- Rangefinder Cameras -
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- Rangefinder Photography / Half a Century Later -

- This page was written by Andrew Yue. All images and text are the copyrighted. -

In an Era where electronic cameras come and go with rapid regularity, the cameras that I still enjoy working with are rangefinder cameras from the 1930's through end of the 1950's.   For example - the above Leica II from 1932 still works fine and is most definitely fun to use for not so modern photography.

Rangefinder cameras are what essentially ushered in what was then a new era of photography during the middle third of the last century.   The allure of rangefinder camera were their relative compactness and that for they allowed photographer to quickly focus a camera lens - without guessing the distance to their subject.   The smallness of the camera, along with the quick focusing ability led to what is often called a reportage style of photography.   Subjects could be photographed as the normally happened rather be staged specifically for the camera.

The Leica II was the first commercially successful - small 35mm format - rangefinder camera.   Its success ushered in the first modern compact camera system with interchangeable lenses.     This was cutting edge technology in 1932, which by 1962 was giving way to a newer option, the 35mm single-lens-reflex camera - which were not at all pocketable.

The popularity of rangefinder cameras reach an apex during mid 1950's before plummeting in the face of the next king of 35mm photography, the SLR .   During they're years of peak of popularity - RF cameras came in various sizes, to include various film formats.   Above is 6x9 medium format Voigtlander Bessa II - next to what was then the state of the art Leica M3.

A rangefinder camera is recognizable by having a viewfinder window built into the front of the top cover and a second smaller front facing window off to one side.   The rangefinder apparatus is what allows the photographer to focus quickly and with surprising precision.

Above is the Soviet FED 2 - circa 1956 - which typified the end of the rangefinder era.

- Rangefinder Camera Basics -

A rangefinder camera incorporates a separate optic system from the main imaging lens in order to assist the photographer when focusing the camera.

  • The viewfinder window gathers the larger of two images that the photographer sees when looking through the viewfinder.
  • A rangefnder window sits in front of a moveable mirror that reflects a second image to the viewfinder.
  • The mirror moves as the lens focus ring is adjusted.
  • The reflection from the mirror passes moves across the camera's top cover towards a small lens before reaching a half-silvered, beam splitter mirror located in the main viewfinder.
  • This reflected second image is often referred to as the RF patch and it is optically projected into the center portion of the viewfinder image.
  • The twin images of the intended subject in the viewfinder are what assists in setting the manual focus ring on the lens.
  • On a coupled-rangefinder the lens is made to engage a small sensor arm in the camera body that pivots the moveable mirror as the focus is set.

When the photographer adjusts the focus ring on the imaging lens with coupled-rangefinder, the small image projected from the the RF window will appear to shift sideways in relation to main viewfinder image.   Once these two images of the intended subject coincide to form a single image, the camera lens is in proper focus.

What not to do while focusing: Put your finger over the RF window at the front of the camera and this second image, a.k.a. the rangefinder patch, will magically dissappear from the viewfinder.

- Viewfinders & the Decline of Rangefinder Cameras -

The above image above shows an example of a photographer using an add-on viewfinder with a wide-angle lens.   He is using the viewfinder with a wide-angle lens, because the lens exceeds the capability of the camera's built-in viewfinder.

The main weakness of the rangefinder camera's design is the optical path for its viewfinder gathers an image through a set of optics in the top cover rather than through-the-lens like on a modern SLR.

Whenever the photographer mounts a lens of a different focal length to an RF camera - the image magnification in the viewfinder does not change one bit to suit the new lens.   Consequently, early rangefinder cameras required the use one or more add-on viewfinders to provide the proper framing necessary for any lens other than a 50mm focal length on a 35mm camera.

The add-on finders fit into the top mounted accessory shoe - which in modern times has become dedicated as the flash shoe.   The best auxillary viewfinders provide a 1:1 magnification.

