Rangefinder cameras, particularly Leicas, have almost a cult-like following. In some circles, shooting with a rangefinder is a status symbol, not only due to the cost, but also the skills it takes to use a rangefinder.
And while Leicas and other expensive models are exquisitely engineered, you can find a good quality rangefinder in all shapes and sizes to create beautiful images, and the skills needed to master these cameras can be learned.
So, what exactly is a rangefinder camera, and why might you want one?
I have one caution before I move on to all the great things about rangefinders, and that is I would not recommend them for beginner film photographers.
There is a small but important learning curve when shooting with a rangefinder, but it’s worth mastering because I believe using a rangefinder significantly improves your skills as a photographer and teaches you to think like an artist.
What is a Rangefinder Camera?
You could say that rangefinders were the first compact mirrorless cameras. And because of their increasing popularity since the mid-twentieth century, their look has become iconic and instantly recognizable.
Simply put, rangefinders are different from SLR cameras because what you see in the viewfinder is not exactly what the lens sees. What differentiates a rangefinder from an SLR is its focusing system.
SLR cameras focus through the lens of the camera. Light enters the lens and is bounced and reflected through a prism and mirror to the camera’s viewfinder. What your eye sees is what the camera sees.
When you look at the front of a rangefinder, you’ll notice several windows, with the viewfinder all the way over to the right. (SLR cameras have the viewfinder in the center of the camera body just above the lens.)
The large opaque window next to the viewfinder is actually just that—a window to let light into the viewfinder. The tiny window just to the left of the lens is the rangefinder.
I will talk more about why these features are important and how they affect the use of a rangefinder as we go.
History of Rangefinder Cameras
The first rangefinder cameras appeared early in the twentieth century with the first one being the Kodak 3A Autographic Special of 1916.
Leica introduced its first camera in 1925: the Leica A (find on eBay). It was not a rangefinder, but one of its most popular accessories was a mounted rangefinder attachment. Its first range finder, the Leica II (find on eBay), with a coupled rangefinder and a separate viewfinder was introduced in 1932.
The Zeiss Contax II (find on eBay), introduced in 1936, was the first 35mm rangefinder camera with a combined rangefinder/viewfinder. The Kodak Ektra (find on eBay) was the first rangefinder to attempt to compensate for parallax error (which we’ll go over a little later).
Besides the Leica, the other most recognizable rangefinder is the Speed Graphic (find on eBay), most commonly used by press and sports photographers between the 1930s-1960s.
The golden age of rangefinders began in 1954 with the introduction of the Leica M3, the first Leica to have a coupled and combined rangefinder and viewfinder. It was also the first to have the traveling frame lines to compensate for parallax error.
Rangefinder cameras focus using a rangefinder mechanism that shows a dual image in the viewfinder and when the calibrated wheel is turned until the two images melt into a single image, the shot is in focus.
Rangefinder cameras use distance measurements to focus. In an uncoupled rangefinder, when the rangefinder determined the correct focusing distance, the photographer then transferred that distance to the focus ring on the lens. Some cameras had the rangefinder mounted on the top of the camera as an accessory.
Later models incorporated the rangefinder into the viewfinder and coupled it to the lens so that when the image in the viewfinder/rangefinder was focused, the lens was also focused. This is called a coupled rangefinder.
Because the viewfinder and the lens do not see “eye to eye” so to speak, rangefinders are subject to a thing called parallax error.
Remember where the viewfinder is located on a rangefinder? All the way to the right edge of the camera when you are looking at it face on and all the way to the left when you are holding the camera up to you eye.
This separation of the viewfinder and lens is what causes parallax error.
When you are shooting things from a distance, this issue is negligible; however, when you are shooting things close up, it becomes a problem.
Most high-quality and more modern rangefinders compensate for parallax error with viewfinder frame lines that shift and travel to help you estimate what will be in the final frame.
Since rangefinder cameras offer a completely different shooting experience than SLRs due to its unique focusing system, users have found ways to make using and focusing rangefinders faster and easier.
As we have learned, rangefinders bring distance to the forefront of the user’s experience. This is an advantage for many shooting situations that we will talk about in just a moment. As a result, rangefinder users quickly learn to judge distances speedily and accurately and use a focusing technique called zone focusing.
This is especially handy when you’re waiting for some type of action to take place. It’s a way of pre-focusing so that all you must do is make minor adjustments to finalize focus.
Keep in mind that a greater depth of field (smaller apertures), or your focus zone, will increase your rate of success. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “f/8 and be there.” This is often the sweet spot aperture for zone focusing.
