Rangefinder Cameras: An introduction

Rangefinder Cameras: An introduction

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Japancamerahunter here, with a little piece for you about rangefinder cameras.

Perhaps you are a recent convert to the church of photography, or maybe you have been part of a different group and you have heard talk of another type of camera.

I am of course talking about the rangefinder camera. Now for those of you who just went ‘whufinder whut?’ don’t worry, I am going to do my best to tell you what they are, and what they mean for your photography.

What is a rangefinder?

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Well, I guess the best place to start is to tell you what a rangefinder camera is.

A rangefinder camera is named so for the range finding mechanism that allows the photographer to measure the distance of the subject for accurate focusing.

The main part of this is the viewfinder.

When you look a the viewfinder on your SLR camera you will notice that it is in the middle of the body, this is because it is transmitting the image through the lens and over a mirror into the viewfinder. The image that you see is the image that is recorded.

On a rangefinder camera the viewfinder is offset from the lens, which means that the image you see will not be the exact image that will be recorded. This is known as parallax error. Over large distances (to infinity and beyond) it is not really noticeable, but at closer ranges it is more obvious. You may notice it in the fact that your pictures are slightly lower than the image you are seeing, so you have to counter for this. But this becomes second nature very quickly.

This means that a rangefinder camera is not going to be the right camera for someone who likes macro photography as the camera would not actually be pointing at the subject during extreme close up.

Now, you might be thinking, so what is so damned great about one of these things then? Well, when it comes to the viewfinder you are using one eye and the other is open to scan the situation. For me this is a big deal. If I am shooting on the street or somewhere busy I can use both eyes to check the scenario and to compose my images more carefully. This gives you a balance that I think you cannot find in any other type of camera. Many rangefinder cameras have a 0.8x magnification and some even go as far as having a 1.1x view, which is a ‘better than real’ view. This gives you the chance to shoot with both eyes open, helping you to ‘frame’ the world.

For me the big difference is the shutter. And this is where the real advantage lies in my opinion. Most rangefinders use a cloth plane shutter, though some use a metal shutter system. There is no moving mirror and this makes for less shutter lag, no ‘blackout’ and for a quieter shutter. This gives you a quicker and more fluid approach to your photography.

If you are shooting on the street this is invaluable as speed and quietness can be key. You want to be as unobtrusive as possible. This is why rangefinder cameras were the cameras of choice for photojournalists for so long, they could get into the situation and not be too loud or too obvious.

I use SLR cameras and they have uses that a rangefinder just cannot do, but when I am out shooting in a public area I want to blend into the crowd, which is why I use a rangefinder. In the modern days of big DSLR cameras people are very aware that you are shooting them and sometimes these can garner a reaction that is not always good. I have never had anyone mention anything when shooting with a rangefinder, people just don’t notice.

Lenses

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A major difference is the glass on rangefinders. You are not going to get mega zooms, or VR systems. You are going to be using prime lenses more often than not, and they are going to be of the very highest optical quality. And they will be manual focus…yeah manual focus. This gives you the chance to zone focus and to develop your skills at measuring distance. If this sounds terrifying, it is not, once you get the hang of it you will constantly be aware of the distances of the things around you.

So, why are they so popular?

With the advent of digital technology we have seen a resurgence in the use of rangefinders, especially with the release of the M9 from Leica. This introduced a great deal of people to RF photography, who in some cases had never been into photography before.

And as an offshoot there has also been a rise in the amount of people who shoot film rangefinders. You see, not everyone has $9000+ lying around to blow on a camera, but they want to try an RF camera, so they start looking at film cameras.

But what cameras are they looking at? There are lots of different options available out there. You don’t have to spend a ton of money if you don’t want to. There are a lot of fixed lens rangefinders that are cheap, easy to find and work very very well.

What rangefinder is right for me?

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This is a difficult question, as it covers so many variables and it is an essay in its own right. Ultimately the best camera for you is the camera that most suits your style, feels right in your hands and that you get joy from using. That could be a disposable camera or the lastest Leica Monochrom.

