Understanding the Rangefinder Camera, Pros & Cons!

What is a rangefinder?

Rangerfinder cameras are in a league of their own. They are fitted with a range-finding focus that allows the picture taker to judge the distance of focus when taking photographs. Older rangefinders use two images merged together to determine focus whereas modern models allow for the photographer to transmit the focus value to the lens focusing ring. Older models had a separate rangefinder piece and newer models have it attached in the center of the viewfinder to allow for greater range of motion during action shots.

Telemeters, the very first rangefinders, appeared in the early 1900s. Kodak developed the first rangefinder camera called the Autographic Special in 1916. The rangefinder on the Autographic was coupled with the device, and later models from other companies used it as an accessory to the camera. Models such as the Leica and the Zeiss Contax were such that added the rangefinder on instead of built it in.

As the rise of single-lens reflex cameras (SLR) grew, rangefinder cameras faded in populating around the 1970s. During their popularity, they were made in all formats, from simple point-and-click models to more advanced cameras. Most took 35 mm film, used focal shutters and had interchangeable lenses. Leica cameras and Nikon’s S series are two such popular rangefinders during those times.

The history of the rangefinder

During the 1950s in particular, Nikon’s rangefinder cameras found popularity among photojournalists covering the Korean War. Life Magazine photojournalist, Douglas Duncan, believed the high quality of Nikon’s lenses added to his ability to take pictures that meant more than words ever could. Canon then developed several rangefinder models until the late 1960s, but they were based on the Leica camera and found little success among the Nikon models that more photographers preferred. In the United States, the Argus was the most popular rangefinder camera among novice photographers.

By the 1960s, many companies offered a wide range of rangefinder cameras. Canon, Minolta, Olympus and Fujica are just some of the manufacturers that developed and produced their own cameras. Most of these had interchangeable lenses and focal shutters. Some still used the fixed lenses and leaf shutters of earlier model rangefinder cameras. Many rangefinder cameras are still capable of taking decent pictures and have outlasted their newer digital counterparts.

Digital rangefinders were first developed in 2004 by Epson. The R-D1 was the first digital rangefinder of its kind. Using Cosina-based lenses, Epson sought to bring the rangefinder to the forefront of the digital camera age. R-D1s also use Leica M-mount lenses and some screw mount lenses. The Leica M8 was released in mid-2006. They do lack live view screen previews and are much more expensive than their SLR competition.

SLRs are touted as the best type of digital cameras on the market in today’s age. They are considered more advanced then any other camera out there, especially in regards to rangefinders. SLRs have more options, more interchangeable lenses and an overall easier learning curve. Since images taken by a SLR camera can be seen through a view screen, they are generally the choice photographers make when purchasing a digital camera for the first time.

When using a rangefinder, you use the viewfinder at a longer distance away from the lens, which results in a different image being taken than what you are necessarily seeing. Framing and cropping, especially at close range, becomes a major problem for some photographers. This is called the parallax problem, and more modern rangefinder cameras compensate for this by creating a frame that corrects the focusing distance automatically in most cases. Using a rangefinder camera for close-ups and tight shots is out of the question for most picture takers.

Pros and cons of the rangefinder

The nature of the rangefinder camera restricts the type of zoom lenses that can be used. Most of the time, you cannot purchase additional zoom lenses and must use what came with the camera to take pictures. Some digital rangefinder cameras can have additional zoom lenses added, but they are costly and will only work with the specific model. They let the photographer choose between two or three different focal lengths.

While the rangefinder camera might be something you want to avoid if you are a novice photographer, they do have some benefits to their SLR counterparts. Since SLRs rely on a moving mirror, there is no losing your subject during movement. The camera produces less noise and is not as obtrusive when taking a picture during a quiet moment. Action shots in particular and street photography can be captured easily on a rangefinder.

The rangefinder camera might be right up your alley if you are looking for a camera specifically to take action shots. This camera can give you high quality pictures once you learn how to use it properly. While it may have a steep learning curve next to a SLR camera, no doubt your photography will improve by using this camera to capture the movement of everyday life around you. Rangefinder cameras may not be the talk of the market, but they are out there, and they provide an alternative to the more common cameras and everyday pictures you see.