I recently read a wonderfully detailed review by Hamish Gill at 35mmc.com on his well worn Leica CL; and like him, I have a soft side for this great little rangefinder. Truthfully, it’s more bittersweet than anything, but I’m writing this post as a comparison piece between the CL and another fantastic compact rangefinder – the equally amazing Canon Canonet QL17.
I receive occasional questions from people returning to film or looking to shoot film for the first time, and they ask more about these two cameras than any others. I want to share my personal thoughts on the both of them, how I use them, and hopefully help anyone trying to decide between these gems make a sound decision. They’re both beautiful cameras.
Again, this is not a detailed review of each camera (the web is full of those, and I’ve posted a few below), but rather a post that touches on my experiences with both of them. The goal here is to help people decide (based on my real-world use with both cameras) whether it’s worth spending the extra cash on the CL (and in turn, a mini M-mount system), or keep it frugal and go with the Canonet. After all, it has been affectionately called “The Poor Man’s Leica”.
LEICA CL REVIEWS
CANONET QL17 REVIEWS
- Type: Fixed Lens Compact Rangefinder
- Mechanical (batteries only power the meter in Shutter Priority Auto mode)
- Meter only works in Auto (lame)
- Focal length: 40mm
- Max aperture: f/1.7
- Max shutter speed: 1/500 second (Leaf shutter)
- ASA Range: 25 – 800
- More juicy details can be found here
Leica / Leitz Minolta CL
- Type: Interchangeable compact M-mount rangefinder
- Mechanical (batteries only power the meter)
- Focal length: Projected framelines for 40/50/90mm
- Max aperture: lens dependent (40mm Rokkor opens to f/2)
- Max shutter speed: 1/1000 second (Cloth vertical shutter)
- ASA Range: 25 – 1600
- All the really juicy details can be found here
IN THEIR ELEMENTS
Before I begin spewing my thoughts on how they compare, I think it’s important to speak to the type of shooting these compact rangefinders are best for and where I choose to use them.
Ultimately, if you shoot on the street and want something stealth, then both of these are a great options. Either one will fit inside a large coat pocket, and they are roughly the same size (the CL just edging the Canonet out on overall size).
Where I use the Canonet
- When going out with friends, BBQs, the beach
- When traveling
- As a daily carry (walking the kids to school, etc)
- As my dedicated street shooter (espcially when I’m in a seedier part of town)
Where I use the CL
- Taking photos of the kids at home
- Experimenting with fine art photography (i.e. studio setups)
- Sparingly on the street
Truthfully, I tend to not be on edge when I take the Canonet out. Now, to be fair, I own 4 of these; three of which are in excellent condition and spend more time hanging out on the shelf than out in the street. My daily shooter is a black Japan model with a nice bit of brassing (seen in these photos). Cosmetically, it’s a 6 or 7/10, so adding a few more bumps and bruises to it doesn’t bother me in the least. They are solid cameras and can take quite a beating.
Personally, when I’m shooting on the street, my ultimate concern is having fun, not speed per-se; however, when shooting your camera is enjoyable, speed is a natural by-product. I just want the camera to get out of my way, and this is where the QL17 really shines.
Let’s talk about speed in two parts, shall we?
First, let’s talk about the speed of composing and focusing. There are some who snub the Canonet because it doesn’t have zone focus ranges on the lens barrel. Whatever. Personally, I don’t zone focus much. I know others may find it quicker, but the QL17’s short focus throw and contrasty rangefinder patch makes it easy for me to get what I need quickly and move on. I suppose I’ve used this camera so much now that it’s just second nature, but whatever… I just prefer it. Note that it does have distance marks on the lens, so pre-focusing is still an option.
The CL, on the other hand, sports an interchangeable M-mount lens system (note that some lenses, particularly collapsible ones may compromise the meter cell that sits in front of the shutter plane, and therefore cannot be used, but more about that later). If you prefer to zone focus, then you’ll get those aperture distance ranges on those pretty M-mount lenses; and while each lens is different, I never seem to be as quick to focus with those little focusing nubs found on the Nokton and Rokkor.
