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Thursday, 27 November 2014


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The first time I ever tried a rangefinder was after buying a Minolta HiMatic 7sII (with a really nice 40/1.8 lens). It was a toy; I had been using film SLRs for many years and just wanted to try one out and use it as a compact camera. I had a lot of fun with it. I also got hold of a Ricoh 500 (given to me by someone who had no use for it), which I played with on a couple occasions. A couple years after having owned both cameras, I finally had a chance to see/hold a Leica for the first time. A friend - someone who wasn't really a photographer - worked in NYC and walked into B&H and asked for "the best camera" (or something to that effect) and walked out with an M6 (IIRC) and a 50mm lens. I expected great things, but I found it a little big, a little slippery, not very comfortable to hold, well built, but not in a way that jumps out at you as $2000 worth of well built, and I didn't find the viewfinder particularly easy to use for focusing. I shot a couple photos (on her film) and never did see the results, so maybe I missed out on the magic part.

I still get the mystique - I have a box full of LFI magazines in my basement (I picked them up for free at our local swap shop) and grab one to look through now & then. I'd happily use one if some nonexistent rich uncle were to leave me one in his will. But I don't aspire to own one. And as much as I enjoyed the old HiMatic, I have no real desire to own another rangefinder, digital or otherwise.

You're absolutely right, which is why when the Japanese perfected the SLR Leica was more or less finished in the mainstream camera business.

I would like to add
- viewfinder is in the corner, so my nose is not in the way. That reducera the risk of getting tilted photos.
- the M3 has a viewfinder as has no magnification [Actually it's .92X if I recall, but I take your point —Ed.] so can see with both eyes, where as on look through the viewfinder.

The lenses is another issue. Leica has been more Ken on high contrasty lenses than high sharpnes with lower contrast. Nikon has been inte the later. But Nikon has reversed this with the digital sensors, ie processes the digital images so they are high contrast compared to Canon.

I've never been able to afford a Leica camera and associated lenses, and in reality, never even thought about owning one, so my views about them are moot. That said, I have been intrigued by the mystique that Leica cameras seem to generate, secret men's business and the like.

And since you brought up ground glass viewfinders, I loved my Zenza Bronica medium format camera and looking down into the ground glass viewfinder, the chunky body, the leaf shutter lenses, the distinctive 'thunk' of the mirror and ability to change film backs etc. I still miss that camera, even after many DSLRs etc.

Also if you ever get a chance try working for a bit with a camera with a full on 1:1 viewfinder. Pure heaven. Two eyed shooting with total comfort. It's like having frame lines just floating in your eyes. I did this for a while many a year ago, I think it was a Nikon S, but don't trust my memory on that. (Full disclosure, I love rangefinders to start with, so for those who don't it probably wouldn't make a difference.)

Can't resist a comment on this one.
Completely agree with you. Rangefinder is an outdated technology and was replaced by much better alternatives (both from a professional and amateur point of view), hence the niche thing. It did not disappear because of ... what you just pointed out.

Don't know if I should open these floodgates but...This is a similar situation to vinyl records, outdated technology that only some people find relevant for their listening habits. therefore a niche thing.

Apart from that as far as Leica's are concerned: magnificent cameras, superb lenses - not my cup of tea. (wouldn't mind owing one If I could afford it)

They can be pretty compact and are easy to focus.

I like Leicas but I love folding medium format cameras. Love 'em!

I got my Leica before I had a zoom for my SLR -- zooms were expensive and slow and rare at the time. And autofocus didn't exist.

Most of those disadvantages I think of as advantages; in particular, really precise framing is a common beginner mistake. They miss the fact that the slide mount crops out a bit of image, and not in totally predictable ways, or that it's hard to print to the very edge of the negative, or something of the sort. And that the editor will be selecting a cropping that works best for the page, not for your one picture (obviously that presupposes some things about what you're shooting for).

The argument for rangefinders today is I think much weaker than it was in 1973. AF works quite well, and we have much higher ISOs available, for example.

Agree with most the points here (as a digital and film M shooter). The evidence of that most people dislike rangefinders is when I hand it over to them to use: most people can't (including a friend of mine who is an accomplished photographer).

Main immediate dislike points of a rangefinder: not being able to get that WYSIWYG approximation through the lens, the manual nature of it.

For me the main advantages that you've missed are:

- Small size and packaging (particularly the lenses of their f2 range, not necessarily the case for their faster lenses). The digital versions are slightly larger than their film cousins unfortunately.

- Classical packaging (no one knows what it really is and automatically think it is a vintage camera): this is a great advantage for certain types of photography (e.g. street photography)

Small, unobtrusive, and it works for my type of photography. Hate me if you want, I'm ok with that.


Ah, but the lenses...

When I really want to get the shot I use my Nikon Df or FM3a. But when I have more time to be deliberate I love using my Leica M3. It's so well made, the lenses are great, the viewfinder is big (0.91x) and bright with wonderful framelines and the shutter is almost silent. Coming from a DSLR or an SLR takes a little getting used to but it is well worth the effort. It's a different way to shoot but it is quite rewarding especially if you like shooting manual focus.

Can't think about Billy Joel without Weird Al's "It's Still Billy Joel to Me" looping in my mind's ear.

Most of the points you make about rangefinder cameras are in my view positive. It's all about simplicity and creativity: eg.manual focus and limted controls,seeing beyond the frame lines; prime lenses only and moderate focal lengths. The ultimate freedom and creativity was for me the all-plastic Holga with virtually no controls. Not sure how much all that is compromised with the latest digital varieties - but as for film forget it. The cost makes it impossible.

