About 35 mm Rangefinder & Leica-m cameras

Picture of a Leica M4P in munich at a skaterpark for a Blog article about 35 mm Rangefinder cameras.

So I’ve decided to write a couple of blog posts about different 35 mm camera system, just to give an overview what’s on the market, the benefits/limitations and for whom they might be a fitting choice, from professionals to hobbyists. I’m starting with the rangefinder system, it’s one of the oldest 35 mm systems, that still gets produced today and might be the most expensive in general, due to its most common producer, with the strongest market share: “Leica“.

As a little extra, we’ll also go into why I think that the value of those cameras might drop significantly in the next couple of years. Here is an overview about this article:

History: Where the rangefinder system came from

Before the rangefinder system there was the “Ur-Leica” build in 1913, originally wanting to produce a film camera, like movie film, Oskar Barnack invented a portable, small still camera, that introduced a new picture ratio which was 2×3, or 36×24 mm, being the classic 35 mm size and a ratio that is still found today in most digital cameras. Just in general, here is a comparison between different aspect ratios:

The Ur-Leica introduced the most popular aspect ratio in photography even by today’s standard, the 3×2 ratio.

The development of the first Leica or how its inventor called it; the Liliput, came to a stop after the first world war started. Leica like many German producers shifted their focus to produce military equipment during the world wars.

After the war, the Leica 1 was produced in 1925 and became a huge success, and for good reason. The 35 mm film made it possible to change the film rolls yourself instead of having to send the camera to factories to do it for you and the less bulky, compact, light design made it easy to carry around and fitted into every travel bag.

For easier focusing when taking a shot, Leica added the rangefinder accessory for their first model, which got implemented into the camera completely with the later versions. They also added interchangeable lenses, which gave the photographer lots of versatility.

The aspects of the rangefinder system and its competition

Rangefinder cameras use a Parallax-system, which means, that they use two overlapping images that produce sharp focused pictures, when aligned. It takes a bit to get used to and can sometimes be difficult to nail, since you don’t always have straight lines like letters in your composition, which makes it harder to find the sweet spot.

In theory how the rangefinder focusing works but more on that later.

But it was not for long, until the next big camera “innovation” came into the consumers wish lists: Single- and Twin-lens reflex cameras became less bulky and more compact, as well as affordable. A famous example would be the Rolleiflex camera introduced in 1928. Those were not new viewfinder experiences per se, but they were too bulky before and got more attractive with their size getting smaller.

So rangefinder cameras had to compete with SLRs or TLRs (single- twin-lens reflex). But those two newcomer camera types, with a mirror mechanism, had something in store that rangefinder cameras had not.

Instead of the SLRs or TLRs, which offer a direct view from the viewfinder into the lens, the rangefinder cameras don’t have a mirror mechanism, which means that the photographer is viewing through a viewfinder that is not linked to the lens mounted at the camera. But how does that translate?

Downsides of the rangefinder system compared to other 35 mm cameras

This kind of viewing experience is a bit difficult for us to understand, since we don’t really get in touch with it outside of rangefinder cameras. This type would use a single viewfinder, combined with framing lines to translate what was in frame and what not. Meaning, if you would have a 50 mm lens on your camera, what you see through the viewfinder is not, what will be in the final image – but rather only the middle of the frame that you’re looking at.

Even when using wide angle lenses, the borders of what you’ll see through the viewfinder are mostly not in the actual picture, which is something you have to consider when framing your shot.

It does have a little lever that shows the frame lines from 28 mm to 135 mm but it can be pretty confusing and counter intuitive at times. In fact, many lenses come with their own viewfinder attached to fix that issue, but not all of them.

The general rangefinder of a Leica does provide you framing lines, so depending on your lense attached, those show you what will be in the final picture.

But those are only frame lines for fixed focal lengths, using zoom lens is obviously difficult within this mechanics. Which is one of the downsides of the system, missing zoom lenses (if you use them at all, that is).

At the same time, you also wouldn’t be able to see the depth of field of the lens or the magnification it provides. And the focusing was not the fastest either, unless you really knew what you were doing.

Slow and limited focusing system which is hard to master and pretty expensive

Like mentioned before the rangefinder system when focusing works with two overlapping images, one is fixed within the viewfinder and one is moved through the focus ring on the lens, as soon as the two images overlap and align, the image is in focus.

And there is a reason why that system didnt became more popular than mirror-cameras. Firstly, using that focusing mechanism is slow and has its limits, in macrophotography to be precise, this system does not work up close, it’s just not build for it.

Secondly, any lens that is wider than the edges of the viewfinder need to be either shoot blindly (pretty risky move but could be fun), or be used with a separate viewfinder, what covers the frame of the lens. Unless the lense comes with its own viewfinder that is.

Slightly missed focus; if you look closely the fingernails are sharper then the eyes, that was not intended.

Additionally, with the luxury manufactor Leica, those cameras and lenses are still extremely expensive compared to other film cameras. Of course, you get amazing quality out of them and the cameras get still serviced to this day but does that justivy the high price, especially since their utility is limited as well?

