Here's a dirty little secret for ya...people don't like rangefinder cameras.
I mean, obviously a few people do. But most people don't.
People like Leicas.
All of the faff ever written to glorify rangefinder cameras isn't actually to the glory of rangefinder cameras, it's to the glory of Leicas. Because people love Leica and they want to pay fealty to Leica. They love the heritage, the status, the history, the impressive expense, the primacy and the authenticity, the literature, all the technical minutiae detailed in the literature, the famous names who used them in the '50s, etc., etc.
But over the years I've noticed a few things, just empirically.
First, most makers of rangefinders moved away from them as soon as it was feasible. Look up "Canon P" and "Nikon SP"—beautiful rangefinder cameras...that Canon and Nikon stopped making pretty much just as soon as they could. They're certainly prized on the collector market—like many things that weren't made in very large numbers to begin with.
Second, the heyday of rangefinder cameras, arguably about 1953–59, didn't even last a whole decade. As soon as there was something better to switch to, most people couldn't find the door fast enough. That's why so many impoverished up-and-coming young turks used Leicas in the 1960s and early '70s...because cast-off used ones were plentiful in camera stores for not too much money. (Deardorff 8x10's, ditto, in the "view camera revival" of the 1970s.)
Third, most attempts to make "improved" rangefinder cameras over the years...flopped. Konica Hexar RF, anyone? And alternatives are not nearly as well known or as valued as Leicas. Care to name all the legendary photographers whose names are indelibly associated with Retinas or Contax II's? The lore and legend of the Voitländer Bessa, anyone? Beuler?
Fourth, nobody talks about this, and you won't hear it spoken about much, but the majority of hobbyists and enthusiasts who try to like rangefinders...don't. They'll give it a shot and conclude, meh, not for me. The exception is when they really want a Leica. Then they'll put up with the whole rangefinder ethos thing. But I half suspect that a lot of Leica lovers don't actually like rangefinders all that much. If it wasn't the Leica secret handshake, they'd pass, if they were being honest.
Fifth, lots of pros and advanced amateurs own a Leica or two, along with much more extensive kits of the more practical equipment they really use for 99% of their work, and they'll pay reverent lip service to the legend and the lore. They'll claim they use them "in the situations the camera is best suited for" or words to that effect. But they don't actually use them very much at all. In fact, almost never, if you press them on it.
There was even a digital rangefinder camera before Leica made theirs, called the Epson R-D1. It was so beloved and so popular that...it quickly went away and never came back. And was never replicated by any other camera company. Except, eventually, Leica, at which point everyone was happy.
Yeah, it's required for membership in the club to spout endless tribute to rangefinder cameras and their alleged superiorities, and newbies to the Leica cult sit at the knees of the graybeards and memorize the litany of rangefinder "advantages" so they can intone them ceremoniously when challenged about their own bonafides. But it's Leicas they like and seek to exalt. When it comes to other rangefinders, those bets are somehow off. The Leica M3 is a legend; the Mamiya 6 is just a camera.
Because people don't actually like rangefinders. Not really. People like Leicas.
For further reading:
My review of a rangefinder I didn't like, published in three parts: Pro, Con, and Coda—note that these are three separate links. And boy, did I get a lot of flak for these. There's an unspoken but unbreakable rule with Leica: you are not allowed to criticize current products. It's perfectly acceptable now to point out the deficiencies of the M8; but it certainly wasn't acceptable back in 2007, when the M8 was the newest Leica and the group project was to assert that it was the best of all possible digital cameras. I haven't reviewed a Leica product since.
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Jim: "Love it, so true! I have a few friends I'd like to send your essay to, but I think I'll pass and keep them as friends."
Mike replies: Wise man.
Maggie Osterberg: "I'm one of those people who like rangefinders, and, yes, love Leicas. I blame the Canon G-III QL17 Canonette my dad gave me back around '77. It was my first 35mm camera. I used it non-stop. It got to be my default way of seeing stuff. Even when I was shooting sports with my Konica TC (I was the local paper's and yearbook's photographer in high school), I had the Canon along, to shoot what I called 'the goofy stuff,' that wasn't on the field or court.
"I could blather on with all the mystical stuff about window finders, but we've all heard that before, and I think it's really just superstition. But here's the thing about superstition—it works. It's a placebo effect for life. I won't mention it when a SF Giants pitcher is throwing a no-hitter. I won't say the name of The Scottish Play out loud. I have been known to put out a LEGO Ferrari when I watch F1 races. So, when I shoot with my Leica, there's this thing that goes on in my mind that I have to up my game. You know, to live up to The Legacy. Which, really, isn't bad. And since I have a rangefinder-wired brain, it works even better than a rally hat in the 9th inning.
"Yeah, I love my Leica. And my little Canon, which I still have."