I have ambivalent feelings about rangefinder cameras. While I find all the issues you mentioned are true, there are some benefits when it's done right. Yes, all you wrote about the inconvenience of rangefinders is spot-on; I'd just add that the bright lines fade with time in some cameras, making focusing even more difficult. Not that it's easy when the cameras are in good condition, mind you: recently I've used a pristine Minolta 7S that belonged to my father and it is an absolute bitch to focus properly. On the other hand, focusing with a Leica M5 and M6 is a breeze. I don't know how to describe it, especially in comparison with the Minolta: I'll just say the Leicas are better. In every respect. It's probably an unfair comparison, but all of them are rangefinders. I'm not talking oranges and lemons here. The only thing I liked about the Minolta was the smoothness of its leaf shutter. (Incidentally, I tried the 'sunny 16' method when I sampled the Minolta - only to find the diaphragm was stuck at f/4!)
Using one of the aforementioned Leicas - even the M5, which is sort of the ugly duckling of the M line-up - is a great experience: everything seems and feels right. I couldn't care less if I'm confined to using primes because I hate zoom lenses. It just takes holding a Leica to understand what the fuss is all about.
Despite the qualities of the Leicas, though, I can't think of a more intelligent system than SLR. The rangefinder system is far too complicated and demands too much ancillary technology (e. g. parallax compensation) to work properly. Purists can go on and on saying rangefinder provides a natural view to the scene, but I'd rather have 'accurate' than 'natural'. With SLR I can frame with precision and get a quite accurate description of depth of field. Focusing is as simple as it can be - at least with my Olympus OM-2 with no. 1 focusing screen - and you see exactly what the lens 'sees', which can only bring benefits to your photographs. The only proviso is mirror slap, but you get over it. And it made the transition to digital successfully, such is the validity of the concept. SLR can be under threat from electronic viewfinders, but it still wins. You're actually seeing what's in front of the lens, not a number of pixels.

In 1976 I decided to move up to 35mm from a 110 camera. I drove to a nearby camera store, this one owned by the ex-mayor and well known local newspaper photographer Frank Wansbrough. Mitch the clerk, long haired with a beard that made you think of Che Guevara, asked if I wanted an SLR or rangefinder. What's the difference I asked and he grabbed a Canon rangefinder off the self and I looked through the viewfinder, not too bad I thought, then he handed me a Canon ftb and that was it I had to have an slr. The difference between them, for me, was like night and day. Sure I've felt the lure of Leica, but cost aside, I'm just not a rangefinder guy.

One of the main advantages which I think you missed is no blackout at the moment of exposure. This allows you to see what you are photographing in real time in a way that SLR and live-view cannot. For longer exposures I also think it helps me hold the camera steadier and/or pan with the action more smoothly.


Mike wrote about the New Yorker profile of Billy Joel, "Read it from whatever persective [ sic ] you choose—as a Joel fan, as a Joel hater, as someone who's interested in music, as someone who's interested in the music business, as psychology, as sociology—it's fascinating any which way."

Then he could have written about his overview of rangefinder cameras, "Read it from whatever perspective you choose—as a rangefinder fan, as a rangefinder hater, as someone who's interested in photographs, as someone who's interested in the camera business, as psychology, as sociology—it's fascinating any which way.

Having never used a Leica or looked into the mechanics behind them, or known anyone that did, I'm curious what gives the photos that "Leica look" that is so distinctive (film or digital), at least of the photos I've seen (like the sound of an acoustic Martin guitar can't be mistaken). Is it something in the camera/sensor, or is it the ungodly expensive lenses?


Another important feature of rangefinders for a fairly long time was that they (and their lesnes) were small compared to cameras of equal quality. The gradual inflation of 'serious' SLRs began well before the DSLR era I think, while rangefinder cameras (which means mostly Leicas of course) didn't suffer from this bloat. Small cameras have fairly obvious advantages in many cases.

This size differential no longer holds of course: lots of DSLRs are still enormous but there are very good, very small cameras.

All that you say it true. But you left out that a RF allows to you use small excellent lenses.

I left Canon DSLR's in 2004 because the lenses then were not good enough for large digital prints. I went back to a RF not because of the RF but that the lenses were good enough for digital enlargement. Perhaps the rest of the lens world has bought up to the higher standards required for digital resolution, but I have moved on to even better lenses, that took me away from RF, but still Leica via the S lenses. Admittedly, not many people need that much from their lenses.

I'm one of those who would love to love rangefinders, but just can't get on with them. I frame from the edges and corners - the middle can look after itself.

Seems a pretty comprehensive list Mike. It explains why most people don't like them and a few do. Those of us who do are not all just contrarian or sucked into the Leica mystique either. There are a couple of outcomes of the list of attributes you made that are key to my enjoyment of optical rf cameras:

- you can't do everything, so there's no point in trying. The world of magazines and the internet exists to persuade us that we can and should be able to do everything (some aspect of the tyranny of choice)and therefore that we need to buy more and more and... An rf doesn't really respond well to that and once you've got a 50 and 35 you may a well just make pictures. Saves on ditraction.

- Not having an image on groundglass changes the way I work. I am more subject and less image focused. Not always a strength, perhaps, but a key difference.

Nicely balanced article. It's OK that not many people like them - the fastest and slowest cameras in existence!



Rangefinders can also be easier to focus manually, compared to a ground glass or to live view. I'm more of an SLR person, but I've met a few people who couldn't focus consistently with them but had no problem with a rangefinder patch.

I identify with this. I went through a rangefinder phase just before digital took over. While I still really like the old AF Hexars, I ended up never really bonding with RF cameras in the more classic styles.

