How does a rangefinder camera work? What were the landmarks in rangefinder camera design? How have they influenced photography over the years? What are their pluses and minuses compared to SLRs? What do they do best, and why?
In the late 19th Century, there were two dominant camera types:
1. View cameras that required you to compose the shot upside-down and in reverse on a ground glass, and focus by moving the lens back and forth until the subject looked sharp. You then inserted a plate or sheet film holder in the exact same image plane, and finally took the picture.
An old view camera required you to compose the shot upside-down and in reverse.
2. Separate viewfinder cameras, the point-and-shoots of their day. They had either a small reflex viewfinder separate from the lens (but covering the same viewing angle) or a wire frame “sports finder” with separate rear peep sight, to help you aim and compose the shot. This category includes fixed-focus box cameras, and scale-focusing models that you focus by estimating and setting the distance.
The reason this distinction is important now is that the view camera eventually evolved into today’s eye-level SLRs and DSLRs, and the latter eventually morphed into the modern rangefinder camera, including the latest digital Leica M.
Like other evolutions, this process wasn’t linear, so there were a few large-format SLRs dating from the mid-19th Century, such as the Marion Reflex of the 1860s, and a number of pre-Leica rangefinder cameras, such as the Kodak 3A Autographic Special of 1916. Significantly, both types of cameras have endured and flourished for two reasons: each provides a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages, and each has been vastly improved over the years by adding numerous refinements and features.
Enter the coupled rangefinder camera
Fixed focus or scale focusing is OK with cameras using relatively small lens apertures, because their wide depth of field obviates many focusing discrepancies. But lenses with wider apertures or longer focal lengths need a more precise way to focus, especially at short distances where depth of field is quite limited. The solution: add an optical rangefinder—a device that can measure the distance to the subject by geometric triangulation—and couple it to the camera’s focusing mechanism so you can focus more accurately, quickly, and conveniently.
By far the most common type of rangefinder used in cameras is the coupled coincident type. It shows a focusing patch reflected into the center of the viewfinder (or into a separate rangefinder window, as in screw-mount Leicas, the Speed Graphic 4x5, etc.). When you see two distinct, laterally displaced images within the patch, the image of the subject will be out of focus. To achieve proper focus, you simply turn the ring, wheel, or tab controlling the focusing mechanism to bring both images together until they coincide, and only a single image is visible within the patch.
To achieve proper focus, you simply turn the ring, wheel, or tab controlling the focusing mechanism to bring both images together until they coincide.
This type of optical rangefinder works using a beam-splitter, such as a semi-silvered mirror, that reflects some of the light striking it and allows the remainder to pass through. The two separate windows on the front of the camera provide the rangefinder’s primary (stationary) and secondary (moveable) focusing images. The light from the second window is channeled, via a mirror, prism, or lens, that rotates as you turn the focusing ring, causing the secondary focusing image to move laterally, providing a clear visual indication of whether the lens is in focus or not.
Timeline: The evolution and influence of the rangefinder camera
This basic principle of focus has been applied in various forms throughout the history of photography, with each generation bringing new advancements to camera design yet relying on the same basic techniques of rangefinder focusing, due to its proven accuracy and simplicity.
Range/viewfinder unit taken from a Konica rangefinder camera shows spring-loaded rangefinder coupling arm (at bottom finger) that moves back and forth when contacted by rangefinder cam on the back of the lens (not shown). This causes the tiny convex lens (center of picture) to move back and forth as you turn the focusing ring, changing the position of the secondary rangefinder image. When it coincides with the stationary rangefinder image, you’re in focus.
Late 19th Century
Optical coincident-type rangefinders, such as the Barr & Stroud (Scotland) were in widespread use in military, naval, and surveying applications; the basic principles were well known by the late 17th Century.
Kodak 3A Autographic Special of 1916
The Kodak 3A Autographic Special of 1916 was introduced. Generally regarded as the first rangefinder camera, it had a 3-band split-image rangefinder built into the base of the front standard, but it was inconvenient because you had to hold the camera sideways in order to use it. It was accurate, but the camera was expensive and not very popular. Kodak did not produce another rangefinder camera until the Bantam Special of the late ’30s and the ill-fated Kodak Ektra of the early ’40s.
