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Canon VT de luxe
Searching for a rangefinder camera with a common mount, severe styling, that is very functional, with a rapid winder and is well built? The Canon VT de luxe fits that description and more. This is a camera which looks nice and simple, but as you work your way through it, it’s full of surprises.
Mentioning 35mm thread mount rangefinder cameras usually brings up a couple of names quickly. Leica and Canon. The first image that comes to mind is usually something that will look like a Barnack Leica. The Canon VT de luxe is probably as unlike a Barnack Leica as you can imagine. It is more aligned to the M series, though not the same.
I’d been wanting to try out a Canon rangefinder for quite a while, but I didn’t want to just have a copy of what I already had, i.e. a standard Leica copy. When I came across the VT de luxe I knew this was something that would be interesting to use and have in my collection.
I am sucker for rangefinders and especially if they are from the middle 20th century. There was a lot of competition during that period, and defined form had not been established. Manufacturers were trying to outdo each other and would add features that were there to make the camera stand out. A good example is the Canon VT series has the rapid winder. The rotating viewfinder is also a great example of innovation.
Unique features only get you so far, the camera must also be well built, have access to a quality range of lenses and be functional. It must also have an available support network. Canon was well established by the time the VT came to market and was known to produce quality products, the lenses for Leica Thread Mount (LTM) cameras were well known. Through that, and the earlier iterations of cameras produced, it had a well established network for both sales and support.
While it can be argued that Canon took its cues from the Leica M3 which had come out a bit earlier, they implemented their own changes to make a unique camera. The result is a camera which is quite different as an experience. Not necessarily better or worse, but an option for someone that might prefer a different approach.
The Canon VT de luxe came into my collection about 6 months ago. It is a very regularly used camera, just like it was designed to be. While I’d like to say it was all rainbows and unicorns, it does have a couple of things which can be a little frustrating. Read on to see how I got on with it after we look at it in more detail.
- Leica M3 – Double stroke of genius
- Leica M2 – The sibling classic
- Zorki 4 – Attempted equaliser
- Kiev 4 – The Non-Clone
- Canon 50mm 1.8 LTM – mainly at night
- Photo Thinking Rangefinder Reviews
To get a sense of the where the Canon VT de luxe gets its lineage from, we need to look at the LTM (Leica Thread Mount) lens mount. It is also referred to as M39 and L39 but we will stick to LTM for this article. The true LTM mount has a pitch of approximately 0.977mm of the Whitworth thread form. Whitworth is a British standard. Before the mount was used on a camera, it was a standard used by the Royal Microscopical Society in Britain, though it was referred to as the 39mm screw mount. Leitz was already a major manufacturer of microscopes in the 1930s, so when it came to manufacturing a camera, it made sense to use the existing tooling.
Early Soviet cameras also used the 39mm screw mount, but they used a 1mm pitch. That slight difference can cause the soviet lenses to be slightly out for infinity on Leica cameras and visa-versa. Many people refer to the Soviet version as M39 and the Leica version as L39 or LTM.
Even in the early days LTM was considered the universal mount. So, it was not surprising that Canon would produce cameras with this mount. The lenses for these cameras were initially manufactured by Nikon but later Canon would develop their own, which were sought after not just for Canon and Leica rangefinders but many other LTM cameras.
Canon, who were originally called Seiki-Kōgaku Kenkyusho – Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory (精機光学研究所), began in 1933 in Roppongi, an area within greater Tokyo. Based on the Canon History website, Goro Yoshida who was an engineer with motion picture projectors disassembled a Leica Model II camera to study how it was assembled in 1932.
What he found was that there was nothing in the camera that was special “like diamonds”, so could not reconcile this with the price it was being sold for. It had a sale price which was equivalent to six months the average wage of an office worker. Rather than just complain about it, as would many of us, he got together with his brother in-law Saburo Uchida and Takeo Maeda. Together they started Seiki-Kōgaku and produced a protype camera called the Kwanon.
Yoshida split from the other two as the approach they wanted to take was no longer consistent with what he wanted to produce. Uchida and Maeda continued and equipped the camera with a lens mount and lens by Nikon, the Nikkor 5cm f/3.5 lens. Interestingly at this point it was based on a Nikon focusing mount. The camera was called the Hansa Canon and released in 1936.
