Petri 7: This should totally be a cult camera

Front view of the Petri 7
A front view of the Petri 7, a solid little rangefinder with a great selection of decent features, that should really be the cult camera its competitors wound up being. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The vast majority of the Petri rangefinders I’ve seen have been the “7S” model, but I picked up a plain ol’ “7” and I like it quite a bit.

It doesn’t have a bunch of fancy, innovative features save one. It doesn’t have the fastest or sharpest lens in its class. And it’s not the biggest, the smallest, the lightest or the heaviest. What it seems to be, though, is an excellent combination of a whole bunch of second-bests in a package that’s really worth a look.

Just the facts

Petri 7 top cover controls
The film advance lever is a little thin and sharp, and the frame counter has to be reset manually. But the overall quality of workmanship on the Petri is superb. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Petri 7 was made by Kuribayashi Camera Industry Inc. from 1961-1962. In 1963 it was replaced by the more famous 7S, which was replaced in turn by the 7S II in 1974. Kuribayashi, which started in 1907 and whose name means “acorn grove,” predates most of the big Japanese camera companies we know today. Unfortunately, they dissolved in bankruptcy in 1977.

The 7 features a quite sharp 45mm lens with a fast f/1.8 aperture (although an f/2.8 version was available), which stops down to f/16. The Petri MVE shutter goes as fast as 1/500 second, all the way down to 1 second, and includes a Bulb setting. The shutter speed and aperture are selected with rings on the lens barrel, as is the film speed — from ASA 10 up to ASA 200.

Also on the lens barrel is a PC sync socket and M-X flash speed selector. Flash sync is at 1/60 second, which is marked in red on the shutter ring. A self timer switch on the barrel can be pulled back all the way for a delay of about 12 seconds, or can be moved only partial distance for shorter delays.

Petri 7 controls
The Petri 7’s controls are mostly on the lens barrel. Here you can clearly see the green filter in front of the rangefinder’s second window, which really seems to work as intended. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The focus ring only turns about 30 degrees, but has a big thumb knob to make adjusting fine focus easier. The focus ring is marked in both feet and meters, and the camera’s name badge extends into an arrow to indicate the focus distance.

The viewfinder isn’t huge, but is not small either. It’s not remarkably bright, but it’s definitely not dim, either. The yellow brightline framing guides include simple parallax correction marks in the form of dots.

The viewfinder has a relatively small rangefinder patch in the center, but it features Petri’s “famous” (according to the manual) Green-O-Matic system, which claims to increase rangefinder contrast for focusing in low light and reduce eyestrain. It’s visible externally in the form of a green filter over the rangefinder window next to the front of the viewfinder — and the name badge proudly notes “Green-O-Matic,” too.

Petri 7 viewfinder
A look through the viewfinder of the Petri 7 reveals the small, but very bright, rangefinder patch, and clear brightline framing guides. The meter on mine is kaput, but the display is nice. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The viewfinder also has, along the right-hand edge of the brightline frame, the light meter readout. The meter is a “Circle-Eye” type — an array of selenium cells surrounding the lens’ front element, inboard of the filter thread. It’s a simple match-needle affair with a red needle and a shape similar to half of a sideways bowtie — get the needle into the center “knot” area and your exposure is correct.

The top plate features an unremarkable rewind knob and a cold shoe, and is adorned with a shiny brass arrow that, as far as I can tell, has no significance other than decorative. The plate is molded into a “7” motif, most obvious just to the right of the cold shoe.

The shutter release button is a nicely-machined cylinder, relatively thick compared to other cameras of this vintage, and is threaded for a cable release. The film advance lever and frame counter — which must be manually set back to zero each time you change film — round out the controls. The Petri 7 has double-exposure prevention built in, and it cannot be disabled.

The bottom plate features a take-up spool release button and is threaded for a standard 1/4-inch tripod mount. There are strap bosses on the left and right sides, and a release for the film door sits just below the strap mount on the left. Loading film will look familiar if you’ve ever loaded a 35mm camera newer than a Barnack Leica.

Petri 7 top cover
The top cover of the Petri 7 reveals a simple molded “7” motif, and features a mysterious brass arrow that seems to be purely decorative. What is it?? (Daniel J. Schneider)

The opinion part

The Petri 7 line has never achieved the cult status of competitors like the Konica Auto S2, Minolta Hi-Matic series, Yashica Electro 35 varieties, or the Canon Canonet line, but don’t let that discourage you. There’s a lot to like here.

Blakeslee stand mixer
A Blakeslee stand mixer — the mainstay of the industrial mixing market for nearly 100 years — painted pink and used as sidewalk decoration in the Old South Pearl Street shopping district in south Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Unfortunately, the selenium meter on my 7 is dead, but that doesn’t actually matter on this camera. Unlike most of its more popular competition, its controls are fully manual and the meter, while coupled and easy to use when working, is pretty much just an accessory. I tested this camera using a combination of Sunny 16 rules and Weegee’s classic philosophy, “f/8 and be there.”

