Does a rangefinder camera make you a better photographer?

This was the first post on the old site and was published 14 years ago. Not backing down from any of it.


In a word, no. I have heard a lot of people, including several I respect very much, make the somewhat extravagant claim that a Leica or some other 35mm rangefinder camera makes better pictures, frees you up to be creative, allows you to “see” the subject, makes focusing easier, etc. There is only one adequate response to that: bullshit. You ability to make good photographs comes from within — the powers of composition and visual discrimination that make good pictures don’t depend on whether or not you are holding a box that says Leica, Voigtlander or Konica rather than a differently-shaped one that says Nikon, Canon or Contax. Those powers are within you. Maybe a rangefinder brings you confidence, like a pair of Johnston & Murphy shoes at an interview, but it doesn’t make you any better at making pictures.

This section will not address the use of rangefinders in medium fomat, where there are other reasons to use such a mechanism, as in avoiding the use of huge reflex mirrors.

Rangefinder Myths. Here are a few of my favorites, pulled from the sophisms repeated through the ages:

I find it easier to compose with a rangefinder.

The problem comes when you are composing using space and selective focus, both critical to portraiture. Using a rangefinder to focus a lens that has a thin plane of focus or tends to exaggerate space is sheer masochism, because a rangefinder presents an aerial image that always shows the same space. Once you hit about 90mm, or f/1.2, whichever comes first, you should be using an SLR, so you can see exactly what’s in focus and what’s out. When you are using a superwide, you might also use an SLR to see the spatial arrangement of the pieces.

Seeing outside the framelines really helps.

It is true that with a rangefinder, you can typically see an area outside the framelines. Rangefinders suffer from parallax error (even when they are “parallax corrected). The field size they shows is often much smaller than the actual frame, with an error of up to 15% (oddly, the dime-a-dozen cheap rangefinder cameras often have field correction). That means that you can get quite a bit more than you bargained for in the frame, which is sometimes unpleasant in a format like 35mm, where it’s often impractical to grab one-half of a frame and enlarge it.

Rangefinder cameras are smaller and more concealable.

This was true when the alternatives were the Home Portrait Graflex, the Speed Graphic and the Nikon Photomic. Traditional-style LTM cameras are small, but their size is more than made up for by their sheer inconvenience and squinty finders. A Leica M3 is no smaller than a modern SLR, and a lot heavier. They may be easy to conceal if you’re a big guy…

Leicas are soooo quiet.

I’m not sure how this one started. In the 1950s, when it was a world of Leica, Contax and Rollei, the Rolleiflex was the quietest camera (in fact, leaf shutters are almost universally quieter than Leica-type focal-plane shutters). Perhaps it was in the 1970s when you had mirror slap and the Copal Square S metal shutter. But it is not the case now. Today, a Leica is more quiet than a loud motorized SLR, but it is a lot louder than a Contax T or a Hexar autofocus model. In fact, it is even louder than some cheapo p/s cameras.

The operation is so simple, it frees me up to be creative.

I’m sure that most people who write this would probably never own a Pentax K1000, but the metering on the Leica M6 and the Cosina Bessa-R is identical. I never liked the Pentax K1000 because the match-needle metering was useless in a crunch – where you have about 1/4 sec to figure out how to change *a* parameter. The first thing you always reached for was the aperture dial, because you didn’t need to take your eye away to do it. SLRs started coming out with aperture-based autoexposure to allow you to preserve your aperture selection instead of resorting to changing it first in a hurry. The invention of needle-based and LED-based shutter speed scales allows you to see the contrast range of a scene in ways that you can’t with match-diode metering.

People who make this statement in reference to the meterless cameras of yore may also think that a Model T frees you up to enjoy driving more, because automation like an electric starter takes away from the fundamental experience of driving.

Rangefinders focus more accurately.

This is true, to a point – but to be true, the rangefinder mechanism in the camera has to be aligned perfectly (vertically and horizontally), you have to be able to see clearly, and your lens needs to be 90mm or shorter. Even then, as noted above, you lose focus as a predictable compositional element. SLRs also let you see the depth of field in a lens wide-open, which can be more effective than trying to figure it out using a distance scale on the lens. They also allow you to detect and compensate for bad lenses sometimes because you will see them not focusing. That is not the case with RFs, where you often find out about these problems the hard way.

It’s not hard to bottom-load a Leica once you get used to it.

As Sir Winston Churchill said in relation to the abolition of grog and the Navy’s protest that it was tradition, “Tradition? Rum, sodomy and the lash.”

I learned how to load and unload my M3 after many false starts. It is not convenient, no matter how well you know it. I have looked at a lot of pressure plates, some of which are as big as Leica’s — even on rapid-load, motor-driven cameras — and no one has ever been able to articulate why Leicas can’t be made to load through other than via a $246 removable baseplate. I really don’t like putting parts of my camera in my mouth to load a roll of film. The thing that makes it even more unpleasant is that even my Fuji 690 has a swing back and is easier to load — and with 120 rollfilm yet!

