Lessons in Life (or Searching for the Right Rangefinder)


by Bellamy /

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Lessons in Life (or Searching for the Right Rangefinder) by Steve Karsten
Today we have an interesting op-ed. Steve shares with us his journey through all manner of cameras until he found what he was looking for. Let’s join him on his search for the right rangefinder.

My name is Steve Karsten.  I am a film photographer currently based in Holland, Michigan – United States.  I love to scour flights.google.com for cheap deals on flights and SHOOT 35mm like a madman when I get there.  Street stuff, portraits, candids, architecture, light & shadow…usual stuff.

I switched to film full-time five years ago.  My last digital camera was the Canon EOS 60D.  I had 35, 50, 85mm primes and a couple off-brand wide angle options.  I was certain I was happy with it.   I wasn’t.  I hate post-processing.  I hate trying to get the image trying to look how it did in my eyes when I took the shot. In short,  I like making the decisions before I shoot, rather than after.  So, film.

Since the switch I’ve shot with dozens of cameras in search of the right fit.  Here are a few standouts (35mm stuff only):

Ricoh GR-1

Canon F1

Voigtlander Vitessa (leuchtturm)

Canon Canonet QL17

Canon A1

Argus C4

Olympus XA, XA2, XA3 – I still shoot these.  The XA2 is my favorite as a secondary camera.  If only carrying one camera and it has to be small go with the XA.

Voigtlander Bessa

And, more than anything else: Contax G1, and G2

What’s the point of this list?

To show that I tried.  I tried SO hard.  

The Contax G2 was what broke me.  

Let me explain.  There is no finer camera in the world than the Contax G2, in theory.

Auto-focus, auto film-advance, a meter that is legendarily accurate.

It has absolutely amazing (affordable too!) glass.  I mean knock your socks off good.  Until you’ve shot with Zeiss, it is kind of hard to explain.  Perfect rendering.  Amazing colors.  Contrast that makes you weep.  Images so sharp and so filled with vibrancy, plus that Zeiss 3D POP! It is hard to argue against.  

The 45mm Planar F2 should be the measuring stick for all normal lenses.  

The 90mm f2.8 is a telephoto dream. Tack sharp wide open, it sings at f8-11.

Some of my favorite travel/landscape shots of all time were taken on the 28mm Biogon f2.8.  Wide as you could want with no distortion, but wait…the 21mm f2.8 is unbelievable.  The finder it comes with makes everything seem better than real life.  The images are so wide and so distortion-free it makes you ill.  How did they do this?  Zeiss magic – no other explanation.

Paris, France  Contax G2  Zeiss Biogon 28mm f2.8  Fuji 400h

Detroit, Michigan  Contax G2  Zeiss Biogon 28mm f2.8 Kodak Ektar

New York City Contax G2 Zeiss Biogon 28mm f2.8 Fuji Neopan 400

If they still serviced Contax G2 bodies, I would probably still be shooting them.

But they aren’t.  I tried that too.  One guy said he could, he sat on my camera for 6+ months, and kindly returned it with no charge and no repair after several phone calls complaining about the lack of progress.

That was my 3rd G2 body. Keep in mind that the G1 was what started my contax odyssey.  Four bodies to the scrap heap.

All because I didn’t have the cojones to pony up for one thing: a Leica.

The reason I avoided the Red Dot is because I’m a Dutchman, literally. Penny pinching is in my blood.  But, as Ken Rockwell often says, the poor man always pays twice.  Or in this case, thrice.  Contax G2 bodies=500-600.  Leica M2=750-900.  Please don’t do the math.  Let me live in shame.  

I had $1500-1800 or more in on Contax G2 bodies and NONE of mine worked.  Eighteen hundred dollars  gets you into super tasty ttl M6s, mint M3s with glass, two user M2’s, maybe a user black pain, an M4 plus glass…so many great Leica cameras.  All of which would still be working today.  I tend to learn things the hard way.

All along I was avoiding spending money on Leica, known for it’s durability, quality, timeless design, and reliability whilst searching for a camera known for it’s durability, quality, timeless design, and reliability.

I now own an M2, M3, and M4.  Also, I kept my Zeiss love affair going strong by picking up the 35mm biogon f2.8 and Sonnar f1.5.

(personal favorite: M2, but that is for another article)

Berlin, Germany  Leica M2  Zeiss Biogon 35mm f2.8  Fuji Velvia 50

Copenhagen, Denmark  Leica M4 Leica Elmar 5cm f2.8 Kodak Tri-X

Berlin, Germany  Leica M2 Zeiss Biogon 35mm f2.8 Ilford HP5

Moral of the story?  If you have any stigma against the Leica brand, are unsure of the fanboy/collector’s culture surrounding the Leica brand, please do your best to get past that.   The aura surrounding Leica M rangefinders is much warranted.  My only regret is not knowing it sooner.  DON’T BE LIKE ME.



