One interesting discussion in the camera world is the difference between rangefinder vs SLR cameras. SLR cameras are undoubtedly the king of the camera industry today, but it seems that rangefinder cameras can take really good pictures, too, and in some cases, better than SLR cameras.
So that begs the question: how come SLR cameras are more dominant?
In this post, we’ll compare rangefinder and SLR cameras, and take a look at their pros and cons.
Rangefinder cameras took a foothold in the camera market in the 1950s.
Rangefinder refers to the focusing mechanism used in these cameras. The camera uses two lenses to line up an image and once they line up, you’ll have a nicely focused, crisp image.
Unlike SLRs, in which you’re looking through the lens, rangefinder cameras have you compose your shot through a small viewfinder on the top right of the camera.
There are actually three windows in rangefinders. The top right window is for composing the shot, the window on the left is for capturing the image. When you focus the camera, the images from these two windows will line up.
In high end cameras, you’ll find a third window as well which is for extra light. This adds to the crispness of the image.
Rangefinder camera pros
The biggest difference between rangefinders and SLRs is that there is no mirror in rangefinder cameras. In SLRs, the mirror has to kick up every time you press the shutter button, and to accommodate the flipping mechanism, the lenses need to be a minimum size.
In rangefinders where there is no mirror, wide-angle lenses can be made in such a way that the elements of the lens can be in very close proximity to the image plane.
This results in less distortion and sharper images.
Additionally, the mirror mechanism can cause vibrations, which are non-existent in rangefinders. Finally, rangefinder cameras focus much sharper in wide lenses.
Size and weight
Since the lenses are so much simpler and smaller, the overall weight of rangefinder cameras is much less. The size also shrinks because there’s just not that many elements to fit in the mechanism!
More efficient shutter mechanism
One of the biggest ironies of the SLR camera is that your viewfinder has to black out at the very instant you wish to capture! This is because the mirror flips up, blocking the light from the viewfinder and letting it onto the sensor. This is why you’ll end up with so many eyes closed and funny faces in shots with flashes!
With a rangefinder camera, you can see everything as the picture is taken, so you’ll know then and there if you need to take a second shot.
Note: While this may seem like a minor inconvenience, especially since you can just review the image right away on a digital camera, in film cameras, this would have been huge!
The absence of the mirror also results in a much quieter shot. SLRs can be noisy!
Finally, a little-known issue about SLRs is that there is a tiny bit of lag! Because the mirror has to get out of the way to let light onto the sensor, there is a tiny fraction of a second lag between the moment you click the button and the image is actually captured.
Rangefinder camera cons
Since the viewfinder and the lens are not exactly aligned, there is a slight difference in WYS vs WYG. In every day use, that’s not going to make much of a difference. We used to use point and shoot cameras built this way for the longest time and were pretty happy with the way photos turned out.
However, if you’re shooting macro or have a long lens where the lens element is very far from the body, it’s going to make a big difference and you may notice that shots are not aligned as you had imagined.
Also, depth-of-field is hard to perceive since the viewfinders are always in focus.
Another issue that the separate viewfinder leads to is that if your lens is long, it may actually block part of your view in the viewfinder!
Limited number of lenses
Rangefinders don’t have a really wide variety of lenses available. SLRs by comparison have a lot more variety. However, some may argue that you don’t need so many lenses and you can get perfectly good shots with a regular lens too!
Limited focus capacity
Although we noted above that rangefinders actually focus very well, the caveat is that the crisp focus happens with wide lenses. Long lenses, not so much.
Another issue with focusing that these cameras face is that you can only focus in the center of the image. SLR cameras have much more flexible focusing capabilities.
Finally, good luck taking macro photographs with rangefinders! You can’t focus any closer than half a meter or so. And even then, as noted above, the viewfinder and the lens will no longer be aligned.
How to use rangefinder cameras
SLR cameras (and dSLRs too)
SLR stands for single-lens reflex, meaning a mirror is used to reflect light from the main lens into the viewfinder. A prism is used in the middle to flip the image right side up again.