What's also interesting to me is that while rangefinders do not provide very precise framing the genre of photography that they tend to be associated with (candid photojournalism) tends to place an overly high importance on precise framing and never cropping.

Never quite understood this.

In the days of film a lot of photographers used a blend of Leica rangefinder and the SLR of choice. On certain news jobs where moments of incredible action would benefit from shooting with a bright-line finder and other moments would benefit from the careful composition provided by a through-the-lens viewfinder, I would put a Leitz accessory bright-line finder in the accessory shoe of an SLR. I’m glad I saved the accessory finders because I now put them in the accessory shoes of small digital cameras to provide a choice of bright-line or through-the-lens viewing. I’m sure some folks will say, “But Fuji provided that when the introduced the X-Pro, and its bright line finder will work even with a zoom lens. True, but the accessory finder system works on almost any camera, including Fujis that don’t have a combination finder.

"It's even quite common for people to want to like rangefinders.....and just not be able to get used to them."

Sounds somewhat like me. To me, SLR's are 35mm cameras perfected. The interchangeable lens RF Leica and Contax, later Nikon and Canon, of the 1930 to 1950's period were just stopgap measures until TTL viewing could reach maturity. The metal, mechanical, manual, SLR cameras of the early 70's were the pinnacle of 35mm SLR design I believe. Although I have a modest Leica M setup my go to 35mm camera is either an OM-1 or my Pen F (if yer gonna have a postage stamp negative, have a postage stamp negative)

Strangely, my favorite viewfinder type camera is a non-rangefinder, original Olympus Pen. All manual, whisper quiet advance and shutter, bright projected frame VF, small and only 13 oz. The fixed 28mm f3.5 (equivalent to a 40mm AOV on full frame) is scale focus and makes sharp 6X8 enlargements on 8X10 paper. What else do you need in a coat pocket camera.

I admit, I am a Nikon guy, since I was 17. But I always admired Leicas and what I read about them. Some years ago, I gave up and invested in an M6 and two or three lenses. It was sold within three months. I never managed to get used to the lens controls being at the wrong position and operating in the wrong direction, compared to Nikkors.

Count me in the "love em" column. The vast majority of my best work was done with a rangefinder, either Canon or Leica. I'd love to be able to afford an Epson R-D1 (much less a M9) and a handful of screw mount lenses to go with it. Say a Canon 28/2.8, Leica 50/2 Summitar & a Canon 100/3.5? Ah, wouldn't that be nice?

In the real world of cameras I can afford, the Olympus E-PL1 I have won me by being the first digital I found that was "close enough" to how a rangefinder works for my tastes. It works, I get good shots, but ...

But I still want an actual manual focus digital rangefinder and all those lovely old lenses I foolishly sold so I could eat...

I'm not sure the phrase "people don't like them" is accurate, I think it's that most never give themselves a chance to get used to RF cameras long enough to realize the benefits. The reason? You mention it yourself: "groundglass images can be seductive". They prefer in the immediate short term the groundglass image. And that's that. Before they even give using a RF a chance they rush back to the camera with the neat-o groundglass image. I've seen many forum posts over the years along the lines of "I bought a rangefinder. Sold it after two rolls. Much prefer my SLR".......That's my theory anyway.

I love the Leicas. I think so far, a Leica has been the only camera that disappears when I'm "in the zone". It's a rectangle in front of my eye and a button to press, and I don't feel like I'm operating a device.

But I agree with you Mike. When people ask me about this camera, I ask them what kind of photography they like to do. To the few ones who seem really interested in rangefinders, I suggest they get a Canonet first and shoot a few rolls, to see if it is for them. To the others, I typically recommend a Canon if they want full frame. At least the same quality for a fraction of the price, in a more versatile package.

As much as I like Leicas myself, I wouldn't be using one if I had to buy it. My current M9 is an exchange for prints I did with a friend. He's a dentist :)

Dunno... I've been comparing the Leica M-9P and Fuji X-Pro1 for a little while: http://prometheus.med.utah.edu/~bwjones/2014/08/a-prospectus-on-the-leica-m-9p-vs-fuji-x-pro1/
and in terms of a rangefinder design, Fuji has shown the way forward, in a spectacular way in some ways. In other ways, Leica still has the "feel" aspect, but even then Fuji is coming on strong. While the Leica is a return to photography basics and is enjoyable, fans of the rangefinder design would be pleased I think with what Fuji has done.

Mike, all of what you mention is pretty true.
However, the current "mirrorless" trend shows a movement away from the bulky, noisy (D)SLR. Might you not agree that the Leica M camera was the primogenitor of mirror-less? It took the maturation of autofocus and digital to achieve, and while a case might be made that the trend originated from the "point-and-shoot", the original high quality mirror-less cameras were seen as autofocus alternatives to the Leica M. Aren't the EVF's seen on a lot of these new cameras a digital update of the split image rangefinder? While those of us who prefer the optical rangefinder are a minority (and who would be willing to bear the cost of a Leica M), don't you think the popularity of the (D)SLR was primarily due to the marketing blitz that, especially with digital, promised to make great photograph(er)s without any effort? Anyway, I think your last couple of statements are correct. We are seeing more than the usual numbers of M cameras on the used market, likely due to the mirrorless (and interchangeable lens) Sony and Fuji alternatives.

I think it was on Dante Stella's site I read a wonderful short essay probably tiled 'A Rangefinder Will Not Make You a Better Photographer'. Short version: There is nothing inherent in RFs that is magic.


My Canon G11 has a rangefinder, and a 5x zoom lens. No framelines, though. For any moving subject, it's way better than composing on an LCD screen on the back of the camera.