Leica introduced its first camera, the Leica A, to the public at the Leipzig Fair, in 1925, and it was an instant sensation. The first widely popular 35mm still camera, it was a Spartan scale-focusing camera with a non-interchangeable 50mm f/3.5 Elmar lens, but it was elegant and refined, had double-exposure prevention, and cocked the shutter and counted the frames as you wound the film. A shoe-mounted uncoupled accessory rangefinder was a popular accessory, paving the way for the landmark Leica II (or D) with coupled rangefinder 7 years later.
The Agfa Standard medium format roll film and plate cameras, circa 1930, were available with an optional coupled coincident rangefinder at extra cost. Ingenious and advanced for their time, they inspired the later Zeiss Super Ikontas and rangefinder Voigtlander Bessas of the ’30s through the ’50s, as well as all subsequent medium-format rangefinder cameras.
The Leica II
The Leica II, or model D, introduced in 1932, was the first Leica and the first 35mm camera with a built-in coupled rangefinder separate from the viewfinder, a brilliant design that was produced in essentially unchanged form until the Leica IIIg of 1957-60. It inspired the (unreliable) Contax I of 1932 and, eventually, the Contax II of 1936, the first 35mm camera to have a long base combined range/viewfinder.
Plaubel of Frankfurt, Germany introduced the Plaubel Makina II, a folding camera in 6.5 x 9cm format, with a coupled rangefinder, in 1933. In the ’70s, the company was bought by the Doi Group of Japan that marketed a modern redesigned line of 6 x 7cm rangefinder cameras under the Plaubel Makina name, with NIKKOR lenses and a high-quality combined range/viewfinder. Mamiya and Konica, among others, also offered fixed-lens 6 x 9, 6 x 6, and 6 x 4.5cm roll film cameras, from the late ’30s through the mid ’50s, and they eventually evolved into modern interchangeable-lens cameras including the Koni-Omegas, Mamiya 6 and 7/7 II, and various Fuji Photo Film Co. LTD cameras, including the Fujica G690 that are now out-of-production cult classics, fetching fancy prices.
Zeiss Contax II of 1936
The Zeiss Contax II of 1936 was the first 35mm rangefinder camera with a combined coincident range/viewfinder with a long base (about 90mm) and high magnification. It was extraordinarily accurate, and the Zeiss lenses were outstanding, but the vertical “roller blind” shutter was complex and less reliable than the Leica’s horizontal cloth focal-plane shutter. However, both the Contax and Leica rangefinder cameras were very influential, eventually leading to the Nikon S and Canon III and IV of the early-to-mid ’50s. During the ’50s, rafts of unabashed Japanese Leica copies also appeared, including the Leotax, Tanack, and Honor, mostly based on the Leica IIIa and IIIc, and the Russian Fed and Zorki. Russian Leica look-alikes were occasionally re-engraved as fake or replica “Leicas.”
The Speed Graphic Era
The Speed Graphic 4 x 5, 1912
The Speed Graphic 4 x 5 (1912-1973!), also produced in 3.25 x 4.25 and 2.25 x 3.25-inch versions, was the iconic American press camera, standard issue for many American press and military photographers from the 1920s through the mid-’60s. It acquired a rangefinder in the ’30s to enable fast, more precise focusing when shooting on the fly. Amazingly versatile, the camera can be used like a view camera (albeit with more limited movements) by focusing and composing on the ground glass screen, a signature feature seldom used for newspaper work, but great for formal portraits and product shots. The authentic Speed Graphic (unlike the later and lighter Crown and Century Graphics) had two shutters, a big cloth focal-plane shutter inboard of the focusing screen on the back and a leaf shutter in the lens mounted on the lens board in front. The focal-plane shutter provided speeds up to 1/1000 second, and allowed barrel-mount (non-shutter) lenses to be used.
Beginning in the 1930s, coupled optical rangefinders made by Kalart in the U.S. or Hugo Meyer in Germany were mounted on the majority of Speed Graphics. They coupled to the movement of the lens board by means of a spring-loaded arm and locating tabs to assure that the lens board was at the proper distance for accurate focusing. It was a workable system but required precision adjustment of the rangefinder to match the infinity position of the lens board, which corresponded to the focal length of the lens in use. However, this procedure usually had to be done only once, since press photographers typically relied on a single lens.