An add-on bright-line finder with a 1:1 magification allows the photographer to shoot with both eyes open by producing an image magnification that is identical to our normal vision.   With both eyes open - one has a very wide field of view with a set frame lines superimposed in the center of your vision.   This proves to be quite useful for photographing street action.   Similar to the old wire frame sport finders, these 1:1 finders totally transform composition and can be very disconcerting to someone who has only used a single lens reflex camera.

Framelines relative to 3 different focal lengths

By the late 1950's, the common solution to the viewfinder problem was to to add three sets of frameline masks that could be superimposed to the above-the-lens viewfinder.   These framelines were either reflected or projected towards the viewfinder eye piece.   Each set of framelines provided a boundary that represents a cropped portion of the full viewfinder to indicate the framing of a particluar focal length lens.   However, when using a 90mm or 135mm lens, the photographer - the framelines occupy a small area within the viewfinder.

The modern SLR camera on the other hand offers a much better viewfinder image when using long focal length lens and allows for the seamless use of a zoom lens.   Everything the photographer sees in the viewfinder will be recorded on film and there are no parallax errors - which on a rangefinder camera, even one that is fitted with moveable framelines, which will still have some minor cropping errors.

- Classic Rangefinder Cameras of the 1950's -

The second and more modern wave of rangefinder cameras that were introduced in the 1950's - to replace their 1930's predecessors - used optical lens coatings that allowed for a greater variety optical designs than had been the case before the Second World War.

The post war era saw enhanced competition in the production of rangefinder cameras, most noteably from Japanese optical firms - which benefitted from nullification of German patents after the Second World War.

Names like Canon and Nikon got their start by making their respective copies of the Leica and Contax platforms.   Both Canon and Nikon built their own versions rangefinder lenses to fit the Leica thread mount.   Of the two future Japanese giant optic firms, Canon seems to have been more successful in introducing new innovations quickly.

At the increasingly more expensive end of the spectrum - the landmark Leica M3 and M2 made their debut during this time to best the competition from Japan.   The introduction of the new Leicas proved to be a game changer - in that the basic design of these two cameras has endured to this day - with the later addition of a built-in light meter and now a digital back.

It is important to note that the RF cameras developed during the late 1950's were also far more ergonomic than the legacy designs of the 1930's - (some of which were still in production until late in the decade).   Most manufacturers had by this time featured a combined RF apparatus which appears within the main viewfinder.   Viewfinders became larger and usually included multiple framelines for three different lenses.   Thumb winders for the film advance replaced knob winders.   Film loading became musch easier, as well.

- RF Photography in the SLR Era -

Every technology has its day in the sun.   As a result of the improvements to the SLR - which were in place by 1960 - the popularity of rangefinder cameras began a steady decline.

A photographer using a rangefinder camera will usually need to be within a very close proximity to their subject.   This isn't always a practical proposition.   The game changer in photography was the acceptance of zoom lenses fitted to mot single lens reflex cameras.   The zoom lens allows the photographer to stand at a more comfortable distance from their subject and then frame the image by varying the focal length of the lens.

With a rangefinder camera the same photographer generally must move closer or further away to achieve the desired composition.

A 35mm SLR fitted with a zoom lens makes the transition to a different focal length nearly seamless, but there are some trade offs - such as distortion at either the wide or long end of its focal length - plus slower f-stops and the occasional zoom creep are affliction of many consumer zooms.

The popularity of SLR cameras hastened the decline of rangefinders, so that by 1975, the bulk of rangefinder camera sales were relegated to consumer grade 35mm cameras with a fixed-lens.   Fixed-lens rangefinders offer only the single focal length lens that is built onto the camera.   The good news is that the lens was usually very well spec'd for the times and took a great photo.   I remember well when these cameras were looked down upon, by SLR users who had never seen a print taken by one of these compact 35mm cameras.   More often than not only image quality not only equalled - but would often surpass images taken with a zoom lens.

- The Cheapening of 35mm Photography -

Not surprisingly after 1980 the entry-level 35mm RF niche vanished to give way to newly developed plastic bodied, fully programmed, electronic 35mm marvels with autofocusing and motorized zoom lenses.   Unfortunately, most of these newer, motorized marvels rarely lasted beyond five years of regular use.

