Rangefinders. The mere mention of this type of camera inspires visions of the erstwhile street shooter; a clandestine spirit who is here and not here, never participating but always observing. We imagine these shooters gripping their German rangefinders tight and clicking away down the boulevard, every snap announcing the creation of a new masterpiece. Names and images flash across the mind; Henri Cartier-Bresson’s man jumping across a puddle, Robert Capa’s images of D-Day at Normandy, Ilse Bing’s perfectly composed self-portrait, Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara. We ask ourselves how anybody could make images so perfectly composed, timeless, and beautiful. A thought forms in the back of our minds; perhaps if we use a rangefinder, we can see the way the masters saw. Perhaps we, too, can achieve greatness with these machines.
Yes, rangefinders bring with them a romance that’s irresistible to the average photo geek. But there’s only one way to find out if rangefinders can truly help us realize our photographic potential, and that’s to try the damn things out.
Sounds great, but there’s one problem – the rangefinders that everyone talks about (interchangeable lens cameras, Leicas, etc.) are expensive. Bodies are two to three times more expensive than their SLR counterparts and a single rangefinder lens can cost as much as an entire SLR system. Ouch. So how can the casual enthusiast experience the joy and mystique of the rangefinder without sacrificing a couple of figures on their bank statement? Easy. Try a fixed lens rangefinder.
From the late 1960s all the way up to the early 1980s, the humble fixed-lens rangefinder played a similar role as the point-and-shoot camera later would. Fixed-lens rangefinders were less expensive cameras with which one could make above-average pictures of families and vacations. But while they were meant for consumers, their image quality was anything but consumer-grade. Some of these cameras had lenses that outperformed many SLR lenses of the time, and have since become legends on their own merit.
Today it’s no different, and the value proposition of the fixed lens rangefinder has even improved with age. They almost never exceed the $150 mark, making them the perfect choice for shooters on a budget looking to experience the rangefinder way of life. And though there are many of these machines to choose from, here are five of our favorites.
Canonet GIII QL17
The Canonet line of fixed-lens rangefinders is perhaps the genre’s most famous line, if not certainly the longest-lived. The first Canonet was introduced in 1961 as an easy-to-use, high quality camera for the masses, its claim to fame an incredibly fast 45mm f/1.9 lens. The masses rejoiced and bought the Canonet in spades, and the consumer fixed-lens rangefinder was born.
Fast-forward to 1972 and we get the final, and greatest, iteration of the Canonet line, the Canonet GIII QL17. Small, sleek, and incredibly quiet, the Canonet embodied everything great about rangefinders, and even added some convenience features. The QL in the name denoted Canon’s “Quick Load” tech which made bottom-loading rangefinders seem clumsy and outdated by comparison, and the famously short focusing throw of the GIII QL17 made grabbing snapshots quick and easy in comparison to older, longer throw rangefinder lenses. Impressive.
But what really earns this camera a spot on our list is that amazing jewel of a lens. The 40mm f/1.7 of the Canonet GIII QL17 is one of best in the business, and showcases everything great about Canon’s old-school optics. It’s sharp, contrasty, and renders color incredibly well. Altogether a fantastic camera.
Yashica Electro 35 GSN
Along with the Canonet GIII QL17, the Yashica Electro 35 may be one of the most famous cameras on this list. It’s a hugely popular camera that can be found almost everywhere, and its even earned itself some fame as Peter Parker’s camera in The Amazing Spider-Man. And if Hollywood likes it, it must be good, right?
Although I would hesitate to recommend the Electro 35 to any modern photojournalist (fictional or real), today it remains an incredibly capable camera for the enthusiast film shooter. Although it operates exclusively in aperture-priority, the meter almost never fails to deliver great results and makes the Electro 35 singularly easy to use. And when that ease of use is housed in a chunky, oversized, oh-so-70s brass enclosure, it’s hard not to love the camera.
Lovable though the Yashica’s chunky looks (it’s the largest camera on this list) and easy operation are, the real reason for the camera’s popularity is its beautiful Yashinon lens. The Yashinon-DX 45mm f/1.7 found on the Electro 35 is one of Yashica’s best and has gained its fair share of acolytes. It’s sharp but never clinical, and its colors are vivid but never garish. It’s as good a lens as any, and at the price these things go for it’s impossible to call it anything but a fantastic deal.
