Early experience with a rangefinder camera

Chess or Mac?I borrowed a rangefinder camera from a friend a couple of weeks ago. The camera is a Canonet QL17 G-III. I've gone through one roll on it and it's been fun to use so far. I had been using SLR cameras until now and the rangefinder is quite different in operation. The major difference being that the image viewed through the viewfinder is not the same as the one that is seen by the lens. In an SLR you see through the lens, so it's more of a WYSIWYG interface. Here are some of my impressions with using this camera.

  • It's a little bizzare to see the lens through the viewfinder, but I got over that pretty soon.
  • It is well known that rangefinders are quiet because they don't have a moving mirror. Even so, I was surprised by the quietness of the mechanism.
  • The shutter priority operation threw me off for a while because I'm used to shooting with aperture priority. It makes me think in terms of time, while I'm used to thinking in terms of depth of field, or rather not thinking much in terms of either by setting the parameters once and not messing with it unless really needed.

In the tree's shadowThe hardest thing to do was the focusing. The viewfinder has a very small area to check the focus accurately, and its not something I could manage to do quickly. I found myself pre-focusing most of the time by reading the distance marking on the lens. So, I used the viewfinder only for framing, just before taking the picture. I like the speed of such operation, but have been reluctant to do pre-focusing before now. This camera kinda forced it upon me and I'll try to do it more often. I think it is a good skill to have for street photography, especially when using a manual focus mechanism. There is usually no time to focus.

It's been raining again for the last week, so I haven't had any chance to shoot more with this camera. Hopefully things will clear up next week!

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12 thoughts on “Early experience with a rangefinder camera

  1. A year ago I wanted to try out a rangefinder camera and I was torn between purchasing a Canonet QL17 and a Yashica Electro 35 GSN. I finally decided on the Yashica because like you, I prefer Aperture Priority metering over Shutter Speed Priority. I’ve read that there is a manual override for the Canonet, but alas there is no metering in that mode. I guess if you don’t mind carrying around an external light meter that could work.

  2. Huh. I’m on the other side of the fence. I prefer shutter-priority. When I started taking pictures, it was difficult to grapple with aperture and what it all meant. Speed, though, I could understand. Most of the time I felt like I was taking pictures of fast objects, so I could then control the motion in the picture. I still can never “guess” what the camera will choose as the aperture when I pick the shutter speed. (I suppose I could figure it out though.)

    So what do you think, Sam. Will you get a rangefinder camera yourself? Also, how does the name “rangefinder” match with the camera’s operation?

  3. @karmagroovy: I try to carry as little as possible, so that won’t work for me :-)

    @jasmine008: At some point I will get one for sure. A good used one. Regarding the term “rangefinder”, it derives form the operation by which you estimate the range of the subject by viewing two images in the viewfinder. The subject is in range when the two images overlap on it. You move the focusing ring to make them overlap.

  4. I feel about SLRs just like you do about rangefinders –
    manual focusing with a distinct patch is much easier,
    than let’s say with a split screen in a manual SLR.
    granted, the finder & patch of a Leica is way better than in a Canonet,
    but the Canonet is a nice little camera

    The automatisms, aperture priority or shutter priority,
    I can live without. Too bad the distance scales on modern lenses
    suck…

  5. For focusing, I’m quite inclined to pursue a pre-focusing style, or at least develop that skill sufficiently to take quick shots reliably, irrespective of the type of camera. We’ll see how that goes ;-)

    I’ve read quite a bit about Leica and Voigtlander Bessa R and would love to get my hands on one of those.

    I have very limited experience with cameras. My film SLR is a Nikon FM 10 and I enjoy it precisely because of its fully manual operation. Also, its viewfinder is so much better than the D70s!

  6. I have a Mamiya 7 and love it. Switching from a SLR was tough. Burned through a few rolls with the lens cap still on. Range-finders keep you on your toes.

  7. hey Sam, that’s some interesting stuff. Didn’t know you are so much into photography. I guess you’ll be my one-stop shop for photography tips and tricks. Adding your link to my blog.

    ~Manoj~

  8. I have a Canonet QL-17 GIII too, and find the focussing on rangefinders problematic. The rangefinder yellow spot has to be bang in the centre of the viewing area. If you focus at a distant line (with lens set to infinity), and
    view the line from various regions of the yellow spot, the two images might not be coincident always!

  9. That’s interesting. Yea, I pretty much went with estimating the focus on this camera while I had it. I’ll have to try out other cameras in the future to see how it varies from one to another.

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