Even the 35mm SLR market saw cheapened, plastic clad cameras and lens become the norm rather than the exception.   The 35mm SLR cameras and lenses from the 1980 to 90 era are a bargain in today's market due to shear numbers sold then and everyone having abandoned film cameras in recent years.   One usually can find a working camera and lens from this time in today's used market for $50 to $100 for the combo.   A post 1990 film camera that uses autofocus lenses can be bought for around $25.

The rangefinder designs that managed to soldier on through the 1990's were usually better spec'd, high-end models, to include the Leica M6 and Konica Hexar, plus some medium format RF cameras from Mamiya and Fuji.   By new millennium, the use of a rangefinder camera became almost an iconclastic statement.   Electronic were the new normal.

Current 35mm rangefinder offerings today start with the made by Cosina, Voigtlander Bessa branded line up and then there is Leica territory.   Names like Konica and Minolta have shutdown forever.   Cosina also made a Zeis-Ikon branded RF camera that was fitted with a premium viewfinder.   The Mamiya 7II is currently the last medium format film camera with a full lens system to use rangefinder focusing.   The RF market is very small, so someone may ask why would anyone use a rangefinder today?

- SLR Trade Offs -

Not everything was better in a world dominated by the SLR.   There were some downsides:

  • First, the SLR is much noisier than a RF camera due to the movement of the reflex mirror.
  • The mirror box on the SLR requires assymetrical, wide-angle lenses, referred to as a reverse telephoto.
  • The are very few 35mm SLR cameras that are pocketable.
  • A SLR viewfinder will momentarily black out when using slow shutter speeds.
  • Wide-angle lenses are more difficult to focus on a 35mm SLR than with a rangefinder camera.
  • Zoom lenses are usually optically compromised at their widest and longest range.
  • In low-light settings - a slow f/4 to f/5.6 zoom lens on an SLR results in a dark viewfinder.
  • Zoom lenses generally require the use of a flash when used indoors.

So, suppose that someone were to take two cameras with 50mm standard focal length lens into a room full of a group of people - one a 35mm rangefinder and the other a typical 35mm SLR.   If I then take a photograph of someone with both cameras, the first photo from the two cameras will be exactly the same - but trust me - the following photographes will be different to due to one camera being nearly silent, while the other has its signature mechanical report of a mirror clack.   Throw in a zoom and the obligatory flash unit needed by many zoom lenses for indoor shooting, then the second exposure by the SLR will for sure record a scene where everyone in the room is on camera alert.

Bottom line: a 35mm rangefinder camera will usually be a bit stealthier than an SLR in an indoor setting.

- Lens Design, Compact versus Bodacious -

Rangefinder are able use a short focal length, symmetrical lens designs that are very compact versus a SLR.   An excellent example would be either the first version of the Elmarit 28mm / f2.8 or the venerable 21mm / f4 Super Angulon wide-angle lenses by Leica.   Because the rear most glass element extends almost to the focal plane shutter, these two lenses would be impossible in a SLR - due to the space needed for the movement of the reflex mirror.

Two advantages of the symmetrical wide angle lenses are:

  • Symetrical lenses significantly reduces barrel distortion in periphery of the final image.
  • The design allows the wide-angle lens to be nearly flush with the body, - since the glass elements of the lens sit mostly within the camera body rather than in front.   This is great for making the camera and lens pocketable.

Unfortunately, a 28mm for example with a wide open aperture that surpasses f/2.8 seems to push the limit symmetrical design.   Therefore, symmetrical lenses tend to be slow in a modern terms with regards to their wide open f-stop.

To build a wide angle lens that can shoot at f/2 requires some big glass that simply won't fit into the throat of the lens mount on a 35mm rangefinder.   Modern photographers who want to be able to shoot with a wide angle lens that lets in more light than an f/2.8 or f/3.5 typically end up with a typically largish, reverse telephoto wide-angle lens - which looks like it belongs on an SLR.