Later versions of the Speed Graphic and the exquisitely made Linhof Super Technika III (and later the Super Technika IV and V) German 4 x 5 press cameras, from 1940 to 1950, had interchangeable focus cams for different focal-length lenses, making lens switching a much more viable option.
The Mamiya Six (aka original Mamiya 6) debuted in 1940. It was a unique 6 x 6 coupled rangefinder camera with film-plane focusing that continued in production with updates through the ’50s. As mentioned, they were the predecessors of the modern interchangeable-lens rangefinders of the ’90s, including the Mamiya 6, 7, and 7 II, along with their competitors from Fujifilm and Konica, enjoyed a period of intense interest and popularity in the ’90s.
The Kodak Ektra of 1941
The Kodak Ektra of 1941 was America’s first and last attempt to build a world-class 35mm rangefinder camera system. Its coupled 4-1/8-inch-base military spec rangefinder, pioneering parallax-compensating viewfinder, and interchangeable backs were very advanced for their day, and the rangefinder could accurately focus the longest lens in the system, a 153mm telephoto. However, it was an idiosyncratic “left-handed” design that was extraordinarily complex to manufacture, and its shutter was notoriously unreliable. Sadly, Kodak lost money on every one of the 2,500 or so Ektras produced until 1948.
Press Cameras give way to twin-lens reflexes and rangefinder 35s
The eventual demise of the large-format press camera was ushered in, starting in the early to mid-’50s, as press and events photographers gravitated to roll film and twin-lens reflexes (TLRs), notably the 2-1/4 x 2-1/4–inch Rolleiflex and its many competitors—the American Ciroflex, German Zeiss Ikoflex , and Japanese Yashica-Mat, Minolta Autocord, and interchangeable-lens Mamiyaflexes. All used much more convenient 120/220-size roll film and still delivered excellent image quality.
The brief period of TLR supremacy was also concurrent with the rise of the rangefinder 35, which began in the early ’50s, and really blossomed in mid- and late ’50s, widely held to be “the golden era of the rangefinder 35.” The amazing coverage of the Korean War (1951-53) by photographers using Nikon, Leica, and Contax cameras and lenses really established the reputation of the 35mm rangefinder camera as an outstanding alternative for press photography and photojournalism.
The Leica M3 of 1954
The Leica M3 of 1954 is a high point in the evolution and influence of the interchangeable-lens rangefinder camera. It was the first Leica with a combined coupled range/viewfinder, it brought with it the introduction of the now-famed M lens mount, and was also the first successful 35mm camera with auto-indexing, projected parallax-compensating frame lines that came into view individually as you mounted 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. The grandfather of all subsequent M-series Leicas, including the latest 35mm and digital M cameras, it also inspired Nikon and Canon to add multiple parallax-compensating frame lines to the last and greatest versions of their interchangeable-lens rangefinder cameras, the Canon 7 and 7s, and the Nikon S3, S4, and SP.
The rangefinder resurgence of the millennial era
By about 1960, the glorious 35mm rangefinder Nikons and Canons were history, casualties of the SLR revolution that began with the iconic Nikon F of 1959. However, the Japanese interchangeable-lens rangefinder camera did enjoy a brief resurgence of popularity in the mid ’90s through the early 2000s, thanks to ingenious technical innovations. Examples: The Contax G1 (1994) and G2, which had an optical, electronically linked rangefinder system and a unique electronic lens mount; the Konica Hexar RF (1999) a premium-quality homage to the Leica M-series with an M-mount and parallax-compensating frame lines; the clever and competent Cosina-made Voigtlander Bessa-R (2000) with classic Leica screw mount and parallax-compensating frame lines; and the Voigtlander Bessa-R2 (2002), an upgraded version of the R with an M-mount.
The rangefinder camera goes digital!