The Hansa Canon was moderately successful, but sales were slow, so in 1938 Canon thought to expand the camera range and released the Canon S (and J) series. This expanded the shutter speeds available and some more cosmetic changes, such as the frame counter being moved. The name Hansa was also dropped, and the camera was known as just Canon.
In 1951 Canon released a new camera, the Canon III where the base plate could be replaced with a rapid winder base plate. The Canon IV was also released which importantly has a flash synchronisation rail and a top shutter speed of 1/1000 second.
The VT series was first sold from 1956. It included some very important innovations, and it was released alongside the L2 series which had a few differences to the VT. One of the main differences was that the VT has the rapid winder built into the bottom of the camera. The L2 cameras were designed with the more traditional thumb wider.
Other features that came with the VT series is the three mode viewfinder, an opening back rather than bottom loading, a PC outlet for flash which makes it more compatible with many more devices and a self-timer built into the camera.
The VT de luxe came quickly afterwards in 1957. There are a lot of references that say it was not well known there are three versions of the VT de luxe, so I guess it is quite well known. Based on the Peter Dechert book, Canon Rangefinder Cameras 1933-68, the following versions were built.
The first one was Version 1 in September 1957 (which is the one for this article). It has a rewind crank and a base plate which is the same as the original VT. The majority had the name “Model VT de luxe” in black etched on the front bottom. 3,475 cameras were manufactured.
Interestingly the one usually dubbed Version 2 came out before Version 1 in April 1957 and was available until June 1958. It has a base plate with a key to open a magazine which would open and close Canon’s propriety film cartridge within the camera. This version also has the rewind crank of Version 1. Of the 4,875 cameras manufactured most had the “Model VT de luxe” name in red on the front.
Version 3 followed the other two from January 1958 until December 1958. This one has one very major difference; it has metal shutter curtains compared to the cloth ones the other versions have. The viewfinder is also described as having a warmer gold/yellow image as compared to the other two versions which are more silver toned. This version only had 2,550 cameras manufactured which generally had the model’s name engraved in red.
The main benefits the Canon VT de luxe brought is the improved rewind crank, has no spring mechanism making it more reliable and was less expensive to manufacture.
It was followed by the Canon VL series in 1958 which reverted back to the thumb film advance.
The Canon VT de luxe is a 35mm rangefinder camera that was introduced in 1957. The camera in this article is specifically a Version 1 which first came to market in September 1957. It can be determined by the black “Model VT de luxe” engraving on the front and the cloth shutter curtain.
A 39mm Leica Thread Mount (LTM) is used to mount lenses. This gives the camera a wide range of lenses to choose from.
The camera has a focal plane cloth shutter. Shutter speeds available are 1/1000 second through to 1 second plus Bulb and Time. The slower shutter speeds of 1/30 second and slower are selected through a secondary dial to the right of the lens mount.
Only other item on the front of the camera is the self timer lever.On top plate of the camera, starting from the right is the manual frame advance wind knob. This can be used by pulling it up and rotating in the direction to wind film on. Of-course this would only be used if you did not want to use the rapid winder on the bottom of the camera. Also, within the knob you can set the film speed or film type reminder.
Just behind the advance knob is the frame counter. This can be reset by using a wheel at the front of the camera. It counts backwards, so you would set at 36 and can easily see how many frames you have left.
Next to the advance knob is the shutter release. It has a remote release thread. Around the button is a collar which allows selection of advance or allowing the film to be rewound. Behind the shutter release is the film transportation indicator. This is just a dot in a circle which rotates to indicate the film is advancing.
The next dial is the shutter speed dial. Selecting the shutter speed is done by lifting the dial and positioning to the preferred shutter speed or on the “30-1” selection for the slower speeds. In the middle where the marker is, it spins when the shutter is fired and again when the shutter is cocked. By using the combination of the rewind collar and the shutter speed dial you can set the camera for double exposures.
Just to the side of this dial is the flash setting giving the choice of XF and FPM. It can be selected by the lever behind the dial. In the middle of the top plate is a cold shoe.
On the left side behind the Canon engraving is an indicator of which rangefinder setting is being used. This leads us to one of the great features of the camera, where you can select if you want a 50mm, 35mm or full rangefinder viewfinder. The setting can be set by rotating a wheel next to the viewfinder at the back of the camera.
