Why Rangefinders? By Anthony Chang


by Bellamy /

9 min read

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/


13 comments on “Why Rangefinders? By Anthony Chang”

    Greg Williamson August 1, 2012 at 9:30 am / Reply

    The main reason I use rangefinder cameras is that my eyesight is deteriorating as I get older. I have difficulties focussing a reflex camera. I find myself taking a long time judging focus. The rangefinder focus is definite. Match the images and I know it’s good. I think this is an underappreciated feature of rangefinder cameras, esp for photographers with poor eyesight.

    ZDP-189 August 1, 2012 at 1:02 pm / Reply

    Rangefinders are spawn of the Devil. I feel qualified to say so because I own three in M-mount, two screw mount and 14 fixed lens cameras from the 1970s and I shoot with them daily.

    There’s a reason why they all but went extinct in the 1980s. SLRs are more accurately focussed and show you exactly what you will capture. You can do close-up photos without expensive and ugly ‘goggles’ and you can shoot macro without a reflex adapter. You can use grad and step filters, polarisers and FX optics. Rangefinders don’t suit zoom lenses because framelines aren’t continuously variable. They can’t handle lenses that are very wide or very long and the finders can’t frame a large range of framelines. Many people who wear glasses cannot even see 28mm framelines even if present. The supposed advantage of shooting in the moment with both eyes open disappears when the finder magnification is below 0.7x or if, like me, you’re left eye dominant. Indeed, being left eye dominant, I often manage to hook my right eye socket with my right thumb and the advance lever tip as I wind on.

    Few rangefinder users are prepared to adnmit it, but I don’t focus well with the patch. I usually set a smaller aperture stop and guesstimate the range. An SLR on the other hand with a split screen, micro prisms and matt, plus focus confirmation points is easier, faster and more accurate. Don’t get me started on weight. With the exception of 70’s mini rangefinders and those made by Cosina, they’re not light and not pocketable. My Pen FT (SLR) is more pocketable by far. The lenses used to be small, but as apertures have gotten larger and optical quality has improved, lenses are ever bigger and heavier and pricier.

    Why then, despite all my bitching, do I have one on my person, two at my office and a dry cabinet stocked to the gunwales at home? When it all comes together, when a rangefinder is in its sweet spot, it is magical.

    What’s that sweet spot? Ironically, rangefinders work best when you don’t have to use the rangefinder to focus. Just about all I do with cameras for personal satisfaction is shoot wide primes in the street. Shooting wide angle lenses at medium to small apertures onto negative film they are deep, deep in their element. Lacking a mirror, they allow lenses that project deep into the body. They are quiet, have negligible shutter vibration, no blackout and keep you in the moment. You have to use one a lot to really get this, but once you do, the SLR gathers dust.

    In fact for my style of street shooting, 35mm rangefinders work better than any other class of film camera, except: prime lens compacts, zone focussing viewfinder cameras and possibly twin lens reflex cameras. Mind you, in the right hands, medium format folders and RFs will also kick their behinds in IQ. Notwithstanding these exceptions, I agree with the author that in certain circumstances rangefinders are sometimes more effective than SLRs, more practical than box cameras and easier to operate than large format view cameras with all the movements. Except maybe press cameras. They’re easy to use images they produce blow me away. But a monorail shoots portraits and landscapes with a look and precision that no other camera can reproduce.

    I suppose readers are confused by all my flip flopping. So am I. The best camera for the job depends on the circumstances of each shot. The answer is not to buy them all, but to find what camera does the shot you want best and then master it.

    ZDP-189 August 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm / Reply

    I forgot to thank Anthony for a great read. Your article was brilliantly written and incredibly detailed. Please tell us more about the cameras that you own and why you prefer them over other rangefinders.

    Thanks also to Bellamy for bring us this article and for all the camera porn. It doesn’t help my GAS to know that most of the cameras pictured are for sale! Bellamy, you should tell us all about the Nikon S2N SP, SPX, S3, S4, S3M, S2000 and SP ’05, etc.

    Petr Vorel August 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm / Reply

    I must disagree with ZDP here. For me it’s actually easier to focus an RF than a mechanical SLR. It kind of strikes me when I align the patches. When I’m out of focus the misalignment of the patches looks so unnatural that I really know I’m out of focus.

