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Stupid Rangefinder Question


MJB
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I've been building up a small collection of vintage compact rangefinder and viewfinder cameras.  The viewfinder cameras are like early point-and-shoots, and focus manually by zone focusing.  If you're familiar with the type, you might know that there is a lot of crossover between these little viewfinder cameras and contemporary compact, fixed-lens rangefinders, with the addition or omission of the rangefinder itself being the main (or even sole) differentiating feature.

Now, I don't have a lot pf personal experience with using rangefinders, but it seems like everyone says you MUST get comfortable with zone focusing to get the most out of them.  I can see the argument, but then I also start to wonder...what's the point of having the rangefinder at all?  I mean, I can zone focus just as well with a manual focus viewfinder camera.  Am I missing something obvious?

Sorry for the stupid question.  I've only ever shot film SLRs before switching to digital mirrorless cameras, so I'm used to focusing through a lens.

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A lens has its best sharpness on a single distance, that means a plane.  That is not a "from to" to "up to". See lenses have a curved plane, but that is not taken in account. 

Nearer to and farther from the lens the sharpness degrades. Zone focus means, that in this area the sharpness is enough for a certain print size.

In the film area as sharp was by Leica defined a point of 1/30mm on the film. Sensors are more critical, so the zones should be taken narrower.

Edited by jankap
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I should be clear that I'm asking specifically in terms of street photography (where one could be expected to rely heavily on zone focus), and particularly in regard to vintage film rangefinders of the compact/fixed-lens type.  Obviously a rangefinder would be very useful for non-zone and critical focus situations.  I guess I haven't really gotten comfortable with the rangefinder patch yet, either - sort of like trying to focus through a keyhole, lol.

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Zone focusing is not a panacea if you value the main subject of your photos being sharp and in focus, it is simply a way to get things more or less acceptably sharp within the DOF range, and what you decide is acceptable is up to you. But it's far better to learn to focus quickly because you then have to make a decision about what is important in the photo. Leave zone focusing for those 'street photographers' who think it's enough to randomly photograph people walking about.

Edited by 250swb
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Posted (edited)

You asked what the advantages are over just using a SLR camera set on manual and essentially zone focusing with it. If you are using a Leica rangefinder, such as one of the older IIIf or similar, the advantages for street shooting are smaller size, quieter shutter and less vibration due to no mirror flipping up and down during the exposure. Less vibration from mirror slap translates to sharper images. 

Edited by fotografr
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Posted (edited)

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Zone/scale focusing is very useful for pursuing my very active toddler/pre-Kindergarten grandsons, with a 28mm Elmarit. I tend to get better results this way, at the typical close range at which one uses a 28mm lens, than with an AF-S 28mm f/1.4E lens on a Nikon D5, which is a superb sports/action camera. No AF is as fast as being already in acceptable focus. Before I had an Elmarit-M 28mm, I used an Elmarit-R 28mm, with an adapter, which of course, meant that zone/scale focusing was the norm.

Using the rangefinder, to focus, is simplified if one is using a 50mm lens, and has a subject with prominent, sharply-visible vertical lines. Another good “target” is the human eyeball, as a perfectly round object, with a sharply-defined edge, is similarly useful for aligning the patch. As one builds confidence, other focal lengths that are relatively near 50mm can be conquered. 

One of the reasons that I like using a 35mm lens is that zone focusing is still relatively easily usable, if not quite as easy as with a 28mm lens, and rangefinding with a 35mm lens is almost as easy as with a 50mm lens. During one recent moment, in a wooded area, on a sunny day, with the sun at an angle that made it difficult to see, with my eyeglasses, through the viewfinder, to see the rangefinder patch, I quickly set the distance, on the lens’ scale, and captured a nicely usable image of a young woman.

If one feels that one is “focusing through a keyhole,” perhaps an M10 or M11 would provide a better viewfinder experience, especially if the shooter wear eyeglasses. Starting with an M10 certainly helped me, with my bespectacled eyes, after I had not really enjoyed trying some pre-owned and demonstrator M9 and M Type 240 cameras, at a local Leica dealer. After I had become more familiar with rangefinding, I then found that it was not so difficult to use a Type 246 Monochrom, which then became my second Leica M camera.

Both zone/scale focusing, and rangefinding, are skills that one builds, over time. I had already been zone/scale focusing, with some 20mm to 45mm Nikon SLR lenses, for some time, before I added the Leica M system. 

I am certainly not any kind of expert.

Edited by RexGig0
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Without the rangefinder you have to guess the focus point/distance. You can 'zone focus' / use a smaller aperture to allow for a margin of error in your estimation of the distance (that's how it generally works with the basic viewfinder cameras you're talking about, and they usually had a lens with a smallish maximum aperture anyway.