As with any camera you have to think about how much money you want to spend and what you want to use it for. Take your time, and do your research.

I wrote a piece on my site about this which may be some help.

Rangefinder cameras – What are your options

And of course, I am more than happy to help you with your questions and with advice, and if you need to find a camera, I can help you do that too.

Until next time,

Japancamerahunter

Read more from Bellamy Hunt at his great site – Japancamerahunter

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Some Older Comments

  • Eduardo Romero July 6, 2012 01:40 am

    As I was reading i was thinking, this guy knows it's stuff. How refreshing was to find the guy was Bellamy from Japan Camera Hunter. Bellamy I love my M6, great article!!

  • Bellamy Hunt July 2, 2012 08:29 pm

    Thanks for the comments guys. And no, I don't have a small face. In case people hadn't noticed, I was mainly talking about film cameras, so the image quality thing and AA thing are not really relevant.
    This is just a started article, I am planning on writing others over time which expand on this subject.
    Thanks
    Japancamerahunter

  • Erik June 30, 2012 09:25 am

    @Dan The x100 offers some of the feel of a rangefinder, but technically it isn't one because it doesn't use triangulation to determine range = rangefinder. The Contax G1 and G2 are AF cameras that uses the same principle and can therefore be considered rangefinders btw (these two are the only AF rangefinders as far as I know).

    For me I ended up with an M2 and Voigtländer lenses. A common combination for "Leica on a budget" it seems :)

  • dan June 29, 2012 11:15 pm

    @hagen, the reason you you can use both eyes with a RF and not with a mirrored SLR hos nothing to do with the size of the camera. Try keeping both eyes open with a mirrored SLR and you will realize you can't. But, because the RF doesn't augment what your eye is actually seeing with mirrors, you can get away with keeping both eyes open with minimal distortion.

    Also, image quality tends to be better with RF cameras because the lens sits much closer to the image sensor. Obviously, this is not the only determining factor for a good image, but it definitely is one.

    I personally like these camera's because of their compactness and looks. But, I also think their use has become counterintuitive. These cameras are all attention grabbers. A photo journalist will get less attention walking around with a mid level caonon SLR than he would with a Leica M9!

    My X100 gets a lot of attention. It has a super quiet shutter though. I take snaps of people as i'm speaking to them and they don't realize I took a shot.

  • Dan June 29, 2012 04:16 am

    I own a fujifilm x100. It looks like a rangefinder, but i'm not sure if it really is one. I've never used other rangefinders. So I cannot tell.

    Would you consider the X100 a rangefinder? Why or why not?

  • hagen June 28, 2012 05:02 am

    You must have a very small face: every jumbo DSLR I've used has not blocked my left eye.

    With respect to the article, you are very skimpy on the "why rangefinders". You've gotten reduced sound and reduced size in the preceding section. You didn't mention the quality of the images, lack of AA, solid build of the cameras and feel of those gorgeous metal lenses.

    But also there are shortages of supporting PP applications that can deal with any digital file formats.

  • Alexx June 28, 2012 03:58 am

    Great post! I'm currently saving for a leica m monochrom.

  • Derek Lyons June 27, 2012 03:57 pm

    I dream of the day someone releases a simple and inexpensive digital analog to my beloved Argus C3.

  • Dave Nunez June 27, 2012 07:34 am

    My first and only rangefinder camera is actually an old medium format press camera from the 50's.
    The huge negatives from my Mamiya Super 23 are 6x9cm each which means I only get 8 shots per roll of 120 film, they each scan at over 100 megapixels easily.

    http://delgadophotography.ca/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/IMG_1203-720x480.jpg

  • EnergizedAV June 27, 2012 06:23 am

    I don"t know if my old 35mm Olympus Pen was a rangefinder, but it was/is my favorite camera to date. It was the one that gave me the love of photography.
    Informative post. Thanks

  • J.Ed June 27, 2012 05:17 am

    Don't forget the Argus C3. Nearly 2 million made and most if them still work.