Rangefinders have less camera shake.

This is an argument that is very hard to evaluate in practice. Many people seem to believe that you can handhold a rangefinder camera at much slower speeds, because there is no mirror mechanism or autodiaphragm mechanism to introduce additional moving parts. The theory is simple Newtownian physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It is a reasonable theory.

As a generalization made about rangefinders vs. SLRs, though, I think this is a fallacy which persists because there is no really good way to measure shake. Any tripod suitable for a resolution test will have sufficient mass to make the moving mass of a mirror no less significant than an earthquake in Japan when you are living in Denver. Leicas are also far heavier than modern SLRs, so it is easier to keep them steady (when you are fighting your own ability to keep the camera still, the heavier the camera, the less effect your involuntary movements have. It is probably true that you can hold a Leica steadier than a low-end SLR, just as a function of weight. That’s why I would love to see a comparison of camera shake involving a Voigtlander Bessa R and a Nikon FM-10 (as close as you can get to bodies which are identical except for the viewfinder system). If I had to speculate, I would guess that you would see the same shake in both.

In reality, camera shake depends on a lot of things, not the least of which are: mass of the camera, mass of the moving parts, steadiness of the operator, magnification of the lens, and relationship between operation of the moving parts and the exposure. In addition, some SLRs have mirror-counterbalancing mechanisms which cancel any equal and opposite reactions from the mirror. So be circumspect about what you are comparing.

When you close your eyes and pick up the Leica and the Hexar several times, the difference in feeling and haptics emerges. When you hold the Leica, your thumb slides behind the advance lever and your finger lays on the shutter release button, which is sharp as a trigger. This simple and intuitive act signifies to the brain a state of alert attention and you fall into the mood of a hunter or an active sportsperson anticipating the moves of the other players. When holding the Hexar, both hands hold the body and wen your finger touches the release button, there is no trigger effect. The finger just rests there and you do not get any feedback from the body. So you switch almost automatically into a more passive state of mind and allow the camera to work for you. That is easy to do as the automatic functions of the camera (exposure, film transport, motorwinder) are so well executed that you start to rely on them and even transfer control to them. In fact you are starting to become an operator of the camera, adjusting the wheels and not the driver who forces the camera to do as he wants it to act.

Whoa, Nelly! The above-statement was written by a noted Leica expert in relation to two cameras that take the same lenses and have exactly the same type viewfinder and focusing. Personally, I would like to see the EEGs of people using Leicas and Hexar RFs before I swallow a statement like that. While the writer is normally very organized and scientific in his methods, I can’t help but conclude that this statement is probably the clearest proof that Leica (Leica, not other brands of similar equipment) is a religion. Isn’t a camera supposed to work for you?! Ifyou want to talk haptics and concentration, there is nothing that breaks the concentration of a left-eyed shooter faster than putting you right thumb in your right eye while winding an M3. Talk about tactile. I’d rather take the shot and forget about the “experience” of taking the picture.

Then why use a rangefinder? I think there are a few compelling things about rangefinders, and all but one are related to the subjective qualities of optics.

  • Non-retrofocus wide-angle lenses like the 21/3.4 Super Angulon, the 35/2 Summicron and the 21/2.8 Kobalux. There is no question that symmetrical rangefinder lenses outshine retrofocus SLR versions in distortion and resolution. They’re also smaller front-to-back. You can get teeny 28s, for example, that make a rangefinder camera pocketable. Retrofocus design (which underlies SLR wideangles) also works better for rangefinder wideangle lenses (as it does in the new Cosina lenses), because with rangefinders it is used to increase the number of lens elements to improve correction rather than being used to radically increase the backfocus distance to clear a 45mm-deep mirror.
  • Lenses with well-defined optical fingerprints. These are the 50mm Sonnar-type lenses which could never be made for an SLR due to back-focus constraints. All modern SLR 50mm lenses are planar-type. With a lot of modern lenses you lose bokeh and highlight separation.
  • Telephoto lenses no one wants to make anymore. These include Ernostars, Sonnars and Tessars. Again, these have the highlight separation that works well for people’s faces.
  • Lenses that are tough to get running with a modern body. The first version 105/2.5 Nikkor SLR lens requires an older Nikon F body with no AE, or a disfiguring modification to work with AI meters. By contrast, the 1954 105/2.5 Nikkor rangefinder lens can be put on an autoexposure Hexar RF made in 2001 and used like any modern lens.

Go with your gut. Ultimately, you are the person who chooses your tools. Think carefully. In the end, the experience of the camera makes no difference, nor does its make or model. It is only the image you create with it.

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One response to “Does a rangefinder camera make you a better photographer?”

  1. Björn says :

    One thing you didn’t mention that probably improved my pictures the most on a rangefinder was the infinity focus; where on an SLR you frame wide open and might miss features in the background disturbing your composition ( because stoppning down turns your image dark and unusable), on a rangefinder you have to deal with it all the time. I also think there is something non-clunky about, say, an M3 that inspires use, but it’s hard to put down in a feature checklist comparison.

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