Home on the Range(finder)

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 5:39 PM

They preceded the single lens reflex camera by more than a quarter century, but went into eclipse in the general photo market almost as soon as the first Nikon and Canon SLRs were unveiled in the late 1950s.

Nevertheless, to dedicated groups of photographers, many of them professionals, many of them serious amateurs, the rangefinder 35mm film camera (and now its larger medium format cousin) is and will remain the best camera they ever used.

Led by, though no longer limited to, the legendary Leica M series cameras, rangefinders are renowned for their workmanship, whisper quiet operation and phenomenal lenses. Because they do not require a noisy and bulky reflex mirror bouncing up and down with each exposure, they can take pictures in virtual silence, thereby allowing a photographer to more easily blend into the background and work unobserved.

By the same token, for technical reasons I will explain later, they cannot accommodate huge telephoto lenses, and therefore appeal all the more to a certain class of photojournalist or documentarian who prefer working close to a subject -- not from one hundred yards away.

And happily for photographers not blessed with deep pockets, a number of other manufacturers besides Leica today are producing first-rate rangefinder cameras, with excellent lenses that can cost significantly less than a Leica outfit. These include the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder (shown here) as well as RF's made by Voigtlander, Rolleiflex -- even Nikon.

If the catchphrase for photojournalism or documentary photography is "fly on the wall," then rangefinder cameras may simply be the only ones that consistently allow shooters to work unobtrusively. It says something that in the six years that my wife and I worked on our book about Venice in winter my daily "kit" of cameras grew progressively lighter and smaller. Whereas in the early stages of our shooting trips to Serenissima, I might have lugged a couple of Nikon SLR's, and a brace of medium format Hasselblads (a 500CM as well as a Superwide CM), on our last month-long stay I generally left our rented apartment with nothing more than two comparatively tiny Leica M6 rangefinder cameras -- one with a 35mm f.2 Summicron, the other with a marvelous, tack-sharp 21mm wide-angle.

In many cases, working with my Leicas, I simply was silent and, therefore, invisible. A case in point: one winter night in Venice, Judy and I entered a nearly empty Venetian church looking for pictures. We both started to work by available light, but it was only Judy -- working with SLR Nikons and their noisy mirrors and film advance -- that drew the wrath of the church lady on duty.

Years later, the Leica's remarkable ability to capture things on the fly came into play as we were crossing the Rialto Bridge. There on this clear cold night were not one, not two, not three, but four couples huddled together romantically. I put the camera to my eye without breaking stride, and silently made the shot. It's one of my all-time favorites from the Venice project.

Why this fascination with, and gravitation toward, the Leica?

In her book Shutterbabe (Villard, 2000) -- a strikingly frank description of a young woman's career as a photojournalist -- photographer Deborah Copaken Kogan refers, not just to the quality of her Leica rangefinder, but to its cachet as well.

"Like good anthropologists," Kogan notes, photojournalists "will take notice of their competitors' stuff -- everything from camera equipment to clothing to even small details like film envelopes -- as a means of determining each other's standing in the socio-professional pecking order."

And nothing so confirmed one's high position in the photojournalism firmament as toting a battered Leica.

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