Second, let’s talk about film loading and reloading. There is no question that the Canonet smokes the CL in this department. Personally, I think that Canon’s quick load (QL) mechanism is the single fastest film loading mechanism ever made. You simply throw open the door, pull your leader over, close the door, advance 4 times, and you’re ready for frame 1. Hell, it’s even faster than cameras with motorized loading mechanisms (e.g. Contax G or T series). Alternatively, the CL has a quirky / fragile take up spool and a film bay door that needs to be removed completely. I almost always need to be sitting down to get the film onto the spool and advancing correctly.
Canon’s quick load mechanism. Friggin’ genius!
The wonky film bay of the CL. So cute yet so fragile.
The Canonet’s brilliant design is what gives it the advantage. Quick to load, quicker to focus. No comparison for me.
Canonet: Fixed 40mm f/1.7 lens (This is it, folks. You’re stuck with it.)
CL: Interchangeable M-mount system (Designed to use 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm primes; but really, the camera is made for the 40mm length – let’s be honest)
The 40mm length was popular focal length in the 70s. The majority of the fixed lens compact rangefinders of that era sport a 40 (or something close). Honestly, I love it. I think it’s perfect for my street shooting style (which I’d say is fairly passive), and a perfect match for diminutive cameras like this. Of course, with the Canonet, you don’t have a choice in the matter. You’re stuck with a 40. If that length doesn’t suit you, then you know what to do.
The CL on the other hand has some wiggle room; although personally, I wouldn’t want another focal length on this camera – it just doesn’t seem right to me. When attaching a 40mm or 50mm lens to the CL, the 40mm and 50mm framelines are shown together, and honestly, it just makes things a bit busy for my taste (the viewfinder is small enough as is). I’ve never shot this camera with a 90mm lens, so I can’t comment on that. I simply wouldn’t put anything longer than a 50mm on any rangefinder. Don’t hate.
The image quality equation has a ton of variables, and since we can’t account for those scientifically due to the CL having multiple options, let’s do a subjective comparison between the three 40mm lenses (Canon vs Nokton vs Rokkor). For those curious, most CLs can be found with a stellar Minolta Rokkor 40mm f/2 lens. If you see one with a QF designation, that just means it’s multicoated (improved contrast, less prone to flare). Anyhoo, I think you need to ask yourself, “what am I going to do with these award winning photos I take?”. If you are simply going to scan them and share them online, then there is no comparison between the three. I honestly can’t tell the difference between them when looking at a digital flatbed scan (you may see differences with better scans, but who wants to pay for that noise? AMIRITE?!?). All three are wonderfully sharp with the Canon and Rokkor characterized by more of a classical rendition. The Nokton, being a newer lens, is much more clinical. Just depends on what you prefer. Now, if I’m enlarging, I’d pick the Rokkor any day. It’s outstanding, and is arguably one of the best M-mount lenses ever made. A excellent copy will run you anywhere between $300-$400 (same as the VC Nokton).
Keep in mind that the 40mm Rokkor f/2 is the same lens as the Leitz Summicron 40mm f/2 (just different branding). Go for the Rokkor, it’s typically less expensive and optically identical. Another thing to keep in mind is the VC Nokton does have a maximum aperture of f/1.4. Focusing wide open on the CL with this lens is a challenge for me. I’d say my hit rate is about 1 in 3. Just something to think about if you are planning to put a lens on this camera that wasn’t originally intended for it.
Here we have a few samples from 3 different 40mm lenses. I don’t know about you, but when viewing the digital scans, I honestly can’t tell the difference. The cool part is that the Rokkor sample is a Frontier scan – the other 2 are scans from my Epson v550. Testament to how good the little Canon 40 is (as well as how far flatbed scanners have come).
Canon 40mm / Canonet QL17 G3 / Ilford HP5 @1600 / Epson v550
Canon 40mm / Canonet QL17 G3 / Fuji Acros @200 / Epson v550
VC Nokton 40mm / Leitz Minolta CL / Kodak Tri-X @1600 / Epson v550
VC Nokton 40mm @f/1.4 / Leitz Minolta CL / Kodak Tri-X @1600 / Epson v550
Minolta Rokkor SC 40mm / Leitz Minolta CL / Ilford HP5 @800 / Frontier
Minolta Rokkor SC 40mm / Leitz Minolta CL / Ilford HP5 @800 / Frontier
If we’re talking about scanning negatives and viewing them on the web, then I lean toward the Canon here (given its practicality). I truly can’t see a difference. However, if I plan on printing images (which, let’s face it… that’s the true fun of film photography), then my nod goes toward the Rokkor. There’s no comparison for me.
