rangefinder

All posts tagged rangefinder

I am not giving up film! Film does look better in my opinion. It has a certain charm, an analog feel that digital can only approach with a lot of computer work. It might be a bit similar to listening to vinyls as opposed to compact discs. Theoretically you shouldn’t be able to tell the difference, but it seems that some people can. Our brains are not made for digital perception. So, why am I getting a digital camera? Albeit not any digital camera…

Rangefinder Cameras

Rangefinder Cameras

Image quality? Film can hold far more details than digital images. The problem is how to retrieve that information. These days images invariably end-up on a computer screen. In that regard, digital or film makes no difference as the image on a screen is limited to 72dpi (dots per inch). Expose your photographs blown-up on a gallery wall however and your results may vary depending on a flurry of variables such as your type of film, processing, paper, etc. It is generally said that your classic 35mm film is roughly equivalent to 16mp, though it is comparing apples and oranges. The advantage of digital is that it eliminates the multitude of small accidents that can happen during film processing, like scratches, stains, kinks, etc. You also skip processing and scanning. Though results can be similar, digital wins hands down on convenience.

I recently got back into photography with Leica cameras and love the simplicity and handling of rangefinders. These cameras are small and discreet, unlike the large DSLRs you see today. For street work it is a big plus. I would have loved a digital Leica M-E, but at $5500 it was out of the question. The closest was the Fuji X100S with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens and a 16mp APSC sensor. The combination makes very high quality images. The fixed lens bothers me a bit, but I take most of my photographs with a 35mm lens anyway.. Alternatives were the Fuji X-E2 or X-T1, and the Olympus E-M1. The X100S with his silent leaf shutter won. I love the fact that you can take absolutely silent photographs; so silent in fact that you don’t hear yourself take a photo.

The X100S does cost about the same as my Leica M4-P and it’s Color Skopar lens. Of course I never have to buy film or chemicals. Quality is excellent, though the B&W files lack a bit of contrast, which can be fixed easily in Lightroom (software). I could take hundreds of photographs a day with the Fuji, but my old film habits limit me to a few shots a day, as if I still had to worry about the cost of film processing.

Another advantage is the light weight of the camera. I take it everywhere I go. My Leicas are about the same size but heavier. I would however hesitate to take the Fuji for hiking and camping. It just doesn’t feel as sturdy as the Leicas.

I think my favorite is still the M4-P, but the Fuji allows me to share images much faster. It would be an advantage also if I was ever hired again as a photographer, which is not something I am trying to do, but you never know. Documentary photography is my forte. So I carry two cameras when I can, the X100S and the M4-P. I bought a little Domke F-8 bag that is just large enough for both. I use the M4-P during the day and switch to the X100S when the sun goes down, which is when the Fuji really shines. Film and digital complement each-other nicely. I would not be without a film camera, but I could live without digital. No regrets about the Fuji though, I love the camera. It looks great and takes very high quality images. Fujifilm is definitely the company to watch these days for anyone wanting to buy a digital camera. I highly recommend the X100S or X-E2. For a lower price, see the new X30, rumored to be announced on July 3rd.

It has been about ten weeks since I bought my first rangefinder, a Leica IIIc built in 1946 and a 1949 Summitar 50mm f2 lens. I was first interested in getting a Nikon F3 which was the tool I used for my newspaper work almost thirty years ago. I actually sold the first one, missed it so much I bought the same model again and later stupidly sold it too. I still miss the F3 and will probably buy a third one some time! So why buy a Leica? I always was intrigued by rangefinders but could never afford one. Now some models are old enough to be affordable on the used market. My IIIc was only $220. I liked the experience so much that I bought an M4-P.

Leica

Leica

Street photography is pretty close to what I used to do for the paper. The exception being that I had a valid reason to photograph people and could explain myself. That gave me the confidence to shoot strangers without having to worry about answering questions about my motives. Now I take photos as an art, or at least I try to.. I must be discreet.. Hence the choice of a rangefinder instead of an SLR like the F3, or worse, one the the huge modern DSLRs. Here are the advantages I find with the rangefinder:

Size: My M4-P is smaller than a single lens reflex and yet it performs as well or better in some areas. The lenses are smaller as well, especially compared to autofocus lenses which contain electronics. A small camera means that people perceive me as an amateur or a tourist. They often think I am taking images of something behind them. Having a small camera pointed at them is not threatening compared to a large DSLR with an imposing zoom. With my Leica I am nearly invisible. I don’t want my subject to pose, which most people do when photographed, even unconsciously. We have been conditioned to smile at the camera since early childhood. For street photography smaller is better.