Even though rangefinders seem like they are superior cameras, SLRs are actually a lot more versatile and they’ve taken over the market.
SLR camera pros
WYSIWYG, or what you see is what you get is one of the biggest advantages of SLR cameras. The image in the viewfinder is exactly what the lens sees, right down to the focus and bokeh of the image.
You can use any kind of lens and you’ll always see an accurate image in the viewfinder.
Focus on any point
Especially with digital SLR cameras, you have the ability to focus on any point in the frame, not just the center. dSLR cameras often have a little grid overlaid in the viewfinder which you can use to spot focus too. This makes them really good for macro photographs such as jewelry photography.
Use any lens you want
Because SLRs are so flexible, you could use conceivably any kind of lens, even a telescope! It does not matter what kind of lens you use because as long as the lens itself is focusing well, the image will come out the way you expect.
You can also use macro lenses, and since you’re looking through the lens itself, the image you see is exactly what you will click.
The same goes for fisheye lenses which can let you capture a much wider field of view.
SLR camera cons
Wide angle lenses not as good as rangefinders
Wide angle lenses tend to be flatter, and because the lens needs enough space inside to avoid the mirror mechanism, manufacturers have to use something called a retrofocus system to get these to work. As a result, SLR wide angle lenses will experience a lot more distortion.
More mirror problems
The movement of the mirror also results in a very minor but sometimes noticeable vibration, especially in low-light shots with slower shutter speeds.
What’s more, because the mirror has to get out of the way once you click the button, there are actually two mechanisms taking place: first, the mirror has to move, and second, the shutter has to open and shut. There’s a tiny fractional-second lag, which may be an issue for some applications.
Size and weight
Rangefinder cameras are really nice and sleek, whereas SLR cameras are quite bulky. One of the main reasons I don’t take my SLR everywhere is because it’s just too much of a hassle to carry!
Especially if you are using bigger lenses, they can get quite cumbersome to transport, especially in tight spots.
While not exactly a con, the huge number of settings on the dials of most modern dSLR cameras can be overwhelming and if you find yourself shooting in auto mode or manual mode most of the time, all the settings in between can seem superfluous.
Difficult to focus in low light
Most SLR cameras have a little LED light that helps you focus in low light. This is because you really can’t see much in low light to be able to focus your shot correctly, and this is also why autofocusing takes longer in low light than in bright daylight.
SLRs and indeed dSLRs are quite power hungry and you’ll drain a battery within a few hours of shooting. To last a whole day on the job, you’ll need a few spare batteries too.
Rangefinder cameras on the other hand have very few electrical components and a single battery can last for a really long time.
Why you should get a rangefinder camera
If you’re concerned about weight and portability, rangefinders are definitely better.
Landscapes, wide angle shots, and nature shots(not animals) are best shot with rangefinder cameras.
They’re also really handy to just throw into a backpack or suitcase for traveling.
Why you should get an SLR camera
SLR cameras are really versatile, and they’re ideal for shooting fast objects and action(sports, kids, your kids playing sports).
They’re also really good at taking macro and extreme zoom photographs, as the composition is aligned with what you see in the viewfinder.
And if you’re shooting in a studio, SLRs are great too.
Good SLR and rangefinder cameras
Obviously, the two cameras are very different and the applications are also quite different.
However, you can shoot good landscapes with SLRs, though perhaps not to a ridiculous degree of professionalism, unless you use a really stable tripod.
In todays market, I think that the wider availability of SLR cameras and accessories designed for SLR cameras makes them a better bet for the average consumer/prosumer.
The only time I’d recommend getting a rangefinder camera is if you really know what you are doing and have a very specific use for it.
Plus, digital rangefinder cameras are super expensive and can burn a serious hole in your wallet. You can find second-hand 35mm rangefinders in decent condition, but with each passing day, developing and indeed finding 35mm film is getting harder and harder.