Instagram @stevekars @analogberlin

Comment are always welcome. Please keep them civil.


14 comments on “Lessons in Life (or Searching for the Right Rangefinder)”

    Carlos August 31, 2017 at 4:07 pm / Reply

    service is the most important, as it’s hard to find excellent non-serviced cameras cheap enough to build piles.
    manufacturer service for analog cameras is not available or not available at cheap or reasonalbe price as Leica just proved to me.
    But, there are spare-parts and specialists – the selected few and well known specialists that are not cheap either, but reasonably charging.
    As per many country warranty rules manufacturers need to keep spares available for their products for 5 or more years. Big companies tend to surpass that for a while and their service network has its own stock, too.
    What’s been produced in the last 20 years that had a great following in its time? What’s been build before that is seen as professional work items produced & supported over decades by the manufacturer?
    Leica M, Nikon F (1-3), Rollei 35, Rolleiflex, Hasselblad, sure, there are more, but these are the big players to chose from from my perspectiv (don’t have an idea about Canon).
    I think plenty to chose from, aside of the many good examples of other brands and types where I`m not so sure about supportability as with these.
    Oh, any digital camera? Hmmm, no! Even my untrusty M240 was already deemed unserviceable by Leica as it didn`t deliver on weather protection promised, that an unprotected Canon delivered.

    Take the newest and most precise camera, unless you’re a “creative photographer” or experimental mind.
    To me that`s a used current M7, M-A, MP, or at least an M6. A SLR? None, I’d take. They`re all too old to me as a daily shooter, doesn`t mean I don`t have some old stuff for occasional use, as long as it does work. Add a digital to it if you think, but don`t waste your money on expensive digital cameras – I know many of us, incl. me do. Just saying. depreciation is not about % but total absolute value: i.e. Leica M new $6-7K, loss $2-5K over time – any comparable mass camera is cheaper new, than the loss of that digital M.
    Well, its your money.

    My most reliable and favorite camera has been the Minolta XE-1 and related 24-135 MD prime lenses in my earlier life. Now its the M6, currently using a loaned M7 that drives me crazy with its error-codes on the failed DX reading – needs service. Still I think the M7 is the most precise. I need an embedded light-meter.

    stanislaw riccadonna zolczynski August 31, 2017 at 7:46 pm / Reply

    The simpler camera the better when it comes to repair. True Leica M series are indestructible with exemption of optical rangefinder which now and then can go off alignment. The best in this regard were Leicas LTM and their clones. So simple you could repair it in the field with a screwdriver set. You could even replace old curtains. In old days any good watch repairman could fix it. My dream cam would be thus Leica IIIG with rapid winder and m-mount of which only one exist as I heard as the conversion of LTM to M was considered nearly impossible. Closest modern example of this is of course Voigtlander Bessa T 101 with winder. Pity they don’t make them any more.

    Sean Gleason August 31, 2017 at 10:29 pm / Reply

    Great to see another film shooter from Michigan. Feels like I’ve been on a similar journey although I have avoided the G2 and stuck with the G1 as they can be had relatively cheap. Also being Dutch I’ve somewhat avoided Leica but have been looking hard at a M5 or M2. I go back and forth on the usefulness of a built in meter…

    Dylan Barnes September 1, 2017 at 4:41 am / Reply

    Recently went through the G1 and Leica CL. Currently using the Konica Hexar RF. I like the bit of automation it gives, but I do need to dip my feet into the Leica M series. I want to wait it out and get an M6 Millennium Edition or MP when I feel ready.

    JL Williams September 1, 2017 at 12:56 pm / Reply

    You went straight from various SLRs and point-and-shoots to Contax G and then to Leica and you say “I tried”? Did you try S-series Nikons, a Canon 7s, a Contax IIa, one of the later (and better) Bessas? Then don’t tell me “the aura surrounding Leica M rangefinders is much warranted.” Classic RFs in general are pretty awesome; Leica is just another brand.

    Steve Karsten September 2, 2017 at 12:48 am / Reply

    JL Williams I listed 12 cameras of which 6 were rangefinders. Did I try every rangefinder ever made, no. I’d like to some day. Have any facts or opinions you would like to point out or illustrate why you felt compelled to say “don’t tell me the aura around leica M is much warranted”? I’d love to hear your opinion on cameras, maybe you can write an article and submit it to Bellamy.

    In the mean time, I’m going to happily stand by my statement: the aura surrounding Leica is much warranted. When you find a more reliable, more finely crafted + repairable rangefinder please do share because I would love to try one.

