Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

In praise of rangefinder cameras

I first tried a rangefinder camera – one with a little glass window in the corner of the camera – back in 2007. I found an Olympus 35 RC at a camera fair for about Fr. 20 and tried it out on a trip to London. I liked the feeling of using it, but it was a 35mm film camera and after a few years of using a digital SLR and a medium format camera, the distinctly grainy results left me wanting. But I did like how unobtrusive I was with a smaller camera.

Later that year, Nick lent me a Voigtländer Bessa and I was even more tempted by using rangefinders; partially because of the classic style of the camera and partly because people don’t tend to notice smaller cameras like this one. Alongside the quality (when one has more experience with exposure and manual focus), that’s probably why so many street photographers favour them: from the Voigtländers to top-end Leicas.

It was much later – four years later – and after a lot of articles and checking many, many sample images, that I bought a Fujifilm X100. I have loved it ever since I started using it and once I’d settled into the change of pace of using a camera with a fixed, slight wide-angle 35mm lens, it replaced my entire camera bag on trips to Yorkshire and Scotland last year. Instead of lugging the Nikon and all its lenses around, I slung the X100 over my shoulder and travelled light.

It was wonderful. With the X100, I’d found the rangefinder I’d been looking for. The flagship Leica M9 is a terrific camera, but it has two distinct negative points: firstly, with a lens, it costs ten times the price of an X100, which is itself not inexpensive. And secondly, various reviews hint that it’s not that great in low-light situations: a deal-breaker for use at evening wedding events.

Based on my experiences with the smaller camera, I’d been questioning whether to get rid of all of my camera gear – Nikon and Fujifilm – since the start of the year and replace it with a small, full-frame alternative: the Sony Alpha 7. I miss the wonderfully shallow depth of field of a full-frame camera and I was so taken with the A7 that I even put my X100 up for sale. However, the one thing about the Sony is that it’s not a beautiful camera. It’s technically brilliant and wonderfully handleable. But it just doesn’t make this photographer look at it in the same way as my leather-clad X100 does.

So, I was glad that my X100 didn’t sell. I was pleased that I was to keep it and I qualified keeping it on a technical level as well as an aesthetic one. The shallow depth of field at an f2 aperture and the pin-sharp results of the lens mean that I can take the images I want to; ones with which have challenged and in most cases exceeded the quality of photos taken with my Nikon.

Sure, the autofocus is a bit slow, but it’s not a camera with which to rattle off x frames per second at a sports event. It’s a camera which makes you slow down and take more care with your photography. It fulfils the same role as my old Yashica-Mat: a beautiful piece of machinery which inspires you to take better photos.

But: that fixed 35mm lens needed addressing. It’s great to have the consistency of a fixed lens, but my favourite angle of view for photography is a little wider, at 28mm. So I’ve committed to sticking with the X100 by buying the much-praised wide-angle conversion lens for it. It was expensive but when unpacking it, I was gratified to feel how solidly built it is; a sign that Fujifilm have made a piece of equipment with just the level of quality they’ve applied to the X100 itself.

I’m over the moon with the first results, shot during a weekend in the mountains, and am looking forward to putting the new “lens” through its paces for some landscape photography soon and during a wedding in a couple of weeks’ time. Fujifilm are also reported to be bringing out a light tele-conversion lens (50mm equivalent) over the next couple of months, so that will complete my set of compact rangefinder gear.

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