Canon VI-T Camera

Canon VI-T (a Tale of a Treasured Camera)

What makes a camera treasured? Often, it was owned by a family member. Or it may simply become an invaluable part of a photographer’s arsenal. This beautiful, tank-like, Canon VI-T rangefinder was neither. In fact I almost sold it for parts on “the ‘Bay.” But quickly decided not to.

A Flawed Beauty

I paid just $5 for it at a garage sale around 30 years ago. It looked beautiful, and the left-handed Trigger Winder in its base plate (extended in the photo) still seemed to work. But all wasn’t as rosy as I first thought:

  • Its 50mm f:1.2 M39 lens seemed beautifully clean, but when I looked through it at a bright light, I saw an almost invisible haze of fine cleaning scratches on its rear element.
  • And when I tried to run some film through it anyway, the Trigger Winder stopped advancing after only six frames. It slid uselessly from side to side with no resistance from the internal film-advance train.

The lens, however, is nicely compact for an f/1.2. So I adapted it for use on my Fuji X-Pro 1. And if I don’t shoot into bright light, its faint cleaning scratches don’t appear to be a problem.

But because of that winder, I began to prepare a “parts/repair” listing for the VI-T’s body. That is, until I opened it to photograph the interior, and out fell an old curled sticker whose glue had dried long ago (inset in photo). I quickly changed my mind.

From Tokyo with Love

The label says “Suga Camera Shop/Imperial Hotel Tokyo.” I’d never heard of the Suga shop… but the Imperial Hotel was famous in architectural circles. I’ve given up trying to untangle the description of Frank Lloyd Wright’s involvement with the place in the above Wiki page. Best to just say that the hotel was initially built in 1890… and after various fires and earthquakes, Wright and associates built a new one that officially opened in 1923.

And it almost immediately survived the “Great Tokyo Earthquake” of the same year… though its central section slumped and several floors bulged. The hotel’s main failing, though, was its foundation. To shield it from earthquake shaking, Wright had put the massively huge complex on broad, shallow footings that would theoretically “float” on the site’s alluvial mud “as a battleship floats on water.” But the footings weren’t enough to keep the hotel from sinking into the mud over the decades, and after portions had submerged by up to 43 inches, it was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a modern highrise.

FUN FACT: Wright’s version employed the same “Maya Revival Style” that he used in several Los Angeles homes. You can see one of them– the famous Ennis House— early in Vincent Price’s “House on Haunted Hill.” It’s the gloomy night castle that Price’s ill-fated party guests cruise up to in their limos. For the movie, however, studio artists added a tall central tower that isn’t really there.

Souvenir of Wright’s Imperial

Some larger areas of Wright’s Imperial Hotel were rebuilt in a nearby museum… and other smaller sections are retained in today’s modern highrise. But he’s my favorite architect of all time. And several facts seem to point to an interesting conclusion:

  • Canon introduced the VI-T camera and f:1.2 lens in 1958.
  • According to Wikipedia, only 8,175 VI-Ts were sold (from June 1958 to July 1960).
  • The camera reportedly sold much better in Japan than the U.S.
  • And Wright’s Imperial Hotel was demolished in 1967.

So there’s a decent chance that my VI-T was purchased in Wright’s building before it was demolished. And though I’ve visited the architect’s Fallingwater and nearby Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania, this camera is as close as I’ll probably ever get to his spectacular Imperial Hotel.


In the years since I decided to keep the camera, I exercised the Trigger Winder whenever I entered my office. And just this year, it re-engaged with the film’s drive train! So I’ll again run some film and post a “5-Frames” piece about it.

But before I do, I may also try a highly un-intuitive fix for those cleaning scratches on the lens. I once successfully used the trick on an antique mirror from which someone may have used steel wool to removed sticker gum. A small area of its glass had a similar haze of fine scratches, and the odd fix was to rub some colorless, neutral shoe polish into the area and then keep buffing it off until the greasy smear disappeared. It (theoretically) worked because the polish has nearly the same index of refraction as glass… and the scratches on our antique mirror are still invisible eight years on. Maybe…?!

–Dave Powell is a Westford, Mass., writer and avid amateur photographer.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

11 thoughts on “Canon VI-T (a Tale of a Treasured Camera)”

    1. Hi Again Art! So glad you enjoyed it… and I do plan the polish test in a couple weeks (when I return from a trip). I’ll post a comment about the result… either way!

  1. Great story about a lovely camera. Left me wondering if other functions are working, like the rangefinder. If it was mine I’d consider a full professional service. I expect they could fix the rear element too by stripping off the scratched coating and recoating it. It might overshadow your initial $5 investment but I think it would still eventually prove profitable. (I’m just guessing , I’m not an expert in collectables!)

    1. A very good point Michael. Previous tests indicated that the rangefinder still seemed to work accurately, and the sequence of shutter speeds progressed well (though their accuracy would call for expert inspection). I will look into that. And if anyone knows someone who works on Classic Canon rangefinders, please post their info!

  2. Nice story. Cleaning marks aren’t always fatal. I have a Kodak Ektar that’s been cleaned nearly to death, but outside a very slight haze in contrasty scenes, it still performs remarkably well.

    1. Thanks Simon… That’s what I’ve noticed in early shooting tests. Appreciate the confirmation.

  3. Christopher M.

    That crazy lens in the photo attracted me…nice story! Yeah, I’d keep it too as I love both architecture and Wright’s work. Canon has made some odd machines over the years: my oddity is an EOS RT, which I loved so much I bought a second!

    Dying to see images from your unicorn, especially after “polishing” the glass! Happy shooting…

    1. Love how you put that Christopher! And now I’m intrigued by the EOS RT. Must look it up. I too am curious about how the polish will work out!

  4. Canon promoted their trigger wind rangefinder cameras in the 1950s. But you weren’t forced to only wind the film with the trigger. The camera was also designed to allow the film to be advanced using the knob on the top plate to the right of the shutter release. This enabled the camera to be used on a tripod where it was impossible access the trigger. If your trigger wind fails you again, you might try using that top knob instead. The Canon VI-T is a great camera, I hope you enjoy using it.

    1. Hi Jim,

      That’s MOST interesting, and I’ll test it out. I had an entirely different take on it. When the trigger didn’t fully advance the film, and as a result, left the camera in an unusable state, turning that knob released the shutter mechanisms from limbo… and I could try again. Probably the same thing… just worded differently!



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top