Originally Posted by Rob Oh
Hi, can anyone recommend a nice cheap rangefinder for a beginner...
I have been reading up and looking at Yashicas, Canonets etc but the prices seem quite varied... maybe because certain cameras are more fashionable than others..? Is it worth paying £60+ for a Yashica Electro when other cameras can be had for far cheaper?
Whilst £60 wont break the bank, I am partial to losing things, and losing a £20 camera would be preferable to a £60 one
How good are you with tools? You can get a pretty good rangefinder for that amount, but it will probably need some work.
This is a post I made on another forum on vintage rangefinders:
Well, someone suggested that we need a post on rangefinders, so here it is. The easiest way I know of telling people about rangefinders is to compare them to the most popular type of camera, the SLR (single lens reflex camera).
Single lens reflex cameras:
A single lens reflex is a type of camera that allows you to see through the lens, as opposed to most other types of camera, wherein the viewfinder is usually located somewhere over the lens. This is done by means of a prism (or mirror) behind the viewfinder, in the top of the camera, and a mirror that hangs behind the lens and that pivots up out of the way when you trip the shutter. It works kind of like a periscope. There are a few inherent problems with this arrangement though. (1) The mirror swings up when you trip the shutter, and you can’t see anything until it swings down again. (2) The lens has to be located farther from the film to make room for the mirror, and this means that performance is noticeably reduced with wide angle lenses. (3) When the mirror reaches the top of its swing, it hits a padded foam bumper. This is designed to reduce vibrations, but is not 100% effective. At some shutter speeds this can cause motion blur.
SLRs perform best with telephoto lenses, less well (but still pretty well) with normal lenses, and not very well at all with wide angle lenses. This last is because, in order to get a good image across that chasm taken up by the mirror box, the wide angle and normal lenses have to use extra glass elements. These lenses with the extra glass elements are called retrofocus lenses. Retrofocus design lenses are fine if you are making telephoto lenses, but not other types. ALL SLRs use retrofocus lenses. It is one of the things that make an SLR an SLR. Since the method used to focus one is to look through the viewfinder and adjust the focus until it looks sharp, they can be difficult or nearly impossible to focus in dim light. Nearly all SLRs, with only a few exceptions, have interchangeable lenses. This last property makes them very versatile, and able to do most types of photography (although some of these types they do better than others). They are good general purpose cameras.
A rangefinder is more of a specialist’s tool. They are great for street photography, for most types of full-length people photography, and for night photography. Focusing a rangefinder is done by triangulation. When you look into the viewfinder, you will see TWO images. These images are taken from opposite ends of the camera (so that the triangle you are going to use to set the focus has a wide enough base to be usable). It does this by using two mirrors. One mirror is semitransparent, and is located directly in front of the viewfinder. The other mirror is normal and is located behind a window on the other side of the camera. The semitransparent mirror is angled, so that while you can see through it, you also see the reflection of the other mirror. The otehr mirror is angled to show what is in front of the camera. This is why you are seeing two images. Adjusting the focus moves these two images closer together or farther apart. When they merge to form one image, the camera is in focus. This is much easier to do in dim light -- provided that both mirrors are clean and no one has rubbed the silvering off of the semitransparent mirror.
Rangefinders do not have a mirror box, since there is no mirror pivoting up and down in them that needs room in which to swing. Thus, the lens can be located closer to the film. Because of this, they work better than SLRs with normal and wide angle lenses, but they don’t work very well at all with telephoto lenses. They do have some advantages that make up for this though.