Missing features and limited usage

Having such a neat and small design, the film loading mechanism was also kept pretty minimalistic. Most rangefinder cameras lack electronic film advance mechanisms, high speed shooting of images or the ability to take double exposures.

Autofocusing is not available to this day, and I don’t think it’s intended to be added by principle.

Which might not be the biggest turn off for most professional photographers, who buy their cameras for a specific purpose, but definitely for tech hungry consumers, who wanted to try out the newest innovations that camera manufacturer developed.

Double exposure shot with a Leica R5, a SLR system that was more consumer friendly, larger and cheaper than the rangefinder cameras, who are not able to take double exposures.

A big upside to that is, that those cameras don’t require any energy source to work, aside from the lightmeter, everything is mechanic and neatly build, that they age very, very well. Which is not the only benefit coming with the system.

Benefits of the rangefinder cameras and why they’re famous

By now, you can probably guess, why SLRs or TLRs were some strong competition after they appeared on the market. But rangefinder style cameras are still being produced today, they are the most expensive 35 mm cameras on the used market and leica, just reproduced on of their classic rangefinder cameras, the M6. So they have to have some sort of benefit to explain their relevance, right?

When I was covering the downsides of the rangefinder system, you can sum it down to one general aspect: The viewing/focusing experience and missing features. But that’s something you could get used to, especially when you’re using your gear for specific purposes, and you know who got used to it quite quickly; professional photographers. And those valued the rangefinder cameras for a couple of reasons.

The most compact 35 mm film system on the market

Rangefinder cameras, since they don’t need a mirror-mechanism build inside of them, use a lot less space than their SLR relatives, the lenses can also be build way more compact, smaller and lighter since they can be closer to the film that gets exposed instead of having to compensate the distance that the mirror puts between camera and lens.

Lenses used by the Leica R system, like this one, need to be build larger but don’t provide better image quality than their smaller M-lenses.

The other reason why they can be build taking in less space, is they can reach into the camera, since there is no mechanisms blocking the way. Additionally, since there is no mirror slapping up and down to make room for the light to burn itself into the chemicals of a film, a photographer could see its subject clearly while taking the picture, instead of a black, blocked viewfinder.

Seeing your subject in the spli tsecond while taking the shot might not be extremely relevant, however the missing slapping mirror made them take the image a tiny bit fast as well, but it was not the only fast aspect this camera system has.

The fastest lenses got produces for the rangefinder system

The Leica noctilux made its debut in 1966 with a whopping aperture of f1.2, in 2008, Leica even surpassed that since they produced a noctilux lens with f0.95. Obviously, those are the most expensive Leica lenses, and they are made for the rangefinder system.

Shot on Cinestill 800t in low light with a 35 mm f2 m-mount lens, if I call correctly with 1/60 of a second, pretty sharp performance in such a low light situation.

Canon was faster though, producing a 50 mm f1.2 lens already in 1959 but also for the m-mount, which is the Leica rangefinder mount, that is still relevant today. Of course, by today’s standard, we can buy similar fast lenses for different camera systems and/or adjust the ISO to shoot easier in low light situations.

However, when it comes to compact, small design, a high quality build that offer such fast, low light compatible lenses, that’re also extremely compact and high quality; There is almost nothing that’s able to compete. And that’s what’s making this system so relevant for professionals to this day.

Capturing the street photographer’s dream

When it comes to street photography, rangefinder cameras hit all the right boxes. If you want to take pictures of street situations, you don’t want to stick around or take too long when taking a shot, because street photography is about authenticity, in that sense you don’t want people to start noticing you before you take the shot either.

Rangefinder cameras invite their users to develop a high skill while using them, they also provide all the necessities to be shot even without having to use the viewfinder. Since most of them are best compatible with fast wide angle lenses and having a focusing indicator on top of the ring, it’s easy to take images even when having the camera hanging down your upper body.

Focusing while only looking down on the camera; easy, when you get used to those numbers.

My rangefinder, the M4P (P standing for professional), had been market directly to journalists, with an extra silent shutter, to take sneaky images, while shooting the camera from the hip.

All factors that attracted some talented street and documentary photographers, which contributed to the Leica rangefinder cameras becoming famous and highly sought after.

The legendary Leica photographers

Ara Güler aka the eye of Istanbul, Steve McCurry one of the most influential photojournalist, Nan Goldins incredible social commentary photography or how about Sebastiao Salgado an unforgettable documentaries: They all used Leica rangefinder cameras. Which obviously didn’t only push the reputation of them but also made them highly popular.

And Leica didnt let the chance slide to market their cameras associated with many, many more professionals. Which led to the system gaining even more fame. And with that even more value.

It’s not that professional photographers solely used Leica M-Mount cameras, one of my all-time favorites Vivan Maier used Rolleiflex, Peter Lindbergh used mostly Nikon and let’s not forget about the most recent well known, German photographer Martin Schoeller who’s using Hasselblad. But Obviously, Leicas rangerfinder cameras left a mark.

Shot on a bargain of a Rolleiflex camera on Cinestill 800t, I’m still stunned by the unreal quality and sharpness this camera is producing on film.

