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Canon Canonflex - 1959
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• Canon's first SLR

• $299.95 with f1.8 lens in 1959 ($2248 in 2010 dollars)

Canon's first SLR, the Canonflex, came out when the Nikon F did, perhaps even a month or so earlier. Like the Nikon F, it had an instant-return mirror, an instant-reopen diaphragm, interchangeable finders, a focal-plane shutter, and a self-timer. Like the Nikon, it was from a major maker with a great reputation for rangefinders and lenses.

Unlike the Nikon, the Canonflex never made it; it's as obscure as the Nikon F is famous. Here's why in my opinion and in that of Stephen Gandy of CameraQuest:

• Unlike the Nikon F, which had everything, the Canonflex was missing important features like mirror lockup, interchangeable focusing screens, interchangeable backs, and a motor drive.

• The film-advance crank was on the bottom, which seemed weird and made tripod mounting awkward.

• Only a few lenses were available, and even fewer of those operated with the instant-reopen diaphragm mechanism.

• Canon changed the lens mount after only 5 years.

• It wasn't a system.

• Marketing was weak compared to Nikon's. Ads were small and located in the back of magazines; the Canonflex wasn't Canon's priority (they were pushing inexpensive rangefinders, which Nikon didn't even have); and Canon didn't have its own US distribution.

The only good news for me in all of this is that the original owner of my Canonflex apparently hardly used it. I bought it from noted collector David Silver and it looks and operates like new.

As I noted on the Nikon F page, aside from the obscure Zunow, the Canonflex and the Nikon F were the only two cameras in 1959 that had what I call the essential features (instant-return mirror, instant-reopen diaphragm, etc.). My impression today is that the Canonflex was a terrific camera. It's unfortunate that it was so completely overshadowed by the Nikon F.

Canon didn't field a real competitor to the Nikon F (soon to be F2) until 1971 with the F-1, which was very strong competition, despite Nikon's lead. Canon's 1976 AE-1 was a huge hit, way beyond anything from Nikon. Canon stayed even or ahead, right on into today's digital era. So getting clobbered in 1959 turned out not to matter in the long run.

Canon CanonflexCanon CanonflexAd from Popular Photography, July 1959Ad from Popular Photography, July 1959
Ad from Popular Photography, January 1960Ad from Popular Photography, Oct 1960Review from Popular Photography, January 1960Review from Popular Photography, January 1960
Review from Popular Photography, January 1960

©2011-14 Marc Rochkind. All rights reserved.