The SLR has been the dominant camera type in photography for the last 70 years. SLRs are more intuitive, easy to focus, and versatile when it comes to mounting lenses of any length. So why does the rangefinder, as a design, persist into the modern era? There is not a single reason why anyone should be using these archaic and fiddly cameras when more advanced and efficient machines exist.
There are actually five reasons:
1: They are harder to use, and you look cool shooting them
Rangefinders just look better – they are the most ‘camera’ looking camera that there is. Shooting with them makes you feel like a photographer – there is a sense of sophistication and yes, snobbery, to using a piece of equipment that the average person won’t know how to use.
Any monkey can click a Canon 5D into intelligent scene mode and fill an SD card with ‘usable’ pictures, but it takes a certain aptitude to accurately focus and manually expose a Leica loaded with Tri-X to take a grainy photo of a graffitied wall.
And for this reason, people will react differently to having a Summicron shoved in their face, compared to a plastic 18-55mm Nikon kit lens – not that either piece of equipment takes better or worse photographs. Authoritative gear just makes you look like a good photographer, whether you are one or not.
2: Zone Focus
For me, the great irony with rangefinders is that I rarely use the rangefinder. I much prefer to zone focus, looking at my lenses distance scale. At first, especially when shooting film, this was nerve-wracking and I took a lot of badly focused images.
The trick I would learn is to start with large apertures. I know when I click my 35mm into f/8 all I need to do is guess the distance away from my subject, focus approximately and so long as I get it in the ballpark, I’m getting sharp pictures. As you get better, you can narrow your depth of field.
Zone focus is the best way to get candid photos. I have heard some argue that rangefinders, by their design are more ‘discreet’ than an SLR, but that depends on how you use them. If you raise any camera to your face, people know you’re taking a photo of them. It’s the zone focusing system that allows you to shoot from the hip, or pre-focus so you can shoot and run without awkwardly staring down a lens at someone while you line up your images.
3: No mirror shake
A rangefinder is more forgiving than an SLR when it comes to shooting low shutter speeds handheld because the lack of a mirror will reduce the amount of shake during the exposure.
I find typically that I am able to shoot as low as 1/15 with my ZM and 35mm lens without shake, provided I’m both warm and sober. But with the same focal length on my Nikon, I will only go as low as 50th of a second to guarantee sharpness. That’s almost two extra stops of light that I can get out of a scene when I shoot with a rangefinder!
4: They have the best lenses
The snobbiest reason to use a rangefinder: rangefinder lenses, particularly Leica, Zeiss or Mamiya lenses are generally considered as the best in the world. They are the sharpest, have the least distortion and the best colour rendition around and are often the most compact – their legendary status is well earned.
Rangefinder ultra-wide lenses, in particular, have far superior optical quality and much less distortion than their SLR equivalents. My favourite crazy lens is the 18mm Distagon, which huge depth of field makes missing focus virtually impossible but pushes to creatively frame your subject.
5: You learn to use your eyes, and not a lens, to frame pictures
The main disadvantage to shooting with a rangefinder is also one of its greatest strengths. Framing with an SLR is easier and more accurate than a rangefinder because you see what the lens will capture. Rangefinder frame lines are only an approximation, not an exact cut of your final frame. This forces you to think differently about the way you frame photos. When you look through a lens, you lose sight of what’s outside of the image that you’re taking. You learn to think of pictures through a lens.
A rangefinder will teach you that taking photos happens through your eyes. After you become familiar with it, you will start to ‘see’ the frame lines with your mind’s eye, and be able to pre-visualize your pictures before you even have your camera in your hand.
And if that does sound like a pretentious wank to the SLR or digital mirrorless user, it might well be. Something I say to reassure myself that all that money spent on this equipment was to make myself a better photographer.
The thing is though, I enjoy shooting with rangefinders far more than I do with other cameras, whether that be from the extra challenge or minor advantages they possess, the unique ‘perspective’ they lend to shooting, or simply because it makes me feel superior.
Whatever the case, because I enjoy it, I shoot more and that’s what makes you get better at anything.
About the author: James Cater is a digital and analogue photographer, film lab operator, and model. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cater’s work on his website and Instagram.
Image credits: Header photo of me and my Leica M-D shot by Matt Robson on TRI-X 400.