The articulating LCD screen is useful when the optimum camera position doesn't permit rangefinder viewing (e.g. camera at ground level or high overhead).

Count me among those who generally don't like rangefinders. I started my photography ( can I use the word career if I never made any money with it?) with a Yashica YF, a Leica clone and later bought a IIIF with a couple of lenses. I still remember how happy I was when I bought my first SLR and could forget I even knew the word parallax. That Is probably why the idea of auxilary finders, optical or electronic, still fills me with dread. I want to see thru the lense that is taking the picture. It is just better and well worth the possible penalty of a few ounces of extra weight to me. I actually bought another YF a couple of years ago, I have shot exactly one roll of film with it which reminded me of why the Leica has rested in its box little used for all these years in perfect working order.

Great link to the article about fraternities. When I was in college I thought that frat boys were basically a bunch of weak-willed kids who needed validation by surrounding themselves by like-minded people. Shallow people of average intelligence, little imagination, in other words, basically losers who often had been born on third base and thought they hit a home run. Subsequent experience in life has reinforced my original opinion.

I never could warm up to my first Leica. I tried using it for 2-3 years but never felt comfortable with it. About twenty years later, I tried Leicas again and fell totally in love with them. After about 7-8 years, I sold them and moved on. Why? It had to do more with the type of pictures I was interested in shooting than in the equipment itself.

My first Leica experience was during a time when I was also really into large format subjects and nature photography. While perfectly useable for the same subjects, the rangefinder seemed better suited for candid subjects not for leisurely compositions and exact framing. When my subject interests changed to people and their interactions, the Leica fit me just about perfectly. Over time my interests had changed again. This time my subjects mainly concerned human artifacts with less emphasis on the actual human beings. I had begun using medium format more by then. By the time I became comfortable with digital, I discovered I preferred using a DSLR over both the Leica and medium format.

There are those expressions "horses for courses" and "the right tool for the job". In my experience, the Leica rangefinder is the perfect "candid camera" but not the perfect general use camera. Of course that's just my experience. There have been and continue to to be photographers very successfully using Leicas for a wide range of subject matter. As Mike says, "It's just a choice"

You forgot the single biggest advantage of rangefinders: the ability to use non retrofocus wide angle lenses, due to the short register distance. This single advantage easily swamps all the others listed put together. One only has to shoot a mamiya 7 with the 43mm to realize how true this is. And there is at least one AF rangefinder, the Hexar AF.

Perhaps it's because I learned photography using rangefinder cameras and open frame Graflexes back in the late '50s & early '60s but the problems you note never bothered me. One of my all time favorite cameras was a Fuji GS 645 (I still have it, haven't been able to bring myself to part with it). Even when I started using 35mm SLRs, the cameras I could afford didn't have DOF preview so I suspect the negatives most affect those who learned photography on SLRs/DSLRs with DOF preview. Even with SLR/DSLR cameras the edges are approximate as many cover only 95%<> of the actual frame. I certainly prefer TTL viewing for macro but otherwise I've never found a separate viewfinder to be a large handicap in normal photography. One old timers opinion FWIW.

Traditionally, rangefinder wideangle lenses were viewed to be superior to the respective SLR lenses, which are a compromise due to retrofocus design. I think this turned into a disadvantage for digital rangefinder cameras.

My first rangefinder was an Argus C3, which I had to use when my father took back his Exakta VX. I was not happy. I was doing close up and macro with the VX, and if you want to know frustration, try using extension tubes or bellows with the rangefinder-especially with film. On the plus side was the fact that I did learn much about photography with it, out of necessity, but I still have a prejudice against rangefinders as a result. And at my age, I ain't about to change!

I read this out loud to my girlfriend while she was cooking, gave us both a good laugh. Both our Leicas says hi! as well.

I agree, and share you observations. I have a camera-collecting friend who's got several Leicas, but never uses them (oh the blasfemi I say!), and openly admits to dislike rangefinders. He prefers SLRs, having become used to the through-the-lens viewfinder through 40 years of shooting.
I on the other hand took a liking to rangefinder-ish viewfinding when buying my Fuji X100. But in observing the second-hand market, I saw a lot of people selling hardly-used X100s after a short life-span. I belive a lot of people thought they were buying Leicas - hoping to tap into the historical herritage - but discovered how little they actually liked using it.
I hear a lot of people saying they'd like a Leica (by the way, don't you hate pronouncing "like a Leica"? My norwegian tounge twists...!) upon seeing my M6, but they have no real clue as to what they like about it - except that its a Leica.

I for one am glad Leica is still around to produce unique cameras for the few who prefers them. And a second hand M6 is a good bargain!

I like my Zorki 4 rangefinder for the same reasons I like my EM5 - I can put it in my pocket (with a 50mm folding lens) and it's unobtrusive in use. I still keep my F100, however, even though it's heavy, noisy and much less comfortable to use, because it's unbeatable for tele shots. I wouldn't lug it around every day, though.

Mike, I own a M3 and can relate to this bullet point:

"The framelines are rough and approximate, defeating fussiness about edges and fastidious precision in framing"

But every time somebody brings this issue I wonder about Cartier-Bresson. He's been praised precisely by his immaculate framing and composition (his refusal to crop is famous). Do you have any idea of how he could get it done with such an imprecise instrument?

why I bought the Xpro..... to see outside the frame.
I will not give up my D800 but they are two very different cameras and i use them that way. In my old age i do enjoy the AF with the basic three primes. I have added 2 classic nikkors the 105 2.5 and the 200 f4 with adapters. they, of course are manual and use the EVF but for the "normal" use, I am really having a lot more fun with the Xpro at events and general people stuff than the huge D800 and its general intimidation of subjects.

