What is a "rangefinder" camera? (Leica M9)

JMapleton

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I was looking at the Leica M9 and it appears to be called a "rangefinder."

Is this like a pair of rangefinding binoculars (which I know Leica makes)? Why would you need something like this?
 
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corkyg

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The Leica rangefinder was/is top quality. It uses an optical split prism that lines up two halves of the image when the correct focus is reached. After WWII, Japanese camera makers cloned the Leica design.

Here is a picture of a classic Leica III-C with an F/2 lens - belonged to my dad.
leica.jpg
 

ElFenix

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rangefinder refers specifically to the focusing mechanism. originally, the rangefinder was similar to the military rangefinders used to figure out artillery barrages in WWI. it was a separate piece of equipment that fit into the shoe. you read the range off the rangefinder and then set the lens to that distance. leica later integrated it into the camera body and included a cam that would set the lens as the rangefinder was operated.

modern phase-detect autofocus actually uses a rangefinder system to determine focus. that's why the focus system can determine with one look which direction and how far to move. that's why phase-detect (used in SLRs) is so fast compared to contrast detect (which can only tell if the current position is more or less in focus than the previous position)
 

corkyg

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As you adjust the lens focus ring, the split images coincide when it is focused. Similar optical rangefinders exist for use by golfers, etc. And, as El Fenix points out, such optical rangefinders have a long history of use in the old field artillery before EO ranging was developed.
 

ElFenix

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actually i had part of that kinda backwards. turning the lens has operated the rangefinder since the introduction of the leica ii and contax i in 1932. that's called a 'coupled rangefinder,' and it's the feature that essentially defines rangefinder cameras as a class. for the next 20 years or so leica and all leica clones had separate rangefinder window and viewfinder window. so you actually looked into one finder to frame and another to look at a tiny focus patch. the contax II and III had an integrated finder on introduction in 1936. eventually leica moved to an integrated finder in 1954 with the M3.
 

corkyg

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And if you look at the Leica picture above, you see what ElFenix is describing. The view finder is the small rectangual opening - the couple rangefinder uses the two round openings. The two images are combined onto a split screen, and when the two images are coincident, you have the correct focus. The Leica IIIC was circa mid-1940a - post WWII.
 

bobdole369

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Magnus is right.

Advantages over SLR and DSLR:

1. Leaf shutter is nearly silent. Very quiet "click" when photographing.
2. Cost - Back in the 70's they were top notch competitors to pro SLR's at budget prices.
3. dedicated lens means lens elements can be matched precisely, giving you razor sharpness and excellent focussing. Very very fast lenses were the norm.
4. Lightweight and simple to operate.

Negatives:
1. Lens attached permanently - only 1 focal length.
2. Old tech, no possibility of autofocus.

There are only a couple digital rangefinders.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dolespics/3309935419/
 

ElFenix

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Magnus is right.

Advantages over SLR and DSLR:

1. Leaf shutter is nearly silent. Very quiet "click" when photographing.
2. Cost - Back in the 70's they were top notch competitors to pro SLR's at budget prices.
3. dedicated lens means lens elements can be matched precisely, giving you razor sharpness and excellent focussing. Very very fast lenses were the norm.
4. Lightweight and simple to operate.

Negatives:
1. Lens attached permanently - only 1 focal length.
2. Old tech, no possibility of autofocus.

There are only a couple digital rangefinders.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dolespics/3309935419/

well, yeah that would apply to the compact rangefinders that made up the predecessor to the point n' shoot market back in the 60s and 70s. leica shutters were quiet because they were cloth.

but leica M lenses are fully interchangeable. no autofocus but (for leicas, at least) the rangefinder makes it exceedingly accurate for middle distance wide open shooting. SLR focus accuracy changes with the lens that's used. rangefinder doesn't.
 

corkyg

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And, the Leica shutter is focal plane (cloth) not leaf. Another possible negative (minor) is that framing the shot requires some thought and viewfinder interpretation due to slight parallax between lens and viewfinder. This, BTW, was the SLR's biggest advantage.

And, even before the M series, Leica lenses were definitely changeable. To illustrate, I removed the 5 cm, F/2 Summitar from the camera body. It is a screw mount - very precise.

leica2.jpg
 
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bobdole369

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The above about Leica is absolutely true. Not to mention how I'll never, ever be able to afford pretty much anything Leica - unless I find someone that really has no idea what it is and is a total dumbass.