Rangefinder vs. SLR focusing in practise — very informative!

If you’re new to rangefinders or are thinking about getting into them, there are few things to acknowledge. I gathered a list of useful facts, comparing the pros and cons of both types of cameras in terms of focusing.

How the focusing works? (In a mother of all nutshells)

As you may know, with an SLR camera, the image you see in the viewfinder, is the same image the lens sees. It is the same image, reflected via the mirror and the prism into your eye.

A rangefinder camera has a separate window which gives you a different image that the lens sees. The image isn’t reflected via any kind of mirror mechanism — it just goes straight through the lens, directly to the film plain. The focusing is done by aligning a small ghost image patch at the viewfinder. You don’t get a similar depth of field preview as in SLR’s. But you know already this stuff right, so let’s get to the actual focusing secrets…

1. Rangefinder shows you everything in focus, from front to back

In a rangefinder camera, you can see the entire frame in focus all the time, as opposed to SLR where focusing happens the lens wide open (thus actually blurring the areas that are out of focus). This is a good feature when it’s important to observe the entire frame in focus, but it requires you to pre-visualise the image, because you don’t see any kind of depth of field preview. Sometimes it is extremely important to see a clear view of the background and the foreground as well. Not always so easy with an SLR.

2. SLR allows you to focus objects at the edges of the frame

SLR focusing is excellent when you want to focus into something that isn’t in the center of the frame and don’t want to point the camera directly to the subject. Pretending to shoot something else than your subject is an old trick not to get noticed. With an SLR you can first compose and then focus. You can, for example, place the subject to the edge of the frame first, if that is the composition you’re after, and then be able to focus on it.

The same can a bit trickier with a rangefinder if you’re in low light, or in another situation where zone focusing is out of the question. You’ll have to point the camera/focusing patch directly to the subject, focus (possibly exposing yourself) and then composing the image.

3. Rangefinder allows you to see outside the frame

Rangefinder camera shows you frame lines, which means you’ll see more stuff out side of the frame. This can be extremely useful if you want to see what’s about to enter the frame. You may have a fraction of a second more time to react, when you see outside the frames. SLR’s viewfinder shows you more or less the exact framing of the image.

4. Low contrast subjects, low light and other focusing patch issues on rangefinders

At it’s best, rangefinder focusing can be extremely precise and intuitive. It can also be sometimes very difficult if there’s low contrast in the ghosting image. Rangefinders really encourages you to master zone focusing. But it may be a unpractical technique in low light, when you have to rely on a large aperture and the depth of focus gets narrow, unless you’re really good at estimating distances. Nailing a zone focus at f1.8 requires pretty mad skills or really good luck. I’ve tried it often enough to recommend not bothering.

In fast moving subjects, rangefinder focusing is potentially really difficult too. Zone focusing becomes again your best friend. But if you’re in low light, again, zone focusing can be a total gamble, because you’re most likely be using a large aperture. If you really need to focus fast moving objects or even quickly changing scene, such as a crowd of people, it may be extremely hard to find parts of the frame where to align the ghost image. Usually an edge of a face is a good place to align the two images, but if there aren’t clearly detectable contrasty points, you may be in deep dew-dew.

5. Rangefinder can trick your brain into thinking you’re in focus

For a rangefinder beginner, it may be difficult task to remember to focus in the first place. Before you get used to it, your brain may assume you’re in focus, because you’ll see the image through the viewfinder in focus. SLR is much more intuitive in that sense. You can always detect whether the subject is in focus or not, because you’ll see a preview of your image through the viewfinder.

I remember my first time shooting with a rangefinder. It was a Canon Canonet QL19 GIII — the same one shown in the header image of this article. I took multiple blurry images because I didn’t remember to focus. Remember that what you see in the viewfinder is always sharp, because the image doesn’t come from the lens via mirrors and wide open aperture. It was unintuitive for me to see a completely sharp image and if I needed to react fast, my brain simply concluded that the frame is in focus and gave the permission to fire the shutter.

6. Remember to take off the lens cap!

And finally, if you’re using a lens cap, remember to take it off before shooting your rangefinder, because you’ll see a perfectly bright image in the viewfinder even though you have the lens cap on! 🙂