- 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. -

Rangefinder cameras are what essentially ushered in a new era of photography during the middle third of the last century.   The allure of the rangefinder camera was its compactness and that it allowed photographer to quickly and precisely focus a camera lens without guessing the distance to their subject.   In short, the rangefinder camera allowed the photographer make quick exposures without sacrificing precision focusing.

By using a standardized lens mount - the small 35mm format rangefinder camera created the first modern camera systems with interchangeable lenses.   Although the intitial lens offerings weren't as numerous as they are for today's SLR cameras, the early Contax and Leica rangefinder cameras began to transform the way photographers used their cameras in the field.   The smaller 35mm rangefinder camera lended itself well to more, informal and candid style of photography.     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 as pocketable.

Another available focusing alternative introduced during early 1930's was the twin lens reflex camera.   The TLR was a good innovation, which was at its best when one wanted to slow down and compose in a more contemplative manner.

The strong point of the TLR is it filled a niche for a high-quality, fixed-lens, medium format film camera.   Its bulkier design won't fit in a coat pocket - but twin lens reflex cameras had their place for four decades in professional and serious amateur photography .   The larger medium format negative and larger viewing screen still has its advantages over the much smaller 35mm format.

The rangefinder camera on the other hand favors more of reportage style of photography - where the photographer is able to capture action in almost a cinemagraphic manner.

- Rangefinder Camera Basics -

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 viewfinder window gathers the larger of two images that the photographer sees when looking through the viewfinder.
  • The rangefnder window sits in front of a moveable mirror that reflects a second image to the viewfinder.
  • The reflection passes moves across the camera's top cover towards a small lens before reaching a half-silvered mirror located within the viewfinder.
  • This second image is sometimes referred to as the RF patch and is optically projected into the center portion of the viewfinder image.
  • The twin images the intended subject in the viewfinder are what assists in setting the manual focus ring on the lens.
  • On a couple-rangefinder each lens must be made to operate a small sensor arm in the camera body to pivot the moveable mirror as the focus is set.

When the photographer adjusts the focus ring on the imaging lens with a modern rangefinder camera, a 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.   This second image is often referred to as the rangefinder patch.  : Put your finger over the RF window at the front of the camera and this second image will magically dissappear from the viewfinder.

- Viewfinders -

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 that the optical path for its viewfinder - which is straight through 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 viewfindere.

The only advantage to the smaller framelines, is it allows the photographer to hold the camera steady and let the action pass into the framelines and grab the shot.   On an SLR a photographer will usually pan on an action shot in order to keep the subject within the viewfinder.

By the late 1950's - the framelines automatically move within the viewfinder to correct for parallax errors while adjusting the lens focus.   Still only a very few rangefinder cameras crop the framelines to match the coverage of the actual lens as the focus from infinity to the nearest focus distance.   Hence, most framelines are biased to what will be recorded on film when the lens is focused to 2 meters.

- A Short Rangefinder History -

Early 35mm RF cameras included the Leica II and the early Contax - and - were priced well beyond the reach of most photographers at the time of their introduction in 1932.   By the late 1930's, a rangefinder or two would be included in the line-up most serious camera manufacturers, be it a 35mm or medium format folder.

Portable cameras from the early 1900's had a bulky feel and the photographer more often than not had to focus by guess and use a look down viewfinder to compose each frame.   The 35mm camera fit naturally in the cradle of one hand and featured an eye-level viewfinder, which is perfect for street photography.   Fitted with either a lens that was nearly flush to the front of the camera or a lens that could collapse into the camera body - early 35mm rangefinder cameras literally fit within a coat pocket when not in use.

Leica III circa 1933

The 35mm RF camera introduced speed and the ability to make repeated exposures rapidly to photography.   Once the film was loaded in a 35mm rangefinder camera - the camera was ready for action in seconds, because the rangefinder allowed for near instant focusing.   Unlike earlier formats which were mostly medium format, the film stopped winding automatically at the next frame.   So, a second exposure could be made within two to three seconds of the taking the of the first.   At an event with continous action, one could now wind and shoot repeatedly.

Medium format rangefinder cameras were mostly adaptations of the old bellows camera that folded when not in use.   Only a few featured a film winding mechanism that stopped at the next frame and with the exception of some later press-cameras, nearly all medium format rangefinder cameras utilized a fixed-lens designed specifically for that camera.

- Classic Rangefinder Cameras of the 1950's -

A second and more modern wave of rangefinder cameras were introduced in the 1950's - just as color film became popular.   During the same time frame the use optical lens coatings allowed for a greater variety optical designs than had been the case before the Second World War.   For example, 28mm and 35mm wide-angle lenses were vastly superior to their pre-war predecessors.

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 excellent copies of the Leica and Contax platforms.   More importantly these Japanese firms 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.   Both of which proved to be a game changer.   The basic design of these two cameras has endured to this day with addition of a light meter and now a digital back.

The important thing is 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).   By the end of the decade, thumb winders for the film advance replaced knob winders.   Most manufacturers had by this time combined the RF apparatus to appear within the viewfinder itself on at least one of the cameras.   Viewfinders became larger and usually included multiple framelines for three different lenses.   Film loading became musch easier, as well.

While Canon or Nikon took the top spots amongst Japanese firms - names like Leotax, Konica, Minolta, Nicca and Olympus also building 35mm rangefinders cameras - usually for the advanced amateur rather than the professional photographer.   Canon was the most prolific producer of a variety of LTM lenses.   Before being taken over by Yashica in 1958 - Nicca rangefinders were also fitted with superb LTM Nikkors built by Nikon and they still perform wonderfully on a Leica.   The Nicca was sold in North America through Sears, Roebuck and Company under their in-house Tower brand.

The 1950's was the Golden Era of rangefinder photograpy.   All this succes and yet by 1960, rangefinder camera sales were in a free fall.