I used to love Leicas. But then I got a job working in London's Soho, a mythical area of debauchery and licentiousness. Every day I'd see "Leicaman" furtively creeping around looking as self conscious as a schoolboy in a strip club.

There may have been a time when Leicas were cool, but one sighting of middle aged Leicaman in full stealth mode and you realise that time is long past.

What I liked most about rangefinders was the small size and spartan controls. My digital camera is a Fuji, but I mounted some of my small rangefinder lenses on it and dare I say it, it's an almost perfect combination of both worlds. I get the versatility of the Fuji with the tiny lenses and wonderful tabbed manual focus. The only area it falls flat is with wide lenses where you can't see the plane of focus. A true rangefinder wins there hands down. I found I needed to buy the Fuji 14mm to get auto focus capability to insure proper focus really wide. But manual focusing RF lenses on the fuji is a joy from about 35mm and up.

I bought my (second hand) M9 *despite* the fact that it's a rangefinder, because it's full frame, with a 50mm lens, great ergonomics, and solid construction. I may be a shallow dilettante, and a mediocre photographer, but I like a well screwed together piece of kit that does the job simply and reliably and produces lovely images without being huge. My D800 manages most of that, but fails badly on the size criterion; my GX7 and LX100 are almost there, but their EVFs can't compete with the real world seen through an optical viewfinder. Some, but not all, of the Leica's appeal is because of what flows from the fact that it is a rangefinder, but I am at best neutral about the consequences of this for how it actually focuses. If I could get a full frame SLR the same size as a Leica, with the same kind of ergonomics, I'd leap at it, but I can't!

When one tries to get one's eye up to the viewfinder on an SLR, one realizes they were designed for people without noses, perhaps by creatures who had never seen a human face. Very frustrating. Rangefinders are a dream in that regard.

Now with EVFs, the ones that are in the middle instead of the corner tend to protrude from the back of the camera, creating room for the human nose. (The Fujifilm X-T1 is an unfortunate exception to this.)

Now, when I had a Leica M3 it had exactly the same controls as every other decent camera: Shutter speed, aperture, focus, flash sync type (x or m), and shutter release. Oh, and film speed (the M3 had a dial for that on the back; maybe it doesn't count as a "control" since it didn't do anything, though, whereas the one on the Miranda Sensorex or the Pentax Spotmatic controlled the meter).

That's spartan compared to today's button farms, touch screens, and menu systems, certainly.

The viewfinder was brighter than on an SLR -- and the focusing patch was the brightest spot in the viewfinder, so that was good.

Oh, and one special advantage when using flash (beyond focusing in the dark): you could tell through the viewfinder if the flash went off, since it wasn't blacked out.

A disadvantage not mentioned: bizarre and slow film loading, hard to do in a hurry in the field and risking dropping delicate bits into the mud. (Not that slow with practice, but definite risk of dropping stuff.)

I didn't find my M3 that much quieter than SLRs; it seemed to me that the noise was shorter but just as loud or maybe a hair louder. This was not based on instrument measurements, though, so who knows really? Maybe less total sound energy but not much difference in peak volume?

To do my best work I need a camera that disappears into the background when I am working. I own 3 cameras that do this. One is my Leica IIIg. I don't like it because it is a rangefinder. I like it because it becomes an extension of me.

I kind of wish there was a practical way for me to try rangefinder photography. I don't think I'd care for it, but I'd like to find out for sure. I really dislike shooting film (enough so that it would bury the experience), so I would need one of the exceedingly expensive Leica M digitals, and a similarly expensive couple of lenses (a 35 and a 90) to make anything like a reasonable trial. Even if I could resell the whole works for what I paid for it, I would still need to have many thousands of dollars sunk into the system for however long I used it. And the worst part? What if I loved the whole more-expensive-than-any-car-I've-ever-owned experience?

Let's talk about a slightly different thing. For whatever historical reasons, the fastest, widest, full-frame, smallest, quietest camera rigs are Leicas. (And my attempts to use MFT for my work failed.)

That is, if you feel the desire to shoot with a 12mm on FF 35mm, or an f1.4 21mm, you need an M. I find I really want those things. (Yes Mike, you distain everything outside of about 35 to 50 equiv - many of us take a very different view.)

The x-line Fujis are closing in - they don't seem to have quite the "huge file cropping power" yet, but I think they may get there. Apparently a 24-equiv 16mm f1.4 is coming. Hopefully a design that can do the tasks of the voightlander 12mm on a 35mm full frame will reach the x-line.

Because the biggest CON of a Leica kit is that it's no trick at all to have $20K of stuff in a little bag with a handle, and sometimes this makes one kind of tense....

I like rangefinder cameras. SLRs (though essential for macro photography and long lenses) don’t appeal as I want to see foreground and background with equal clarity – not merely what’s in focus at full aperture. I also want to see what’s outside the image area, while disliking a rectangular tunnel that blacks out between exposures.

I like the constraints of the limited focal length lenses available to me. Being a simple soul, more than two lenses confuses and slows me down (though oddly I’m happy handling three different camera formats simultaneously.)
With a degree of practice (and two hands) a Leica M lens with a tab, can be spot focussed by the time the camera is at eye level. As the previous sentence suggests, most of my photography is done with the camera handheld and not on a tripod. I’m usually photographing some degree of erratic and uncontrolled movement with shutter speeds frequently a 60th second or shorter.

This means I, and everyone else, cannot see what will be recorded when using such shutter speeds. Our visual processing mechanisms and reflexes are simply too slow. (If you doubt this, just consider how cinemas 24 frames a second, or thereabouts, is perceived as smooth uninterrupted motion.)