This is probably the biggest point of contention for me. Viewfinders can make or break the shooting experience, so here’s how they stack up.
Nice and bright, single 40mm frame lines (duh!), with the aperture range running vertically down the right hand side. This view is fixed and the aperture bar does not go away when you switch the camera off of auto (Reminder: the camera’s AUTO mode is a shutter priority mode. You select the shutter speed, the camera chooses the aperture – showing you in the viewfinder). Depending on your copy, your rangefinder patch could be dull or contrasty. All of mine have a fair deal of contrast to them. Corners of the rangefinder patch are feathered and not as pronounced as the CL’s, but it is slightly larger.
Also nice and bright, although just slightly dimmer than my Canonets. It is a bit cluttered given the 40 and 50mm framelines show up with either a 40 or 50mm lens attached, in conjunction with having the shutter speed and meter needle rounding out the viewfinder. The rangefinder patch on the CL is much better in terms of contrast. The edges are sharp and pronounced. In other words, it’s easier to see the double image line up.
Even though the patch on the CL has more contrast, I prefer the less cluttered and slightly brighter viewfinder on the Canonet. Which leads me to a related topic – the meter.
I’ve come to realize very quickly that internal meters on these old cameras aren’t the most reliable. Well, that is certainly the case with the Canonet. It’s garbage IMO, and it only works in Auto / Shutter Priority mode anyway. I’m sure there’s a good reason for this, but to me it’s silly. The camera almost forces you to shoot in auto (an interesting forcing function by Canon that in hindsight led to a poor user experience), and given that the meter sits just above the front lens element on the Canonet, it’ll never be as accurate as the CL’s true TTL metering. This is especially true if you use a lens hood. The hood ends up shading the meter cell and tricks the camera into thinking it’s darker than it really is – which leads to overexposure. I suppose this is better than the opposite (since I tend to overexpose negative film anyway to ensure I get the shadow detail), but if you’re trying to be precise with your exposure, I’d opt for a hand held meter.
Like the Canonet, this guy is a fully manual shooter (the major differences being that there is no auto mode and the CL uses true TTL metering). Make sure you find a copy with a working meter (there are plenty out there despite what some folks say), ensure you have the correct voltage, and you’ll be good to go. Now, here are the funny bits…
One, the meter is only on when the shutter is cocked and pulled out from the camera body. I suppose it’s nice to be able to shut it off by pushing the film advance lever flush against the body, but I’ve experienced moments when I’d bring the camera to my eye and not see the meter only to have to double check it was cocked and pulled out far enough. Some people prefer this, but it’s a funny little song and dance if you ask me.
Two, the meter needle reads upside down in the viewfinder! Yes, when you see the needle below the mid-way marker, the shot is overexposed, and visa versa. It does map to the direction of the shutter speed dial as you turn it, so that helps soften the blow, but it just seems counterintuitive to me.
Three, the physical meter cell sits just above the shutter plane when it’s cocked. As I mentioned earlier, if you plan on using anything other than the lenses that were designed for this thing, make sure you check their compatibility. That meter cell is fairly fragile and they tend to break. Collapsible lenses? Eh… I wouldn’t even bother.
With that said, the CL does have a brilliant TTL spot meter (like it’s big brother, the Leica M5), and when it’s wired for 1.35v or using an adapter to create the proper voltage, it’s wildly accurate. I can point the patch at the spot I want to expose for, and the camera nails it every time.
The CL wins hands down for meter accuracy. If you’re the type of person who can’t live without an internal meter, then the CL has a clear advantage. I’d just grab one of these and a modern silver oxide battery and love life. Speaking of which, let’s talk about batteries.
Both of these cameras were designed to take a 1.35v mercury battery – something that isn’t sold anymore due to their impact on the environment. However, there are simple options. Now, modern batteries (alkaline and silver oxide) are not made with a voltage of 1.35v – they can be found in the 1.5v variety. You can use them, but the current is a bit strong and it will underexpose your shots by about a stop. Here are your options:
- Wein Cells – these things are a hack fix in my opinion. They don’t last long, they’re expensive, and don’t seem to fit into the battery chambers well on either camera. I’ve had them leak before as well, so I’d just stay away from them altogether.