The viewfinder itself is fairly plain on both 50mm and 35mm settings with no frame markings. For focusing, the rangefinder patch is a rectangle in the middle. When set to rangefinder, the viewfinder is circular and most of it is like a rangefinder patch. It allows for very precise focusing and is very handy for longer focal lengths.
Further left on top is the film rewind lever, which folds in on itself. To load film into the camera, the camera back lock first needs to be unlocked. It is a key type lock at the bottom of the camera. When unlocked, it allows the bottom of the hinged back release to be pulled down and the back to open. Inserting the film is straight forward with the cartridge on the left and the film pulled across to the right and threaded.
At the bottom of the camera is the rapid winder. It folds flat, but when using it, it unfolds out and is held in place. It works by pulling it across after an exposure and advances the frame, with the theory it is faster. The design works better with a knob you screw into the bottom of the camera, but as I do not have one, I just use my thumb to create the resistance required.
My luck with LTM rangefinders has not been great. Out of my other four LTM cameras, two have holes in the shutter cloth. Interestingly it was the Zorki 4 which has worked flawlessly, though I still have one to try out, which I did not have when I bought the Canon VT de luxe.
It meant I was on the lookout for a LTM camera but did not want something that was a Barnack Leica copy. This is where the VT de luxe caught my eye. The styling is more like an M mount Leica, but it is not really a copy. This camera cannot be considered a clone, especially in the features sense.
When it arrived in the post, I was really impressed at the heft of it. This is a well built and sturdy machine. Trying out a few of the dials and levers I found all are very nice and smooth. The camera feels very comfortable in my hands, well weighted.
I put the viewfinder to my eye was surprised to see it has a gold and warm colour to it. That was not something that came into the VT de luxe until Version 3, but this is a Version 1 which is supposed to be cooler. To this day, I still have not been able to work out why this one is setup this way, with my only theory is that it was replaced one day.
I tried the rapid winder which takes a bit to get used to. After many years of using my thumb, it felt a little strange. I don’t have the screw in holder so maybe I am missing out on that.
When I first loaded film and realised that it counts backwards, I swore a bit. I do not like reverse counting frame counters. While this camera will not stop you when it reaches zero, it throws me off. Especially when I see the counter at a number, say 12, and forget I have 12 frames left rather than 24.
Over the next six months I used the VT de luxe quite extensively. It became one of my main cameras during this time. I took it everywhere. I shot it during my lunch breaks, evenings, weekends and even when I was going to various places for shopping and appointments. That is the beauty of a camera like this. While is not the smallest rangefinder, the LTM lenses tend to be quite compact and thus it is very easy to take it many places.
Most of the time I used the Canon lenses, both the 50mm f/1.8 (one of my very favourite lenses) and the 35mm f/3.2 (which has become one of my favourite lenses). The 35mm is especially small, making the profile of the camera great to fit into a bag.
I took to the camera very well. It became a natural to use, the feeling you get with a well designed camera. The rotating viewfinder is great, no need to deal with frame lines which can be lost in certain light. Nice and bright, and in my case, warm. The rangefinder patch is nice and clear and the results prove this. I don’t have any issues focusing with this camera.
One aspect I did struggle with is the rapid winder. Many times, I would not unfold it out and then when I tried to advance the frame would then have to pull it out. Not a problem with static subjects, but an issue at the markets. Then I would walk around with it open at the bottom which was a bit strange.
I will say it works well though. In a situation where I would need to fire off a number of frames quickly, it is a great solution. The issue I find with the rapid winder is that if I was firing off many shots quickly, I suspect I would get soft images due to shake.
It was not all plain sailing though. Quite a few times I got caught out with the viewfinder on the wrong focal length. After I found I had shot a number of frames with the viewfinder incorrectly set, I had a real sinking feeling, not knowing if the framing was going to be horrible (which it was in many, either lots of dead space or subjects cut). I can see this will be an ongoing issue.
One thing I really appreciated is the way the dials and knobs were manufactured. Very easy to hold and use.
The results from the camera were really nice. Obviously, a lot of that credit goes to the fabulous Canon lenses, but the camera has to perform to achieve this. It also must be usable and that is definitely the case. I always feel I have a quality camera with me when I use the Canon VT de luxe.
If you are thinking of buying a rangefinder camera I would definitely recommend the Canon VT de luxe. While some of the other models are more in trend, like the 7 and P, this is as well built and performs extremely well.
The Canon Rangefinder site has a good description of the camera at Canon VT de luxe.