Individuals who are happy with rangefinder cameras (or SLRs for that matter) to photograph movement are always anticipating at a subconscious level. We are operating in the same way that a ball moving at high speed can be frequently hit by a bat when in the hands of an experienced individual.
Similarly, framing of a photograph on the fly is instinctual, despite what many think or like to believe to the contrary.

I like Vegemite a lot of people don't. Same thing with cameras, what I like may not be to everyone's taste. Some cameras just feel right in the hand and some don't. I never got on with TLRs - all the ergonomics of a house brick. Monorail large format cameras were a pain in the lower regions, but I did like field cameras. I certainly like the RF experience and I'd love a digital one - I keep studying the prices of second hand M9s but they are still too pricey for my fiscally challenged situation. I've loked ath the Fujis but they seem a bit of an ersatz RF experience. I actually like the whole manual focusing process. I don't want to shoot film as there are no good labs in Tasmania and I can't have a darkroom. Ah well back to studying the form on EBay.

I've started using a (film) rangefinder over the last year and while I love a lot of things about it, I still get caught by the focus in the viewfinder not matching the focus of the lens - so I sometimes take the shot when it looks right in the VF without first stopping to actually focus the darn thing!

One thing you did not directly mention is the brightness of the viewing window. SLR is a lot dimmer, even more so when you put a slower lens on it, which all zooms are. They are fine in bright daylight, but in the dark it can get really hard to really see what is going on in the image. With an SLR, or some EVFs I often look over the top of the camera to see what is really going on. It does not have to be rangefinder either. Separate optical finder is good as well. I just counted that I have seven of them for different focal lengths and by different companies.
It is strange how all camera companies could build good optical viewfinders in the 1970s and 80s and build them inside small cameras, even with rangefinders included. And then in the digital age with cameras costing 2-10 times more, all they could do was a squinty little window that showed 70% of the image area in some cases. And soon even that was taken away. Until now only Fuji can still build a proper viewfinder inside a camera body, and that only in two of their top models.

I love rangefinders. I had an M2 for many years and now use a Mamiya 6. Expanding on the quiet shutter with no mirror slap, some rangefinders have leaf shutters. This helps to make them not only quieter but vibrate less, allowing longer handheld exposures (but I guess that's what image stabilization is for).

I don't understand valuing the WYSIWYG viewfinder image of an SLR over the framing of a scene that a rangefinder gives you. Is precision of that kind really useful for most kinds of photography, or do people just like the idea of precision? It seems most photographers crop afterwards anyway. (I don't crop, which started out as a discipline thing and now it's just a thing...)

Also, better and smaller and cheaper wide angle lenses.

We're all different, of course. The photos that got me accepted into the photo program at CalArts were taken on a borrowed Petri 7S rangefinder. I bought a Nikon F with 50mm lens to start school with, but a luxury at school was that I got access to every style of camera in use at the time - Leica M4s with every available Leitz lens, Nikon Fs and any lens, Hasselblads, view cameras, you name it. Over time it became clear to me that the cameras I enjoyed using the most were the cameras used to take my best photos - the Leica M4 and 21-50mm lenses. When I finished school, I sold the Nikon and bought a Leica CL with 40mm Summicron, and that did everything for me for several years. (A Leicaflex plus 50 and 90 lenses came later.)

One element of the rangefinder that contributed to my working style was that the camera sat to the side of my face while shooting people, and this allowed me to maintain visual contact with them (left eye open and acknowledging that I was connected with them; my mouth visible to them as we talked), gaining trust, building rapport, and engaged with them, all the while thinking images and taking pictures at the same time. This is not the case when a camera is separating the two of you.

Well, this is a horses for courses kind of thing. Most people don't like shooting with full-on professional bodies as well, Canon 1D-series or Nikon D3/D4-series, etc. Too big, too heavy, too "pro". I'll say one thing for 'em, though, they get the job done.

That being said, I personally love the classic rangefinder experience as embodied by Fuji's very innovative "hybrid rangefinder-style" designs, which, four years later, no one else has done. Which is why I enjoy my X-Pro1 so much, particularly with those fab primes Fuji has available these days. My guess is many a TOP reader feels the same way about their X100-series or X-Pro1.

Even Fuji has stated they did not set out to make a camera everyone will like, they set out to make a camera some people will love.

...Most people don't like 'em.
......But the People who do like them REALLY like them.....
And, there is no denying the mountain of world class photographs produced by them, or the admirable list of Photographers who use them.
I still think your comments are right on.
Leica either fits or it doesn't.
Getting my first Leica in the 60's was a rite of passage, I wore it like a badge of honor. A beautiful M3 single stroke, collapsable 50mm f/2 Summicron for two eye open shooting and also later a pristine 90/2.8 Elmarit. I still have them because all real photographers have a Leica.
I once met Roman Vishniac after a being privileged to be part of a small invited group to see his pictures and listen to him speak.
Afterwards , I asked If I could make a picture of him. He looked at me as though he was going to demure, but then glanced at my chest and said "Vis a Leica, anytime..."
Besides being fine cameras there IS a club that surrounds them.
But truth be told, I was never good or fast with it. Despite trying.
This is not the camera's' fault' it is simply a mis-match in the interface that works best for me.
Paying Jobs always brought out the Nikons, Hasselblads, 4x5's & 8x10's (Deardorffs, but thats another story)
Leica is a camera that has many virtues- even including being Jewelry. It Started something from nothing and has remained true to it's small, rugged, reliable and jewel like ethos.
As an object, no other camera compares.
I want to use it, but I'm just not very good with it.
I WISH I was better with it. I have reverence for it.
I just can't uses it to make consistently good pictures.
Mea Culpa.
I have many other cameras I don't use, but I don't make excuses for them.
Such is the power of Leica.
I have never stopped producing work. I shoot,edit and print everything I think is good. Cameras are mostly tools to me, I only look at results.
My main camera is a now 7 year old Canon 1Ds III .
But even after all these years, I'm respectful of the power of Leica.
I've never understood the streident arguments on either side, Photogaphers should use what works for them. It is certainly understandable for us to feel strongly about the tools WE use, but never quite got why one would expend energy worrying about what OTHER people used to make pictures.
Thanks for a really thoughtful post.

