The Journey from a DSLR to a Rangefinder

Note: Recently I did a blog post on the pros and the cons of rangefinders for street photography. I then came upon an insightful comment from Steve Foon about his experience from switching from using a DSLR to a rangefinder for street photography. Therefore I asked him to do this guest blog post and he graciously accepted! The post you are about to read is incredibly thorough and well-thought out. It is a must-read for anybody considering making the switch from a DSLR to a rangefinder for street photography.

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As we roam the Streets to capture images, the tendency to look at the works from people who help create the genre like Bresson, Erwitt, Franks, Weeks, Maier, etc… just seem like the natural thing to do.

One thing kept coming up in terms of camera gear….. Rangefinder cameras.

Allow me to share with you my thoughts on this. Thanks to Eric for letting me share.

Disclaimer – I want to set the record straight that although I am using a rangefinder more and more, I still love what a DSLR can do.  Please don’t think that my comments towards rangefinders is a put down on DSLR’s or any other camera format.

This disclaimer comes from a recent posting I made about rangefinders that had some people in the DSLR camp in a rage.

My Experience with the SLR/DSLR and Street:

After years of being a way, I turned back to using my old gear…. Nikon D100 and a Canon FTb.

I quickly realized that I need to upgrade and get some really good glass.

More about this is in another article.

So here I am… shooting away with a Nikon D3S and a Nikkor 70-200mm lens.

Got some really good stuff but something was missing.  I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Shooting “street” I found that a lot of my shots came from either a distance or me trying to not make myself too noticeable.  Black gaffer tape does wonders on camera markings.

Switching to a wide lens, things got a little better…. I was more involved and aware of what I was capturing but so were my subjects.

Taking the DSLR and pointing it at someone started to alter my shots from time to time.

On a recent Auto Show, I had to use the Nikon.  One of those car show models was getting ready.  Being a red blooded male, I raised the camera to snap a quick pic.  The minute the camera rose to my eye….. busted.  The look from her would have killed.

There’s that rangefinder thing…

After reading and hearing things about rangefinders, I had to find out for myself.

I thought that using a viewfinder versus looking through the lens would be worse.

I’ve grown comfortable using DSLR’s and all the wonderful thing electronics can do….. matrix metering, multi zone focus, etc….

Heck, you want good images.  You want BIG glass…. right?

How can those tiny lenses do without Crystal Nano Coating, ED Elements, etc

How would using something that is actually a throw back to the early 1900’s be better than my 21st century, ultra high ISO, polycarbonate, magnesium, weather sealed,10 fps, alphabet soup technological wonder?

The Education:

After messing around with different combination of camera formats and lens combinations, I took the plunge in the rangefinder world.

My very first use left me a bit perplexed.

The focus was hard to do – lining up two images into a single line is totally different from what I would do with my SLR/DSLR when manually focusing.

My first few shots looked like…. Crap.

Focus – poor.  Exposure – wrong.

How was looking at an image slightly off center from where the lens is going to be better

Because I was determined to understand this rangefinder thing, I decided to buy one.  Since I was shooting digital, I needed a digital rangefinder.  Unfortunately or fortunately, it was going to have to be a Leica.


One thing I discovered is to try to find a camera store you trust and who has a staff who are photographers themselves.  For me the store in my area – CameraWest in Walnut Creek, CA is the place.

They recently took in a used M8 and I decided to give it a try.

The Experience:

A few minutes of practice is all you need to get comfortable and competent with focus on a rangefinder.

After a while, I got pretty good about focusing even in darker environments.

So the rumor about a rangefinder being faster than auto focus was sort of true.

Canon shooters seem to still have the advantage with really fast moving objects…. but for what I shoot, I seem to do just as well if not better at times manually focusing

There’s something to this.  I can focus and even pre-focus just by feel.

All of a sudden, I realized that the weight and bulk was gone.

It was sort of odd holding the camera in my hands differently but then it hit me.