Advantages of Rangefinder Cameras
Rangefinders have been around for over 100 years and still remain popular because the offer a number of advantages over SLR cameras, the biggest of which is its lack of a mirror.
This missing mirror creates several advantages:
1. Compact and Light/Discrete
Rangefinders don’t have to make room for a prism, mirror, or focusing screen making their bodies compact and light to fit in the palm of your hand.
This also makes them less noticeable when brought to the eye to shoot so you can freeze that decisive moment.
2. Quiet Shutter
There is no mirror slap in a rangefinder, making the only sound you hear the quiet snick of the shutter.
3. No Shutter Lag
Again, without that mirror to move before the shutter, you get the exact shot you want at the exact moment you want it.
4. Easier to Hand Hold at Low Shutter Speeds
Without a mirror moving in the camera, you can shoot slower shutter speeds handheld. Some rangefinders even have leaf shutters, making them especially quiet and stable.
5. Lighter and Smaller Wide-Angle Lenses
Because lenses don’t have to be designed to accommodate a moving mirror, they can be smaller and lighter.
6. Better Image Quality
The lack of a mirror in rangefinders allows engineers to design lenses whose rear elements can be closer to the focal plane creating sharper images.
7. No Mirror or Mirror Blackout
Getting rid of that pesky mirror means that there is no viewfinder blackout as the mirror flips to allow the image to be taken.
8. Can Show What is Happening Outside the Frame Lines
Viewfinders have framing lines so that you can see outside of the frame and anticipate the shot.
9. Looking Through the Viewfinder is Like Seeing with Your Eyes—Everything is in Focus
Because you aren’t looking through the lens to focus, the majority of what you see (except the rangefinder image to be moved) in the viewfinder will always be in focus.
This is way you don’t miss something important because what you are seeing through your camera isn’t sharp.
10. You Can Shoot with Both Eyes Open
The framed viewfinder and the fact that the viewfinder is on the left edge of the camera means you can shoot with both eyes open, so you don’t miss the action.
11. Bright Viewfinder and Easier to Focus in Low Light
The extra light let in by the window next to the viewfinder gives most rangefinders very bright viewfinders. And because rangefinders don’t need high contrast in the frame or the use of infrared beams to focus, you can focus in darker situations.
12. Using Filters
Putting a filter on the lens of an SLR reduces the amount of light coming through the lens and darkens the viewfinder. Because you aren’t focusing through the lens, the viewfinder will always be nice and bright whether a filter is on the lens or not.
Just remember to compensate for that filter when metering!
13. Vintage Models are Completely Mechanical and Don’t Require a Battery
I find non-electronic cameras to always be an advantage. They tend to last longer, need fewer repairs, and are always ready to shoot.
Any battery requirements in a fully mechanical camera are usually for the light meter, which once you are an experienced photographer or if you carry a handheld light meter, isn’t absolutely necessary.
Disadvantages of a Rangefinder
Of course, no camera system is perfect, so there are a few disadvantages or trade-offs when choosing a rangefinder camera:
1. Parallax Error
As discussed earlier, many cameras compensate for this. And if they don’t, you will learn to with experience if you frequently shoot subjects less than five feet from your lens.
2. No Close Ups or Macro Capability
Because of parallax error and the limitations to close focusing with many rangefinder lenses, you will probably choose an SLR camera for your macro and close up shots.
3. Blocking the Lens and Lens Cap Error
One of the most frequent errors rangefinder users make—even the most experienced ones—is forgetting to take off the lens cap. It happens to the best of us!
You won’t notice the lens cap is on if you forget to take it off because your viewfinder is separate from your lens. It’s also easy to inadvertently block your lens with a finger or a camera strap because you aren’t looking through the lens on a rangefinder.
The solution to this is to stay vigilant and to develop a habitual routine when shooting with a rangefinder.
4. Slower Max Shutter Speed
Most rangefinders, especially older models have a maximum shutter speed of 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second. This can limit your aperture choices and prevent you from shooting wide open in bright sunlight.
5. Telephoto and Fisheye Lenses are Impractical
These larger lenses can be quite troublesome on rangefinder cameras. They are larger lenses and can block the scene in the viewfinder.
Also, telephoto lenses are harder to focus on a rangefinder and often need to be calibrated to each camera. Fisheye lenses require a separate viewfinder that sits on top of the camera.
6. What You See is Not What You Get
You must get to know your rangefinder well and learn to visualize your images before you create them, because what you see through the viewfinder is not exactly what gets recorded on the film.
Just because the subject is within sight inside the viewfinder doesn’t mean it’s within sight of the lens.
