Rangefinder - what is it?


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Dec 13, 2012
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I sometimes see definitons like "rangefinder-style work", "rangefinder ethos" etc., which is apparently about using rangefinder cameras. I never had one, never used one and completely missed this field of photography. Could anyone explain in laymans terms how a rangefinder camera differ from a regular SLR and how shooting with a rangefinder differ from using a SLR ? What is the main point/appeal of a rangefinder? Thank you.
The main point(s)/appeal of a range-finder tend to be high quality in a compact package and interchangable lenses. Without the penta-prism and mirror, they're MUCH more compact than traditional SLRs, and have long been regarded by photo-journalists as the tool when subtlety is required. Shooting with a range-finder differs from shooting with an SLR primarily in how you focus; instead of looking through the lens via a complex mirror and prism system, you look through a viewfinder which goes "straight through" the camera body (Usually upper left) and by means of a mechanical coupling, adjust focus by rotating the lens barrel to find the distance or range. All you ever wanted to know.
There is no such thing as rangefinder-style-work or rangefinder-ethos. Its simply a different designed camera that shoots pictures like any other camera. We also have people referring to cameras as "rangefinder-style". Its basically a misnomer for people trying to describe retro-designed cameras that are sans-mirror, compact, and mimic the squarish body of rangefinders of the past. These are usually mirrorless cameras such as the Olympus Digital Pens and Fuji (Xpro, X10, etc). (the funny thing.... shooters who are really into rangefinders... not the owners of talking items/attention... generally avoid using such terms because they are so inaccurate)

The main difference, as tirediron already pointed out, is the focusing mechanism. What is important is that it changes the way you "see" the world and compose the photo which DOES impact the flow of work:

* Smaller.. discreet.
* Garnishes less attention and is often less "threatening" to the environment. It is an attempt to address the whole notion that as you try to document a situation, your presence changes it.
* Optical design for lenses are also affected because of the short film-flange distance.
* The viewing optic is separate from the picture taking optic. In other words, this is not TTL composition.
* The viewing optic has infinite DOF at all times. It makes it easier to see the subjects in frame forward to back without being subject to the lens DOF.
* The viewing optic's focal length (magnification) is generally wider than the lens. The framelines are markings in the viewfinder that indicate the frame of the picture taking lens. You can easily see subjects entering or just outside of the frame. Makes for just in time adjustments to composition. Think... walking around, arms extended, fingers forming a box, while you compose a frame with your fingers... much like you see videographers do to try to visualize the scene before actually shooting it.
* Due to the viewing optic, the photographer is not subject to "tunnel" like vision/experience as TTL camera designs. Its less intrusive mentally as you bring the camera up to your eye and bring the camera down to view the world with your both eyes. Everytime you bring that camera to your eye, its the same magnification and same view. I can still interact with the world, walk around, reposition myself, etc without falling over tripping over myself.... even with a telephoto attached.

Its kinda hard to explain and >> it certainly doesn't fit everyone.<< For me, I prefer it. Its more fluid... feels like an extension of my vision rather than something that dominates it. I have to visualize what the photo will look like without actually it dominating my visual experience while I create the photo.

There's a whole list of reasons why the SLR has become more popular....
* TTL gives you What You See Is What You Get.
* The photographer relies less on "visualization" because of WYSIWYG
* Versatility. Macro and long telephotos. The rangefinder design is limited to its base length.
* Auto focus.

Note: A correction to tirediron's response. There are rangefinders of fixed lens design. Example, the once really popular Canonets.
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Note: A correction to tirediron's response. There are rangefinders of fixed lens design. Example, the once really popular Canonets.
Yep... just my bad phrasing; meant to say that the fact that many of them had interchangable lens capabilty made them appealing (or words to that effect).
One of the best thing about a rangefinder for me is i can see outside of the frame so i can see what may happen when shooting on the streets
Excellent, thank you guys!
usayit - your description really makes me want to try it :wink:
This is the original Cosina-made Voigtlander Bessa-R, the Leica thread mount rangefinder camera that was in large part, responsible for the new "rangefinder renaissance" which began in the late 1990's. At that time, the only true 35mm rangefinder "system cameras" were new or used Leica,Canon, Contax, or Nikon models, many of them simply priced out of the range of people who just wanted to try a 35mm rangefinder. The affordable Cosina-made Bessa-R soon lead to many different models, and Cosina's chief took the whole rangefinder project seriously, and Cosina began manufacturing MANY fine rangefinder (and later, 35mm SLR) lens designs, offering excellent optics at a fair price. Cosina in effect, became the world's largest third-party manufacturer of NEW and affordable lenses for Leica screw mount and Leica M-mount lenses, as well as the first "modern" manufacturer of brand-new lenses for discontinued rangefinders, like the old Zeiss Contax models, and the long-discontinued Nikon rangefinder cameras in the Nikon S-series.


Bessa R shown with 35mm f/1.7 Ultron aspherical, 50mm f/1.5 Nokton aspherical, and 75mm f/1.5 Color-Heliar lenses. An entire rangefinder and three-lens kit for less than half the price of a single 50mm Leica lens...that's what made the Bessa series of cameras and the Cosina lenses the start of a rangefinder renaissance..."value".

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