    Also focusing an RF is so easy in dim light. If I can see with my I can be sure I can focus with my RF. And as I really like low light situations this is a great feature for me.

    ZDP-189 August 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm / Reply

    It’s probably just my eyes. I love the X-700 and Leica R split images. I’ll add that I can focus either a lot better in low light than I can auto-focus a DSLR. I got about 30% OOFs shooting a gig last weekend with my 5DII and 24-105/ 70-200. They were hunting up and down like a steam train piston. Chugga chugga chugga.

    Anthony Chang August 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm / Reply

    Thanks for the compliment ZDP, I don’t count myself as much of a writer since I pretty much failed my english classes during elementary and high school but I’m glad you enjoyed it hahaha.

    I completely understand what you mean by how limiting rangefinders can be. I think SLRs are great cause they can do everything and anything, a rangefinder is a limited tool but for some reason or another its those restrictions that make it so much more entertaining to shoot. They have a lot of disadvantages over SLR’s and if you compare the weight of most rangefinders to a lot of the older film SLRs they really aren’t that different. But enough about that we’re both well aware about the advantages and disadvantages with rangefinders but we still enjoy shooting them regardless.

    So to answer your question I currently own and use three rangefinders. A Minolta CLE, a Zeiss Ikon (ZM) and a Fuji GW690 II. Now I use both the CLE and the Zeiss for four main reasons and a few smaller ones. The main reasons are… Both are small and light compared to Leica M’s, much cheaper then a Leica M (or at least what I got them for), they both have built in light meters with aperture priority (yes I love being able to shoot in aperture priority) and of course because they are M mount and have interchangeable lenses. Plus since I got them for quite cheap it was hard to say no and go for something else. I also own four lenses a Voigtlander 15mm F4.5, Minolta M 28mm F2.8, Leica 40mm F2, and the Leica 90mm F2.8 (the slim version). The last three lenses came with my CLE! So I have all the lenses I need.

    Though the Fuji GW690 II is a whole different beast. Though I still got one for a very cheap price. It’s large and cumbersome, its full manual so no built in light meter and no other lenses (unless I wanted to buy the wider angle version the GSW690). Though even with all that against it in the end its still a pretty small and light 6×9 camera compared to others… Kinda… And come on its a 6×9 rangefinder!

    I’ve used other medium format cameras such as Hasselbalds and Rollei’s but I’m not a fan of the waist level finder. I know you can get an eye level finder for them but they still are not very ergonomic to me. The Mamiya Press cameras which are also rangefinders are much larger and more cumbersome so I didn’t want to get one of those either. If I had the money I’m sure I would have gone for a Mamiya 6 or 7 but either way I’m happy with what I have. They do what I want and I hope I’ll never have to get rid of any of them.

    Also side note! I can focus more accurately with a rangefinder compared to an SLR as well (even with a precision matte focusing screen) though its only marginally better, if I had to put a number on it I’d say.. 20-30% better? Unless that SLR has a split focusing screen then its a tough call!

    Laidric Stevenson August 2, 2012 at 2:36 am / Reply

    Great Article Anthony, I was bitten by the rangefinder bug about 7 years ago, especially the fixed lens models, like the Yashica and Olympus’s models that you mention, unfortunately due to my limited funds at the tim, I only ended up with an Olympus SP35 (one of my favorite cameras of all time…) and a Konica Auto S2. Rangefinders are certainly an acquired taste and not for everyone!

    gregorylent October 31, 2012 at 10:01 am / Reply

    yep, me, i love stick-shift cars, for sort of the same reasons, but, man, are they so dumb for city driving. except in the snow of course.

    Rahul August 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm / Reply

    I primarily shoot with a Leica M2. I love this camera because it is so simple, portable, and feels solid and precise; it looks great and feels good in my hands.

    DSLRs are just too big and ugly, and become outdated every 3-5 years. My M2 is 56 years old and will provide amazing images for another 50 years.

    I might also buy the M3 and a whole lot of lenses in the future. That’s all I need.