I was more comfortable shooting.  My subjects took little notice of me.  Those who did notice me seem to react differently.  More willing to be photographed &/or I was being treated as a tourist / novice…. Which is a good thing.

That “I’m a photographer look” with the massive camera is okay and kinda cool but it has its drawbacks as well.

Back to that Auto Show model.  I took out my rangefinder later that day.  Was even closer to her and “snap”…. Picture taken.  No dirty looks.  She didn’t even notice.

It’s quiet here….

There’s no mirror slap sounds.  Although Nikon did a good job with the “Q” quiet mode.  Even letting the Leica shutter go in it’s normal mode, it was less noticeable.

I take images where I am up close to my subject and 9 times out of 10, they didn’t know I snapped a picture.

If you shoot with a film rangefinder…. It’s even more quiet.

It’s slower here

Without the weight and especially without a mirror moving around, that old formula for keeping a steady shot of not setting a shutter speed slower than the size of the lens (example:  50mm no slower that 1/50s) seem to have changed.  I can easily hold the camera image at least two stops slower than I would dare with my SLR/DSLR.

Remember, there’s no VR or IS in the lens or camera to help.

Composition changes….

A portrait photographer was introduced to a rangefinder and the first words out of her mouth was, “this will slow me down…. That may not be a bad thing”

You see the world differently using a rangefinder.  I can’t put my finger on it.  Just that not having to peer down the barrel of a lens and holding a large chunk of metal / polycarbonate, etc… device in front of my face changes things.

All you see is a large bright window.  A full frame DSLR has a brighter viewfinder versus a cropped sensor DSLR.  But put a rangefinder to your eye…. bright and clear.

“It’s a right eye camera”

Some people have said this and they are right.  You can put your left eye on the viewfinder but you miss on one of the neat things about a rangefinder.

With your right eye in the left mounted viewfinder, all of a sudden you can see out of both eyes and you take in more of what is happening in front of you.

It gives you that added few split seconds to be able to compose your shot.

You know how we take pride in shooting “street”.

That it’s difficult and challenging because our composition subject is in motion most of the time or that we are trying to catch that moment.

That split second and seeing the world unfold before us is something special.  A rangefinder just seems right for what we do.

It feels sooo good….

Before all this great technological advancement with our camera gear,  focus, exposure and aperture was a skill a photographer had to acquire if you wanted to be good.

There’s a certain amount of satisfaction with the feel of a camera.

Since the Leica M or for that fact any rangefinder, you have to actually move things.

The silky feel of a focus ring.  The click click click of the aperture ring (on the lens).

It’s all about sensations.

Before the rangefinder, I expressed this missed feeling from my DSLR.  I was handed a Zeiss lens.  Thought time had gone back.  The feeling was there but still….something wasn’t quite the same as using the rangefinder.

The Price of Admission:

How much did you say???

I had always thought that Leica was just a camera for the rich.  Heck, some people buy them and never really use them.  They sit in glass cases gathering dust.

I didn’t understand Leica until I used it.

Solid, tough and most importantly…. those lenses.

Images taken with a Leica is something you actually can tell.

With my DSLR, I find that I spend time in Lightroom making adjustments.

With the Leica, crop it a bit and I’m done.

A used digital Leica M8 will easily cost you about $4K with a lens.

A new Leica M9 with one piece of really great glass….. $10K.

A used M9…. good luck.  Just finding a new one is a challenge.

I want one.  What should I do?

Spending a lot of money isn’t easy.

A Leica costs as much as a down payment on a new car or a nice used car.

But if you find yourself wanting a rangefinder, here are my thoughts.

There are alternatives.

You may have to shoot film…. Which in itself is wonderful and another topic for another day.

Since spending your money on glass is more important than spending it on a body, there are Voitlanders and Zeiss Ikons out there.  They accept Leica mounts lenses and is a good way of getting into the rangefinder.  Zeiss glass is really good too !!

You can still find a lot of older Leica M’s out there.  Sure they’re old but were built like tanks and still work well.

I shot with a film Leica recently.

Like I said earlier… another topic for another day.  But to sum it up…. WOW !!

