The Rangefinder Camera
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).