Pierre Charbonneau: "Not sure about that one Mike.
"I do have personally a love/hate relationship with the brand. The gear is expensive. Not much thrilled with special editions models, often ugly. Their service is inconsistant and costs dearly.
"On the other hand, they still manufacture these very specialized ones like the Monochrom, the M-D without screen and even this un-metered analog. Talk about going against the tide, I admire their guts. And the lenses do seem to last a very long time.
"I will point out that I started serious photography around 1977, with a very nice Olympus 35 RC, a rangefinder with a 43mm unless I am mistaken. Early, I loved the clear viewfinder. I see clearly what I want to photograph with these white lines projected in the clear window. I see immediately if the subject, non-embellished by reflex viewing, is relevant and worth a click. This has been the roots of my fondness for rangefinder. This Olympus is long gone; it has been replaced after a couple of years by a Leica M4-2. That one had a better finder and lenses could be changed.
"I like the Leica because I have been with one since. And my favorite pictures, the ones that matter to me at the end of the day, have been done with one of these since 38 years.
"But I’d love to try a Nikon SP one of these days."
Graham Byrnes: "I inherited an M3 from my father when he died in '76. I traded it on a Minolta SLR. I was ripped off by the salesman (I was 14) and I regret that, and I regret that I didn't still have it years later when I knew what it was worth. But in every way, the Minolta SRT100X (cheapest SLR they made) was a better camera."
Grant Cunningham: "Dierk said: 'The Minolta-branded CLE, on the other hand, sold better with its advancement in helpful features. It has been sought after years, even decades after it came out, most probably still is.' I was in the camera business when the CLE was discontinued. As our Minolta rep explained, it was discontinued because it didn't sell, and it didn't sell because it wasn't a Leica. Even back then we understood the situation. In fact, a few years after the CLE was dropped from the line, Minolta found a pile of them at their warehouse in (if memory serves) New Jersey. They offered them in kits to dealers at fire sale prices, and it still took them a while to sell out. I considered buying one of the three-lens packages because they were such a steal (basically buy the body at net and get the three lenses for free), but having already been through my obligatory Leica phase, I passed. It was a rangefinder, and it wasn't a Leica...."
Bill Wheeler: "Re '...nobody talks about this, and you won't hear it spoken about much, but the majority of hobbyists and enthusiasts who try to like rangefinders...don't. They'll give it a shot and conclude, meh, not for me.' You've pegged me, Mike. In the past I owned a IIf, an M2 and an M7. Meh, not for me."
Bill Tyler: "I’ve never owned a Leica, but I used to enjoy a somewhat larger rangefinder: a Crown Graphic with coupled rangefinder. The big negatives were beautifully smooth and detailed, and camera handling wasn’t bad for such a large beast. With Grafmatic back, I also could shoot fairly quickly."
Kirk: "Great article Mike. I'm a Leica guy! Have been since college. But when I started my career as a newspaper photojournalist I sold off some Leica gear and started shooting Canon which I still use for shooting freelance work during my retirement years. The M3 and the M5 went into hiding along with the lenses. However I love shooting with my M-P 240. It's not the greatest camera but using my old Leica lenses and a few newer used ones make me appreciate the way I used to work. Focusing myself has made me think about how I approach my subjects. My fast-focusing Canons make life easier in the fast-paced news world, and shooting sports is a dream. So yes I agree the rangefinder is out of touch for plenty of shooting and for me, not an on-the-job camera. When the M9 and then the M 240 came out I had to see if the magic was still there for me, and yes it is. I enjoy every minute I spend shooting with it."
Shaun O'Boyle: "Have always admired the build quality of the Leica cameras. I owned an M4 for a while, and the M8 for a short while, and never took to the focusing on these cameras. Maybe it's my eyes, but those white lines can be tough to see in many lighting situations. They both went, the M8 for many reasons. Rangefinder-like cameras I do like. I had the Fuji X-E2, and now shoot with the X-Pro2, a superb camera with excellent glass."
Clyde Rogers: "I like what a rangefinder camera makes possible—a compact camera body, and fantastic, compact (especially wide angle) lenses. My favorite film outfit was the Mamiya 7 with 43mm and 80mm lenses (the 43mm was a favorite). My favorite digital outfit is a Leica M that I carry with two or three tiny, fantastic lenses. I also think there's much more to a Leica M than the rangefinder (which I agree isn't the end-all of viewfinders). The M camera has few superfluous controls, and the shooting controls fall to hand and eye with consistency, directness and clarity. I'm accustomed to these controls, so using the Leica is, for me, automatic. For me, shooting with the Leica takes less mental effort than any other camera, leaving more brain cells for the picture. That's worth a lot to me."
Anthony Rizzo: "While I have owned both, I always felt the R6.2 was a far more usable camera than the M6."