The rangefinder is obviously a more advanced type of camera and has the benefit of allowing you to focus more precisely. If you CHOOSE not use use it and zone focus instead then thats simply a choice or option you have.

How would it be any different with an (manual focus) SLR? You bring it up to your eye and focus. Or you can zone focus with that too for 'hip shots'.

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Posted (edited)

I think it's all a question of potential precision should you feel you need to use it. A good example might be the various models of the compact Olympus XA series. There were originally two models. One was a simple zone focus system, with three or so focus positions and little icons (mountains, people, you know the sort of thing). The more expensive one had a coupled rangefinder (albeit not a very big baseline distance, and not very bright in the viewfinder, but adequate given the relatively wide-angle lens). You pays your money and you takes your choice. Personally I preferred having the potential precision. I don't understand the attitude that you must get used to the zone system in order to get the most out of a rangefinder. To me it's just a choice between speed and convenience against accuracy.

Edited by masjah
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I've used both SLRs (manual focus) and Leica M rangefinders for over 50 years, including using both for sports and action photography. I always found the rangefinder to be the fastest method of focus with 35-90 mm lenses. Even at 135mm with an RF you only focus until the images first align, while an SLR tends to go back and forth to find the sharpest point. I also liked the M VF ability to show what is outside the frame so I could adjust framing for action. Of course, my first 35mm camera was a split-image rangefinder, so I got comfortable with that first.

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7 hours ago, masjah said:

I think it's all a question of potential precision should you feel you need to use it. A good example might be the various models of the compact Olympus XA series. There were originally two models. One was a simple zone focus system, with three or so focus positions and little icons (mountains, people, you know the sort of thing). The more expensive one had a coupled rangefinder (albeit not a very big baseline distance, and not very bright in the viewfinder, but adequate given the relatively wide-angle lens). You pays your money and you takes your choice. Personally I preferred having the potential precision. I don't understand the attitude that you must get used to the zone system in order to get the most out of a rangefinder. To me it's just a choice between speed and convenience against accuracy.

John you've reminded me of a time when I worked in a camera shop (when I was 17) and a guy had ordered a poster sized print of one of his photos. It arrived in a tube and he took it out to check it, an amazing mountain scene. We all asked what he had used to take it with and were amazed when he said an Olympus XA. The quality was superb!

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On 8/11/2022 at 2:47 AM, MJB said:

I don't have a lot pf personal experience with using rangefinders, but it seems like everyone says you MUST get comfortable with zone focusing to get the most out of them.

Pretty much BS (not you, but the "everyone" you are quoting).

It is a nice extra feature that RF windows always give us a sharp view of the world - in case we want to zone focus without being distracted by a blurry screen image. But it is not the be-all and end-all of rangefinders - unless one has a limited imagination.

One can also "get the most" out of a rangefinder with lenses where zone-focusing isn't a serious option: 50mm f/1.4s, 75mm f/1.4s, 90mm f/2.0s and 135s.

On 8/11/2022 at 5:59 AM, MJB said:

I guess I haven't really gotten comfortable with the rangefinder patch yet, either - sort of like trying to focus through a keyhole, lol.

Have you ever used pre-autofocus-era SLRs?

If so, then you know that many/most of them came with split-image prisms in the middle of the focusing screen. The Leica RF patch is not really different from those. Fast and "binary" - snap two images together in half a second, and **click**.

I got my first personal camera at age 16 - a Canon FX with split-prism focusing. In the 52 years since, I never used any SLR that did not have that function thereafter, and when the AF SLRs started leaving it out, I left SLRs behind and came to Leica M.

Screen image fuzzy? Screen image sharp? Who cares? And who has time to find out? I never looked. See the composition, put the split-images together and fire the shutter. ;)

.................

Now, on the flip side (as a journalist, I'm always even-handed ;) ), I really got interested in possibly moving to rangefinders 23 years ago, when I tried out the original Cosina/Voigtländer Bessa-L with a 15mm lens and external viewfinder - and no focus method at all except zone (or estimated-distance scale) focusing.

https://www.cameraquest.com/voigtbl.htm

That was very liberating - assuming I could make the picture work with a 15mm lens.

But once I actually got my first Leica M4-2 with 21/90 f/2.8 lenses, I found I almost always used the rangefinder anyway.

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20 hours ago, adan said:

Pretty much BS (not you, but the "everyone" you are quoting).

It is a nice extra feature that RF windows always give us a sharp view of the world - in case we want to zone focus without being distracted by a blurry screen image. But it is not the be-all and end-all of rangefinders - unless one has a limited imagination.