Aside from their ability to be easily focused at night, they use simpler non-retrofocus lenses, and the normal and wide angle lenses are usually superb – they will be sharper, to a noticeable extent, than ANY non-telephoto lens you can put on ANY SLR. Also, rangefinder lenses don’t have another problem of retrofocus lenses: Every retrofocus lens has one aperture at which it is sharpest. Sharpness falls off to a noticeable extent if you don’t use this aperture (usually somewhere between f/8 and f/16, depending on the lens). Rangefinder lenses don’t have this problem. There is very little difference between the sharpness of photos taken at different apertures. This is a gift from God for street photographers. It works out well for full-length figure photographers too – but not for those who do head-and-shoulders portraits and who thus require telephoto lenses. Another drawback to using a rangefinder is that it is necessary to be able to look through the viewfinder in order to use a polarizing filter – and so you can’t use them with rangefinders. Also, no rangefinder that I know of can use zoom lenses. In fact, most rangefinders have fixed lenses (there are a few exceptions to this last though). By a happy coincidence, a rangefinder's strong suits match almost precisely with an SLR's weak points, so the two systems augment and compliment one another perfectly.
Now about specific makes and models:
Most people buying a rangefinder for the first time will not be getting a new Leica or a Voigtlander. They will be buying one of the popular vintage rangefinders that were made in the 50s and 60s, an era when SLRs had not yet become popular and rangefinders ruled the professional photographic world (at least in 35mm). BTW, most of these cameras ran on #PX625 batteries, which are no longer being made, since the EPA banned mercury batteries in the early 80s. It isn’t usually a big problem finding something to run them on though. A #675 zinc/air hearing aid battery, available in nearly any drug store, will work fine, if you use a small rubber O-ring as an adapter for size. If you get a Canonet, you might have to add a bit of aluminum foil to the rubber O-ring to assure good electrical contact. If you get a Yashica, you can run it on pretty much anything you can stuff into the battery compartment. Anyway, if you’re buying a vintage rangefinder, this is what to look for – and what to look out for:
1. Canon Canonet:
The Canonet was available in several models. One model, made by Bell and Howell, was powered by a selenium cell -- located behind a bumpy plastic ring around the lens. Since selenium cells had an average lifespan of about 15 years, since that time has long expired, since they are impossible to replace, and since the camera won’t work without it, you’d best avoid that particular model. However, the G-III QL-17 and the G-III QL-19 are good cameras, powered by a battery and a CDS cell (a cadmium disulfide photo-resistor). These types of cells will usually still be good. Canonets are capable of shutter priority autoexposure or completely manual operation.
Common problems: The light seals will most certainly need replacing. Also, Canonets are susceptible to “sticky shutter syndrome,” which is what happens when old lubricant strays onto the shutter blades and they stick together. The shutter blades on a Canonet are difficult to access, and fixing this problem will require an extensive disassembly. Make sure the shutter speeds are correct before buying a Canonet, or be prepared to sell your children into slavery to pay for a fix.
2. Minolta Hi-Matic 7S and Hi-Matic 9:
These are good cameras and are pretty much identical to the Canonets, from a specification standpoint. They are also either shutter priority autoexposure or manual – just like the Canonets.
As always, with vintage cameras, the first thing to do is to replace the light seals. The most common problems with the Hi-Matics are the self timers -- they tend to get stuck. When they do, the entire camera jams solid. Make sure the self timer works, because fixing it requires taking the whole front of the camera apart.
3. Argus C-3 and C-4:
These are very simple rangefinder cameras, very basic, with surprisingly sharp lenses. They have no meters, unlike all the other cameras mentioned here. They are extremely rugged, and C-3s were issued to the U.S. Army Press Corps during the Korean War. They were designed so that if anything went wrong, the average high-school dropout could take it apart with a screwdriver in a muddy foxhole and get it working again. It really is easy – here’s an Army repair manual: http://arguscg.tripod.com/id92.html
Argus sold these by the hundreds of thousands of truckloads, so one of these will most likely only cost you about $10 (bakelite C-3) or $25 (aluminum C-4) on eBay. Unlike most of the other cameras mentioned here, the C-3 and C-4 are real system cameras – you might have to hunt a long while to find them, but there were interchangeable lenses available for these cameras. There are also “auxiliary lenses” (lenses that screw into the front of the existing lens). These are a telephoto and a wide angle lens, but the telephoto lens doesn’t work very well (at least mine doesn’t).
