you're reading...
Film, Not Digital, General Stuff, Rangefinders

Using Rangefinder Cameras…and More

In my Canon P review, I briefly went through the basics of using a rangefinder camera…just briefly…and today I thought I’d write a quick but more detailed post purely on the different aspects of using a rangefinder camera. I’m not sure how much there is to write on this topic, but let’s see Alright, to begin with, why is it called a rangefinder? Simple. The term ‘rangefinder’ comes from the focusing method it uses – a device built into the camera known as a rangefinder detects the distance of the subject from the camera, and tells you how to focus – and that’s why it’s actually known as a rangefinder camera. However, like SLRs, which are named such due to some aspects of its internal design, and yet now refer to a type of camera, the rangefinder has come to mean a type of camera too. A rangefinder has its own body style, its own look – as well as a standard sort of function and operation – and just like an SLR, rangefinders are (less commonly) used by professionals i.e. they’re very good cameras!

All rangefinders cameras use manual focusing. The rangefinder-type focusing system. Obviously. Some of the new ones have some automatic features, like auto exposure and stuff…in addition to a bunch of other manual controls, of course…but focusing is always manual. I guess that makes it a manual camera. That’s how it is

Rangefinders you can buy

The rangefinder cameras you can buy today include the Leica M9 digital rangefinder, which is beyond the budget of most of us…the Zeiss Ikon (film) rangefinder, which isn’t that affordable either…and the Voigtlander Bessa series (film), which is the most affordable of the lot. Most of these have some form of automatic exposure features…at least an aperture priority mode…I’m not sure if any of them have a fully automatic exposure setting…and are pretty easy to use. And yes, they’re all excellent cameras. You could click here, here, or here if you’re interested in buying any one of them! Don’t forget that you need a lens to go with them too – as most rangefinders are interchangeable-lens – so check out some of these lenses on Amazon here and here! Some old rangefinders, such as the old Canonet, by Canon, the Konica S2, the Olympus 35RC, are fixed-lens rangefinders…so there’s no changing lenses with these…however, I always prefer to use the interchangeable-lens ones…more flexibility if ever needed! The rangefinders that I love (and can afford) are (some of) the vintage rangefinder cameras from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Canon P is one of my favorites and I’m proud to have one in my collection. Others include the Canon 7, and the Nikon SP and S2 – the top Japanese rangefinders of the time. The Leica rangefinders are, of course, classics, and even today, are pretty damn pricey. The M3 is probably the cheapest (and the oldest) of all vintage Leica M rangefinders – most of them still work like they’re brand new – but they’re still super expensive. These vintage ones are all completely manual, of course…manual focusing, manual exposure, some of them don’t even have a built in light meter…and as you would’ve guessed, they’re all film cameras. In fact, coming to think about it, even out of the current rangefinders made today, the only digital rangefinders available at the moment are the Leica M8/M8-2 and the M9 – the rest are all traditional 35mm film rangefinders. They’re really fun to use though – and can get you some great photographs. If you’re looking for a bargain, try hunting for some of these vintage rangefinders on eBay. I got mine for $500 shipped. Not super cheap, but compared to a vintage Leica, which goes for $1000-5000 for the body alone, my deal was actually a deal! What does a rangefinder look like? Check out these rangefinder cameras that I’ve posted below –they  look great, don’t they?

All of the above images (except the Canon P, my own!) are sourced from Wikipedia, under Creative Commons

How to Use a Rangefinder Camera

Yeah, I started this post trying to explain how to simply use a rangefinder…looks like I’ve gone off topic a bit…maybe I should change the title…anyway, let’s look at how using a rangefinder is different from other cameras Focusing Yeah, as I said already, the focusing system is where the rangefinder got its name. It’s pretty fun to use too…and is one of the easier methods of manual focus I’ve used. Ok, so here’s how it works. You look through the viewfinder. Of course. In the center, you will see what is known as the rangefinder patch. This is the area of the viewfinder you will use for focusing. The rangefinder patch has a superimposed image, a double image, of the scene or subject you’re focusing, which moves over the actual image as you turn the focus ring on your lens. The idea is to turn the focus ring until the superimposed image perfectly aligns itself with the actual scene/subject…once that happens, you can be sure that it is in perfect focus. Fun, right? Give it a shot, it’s easier than it may sound. Here’s a scan of the diagram explaining how this works, from my Canon P manual:

Focusing screen on the Canon P – taken from the Canon P instruction manual

Later on, other film cameras started adopting the rangefinder focusing method too. My Nikon FM2n, for example, has 3 manual focusing systems, one of which (my favorite) is the rangefinder system. However, the newer rangefinder focusing systems are a bit different to the older ones…and easier (and even more fun) to use. How do these work? The rangefinder patch is split into two parts – the top part and the bottom part. There’s no superimposed image. What you need to do is turn the focus ring until the bottom part of the image aligns itself with the top part. Then you’re in focus. Sounds very similar, but this system is far easier (for me, at least) to get right, especially in low light, when it’s hard to see if the images have aligned. It’s known as a split-image rangefinder, and here’s what it looks like – this is a scan from my FM2n manual – see what I mean?

