The Rangefinder Difference

Last updated March 25, 2012

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Size and Weight
  3. Discreet and Quiet
  4. Low Light and Vibration
  5. Focusing and Composing
  6. Excellent Quality
  7. Simplicity and Mentality
  8. Conclusion

Introduction

There's no limit to the variety of cameras available today, but they do all fall into a variety of design categories. From SLR (Single Lens Reflex) to the new, so-called "mirrorless" cameras. Another category is the rangefinder, which is the basis for Leica M bodies. In fact, the "M" stands for the German word for rangefinder - Meßsucher. In this article we'll take a look at some of the pros and cons to the platform.

If your native language is Russian, our colleagues at the Leica Russia Blog have posted a translated article for your reading pleasure!

Size and Weight

When compared to the average SLR (or DSLR these days), a rangefinder is often quite smaller for two reasons. First, since there's no pentaprism atop the camera (nor a bulky mirror box below that) the body size is smaller. Secondly (and again because of the lack of a mirror) lenses do not need to be of a retrofocus design which makes them smaller as well. When comparing the two body designs side-by-side, the difference is readily noticeable.

Weight is a bit more debatable, at least when it comes to Leica bodies and lenses - especially if you prefer the chrome lenses. Due to the use of a lot of brass, Leica bodies and chrome lenses are deceptively dense. The black lenses differ because they utilize black anodized aluminum for the lens barrels instead of brass, so they're a bit lighter. Bodies do not have this difference in materials based on color. When looking at other manufacturer's bodies such as the Bessa from Voigtländer or the Ikon from Zeiss for example, the weight argument is more in favor of the rangefinder as they utilize magnesium alloy in place of brass and are overall much lighter in weight. As compared to SLRs, rangefinders typically come out ahead (but not always).

Discreet and Quiet

Because of their size, rangefinders are often considered to be more discreet - less noticeable and more easily concealed. This depends entirely on your situation when shooting. Sometimes a smaller camera does afford you an extra measure of keeping a low profile, other times you'll be noticed just by raising a camera regardless of what it is.

For the same reason they're smaller, they're also quieter - that is, the lack of a moving mirror mechanism as found in SLRs. Without a link between body and lens (e.g. aperture) there are less moving parts there as well. While nothing is as quiet as a leaf shutter (which is barely audible even when listening for it) the rangefinder is certainly quieter than an SLR. When shooting street, in churches or other situations where being noticed or a distraction is to be avoided, it can make all the difference.

Low Light and Vibration

The lack of all the moving parts that make a rangefinder both smaller and quieter as mentioned above, there's another benefit. Moving parts cause vibration due to inertia and other forces. Both the sudden acceleration and more importantly, sudden deceleration of the mirror in an SLR for example. Most of the time this doesn't have much consequence as shutter speeds (or the use of flash) often freezes such movement. But when the light levels drop and you're forced to use slower shutter speeds - or use longer focal lengths - vibration can be a real problem. When compared to other camera designs, the difference is less clear. Neither leaf shutters nor "mirrorless" cameras cause vibration either.

Focusing and Composing

The difference between a rangefinder and SLR is perhaps clearest when comparing the meat of the matter - focusing and composing. Instead of looking through the lens as with an SLR, the rangefinder uses a discrete optical path. This has its pros and cons. In favor of the SLR, it's essentially WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) since you're looking through the lens, filter (if fitted) and aperture (stopped down or not). This affords you the chance to really see what your camera sees. On the downside, you can't see what's going on outside of the frame, such as when anticipating action (the so-called "decisive moment") and depending on the speed of your lens, can make for a dark viewfinder. Some people also describe the view being akin to tunnel vision, especially on crop sensor bodies (as opposed to full frame or film). Finally, there's no viewfinder blackout with a rangefinder since there's no mirror that swings up, blocking the optical path.