- Simplicity and Craftsmanship versus Electronic Menus -

With an older, all-mechanical, rangefinder camera - one doesn't get to view a very useful histogram after each exposure - Menu surfing with a mode dial, while simultaneously pushing one of several available buttons - were yet to be invented.   There are no motorized autofocusing zoom lenses that sometimes hunt for a proper focus in low light and cause shutter lag.   Nor does the entire camera stop working when the battery quits on a very cold day.   Electronic viewfinder lag?   What's that?

There is a reason for all this simplicity. - Most rangefinder cameras produced before 1960 lack even a basic light meter.   There are no batteries.   The name of the game is an old-fashioned, mechanical spring driven shutter - and - the quaint use of three manually-set controls - which becomes the holy trinity of setting:

* aperature
* focus
* shutter speed

In the digital arena we are encouraged to a purchase camera with the latest updates and then another, once the next generation arrives.   One of my favorite rangefinder cameras is 80 years old.  : It is very well crafted and is still takes a splendid photograph that equals or surpasses one made with my 12 megapixel DSLR.   It's a Leica II.   The major caveat with this camera is that you must have your own photographic brain turned on.

- Better or Worse of Just Different -

Like many other pursuits in life, when an instrument is viewed as different versus better or worse, there can be room for more than one approach to getting the job done.   For example: the above mentioned 80 year old, black Leica II from 1932 is unobtrusive, very pocketable with its collapsible f/3.5, 50mm Elmar and still produces a fine image for an 8" by 10" print - provided that the camera is used in day light.   In daylight, the photographer can neglect the use a light meter with this camera by the simple use of the "Sunny 16 Rule" in order to set the exposure..

For indoor photography a fast f/1.5 lens and the use of a hand-held light meter - the Leica II makes for some very rewarding black and white images.   Color correction, a.k.a. "white balance," isn't needed for a B&W image.

The downside of a film camera is the continual expense and the lack of instant gratification.

- Film can be a hassle -

Film costs a good bit money over the life of a camera.   The photographer is not able to store a couple of hundred images on a single memory card.   To properly load an 80 year old Leica is a skill set in itself.   With that said - Loading film is pretty strait forward on most RF cameras design after 1960

Second, after the exposures are taken there is more to do than with digital.   Exposed film needs to be processed - which I feel is best done at home - this means using traditional black and white films.   D.I.Y development takes about a half to 3/4 of an hour.

Third, film is also a hassle at airport security, - it really should be hand-inspected.

Last but not least, the processed film must be scanned and electronically printed - or - better yet printed directly through the negative onto photographic paper using a traditional enlarger.

The end game of film photography is the final print on photographic paper - which takes a while.

- Film can be digitized -

My biggest beef with a film to digital workflow is the scanner.   A dedicated film scanner gets the best results.   An important step is an IT8 calibration of both the scanner to the specific brand of film and the calibration of a computer monitor that can show the full gamut of tones.   Proper scanning also takes a good bit of skill, software and time - which is extended by having to post process the scan.

After all is said and done - I prefer an analog print made by directly shining a collimated beam of light through a lens and then the negative onto a sheet of photographic paper with an enlarger - which results in a print that is not only sharper, but has greater tonality and gradation.   As it would have been 50 years ago, with either a contact sheet or full-size print, the print is your scanned image.   Unfortunately, the D.I.Y analog print is best suited for B&W film.

The reason that the negative analog print must usally it must be done by the photographer is because there aren't many labs that still use a traditional enlarger.

On a final note - while film-based photography is no longer a medium that most professional photographers can make money with, - the use of an older rangefinder or an older SLR teaches one to observe and understand the nature of available light.  : The photographer also must think about how it will be captured on film and proceed with the basics of achieving a proper exposure.   In other words, a preautomated film SLR or RF camera will get the photographer in the habit relying on software that resides within the human brain rather than letting the camera decide what is best.   Such a skill-set is definitely beneficial when the time comes to override/customize the automatic modes of a modern digital SLR.

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- Revised on December 16th, 2015-