Epson RD-1, the first digital rangefinder camera
The honor of being the first digital rangefinder camera goes to the Epson RD-1, announced by Epson in March 2004, which also qualifies as the first consumer digital mirrorless camera. Jointly developed by Seiko Epson (that provided the sensor and electronics) and Cosina, (that made the chassis, rangefinder, and lenses), it had a Leica M-mount, parallax-compensating viewfinder frame lines for 28, 35, and 50mm lenses, and a 6.1MP APS-C-format CCD sensor. It was superseded by the mildly upgraded R-D1s in 2006. After 2007, improved Epson R-D1x and xG models were available only in Japan and the line was completely discontinued in 2014. In 2006, Leica unveiled its first digital rangefinder camera, the M8, closely based on the 35mm Leica Ms, but with a thicker body and a 10.3MP CCD sensor. Finally, in 2009, the company released the M9, the long-awaited full-frame (23.9 x 35.8mm) digital Leica that provided the basis for the subsequent M9-P, M9 Titanium, and M-E.
Rangefinder cameras live!
2011 to the Present
While rangefinder cameras are no longer the dominant force they were from the 1930s through the ’60s, they still continue to thrive and flourish as a significant and attractive niche for serious shooters, especially street photographers and photojournalists. The current Leica M (Typ 240) that was introduced in 2012 is a formidable pro-level full-frame camera with a 24MP CMOS sensor, live view, and even video capabilities.
For film shooters, 35mm Voigtlander Bessas are still available, and there’s a complete range of Cosina-made Voigtlander lenses available from 12mm to 75mm. Finally, medium-format rangefinder fans can opt for the sole remaining example of the folding roll film rangefinder in current production, the gorgeous Fujifilm GF670, that shoots 120 or 220 film in 6x6 or 6x7 formats, has a Fujinon EBC 80mm f/3.5 lens, and full manual or aperture-priority auto-exposure. Lastly, there is still a trio of Leica 35mm rangefinder models available, the M7, MP, the most recent M-A.
Pluses and minuses of rangefinder cameras: A concise compilation
- They’re smaller, lighter and quieter than SLRs and less intimidating to skittish and wary subjects, giving them an edge in discreet applications.
- They have no blackout at the instant of exposure, and provide continuous viewing even as the shutter fires.
- Those with viewfinder frame lines show the area beyond the captured image, making it easier to anticipate and frame action shots.
- They provide more accurate focusing with wide-angle, ultra-wide, and moderate aperture lenses because rangefinders measure and set the distance independently of the depth of field or brightness of the viewing image.
- They’re generally easier to view and focus in very low light because their direct vision (inverse Galilean) viewfinders transmit nearly 100% of the ambient light and their rangefinder patches are (usually) easy to see.
- They’re better at capturing sharper, handheld images at slow shutter speeds of 1/60 second and longer because there is no flipping mirror to compromise sharpness.
- Manual focus models have virtually no shutter lag—the shutter fires almost instantaneously as you press the shutter button.
- Vintage models with mechanical shutters and lacking built-in meters or auto-exposure systems do not require any battery power whatsoever. Contemporary models (e.g. the Leica M6 TTL) require batteries only for the meters and flash systems, and are also useable without battery power.
- They can’t provide the nearly perfect framing accuracy of an SLR, even by using parallax-compensating frame lines. Because they lack through-lens viewing, this becomes increasingly challenging at longer focal lengths. You can get by at 135mm but 90mm is the practical limit for convenient shooting.
- They don’t provide really close focusing (much less macro focusing) without using cumbersome accessories. Also, zoom lenses, while theoretically possible, are not a very practical alternative (there are a few multi-focal-length rangefinder lenses, such as Leica’s ingenious Tri-Elmar).
- Lenses wider than about 24mm usually require an auxiliary shoe-mount viewfinder, which seldom provides parallax compensation.
- They provide focusing only in the center of the field, so you have to focus, and then compose, which is less convenient and may result in focusing errors.
What do rangefinder cameras do best, and why?
Modern rangefinder and SLR cameras can do many things extremely well and both types are great general-purpose picture takers. However, rangefinder cameras excel in two major genres: street photography and photojournalism, because they’re smaller, quieter, and more discreet. Rangefinder cameras, with their separate optical viewfinders, encourage you to focus your attention on what’s going on around you rather than looking through the viewfinder to assess it, a more typical approach when shooting with an SLR. In other words, you frame the shot in your mind’s eye before looking through the camera. You can do this with any camera, of course, and it’s a mindset that can be applied to photographic genres ranging from portraiture to landscapes to architecture. Still, there’s no better way to understand and capture a city or town than prowling its streets with a rangefinder camera in your hands.