Focusing is both similar to an SLR yet radically different. In the "old days" SLRs usually had a split prism focusing screen - rangefinders work on the same principle, or bringing two areas of the image into alignment. This is just about the only similarity though. When looking through a rangefinder, you are presented with a patch in the center consisting of two images and the lens focused either by aligning them or watching for the "pop" of contrast. With this approach it's very easy to see that your subject is either in focus or not - there's no "gray area." This is a very accurate and fast (with practice) way of focusing. Most modern SLRs have done away with the split and micro prism focusing aids, leaving you with just a matte screen. Even with a fast lens, which makes the focus plane more readily discerned you often need a special screen for maximum effect. But with slower lenses such screens become prohibitively dark and even regular screens darken quickly. With autofocus this isn't as critical as it used to be. - but try focusing in low light with both systems (where autofocus is often ineffective or slow) and you'll really appreciate the difference.

Rangefinders on the other hand generally offer an expansive, bright view of your scene. Regardless of the speed of your lens, it's always the same brightness and you can always see the maximum coverage of the scene. The latter is accomplished by using framelines to represent what a lens of a particular focal length would capture. The longer the focal length, the more surrounding area you see outside of the frame. Going back to the "decisive moment" comment, this is why. You can see subjects as they approach and enter the frame - allowing you to snap the shutter at just the right time. Since the viewfinder and what the lens sees are on a slightly different axis, this leads to inaccuracy when framing - more so at closer ranges. Many rangefinders correct for this for the most part, but it's not as accurate as with an SLR. The solution is simple - don't frame so tightly. The other limitation is in the variety of lens focal lengths (or applications) available with a rangefinder. They struggle at the extremes - namely macro and telephoto. While wide angle lenses are actually much better optically, there's no easy way to shoot macro and telephoto lenses are limited to about 135mm (without requiring a special attachment in either case such as the Macro Adapter M or Visoflex).

Excellent Quality

When it comes to lenses (wide angles in particular) lacking the need for a retrofocus design, rangefinder lenses can be made much smaller than their SLR equivalents since they don't have to take into account the space required by the mirror. Their image quality is generally better as a result; often much better. Even with longer focal lengths, simpler lenses generally mean better quality as a result. Then there's the old "zoom lenses vs. primes" argument. Both a pro and a con, there are no zoom lenses for rangefinders. The closest thing to it is the Leica "MATE" and "WATE" which are nicknames standing for "Medium Angle Tri-Elmar" and "Wide Angle Tri-Elmar" respectively. Rather than zooming, they offer three distinct focal lengths in one lens. Think of them as "three primes in one."

That's not to say that other manufacturers can't product high-quality lenses. They most certainly can, but the current line of modern Leica and Zeiss lenses are really something to behold. More so in the case of Leica, as they tick off nearly every technological checkbox in lens design - using both aspherical and floating lens elements as well as exotic materials for lens elements. While both Leica and Zeiss lenses are highly corrected, they go about it in different ways. Leica utilizes aspheric elements to produce smaller lenses whereas Zeiss does not.

Then there's the matter of build quality of both lenses as well as the bodies themselves. No manufacturer stands out more than perhaps Leica in this regard, as the mechanical build of both are of a very high order. While most camera manufacturers these days have embraced plastics and other high-tech materials, Leica still builds cameras "the old fashioned way" (or as they always have) by using primarily metal for construction. This aspect is discussed and explored further in our "Why Buy a Leica?" article.

Simplicity and Mentality

There's no arguing the simplicity of rangefinder cameras. Most have little more than purely mechanical, basic controls - namely focus, aperture and shutter speed. It's not a camera for those that don't understand these basic principles of photography. But many prefer this simple, direct and fast control of the camera. There are no technological crutches - the onus to create something special rests solely on the shooter.

This brings up the notion of the mentality of shooting with a rangefinder (or similarly simple) camera. Some say it stays out of the way and lets you concentrate on making the image without all the distractions. Some people just like how it allows them to photograph or fits to how they prefer to work. Whether or not this is beneficial to you, only you can say.

You can read more about design and simplicity in our article, "Leica and Bauhausian Simplicity of Design."

Conclusion

In the end it really comes down to how and what you shoot as to which platform suits you best. Using the right tool for the task at hand will always make things easier as there's generally no "one size fits all" solution. But where the rangefinder excels, it is unmatched. If you shoot a lot of macro, telephoto, studio or use a lot of filters then perhaps an SLR is a better choice. But for fast and efficient people, landscape or even "general" photography, the rangefinder is hard to beat and worth considering.