Until last week I was just a ‘Canon Man’. Now, I am a Canon-Olympus-Konica-Petri-Yashica man and in the space of a couple of weeks I have increased my camera ownership from two Canons to four Canons, two Konicas, two Olympus cameras, one Yashica and one Petri!
No, I haven’t just won the pools, and yes, my wife is not particularly impressed. However each of the new cameras I’ve just bought cost around $25, are 35mm film and are, most importantly, ‘rangefinders’ dating from the 70s. Actually two are point-and-shoots, but that’s another story, and the most expensive one (pictured below) was given to me. Yes, a very kind gift from someone I’ve never met (more on that in a mo).
This article is my decision-making process for sourcing a compact, 35mm film rangefinder for under £50.
Why Buy A Film Camera?
Despite owning one of the greatest dSLRs invented to date, the Canon 5Dii, I have made a decision to shoot film as well. There are a number of reasons for this:
- I used to shoot film and I miss it
- There’s something warm about film that digital has yet to capture
- The dynamic range of film is more graduated, with less blown out highlights and dark black patches than a normal digital camera
- You only get 24 or 36 chances to get the shot right, so it forces you to concentrate on the shot in hand. I’m hoping this will improve my photography
- Film cameras are cheap. Very cheap.
- I love the excitement of sending my films off to be developed
- I don’t want film to die out as a format
- Everyone shoots digital these days. I want to be different
The last point is tongue-in-cheek. There is a massive underground analogue film camera scene and, despite the popularity of digital, film cameras have never really gone away.
What Is A Rangefinder?
A rangefinder is a focusing mechanism that normally displays two identical images in the viewfinder. When the lens is out of focus the two images are off-set. The rangefinder, a dial on the lens, is turned until the two images move so that one sits on top of the other and only one image can be seen. This sounds more complicated than it is, it’s actually a very intuitive way of focusing a camera.
The best example I can find is from Bryan Takes Pictures blog. Click on the following image to see it full-screen and you’ll get an idea of what a rangefinder does:
There’s also a great essay on the rangefinder mechanism over at Camerapedia.
Why A Rangefinder?
This is an easy one to answer. The greatest photographer who ever lived (leave space here for citations from every single photographic source to back up this statement), Henri Cartier-Bresson, used a rangefinder. I want to be like him. Plus:
- They are small and compact but still produce impressive results
- I want something better suited to street photography. Up until now my 5Dii has been giving me some award-winning results but as a street camera it is big, bulky, and people can see me coming from a mile off. Despite telling everyone never to leave home without their camera, sometimes taking your dslr with you when nipping down to the shops for 20 minutes can be a real drag. I need something to slip into my pocket
- The field of view is smaller than what you see when looking through the viewfinder. This gives an advantage when viewing a scene as you can see what is about to walk into the frame
- Many of them don’t require the battery to operate them. Some use a battery for the light meter but if you know what you are doing, you don’t need this. Carrying batteries is a pain. Forgetting to charge your battery is even more painful
- They look like toy cameras and are less intimidating for street photography
- Many fit in your pocket
- The quality of images can be higher than an slr because there is no mirror flipping that creates vibration
- The consequence of no mirror makes them quieter
- With no mirror there is no shutter lag. The exposure that is caught is the one that happened exactly when you pressed the button. With an slr there is a delay as the mirror flips up and that ‘decisive moment’ may have been missed
- Most rangefinders have fast lenses, which allows for zone-focusing, a useful technique when shooting the street
There are, of course, obvious disadvantages too, but that’s not what this essay is about. For a complete comparison of a rangefinder versus an slr and other stories, head on over to the very excellent Ken Rockwell website to read this article, and then read the next point…
Does A Rangefinder Make You A Better Photographer?
I’ll let Dan Testella answer this one:
“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.”
Read the remainder of Dan’s article for more on his take of the myths of rangefinders.
Then read DigitalRev’s short piece on why you should shoot with a rangefinder.
Why not a Digital Rangefinder?
Why not, indeed? I really, really want a Fujifilm X-Pro1. I’d love a Leica M9. But I don’t have a spare $2,000 or $10,000 respectively for those cameras!
Which Cameras Did I Get In The End?
- Olympus RC - E.Zuiko f 2.8 / 42mm
- Canon Canonet GIII QL17 - Canon 40mm f/1.7.
- Canon Canonet 28 - Canon 1:2.8/40mm
- Konica Auto S2 - Hexanon f/1.8, f=45mm
- Konica C-35 - 38mm f2.8
- Petri 7Sii - 45mm f/1.8
- Olympus Trip (on loan from mother-in-law although she doesn’t know this yet) - 40mm f/2.8 Zuiko
- Yashica T3 – Carl Zeiss T* (coated) 35mm, f/2.8. Not a rangefinder but a point and shoot I just picked up off ebay for £30. They sell for $150 in the States!
- Olympus Mju II (Stylus Epic) – 35mm, f/2.8
These will be examined more in due course, as I start to use them. The Canonets were bought as spares so these may not work at all, although the vendor told me the QL17 is in good condition. I’ll believe it when I see it.