- 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 since 1960 is that single lens reflex camera allows the photographer to use a longer focal length lens and stand at a more comfortable distance from their subject or if preferred, switch to normal or wide-angle lens, then shoot in close proximity.

Put a 180mm lens on a 35mm SLR and its viewfinder becomes similar to a telescope and the viewing image will match what the framed as it will appear on film. - Photographers are generally much happier with this approach to composition.   Sports and wildlife photographers carry this concept to its extreme.

Furthermore, if changing lenses takes too much time, - 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.   Even so, the zoom lens, along with semi-automatc exposure modes, brought more and more photographers into the SLR camp.

So 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 they were built with.   The lens was usually very well spec'd for the times and took a great photo - but these cameras were looked down upon, by SLR users who had never seen a print taken by one of these compact 35mm cameras.

After 1980, even this entry-level niche quickly gave way to newly developed plastic bodied, fully programmed electronic 35mm marvels with autofocusing, motorized zoom lenses.   Unfortunately, most of these new, motorized marvels rarely lasted beyond five years of regular use.

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 the end of this decade, the use of a rangefinder camera became almost an iconclastic statement.

Current 35mm rangefinder offerings today start with the Cosina-Voigtlander Bessa line up and wind up in Leica territory.   Konica has shutdown forever, but Cosina now makes a Zeis-Ikon branded RF camera that is 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:

  • First, the SLR is much noisier than a RF camera due to the movement of the reflex mirror.
  • A SLR viewfinder will momentarily black out when using slow shutter speeds.
  • Shooting hand-held with a slow speed, of 1/15 or 1/8 with a 50mm lens is a bit problematic
  • In low-light settings, a slow f/4 to f/5.6 lenses on an SLR results in a dark viewfinder.
  • 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.
  • The mirror box on the SLR requires assymetrical, wide-angle lenses, referred to as a reverse telephoto.

Rangefinder cameras on the other hand are able use a short focal length, symmetrical lens design.   An excellent example would be a first version of the Elmarit 28mm / f2.8 wide-angle.   Because the rear most glass element extends almost to the focal plane shuter, this lens would be impossible in a SLR - due to the space needed for the movement of the reflex mirror.   A second example, would be the old Soviet J12, a 35mm f/2.8 clone whose rear most glass is optic protrudes quite a ways into the camera, again almost touching the film plane.

The two advantages of the symmetrical wide angle lenses are:

  • Symetrical lenses greatly 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.

Unfortunately, a 28mm with a wide open aperture that surpasses f/2.8 seems to push the limit of this design.   Therefore symmetrical lenses tend to be slow in a modern terms with regards to their wide open f-stop.   To build a symmetrical 28mm that can shoot at f/2 requires some big glass that simply won't fit into the throat of lens mount on a 35mm rangefinder.   Modern photographers who want to be able to shoot at f/2 with a 28mm lens typically end up with a reverse telephoto wide-angle lens that looks like it belongs on an SLR.  , Such lenses completely do away with the compact package one had with the older symmetrical wide-angle lenses and will block a portion of the viewfinder.

- 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 and simultaeously pushing one of several available buttons had 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 cold day.

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 the aperature, focus and shutter speed.   In other words, a rangefinder camera is antithesis of a modern electronic marvel.

One of my rangefinder cameras is 80 years old and is still takes a splendid photograph in good light.   It's a Leica II.   The major caveat with this camera is that you must have your own photographic brain turned on.

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: that now 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, once can neglect to use a light meter with this camera and simply use the "Sunny 16 Rule" to set the exposure, which in my case is the "Sunny 11 Rule".

Old-school photography and nostalgia aren't what they used to be.   We live in a world where 99% plus of today's photographers seem to be very happy with a plastic bodied camera, that will probably go kaput in several years - This typical camera is usually fitted with a do-everything zoom lens, which hopefully has image stabiliztion.

With regards to the digital versus film debate - The dynamic range of film still gives it an edge or signature that is more conducive to B/W photography - without a lot of post capture enhancement.   Digital on the other hand is great with color.   For color photography, the ability to control the white balance is alone worth the price of admission and having an instaneous histogram is just iceing on the cake.   Throw in enough post capture software and of course digital capture will be capable of anything to include better bokeh or dynamic range, as is the case in HDR imaging.

An observation: The main thing missing however from modern digital photography is usally a physical print.

The Downsides of Film Photography

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.   Exposed film needs to be processed - which I feel is best done at home - when using traditional black and white films.   D.I.Y development is time consuming.   Next, 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.

Film photography is about the final print.   Yes, there are color slides.

My biggest beef with a film to digital workflow is the scanner.   This intermediate step requires, a high quality film scanner, which for the most part is no longer being manufactured at the consumer level.   Then there is 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 - an analog print made by directly shining a collimated beam of light through the negative onto a sheet of photographic paper with an enlarger results in a print that is not only sharper, but has greater tonality and gradiation - which is why I recomment B/W film.   As it would have been 50 years ago, with either a contact sheet or full-size print, the print is your scanned image.

The downside of a through the negative analog print is that usally it must be done by the photographer, because there aren't many labs left that print with a traditional enlarger.   Like the person who is trying to scan 30 years worth of negatives, if you currently shoot copious quantities of film each week, you'll never keep up keep with the work flow.

While film-based photography is no longer a medium that most professional photographers can make money with, - the use of an older rangefinder or SLR teaches one to observe the available light as it will be captured on film and the basics of achieving a proper exposure.   In other words, the use an of old, 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 will definitely be beneficial when the time comes to override/customize the automatic modes of a modern digital SLR.

Leica LTM RF
   Fixed-Lens 35mm RF
   Medium Format RF Folders

- Revised on December 17th, 2011-