I like (love, actually) both types of cameras. Nearly all of the listed characteristics for RFs are positive for me. And since OMs are my primary film SLRs, having a big, bright finder provides a near-RF experience.

My plunge into serious digital photography in the next year or so will almost certainly be with a Fuji X-Pro, I'm just waiting to see what the next model offers.

"When one tries to get one's eye up to the viewfinder on an SLR, one realizes they were designed for people without noses, perhaps by creatures who had never seen a human face."

Actually the typical SLR interfaces well with real people. It is just that all manufacturers have chosen to put the shutter release, speed dial and wind lever etc. on what should be the bottom of the camera. Try viewing while holding a typical SLR upside down!

One of the nice things about using a rangefinder camera for a while is that since it does not give a straightforward* depth of field preview after a while you get pretty good at pre-visualizing DOF just like you get pretty good at estimating distance.

You can do the both eyes open thing with some SLRs. I think the finder magnification on the nikon F and F2 with a 50mm lens worked out so the image on the ground glass is about life size. I always kept both eyes open with all lenses 50mm and wider, not only to be able to see if I might be missing something to include in the picture but also because I can't count the times that people just walked into me because they were looking at whatever interesting thing I was photographing and not where they were going.

I've noticed that most DSLRs I have used or played with at the camera store have screens that are so optimized for brightness that they are useless for DOF estimation. Apparently there are a lot of people who confuse a bright image with higher quality just like they think louder speakers sound better.

* my Leica M3 had two marks in the rangefinder to gauge DOF the top mark for a 50mm lens at f/16 and the bottom marker for the DOF of a 50mm lens at f/5.6 - I think, my m3 got stolen 25 years ago )

@ Jim Simmons

When were you at CalArts?
When I was in the MFA program there I had been a pro photographer for a few years and had settled on using my Hasselblad for almost everything, so for me the really fun resource was the SuperShop with every metalworking and woodworking tool you could think of. I built a lot of cameras and light modifiers to try out different ideas.

The most interesting take away from this post was that Harold Merklinger reads this blog!

There are times I love the rangefinder, other times I want a ground glass, other time an EVF/LCD. They each suit different kinds of needs and subjects.

So, yeah. I like my Leicas. But I like rangefinders. Seriously!

My first 35mm camera was this Canon:

Canonet QL-17 GIII, January, 2010

It was my dad's, but he got a Konica T3 and gave me the Canonet, which I shot with through Junior High and most of high school.

In college I got a Nikon F3 and used it until dad handed down his Olympus XA:

Olympus XA, December 27, 2012

I'm still using it, even though I mostly shoot with my M9-P or my Ricoh GR. Both of which are fantastic and oddly the same for being pretty much totally different.

But I think the thing about all of my favorite camera is that they're small, simple and almost invisible to others.

What's not to like? If I need to shoot with a long lens, there's the E-M5.

i don't think that 'it's just a personal choice,' nor 'horses for courses' is all that illuminating for this subject. moreover, it seems to me that there are two main things missed in this summary.

the first one is perhaps a matter of emphasis, but i think it is important: that is that when you look through a rf window, it is exactly like looking through a window; your eyes are not focussed at any single point, as they always are in the case of a dslr or evf style camera, instead they roam around the scene and focus at different distances. this is not the same as saying that the rf gives 'a dof approximation of a small aperture'; that is wrong. it gives no dof approximation at all. you look through a rf window at the world in three dimensions; you look though other cameras at a flat picture, not the world--one with a dof approximation already imposed upon it for a given focus (and almost always, for the wrong aperture, unless you happen to be shooting at exactly f/2.4 or whatever the equivalent aperture of your focus screen's fresnel lenses may be, or whatever the evf system is comfortable with, unless you have a camera you can force to stick to a chosen aperture, while you live with the gain-up in low light…). your eye does not refocus as it roams over the parts of a scene which are near or far when you use non-rf window cameras; it sees everything at whatever virtual distance your vf approximates, a couple of feet maybe. (yes, fuji can give you that framing window, if you are willing to trust their af system, which i am not.)

this all means you relate differently to what you are photographing through a rf than you do when using other viewfinders. this isn't really subjective; it's an optical necessity. it may not matter a great deal to you (or it may be paramount, either for or against the rf way of seeing), but it is objectively a different way of interacting with what you photograph. i tend to think that in the case of the rf window, one continues to interact with the world as the real world, while thinking about what you can do with it in a picture; whereas through an slr, you are essentially reduced to interacting with a mediated world through a picture of it, rather than the real thing. an slr is a kludge for visualizing your picture for you; a rf isn't.

it shouldn't be surprising that most people prefer the latter; of course they do. it is easier, and it offers the pleasures of transforming the world into pictures at the front end of the process as well as the back end, as it were. but whether it is a good thing or not, is another matter.

