Rangefinder cameras were popular in the 1950s due to their size, build quality and affordability.
They use a dual-image range-finding focusing mechanism that lets the photographer measure the distance to the subject in order to focus on it.
You twist a ring on the lens to align two superimposed images – when they align, your subject is in focus.
In contrast to an SLR camera, you never look through the lens of a rangefinder camera. Instead, you focus and compose through a small window, like with an instant camera.
There’s often an additional small window on a rangefinder camera that collects light to increase the brightness of the frame lines.
You can also get digital rangefinder cameras that operate in exactly the same way as their analogue counterparts.
In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about buying and using rangefinder cameras in 2023.
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How to Buy a Rangefinder Camera in 2023
If you want to buy a brand new rangefinder camera, there aren’t many choices on the market. Most of the ones still in production belong to the Leica M-series, which, although expensive, are excellent cameras that can last a lifetime.
If this is your first rangefinder camera, you might want to consider buying second hand. There are multiple choices, both digital and film – check KEH Cameras for some great prices on used rangefinder cameras and lenses.
The rangefinder mechanism is not hard to use, but it takes some time to adjust, and it might not be for everyone. Since rangefinder cameras can be pretty expensive, you might want to hold off on the more significant investment until you’ve tried one for yourself.
If you buy a camera with interchangeable lenses, make sure other focal lengths are also easy to find on the market. Keep in mind that rangefinder lenses can also be quite expensive.
There are adaptors to use SLR lenses on a rangefinder, but they are not available for all brands. Also, you can consider cameras with fixed lenses – this will be more affordable but somewhat limiting because you’ll only have one focal length.
You’ll also need to do a thorough lens test to make sure everything works as it should.
If you’re buying an older model, make sure the rangefinder is calibrated because they need this as part of their maintenance as time passes.
Finally, see if the camera has a coupled rangefinder or not. Of course, you’re free to choose whichever you prefer – but you should be aware of it before making the decision.
With a coupled rangefinder, the focusing ring and the distance ring are linked together – this system is more comfortable to use, and most newer cameras have it.
How much does a rangefinder cost?
Keep in mind that film rangefinders aren’t necessarily second-hand – there are some models still in production. This brings us to the next question you need to ask yourself – do you want a new rangefinder, or are you OK with a used one?
There aren’t many rangefinder cameras in production these days. So, if you want a new rangefinder camera – you’d better be prepared to be hit with a high price tag. Leica is one of the most expensive camera brands, after all.
If you want a new digital rangefinder camera, the Leica M10-R costs around $9.000. The Leica 10947 M (Type 262) is a more affordable one that costs about $6.000.
If you’re looking for new rangefinder film cameras, there’s the Leica M-A (Typ 127) for a bit more than $5.000. Also, check out the Leica MP 0.72 for a similar price tag.
Keep in mind that these are interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras, so you’ll have to add the cost of the lens. For example, Zeiss lenses with M-mount (compatible with the cameras I just mentioned) range from $1.000 to $6.000 depending on the focal length and aperture.
Fortunately, there are many more choices if you’re willing to buy second-hand from a retailer like KEH Cameras. Unless you’re looking for a particular collector’s model like the Epson R-D1, which was the first digital rangefinder camera – you can lower your budget quite a bit.
Recently discontinued models that were expensive as new will still cost a couple of thousand. However, you’ll also find some excellent cameras for a few hundred dollars – or some more basic, vintage ones for even less.
Why are rangefinder cameras so expensive?
Since there aren’t many brands and/or models of rangefinder cameras, their prices are high.
When there’s no competition, prices tend to rise. That’s not to say that the manufacturers are simply overpricing their rangefinder cameras. They are merely dependant on a supply and demand market.
If there aren’t many rangefinders on offer is also because there isn’t enough demand. Then, the production of these cameras can’t benefit from the mass production and its corresponding decrease in cost.
We can’t also disregard the fact that they are very well made – and quality comes with a price.
Are rangefinder cameras worth it?
Whether a rangefinder is worth it depends on your style and the type of photography you do. If you do street photography, you’ll probably find it worth it – if you do still life photography, maybe not.