    MegaryT August 17, 2014 at 9:16 pm / Reply

    Great article..I love the split ring or slit plane focusing (many of older Canon SRs had them on the fresnal as well BTW
    but dont understand all the fuss about focusing and why many of you seem to think its so hard for you youngsters…….. I have a Ziess Ikon I and any other old schoole’s can get focused sharp as a tac and not even put my eye to the view finder. …no no im guessing its called hyper focal focusing
    its the reason those f numbers and lines are on the lens barrel
    I can tell you ive probably got more blurry shots out of my non auto pure manual foucs SLRs than any on my old rangefinders ….jeez kids thses days

    LoveSauce October 17, 2014 at 9:54 am / Reply

    Nice article.

    I’ve noticed a lot of younger film enthusiasts have a preference for rangefinders. I think a lot of the appeal comes from an acquired affinity for spontaneity, or “in the moment” photographs e.g. street photography. I think a lot of it has to do with hipness. I personally prefer fully manual SLRs, as I am a stickler for composition. I’ve never experienced focus issues do to mirror slap, nor do I mind the sound. I don’t shoot film in low light so ease of focus isn’t really an issue. Overall I think SLRs are technically and creatively superior.

    John Shick May 1, 2016 at 3:04 am / Reply

    in the above comments there is quite a bit of mis information and some ideas that need more clarification.
    A range finder is a optical mechanical device used for setting the lens focus. It is not the view finder and should not be confused with the optical view finder. The frame lines seen in many range finder cameras have very nothing to do with setting the lens focus and are often found in cameras which have no rangefinder.
    Leica was not the first camera to use a coupled range finder that honor seems to belong to Kodak. Leica was not the first thirty five mm still film camera not even close.
    Leica was the first really user friendly and viable thirty five mm still camera one only has to look at the rube Goldberg devices other makers were coming up with.
    Leica and Contax both introduced range finder models in 1932.
    On of the not often mentioned and not well understood reasons for the SLR dominance of the later part of the twentieth century is an interesting discussion in and of itself but briefly with the Introduction of the M3 deemed by Canon to be perfect the Japanese makers invested more in the development of the SLR because they felt they could not really compete with the M3, It kinda like Leica shot themselves in the foot being too good.\
    The often mentioned ability of being outside the frame lines on the Leica M cameras is way over rated especially if your an eyeglass wearer, The vast Majority of M users have either a thiryfive or fifty on the camera most of the time and favor wider rather than longer focal lengths. If your a eyeglass wearer you will not see enough outside the frame to be useful for anything but fine adjustment of your framing with the fifty and in a .72 finder its pretty much a non starter with thirty five. I had an m6 in which I never actually saw the 28 mm frame line in normal use.
    Along with the above is the myth of keeping both eyes open with your Leica. This is only comfortable with the M3 as range finder magnification made keeping both open tiring and uncomfortable for right eyed folks, If your Left eyed keeping both eyes open gets you a clear view of the view finder with your left eye and the back of the camera with your right. It seems almost all range finder cameras were made for right eye dominant users. If your left eyed you get to squish your nose against the back of the camera as well as seeing it.

    Range finder accuracy depends on the distance between the two range finder windows and the .magnification of the view finder. For fifty mm lens and wider the M leica cameras could be focused consistently more accurately than the SLR cameras but as focal lengths get longer the advantage goes to the reflex. Read Irwin Puts article on range finder accurate to get a better picture of just how accurate they can be.
    If you want the clearest image in your finder and the comfort of both eyes open along with seeing well beyond the frame line a wire or sports finder as they are often called cannot be beat.

    Bubba Jones March 11, 2018 at 12:21 am / Reply

    Wonderful article, much good information. Also, viewer responses are excellent. At one time I had from ten to fifteen RF film cameras; used them all. Now I am down to two, a Canon Canonet G-III QL17, and refurbished Leica IIIf (needed much work) with lens Elmar 50mm f/3.5 a Summaron f/3.5 35cm, and a Canon LTM 50mm f/1.4.

    My others cameras are all film they are from Pentax K1000, K1000 SE, and K2. Yes, I very much like the RF camera, light easy to carry. For a walkabout extra lens fit nicely in the pocket. The SLRs I use at home do not like schlepping a lot of kit, I am not a pack mule nor do I play one on TV.

    On a side note the following is cordially and respectfully submitted: In the article “…Graduated filters…”, is used; why do folks use that term? It should be gradient filter. Graduated occurs when you successfully finish an academic degree, course of training and the like. Gradient is change in the value of a quantity, such as a filter regardless of color it would be its gradual density change from darker to lighter, or lighter to darker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.