Unlike most people, I kinda like rangefinder cameras, and here are the three that were my favorites.
In reverse order:
3. Mamiya 6: A beautiful camera supposedly designed and made for the then-President (owner?) of Mamiya, who was a Leica fan. (I don't know if this was true.) It had a clever system of interlocks that allowed for protecting the film from exposure when changing lenses mid-roll and not making mistakes, and the lensmount collapsed for a certain increase in compactness. It was a very pleasant camera to use, and of course the 2 1/4-inch (6x6 cm) square negatives gave excellent image quality. There were only two problems. One is that direct sun on the metering window could cause exposure problems. Wearing a hat with a brim or a bill would shade the window when the camera was held to your eye, so that solved that. The other problem for me was that the normal lens, which was the fastest lens for the system, was only ƒ/3.5, a stop and two-thirds slower than the ƒ/2 lenses I was used to using in 35mm. In general I think slow lenses are the Achilles' heel of medium-format rangefinders, since it's a limitation that tends to fight against the ready-for-anything-quickly raison d'etre of the rangefinder in the first place.
2. Leica M6. I bought one new and kept it for about two and a half years. My hit-rate went down when using a rangefinder; I didn't visualize as well with it as I did with an SLR. But it taught me a lot of lessons, primarily a.) to not worry too much about depth-of-field (which you tend to do with an SLR because you're always seeing through the lens wide open) and b.) to time the shutter release exactly based on what I was seeing. The metering system was serviceable, although I never completely warmed to it. On the good side, it was such a tactile pleasure to use that I photographed more often, and that period was the only time in my life that I carried a camera with me at all times. I ended up getting distressed with the outfit because the 35mm Summicron (a "pre-ASPH" also bought new) would get small dark flakes collecting on the inside of the elements—flakes of paint or whatever the finish was from the aperture blades. I had the lens cleaned once, but then it started happening again. This was so much at odds with Leica's whole schtick of "premium quality," that I ended up getting rid of the thing. And missed it for a loooong time....
Minolta CLE. Photo by Lordcolus.
1. Minolta CLE. Better metering than the Leica, with a better lens. It was even less conspicuous, and I think it was quieter, too. It didn't have the same feeling of robustness and buttery smooth controls that made the Leica so nice to use, but it was smaller and lighter and attracted even less attention. Curiously, the M-Rokkor 40mm ƒ/2 (a focal length I moderately prefer over 35mm because it banishes the last trace of "wide-angley" feeling a 35mm can have in some shots) was the only lens I ever used in the film era that elicited positive comments about sharpness and subjective clarity from non-photographers. I can't remember why I sold it, but it was likely because SLR viewing felt more natural for me (my next camera after it was an Olympus OM-4T and OM-Zuiko 40mm ƒ/2). The CLE was very expensive on the used market for years after it was discontinued, testifying to demand.
I owned or used many other rangefinders, including a Fuji "Texas Leica" and several other Fujis, a Mamiya 7II, an M3 and M4, and of course the Bronica RF645. Oh yeah, and a Zeiss Contessa! And an Agfa Super Isolette (a gorgeous camera that I'm still half in love with if I'm honest, just as a beautiful mechanical device). I should mention that I also owned, at one time or another, just about every good fixed-lens compact rangefinder there was...Canonet, Yashica Electro 35, Olympus 35 RC and 35 SP (and an XA), Konica S3, Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII. Maybe a few more I've forgotten....
But that was then
Of course, these days, a capable "rangefinder-style" digital interchangeable-lens camera—an Olympus Pen-F, Panasonic Gx9, or Fuji X-E3, for example—has it all over any of the three cameras above in multiple ways: they're quieter, have more accurate viewfinders, focus more quickly, meter more easily, and offer much faster "film speeds" on demand. All three (well, assuming you don't choose the silver Pen-F, but then how could you resist it?) can be as portable, inconspicuous and unassuming as the CLE, cost less than the M6, and probably have higher subjective image quality than the Mamiya 6!
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Featured Comments from:
db: "I am surprised by the omission of the Plaubel Makina. Fast lens, albeit fixed, and folds to the size of a small paperback book. I second the greatness of the Mamiya 6 however."
Mike replies: I did try one of those—I did a portrait with it of a guy named John McLaughlin, who had a political TV show called "The McLaughlin Group"—but I don't exactly remember the circumstances. Pretty sure I did not own the one I was using. Those were seductive cameras to several of my friends, but several of them also had serious reliability problems with them. I believe the lens on that cameras was a Nikkor.
