Over the course of the past year I’ve found a new passion in film photography. I’m lucky enough to have been able to play around with numerous different cameras, spanning widely across film format and form factor, and with that experimenting, I have found a common personal thread: I love rangefinders.
For the non-camera enthusiasts, broadly speaking there are a couple basic forms cameras take.
- SLR, or single lens reflex. When people think camera, this is the style that usually comes to mind. Well known examples of SLRs are the majority of Canon and Nikon cameras sold today.SLRs are those big clunkers with prisms and mirrors.
- Rangefinders. The best known rangefinders are the Leica M series of cameras.Rangefinders the somewhat slimmer cameras, with an offset viewfinder in the corner and no mirror and prism mechanism.
- Point-and-shoot cameras. These are typically smaller than both rangefinders and SLR cameras. The best known point and shoot camera is most likely the phone in your pocket.Point-and-shoots are as small as can be, and try to make it as easy as possible to get a good photo.
There are countless other camera form factors, but when you’re dealing with standard 35mm film, those are the main ones you’ll encounter.
Rangefinders appeal to me the most because you get the best of both worlds from SLRs and point and shoots. A rangefinder gives you the fine focus, aperture, and shutter speed control that you’d get with an SLR. But a rangefinder also gives you a smaller form factor, which can fit in places like a jacket pocket without any hassle.
This is not to say SLR cameras are bad. Quite the opposite, I’m very fond of my Minolta X-700, and being able to perfectly compose a shot can be incredibly useful, especially for portraiture work. But that ability is coupled with an inherent size disadvantage. If you want through-the-lens composition, your camera now must have a mirror that can reflect the image to your viewfinder, and thanks to math, that means you need a minimum of 3.4cm between the lens mount and film plane (most likely more because a shutter and lens mounting point in there). And that makes you minimum body size quite large. (Just for a quick comparison, the shortest film-plane to mounting point distance I could find for an SLR is 42mm. The Leica M-mount, a common rangefinder lens mount, is 27.9mm)
While a smaller physical size is nice, it’s not the only important aspect. If it were, I would be gushing for point and shoots. Like with SLRs, I’m not saying point and shoot cameras are bad. The best camera is the one you have with you, and today that frequently means a point and shoot (your phone). But I also like manual control that you don’t usually get with a point and shoot camera. (This is less true today, I have a small digital point and shoot that has the same level of manual control available as any other camera, its main drawback is sensor size, but that’s beyond the point)
But those are just the things I don’t like about other camera styles. And I don’t think my love of rangefinders comes from not loving other styles enough. So what makes a rangefinder special?
The biggest thing for me is that they match my shooting style. I can take one with me without it getting in the way. The viewfinder, by virtue of it being large enough to accommodate multiple lens sizes, includes additional context of what is around the subject, as opposed to narrowing your focus to just what the lens can see.
But even beyond those tangible benefits, there’s just something about a rangefinder that just feels right. And I’m not saying that because Leica M’s are rangefinders and everyone says they’re the best. I have a Canonet QL17, which shares very little with the Leicas over than form factor, and I find shooting with it has some intangible aspect that speaks to me. Even in digital form, I have two Fujifilm cameras that are technically almost identical, but their main difference is that one has a rangefinder-style viewfinder, and the other an SLR-style viewfinder, and I’m still more drawn to the rangefinder.
It’s entirely possible that maybe after reading this you’ll go try out a rangefinder and end up hating every second of it. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, or that it’s for everyone. But I can say it’s a very different experience from using an SLR, and I think it’s worth trying at the very least.