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Capsule Summary: Canon VI-L and Canon 7

Overview: These were the last two top-end rangefinder cameras Canon made. Both are based on the Leica thread mount standard (39mm x 25tpi; 51.6mm normal lens). The VI-L (1958) was the last camera based on the IVSB viewfinder architecture, which involved a multiposition combined view/rangefinder. The VI-L was the sister camera to the VI-T, which is identical except for a thicker baseplate and a trigger winder on the bottom. The 7 (1961) was something of a radical departure, apparently aimed at the Leica M2 market, and featuring an all-new finder and built-in meter (which was supplanted by a CdS meter in the 7s variant). Both carry over the basic Canon shutter assembly, which is a thin-metal foil shutter modeled after the Leica shutter.

Viewfinders: The Canon VI-L carried over the three-position combined range/viewfinder from the IVSB, V-T and L series, whose setting is changed by a toothed wheel to the side of the eyepiece. Turning the wheel flips the galilean finder inside. The selected mode is visible by an indicator on the top. The 0.7x setting is a frameless view showing the field of a 35mm lens, with an effective base length of about 30mm. The 1.0x mode has reflected framelines for 50 and 100mm lenses, and has an effective base length of 41mm (also the physical baselength). The RF mode is 1.5x magnification and shows a circular rangefinder spot only. The VI-L finder's vertical and horizonal adjustment is controlled exactly as on the Leica LTM.

The Canon 7 had an all-new finder with a 59mm physical base and a 0.8x magnification. It had switchable, parallax-corrected projected framelines of 35, 50, 85/100 (paired), and 135mm. This is one of the most complex rangefinders ever put into a camera, and the frameline mechanism is actually more complicated than that of the Leica M6. The horizontal adjustment is as on Leica LTM; the vertical adjustment is entirely internal.

Rangefinder and limitations: The VI-L has sufficient base length (including the RF setting) for all lenses in the Canon lineup. The 7, owing to its greater physical base was also sufficient to focus anything Canon (or anyone) made at the time. Since LTM lenses are actually less ambitious now than they once were, you can focus anything that will fit on these cameras.

Interesting design features: These camera, like the L, the V, and the P, are swing-back designs. Leica has never adopted the philosophy that the back should just open. The Canon cameras are considerably easier to load. Notably, the Canon flange design requires only one lightseal - a 2x2mm spot on the back door near the hinge (inside the door).

The VI-L has a special parallax-corrected accessory shoe. Combined with the right accessory finder, a small pin would push the finder up or down to compensate for distance. The VI-L has a more ornate (and considerably less elegant) wind lever than does its sister the P. It also has a bigger housing around the finder, presumably to allow it to be rotated through 180 degrees.

The 7 has an outer bayonet mount designed to take the Canon 50/0.95 nightmare lens. Canon's 50/1.2, which is much smaller, lighter, and cheaper (as well as fitting the inner screw mount), is definitely better. It also (refreshingly) has a shutter lockout setting on the advance/rewind selector. There is a larger shutter speed dial, which no longer turns all the way around. The wind lever is similar to the simplified one on the P, but even more ergonomic.

Odd design limitations: Both of these cameras are incompatible with the Kobalux 21/2.8 and 28/3.5; the Soviet Jupiter-12 35/2.8, and the Zeiss Biogon 21 (unless you take off the protective "ears." This is due to the use of light baffles (wholly absent in Leica's cameras). Do not use these with collapsible lenses (they can damage the insides). Also, if you move the wind/rewind collar to rewind while the camera is cocked (at the end of a roll) it can fire.

The 7, owing to the placement of its onboard selenium meter, does not have an accessory shoe. You can get one that hooks onto the PC terminal (which is surrounded by a bayonet), but this accessory is very, very expensive. The Canon 7s, a much more expensive variant (buy a Bessa-R), has a CdS meter and a real accessory shoe.

Both cameras are eyeglass killers. The VI-L's viewfinder selector is a sharp little wheel on the back; the 7 has a high-low sensitivity switch that has sharp edges.

Shutter: The shutter is a plastic-coated ultrathin stainless-steel foil which is functionally identical to the rubberized cloth in the Leica cameras. The difference is that this foil does not burn when you point the lens at the sun. It does, however, wrinkle if you stick a finger in it while loading (this does not affect function). Noise level is equivalent to an M3, which is to say surprisingly quiet. These shutters age more gracefully than Leica M shutters do, probably as a result of using synthetic lubricants. Flash synch is 1/60 ("X" on shutter speed dial), and if you use FP bulbs (maybe you are waiting for the next autogyro flight to Paris?), it will synch at any speed. PC terminal is on the lect side and fits both regular and snap-lock type PC cords. It also has a surrounding bayonet that can be used to lock on an old Canon fan-flash.

In Operation: Both cameras are very smooth in terms of winding, shooting and other mechanics, and would definitely score in the top of the class of mechanical cameras today. With all due respect to the modern Bessa-R, spiritual descendant of the 7, they really don't make 'em like they used to.

In terms of viewfinders, I have concluded that both are inferior to the Canon P. The VI-L finder has a lot of glass in it, and the components never seem to age as well as they could, often separating. A VI-L on a good day is not as bright as a clean Canon P. Of course, it is a very luxurious, versatile and and expensive-to-make finder, and all of the surfaces are coated. I'm not saying that it's a terrible finder, just that the econo model P seems to be brighter. The 7 does not have coated front and back glass, and it is noticeably dimmer than the P (but again, very usable). The single projected framelines are a big improvement over the reflected framelines on the VI-L and the P.

Balance/feel: Although both of these cameras rival the size of an M3, both (and particularly the VI-L) feel much smaller in the hand. It is my observation that the bodies are thinner front-to-back, which creates this perception.

One thing to be aware of is balance. Most modern lenses are aluminum. Both have relatively heavy brass bodies that are well-balanced. As a result, with the Jupiter 50/1.5, for example (aluminum), the cameras tend to tilt back.

The VI-L starts to balance well with lenses equivalent in weight to the Canon 50/1.5 and the Nikkor 50/1.4.

The 7 balances normally with the 50/1.2 Canon and is a good match balancewise with the 85/2 Nikkor. The 7 is taller, and it feels less dense, although it is just as heavy as the VI-L.

Both are front heavy with the Nikkor 105 and Canon 135s.

Accessories: The big ones are the everready case, and for the VI-L, the camera holder, which is a metal surround incorporating a centered tripod socket and a bubble level. For the 7, forget the accessory shoe — you'll never find it, and even if you do, it will cost almost as much as the camera.

Bottom Line: Look hard at these before going for one of the more modern screwmount cameras. Definitely better than the Leica III series for enjoyable use. I love the 7 with the 85/2 Nikkor.