Why Rangefinders? By Anthony Chang

Today we have a guest piece by Anthony Chang discussing his reasons for choosing a rangefinder. Read on…

Why do I like using rangefinders so much, a question I’m often asked by my peers and fellow photographers. Now before I say anything this isn’t a article about me telling you that you should all switch to using rangefinders and that they’re better then SLRs, because they really aren’t.

Being able to take a good photo was never about the tools you use its about how you use them. As odd as it is coming from me, an all round gear whore who keeps buying new toys whenever I have any spare cash on hand, you must never think that you’ll get better photos if you had this camera or this lens. Thats the number one mistake any new photographer makes, if you look around you’ll find people who use point and shoots to an entry level DSLR with a kit lens being able to take better photos then a lot of the rich folks who have enough money to buy the most expensive equipment money can buy. I still use my SLRs quite often but I enjoy using my rangefinders a lot more.

I’m more or less going to talk about the pros and cons of using rangefinders along with some of my personal opinions about them. And I guess I should explain what exactly makes them different from SLRs for the people who don’t really know what a rangefinder is. So as usual take everything I say with a grain of salt because nothing is set in stone around here. Its just the ramblings of a young asian photographer who likes to think he knows a thing or two about photography.

So what is a rangefinder? Well lets just say its the original mirrorless lens camera. Rangefinders were the first 35mm cameras to be produced and they were first made by (arguably) the most prestigious camera company out there, Leica. Not going to lie I did actually laugh when I first heard the rumours Leica were working on their own mirrorless camera cause surprise surprise they’ve been doing that for the past 80 years. Though if they do make a cheaper alternative to the M8/M9 that would be interesting, but I digress.

Rangefinders are different from SLRs because for one they do not have a reflex mirror in the camera body. Besides that the biggest difference between a DSLR and a rangefinder is the viewfinder, it is not placed on top of the lens but on the side of the camera, because with a rangefinder you’re not looking through the lens of the camera when you look through the viewfinder. Think of it as simply looking through a window, you do not see what the lens sees so when you focus the lens you will not actually see what is and isn’t in focus, and what your end photo will look like. Most rangefinders are manual focus (except most notably the Contax G1 and G2 which were auto focus rangefinders [though technically speaking they are not true rangefinders but thats something I really don’t want to get into, they’re rangefinders in my book]) and like I said you do not exactly see what is and isn’t in focus when you look through the viewfinder, there is only a small patch within the viewfinder that will show you whether or not something is in focus. I really don’t want to get into the mechanics of how the rangefinder mechanism works but I will show you how its looks inside the viewfinder and how you tell if something is in focus or not and how its different from an SLR.

Looking through a Rangefinder vs an SLR. Top is what it looks like out of focus and bottom is what it looks like in focus.
Taken from my iPhone, left is the viewfinder for my Zeiss Ikon with a 50mm lens and right is my a850 with a 50mm lens

So why do I like them so much? Well the first answer anyone ever gets out of me when they ask me that is because I’m lazy. I rather not carry a large bag with 10lb worth of equipment with me everywhere I go (since I always bring my camera with me). Rangefinders systems are quite light and I like to travel light. Though in some cases (Leica’s case to be exact) rangefinders are not actually that much lighter then a film SLR. Though that is mainly because of the build quality of Leica M cameras, they are made entirely out of metal, for example a Leica M7 weighs 630g while a Canon AE-1 weighs 590g, a Canon T3i also weighs in at 570g, though to be fair a full frame DSLR like a Nikon D700 weighs 1095g. Even though the body may not be that light its at least smaller then most DSLRs and about the same size or smaller then most film SLRs. Its the lenses that are extremely small and relatively lightweight compared to SLR lenses. Almost all rangefinder lenses are small enough to fit in your pocket which is something I do when I just go out and shoot with a rangefinder and don’t want to bring bag, I just take my camera with a lens and maybe one or two more lenses in my pocket. Also because of how small rangefinders are they look less intimidating so you draw a lot less attention to yourself when your shooting which is one of the bigger selling points for street photographers. Trust me you could sell me anything (…if I was rich that is) just by saying “hey look its lighter!” and I’d come running like a convict escaping from prison.

The second main reason why I like using rangefinders is because its a different way of seeing. Now this part is completely subjective but its probably the most important factor when it comes to deciding on whether or not you should use and SLR or a rangefinder. With an SLR you are seeing the world through the lens, you get what you see, you are seeing the photo when you look through the camera. Though with a Rangefinder you are seeing the world through a clear window, in a sense the camera sees the world just like you do. You won’t know what the photo will actually look like until you get the chance to see the photo in front of you (which means once your film gets developed or if you bath in money and can afford one of thew few digital rangefinders like a Leica M9 you can see it instantly because of the wonders of a digital sensor and LCD screen). Since looking though the viewfinder is pretty much the same as seeing the world though your own eyes you have to pre visualize what your end photo will look like. So I see it as a great learning tool that helps train your eye, to be able to see photos without even having to put a camera up to your eye, it really does make you pre visualize your shots. Its a whole different way of shooting because of that, and I very much prefer that to looking through a lens with an SLR.

