I admit to a thing about rangefinders. It makes no practical sense; why use a camera that can only focus a limited range of lenses that have to be specially made for it, that can’t show you what might be in sharp or soft focus, can’t frame accurately and lets you shoot all day with the lens cap on? (Ask me how I know this) Oh, and if you leave the lens cap off it will focus sunlight onto the shutter curtains and burn a hole through them.
But in many ways, the difficulty is the pleasure. And rangefinders do have some benefits.
Rangefinder lenses are easier to make and can be of simpler designs – there is no need to make room for the mirror of an SLR. The aperture doesn’t need to shut and close as you press the shutter, and the lens does’t strictly have to signal to the camera what the aperture is doing. That’s not to say that all rangefinder lenses are cheap – take a look at some of the Leica or Zeiss prices, and you won’t buy a Canon 50mm f0.95 on anything less than Bill Gates’ pocket money.
Rangefinder cameras can be smaller than SLRs and sometimes lighter, unless you are comparing a Kiev 4 with a Pentax MX. There is less going on inside the box, so a rangefinder should be quieter than an SLR and shake less when you press the shutter. Certainly I have an old Ricoh SLR that sounds like I’ve dropped a saucepan on cobbles when I take a picture. Best of all is my beloved Olympus XA which is whisper quiet, genuinely pocket sized, has an answer to the lens cap problem and a great lens.
And yet, I still find myself lugging a Zorki around, or an old Agfa Super Silette. I really think that it is because the difficulty is part of the pleasure.
If I have a job to do or a specific result in mind, I will use the appropriate kit. I would never use a rangefinder for shooting action at long distance with a big lens. This is what SLRs excel at. But I will happily take a rangefinder with me when I’m out walking. Sometimes it’s the convenience – the only thing lighter than my XA is my wallet. But most of the time it’s because I have to think and overcome the awkwardness. Part of my pleasure in photography is the pictures I make, part is the enjoyment of the process of making them. Having to make decisions, to make deliberate choices between alternatives, adds to the sense of engagement with the final product. I can think “I made this look like this” rather than “I held the camera and pointed it the right way while it did this”. Which is often better expressed as “I cocked this up all by myself”. Don’t get me wrong – I love autofocus and autoexposure and zoom lenses and RAW files that I can get something out of even if I have butchered the settings. At some point I’ll post about the differences in shooting motorcycle sport on film and on digital. Just take a look at the earlier post about my voyage into underwater photography – digital rocks!
But still I wander about with a poorly-assembled Russian rangefinder and a lying bastard light meter, or a 1960s family snapshot camera with a modest lens and a slightly misaligned focusing image. It pleases me to have to work at it. And that I don’t have to try and use an Argus C3.