Rajib Mukherjee

Why Are Rangefinders So Popular With Street Photographers?

friday 18 September 2015, 09:45 by | 1720 times read | 0 comments

For some one used to locking focus by half-pressing the shutter button, the thought of having to turn a focusing ring and 'line up' two different images to lock focus can be intimidating. That's precisely what makes a rangefinder camera less desirable to amateurs and for those matters even professionals.

Those who know how to use a DSLR would not find it that difficult to focus using a rangefinder, but what makes them a turn-off is the complete absence of auto-focusing. It means every time you need to shoot a picture you will need to turn the focusing ring in front of the camera and line-up the two images as you see them through the viewfinder. Compact camera users would be livid not having something that can auto-focus.

Leica m9

So with all the negativities around them, why are rangefinders so sought after by street photographers? They are certainly not cheap by stretch of imagination. For the price of a Leica M9, for example, you could easily get two Canon 5d Mark III's sans lenses. Essentially there are no 'cheaper' varieties of rangefinders.

So what makes them the darling of street photography enthusiasts? The answer is they are faster, quieter, easier to focus and offer a better viewfinder compared to DSLRs. Just before you feel like jumping and writing an 'I beg to differ...', please remember, this discussion is limited to the use of these cameras in street photography only.

There are a number of situations where a DSLR would be better suited than a rangefinder. E.g., situations when you need to shoot with a tele-lens or shoot really close-up photography or when shooting fast action photography.

In fact it is difficult to use a tele-lens because the image that you get on the viewfinder is going to be difficult to be lined up with what the lens sees. The viewfinder sees the image completely independent to what the lens sees. For the same reason, macro-lenses are also difficult to use. Using very fast, wide angle lenses are also problematic, as you could see from the right hand corner of the viewfinder, much of it would be obstructed by the lens barrel.

The quietest of quiet modes

Any street photographer will tell you how important it is to be quiet when shooting. Street photographers would ideally want to blend into their surrounding, staying undetectable while they silently snap and then move away before getting detected.

A DSLR is never the right tool for that purpose. With its big noisy mirror snapping, a DSLR photographer attracts a lot of attention to himself.

Focusing in any lighting conditions

Do you often shoot in less than perfect lighting conditions? Does your pursuit drive you to shoot people who you don't know, candidly? The last thing you would want is the AF assist lamp throwing some annoying orange light and giving your intentions away. Some compact cameras have flash mechanisms that automatically fire the flash in such situations. All recipes for trouble in an unfamiliar neighborhood!

The rangefinder on the other hand focuses purely based on how good your eyes can see. If they can see properly in low light, in conditions when any standard phase detection or contrast detection AF system would fail, the rangefinder can be focused.

Viewfinder coverage

The focusing technique uses two images, one from the lens and the other from the viewfinder to overlap and create perfect focus. When you look through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera, you will notice that there are frame lines. You will also notice the 'space' around those frame lines. This indicates that as a photographer you can see more than what you're going to capture.

This has its advantages, as you can time the shutter release until the precise moment when everything is in frame. With traditional 95% viewfinder coverage of traditional entry and semi-professional DSLRs this is never a possibility.

Focusing system comparison: DSLRs vs. rangefinders

This whole discussion and debate about manual versus auto-focusing is somewhat superficial. While most photographers have allegiance to either one of the systems and would love to accentuate the advantages of the system that he prefers, there is really no debate in it if we think deeply.

Both manual and auto-focusing have their moments and they are each called upon in specific conditions when the other would normally fail. While continuous shooting of action or sports photography is unthinkable with a manual focusing rangefinder, in low light photography (and I mean really low light), the same manual focusing system becomes the go to technology.

Rajib Mukherjee

About the author

Rajib has a wanderlust and a shutterbug he loves to document his travels via his lenses and his keyboard. Rajib takes his photography seriously which compliments his love for the road.


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