Rangefinders are really fun and interesting cameras to use, and it makes sense that a lot of people that enjoy film photography want to get into using a rangefinder camera. Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: The Leica M. The Leica M (insert number here) tends to be on the top of most people’s lists when it comes to rangefinders. Yes, they are beautiful and effective tools, but that are exactly that: a tool. You do not need a Leica rangefinder in order to shoot street photography on a rangefinder. You need a Leica for the same reason you want a 1957 Gibson Les Paul or a Porsche; because they embody wealth, status, and the top-of-the-line in quality.
The reality is there are a lot of rangefinders out there, and if you are shooting film for the first time, Leica isn’t necessarily the best place to start. I would recommend a fixed lens rangefinder as your first rangefinder (and to be honest, most people only really use one main lens on an interchangeable rangefinder anyway). Most vintage fixed rangefinder cameras have a standard lens, usually around the 40mm mark. I feel that 40mm is a great focal length for street photography, wider than a 50mm, but not wide enough to make you uncomfortable if you are new to street togging.
I will just mention that the older Japanese rangefinders are a great place to look for quality. I will follow this up with saying: pretty much any RF camera you buy that hasn’t already had a CLA will likely need one. This might go without saying buying an older camera, but the rangefinder will need to be calibrated, and make sure you ask for this to be done.
I know this may sound a little bias, but I can only speak from experience on this; The Olympus 35 rangefinder series is a great place to start. The 35RC is the little brother in the range- you have control over over the exposure triangle, and settings are viewable in the viewfinder. I have gone into more details in other articles, and I have videos showcasing what most of the 35 series of rangefinders can do on my YouTube channel.
The fixed focal length rangefinders will allow you to adapt quickly, especially if you are generally used to 35mm and 50mm focal lengths, as it is smack bang in the middle. Zone focusing is always a useful technique with RF’s, and I tend to find the distances noted on the lens are fairly accurate.
As with any camera or lens, make sure there is no haze or fungus on the lens or viewfinder. Also take a good look at the aperture blades, as various leaks can cause them to stick and degrade. This is especially noticeable on the Olympus 35 RD. Mine had leakage on the blades, which turned out to be fixable, but always check this out on a camera.
I touched on rangefinder calibration earlier, but this is usually the biggest issue with older RF’s. Over time the rangefinder becomes less accurate, and will need to be calibrated. I have found that several rangefinders I have owned (including my 35RD) have needed the rangefinder calibrated. Again, finding one that has had a CLA and the rangefinder adjusted is your best option. It is worth paying a little more for one that has had this done, as getting this done means time and effort taken to putting into a workshop and waiting ‘x’ amount of time until it is done. The place where I get my cameras worked on has a long waiting time.
Finally, my last suggestion is to look at the size. A small rangefinder is likely the best option, as it allows for more candid shooting, and is less bulky and heavy. Luckily, most rangefinder cameras are smaller than modern cameras (although they tend to be heavier), so this is less of an issue. As previously mentioned, vintage Olympus cameras are known for their smaller cameras, and keep in mind that the 35 range is full frame 35mm.
Anywho - more articles and videos next week - Sly.