What is a Rangefinder Camera?
A rangefinder camera is a camera fitted with a rangefinder: a range-finding focusing mechanism allowing the photographer to measure the subject distance and take photographs that are in sharp focus. Most varieties of rangefinder show two images of the same subject, one of which moves when a calibrated wheel is turned; when the two images coincide and fuse into one, the distance can be read off the wheel. Older, non-coupled rangefinder cameras display the focusing distance and require the photographer to transfer the value to the lens focus ring; cameras without built-in rangefinders could have an external rangefinder fitted into the accessory shoe. Earlier cameras of this type had separate viewfinder and rangefinder windows; later the rangefinder was incorporated into the viewfinder. More modern designs have rangefinders coupled to the focusing mechanism, so that the lens is focused correctly when the rangefinder images fuse; compare with the focusing screen in non-autofocus SLRs.
The first rangefinders, sometimes called “telemeters”, appeared in the nineteenth century; the first rangefinder camera to be marketed was the 3A Kodak Autographic Special of 1916; the rangefinder was coupled. Not itself a rangefinder camera, the Leica I of 1925 had popularized the use of accessory rangefinders. The Leica II and Zeiss Contax I, both of 1932, were great successes as 35mm rangefinder cameras, while on the Leica Standard, also introduced in 1932, the rangefinder was omitted. The Contax II (1936) integrated the rangefinder in the center of the viewfinder. Rangefinder cameras were common from the 1930s to the 1970s, but the more advanced models lost ground to single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. Rangefinder cameras have been made in all sizes and all film formats over the years, from 35mm through medium format (rollfilm) to large-format press cameras. Until the mid-1950s most were generally fitted to more expensive models of cameras. Folding bellows rollfilm cameras, such as the Balda Super Baldax or Mess Baldix, the Kodak Retina II, IIa, IIc, IIIc, and IIIC cameras and the Hans Porst Hapo 66e (a cheaper version of the Balda Mess Baldix), were often fitted with rangefinders.
The most recognized rangefinder cameras take 35mm film, use focal plane shutters, and have interchangeable lenses. These are Leica screw mount (also known as M39) cameras developed for lens manufacturer Ernst Leitz Wetzlar by Oskar Barnack (which gave rise to very many imitations and derivatives), Contax cameras manufactured for Carl Zeiss Optics by camera subsidiary Zeiss-Ikon and, after Germany’s defeat in World War II, produced again and then developed as the Ukrainian Kiev), Nikon S-series cameras from 1951–62 (with design inspired by the Contax and function by the Leica), and Leica M-series cameras.
The Nikon rangefinder cameras were discovered in 1950 by Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan, who covered the Korean War. Canon manufactured several models from the 1930s until the 1960s; models from 1946 onwards were more or less compatible with the Leica thread mount. (From late 1951 they were completely compatible; the 7 and 7s had a bayonet mount for the 50 mm f/0.95 lens in addition to the thread mount for other lenses.) The Kodak 35 Rangefinder was the first 35 mm camera made by the Eastman Kodak Company in the USA, it was launched in 1940. Other such cameras include the Casca (Steinheil, West Germany, 1948), Detrola 400 (USA, 1940–41), Ektra (Kodak, USA, 1941–8), Foca (OPL, France, 1947–63), Foton (Bell & Howell, USA, 1948), Opema II (Meopta, Czechoslovakia, 1955–60), Perfex (USA, 1938–49), Robot Royal (Robot-Berning, West Germany, 1955–76), and Witness (Ilford, Britain, 1953). Among the longer lasting marques, all but the Leica M succumbed in the marketplace to pressure from SLRs. The most recent in the M-series are the M7, the first of the series to feature automatic exposure and an electronic shutter; and the all-mechanical MP, an updated M6 with an M3-style rewind knob; and the new M8, Leica’s first digital rangefinder.
In the United States the dependable and inexpensive Argus C-3 AKA The “Brick”) was far and away the most popular 35mm rangefinder, with millions sold. Interchangeable-lens rangefinder cameras with focal-plane shutters are greatly outnumbered by fixed-lens leaf-shutter rangefinder cameras. The most popular design in the ’50s were folding designs like the Kodak Retina and the Zeiss Contessa. In the 1960s many fixed-lens 35mm rangefinder cameras for the amateur market were produced by several manufacturers, mainly Japanese, including Canon, Fujica, Konica, Mamiya, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, and Yashica. Distributors such as Vivitar and Revue often sold rebranded versions of these cameras. While designed to be compact like the Leica, they were much less expensive. Many of them, such as the Minolta 7sII and the Vivitar 35ES, were fitted with high-speed, extremely high quality optics. Though eventually replaced in the market with newer compact autofocus cameras, many of these older rangefinders continue to operate, having outlived most of their newer (and less well-constructed) successors. Starting with a camera made by the small Japanese company Yasuhara in the 1990s, there has been something of a revival of rangefinder cameras. Aside from the Leica M series, rangefinder models from this period include the Konica Hexar RF, Cosina, who makes the Voigtländer Bessa T/R/R2/R3/R4 (the last three are made in both manual or aperture automatic version, which use respectly the “m” or “a” sign in model), and the Hasselblad Xpan/Xpan 2. Zeiss has a new model called the Zeiss Ikon, also made by Cosina, while Nikon has also produced expensive limited editions of its S3 and SP rangefinders to satisfy the demands of collectors and aficionados. Cameras from the former Soviet Union — the Zorki and FED, based on the screwmount Leica, and the Kiev — are plentiful in the used market. Medium-format (rollfilm) rangefinder cameras continue to be produced. Recent models include the Mamiya 6 and 7I/7II, the Bronica RF645 and the Fuji G, GS and GSW series. In 1994, Contax introduced an autofocus rangefinder camera, the Contax G.
The Electro 35 is a rangefinder camera that was made by Yashica of Japan. The cameras were produced starting around 1966. It has a coupled and fixed1:1.7 45 mm lens. It was the first electronically controlled camera, operating mainly in an aperture priority ‘auto’ mode. The only other modes of operation are ‘flash’ (1/30th) and ‘bulb’. This great looking vintage camera is in very good condition, all levers, knobs and buttons move, turn and appear to function. The lens is a Yashinon DX 1:7.7 1-45mm, Yashinon Japan. The leather case is in very good condition too with minimal wear from age. This great collectible camera is used and sold as is.
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