Rangefinder Camera Advantages
Rangefinders make ideal cameras for street shooting. Being quite small in size most people will assume you are a tourist with a point and shoot and simply ignore you. Whereas when you are armed with a big digital SLR people will think you are some type of pro photographer and will likely be shy about being in your picture. Old and small rangefinder film cameras tend to go unnoticed.
Rangefinders are small in size and lightweight. This is especially true of the later models made during the 1970s. This makes them ideal for taking tramping, bike riding, and other forms of travel when you would rather not be lugging around an SLR and bag full of lenses. While at the same time you want to carry a camera that can be used for a wide range of serious picture taking including landscapes, people, interior use with and without flash, reasonable close-ups (rangefinders are not good for extreme close-ups), and low-light photography.
Interestingly another advantage of rangefinder cameras is that the shutters are almost silent on most models. That is because there is no loud mirror slap that you get with an SLR. It is possible to take pictures without people even realising you have pressed the shutter. This is great for candid street photography. Most have flash sync speeds up to 1/500 of a second. My Nikon D200 only has flash sync up to 1/250 of a second. Some models like the Canonet QL17 and QL19 came out with a matching flash, in this case, the Canonlite D which adjusted power output depending on the distance to target and syncs at all shutter speeds. Fill flash is still a bit of a drama though requiring some mental calculations to get the desired ideal flash output.
You get great depth of field with a rangefinder camera meaning your shots are more likely to be in focus. The lenses are generally of very high quality. Rangefinder lenses don’t have to be retro-focus as they do with an SLR because there is no lightbox in the way between lens and film. This means wide-angle lenses on rangefinder cameras can be much smaller than the same focal length for an SLR. They are also easier and cheaper to manufacture to a very high-quality standard. You will find that most old rangefinder cameras have very capable lenses mostly with focal lengths of 40 or 45mm. The lenses are also quite fast for gathering more light in dull conditions. The faster lenses are usually f1.8 or thereabouts. The more compact rangefinders often have a maximum aperture of f2.8. These models are excellent for carrying in a coat or jacket pocket.
These old rangefinder cameras have fast sharp lenses which, when combined with the rangefinder focusing mechanism itself, ensures every picture is in sharp focus. Also, the viewfinder doesn’t go black when you take a picture so you stay involved with the subject at all times.
In New Zealand, Trademe.co.nz is a good source of old film cameras. Secondhand dealers and junk shops are also good places to look for old film cameras. Some of the best places to find bargains are at dump shops or recycling centres.
Buying an old Film Rangefinder Camera
You have to look closely at any camera you are considering buying. Look first at the lens. Is it clear, clean, not fogged up or the glass scratched on the front or back? If the lens has fungus on the inside of the glass elements it could cause the photographs to have poor contrast if it is bad enough – the cost of having it cleaned will not be worthwhile unless it is an expensive camera like a German Leica. Also, check if the lens is tight to the camera body?
A good way to test the lens for clarity is to open the camera back. Set the aperture to the B setting if the camera has one. Then advance the shutter lever to cock the shutter. Press the shutter and continue to hold it down while holding the camera up to the light and looking through the lens. You can look through the lens from both ends. Any fungus should become evident. Shining a touch through the lens while holding the shutter open is also a good method of checking for dust, fungus and scratches.
One quite sad thing to look out for is owners who didn’t have a protective glass filter over the front of the lens. When the lens became a little dirty they may have foolishly cleaned it with a handkerchief resulting in scratches in the soft glass lens coating used on many cameras in those days. I have seen several Olympus 35RC rangefinders that have suffered this fate even though the rest of the camera was in mint condition.
Is the shutter working? Can you wind the film advance lever? Are there any parts missing? Is the camera in good overall condition?
Look through the viewfinder while turning the focus ring on the lens. Can you see the split image become one as it pops into focus? If not it may be an easy fix, or it may not.
Does it have any dents on its corners that would indicate it has been dropped? You can quite often get good working 1960s and 1970s rangefinder cameras for $20 dollars or so, depending which model and brand it is. Any repairs will cost way more than that. Generally, you can replace the light seals yourself for just a few dollars.
Also look at the screws and lens rings for signs of tampering. The camera may have been dismantled by someone who didn’t know what they were doing causing damage in the process. A good camera repairman will leave no trace of having opened the camera and lens to make repairs.
Anything purchased sight unseen over the internet will be a risk because you cannot make these sort of pre-purchase checks. You have to factor that into your bid.
The good thing about collecting and using these old film rangefinder and SLR cameras is that in the modern digital age few photographers want old film cameras. You can purchase and try out what would once have been a very expensive top-of-the-range camera for little money. Collecting and using old film cameras is a popular hobby so certain models will still cost a bit more, particular cameras with a black body.
Finally, one thing that you might find interesting is that many of these old 1960s and 1970s film cameras have survived their owners. Cameras, film, and developing were expensive in those days. Many people took great care of their valuable cameras always storing them in their leather case and keeping them safely in a drawer at home. For this reason, you can often find 50-year-old cameras that are still in as new condition.
Shooting these old film cameras is a lot of fun. Their use encourages you to think more about composition, lighting and subject matter before pressing the shutter release. This leads to better pictures. Film and developing costs money whereas with modern digital cameras you tend to just shoot anything and everything without thinking.