There are also some vintage Nikon’s and Canon rangefinders there too.  Don’t write them off either.

Consider this….

If you are trying to convince yourself to take the plunge…

If you buy the current crop of Nikkor pro glass.  14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm.  Look at the price tag.  We’re talking thousands already.

An article I read spoke some truth.

As good a Nikkor glass is, we will easily drop $1500 on a lens that is good but in the same breath, we cry bloody murder paying $2K on a Leica lens.

A Nikon D3S is over $5K.

What I Did

I’m like most.  My last name isn’t Gates or Buffett.

I sold off tons of Nikon glass to do this.

I started the rangefinder trail with the M8.

Once I understood this thing a bit better and found the tool for me, I decided I needed a full frame.

Therefore a Leica M9.

Man, more money !!  Sell off more lenses.  I’m down to only 3 lenses for the Nikon now.

I went through a lot of different wonderful Leica glass…. trying to find the perfect match for me.

Since “Street” is the medium I love, the 35mm f/1.4 is the lens of choice for me.

Started with a Leica Summicron (f/2) 35mm.  Great lens.  Small and sharp.

I wanted faster glass though.

Leica Summilux (f/1.4) 35mm last generation.

Better because of the faster lens.

Noticed a problem with “back focus” and decided to go all out and get the latest newer version of that Summilux….. it’s lens lust here.

So is a Rangefinder “it”?

Yes and No.

I don’t shoot much street at all with my DSLR.  It’s 95% rangefinder.

However, recently I got a good shot from the Nikon in my hand that would might have been missed with the Leica….. automation is good and bad.

We tend to be passionate people when it comes to our art.  The feeling I get from a rangefinder is just right for me.

What it can’t do

Macro/Micro and telephoto….. that’s why I keep the Nikon.

The longest rangefinder lens is 135mm.  It has to do with focusing.

That puts the lens is a normal telephoto range.

I had a 200-400mm Nikkor and wish I didn’t have to let it go to pay for the Leica.

Really close up…. Not a rangefinder thing either.

Anything closer than 2-3 feet, forget it.

Rangefinders aren’t weather sealed.

Take a weather sealed DSLR and Lens…. go out and be happy.

Take a rangefinder….. scared as heck.

Fast action sports….

As good as I am starting to get at focus, you can’t beat a good DSLR.

Low light….

One day I was talking to another photographer at CameraWest and I talked about ISO 10,000 like it was nothing.  The manager, Dan, looked at me, shook his head and said something to the effect….”spoiled”.

Treat a digital Leica M like a film camera with a lot of range…. You’re fine.

You need low light, low noise…. A DSLR can’t be beat.

For Me:

A DSLR is the greatest Swiss Army knife like camera around.  It can do amazing things and is versatile as heck.  There is still love here & I’ll never sell the Nikon (until D4 comes out).

A Rangefinder…. It’s passion.

It’s a tool with limitations.  But learn to use it they way it’s designed, and the results speak for themselves.

If the image is exposed wrong or the focus is not spot on…. it’s my fault and not the camera.  I had to re-learn and sharpen my photography basics when going to a rangefinder.  I think it’s making me a better photographer because I now have to think before pressing the shutter release.

Do yourself a favor

Either rent one, borrow one from a friend, find a great camera store like CameraWest and shoot a rangefinder.  You might find it’s the right tool for you or you might feel it’s just not you.

Art is subjective.

I’ve seen some great works from just your ordinary everyday consumer camera.

I’ve seen some really not so good stuff taken with really great pro gear.

At the end, it’s about you.  Your eye.  Your methods and what makes YOU happy.

The equipment is a tool.

Rangefinders are great.  If you can’t afford to get one right now….

No worries, work on things that will make you better.   I can clearly say, a rangefinder isn’t for everyone.  It’s very subjective.

The most important thing….. SHOOT.  Street is about passion and communication and FUN!

Have you ever made the plunge from a DSLR to a rangefinder? How was your experience? Would you recommend it to others Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!