These don’t use light seals, so that is one problem less. DO NOT get the C-3 with the snazzy “champagne gold” leatherette panels on the front. That is the C-3 Matchmatic and its so-called “improved” exposure system will leave you scratching your head and looking for a translation. The shutter speeds and apertures are labeled 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. What you want is the standard model C-3, with the black leatherette, which uses standard f/stops and shutter speeds. Other than that, and possibly cleaning the shutter blades (a simple operation with the C-series), these don’t usually have any problems. They are tough as bricks (the "brick" is the C-3's nickname)and are extremely durable and reliable. I think it would almost literally take a hammer to break one.
4. Yashica Lynx 14, Lynx 14e, Lynx 5000 and Lynx 5000e:
If you want a camera that is just a little more sophisticated than the Argus cameras, there are my personal favorites, the Lynx 14e and Lynx 5000e. These have no autoexposure and are strictly manual. There is a built-in light meter though. These probably have the best lenses of the bunch. The Lynx 14, in particular, has a huge and very bright f/1.4 lens, making it the best of the bunch for low light photography. The Lynx 14 and Lynx 5000 ran on #PX625 batteries, which are no longer in production. The “e” models run on #640 batteries, which are still being made.
Common problems: Well, the light seals will need replacing, as is usual with any camera older than 10 years or so. Also, the quality of the CDS cell wasn’t all it could be. If yours is bad, it won’t be a big deal to replace it though.
5. Yashica Electro 35 G-series:
Yashica also made a series of rangefinders called the Electro 35 G, GS, GT, GSN, GTN, MG-1 and so on. These were autoexposure only and they were aperture priority instead of shutter priority. Aperture priority is more useful, I think, but you won’t have the option of manual operation. Still, you can finesse this to an extent, by adjusting the ISO setting and then push/pull processing. These are very nice cameras, with bright f/1.7 lenses, and the autoexposure is remarkably accurate – probably because the meter is a little bit center-weighted.
The G-series cameras rely on a rubber pad (located just inside the camera, to the right of the lens and just under the top plate) being a certain thickness in order to reset the shutter. If the thickness of this pad is just a little off, the exposure will be out of calibration, and it can lead to all sorts of weird problems. It isn’t too difficult to fix, but it is not really a job for a truely rank amateur. Of course you will have to replace the light seals too, but this is an easy job, even if you ARE a rank amateur.
There are a variety of Russian rangefinders, made by Kiev, Moskva, Zenit, FED, Zorki and so on. If you go this route, good luck. Most of these are Contax-based designs, with a few of the early ones based on Leicas. However, unlike the Leica and Contax cameras they are based on, their internal finish is comparitively rough. In a few, the gearing sounds and feels more like it belongs in a cement mixer than in a camera. On a good day, about one out of four will work exactly as it should. The rest will need tuneups. The Industar lenses are failry reliable but Jupiter lenses -- well -- the one in four rule works for those too. The only way to get one and be sure it works is to get it through one of the companies that overhauls and reworks them, like Kiev USA.
Vintage medium format rangefinders:
Voigtlander, Agfa/Ansco, Certo, Welta, Balda, Franka, Adox and several other companies made medium format rangefinders. These are mainly German folding cameras. Like most folding cameras, they are pretty easy to work on, even for an amateur. Some don’t have light seals and almost none have light meters.
All of the old folding cameras are bellows cameras. Bellows are prone to developing light leaks. It isn’t too difficult to patch them, but patches are temporary fixes -- they WILL eventually start leaking again. Replacing the bellows is the best option, but replacing the bellows on anything but a Kodak or an Agfa can be a serious pain in the neck. Oh, and ALL bellows by Agfa/Ansco need replacing. Moral: It is a good idea to either ask about light leaks before you buy the camera or to have a good replacement bellows on hand. Most of the old folders will need their shutter blades cleaned too, but this isn’t too difficult a job; just takes some patience, some naphtha (lighter fluid) and a whole lot of q-tips.
Of course if you buy your camera new, you won’t have to do anything to it to get it running. Leica and Voigtlander both make some truly excellent 35mm rangefinders and several other companies make them in medium format. There are even a few companies, like Linhof, that make large format view cameras with secondary rangefinder focusing systems.