So, it’s impossible to answer this question with a simple yes or no. Instead, I’ll tell you some pros and cons.
This way, you can decide if getting a rangefinder makes more sense to you than getting a single-lens reflex (SLR).
Pros of Rangefinder Cameras
- You can see things outside the frame. This is very useful when you’re photographing moving subjects or when you need to capture a precise moment of action because you can see the subject approach.
- You don’t have a blackout on the viewfinder when you press the shutter. Since there’s no mirror flipping up, the image is still there when you’re exposing the film or sensor.
- It’s easier to focus with low light. Rangefinders have very bright viewfinders – this makes it easier for you to focus in darker situations. Even if you can’t see very well, you can always use the range focusing method.
- Precise focusing. You’ll get sharper images every time with rangefinders because of the focusing method.
- Compact form and lightweight. The lack of the reflex system allows the rangefinders to be very small, making them great for street photographers as they are much less intrusive.
Cons of Rangefinder Cameras
- Most rangefinder lenses are primes – it’s rare to find zoom lenses for a rangefinder camera. This isn’t necessarily a downside for every photographer – but it’s still worth mentioning.
- You never see through the lens, so you don’t get to see how the final image will look like before you press the shutter button.
- Most of them don’t have a built-in flash. However, they do have a hot shoe to use an external flash.
- Fewer features. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you might miss some of the bells and whistles of modern SLRs, DSLRs or mirrorless.
Are expensive rangefinders worth it?
Considering that all rangefinder cameras are expensive and whether or not this is worth it for you – there are some more expensive than others.
If you choose a model that sits on the top of the price range, you’ll probably be gaining some features that you won’t have with less expensive models.
For example, the Leica M10-P and subsequently the M10-R have an LCD screen on the back. You can use the LCD for shooting in Live View or reviewing your images.
Also, the more expensive the camera, the more resolution it has. For example, the M10-P camera has a 24MP sensor, while an M10-R has a 40MP sensor.
Finally, unless you’re buying a rare vintage model, the more expensive cameras mean that they are newer cameras. Of course, a new camera is also more costly.
The ‘age’ is important because it’s generally easier to find lenses and accessories. Also, because the rangefinder needs to be calibrated after some time.
7 Recommended Rangefinder Cameras
- Leica M10-R – it’s one of the only ones still in production, and it carries a 40MP sensor.
- Fujifilm GF670 – it’s a dual medium format foldable camera. It has an aperture-priority auto-exposure feature if you don’t want to go full manual and up to 3200 ISO. The lens is an 80mm f/3.5.
- Leica M3 – it was the first Leica to introduce the rangefinder and the viewfinder in one window. It’s also the main camera used by Henry Cartier Bresson, which allowed him to capture the ‘decisive moment’. It’s also been used by many other professional photographers throughout history.
- Contax II – any of the Contax cameras are a great choice. However, this was the first-ever model to combine rangefinder and viewfinder in one window.
- Olympus 35 RC – this is an excellent rangefinder for you to experiment with without spending too much money. Just by giving a quick look through eBay, I found some bidding starting at $35.00 – that’s including the lens.
- Canon 7 – it’s a fast, high-quality rangefinder that became a nitch camera at the time when SLRs were gaining ground. It has two switchable built-in meters.
- Contax G2 – this is the only or one of the only rangefinders with autofocus. It also has autoexposure, autoloading, and TTL metering. It’s also important that some fantastic lenses are available for this camera.
How to Shoot a Rangefinder Camera
If you’re wondering if rangefinder cameras are hard to use, the answer is no. However, they are different – so, if you’re used to SLR cameras, you might find it hard to get used to them.
On the other hand, they have much fewer buttons, menus and auto features. This allows you to focus only on the image and the exposure, and they are easier to handle once you’re used to them.
To learn how to shoot with rangefinder cameras, you need to get used to two things: composing and focusing. That’s because the exposure part is essentially the same as with any other type of camera.
