The Rangefinder Cam­era

Camera - - BACK TO BASICS -

The clas­sic rangefinder (RF) de­sign has its ori­gins in the first Le­ica 35mm cam­era, but the term ‘rangefinder’ ac­tu­ally refers to a method of man­u­ally fo­cus­ing the lenses.

The first rangefind­ers were ac­tu­ally sep­a­rate de­vices which fit­ted to the top of a cam­era, but by the early 1930s the rangefind­ers were in­cor­po­rated into the cam­era body and di­rectly cou­pled to the lens. The rangefinder projects a dou­ble im­age into the viewfinder and the lens is fo­cused by bring­ing the two im­ages to­gether. Also pro­jected into the viewfinder is a bright­line frame which al­lows for more ac­cu­rate fram­ing, and modern de­signs au­to­mat­i­cally ad­just this frame as the lens is fo­cused closer in or­der to cor­rect for par­al­lax er­ror.

Be­ing a non-re­flex de­sign, rangefinder cam­eras be­came pop­u­lar be­cause they were com­par­a­tively com­pact and also very quiet, mak­ing them ideal for ap­pli­ca­tions such as street pho­tog­ra­phy. Nev­er­the­less, over time the SLR be­came a lot more pop­u­lar, helped by the abil­ity to ac­cept a wider choice of lenses and, in par­tic­u­lar, zooms. By the early 1980s, only Le­ica was per­sist­ing with the 35mm rangefinder cam­era, al­though there was a brief re­vival in the 1990s with mod­els from Kon­ica, Rollei, Zeiss and Cosina (badged as Voigtlän­ders). In 2006 Le­ica in­tro­duced its first dig­i­tal ver­sion, the M8, which has sub­se­quently evolved into a range of mod­els, in­clud­ing one ex­clu­sively for B&W cap­ture. The dig­i­tal M cam­eras re­tain the same ba­sic ex­ter­nal de­sign as their 35mm pre­de­ces­sors and, sig­nif­i­cantly, also re­tain an op­ti­cal viewfinder with rangefinder fo­cus­ing. The main at­trac­tions con­tinue to be all the clas­sic Le­ica RF cam­era at­tributes – a com­pact de­sign, fast and quiet op­er­a­tion, and a choice of very high qual­ity prime lenses. Of course, a dig­i­tal Le­ica M cam­era is also tech­ni­cally a mirrorless cam­era too.

▲ Le­ica has very suc­cess­fully evolved the 35mm rangefinder cam­era into a dig­i­tal ver­sion. The lat­est M10 still re­tains the same ba­sic ex­ter­nal de­sign as the film cam­eras and, of course, an op­ti­cal viewfinder with rangefinder fo­cus­ing.

▲ Rangefinder cam­eras were very pop­u­lar for many decades un­til the 35mm SLR be­came more ac­ces­si­ble from the early 1970s. Le­ica kept go­ing though, and still builds a 35mm film model (al­beit in very small num­bers).

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