I have to make a special mention of the Olympus RC. I met an analogue camera enthusiast on the APUG forum (link below) who very kindly said he’s send me a little gift. It was this camera, one of the ones that had been on my wishlist since the start of my search to find the ultimate compact rangefinder. Of course I was skeptical but sure enough, a week later, the ‘gift’ was delivered, as promised, to my US pick-up address! Can you believe that? I was gobsmacked! I thank this person from the bottom of my heart (you know who you are). I have a new friend and a new camera to play with.
Which Cameras Didn’t I Buy But Considered?
There are a few cameras I really want: the Yashica Electro 35 CC (pictured left – click on it for bigger image), the Olympus RD and the Konica Auto S3. However these fall into the next price-bracket, with each of these going for at least £100, if not more. The Canonet QL17, popular as it is, still goes for £100, I just got lucky with mine. Still, I’ve yet to take it out the box so I have no idea if it will need servicing.
Another camera I considered was the Olympus XA (not the XA1 or later models) but I’ve heard focusing on this thing can be fiddly because it is so damn small! If I find a cheap one I’ll buy it but these go for at least £50 on ebay and are highly rated and without the additional flash unit they slip into your jeans pocket with room to spare.
Collecting All These Cameras Is Just Some Weird Male Thing
…claims my wife. Yeah, probably.
The one that I was really after, however, was the Yashica Electro 35 GSN. With a super-fast 1.7 lens this is supposed to be one of the greatest cheap rangefinders out there, and there’s plenty of them around. Then I handled one. They are clunky and heavy, not that much smaller than my dslr and certainly no lighter. I was disappointed because I thought this would be the solution I’d been looking for.
The full list of cameras I considered in no order whatsoever that (should) fall within the £50 price bracket and might not include others I researched:
- Yashica GSN
- Olympus XA
- Kodak Retina iic
- Olympus RD
- Minolta 7s
- Yashica Lynx 5000e
- Konica S3
- Minolta Hi-Matic 9
- Minolta 35RC
- Fujica 35 SE
- Zeiss Ikon
- Voigtlander Vito (not C series)
- Ricoh 500 GX
Next I have to get myself home, open my deliveries and check to see which ones work. I bought the two Canonets as a job-lot, advertised as ‘for spares or repairs’ only but I’m hoping the QL17 is salvagable. I’ve handled one of these cameras and they just ‘feel right’ in my grubby hands.
My father very kindly gave the Petri a going over and seemed impressed with its condition, so I should be able to hit the deck running with it. The Konica C-35 I hear is a great little number but I suspect the Konica Auto S2 is going to be big and clunky like the Yashica GSN so I don’t think I’ll keep it.
I’m also eyeing up a couple of point-and-shoots. I know they’re not rangefinders but they fall into the same ‘usage’ category for me (i.e. light, small street photography cameras). At the time of writing one is being packaged up, an Olympus Mju II. Do a search for this with the words ‘street photography’ and this one keeps popping up.
The other one I’d like is a Yashica T3 which, although plastic-looking, produces superb results and even has a vertical viewfinder. Update: I now own one!
I’m still a newbie to rangefinders. I’ve learnt a lot in theory over the last month but I’ve yet to run a film through any of my purchases; I might even have to spend the first month back in the UK getting them serviced.
Servicing is an important consideration since many of these cameras are old. I’ve received two contradictory pieces of advice: either buy a cheap one and spend £50 getting it serviced, or spend more on a camera that comes advertised as fully functional. Proponents of the former argument say that the camera, because of its age, will need a CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust).
I can recommend going to a camera dealer or collector and trying these things out first. Here in kerala there is a man who has a huge collection of second-hand cameras. I was fortunate enough to get to see Jaison Pala‘s collection and have a feel for some of the above-mentioned models (click the photo to go big and admire all those cameras).
I do have an idea as to which one I’ll keep (the idea being I try them all out and then sell the ones I don’t want at the end of summer). I suspect it will be the Olympus RC, one of the smallest rangerfinders with a killer lens and some manual over-ride features. However having handled a Canonet Q17 I can see this could be my rangefinder of choice. That said I hear the Petri 7s is a real sweet number too, and so is the Konica C-35! Hell, they’re all supposed to be good so right now I honestly couldn’t tell you.
The point-and-shoot is also a serious contender. Having seen some street shots taken with the Olympus Mju II (pictured right, click for bigger image), I’m really quite impressed. My mum used to have one and it’s her side of the family I get my passion for photography from. She’s always had the ‘creative eye’, so if it was good enough for her…
This article is merely my own thoughts on the purchase decision-making process and my research into a new subject I knew little about. I can’t really write much more until I test drive these rangefinders, so bear with me until the summer when I slam some film in them and take them out for a ride.
Watch this space.
This thread kick-started the whole thing and you’ll find loads of recommended cameras in there.
Rangefinder forum which didn’t work
I’m sure there are more, which I’ll add to as I come across them.