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Photography has always gone through phases and fashions, both in the style of the imagery and of course the technology we use. At the moment the DSLR is perhaps on the wane whilst the upstart is mirrorless. However, through these changes in fashion, one camera type has always sat in the background, quietly being used by a select group of enthusiasts and professionals alike – the rangefinder camera. Today we will take a little look at what a rangefinder camera is, a little of its history and what it can bring to your photography.
What is a Rangefinder?
These days, most of us, when we look through a viewfinder, we see almost exactly what we are going to take. A modern DSLR uses a mirror to reflect light out of the path of the sensor and into the viewfinder, when we press the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way and an exposure is made. This, of course, involves quite a lot of relatively bulky mechanics, meaning that film SLRs and DSLRs have never really been made to be small and discrete.
The rangefinder solves this problem by having a viewfinder entirely separate to the lens, removing the requirement for mirrors and pentaprisms. The name rangefinder comes from the focussing mechanisms used inside the viewfinder, which on most recent models is coupled to the lens.
It works by effectively having two viewfinders, one for the photographer and a second one on the opposite side of the lens for determining focus. When you look through the viewfinder, on an out of focus subject you will see the two images, out of phase, when perfect focus is achieved, the subject will be visually in phase, i.e. you will not see a ghost image. Some rangefinders have a fixed non interchangeable lens, others most notably the Leica system have a complete range of lenses.
Where Did Rangefinders Come From?
In the 1920s there was a trend towards using accessory rangefinders to obtain focus. These attached to the camera and allowed the photographer to calculate the distance to the subject and transfer the data to the lens.
In 1932 both Leica and Contax introduced cameras, the Leica II and the Zeiss Contax I respectively, that integrated that rangefinder apparatus into the camera body itself. Because of their small size, bright viewfinders and the ability to focus fast. They became the tool of choice for photojournalists, documentary and street photographers.
They remained in vogue until the early 1970s but the advent of the SLR camera from the 1960s began the seriously cut into their market. By the 1950s rangefinders were readily used by many types of enthusiast photographers, not just professionals. There was a large supply of budget cameras, many with fixed lens and leaf shutters as opposed to more expensive options like Leica M series which had interchangeable lenses and focal plane shutters.
Genesis, the Leica II by BMiz, on Flickr
The Rangefinder faded into the background from the mid 70s but never really went away. As well as Leica, Nikon, Canon and others still produced excellent Rangefinder cameras. Even the digital age did not eliminate the rangefinder. In 2004 Epson introduced the R-D1, the world's first digital rangefinder. Since then Leica had gone on to produce a number of high end rangefinder cameras and Fuji has had great success with its rangefinder style x100 and x100s cameras.
Why should I use a rangefinder?
First of all, rangefinders, both film and digital are not everyone’s cup of tea. They are quite hard to learn, particularly focusing.
The most documented issue with rangefinders is the viewfinder. That's because the viewfinder is not aligned with the lens axis, you get what is known as parallax – the closer you are to a subject the more off centered from the actual viewfinder it becomes. Modern rangefinders counter this with indicators in the viewfinder showing the amount of parallax. Indeed the Fuji X100 uses an electronic heads up display to project the actual image framing inside the viewfinder. Other issues include limited ability to check depth of field and of course, not being able to see the effect of a polarizing or graduated filter.
Of course, the rangefinder’s longevity comes from its advantages, the prime one of these being its viewfinder. These are many times brighter and have a much more than 100% view when compared to DSLR viewfinders. This allows the photographer to both work and focus fast and to see beyond the confines of his actual framing. This combined with the lack of moving mirror make the camera ideal for street photographers and photojournalists.
The lack of mirror also means no mirror slap. This is the vibration that goes through a DSLR when the mirror returns to its lowered position after exposure. It is an often unrecognized cause of camera shake. The rangefinder by eliminating this and because of its size can potentially give sharper images at lower shutter speed, again a boon for street and documentary photographers.
Rangefinders have a long history in photography, they fill a unique niche and judging by the recent minor resurgence of new digital models, they will be around to stay for quite awhile longer. I have one, and I love it, I am sure many of you would too.