7. Requires Periodic Calibration
Because rangefinders operate primarily using distance measurements, they need to be occasionally calibrated to remain accurate.
It’s best to have your rangefinder regularly maintained to avoid frequent out of focus shots.
Rangefinder Learning Curve
As you’ve seen from how rangefinder cameras work and their pros and cons, rangefinders are quite different from SLR cameras and require the photographer to think a little differently.
Because what you see through the viewfinder is not what you get on film, learn to visualize your image before you make your image. Because what you see through the viewfinder is always in focus, you begin to think in images.
Once you master the skills it takes to shoot with a rangefinder, you begin to think less about the mechanics of your camera and more about the moment you’re trying to capture.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, arguably one of the most famous rangefinder users, coined the phrase “the decisive moment” because his mind wasn’t consumed with the exposure triangle or focusing his lens but rather because he was constantly searching for the one moment that told the complete story in a single frame.
Of course, you must still know how to meter and focus your camera, and this is why rangefinders aren’t for the beginner or the faint of heart!
Best Uses for Rangefinder Cameras
Rangefinders have a cult-like following for a number of reasons, including the advantages we’ve already talked about. Many well-known photographers, artists, and celebrities such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, and Queen Elizabeth II, have used them and inspired their followers to do the same.
But they are also popular because they are often the best tool for the job. You’ll find rangefinders most used by street photographers, photojournalists, theater photographers, and travelers.
Rangefinders and Street Photography
Street photographers love rangefinders because they are small, lightweight, discrete, quiet, and have excellent wide-angle lenses.
They also love that they can shoot with both eyes open, watching what is happening outside of the frame so they are ready to capture the decisive moment.
Photojournalists love rangefinders for many of the same reasons street photographers do. They are also wanting to tell the entire story in one frame, and they often want to move through the world quietly and without being noticed.
In the past, theater photographers who shot during live performances for the press also wanted to be quiet and unobtrusive, making rangefinders the perfect tool for the job.
Today, rangefinders probably see the most action with travelers. Rangefinders are the perfect travel cameras because they are small and lightweight and have excellent glass.
When space and weight are at a premium, rangefinders are an excellent choice.
Various Models I’ve Used or Own
While I don’t own a Leica M6, I have borrowed one from a friend for several months and spent some time getting to know it. A Leica is a beautifully engineered and constructed camera.
It’s a little challenging to load the film until you get the hang of it, but it’s delightful to shoot with and the perfect camera to carry with you everywhere.
And while I loved using it, I just haven’t been able to justify the four-figure price tag for a body and a lens. But someday, I’d love to own a TTL M6 with a 35mm lens.
Due to the discontinuation of instant pack film, this camera will soon be obsolete, and that is extremely sad. The Polaroid 180 (find on eBay) is a professional level Polaroid camera that uses peel-apart pack film.
It’s completely manual and not automatic like the many consumer models you find in thrift and antique stores. It’s a fun camera that takes gorgeous, sharp images.
You’ll notice that the rangefinder sits on top of the camera.
Unlike most rangefinders, it CAN take beautiful closeups if you have the right accessories. Polaroid offered two closeup filters—a portrait filter and a macro filter—along with a set of “goggles” that fit over top the rangefinder/viewfinder.
I’ve found the portrait filter and goggles to be easier to focus and more accurate. Other rangefinder camera systems may also offer goggled lenses.
Both of these cameras are still on my camera bucket list for the same reason as the Leica M6: they are expensive! But both are worth it.
The Fuji GF670 (find on eBay) is a compact medium format camera with a leaf shutter in its bellows-focused lens. It has a tack-sharp lens that allows for closer focusing thanks to the bellows behind the lens.
The Hasselblad Xpan (find at KEH Camera) camera is a 35mm panoramic camera that offers three sharp interchangeable lenses. It’s definitely a special-use camera that won’t be used on a regular basis. But what fun it would be to travel and see the world through its panoramic lens!
Rangefinders can be a polarizing topic in the photography world. Some people see them as a status symbol because of their expense, name recognition, and the added skills required to use them well. Some see them as an over-priced finicky piece of gear.
But for others, rangefinders are the best tools for the job. Or they like how rangefinders challenge them to think creatively and visually. And some photographers just enjoy the experience of shooting with a lightweight, quiet, and low-profile camera.
It’s hard to predict whether you will like shooting with a rangefinder until you actually get one in your hands and spend some time getting to know it. But if you’re ready to try something new and learn to think and see the world just a little differently, it’s worth picking up a rangefinder and heading out to explore the world together.
If you’re already a rangefinder user, what’s your favorite?