One of the most overlooked aspects of the rangefinder method of photography, when comparing it to other systems, is the role of imagination when it comes to the focus and pre-visualisation of the composition.
Most proponents of the system will highlight the convenience of the frame lines, which allow the photographer to view context and elements about to enter the scene, which may inform their decision on timing and re-composition. At no point do you have a true preview in the rangefinder of what the image will look like, as unlike a DSLR you are not looking directly through the lens.
However, fewer people will comment on the amount of influence the actual focusing system has on the approach to creating an image with a rangefinder. The rangefinder patch is the focusing equivalent of a spot meter, for very precise measurement of a very small area of the frame — dead center of the frame lines.
Rangefinder cameras are often known for the excellent wide aperture primes so often used, and it makes sense for such a system to remain relevant even today – a well-calibrated rangefinder focusing system is still one of the most precise systems available for fine-tuning focus on a lens for accuracy, even at f/0.95.
Rangefinder systems mean the difference between perfect focus wide open on the eye versus the frame of a pair of glasses, a scenario where many autofocusing systems fail.
It also means that focusing through crowds, branches, chain link fences, reflective glass and signs, snow, and rain — any situation an autofocus system may struggle — become much easier.
The mechanism of a rangefinder is a small mirror to the right of the viewfinder, which is connected to the rear of the lens. As the lens turns the mirror moves, and in the viewfinder the “double image” aligns. Whatever subject it is aligned on will be in perfect focus.
This means that rather than “scanning” through the frame, cycling through the focus until focus looks right as you do with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you must instead scan the scene with your eye, paying extra close attention to possible focal points, and making a conscious decision once you have imagined how the end result will look. This is one of the steps rangefinder photographers refer to when they comment that the style “slows them down.”
I am therefore able to view a scene not all at once but as a series of interconnected (or potentially connected) elements, leaving me free to arrange and command those elements as I see fit. I recently decided to try and incorporate more foreground elements into my images, and the rangefinder method makes this easy – however everything I see through the viewfinder is in focus, so I must imagine what elements will end up as bokeh and which will be sharp.
Many rangefinder beginners can occasionally be easy to spot, as their compositions all feature the focal element dead center — exactly where the rangefinder patch falls — and any context elements based around that rather than finding composition first, then focusing and recomposing for the original composition.
I would say that with both the film and digital rangefinder options, the rangefinder itself is ideal for fast-paced photography, while the rear screen on the more recent digital options with live-view is better suited for calmer, more considerate composition.
Rangefinders are also one of the best viewing systems to use for panning shots, as the frame-lines and central focusing patch offer a better point of reference than the often blank or simply grid lined Mirrorless and current DSLR screens. On a rangefinder, I can make sure the focusing patch is directly over my subject as they move, and achieve a clear shot down to a second handheld.
For photography outside of portraiture and street, such as wildlife, sports, or landscape, a rangefinder user may struggle. Every camera is suited to a different purpose, just as every photographer may excel in different environments. I’m always trying out new subjects and themes in my work, and although it may require creative thinking for an artistic shot, I haven’t been let down by my rangefinders yet!
My main digital system is the Leica M while my favorite film camera at the moment is the Konica Hexar, which in my opinion is the best M mount film camera — and also one of the cheapest available! I also use the Hasselblad XPan for a few select projects.
I think that people can be put off rangefinders because of the association with the high priced Leica, but there are so many superb options by Nikon, Canon, Konica, Contax, and even Russian options that come in at under $60. These all serve the same purpose, and have the same benefits of the Leica at a fraction of the cost and can be a much better entry into a system that could potentially do more for your photography than any top of the range mirrorless option.
I really encourage people to try out any camera that requires a regime change in the mindset it takes to use one. Whether that’s a rangefinder, or a Polaroid, or medium format — image quality these days is easy and cheap to come by, but a system that really resonates with the user can be difficult to find. So many people settle for DSLR or mirrorless cameras simply because that’s what everyone else is using, and therefore can run the risk of missing out on something that could truly offer them a different way to see the world.
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.