The Rangefinder Camera

The Rangefinder Camera

  • Formerly more readily available in a variety of sizes and forms, rangefinder cameras are now most commonly found in the 35 mm format. Basically, these are box-body cameras with an optical rangefinder mounted on top (or on the side). The rangefinder is connected to the focusing mechanism and usually incorporates the viewfinder window.

  • This type of camera is held so that the eye looks through the rear rangefinder port, the eye port. The viewfinder, usually the same port, frames the approximate area recorded by the lens upon the film. As the focusing mechanism is moved, a small section of the viewed image (produced by additional optics and often colored by a pale filter) moves relative to the larger surrounding image. Exact focus is obtained when the two overlapping images coincide at the decided plane of focus.

  • Some rangefinder cameras have a horizontal, diagonal, or vertical split dividing the two images. The focus is correct when lines at the chosen plane of focus cross the line without any displacement. Appropriately, this is called a split-image rangefinder. Rangefinder cameras are best suited to photographing people and fast-moving events, which make focusing on a ground glass a serious distraction. They are small and light, fast in operation, relatively inconspicuous in use, and usually have very quiet shutters. Most, however, are poorly suited to either very close up or extreme telephoto use, except when quite expensive and cumbersome accessories are added. There is also the problem of parallax: the viewfinder window is located somewhat off the central axis of the lens, so the lens and viewfinder do not see quite the same thing, especially when the subject is at all close. The more expensive rangefinder cameras have built-in parallax correction. This operates only down to moderately close distances, and provides "correction" only for main subject viewing. It cannot take into exact account the differing foreground-background relationships in a two-subject viewing situation.

  • To allow for viewing inaccuracies, rangefinder cameras often show somewhat less in the viewfinder than will be recorded on the film. Thus, there may be some difficulty in making really efficient use of the available film area a matter of some importance in a 35 mm camera where the total size of the film frame is only 24 x 36 mm (1 x 11/2 inches). Still, some of the finest photojournalism has been, and continues to be, done with rangefinder cameras.

  • For telephoto use, many rangefinder cameras have luminous lines within their viewfinders that correspond to the areas recorded on the film by lenses of longer-than-normal focal lengths. For other such cameras there are detachable viewfinders for each lens. Such viewfinders are frequently used with wide-angle lenses.

  • Extreme close-up and extreme telephoto lenses cannot be used without a cumbersome and expensive reflex housing to ensure correct framing and focusing. The rangefinder camera is thus converted into a rather awkward form of single-lens reflex. For the price of such housing, you could buy a complete single-lens reflex camera of satisfactory quality.

  • Do not conclude that the rangefinder camera is no good. It is just that the real advantage of this camera lies in the intermediate distance range, and particularly in recording fast-moving human events.

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