Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Rangefinder Cameras - Why They Have Survived 80 Years

I very rarely shoot with a single lens reflex these days, but it’s not because I’m in a state of photographic semi-retirement. I’m currently shooting more than I ever have. The advantages of using a single lens reflex are not advantages I need, and the disadvantages of SLRs are enough to make me leave them at home. In fact, people who bought a single lens reflex in the 1970’s and 1980’s and never used a lens other than the 50mm lens that came with the camera should have bought a rangefinder instead. But almost nobody did, and the rangefinder lost its popularity. Enter the autofocus camera, and the rangefinder all but disappeared. So why is there a dedicated following of rangefinder aficionados still around today?

  • It can be much smaller and lighter than an SLR. A Contax T or a Leica IIIf with a 50/3.5 Elmar can fit comfortably in one’s trouser pocket.
  • It has a brighter viewfinder. The viewfinder of an SLR gets dimmer as one uses slower lenses. Because the rangefinder viewfinder does not use the light path through the lens mounted on the camera, the viewfinder is always the same brightness regardless of the lens used.
  • It is (in my opinion) easier to focus. Quickly focusing a rangefinder entails finding a hard edge on the subject and merging two images of that hard edge into one. This advantage is particularly important in dim light. If you can see the reflection in someone’s eye, you can focus on it with a rangefinder.
  • You can use colored filters with black and white film without having your subject in the viewfinder turn bright yellow or dark red. This is another reason why rangefinders easier to focus.
  • It has less shutter lag than an SLR. When you trip the shutter of an SLR, several things must happen immediately afterward. The mirror must move out of the way of the light path to the film, the camera body must quickly close the lens aperture to the desired f-stop, the two focal plane shutter curtains must traverse the light path, the aperture must then return to the open setting, and the mirror must return to the downward angled position. A rangefinder exposure involves only the movement of the shutter curtains.
  • It is quieter than an SLR, for the reasons stated above.
  • It has less vibration during the exposure than an SLR, for the reasons stated above. When you have all of the activity of an SLR occurring right around the fraction of a second of exposure, hand-held shots are generally limited to 1/60th of a second or faster. I’ve never gotten a clean SLR shot hand-held at 1/30th or slower. Mirror flap is the primary culprit.

That mirror box might be the Achilles heel of the SLR. While it allows the SLR photographer to use long telephoto lenses, macro lenses, and close-up bellows/extension tubes, that mirror box is in a very awkward position, right between the lens and the film. This posed a challenge for lens designers. Lenses that once sat closer to the film are now displaced forward due to the mirror box situated in front of the shutter. Major lens redesigns were necessary. The camera body had to be deeper, and SLR lenses were invariably larger and heavier as were their lens elements. And the SLR camera and SLR lens have a shorter mean time between failures due to the mechanisms that must go into play at the time of exposure. Shoot a thousand rolls of film through the SLR and your mirror has flapped up and down very quickly 36,000 times. The mirror flap is damped by thin strips of foam rubber or plastic. These can deform and deteriorate over time, and must be replaced. There is some question of just how accurate critical focusing can be when the mirror may not be resting exactly where it was resting when the camea left the factory years before. A piece of foam doesn't malfunction all at once. The accuracy of the focusing deteriorates slowly over time.

Rangefinder cameras and lenses are legendary for their extremely long lifespan and reliability. It is not uncommon to see rangefinder enthusiasts plunking down money for a 50-year-old rangefinder body and lens with the intention of using it, and using it a lot. And, like the old Volkswagen Beetle, it can see decades of steady service. It might get ugly, but it will still work just fine. Stephen Gandy has a photograph of the late street photographer Garry Winogrand’s Leica M4 on his site. It had seen many years of action, and it still worked just fine. Like all precision instruments, you need to have a rangefinder camera cleaned, lubricated, and serviced every so often, but there is far less to go wrong with them compared to SLR and autofocus cameras and lenses.

The rangefinder was the hands-down favorite of history's street phontographers and photojournalists. The rangefinder is less obtrusive due to the combination of what is written above: small (cameras and lenses), quiet, quick to focus, and easy to frame. And remember that, with an SLR, the subject won’t likely be in clear focus in the viewfinder when you first bring the camera up to your eye. And when you trip the shutter, you lose sight of the subject while the mirror is up. It's very hard to track a moving target when the viewfinder blacks out, and the brief shutter lag doesn't help either. The instant that the subject's image is being recorded on film is the instant you cannot see the subject through the viewfinder.

So why isn’t everyone using rangefinders? There are some downsides to rangefinders.

  • Parallax problems. Because you are not viewing through the actual taking lens, close focusing leads to some parallax issues in which the framing is not quite what you expected it to be. This is really only a major issue when your subject is closer than 5 feet, but it is an issue.
  • Limitations on lens length. This is probably what spelled the demise for rangefinders in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Everyone seemed to get long telephoto envy There were lots of oohs and aahs when you were seen with a long telephoto lens. But I have to admit that most of my long telephotos always stayed in the case in my closet. I just don't shoot sporting events or birds.
  • Macrophotography is not the forte of the rangefinder. There are expensive devices to allow a rangefinder to photograph very small objects, but it makes more sense to use an SLR with a macro lens or with bellows/extension tubes.
  • No zoom lenses. Need I say more? Forget finding a rangefinder zoom. There aren't any. The Contax G2 had what was called a rangefinder zoom lens available, but a Contax G2 isn't a rangefinder. It is an autofocus camera.
  • Accessory viewfinders. Rangefinders excel at wide angle and extreme wide angle photography, but you need to use accessory viewfinders to predict the angle of view, and these accessory viewfinders aren't cheap.

These comments above pertain to 35mm photography. If we move to medium format, everything I’ve said above still applies, and to a much greater degree. The flapping mirror is bigger and slower, the body is heavier, the lenses are slower and heavier, the viewfinder is dimmer, and the camera becomes more awkward to handle without a tripod. But you can get a medium format rangefinder such as a Bronica 645 or a Mamiya 7 that is about the same heft as a modern 35mm SLR. And you can get a medium format rangefinder (used) that will give you a 6cm x 9cm negative.

The turn of the century (the one we had six years ago) saw a resurgence of rangefinder popularity. In the past 6 or 7 years, new 35mm rangefinder camera models emerged from Konica, Zeiss-Ikon, Hasselblad, Nikon, Voigtländer, Rollei, and the patriarch of rangefinder cameras, Leica. And for those who want to buy used rangefinder, there are thousands available on ebay and used camera stores such as KEH and Ritz Collectibles (not the Ritz Camera chain).
Who should buy one? Anyone serious about film photography who shoots subjects that can be captured with a lens length between 12mm and 135mm. That probably describes most 35mm photographers. It’s a pity that they thought they needed an SLR for their work and allowed the rangefinder to slip into relative obscurity.

Anyone interested in further reading on classic rangefinders are urged to pay a visit to Stephen Gandy's CameraQuest site. And if you decide to buy a new rangefinder and lens(es), CameraQuest is a good place to start. Mr. Gandy sells new Voigtländer cameras and lenses and is a good guy to buy from.