Peter: "I bought an X-E3 as my take-it-anywhere camera, and absolutely love it. Pairs very well with the 23mm ƒ/2. It's the first non-SLR I've usd consistently, and it makes me realize how much fun a rangefinder-style camera can be to use."
Ernest Zarate: "I had two of your favorite rangefinders as well—the Mamiya 6 and the Leica M6.
"I've been mulling over the questions, provocations, reactions, etc...re: rangefinders in general and the Mamiya 6 in particular. That camera was the first and only camera I ever fell head over heels for. I still get goosebumps thinking about that camera matched with the 50mm ƒ/4 lens. Slap some XP2 in there, take it out into the world, and.... Some gorgeous photos from some very memorable experiences.
"But the other day you asked about would I (I almost said 'you guys') prefer a rangefinder or a SLR. My immediate gut reaction was, well, duh...I'd LOVE to have the Mamiya 6 back in my stable! And as I sat here at my computer contemplating the camera and a response to your query, I came to realize something I hadn't before: I don't shoot that way anymore.
"A rangefinder, as marvelous a tool as they were for me back in the 1990s and 2000s, would not be usable for me and the way I shoot now. Not taking into account the fact that those two cameras are film based, and instead just looking at the features, the limitations, the options those two cameras had, they would not work well with how (and what) I shoot now.
"That was both an epiphany and a letdown. I had always thought of getting the Mamiya 6 again as a 'one of these days...' promise to myself. I can let go of that now. It's not a viable choice.
"Thank you for the posts over the last few days regarding cameras, camera choices, and all the other aspects of what we use. While I feel a bit sad to know that rangefinders would not be functional choice for me, I also feel released from clinging to the nostalgia of the past. Letting go can be both difficult and cathartic."
Eric Peterson: "Raising my hand for Texas Leica, Fuji GSW690III with 65mm lens (28mm equiv.). Does require out-of-body experience to evaluate lower right quadrant because lens blocks view in viewfinder. But just ran four rolls of Tri-X through it last week!"
Steve Rosenblum: "The Minolta CLE is still my favorite 35mm film rangefinder camera, and the 40mm M Rokkor lens is a wonderful bargain. CLE's with 40mm lenses are pretty reasonably priced these days. The main issue is problems with the electronics which are now fairly old. However, my camera repairman has had no trouble fixing or adjusting mine when it was needed, and it shares a number of parts with the Minolta SLRs of the era, so that helps."
Dan Khong: "My three favourite rangefinders are: 1. Leica M6; 2. Kodak Retina IIc (Type 020); 3. Konica Hexar RF. The Konica came in a kit. I regret selling the lens."
psu: "I have one RF camera that I bonded with: the old Konica Hexar. Based on that experience I dabbled in Mamiya 6's and the Hexar RF but ultimately didn't find the RF experience to extend well to lenses that were not 35mm ƒ/2 or equivalent. I kept trying to take pictures that did not fit how you see things in those cameras, for lack of a better way to put it. So for general use I went back to SLR film cameras or SLR/EVF digital cameras."
Mike replies: I knew someone would bring up the Hexar of sainted memory. I actually started a Konica Hexar club on the old CompuServe...but as I'm sure you know, it wasn't a rangefinder-focus camera, it was an autofocus camera. It came out at a time when everyone was breathless over whether Leica would make an autofocus version of the M. In size and shape (though not weight) it did closely resemble an M6 with a 35mm Summicron, and its lens was very nice, but the resemblance ended there. Poor Konica...it attempted to give Leica fans everything they said they wanted, but it only got hated in return! (Because, again, people like Leicas.)
John Krumm: "My most beautiful, luxurious camera was an autofocus rangefinder, the Contax G2. I was always amazed at how silently and quickly it could take the shot and be ready for the next frame. Sold it to buy a lens for my K1. Only camera I ever sold for as much, or maybe even a little more, than I purchased it for. The little Pentax ZX with my limited primes is as good, and lighter, but I don't use that much either. Since the Contax was autofocus, it didn't quite get the rangefinder bug out of my system. I still need to try a classic manual focus one for a few frustrating months...."
Mike replies: I got one of the very first review G2's in North America, when I was Editor at PT. An exciting intro for me! But it was another "pretender" that many Leicaphiles went out of their way to denigrate, because...well, do I need to say it again? :-)
Seriously, though, it should be remembered that Leica was in a very fragile state in the '90s and there were many indications that it might not survive. (And it probably would not have, save for its eventual "angel," Dr. Kaufmann, in 2004.) Some Leica fans, justifiably or not, were extremely anxious at the time that products from healthier and technically much more advanced Japanese companies not pirate needed sales from Leica, thereby, or so they imagined, hastening its demise.