and that brings up the second thing i feel is missed in this approach to the topic. so, most people prefer to take pictures looking at a picture, rather than looking at the world. fine. does that mean that is a better way to take pictures? does that mean that what people find easier or prefer, is the same as what helps them to take the better photos? obviously, this question is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, and i don't suppose for a second that there is a single right answer for everyone. however, i think that it is worth considering that the kind of camera which would help you to make better photos, might not be the kind that a person finds most intuitive, or easiest. which is fairly obvious, if you think about it--but for some reason many people resist applying that conclusion to rf cameras.

a rf requires you to learn what your camera will do to the world in the process of turning out a picture of it, if you want even slightly predictable or consistent results. slr/evf cameras do not; they offer you a ready-made picture, and in effect ask you: OK? how about now? now? the photographer can end up reduced to a function of 'sure, that's nice.' i suspect one of the gripes some raise about the profligate shooting habits enabled by digital cameras is how it threatens to expose that tendency. hence all the exhortations to 'slow down', 'shoot less, think more.' you don't have to worry about that shooting a digital m. unless you shoot deliberately, with intention, you're unlikely to get anything remotely usable… but you don't have to slow down at all, and the 'thinking' gets easier and faster with practice. you upgrade your photo skills, rather than your camera, which gives you greater control over the entire result, rather than just faster focus tracking to say yes or no to.

lots of people will object that a good photographer has to understand how to make photos no matter what camera they are using, and i think that is basically true. but there's still a difference in process, and for almost all photographers, that will make a difference in the product. probably not the difference you expect, either. it may be less a difference visible in comparison between two pictures from different cameras, and more a difference in what photos you take in the first place.

i say this all because, like many, i felt the pull of the leica mystique, for lack of a better word, from before the time i bought my first professional camera system in the 80's. i thought hard about what system to buy, and eventually it came down to one based around an om3, or a leica. and i made the rational choice, based on what i thought seemed reasonable at the time, having had only fleeting experience with rfs--i bought the om3. i loved many things about those cameras (still do), but it wasn't until about 5 years ago that i decided to finally try a rf for myself. and what i found was that i had never understood what was actually distinctive about using a rf, even though at some point i think i heard something similar to what i tried to describe above. in my experience, to really get an understanding for what a rf does to your picture-making (which is mainly to force you to actually deliberately make the picture), you have to use one yourself, for a not insignificant amount of time. i would say 3 months at a minimum, assuming shooting heavily nearly every day, but longer would be better. (i realize that much of what i've said here may be implicit in the 'leica is a good teacher,' 'year with leica' project, but i want to make it more explicit and precise.)

i sometimes wish i could tell all this to my younger self, to persuade me to buy the leica instead and not to miss out for so long on what i get out of mine now. i doubt it would have worked, and besides, i used to do a fair amount of macro and wildlife photography--the rf really isn't the right tool for those, certainly not at the time (there is always a basic consideration of what tools are right for a job). but for photographing people, in real life, i truly don't think there is a better camera.

for me.

and i suspect for more people than one might expect.

The problem with Leicas is that the designers don't trust the photographers, and try to second-guess them. The viewfinders show only about 80% of what is actually on the negative.

One of my favourite cameras was the Contax G1 a hybrid AF 'rangefinder' with an exceptional 45mm f2 lens, a very nice 21mm and 90mm. That 45mm was one of those special lenses for me that I would put easily into my top 5 or 6. Most people consider the G2 to be better, but the G1 had the smaller form and the design suited me. Very tempted again.
Generally, it is the choice of exceptional lenses available for M mount that sees me with an M4, though I also enjoy the ease of use and the mechanics. For example, I have recently added a Voigtlander (Cosina) 15mm lens that equates to a regular angle I see scenes in and it is almost lost in my pocket when not on the camera and it is optically very sweet. These things should make you feel good and you should choose them to fit how you see, what's the joy in trying to use something that puts a barrier to your expression ?

My tuppence-worth (hardly revelatory) is this:
If you shoot a lot of loosely-composed people pics or do a lot of low-light photography then you're better with a Leica M.
For everything else you're better with an SLR.
The ability to compose accurately is vital to the type of photography I do so I use SLRs.
So, if someone gave me a £1000 to spend on a camera what would I buy? A Leica, of course...

I don't think the comments do much to change your original point. I primarily shoot film and until a couple years ago, mostly shot an Olympus OM-1. I bought a Leica M4-P and wanted to love it, but found that the multiple sets of framelines in the viewfinder were a bit much. I sold that and picked up the dream camera (my dream), a Leica M2 and I really do love it. I was told early on to embrace the fact that you aren't quite framing what will be on the film when you develop it. I have come to see that as a check mark in the plus column. I do wish there weren't so many people adapting Leica lenses to digital cameras - the prices might fall a bit.

I never liked rangefinders. I tried a Leica CL with three lenses but when my fiancee broke up with me, I did not ask for them back. I shot in a studio environment and I did wedding photography. Both of these depend upon flash. Leica never touted flash as Nikon did. I guess for me, viewing through an SLR or a DSLR is more immediate, as if I am right in there with the subject. I am not hiding my camera. I participate in the scene with my camera in full view. I like AF lenses now as I get older. I sold all of my MF gear. Sure, the new Fuji cameras are compact and not real expensive and they have AF which is tempting, for sure.

My Fuji X-Pro1 is great to use, its jpg files are amazing. The optional view finder is very useful and enables me to carefully review what I am attempting to photograph.
I am never sure that the B & W modes give the same quality as the colour modes. I do not wish to play about with raw files as the basic colour jpg's from the X-Pro are so very good.
I wish Fuji would bring out a Mono only version; as Leica have done, at great expense.
Fuji have always made high quality 120 roll film cameras and I still use mine. I have always considered Fuji to be an interesting and innovative maker of range finder cameras.

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