When you put your eye on the viewfinder of a rangefinder, you won’t see through the lens. So you’ll see the field of view through a window that sits on the top left of the camera.
Inside the field of view, you’ll have lines showing where your frame ends, depending on the lens attached to your camera.
In any case, you get to see what’s happening outside the frame – unlike SRL cameras that block everything outside the edges. This characteristic makes it perfect for capturing moving subjects because you can see when they are about to come into your composition.
OK, so that’s what you see through the viewfinder, but how do you focus on an rf camera? You’ll see a patch on top of the scene through the viewfinder. So you’ll have two images that you have to line up perfectly until you see only one image – that’s when the subject is in focus.
Another way to focus with rangefinders is to use the range focusing method. You can do this without even looking through the viewfinder – you just have to use the numbers on the lens.
On rangefinder lenses, you have an aperture ring. Just turn the ring to choose the aperture that you want.
Then, there’s the distance ring or distance scale – this is used to focus the lens. You adjust how far or close the focal point is when you turn it. On the left side, you’ll have the closest focusing distance; on the right side, you’ll have the longest one up to infinity.
You’ll notice that the distance ring has connecting lines to another set of numbers on the base of the lens – that’s to show you the depth of field.
So, depending on the aperture that you chose, follow the corresponding lines to the focusing ring and you’ll see where does the depth of field starts and ends.
For example, with a 35mm lens – if you set the focal point to 5 meters and use an aperture of f/8, everything between 2,5 meters and infinity will be in focus.
Once your subject is composed and focused, you can use the light meter to determine the exposure and take the photo.
What is a rangefinder camera used for?
While you can use a rangefinder camera for any type of photography, they are mainly used for street photography and photojournalism. This is because rangefinders are smaller and quieter than DSLR and SLR cameras. Also because using the range focusing method you don’t have to worry about missing the focus on a moving subject.
They’re also used for sports photography because there’s no blackout when you press the shutter. This is because there isn’t a flipping mirror. Also, you can see the action outside your frame so that you can press the shutter at the right time, and you can use range focusing to have tack-sharp subjects.
How does a rangefinder work?
Rangefinders have two windows, each one of which creates an image. The window on the side is the viewfinder where you compose your scene. The window on top of the lens collects the light and bounces it with a mirror, creating a second image. You can move this second image with the focusing ring until both images match perfectly – that’s when you can take the shot.
For the rest, it works like any other camera. There’s an aperture that controls how much light comes in and a shutter speed that covers and exposes the film or the sensor.
Why is it called a rangefinder camera?
The name is quite literal. They are called this way because they have a rangefinder – this allows you to measure the distance to your subject and focus on it.
What is the difference between a rangefinder and a viewfinder?
A viewfinder is the part of the camera where you can see your subject to compose and focus your image. Both rangefinders and SLR cameras have a viewfinder, but the rangefinder’s viewfinder doesn’t show you precisely what the lens is seeing.
On the other hand, a rangefinder is a device that measures the distance between the image plane and the subject to achieve focus. This device is not found in other cameras.
What is the difference between an SLR and a rangefinder camera?
The main characteristic of an SLR (and a DSLR, for that matter) is the reflex system. This consists of a flipping mirror that bounces the light towards a pentaprism which then sends it to the viewfinder.
Rangefinder cameras don’t have this mirror, which means that you won’t see through the lens with the rangefinder viewfinders.
Another difference related to it is the size and weight. Since there’s no mirror inside, the rangefinders are more compact, weigh less, and are quieter.
Also, with an SLR camera is difficult to achieve focus in low light. There’s more light available in the viewfinder on a rangefinder, or you can use range focusing.
However, rangefinders are mechanical or almost fully mechanical. Instead, an SLR will give you more automatic shooting features, auto-focusing, video recording, etc.
I know there’s a lot of information in this article, and it might look like it’s difficult to use rangefinder cameras. However, they are actually very straightforward.
The most challenging part about using rangefinder cameras is the fact that we need to change the way we approach photography.
Hopefully, this article cleared your doubts, and you can give rangefinders a chance! Let us know about your experiences in the comments – we’d love to hear from you.