Another thing about the viewfinder is the fact that you see outside of your frame. Say you have a 50mm lens on, the rangefinder will bring up the frame lines for the 50mm lens but you can still see everything outside of that 50mm frame (reference the the rangefinder vs SLR viewfinder photo). It allows you to see things come and go into your frame which is great for street photography. Though on the downside the viewfinder (on most rangefinders) are good for 28mm to 135mm lens any longer and it becomes extremely difficult to focus and compose your photos. Any wider and you will have to use an external viewfinder to see the whole frame.

Also because you aren’t looking through the lens its both a good and bad thing, its makes using polarizers and graduated filters much harder to use since you can’t exactly see the effects of them through the viewfinder. Though if you shoot black and white film its great (if you use colour filters that is) because you don’t have to look through your camera and see a completely yellow, orange, or red scene all the time. Oh and the fact that your viewfinder doesn’t get darker when you are using slower lenses and when you put filters on, since you aren’t looking through your lens it definitely helps, just like sunglasses it may seem stupid to keep wearing them once it gets darker but people have their reasons. Not sure what reasons but I’m sure there are some… Right?

Alight so those are the two main reasons why I like rangefinders and now I’ll just quickly list off some pros and cons when it comes to using a rangefinder. Theres probably a bit more I can add to this pros and cons list with a rangefinder system but it depends on what your comparing it to. These are some of the pros and cons for rangefinders themselves.

Compact, lightweight and discrete system (not so much the body in particular but the lenses are very compact)
Quiet shutters that are vibration free because there is no mirror slap (though its not that quiet)
No viewfinder black out when taking a photo
Almost zero shutter lag
Bright viewfinder (does not get effected by slow lenses or filters)
Higher quality lenses (mainly wide angles because the rear element can sink into the body more [so they do not need to be retro focus designed lenses] since there is no mirror the lens has to clear)
Viewfinder is not through the lens which limits the use of lenses (no telephotos longer then 135mm, no tilt shifts and not possible to do macro work)
Viewfinder blockage from certain lenses (sometimes the bottom right corner of the viewfinder is blocked by the lens which makes framing less accurate)
Viewfinder frame lines are not 100% accurate so you never no what exactly your getting
Most rangefinders only have a few frame lines so there’s a chance of mismatched lens and camera (like using a 40mm lens on a Leica M when its closest frame lines to that are either 35mm or 50mm, so again not 100% accurate)
Use of filters (polarizers and graduated ND filters) are harder to use
Due to parallax error and the design of a rangefinder most lenses cannot focus closer then 0.7m
No real zoom lenses (Leica Tri Elmar is the closest thing to a zoom, though it can only go to 16-18-21mm F4 and 28-35-50mm F4)
Require regular maintenance (recalibrating the rangefinder mechanism every few years)

Its something you either love or hate, and some people just love them because of how they look. While some others simply just blindly love Leica (because they think it might be great because of the high price they go for) and instantly assume its a great camera even though they never used a rangefinder before, and thats a bad reason to get a rangefinder. So don’t jump right on the rangefinder wagon because of some false beliefs, test the waters first. There are a lot of cheap fixed lens rangefinders you can buy for less the $40 if you know where to look. Cameras like the Yashica Electro 35 or the Olympus 35 SP, RC, RD, or any of the Minolta Hi-Matic series. Who knows you might end up liking it I know quite a few people that don’t like or care for rangefinders since they are missing a lot of things modern SLRs have such as auto focus and zoom lenses. Not to mention there are a lot of people who just can’t or just don’t like the viewfinder and how you focus. Its all personal preference, so simply put its something you have to try first. Never expect your photos to be that much better because of your gear you use.

I think we’re good to end at that. Theres a lot more to using rangefinders then the things I mentioned here, this was just meant to be a quick little article about rangefinders and why I use them. Since not a lot of people really know what they are and how they work I figured I might as well talk about how they’re a little different from SLRs. A rangefinder is no better then an SLR, they both have their own pros and cons. Its because of how you see the world through a rangefinder and how it limits you is what makes the experience so different.

Thanks for reading and till next time, who knows what I’ll write about again but odds are it might be some more gear talk.

You can read more articles by Anthony Chang on his website http://www.cloudagephoto.com/