One can also "get the most" out of a rangefinder with lenses where zone-focusing isn't a serious option: 50mm f/1.4s, 75mm f/1.4s, 90mm f/2.0s and 135s.

Have you ever used pre-autofocus-era SLRs?

If so, then you know that many/most of them came with split-image prisms in the middle of the focusing screen. The Leica RF patch is not really different from those. Fast and "binary" - snap two images together in half a second, and **click**.

I got my first personal camera at age 16 - a Canon FX with split-prism focusing. In the 52 years since, I never used any SLR that did not have that function thereafter, and when the AF SLRs started leaving it out, I left SLRs behind and came to Leica M.

Screen image fuzzy? Screen image sharp? Who cares? And who has time to find out? I never looked. See the composition, put the split-images together and fire the shutter. ;)

.................

Now, on the flip side (as a journalist, I'm always even-handed ;) ), I really got interested in possibly moving to rangefinders 23 years ago, when I tried out the original Cosina/Voigtländer Bessa-L with a 15mm lens and external viewfinder - and no focus method at all except zone (or estimated-distance scale) focusing.

https://www.cameraquest.com/voigtbl.htm

That was very liberating - assuming I could make the picture work with a 15mm lens.

But once I actually got my first Leica M4-2 with 21/90 f/2.8 lenses, I found I almost always used the rangefinder anyway.

Thanks for the input. 
 

I learned photography on an old MF Nikon FG. I moved up through a couple of AF Nikon bodies before settling on MF Contax SLRs for several years. I don’t remember the exact focusing screen each camera had, but certainly some (maybe all) had a split-image focusing aid for fine-focus assist. But you could also use the rest of the ground-glass to focus, and I certainly didn’t always rely on the split image alone to gauge focus. Or at least I don’t recall doing so. It’s been many years and I’ve gotten so used to live view EVFs. 
 

Anyway, what I find difficult and a bit disorienting about rangefinders is viewing an entire scene entirely in focus through the viewfinder while composing, but only having the tiny rangefinder patch to gauge focus. It feels like two steps, whereas it happens simultaneously for me on other cameras. I probably just need practice. 

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20 minutes ago, MJB said:

Thanks for the input. 
 

I learned photography on an old MF Nikon FG. I moved up through a couple of AF Nikon bodies before settling on MF Contax SLRs for several years. I don’t remember the exact focusing screen each camera had, but certainly some (maybe all) had a split-image focusing aid for fine-focus assist. But you could also use the rest of the ground-glass to focus, and I certainly didn’t always rely on the split image alone to gauge focus. Or at least I don’t recall doing so. It’s been many years and I’ve gotten so used to live view EVFs. 
 

Anyway, what I find difficult and a bit disorienting about rangefinders is viewing an entire scene entirely in focus through the viewfinder while composing, but only having the tiny rangefinder patch to gauge focus. It feels like two steps, whereas it happens simultaneously for me on other cameras. I probably just need practice. 

Practice makes perfect, Leica M rangefinder cameras have not been a leading camera in documentary and war photography for nearly seventy years if they can't be focused quickly.

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Just look at your distance scales. Zone focusing is really only up to f4. Beyond that rangefinder focusing becomes the only option, unless one has other digital/analog focus aids such split prism or focus peaking.

But zone focusing isn't entirely necessary for anything really, it more like a preference since it's arguably faster than autofocus once setup to a given range. 

I use hyperfocal all the time in street, but in another scenario say portraiture then i would scrap zone focusing and switch to rangefinder focusing when focusing becomes critical. It really depends on the scenario, but don't think you're under utilising the camera just because you don't prefer to use zone focus

Horses for courses...

 

 

 

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Not a street photographer, but most of the discussion I've read about zone focusing is when the photographer wants to shoot without being observed as taking photographs.  The goal being to capture unposed shots.  So shooting from waist level or raising the camera and snap shooting before the subject can react.  Shooting moving subjects while rangefinder focusing is not difficult with a little practice.

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On 8/11/2022 at 5:19 AM, 250swb said:

Zone focusing is not a panacea if you value the main subject of your photos being sharp and in focus, it is simply a way to get things more or less acceptably sharp within the DOF range, and what you decide is acceptable is up to you. But it's far better to learn to focus quickly because you then have to make a decision about what is important in the photo. Leave zone focusing for those 'street photographers' who think it's enough to randomly photograph people walking about.

Exactly. Having an awareness of the 'zone' one is in at a certain aperture can be helpful in fast moving situations, but no replacement for actually (trying to) focus(ing) on the subject. If all one is trying to do is capture people walking down the street looking at their cellphones, sure go for it. But for any sort of meaningful photo that isolates the subject, zone focusing is a myth perpetuated by lazy amateurs (imo). 

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