The Rangefinder Experience, Getting Started

Through the R3A's 40mm framelines

Through the R3A's 40mm framelines

Shooting with a rangefinder is truly a unique experience. From the way you directly control your aperture, to the way you nudge the manual focusing tab on your lens, operating and shooting with a rangefinder requires you to take a very different approach when compared to an SLR or a modern digital mirrorless camera. 

The difference is in the way we use it to compose and frame. Since we aren't looking directly through the lens with a rangefinder, what we see is not what we get. There is no depth of field or exposure preview (the Leica M 240 being the only exception) since we are looking through an optical viewfinder that is separate from the lens, and of course this can give us noticeable parallax errors when shooting very close subjects. Furthermore, the frame lines in the camera are limited to usually only a few choices. With a Leica M3 for example, you are limited to 50, 90, or 135mm frame lines, so if you want to compose accurately, you will need a lens in those particular focal lengths or an external viewfinder. Also, forget about zoom lenses and long telephotos, they don't really exist for rangefinder systems. Lastly, rangefinders are manual focus only. 

Bessa R3A with Nokton 40mm 1.4. The Bessa has frame lines for 40, 50, 75, and 90mm focal lengths.

Because of these limitations, it really makes photography a hands on experience. Framing and focusing feel more like an acquired skill, and because it feels like something that takes time to learn effectively, it is such a huge feeling of accomplishment to for example, nail the focus on a moving target at f2.  Since you can see outside the frame lines, it feels great to capture a subject at the perfect time they entered the frame as you time their walking, waiting for the right moment to press the shutter. There are also a few benefits to not having a mirror in the camera, mainly size and sound. When you press the shutter, there is no mirror slap, just the shutter curtain mechanism. And since the flange distance is so small on these cameras, lenses and body sizes are generally much smaller compared to SLRs. The lack of autofocus motor further lessens the size and weight of the lenses. 

The lady on the far left was outside the frame lines when I was composing. I saw her walking towards the right and pressed the shutter as soon as she was within the lines.

If this suits you and you want to get started shooting rangefinders, you need to ask yourself two questions. The first is 'Film or digital?', and the second, 'How much can I spend?'. When deciding that I wanted to shoot rangefinders, I only asked myself the first question. I wasn't too keen on the hassle of buying 35mm film, getting it developed, scanned or printed and paying all the costs associated with it. So I thought to myself 'Let's go digital', but then was confronted with the biggest limitation of digital rangefinders: the price. For the cheapest possible digital rangefinder, there is the Epson RD-1, but they aren't the easiest to find for reasonable prices, plus they are over twelve years old, almost ancient in terms of technology. Second cheapest would be the Leica M8, which would run you at least AUD$1500 on the used market. That amount for an almost 10 year old camera with a 1.33x crop, the need for a UV filter when shooting colour, and no replacement parts make this a hard decision. Of course you can always go for the M9 if you want something a bit more modern, but then you are looking at around AUD$3000 body only for a 7 year old camera. If you are looking for brand new still in production, this is when prices escalate to the very, very high end of the spectrum. In Australia, a brand new Leica M 240 will run you over AUD$10,000 for just the body alone. 

Remember, you'll also need a lens. With the cheapest M mount Voigtlanders around AUD$300, you are looking at close to AUD$2000 for just a cheap option! Not the most friendly way to get into rangefinder shooting. For many people, myself included, the prices are a little bit too prohibitive. 

Enter the world of film rangefinders. 

Yashica Lynx 14

Film rangefinders are everywhere on the used market. Prices range from pocket change to thousands upon thousands. The choice of how much to spend is completely up to you. I've picked up a perfectly functional Ricoh 500GX for AUD$40. I've seen fully functioning CanonetsYashica Electros and other fixed lens rangefinders go for a couple $10 notes. However if you go the cheap route, there are some mechanical aspects you will need to consider. Although initially dirt cheap, my Yashica Lynx 14 needed a good CLA to make the rangefinder patch more visible and to get the light meter working again. The light meter also required some special batteries I had to order online, and the shutter has gotten stuck again for the second time. If you are willing to put up with these flaws and perhaps have a little mechanical know-how, old cheap rangefinders might be worth it for you.

Yashica Lynx 14 + Delta 100

If you are looking for more reliability, be prepared to spend more. Do you want to shoot a 35mm focal length on a fully manual body? Maybe go for a Leica M2. Or perhaps you'd like a rangefinder with aperture priority and the ability to shoot wide angle lenses without an external viewfinder? Try the Bessa R4A. There are so many combinations of price and different features when looking for film rangefinders. I decided a grand would be reasonable for something reliable and modern, so I went for the Bessa R3A with a Nokton 40mm f1.4. Film bodies make no difference on image quality so go with what feels best in your hand and has the features you want. In terms of lenses, pick your preferred focal length and buy used. With film I really don't feel the need to pixel peep, because of this you can get some great lenses albeit with a few optical shortcomings for reasonable prices. 

When it comes to having the latest and greatest in tech or features, rangefinders are never going to give this to you. With rangefinders, it's not only about image quality, it's about the satisfaction of taking photos and seeing yourself develop as a photographer. It's not about the benefits you get over an SLR, but the difference in operation. Pick one up, get shooting, and see for yourself. 

Yashica Lynx 14 + Delta 100

Bessa R3A + Nokton 40mm f1.4 + Portra 400

Bessa R3A + Nokton 40mm f1.4 + Delta 3200

Ricoh 500GX + No brand ISO400 colour film

Yashica Lynx 14 + Delta 100

Bessa R3A + Nokton 40mm f1.4 + Portra 400