Fun with a Canon IIIa Rangefinder

There’s a certain something about the old Canon rangefinders that just appeals to me.  The French have a term for it: je ne sais quoi. Which literally means ‘I don’t know what’.  Thanks, guys.  That was a big help. Must be the accent that does it.  But whatever it is, it’s enough for me to put up with the camera’s idiosyncrasies to shoot with it.

With all images below, click on the image, then click on it again to see it full size.  Then click on the back button twice to get back to here.

Canon IIIa Rangefinder with 50mm f/1.8 Serenar lens

Years ago, I owned a Canon IVsb, one of the most commonly found Canon rangefinder cameras.  Functionally, it is identical to the IIIa, except the IVsb has a proprietary flash rail on the side, whereas the IIIa came from the factory with no flash sync at all.  The original owner of this camera had flash sync added, however.  Note the oval shaped plate with the two flash sync connectors on the camera body’s right side.  This was an aftermarket addition, and was apparently fairly popular because I’ve seen quite a few rangefinders from back then with this front plate added to them.  So, to me then, this IIIa is actually more useful than my IVsb was.  Because it was difficult to find the original flash attachment for this cameras, and besides it takes bulbs only.  Try finding flash bulbs these days.  Whereas my IIIa’s flash sync includes terminals for both X-sync (strobe-type flashes) and F-sync (focal-plane bulb type flashes).

I bought this camera off eBay back in 2009 and was glad to find it for the price I did.  It was a good deal because it came with the 50mm f/1.8 Serenar.  Sometimes these Serenars will go at auction for the same price as one of the camera bodies will, and since I won the auction for what amounted to the price of a clean body alone, yes, I’d say I got a good deal.

The only problem I found with the camera was that the shutter had pinhole light leaks.  This is actually fairly common for camera shutters this old.  The Canon’s shutter is a rubberized cloth and the rubber has hardened and cracked over the years, which is where the light leaks come from.  A rather simple cure for this problem is to use a product called Plasti-Dip.  It comes in a can or aerosol spray, and also comes in different colors.  I bought a spray can of black, which I felt was most appropriate for a shutter.  To get the Plasti-Dip on the shutter, I selected a small artist’s paint brush with fairly stiff bristles, then sprayed some of the Plasti-Dip onto a paper plate.  Doesn’t require much.  Maybe a 1/2-second burst.  Then I dipped the brush into the wet Plasti-Dip, and gently brushed it onto the shutter curtains.  I waited a few hours after applying it to the first curtain before I wound the shutter on and applied it to the second.  I waited several more hours before I attempted to fire the shutter.  I wanted to make sure it was completely dried.

This worked great.  Before I had eleven pinholes.  After the procedure I had one.  So I gave the shutter another application, and that did the trick.  If you should decide to do this, keep in mind that adding material to the shutter increases the mass of the shutter, and can affect the speed at which it operates.  Thus it’s important that as little material as possible is added to the shutter during this procedure.  Less is truly more in this case.


Recently, I discovered pedestrian access to a creek that  runs close by my house.  So, I figured this might be a good setting to shoot some photos.  It worked out pretty well, actually.

I got to playing around with various filters, trying to get a “look” to a few of my exposures the way I wanted it.  Stumbled across the “Threshold” setting in Paint Shop Pro, and found that I really liked the effect I could get with it.

I probably wouldn’t have done much playing around at all, but my negatives came out very thin this time and all the shots required quite a bit of adjustment to get them to look okay.  Mostly curves, some basic brightness and contrast, but a few were tricky to get to look right.  It was while I was doing all this — basically trying anything that might help — that I ran across the Threshold setting.

One of the things I didn’t have to do was sharpen the images.  The more I use this 50mm f/1.8 Serenar, the more impressed I am by its performance.  Its center sharpness is probably as good as the best normal lenses I’ve used.  I’ve taken some close-ups with this lens and I’ll show some of them in a separate article, which will confirm just how good it is.  Stay tuned!

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2 Responses to “Fun with a Canon IIIa Rangefinder”

  • Nicholaus says:

    Hi Michael!

    I have my Grandpa’s Serenar 50mm f1.9 lens that he took with him in the Korean war. Funny how the subject of your photos in this post are so similar to my favorite pic he took ! My question to you is what is the best setup to use this lens with a Canon 60d which I am about to purchase? I am real excited about giving this lens a new life! I just hope it is possible to mount it with a modern digital camera. I have his original Canon camera (not sure of the make), but I would like to shoot video through this beauty! Thanks for your guidance! Cheers! greypawnfilms at yahoo dot com.

    • admin says:

      You’re right, the stairs are very similar, aren’t they. That’s a nice shot your grandfather took, by the way.

      Unfortunately, the registration distance is all wrong for a Canon 60D with the screw mount lenses that the old 50s era Canons used. You’ll only be able to get very close-in macro shots using it. Now, if you bought a Sony NEX or a Samsung NX model, their registration distances are so short that you can get adapters for the M39 screw mount lenses and still achieve infinity focus with them.

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