for awkward focusing and lack of interchangeable focusing screens meant most professionals still ended up gravitating towards the Nikon F. Canon would give up on the professional market, opting to go for the consumer market with the Canonflex RM.
I’ve compared it a lot to the Nikon F, for good reason. The F became the benchmark for SLRs and set many design standards for the next few decades. But how does it stand on its own?
I shot two rolls through it, one colour and one B&W. I’ve used a lot of cameras, including most of the SLRs from both Canon and Nikon that succeeded it, and I expected it to be completely different to use. But other than the bottom advance lever situation, its just like any other manual, mechanical SLR. The lack of any sort of light meter didn’t deter me as I’m used to shooting without one. The lens was the 50mm 1.8, which is classic double Gauss design. It’s sharp for the most part, but it especially seems to be great when used with B&W.
It’s a well built camera, with a decent amount of heft. The shutter speed dial is big and easy to use, and the is viewfinder large and bright despite not having 100% coverage. The fresnel screen is easy to see, even in low light. Even the advance lever isn’t bad – I grew to like it. I often use a top advance lever as a thumb grip so the lack of that did bother me initially but I just got used to having my left hand under the camera anyways. It’s especially efficient when shooting vertically. I remember watching the 1960s French film Le Petit Soldat not too long ago and one of the main characters was using a Canonflex. I was in awe of his rapid vertical winding and now that I’ve tried it, I can see why. It’s very satisfying as it feels very mechanical.
That said, coming from slightly more modern SLRs like the Nikons, the Canonflex feels like a novelty. Unfortunately the F has set standards for almost every SLR since it came out, and the Canonflex hasn’t. It’s one thing if the Canonflex was your only camera, and it’s not like it’s complicated to use, but because it’s different through no fault of its own, makes it a bit of an odd duck among the sea of many other SLRs that came after it.
So why would you want to own this camera in this day and age instead of another film camera? If you like quirky cameras, then the Canonflex might be for you. If you’d like to own a piece of Canon history, and own a relatively rare camera, then this particular example, the R2000, will fit the bill. It’s one of those cameras that’s cool for those in the know, but flies under the radar for others as it looks a lot like most other vintage cameras.
If this all speaks to you, then this particular example of the Canonflex R2000 is for sale for $900. It has been serviced and I film tested it as you can see below.