A while back, fellow blogger/photographer Mike Eckman sent me his three favorite Leica copies to compare to my originals.
I posted a brief intro before I assessed a Leica II clone, the Zorki-1c. Next was a variation on the classic Barnack design, the Zorki-3. Today’s third, and final review is a curve-ball in every sense, the camera Leica shooters don’t want to talk about, the Japanese-built, Canon IVsb.
While Canon’s IVsb looks very similar to a Leica II or III series, a prolonged glance at this fascinating offering by Canon could become a prolonged stare followed by total astonishment and maybe even a purchase!
While there’s no denying the basic DNA of the IVsb, Canon brought some clever and useful features to the basic Barnack that, unlike Soviet “upgrades” like the Zorki-3, do not, in my opinion, hamper the gestalt of the camera. As a fervent Leica shooter, I am reluctant to concede that the Canon IVsb is an out and out improvement over any of the knob wind Leica’s, but this camera certainly gives pause.
If you read my complaint-fests about the Zorki-1 and Zorki-3, you might know that I was politely unimpressed by the craftsmanship and concept of these Russian Leica copies. The Japanese Canon really gives the German Leica’s a run for their Deutsche Marks though; perhaps proving that precision engineering and impeccable execution are not exclusive to the wizards of Wetzlar. In every way, the Canon appears every bit as thoughtfully, carefully and beautifully crafted as my beloved Leica bodies. The fit, the finish, the engraving, the tight tolerances, the attention to detail, the feeling of a totally reflexive extension of the hand and eye is alive and well in The Land of the Rising Sun.
It’s clear that the IVsb was a camera with something to prove.
After handling it and witnessing it’s inspiring construction in person, I can only take solace in the fact that the Canon IVsb is still derivative and represents a long-departed standard of quality when compared to the still ongoing legacy of the original Leica cameras. By itself, however, the Canon caused me to step back, take a breath and remind myself why I love Leica. If I were to weigh buying my 1947 Leica IIIc or this 1952 Canon IVsb, with both in my hands and no allegiance to history/collectability, the decision would be a difficult one to make.
And this difficulty goes beyond the often trivialized enjoyment of use. Whereas the “improvement” features of the Zorki-3 pan out to make less of a camera, the IVsb adds considerable functionality.
I’m not going to discuss flash sync because I don’t use flash but the Canon is supposedly quite good! I just wish they hadn’t slapped that annoyingly anti-ergonomic flash bracket crap to the side of this otherwise beautiful camera. If I’m pressed, this bracket alone could be enough to sway me away from the IVsb. But I’ll try to ignore it because there’s so much more going on with this camera. And in all reality, when shooting, one doesn’t grip that side of the camera anyway.
The advance knob integrated film reminder dial was first rolled out by Leica with the IIIf two years prior to the IVsb but proved too extravagant for any other Leica copy manufacturer besides Leotax and Canon. Canon’s version is a little different from Leica’s but is as functional. It’s a nice addition that isn’t very common among copies.
Canon was smart, in my opinion, not to change the bottom loading or the knob advance or rewind. While it’s tempting to make these changes, they’re just not necessary and feel more like Barnack training-wheels than improvements. Unlike the Zorki-3, Canon also didn’t ruin the height of the camera to accommodate a sissy-demanded larger viewfinder. Though, the finder is ever so slightly larger than pre-IIIg Leica’s.
But look, here’s the critical difference. What makes the Canon IVsb so special is how nicely they combated the most annoying (to some) traits about Leica knob winds; the separate view and rangefinder windows.
Loyal fans may recall that I thrashed the Zorki-3 for the thoughtless combining of the view and rangefinder which resulted in the shrinking of the camera’s effective baselength and any sense in using any lens but a slow 50. But as Zorki engineers sought only distinction and easy sales, Canon took aim for loftier heights; they combined the finders while maintaining the camera’s generous EBL, AND provided multiple built-in focal length views. Canon effectively kicked the living shit out of Leica. Not just in terms of cost but also in terms of functionality, at no appreciable loss to quality.
Smart photographers, like reader Douglas Ingram’s father, chose the Canon IVsb instead of the Leica IIIf when they stood at the glass case of the local camera retailer in the early 1950’s. They knew that for the price of the Canon, they could afford to pick up a 100mm or 135mm lens to use with their new camera and wouldn’t even need to buy an accessory brightline finder to use the second lens. Leica not only required a higher price on both camera body and lens but then also required the use and purchase of another non-combined finder. It was perhaps the first time in history that buying a German Leica instead of its foreign competitor just didn’t make any sense!
So while I’m willing to concede that Canon got one past Leica with their IVsb, it’s critical to my German snobbery to point out how little anyone cared….
As Mike Eckman points out in his review of this pivotal camera, Canon’s command of the 35mm rangefinder throne was blown out of existence when Leica unveiled the shockingly progressive M3 in the middle of the IVsb’s relatively short model run. From that time forward, Canon stopped trying to match Leica quality and scrambled to build bloated LTM bodies that were the best they could do until their SLR line finally began to rival Nikon. The remaining years of Canon rangefinder production would sink into the amateur market with lowly EBL, feature-laden toy cameras like the Canonet QL17.