Rangefinder focusing screen on FM2n – taken from the FM2n instruction manual

Viewfinder The other thing that separates rangefinder cameras from the other type of ‘professional’ camera, the SLR/DSLR, is the viewfinder system. On an SLR, or DSLR, the viewfinder uses a complex setup of mirrors and prisms to allow the photographer to look through the viewfinder, and see directly through the lens…TTL, as they say. On a rangefinder, this is not the case. You look through the viewfinder, and see through the other side…which is usually to the left of the lens, and above it. So what you see through it is technically not exactly what the lens sees. To fix this problem, rangefinder cameras provide selectable frame lines on the viewfinder, based on the focal length of your lens, which are corrected for parallax error. These frame lines show the coverage of that particular focal length and show pretty much what the lens is seeing. As you’re not seeing through the lens, your viewfinder doesn’t ‘zoom in’ when you use a tele lens (80mm or so) nor does it ‘zoom out’ when you use a wide lens (28mm or so) – instead, you select a different frame line, which shows a crop of the viewfinder that depicts the field of view of that particular lens. I hope this is clear! Any questions, just ask me. And to clarify any doubts, here’s a crudely drawn diagram of how frame lines work. Most cameras allow you to select your frame lines, so you can choose (depending on your camera) one of the three or four frame lines available. In my example below, I’ve shown frame lines for 35mm, 50mm and 100mm (common on most vintage rangefinders)

The visible frame lines on a rangefinder camera’s viewfinder

My Canon P is not that high-tech…it doesn’t allow you to select frame lines, but instead dumps all three lines together into the viewfinder, which are always visible. A bit confusing at first, but you get used to it

The always-visible frame lines on a Canon P viewfinder

Ok, so…if you use a 50mm lens, you select the 50mm frame line on your camera. This frame line is corrected for parallax error, and shows the field of view that the 50mm lens will capture, so what you place in the selected frame is pretty much exactly what you will get in your result photograph. This works great, and is accurate for all but the more close up shots. A rangefinder is not the camera to take very close up shots with anyway…most rangefinder lenses don’t focus closer than 1m, which is around the limit for the parallax control too…so if you want to go closer, get an SLR! And that’s how a rangefinder’s viewfinder is different to an SLR. It doesn’t see through the lens, nor does it show the exactly what the lens sees at different focal lengths – instead, it compensates for parallax errors, and shows the lens’ field of view via frame lines. It’s not that hard to use after you get used to it, really Compared to an old film point-and-shoot camera, with its crappy viewfinder, and no parallax correction, the rangefinder is far superior. Just in case you were wondering

SLR System vs. Rangefinders

Ok, the advantages of the SLR system are obvious: First, what you see through your finder is exactly what you see through your lens, and is exactly what is captured in your photograph. No need for parallax correction. Secondly, you see through the lens…therefore you see depth of field, you see when your lens is zoomed in or not, you see when your image is in focus, you see when your lens cap is on! On a rangefinder, you’re not seeing through the lens…you look through the viewfinder and see through the other end of it…it’s like looking through a window…so even if it is corrected for parallax error and you can compose your shot without any errors, you wouldn’t see if your image is in focus. You wouldn’t see depth of field – everything looks perfectly sharp and in focus all the time – and to top it all off, you wouldn’t even know if your lens cap is on! Yes, I’ve had the embarrassing situation of shooting with the lens cap on, being so used to my DSLR…I’ve also forgotten to focus, because the scene I saw through the viewfinder looked perfectly in focus, making me think I had focused already…so yeah, if you’re new to rangefinders, please check if your lens cap is on – check if you’ve focused – and check your aperture and other depth of field factors It’s not all bad about the rangefinder system, of course. Two big benefits come from using this system: the lack of a mirror/prism and the entire SLR-type viewfinder system makes for a much more compact body – rangefinders are always more compact than SLRs/DSLRs. In addition, the mirror of the SLR-type camera makes quite a noise when taking the shot, whereas in a rangefinder, the only sound you hear is the shutter click – it’s much quieter. You might not think this too useful, but when you’re shooting street life, this is wonderful. Compact size and the quiet shutter mechanism make rangefinder cameras perfect for street shooting. Also, when shooting at night, the SLR mirror can create quite a bit of camera shake – rangefinders don’t have this. It’s great Alright, so once you’ve checked out the focusing system, and the viewfinder, the rest is pretty much like any other camera: you compose your shot, focus, set your exposure, and press the shutter button. That’s it. Again, just remember to watch that lens cap…and remember to focus. Two mistakes I’ve made quite a few times when I first started using rangefinders. Oh, and if you’re using a vintage camera with no built-in meter, remember to meter and set your exposure accordingly too – the Sekonic L-308s and L-208 are great meters for a great price

