Friday, May 08, 2009

The 35mm Rangefinder

The first 35mm camera I ever worked with was a rangefinder. First my Mothers Argus C-3 and then when I was taking my first photo classes in High School back in 1968 a Mamiya/Sekor like the one pictured. The 35mm rangefinder, with built in lightmeter and a lens that can be focused by a coupled rangefinder is a serious camera and was the choice of some of the 20th centuries greatest photographers, Henri-Cartier-Brisson for one. In the 1960's all of the major Japanese camera makers manufactured models with built in light meters that were reasonably priced compared to the more expensive SLR's (Single Lens Reflex) and probably dominated the market of the emerging serious amateur photographer. Now days though few of these beautiful little cameras still exist in full operating condition. They are difficult but not impossible to find and can usually be purchased for a price in the 75-150 dollar range. The ones I am primarily talking about do not have interchangeable lenses but the lenses they do have are usually a focal length between 40mm-50mm, a nice compromise between a wide angle and the boring standard 50mm lens that SLR's are usually coupled with.

Look for a model that has a fully focusable lens, not a "zone focus"where you preset the lens for usually three settings; close-up which is about 2 feet from the camera, mid-range which is about 2-6 feet and Infinity for landscapes. A coupled rangefinder camera has actually three lenses; one for taking the picture, and two for focusing. The two lenses super impose two views from two different perspectives of what is in front of the camera. When viewing it looks a bit like you are looking at something cross eyed. To focus the lens you align the image in the center split image screen which comes from one of the lenses with the image outside of the center screen which comes from the other. It takes some getting used to in part because when you look through the viewfinder everything is in focus unlike a focusing system that utilizes the camera lens. Look for Japanese made models not anything from Russia or East Germany because they are crap. Try to shop around and find as many different kinds of models as you can and see how they feel, also research online sites about vintage cameras, old books and magazines from the 60's and early 70's when most were manufactured. Once you have settled on model(s) that you like try to find one that is still in fine working condition. If you are buying from a private party see if they will meet with you at a camera repair service to have the camera examined by someone who understands old cameras. If you are buying one from a used camera shop be sure to find out the conditions of returning the item if you are not satisfied with it. Most used cameras stores are selling on an "as is" basis and in a very narrow market so if they can get cash for a camera they are reluctant to give it back so ask questions. If you can develop a relationship of trust with a seller they may let you borrow the camera and try it out. You can also shoot a roll of film through the camera usually outside the store and take the film in for development. Slide film is best for this purpose. Slides will help you check out the quality of the images and if the light meter is reading correctly and the shutter works properly. Camera Solutions on Macadam Ave. is a repair service which also sells reconditioned older cameras. Pricey but at least you can buy with a certain amount of confidence. Just about any old camera you buy, if it is in repairable condition will cost in the range of 150-200 to be totally overhauled so one has to make the decision if buying a camera that at it's best is only worth a 150-200 is worth that kind of investment. You may recover some of your money because a well made fully functioning camera from the era of film cameras still has a market with real photographers and collectors but usually they are looking for pristine examples with all the packaging and instruction books.

I own a Minolta CL built in the late 70's as a more modest answer to the expensive Leica M5 rangefinder cameras with interchangeable lenses and through the lens metering (TTL) like an SLR. They were also the smallest Leica rangefinder ever built. I find now in my old age the small focusing screen at the center difficult to use especially in low light conditions. The camera though is a favorite of mine because of it's small size and the high quality of the images. They are expensive though and collectible so they are not a modestly priced camera but still cheaper then a "real Leica".

I have bought several cameras on e-bay and have been satisfied with the results but when I buy a camera on e-bay I calculate the possible 150-200 repair costs in to the price. Also when looking at old cameras one has to consider the number of units manufactured because that will determine the price of parts for repair. Look for models that are well represented. Also it helps if the seller deals in cameras and knows what he is selling. Some sellers will offer cameras that have been overhauled but find out what was done since to some people overhauling consists of replacing light seals or gaskets and blowing out the inside with a can of compressed air.

The rangefinder is no longer the introductory film camera it once was but is still a very viable option but research is essential. This is where old photo books and magazines from the 60's and 70's can be very useful. Before I go on to the 35mm SLR I am going to post some info on the nature of old in-camera light meters and the differences between functional and accurate.


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