Don’t be put off by the talk on other websites and forums about these cameras being hard to power and destined to die. The adapters needed to use modern batteries in the Electro are available for cheap, and the “Pad of Death” problem is overblown. Face it, every vintage camera has its quirks and mechanical breakdowns. But to get a camera as good as the Yashica for under $100, a little faith is not too much to ask.
Olympus 35 SP/SPn
Fixed-lens rangefinders are often scoffed at as being inferior imitations of certain German rangefinders, but the Olympus 35 SP is one camera that takes that stereotype and breaks it over its knee. The whiz kids from Shinjuku somehow came up with a camera that put both amateur models and professional models to shame, and still does to this day.
The Olympus 35 SP somehow crammed not one, but two light meters into its body. One was an average scene meter but the other was a special spot meter that allowed for extreme fine tuning of the exposure. This is an innovation that still has not been matched by any film camera manufacturer and has cemented the Olympus 35 SP in camera history.
But it isn’t all technological wizardry that gives the Olympus 35 SP its street cred; its lens also deserves similar praise. The Zuiko 42mm f/1.7 lens found on the 35 SP most closely matches the 43.27mm diagonal of a normal 35mm frame, which means that the lens will render objects almost exactly the way our eyes perceive them. Try finding another camera that can do that, this cheap, while looking as beautiful. Good luck.
Konica Auto S3
Of all the cameras on the list, this is the one that gets the least amount of fanfare. It’s the Konica Auto S3, and the kind of quiet praise it only occasionally receives makes it one of the camera world’s unsung heroes. Fix that, shall we?
The Konica Auto S3 is, on the surface, a rather typical camera. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s another “me-too” machine from another unremarkable Japanese brand. But spend time talking to old, experienced photogs and you’ll find that a select few say it’s the best fixed-lens rangefinder ever made, with an almost religious conviction. So what’s the deal with this inconspicuous fellow?
Perhaps more than any other camera on this list, the Konica Auto S3’s lens is the reason for the camera’s greatness. The 38mm f/1.8 Hexanon lens on the Auto S3 is consistently heralded as one of the greatest fixed-lens rangefinder lenses of all time, if not one of the all-time greatest lenses for 35mm photography. Due to the brand’s absence in today’s market, younger shooters may not know that Konica was considered one of the few companies whose lenses could seriously and consistently trade blows with the very best from Leica and Zeiss. Think I’m full of it? Check out the results and see if you can resist buying one for yourself.
Ah, the Olympus XA, the most non-rangefinder-looking camera to ever be a rangefinder. Ask any photo geek to describe an ideal rangefinder, pull an XA out of your pocket, and watch their heads spin. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun.
The XA is a rangefinder in the loosest sense of the term. Sure, the XA’s got a rangefinder mechanism for focusing, but much of what we expect in a rangefinder is tossed aside and replaced with better. It’s electronically controlled instead of fully mechanical, uses aperture-priority auto-exposure without manual override, and embraces plastic over of the old guard’s brass and aluminum. Tradition be damned, because guess what? The XA is capable of out-shooting every other camera on this list (and many three-times-the-price cameras not listed here).
How does it do it? Two simple ways – first, you can fit this camera in your pocket and take it everywhere you go. This is the smallest camera on the list, and it fits in your pocket in a way that few cameras do (though everyone seems to say that every camera can fit in your pocket). Because it’s so portable, it can easily become “the camera you have with you” at all times, which if we remember the old adage, makes it the best camera. Though many rangefinders are often touted as being small take-everywhere cameras, no other rangefinder comes within spitting distance of the XA on this front.
Second, the XA doesn’t achieve its compact form at the cost of features or image quality. This thing was designed by Maitani after all (if you don’t know his work, you should), and in true Olympus fashion its miniscule 35mm f/2.8 F. Zuiko lens delivers incredible results. It’s sharp, contrasty, and most importantly, has its own signature character. The exposure system is flawless, it feels tight and refined, and it’s got a wonderfully cohesive attachable flash. If you want a daily carry-around rangefinder that’ll fit in your pocket and give you great results, look no further than the XA.
That does it for our list of the five best rangefinders that won’t break the bank. Think we’ve nailed it? Think we’ve missed a couple? Let us know what you think in the comments below.