Chiefland Florida

Chiefland Florida

Silence: Press the shutter button on a Nikon and you get a loud “claclang” from the mirror slapping the bottom of the prism, on top of the shutter noise. Not to mention the motor that may advance the film or just re-arm the shutter in a digital SLR. The Leica shutter sound is a quiet “snik” from the fine tuned components and fabric shutter material. It is very hard to hear even from a few feet away. Most of the time my subjects have no idea I took their picture. I never had anyone turn their head as the shutter went off. Here is an abstract from the Vermont Supreme Court Etiquette for Media:

Not more than one still photographer, utilizing not more than two still cameras with not more than two lenses for each camera and related equipment for print purposes shall be permitted in any court proceeding. Such cameras shall produce no greater sound than a 35mm Leica “M” Series rangefinder camera.

Leicas are well known and appreciated for their quietness. Go photograph some drug dealer on the street behind his back and you’ll understand the necessity for stealth. I avoid being sneaky as much as possible but in some cases you don’t want to be heard.

Focusing: The rangefinder is very easy and fast to focus. There is a rectangle patch in the middle of the viewfinder with a ghost image. It’s like seeing double, literally. As you turn the focus ring on the lens the two images merge. That’s when you are in focus. I much prefer manual focus because you know for sure what you are focusing on. Autofocus systems still get confused sometimes, I don’t.

Framelines: While the IIIc is pretty much a 50mm proposition, my M4-P has framelines for 28, 35, 50, 75, 90 and 135mm lenses. Not only do I see the frameline for the lens I use, but I also can see around the frame. If anything comes into the frame from the side I can see it. This helps composition because I can see what’s outside but near the frame borders in the viewfinder.

Amish Women

Amish Women

Viewfinder in the corner: With the viewfinder in the upper left corner of the camera body my face is not obstructed. People can see who is behind the camera. They can see me smile. They see a human taking a photograph, not just a camera on top of a neck. Subjects react better to a friendly face than to a piece of glass and plastic. The photographer seems less “sneaky.” I think it does make a big difference in how the photographer is perceived.

Slow speeds: Because the rangefinder doesn’t have a mirror there is less vibrations. That means being able to take sharp photos with a lower shutter speed than an SLR. My M4-P is pretty heavy for it’s size, further diminishing vibrations. Since a lot of interesting photo opportunities occur at night, slow speed capabilities is rather important. I would not hesitate to use my 50mm at 1/15th on my Leica.

Of course it’s not all advantages. A rangefinder can’t focus at very close range and will not accept lenses longer than 135mm. It isn’t a good choice for sports or macro but neither is a DSLR for street or candid photography in my opinion. Sometimes what you see in the viewfinder isn’t exactly what you get due to parallax errors. You can’t check your depth of field either since you aren’t looking through the lens.

I mentioned Leica because they popularized the rangefinder and still manufacture both film and digital models. There is just nothing like a Leica when it comes to build quality and awesome lenses. Other brands offer them like Voightlander with their Bessa models, some manual like the R2M. My dream Leica would be the M Monochrom ($8K), a B&W-only digital model, way out of my reach. To anyone starting I would suggest getting a used film model like the M4-P or M6 (with a meter), and if you lack the funds, the aforementioned R2M at $670. Leica lenses are expensive even used but they only increase in value and are a good investment. New, they go from $2K to $11K, but you can find them used on Ebay for a few hundred. Other manufacturers make compatible lenses for much less, like Zeiss and Voightlander, both manufactured by Cosina in Japan and of good quality. The only affordable digital Leica is the M8 (and M8.2) but screens are no longer available, so if you break yours you’re “SOOL.” The Fuji X100S is a good alternative to a digital Leica but not a real rangefinder.

No matter what camera you own, I suggest you take it to the street. Start looking for unusual characters and situations. Learn to frame them correctly. Composition is the most important aspect of street photography. Learn from the best, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Robert Frank, etc. There is a lot to be learned from other’s photographs. Bottom line is, it’s fun! I love the excitement of waiting to develop a film when you suspect a great image might be on it. It also gets you out of the house and walking. I was spending way too much time between my house and favorite coffee shop… Now I travel more to various locales to photograph people. It does improve my mood and my health. I even believe it has improved my work. I carry my M4-P everywhere I go. You never know when you’ll see a great image.