Advantages of true mechanical rangefinder viewfinding:
- It's a "window to the world"—you're seeing with your eye as if through a windowpane, rather than looking at any sort of aerial image or electronic viewing screen.
- You can see beyond the edges of the framelines and thus beyond the edges of the picture, helping you to compose and anticipate. [Robert Fogt thinks this should be in the negative column too, as the finder doesn't mask out what's not going to be in the picture and that can be distracting for some people.]
- No viewfinder blackout during exposure.
- The coincident rangefinder patches are sometimes easier to focus than other visual methods.
- The framelines are approximate, freeing you from fastidiousness about exact framing.
- The view is not "seductive," encouraging you to engage more directly with the subject as you're seeing it with your eyes.
- Prime lenses of moderate focal length make the most sense; you're not tempted to use zoom lenses or telephoto lenses longer than about 135mm, and you're discouraged from doing closeups.
- The framelines are approximate; you're never quite sure exactly where the edges of the frame will be.
- There's always at least a little parallax.
- There's no way to preview depth-of-field.
- Available framelines are limited to a certain set of middle focal lengths chosen by the manufacturer.
- You normally have to change lenses to change the angle of view.
- No matter how good the rangefinder optics, the framelines and rangefinder patches will sometimes be difficult to see.
- Can't use zoom lenses.
- Difficult to use telephotos longer than about 135mm.
- Focusing gets less accurate with longer focal lengths.
- Have to use auxiliary finders with extreme wide-angle lenses.
- The view is partially blocked with certain lenses and/or lens hoods.
- Parallax gets worse the closer you focus.
- Minimum-focus distances are limited with most lenses.
- Although focusing is precise and repeatable, it is not always accurate unless specifically calibrated by a technician.
- Focus accuracy can only be calibrated optimally for one lens.
- When the world gets dark, the view gets dark.
- There's no warning when you leave the lenscap on by mistake! [Thanks to Dick Drake for this one.]
From a gestalt viewpoint, a rangefinder encourages you to interact more directly with the world. It de-emphasizes many of the technical problems involved in pointing and focusing a camera. You could even say that it's a poor system but that its poorness is a feature rather than a bug.
It enforces a sort of conceptual discipline. You're encouraged to use prime lenses of just a few focal lengths, and the focal lengths typically are the less extreme "middle" ones, i.e., from 28mm to 90mm for the most part. With framelines only available for the basic focal lengths, you're not rewarded for having a plethora of angles of view to pick from, so you learn how each lens sees. You're encouraged not to focus too close, but to stick to things a few feet away and farther. You can't worry too much about precise framing because you can't see it. You're not even seeing the exact spatial relationships (that pesky parallax!) so it's no use perseverating on that point either. On the other hand you have nothing but an audible indication of the moment of exposure, which does tend to make you aware of what's happening visually at that exact moment. You're not overly aware of limitations in depth-of-field, because you're seeing with "pan focus" (sharp front to back) like your eye sees, rather than what an SLR normally forces you to do, which is to look through a lens at its widest aperture (least d-o-f). The pan focus of the "window" viewfinder is usually closer in feel to what you'll get with a lens of moderate focal length stopped down. Finally, you're not encouraged to be overly aware of the plane of focus; the little rangefinder patch makes you pick a focus point, sure, but outside of that, everything looks like it's in focus, so you don't worry about it too much.
The effect of all this "approximateness" is to get you to concentrate on what's happening in the moment in front of you and not get distracted too much by all the possible technical choices.
This is why I've said in the past that it would be ideal for any photographer's education to shoot B&W film with a Leica rangefinder for a year, regardless of what he or she will go on to do or what techniques he or she will go on to use. (We'll set aside for now the fact that the digital variant of this "poor system" of pointing and focusing a camera now costs $7,295, which is cognitive dissonance of a really high order. What learners of photography really need is a purely mechanical digital rangefinder that has the simplest of controls and only three manual-focus lenses and records only B&W and costs $600 new. But never mind.)
At the same time, a fast little digital camera with a SOTA EVF is so much better at most of the important parameters of pointing and focusing a camera that it just obliterates the old optical rangefinder from a technical standpoint. It just doesn't entirely invalidate the old optical rangefinder, is all...and the fact that it doesn't is kind of wonderful.
(Thanks to Bernard)
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Paul De Zan: "In market terms, rangefinder cameras are not only obsolete, they are profoundly obsolete. They've been obsolete about five times longer than they were dominant. The M3 still holds the sales record for a Leica camera, for the simple reason that SLRs did not become widely available while it was being made. I agree, it's kind of wonderful that RF cameras can still generate so much conversation, if not actual pictures much of the time. I wonder if some of us older types, despite decades of happy SLR use, feel that we are in some way among the fallen for having abandoned RF cameras pretty much as fast as we could. New Leica cameras, with their astronomical price tags, have always reminded me of a sharp observation made by a friend of mine years ago; she was thinking of steam locomotives at the time, but I believe Allison's Proposition has a lot of applications: 'You can tell that a technology is truly dead when intelligent people will pay serious money just to experience it.'"
Joe B: "Shall we all learn to drive in a Ford Model T? Surely we will persevere with crank starters, snail-slow acceleration, rock-hard tires, etc. But we will learn from where our current road bound rockets have sprung. For myself using a camera whose basic design dates from approx 1932 in a non-starter for the same reasons as above. Why suffer the same shortcomings as photographers did from the beginnings of this cameras design?"
Mike replies: I felt this way after taking two rolls of pictures with the Zeiss Contessa. It's a beautiful object, cunningly crafted, but slow and truly awkward to use. The kind of thing you would only get to grips with until such time as you didn't have to any more. I never exposed roll three! I'd love to drive a Model T, for maybe a mile.
Rod S.: "The featured comment by Joe B. deserves a short direct answer: Rangefinder-type cameras incorporate desirable design elements. When I bring my Mamiya 7II to my eye, I see the subject clearly, I can focus quickly, and the shutter fires instantly, quietly and without any vibration or accompanying viewfinder black-out. If I am making a portrait, I am in no doubt that the subject's eyes were open because I saw them during the moment of exposure. My first use of the Mamiya 7II after 25 years of using SLRs, both 35mm and 6x7, was a revelation. None of this has anything to do with a Ford Model T."