Friday, August 29, 2014

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the DSLR and Love Photography Again. Or, My Journey Into the World of Rangefinders

I bought an M8 about almost 2 years ago and not too long after that an M9-P, then a Leica IIIf, then a Zeiss Ikon. Obviously I've become hooked on rangefinder photography.

I used to be a diehard DSLR user. I loved my big fast pro full-frame cameras with the big-ass f/2.8 pro zooms. I walked around looking like a pro and feeling like a pro even when I wasn't shooting as a pro. Eventually carrying around big ol' pro cameras got tiresome and I started leaving my camera at home. When the D3 and the D700 were announced I made the comparisons, and like many others and decided to go for the D700 because it was 90% of the D3 and I could use a grip or not, thus reducing camera size if I wanted to. This worked for awhile, but I still had those big pro lenses to lug around. Even the primes were relatively big, and after awhile, once again I quit bringing my cameras out unless I was working.

Of course while writing the Nikon Digital Field Guides I often carried around small DSLRs and they were great for a lot of things, but with those I found find menu diving to change key settings could be quite tedious. Although I really liked many of those cameras I ended up being more annoyed when I brought my camera everywhere so I just stopped.

I realized I needed something even smaller and much simpler to bring with me all the time so that I could still take photos for enjoyment, because that's why I became a photographer. It was my passion. But I have never liked the way compact cameras worked, looking at the LCD, slow focus, etc, so it was never really an option. (I did, however, end up with a Nikon P5000 that had a little rangefinder-esque window that I still use once in awhile)

I'd always been lured by the mystique of the Leica and I knew there was no way in hell I could justifiably afford one, so the idea of getting a small camera with great quality was pretty much out of mind. Until Fuji came out with the X100. Now there was a camera I could get into. It had the classic look, it had a magical hybrid viewfinder that was unique, the IQ was great. I thought I found my camera. The perfect marriage of the digital and film camera world. Until I used it. The IQ was great, but it wasn't as responsive as I needed it to be or had become used to. Also being stuck at a 35mm equivalent wasn't entirely awesome either. The X-Pro1 camera out. Again, I thought here's what I've been looking for. You can change lenses it's bigger so it handles nice, but not too big. I can use LEICA lenses on it! It'll be a poor man's Leica! Nope. Had many of the same issues as the X100. So I sold it. Then came a firmware update and I was wooed by all the Fuji sites claiming how much better it was. I bought another. Still wasn't great. And I did buy a Leica lens to use with it. A 50mm Summilux. But, the thing I liked about the X-Pro1 was the OVF and that was gone with the use of a MF lens. The hybrid viewfinder was cluttered and distracting. I found myself getting irritated with the camera and I knew that this was not the zen camera I was looking for.  In the end the Fuji X cameras didn't work for me. This isn't an anti-Fuji rant. Fuji makes great cameras. They are innovative, they are concerned with their customer satisfaction, they have great image quality. They just didn't fit with what I needed.

I knew deep down all along what I needed was a real rangefinder. Something that stripped photography back to the basics. But I still wanted the instantaneousness of digital. I knew I needed a Leica. It wasn't necessarily because I needed the Leica name, but because Leica was, and still is, the only manufacturer of REAL digital rangefinders. With the return of the X-Pro1 I had almost $2000 and that was all I could spend and I was pretty hesitant about forking over a lot of cash for a 7 year old camera that was actually lower performing than other cameras in the same age bracket. I also didn't have the money for an M ($7000), or M-E ($5450), or even a well-used M9 ($4000). So the only real option was an M8. I bought a used M8 with a Voigtländer 28mm Ultron f/2 for about $2500 and the adventure was on. My main concern was that I was going to get bored with the camera because it had no autofocus. I'll admit, I had become pretty lazy since switching to digital. I relied on all of the bells and whistles and was worried if all that stuff was gone that maybe I wouldn't be able to capture every image that I was after and I was going to be frustrated. 

But a funny thing happened, after I started shooting with the M8 I stopped caring as much about capturing each and every image I saw from every different angle and I became more involved with the process of taking the photo. The end result is that because the process is a little more difficult when I nail a shot it's much more satisfying. Knowing that I did all the work, from the exposure settings to the focus and the composition makes me happier than when I get a shot from a DSLR because the DSLR did most of the work.

There are a number of different reasons why I find rangefinders are great for photography. 

Split image patch. Like the old SLRs the rangerfinder has a split-image that comes together when the focus is on. Even if your eyesight is a little blurry you can tell that it's in focus. Coincidentally this rangefinder technique is very similar to how a DSLR focuses using Phase-detect focusing. A beam splitter behind the mirror splits the images and when the AF detects they are in phase (in-line like the rangefinder) it's in focus. 

No light loss in the viewfinder. In a rangefinder you have a couple of pieces of optical glass separating your eye from the real world. It's always as bright as the scene. D/SLRs light goes through all lens elements bounces off a semi-translucent mirror then is reflected 5 times by the pentaprism or pentamirror before going to your eye. There's light lost in that process. Plus the brightness of the viewfinder depends on the speed of the lens. Unfortunately with DSLR's a fast lens like the 50mm f/1.2 makes the finder bright, but also makes it harder to focus unless you have eagle eyes. 

More than 100% viewfinder coverage. The D/SLR camera viewfinder shows you what the lens sees. Pro cameras have 100% viewfinders but less expensive cameras like the D5200 only show about 95%. You can't see what's going on outside the frame. With a rangefinder the viewfinder is separate from the lens. It's a constant size and no matter what focal length you're using you can see outside the framelines. Wider lenses give you less leeway, but there is always some space around it. 

No mirror. No mirror has a few benefits. When the shutter is released on a DSLR the mirror flips up and out of the way before the shutter curtain opens. This causes a blackout in the viewfinder so you never actually seethe moment you captured until you review it. With a rangefinder you can see exactly what happens as you hear that shutter click. Having no mirror also means less vibration and the rangefinder camera also being smaller means you can handhold slower than the usual 1/focal length rule. I can easily hand hold about a stop slower and with support (like leaning against a pole) I can sometimes get two stops maybe more. It also makes the camera quieter. The newer digital rangefinders aren't as quiet as the old film cameras, but they don't make a big clack with the mirror. 

For DSLRs autofocus is the way of life. That's one of the reasons why the DSLRs don't use special focus screens. People don't manual focus much. Some pro cameras can have the focus screens swapped out, but the problem is that there are few companies that offer these screens and the most respected one is going out of business. There's a Chinese company that has some screens to order, but who knows if they're good or accurate? In any case the D5200 doesn't have the option to swap screens. 

Rangefinder aren't the perfect camera for everything, but they are good for the reasons I stated above plus more. It's definitely not a type of camera that everyone falls in love with. Many people just don't like them. Kinda like I don't care for mirrorless EVF cameras. They aren't bad, but they don't work for me. But, despite some of the limitations of rangefinder camera I have managed to photograph just about every different type of subject: portraits, products, landscapes, architecture, live music and even sports!

If you ever get a chance to try one out, I encourage you to do so. You may not like it, or you may fall in love with it. 

To be 100% honest, if I didn't make a living doing photography I'd probably sell all of my DSLR gear and shoot only with a rangefinder camera. 

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