Despite the current market dominance and popularity of the digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, the classic rangefinder camera never lost its desirability. Some collectors will pay a premium for the exquisite craftsmanship and mechanics of a rangefinder, the kind of artful precision found only in the finest Swiss watches. The rangefinder—so-called because of a range-finding focus mechanism that allows the photographer to measure the distance of the subject and take pictures in sharp focus—takes you back to a time when cameras were durable, elegant, and handmade.
The rangefinder appeared in the ninteenth century, but wasn't in the market until 1916. The camera's boom years were from the 1930s to the 1970s with top-of-the-line models manufactured by Leica, Contax, Nikon, Canon, Fujica, Konica, Mamiya, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, and Yashica.
The SLR camera supplanted the popularity of the rangefinder in the 1970s, but Leica, Konica, Cosina, Hasselblad, Mamiya, and Russian makers like Fed, Zorki, and Kiev continued to improve their rangefinder line.
The cost for a dream rangefinder has always been quite steep. Collectors will proudly defend their purchases by citing the rangefinder's refined elegance and classic structure. Professional photographers will point to the robust quality of certain models (like the Leica M and MP series), which allows them to shoot in the toughest conditions.
As prized as they are, operating a rangefinder requires a steep learning curve because focusing is entirely manual. The camera needs frequent servicing since it loses accuracy with time and use. It isn't particularly good with telephoto lenses, and not all models will allow you to check the effects of filters or depth of field—not until after your film is developed.
The rangefinder makes up for its faults with something it lacks—a moving, flipping mirror. Its absence means that upon pressing the shutter button, a rangefinder will have fewer vibrations than an SLR, making for clear, sharp pictures with no blur and less distortion. This also makes shooting with available light at low shutter speeds a breeze.
There is also the thrill of shooting with the same kind of camera used by photography legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Josef Koudelka, Inge Morath, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Robert Doisneau, Eugene Smith, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Eugene Richards, to name a few.
Historical relevance, elegant design, fine craftsmanship, and durability ensure that the rangefinder will never go out of style.
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This article first appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 2 2011.