In fact, I’m not sure if I’m alone in this or not but for the first half of my journey into classic cameras, I didn’t really know anyone using or hear much about the early Canon rangefinders. I think they had largely been forgotten about by serious shooters until Cosina Voigtlander revitalized interest in rangefinder photography in the 2000’s.
With any question of my pride out of the way, I’ll go on talking about how smart the IVsb finder is again, okay?
So how the finder works is that 1.5x and 1x magnification are two different settings that can be selected via a lever where the Leica IIIc’s diopter control is located. By selecting a different magnification, you are also switching to a 135mm or 100mm field view, respectively. Canon labeled the 50mm setting “F,” perhaps because they don’t want to admit how FREAKING small the magnification is on that setting!
Anyway, if you’re shooting a fast 50 at full aperture and need that critical focus, you can switch two clicks from the “F” setting to “1.5” to focus and, keeping your eye on the finder, revert to the 50mm view to compose. I suppose one can argue if this is actually any faster than moving ones eye from one finder to the other, as one would operate a Leica. But that’s the thing, if you are shooting a slower 50, shooting stopped down, or are shooting a 100 or 135, you don’t NEED to use the magnification feature and can blissfully enjoy the combined view/rangefinder.
Perhaps the real advantage comes in with the ability to use a 100 or 135mm lens without adding a finder. Not only is this more economical but brought the rangefinder shooter that much closer to modernity; not adding size and time to lens changes. I love the look of a brightline finder atop my Leica as much as anyone, but let’s be honest, it’s not the slickest thing in the world. And imagine a world where you can shoot a telephoto on a Barnack type camera AND STILL have room on the top to keep your Voigtlander VCII mounted!
What I found interesting also, was that I don’t think that the Canon viewfinder was significantly dimmer than my 1947 or 1930 Leica’s. Maybe slightly dimmer than my 1930 which has an exceptional finder but you want a slightly dimmer finder to make for some contrast on the RF patch.
With potential constant movement going on inside the finder, I wonder if there’s a negative affect on time between calibration maintenance or just in durability. And to be honest, the “native” EBL for 50 and 100mm is on the low side. And honestly, part of the reason I love shooting my Barnack’s is the isolation of focusing and composing. Still, I can see the practical value and certainly the engineering prowess in the IVsb system.
And I have a few other talking points to the Canon IVsb that I wanted to mention. Notice in the above image that the IVsb is very slightly longer than my IIIc. And the IIIc is actually slightly longer than previous knob wind Leica’s. Not that these minor differences in dimension change my opinions but it’s something worth noting. My 1930 Leica definitely has a different feel in the hand due to this, as well as the fact that Canon chose to angle the sides of their body. Perhaps for no other reason than to declare distinction from Leica. I rather like these slight haptics differences. Not more than Leica but I just like them. Again, however, I wish that the flash bracket didn’t ruin the handling of the IVsb.
My final comment on the IVsb body is what I found inside of it.
Inside Mike’s beautiful IVsb, I noticed that the removable take-up reel features a spring-loaded knob. When you open the bottom of the camera, the knob pops up, making it much easier to remove from the camera. With some research, I found that this came standard with the 50’s Canon rangefinders. I liked it so much that I bought one for my Leica’s – a Leica branded one though. 😉
I tried both the Leica and Canon spring-loaded take-up reel in each of my Leica’s and Mike’s Canon and Zorki’s. I found that both versions worked great in the Zorki’s, Canon and my Leica IIIc (my 1930 Leica was loaded) and surely relegated the fingernail-splitting conventional reel to the display cabinet. If you’re curious, I’ve also seen Russian versions. So there’s one thing that perhaps all of us Leica and Leica copy shooters can share, I highly recommend this minor “upgrade” for anyone.
As with his other cameras, I didn’t try Mike’s Canon with film, so I regretfully cannot comment on the optical quality of his 35mm Serenar. It’s a terrifically small lens and felt quite nice to adjust though. I would encourage Mike to take advantage of the IVsb’s Leica-killer viewfinder system and try a couple telephotos. It’s a shame that Canon went for 100mm instead of 90, else the 9cm Elmar on this body sans accessory finder would be an inspiring set-up!
Anyway, I think this about wraps up my thoughts on the Canon IVsb. I’m not going to run out and buy one but I certainly respect the camera quite a deal and am thankful that Mike so generously lent it to me to inspect.
On that note, I just wanted to plug Mike Eckman at MikeEckman.com one more time. This whole thing was his idea and what an awesome idea it was! I had a blast checking out these fine Leica copies and getting some context around my original Barnack’s. I hope you’ve found my reviews to be useful and fair to these little underdogs. I’d be interested in hearing if your views have been swayed by any of these blogs or not.
In years past, I can honestly admit that I may have drank too much of the Leica Kool-aide and was illogically convinced of the mythical superiority of their equipment. After some time with using more early Leica products and now, Mike’s graciously loaned copies, I have certainly gained much more perspective about all these cameras and lenses. I certainly wouldn’t go out and trade in my Leica cameras or lenses for a dozen Zorki’s or several Canon’s, but I do think that I can appreciate more why people enjoy them.
Thanks for reading and happy shooting!
Follow, Favorite, Like, Add, Contact Johnny Martyr
And now, finally, begrudgingly, on Instagram! @JohnnyMartyrPhoto