- Standard 1.5v alkaline battery – Cheap and they fit well. Again, they will underexpose your photos by about a stop, but the way I’ve compensated in the past for this is to drop your ASA dial a stop. For example, if you have 400 speed film in the camera, turn your ASA dial to 200. Of course, the power curve is not consistent across the exposure range, so the one stop difference doesn’t hold true at all apertures / shutter speeds.
- Battery adapter (best option) – I’ve purchased a couple of these and they work well. You can drop a modern silver oxide (301/386) battery in them and be done with it. Silver oxide batteries last a while and the power curve is consistent until they die.
- Rewire the battery chamber with a ECG109 Germanium Diode (second best option) – You can find these on eBay. Here is a very simple tutorial that shows you how to do it. Honestly, it’s not bad.
Tip the cap to the Canonet on this one. The battery chamber is easily accessible at the bottom of the camera (they can snap off easily if you get a bit rowdy with it, so be careful not to set it down on a flat surface with the battery door open).
The CL’s battery chamber is located inside the film bay door. Which means, if your battery dies mid-roll, you’ll need to finish exposing your film before you can change the battery.
The CL’s battery dying mid-roll isn’t that big of a deal, but the Canon’s design is better.
Let’s face it, human factors engineering hadn’t truly become incorporated into mainstream design thinking until the 80s, and as such, ergonomics aren’t the best on either of these cameras. My son probably has an easier time holding his Canonet than I do given my larger hands and the camera’s compact size.
Let’s talk about it in terms of feel in the hand and control layout.
Feel In The Hand
The material surrounding the Canonet’s body has a nice texture and does allow the hand to grip it better than the CL. The body is just a tad larger and has vertical lugs on either side (which can give the hands some leverage should it begin to slip). The camera was manufactured with brass bits, so there is some heft to it, but parts of it can feel cheap (like the film advance and shutter release button for example).
The CL has a relatively smooth and often times slippery plastic material covering the body. To me, the camera feels cheaper than the Canonet around the mid section (it’s flimsy enough to be squeezed with a mild bit of force). The film advance and shutter release button, however, are much more smooth and well built. Tactile shutter feedback is much better on the CL; and while it isn’t an M, it’s much closer than the Canonet. Another point of contention for some are the vertical strap lugs (another trait shared by earlier run Leica M5s. Unless you pair it with a case that has horizontal strap lugs (i.e. the camera has lugs on the left and right of the body), you will be hanging the camera in a vertical orientation. I actually like the vertical orientation, but I’m not necessarily partial to one or the other.
All of the Canonet’s vital controls live around the barrel of the lens. Shutter speed, aperture, and focus are all crammed into a relatively small area, and when shooting in manual (which I do most of the time on this camera), it can be tough to find the rings without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. In addition, if you’re in manual, you can’t see your shutter speed or aperture in the viewfinder, so you’ll either need to glance at the lens barrel, or do it by remembering stop clicks. On the bright side, the focus lever on the Canonet is a joy to use. The throw is very short, which makes focusing quick.
The CL’s shutter speed dial is in a convenient spot; ever so slightly eclipsing the top plate, allowing you to quickly pull your trigger finger off the shutter release, make a quick adjustment on the dial, and return your finger to firing position. It maps to the shutter speed needle in the viewfinder; and while counterintuitive at first, it eventually becomes a blessing after a little practice. All lenses have the aperture control on the barrel of the lens.
The CL wins in terms of control layout, but the Canonet wins in terms of overall feel in the hands.
This one is tough to articulate, but I can tell you this… they are both quiet cameras. The Canonet may have the edge here given that it has a leaf shutter vs the cloth shutter of the CL, but honestly, they’re both pretty stealth. If you ask me which one I like better, I’d say the sound of the CL shutter makes my tenders tingle more than the Canonet does. It sounds like a solid click whereas the Canonet seems a bit flat.
Look, this one’s simple. If you’re on a budget or just learning, get yourself a Canonet. You can get a nice copy (in silver) for around $80 – $100 overhauled (check here from time to time). If you want to get into the CL’s compact M-mount system, you’re looking at a minimum of ~$600 (CL body and 40mm lens). Maybe $500 if you’re really lucky. Of course, if you invest in the CL, you can use those lens(es) on another M-mount body down the road. I suppose it just depends on your level of commitment. Shooting film isn’t getting any cheaper, that’s for sure.