Let’s get through my few minor complaints first: The film advance lever is a little sharp on the edges. It moves freely and easily enough, but it wears on the thumb a little bit. The film advance returns rather slowly, too, but I’m not sure if that’s age or if it was designed to have a ‘soft’ return. It’s not a problem for me.

Having to set the film counter back to zero manually kinda sucks, too — mostly because I always forget. Not that it matters — keep shooting till you can’t advance the film anymore, am I right?

The available film speeds are a little limited, but if you’re not actually using the light meter, that doesn’t really matter. The ring to adjust them has a little tab with a sharp edge on it, so you have to be careful adjusting it. You could probably fix that with five minutes and a nail file, though. And that’s it for sharp things you have to watch our for.

f/16 isn’t the best minimum aperture, but it’s plenty workable since you’re liable to be at f/8 or f/5.6 a lot of the time. The aperture ring doesn’t have any detents, either, so you can pretty much set it anywhere you want. Mine, for some reason, causes the shutter to stick when it’s open to f/1.8. It looks like one of the blades is stuck or misaligned, so I’ll probably be disassembling the front of the lens and introducing the Petri to Mr. Lighter Fluid.

Stella's on Pearl
A bench, and a tiny bench, and a pink doll face outside Stella’s Cafe on South Pearl Street. Notice the pink baby mask — they’ve been turning up glued onto things all over Denver for over a year now, and no one knows why. Crazy color shift on this expired film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I found that I had to hold in the take-up spool release button to rewind the film. Again, not sure if that’s design or age. The rewind crank has a very short radius to the knob, and I found my fingers slipped off sometimes — another checkmark in the might-be-annoying-but-totally-can-live-with-it column. It wasn’t immediately intuitive to me that the end of the name badge was the indicator for the focus distance, but once I figured that out I was very okay with it.

On to the good: Pretty much everything else.

The Petri 7 is all-manual — which means this guy kills it over most of the auto-exposure-addicted competition. The viewfinder is big enough and bright enough for me, and the rangefinder is really contrasty. It’s so much better than most of the other Sixties-era rangefinders I have. The brightlines are bright, and think the little dots for parallax correction are really elegant. It’s one of those tiny touches that shows the designers valued attention to detail.

South Pearl motorcycle
A motorcycle parked outside one of the small shops in Denver’s historic Old South Pearl Street shopping district. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The focus ring turns fantastically smoothly. It’s just tight enough to make it easy not to miss focus in spite of the short rotation of the focus mechanism. And the thumb knob is wonderfully big, positioned just right, and knurled as well, which makes it really easy to use.

The “Center-Eye” meter style is great since you don’t have to adjust for filter factor. Just thread on your filter and it’s already compensated for. The meter display is small, but clear and simple. I really wish my meter worked so I could try it in action.

The whole thing feels rock solid, and while it’s a little heavy for its size, that’s not uncommon for cameras of this age and ilk. It fits quite nicely in the hand — the film door has just a tiny bit of a bulge that really makes it comfortable.

Deadbeat Club burned down
The burned-out remains of the former Deadbeat Club in south Denver. It stood empty for a year or two after a fire that many suspected was set for the insurance before finally being razed in March of 2016. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter release is easier on the fingertip than the narrower buttons on many other cameras. It moves smoothly, and while it’s easy to depress, it’s not so easy that you’ll fire it by accident. It’s a little closer to the advance lever than I would’ve put it, but you get used to that quickly.

The film path appears to have some imperfections on visual inspection that had me expecting scratched negatives — but the negatives looked good when I developed them. The images were satisfyingly sharp and contrasty.

So, if you get a chance, pick up a Petri 7. They aren’t nearly as expensive as a Canonet or Hi-Matic, and they are really every bit as good. I have only one question: What’s with the brass arrow on the top cover?!

The rest of my test photos (the color was done with much-expired consumer films, and it shows!):

Statues in dresses
The dancer statues outside the Sheraton in downtown Denver are trussed up in artsy dresses for some event — I can’t remember what it was. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Downtown Sheraton
The patterned facade of the downtown Sheraton that was once a Hilton — and designed by I.M. Pei as part of Zeckendorf Plaza, the anchor of Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Liquor store rear entrance
The rear entrance of a liquor store on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. I just liked the hand-painted letters on the brick. Pretty crummy expired film here, too. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Alley in Denver
The enigmatic alleyway next to the Rialto Cafe on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. The strands of exposed-filament light bulbs are an interesting touch for an alley, right? (Daniel J. Schneider)
Communal table fire
A small gas fire burns over recycled glass chunks in the center of a communal table on the patio of a South Pearl Street eatery in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Fire escape in Denver
The fire escape in an alley off 16th Street Mall in Denver in the sun. I don’t know why I like this spot so much. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
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Petri 7 rangefinder camera
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