Contax G1

Rangefinder camera – how to start

Starting with a rangefinder camera: you have been practicing analog photography for a while and you have heard about the magic of Leica rangefinder cameras. However, to immediately spend € 1.500 – € 2.000 on a camera without knowing whether a rangefinder is right for you, may be a bit steep. So what is a good rangefinder camera to start with, without breaking the bank?

What is a rangefinder camera?

A rangefinder camera uses a mechanism (the rangefinder) to measure the distance to a subject. By aligning a rectangle in the viewfinder (the focus patch) with the actual scene observed in the viewfinder, the focus will be correct for the subject in the scene. You can align the focus patch by turning the focus ring on the lens used on the camera.

The viewfinder of a rangefinder camera uses framelines that enable you to frame your subject. For rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses, these framelines change with the lens used. A 28mm lens has a wider view of field than a 50mm lens. The framelines will change accordingly.

Parallax correction

One of the disadvantages of a rangefinder system is that the image seen through the viewfinder, may be different to the image recorded by the lens. This is called the parallax effect. This is due to the fact that the viewfinder is positioned on the left of the camera, while the lens is in the middle. Rangefinders do not use a through the lens viewfinder. The difference is not present when focusing at a long distance, but when focusing at close distance, there is a difference. For Leica cameras the closest focus distance is at 70 centimeters.

More advanced rangefinders provide parallax correction, by moving the framelines when focusing the lens at close range. The framelines then always indicated the correct composition, corrected for the parallax effect.

Budget rangefinder camera

Although there are many older analog rangefinder cameras to choose from, I have mentioned below a couple that you hardly can go wrong with.

  • Olympus Trip 35.
    You can buy one on eBay for around € 100
  • Olympus 35SP
    You can buy oneon eBay for around € 250 for a clean copy
  • Canonet QL17
    You can buy one on eBay for around € 150 – € 200
  • Yashica Electro
    You can buy one on eBay for around € 100 – € 150

All of these are fixed lens cameras, which means you cannot change the lens for another one. All cameras have light meters, the Olypmus Trip 35 uses a selenium cell, which is capable of lasting a life time to power the light meter.

With the exception of the Olympus Trip, all lenses are f1/1.7. The Olympus Trip is f/2.8. All lenses are 40mm focal length and have a very good reputation.

Medium budget rangefinder camera

For medium budget cameras, we get into the domain of the interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras. There are fewer choices in this domain, but still a couple that are worth mentioning.

  • Contax G1 / G2
    The design of these camera is great and they even offer auto-focus on the rangerfinder coupled lenses made by Zeiss. The G1 is the cheapest model, to be purchased on eBay for around € 500 with a Zeiss lens. The superior G2 model is substantially more expensive, quickly amounting to € 1000 or more with lens.
  • Minolta CLE
    This is a very interesting option as this camera takes M-mount lenses. Minolta created this camera in cooperation with Leica, where Leica themselves developed the Leica CL camera. Minolta created a number of M-mount lenses themselves, which have a good reputation. Of course, any Leica M-mount lens will work on this camera as well, giving you a wide range of (sometimes expensive) options. You can buy A Minolta CLE body on eBay for around € 500.

High end cameras

Finally, when you are convinced a rangefinder camera is for you, go ahead and splash a good amount of your well-earned euro’s or dollars for a Leica or a Voigtlander Bessa R2 camera. If you want to read how I came to purchase a Leica M4-P, please read this article on Pixels & Film.

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