    Sander Abernathy September 2, 2017 at 2:16 am / Reply

    Surprised more people don’t get the “make your rangefinder good as new in 72 hours guarantee with a five year warranty and factory service contract.” It costs $4,550 but they throw in a brand new Leica MP at no charge as a thank you gift. Yes it costs three times as much as a 20 year old M6 that will need to spend months at the shop getting a CLA. But it also resells for three times as much as the M6 and it’s a source of delight rather than delight mixed with frustration.

    I went cheap on a great Nikon SP that spent four months in the shop and was still 96th in line for a CLA. I knew it was going to take over a year. I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake with a 20 year old M6 or a fifty year old M3.

    Larry September 2, 2017 at 12:55 pm / Reply

    It seems familiar the journey you took! I can remember touching and peering through a Leica for the first time and thinking: what’s the big deal (uninspiring small viewfinder)? And the second thing I thought was: this thing is really well made. So it took me awhile to warm up to it. LOL

    Dave September 2, 2017 at 1:09 pm / Reply

    Splendid choice and composition on your photos Steve, thanks so much for those. And as a former G2 user, yes, the Contax glass is something else. I didn’t appreciate it initially but it has a different characteristic than Leitz lenses. Not better, but different. I’d call it “more subtle.”
    I have a couple of M6s now and everything you say about the cameras and the lenses is just true. I used to think of Leica as some weird cult. And then I inherited a 1957 IIIf that hadn’t been used for 30 years. The lens cap’s fit literally shocked me. The engineering! Friction fit instead of a plastic/spring mechanism: this was different! And the camera still worked after three decades in a closet.

    Andy Thurgood September 2, 2017 at 3:33 pm / Reply

    I feel I have been on a similar journey, and for me the destination has been a Nikon F2 with DE-1 eyelevel finder. Pure and simple shooting, more robust than a Leica, and just back from service by Sover Wong – the man is a genius with F2s.
    However along the way there have been 3x Pentax 67, 3x Rolleiflex, 3x Nikon FM2, 2x Nikon F3, Hasselblad 500, and 7x Leicas – M3, original black M3 (should have kept that one), 3x M2, 2x M6ttl. And then there was all the glass…… I dread to think how much my journey has cost

    Mark September 4, 2017 at 5:19 am / Reply

    I have an Leica M7, it’s a pain for the DX film reading errors. However, as it’s the older model I find rubbing the little DX reader contact microswitches next to where the film spool sits can sometimes help. I am not sure if they get a bit seized and need a bit of pressing to free them up or I am just engaging in some kind of magical thinking exercise, either way it works to get the camera metering working between films. Even though the metering error is a pain at times, it’s the one Leica I wouldn’t part with as it’s great when it does work!

    Mark T September 6, 2017 at 10:43 am / Reply

    A photographer doesn’t need to try everything (camera) to find what suits them. More choices leads to the tyranny of choice – the more choices considered, the more difficult it is to choose. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

    A very simple question to consider:
    How has a rangefinder changed your images?
    That question is more important and worth pursuing.

    Put another way: the gear that a photographer has is important to them. Their choice is theirs. A camera is a tool, an extension of the photographer.

    Like cars, different cameras appeal to different people. One photographer’s choice is theirs. Another’s may be different. The design may appeal to one and not to another.

    Let’s expand the statement about the “aura”.
    The aura surrounding x is much warranted.

    This statement is summed up in the term in psychology “confirmation bias” – justifying one view and holding it even tighter when confronted with an opposing one.

    The aura aka mystique is a personal view and has no affect on the images.

    devlin cook September 7, 2017 at 4:22 pm / Reply

    Hi Steven, loved the article and your pics. The shot on velvia especially!! Listening to your list of purchases made me feel better as just had an eBay splurge last night! I’ve been using Leica gear for the last few years but am now getting into slr ‘s for a change (Olympus OM range) what a wonderful hobby we have eh!!!
    Tot siens,

    Alain November 5, 2017 at 6:32 am / Reply

    Hi there,
    The M5 was a great camera in its day: the meter moves up in front of the film plane when you cock the shutter, to make a reading similar to the CL. Unfortunately they are connected to the body by soldered wires which ultimately fail and are now very difficult to replace .
    So long term are a flawed solution. A mint M2 is a joy but the M4 or later M6 are good alternatives if you must have in camera metering. The metering area takes some getting used to and I went back to an M2 with a hand-held spotmeter. This is an easily maintained camera and will last forever if looked after. Self adjustment of the rangefinder is possible but very hit and miss without great expertise or special equipment . I would strongly advise against it.
    The older lenses are good value if your budget is tight, and the results still great. A careful internet search will reveal the ones that should be avoided.

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