Canonet: ~$80 – $100 (user condition)
CL: ~$600 (user condition with lens)
Well, there you have it. I know it isn’t a comprehensive review of each machine, but that wasn’t the point. When these cameras were released in the early-70s, there was major competition in the market for inexpensive rangefinders. People were turning away from the expensive status symbols (Leica), and buying up inexpensive alternatives (Canon, Olympus, etc) that were surprisingly better shooters than their more expensive Leica counterparts. Leica’s answer to this was the CL; a joint initiative between Leitz and Minolta that eventually ended up starting to cannibalize on Leica’s own more expensive M body rangefinders (there’s a tumultuous yet fascinating history here, so I encourage you to learn more about it).
Nowadays, I think it’s logical for people coming into film or even back to film to compare the two considering both of them are baselines in their own right. The Canonet being a fixed lens rangefinder with a sharp, fast lens and full manual override. The CL being an entry level compact M-mount body (a gateway drug if you will – trust me, it’s only a matter of time before I take the plunge on an M body). They are roughly the same size, same weight, and in the right hands (not mine), produce outstanding images.
For what it’s worth, I see a handful of professional film photographers still shooting with the Canonet (yes, in professional shoots). The lens renders beautifully, is incredibly sharp between f/4 and f/5.6; and while slightly soft wide open (f/1.7), it is capable of making a nice creamy bokeh. The CL seems to be more of collector’s item nowadays. I’ve heard some photographers carry one as a backup to their M body, but it doesn’t seem to be used as much professionally.
Here’s my final final on it.
Get the Canonet if you’re starting out in the world of film photography, or have never shot a film rangefinder before. 1.2 million of these things were made, so there are a ton out there and they’re easy to find. I’ve tried a handful of fixed lens compact rangefinders from this era, and the Canonet QL17 G3 is my absolute favorite. Besides, I think it just looks better than the CL (I know, so shallow).
Get the CL if you’re someone with a bit more money to burn and want a significant piece of Leitz camera history, a collector, or someone wanting a compact backup to their M body.
If I had to choose one… I’d have to roll with the Canonet. It’s easy for some of us (including myself) to view these cameras as achievements or trophies. They often become objects we end up lusting after due to rarity or public hype; but when you strip that all away, they essentially all do the same thing. I’ll admit that the CL was just that for me. Not once has it helped me take better photos – it’s just a more expensive box than the other.
Here are the primary reasons I’d go with the Canonet if I had to make a choice.
- The practical choice – a solid value for the money
- Less cluttered viewfinder
- Quicker to focus with the short throw focus lever
- Quicker to load and reload film
- Feels more solid overall than the CL
- Easier to grip – less slippage
- I just love the way it looks (especially when a little paint begins to peel on the black version)
WANT TO BUY ONE?
Canonet: Buy here. Seriously… the only guy I buy from. During their production run, they were manufactured in Japan and Taiwan; available in both silver and black. There are rumors that the Japan model uses heavier/beefier parts, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I can tell you is that manufacturing started in Japan, but then moved to Taiwan, so any Taiwan version will be newer than a Japan model. Not that the Japan model is less capable though, it just may be in greater need of a cleaning. Want a nice collectors piece? Look for a mint black Japan model. That’s the holy grail of these bad mothers.
CL: eBay is one option here, but it can be a crap shoot (of course, if you don’t want to wade through the eBay nonsense, I suggest you contact Bellamy Hunt (@japancamerahunter) and have him hunt you down a fine one). If you do go the eBay route, here’s what I recommend.. Try to buy from sellers with at least a 99.8% rating (the more ratings the better, obviously). Here are a couple I’ve had great experiences with: CameraJapan20 and Irohas. Japanese sellers are often the best given that the film camera collectors market is huge there. In addition, try hunting for the Leitz Minolta CL version with a serial number above 103xxxx. As I understand it, there were three production versions of the CL. The Leica CL version, the Leitz Minolta CL version, and the Leica CL 50th anniversary edition. Once Minolta stopped producing the Leica CL, they made one final production run on the Leitz Minolta CL (which was branded for the Japanese market). The units with a serial above 103xxxx were the last to be produced and have 20 internal modifications since the first Leica CL rolled off the line. I’ve been told that they are the most robust of any CL made.
I hope this has been helpful should this be a decision you’re trying to make. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line.
If you’re curious about the soft shutter release buttons and hot shoe covers you see in these photos, you can pick yourself some up over at The More Gooder.