Is a Leica rangefinder camera worth its money

Obviously that’s gonna be very opinion based, but right up front: No, I don’t think those cameras are worth the price that’s currently expected. The Interest in film cameras slowly rose within the last couple of years and boosted the value of them. If you dig in some forums from 2014 you’ll soon find out that those cameras with lenses, were sold for under 1000 Euros at the time. So they almost tripled in value due to the trend of shooting film.

And as it happens with trends, people will lose interest at some point, return to the advantages of digital photography and move on, keep their cameras to collect dust. The current shortage of those cameras is only because so many people want one and so it is value, the fewer people care about this part of photography the more the value will drop.

The Minolta XD7 is a lightweight, easy to use, durable SLR with an exposure meter build inside, yet it cost a fraction of a Leica rangefinder camera.

And the Hype for cameras ever so changes, currently film cameras are being sought after and since last year old digital cameras become more and more hip, meaning that they’ll rise in prices on the used market next. The value of certain cameras might also depend heavily on who’s talking about them, in the last two years a couple of well known Youtubers made reviews for the Pentax 6×7 and the price of the camera doubled or even tripled.

Additionally, Leica just reintroduced the M6, which is by far the most favored model of the rangefinder film cameras. Which is good in a sense that there will be spare parts for repairs but not so good for the value of the older Leicas, since potential buyers might just go for a brand-new film camera. And speaking of prices:

Film photography is getting to expensive in general

Actually, all film cameras are pretty worthless, if you don’t use them but using them has become more and more expensive in recent years. I can remember, last year around that time, it was almost impossible, to get a color 35 mm film, simply because everyone kept buying and even storing them in their fridges. Because they were afraid that the prices of film will rise, and they had been right (talking about self fulfilling prophesies).

Mid-2022, when 35 mm film was peaking, I ordered a Kodak image pro in a pack of five and two Cinestill 400d, for an entire year I got mails that the film will be delivered as soon as it’s in stock and 14 months after my original order it finally was.

Shooting mit dem MusikerInnen Duo to gaze upon us aus Irland in München 2022.
Medium format pictures taken with a Pentax 6×7 have a unique and interesting look sure, but is it worth paying three euros for every image that you take?

In mid-2022, for the seven films I’ve paid 72,79, today in early 2024 I would pay 124,98 Euros… THAT’S ALMOST DOUBLED, what the hell, right?!

And this is just the price for film, additionally there is the development and scanning as well, so duh, I can’t shoot film as often as I did and many photographers that I know feel the same about it. We look at those Cinestill 120 film rolls in despair, since we don’t dare to shoot them.

In case you’re new in film photography and dont want to waste money taking your shots, here are things that I wish I knew beforehand that might safe you some money.

If a single medium format picture you take, costs you around three Euros, or a 35mm image one Euro; that’ll sum up over time, and it’ll make you think twice about shooting or investing more into film. Also, if you’re in it for the vibe, just buy a Polariod camera, a picture taken with those will cost you a little less than two euros, and you’ve it printed on the spot. Why even go through the process of sending the film to a lab and waiting for the images, if a freaking Polaroid is cheaper?

Does the image quality justify the high price

And yet again, I must say that’s only my personal opinion, but to sum it up: No! The images taken by a Leica M film camera are not woth paying thousends of euros for the gear.

Sure, if you want one, shoot with the same gear as so many professionals did, be my guest: If you look for amazing craftsmanship, design and mechanics, you’ll find it. The lenses are some of the best lenses in the world, and they do produce beautiful colors, sharpness and bokeh.

But there are other amazing cameras out there, and they cost only a fraction of a Leica film camera, they come with more options, functions or gimmicks that’re fun to play around with and you won’t have to worry about carrying basically a luxury item around your neck.

Not to mention that you might not want to walk around everywhere with it, since a lot of people know about the value of those cameras and guess what, you can get robbed carrying a couple of thousand euros around your neck while doing streetphotography in the Bronx.

Last spring I took my Leica M4P and a point and shoot camera my sister found in the dirt during a festival to Spain, here is the comparison:

I feel like those pictures show the difference in image quality, especially in the colors and dynamic but what about this one:

Does this look like a quality difference worth 3000 Euros for you? I dont think so.

Afterthoughts: The grand piano and the xylophone

In the end, the most important aspect on the matter is taking pictures and having fun while doing so. Just as playing on a grand piano might work better for a musician than on a e-piano with broken keys – some photographers might level up their work with this kind of camera.

But in the same way, other musicians might get extremely creative playing a xylophone while babysitting, just as some photographers might have the most fun playing around with a 30 euros point and shoot camera, producing more interesting and valuable work.

If you’re thinking about getting into the rangefinder system, why not try out a cheaper version before you invest into a Leica-M camera, like the canonette 28 for example, fast lens, compact and very stylish. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and next up will be SLRs. In the meanwhile, you can read about my painful experience with the Pentax 6×7.

Selbstbewusstes Portrait einer Schauspielerin in München geschoßen von dem Fotografen Daniel Stein
Prev Turning a passion into a Job, Part III: Caught in the monetary rat race
Next Film photography: Three things I wish I had known beforehand

Leave a comment

Auf Anfrage.