Alright, that’s all I have for you now. But enough about me: have you ever used a rangefinder before? Planning on getting one? Share your experience with us here, or feel free to ask any questions/share any doubts on your mind about this type of camera…comment or contact…as usual. Hope you had fun reading this. Until next time

Did you know that I’m currently working on this site full-time? Please consider making a small donation if you can – thank you!

By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own, except where noted

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Enhanced by Zemanta


13 Responses to “Using Rangefinder Cameras…and More”

  1. Great article. I’ve got a little Argus C-Forty-Four that I love. I think the best bang for your buck is Fed/Zorkis if you want to get into rangefinders. They can be had for $20-200, depending on options and age. They are Leica copies, but are still very high quality and since the Russians made so many it’s easy to find them online.

    Posted by TheOneJoe | May 4, 2012, 14:45
    • ah, talking about the Zorkis can be tempting! ive been pretty satisfied with my canon P but talking about owning a beauty like that for $20 is very tempting indeed! 😀 thanks for stopping by!

      Posted by pixelogist | May 4, 2012, 15:05
  2. Nice post. I might just add that my Leica M8.2 might beg to differ with regard to the Leica M9 being the only digital rangefinder available today. 🙂

    Posted by KAP PHOTOGRAPHY | May 4, 2012, 22:49
    • cheers 🙂 thanks for the correction, i’ll fix that immediately! i believe that is pretty much all the current digital RFs u can buy today? the Epson RD-1’s been discontinued a while, i think.. anything else i missed?! 😀

      Posted by pixelogist | May 4, 2012, 23:10
  3. Great information! I’ve been hoping to find an Olympus Pen rangefinder. Have you ever shot one?

    Posted by artsifrtsy | May 25, 2012, 05:37
    • thanks! 🙂 no actually i havent yet used a Pen. i was hunting for one on ebay…but im trying to keep a lid on buying new gear, got way too much stuff the past 12 months haha! ive only recently started using film and been on a bit of a buying spree coz each one is comparatively cheap, but they all add up. definitey go for a Pen..check out some of the ‘newer’ Pens.. i think the Pen D or Pen E…or even a Canonet, another great fixed-lens RF

      Posted by pixelogist | May 25, 2012, 07:35
  4. I’ve been looking for an article like this for ages (Thank You)….. I just got my first Rangefinder a Yashica Minister D. I’m currently shooting with a Canon AE-1 and love it. However I want to get into Star Trail photography and needed a camera that has Bulb and can be used without a battery. As I use the Minister more and more the more I can’t put it down. My question is with Depth of Field…. as I set the lens to f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/500 I focus on an object and snap away! As I am looking through the window everything is in focus. Will my depth of field come through on the phone once developed?
    Thanks, John

    Posted by John Monreal | January 29, 2013, 09:02
    • Hi John 🙂 The Minister D is a very nice little camera! it must be a lot of fun, i’m sure. About your question regarding depth of field, don’t worry. you don’t see the shallow depth of field through the viewfinder, because you are simply looking through the viewfinder glass, and not through the lens. if you open your lens to f2.8, you can be sure that the depth of field will be as shallow as it was at f2.8 on your AE-1. the only problem on the Minister D is that you cannot see the out-of-focus background etc. as you look through the viewfinder and take the shot – that’s a disadvantage of all rangefinders, i’m afraid

      good luck – happy shooting!

      Posted by pixelogist | January 29, 2013, 09:28
  5. Hi… typo 🙂
    I meant will the depth of field come through on the *photo* once developed.

    Posted by John Monreal | January 29, 2013, 09:05
  6. Thanks for the tips on using a rangefinder…I am curious to know how it works and what is special and unique about it. Your post helps me understand this, as well as using one too. Cheers, pixelogist!

    Posted by Morton | February 11, 2013, 20:07


  1. Pingback: The Pentax K5 DSLR – A Closer Picture | teacherspublications.com - October 30, 2012

  2. Pingback: An Intro to Film Photography | pixelogist.me - February 8, 2013

Share your thoughts...leave a comment!

Follow Me on Pinterest


Feeling Generous?