Getting the most out of your rangefinder camera

Sorry for the annoying click title, but I have few really good points for shooting a rangefinder, that you actually may have not realised.

Today I put my Leica M6 away for a moment to shoot my Olympus OM-1, which is a typical old SLR camera. I took some photos of our dogs playing at the back yard. I haven’t been shooting with the OM-1 terribly much lately and I’m so used to the rangefinder experience that few SLR-shortcomings immediately reminded me of their existence. I quickly ran inside to grab my M6 instead. 

These tips are good to know if you’re interested, for example in street photography or anything else that requires an uninterrupted shooting experience, precise timing and the ability to read the scene well. If you on the other hand, take mostly pictures of bike racks, these tips might not benefit you that much.   

Film winding

This is really underrated feature, but to me, it’s one of the key differences why I prefer rangefinders over SLR’s. Unless you’re shooting your SLR with a motor drive, a rangefinder is much better for continuous shooting. Assuming that you’re shooting your rangefinder with your right eye, as intended, you’ll have plenty of room for advancing the film, while still holding the camera to your eye. SLR has the viewfinder at the center and no matter which eye you shoot it with, the advance lever is going to be too close to you face, leaving no room for your hand to crank the lever while looking through the viewfinder. 

(Edit: Well, apparently you can, if you have wide enough camera and/or narrow enough head. But if you’re a balloon on a stick, like me, shooting an Olympus OM-1, it might not work out so well.)

It’s not that big of a deal when taking one shot every now and then, but for continuous shooting, when you’re really paying attention and working the scene, it is invaluable. With an SLR, you’ll need to jerk the camera on and off from your face, in order to advance the film, basically having almost to re-compose the frame each time. Rangefinder allows you to hold the composition without jerking the camera, while advancing the film at the same time. 

And bearing in mind, that a rangefinder doesn’t have a mirror black-out, there’s nothing to distract you from keeping a close eye to the scene. 

Shooting both eyes open 

I actually just wrote a complete article about this, but to re-cap, when you shoot with your right eye, you can shoot with the other eye open. I admit that it is a skill that needs to be practised, but once mastered, following the scene becomes so much easier. You can also use the left eye for mainly observing and gathering information outside the frame, leaving the composition and focusing tasks for the right eye. And yes, your brains can learn to do that. You’ll simply be able to see so much more and anticipate the ever changing scene much, much better.

More precise timing

Rangefinder cameras are great for really accurate timing. When you press the shutter, it’ll take the photo instantly. SLR has a mirror that has to move up before the shutter can open. If you haven’t been shooting much with these things, you probably won’t even notice it, because it’s such a small lag, but after getting used to snappy rangefinders, the mirror lag becomes more and more apparent and harder to ignore. For really, really precise timing, I’d prefer a rangefinder any day.

Not seeing what the lens sees

One of the main arguments against rangefinders is the fact that you’re not seeing what the lens sees. I’d how ever argue, that it is one of the best features. SLR is focused and composed with the lens wide open, which makes it feel like looking through a blurry tube. I prefer focusing and composing much more without the shallow depth of field. I for example quite dislike shooting my Zuiko 50mm f1.4 (my Olympus SLR lens) because it’s like trying to compose though a bokeh-generator. Only a tiny bit is in focus and it’s harder to be fully aware of the entire scene — like for example, what’s going on in the background. I’m actually kind of regretting that I swapped my Zuiko f1.8 to the f1.4 version for this reason alone. The f1.8 was nicer to focus in this respect. 

Rangefinder on the other hand has basically just a window that shows everything from the foreground to the background, nicely in focus. Sure, you’ll have to pre-visualise the depth of field yourself, but you’ll have to to the same thing in reverse, with an SLR (unless you’re shooting wide open all the time or using a depth or field preview… assuming your camera has such function).

Rangefinder has much less glass between your eye and the scene, making the view generally so much clearer than SLR’s. Good rangefinders have the brightest viewfinders in the universe, which is a critical feature. Nothing matters more than a good viewfinder!

And there we go — hope this post provided you with some new insight on rangefinder shooting!