What is the difference between a Rangefinder and an SLR

It might seem like a simple question to some, but it’s an aspect of film photography that can be pivotal developing your style.

I’ll start with the basics.

All cameras, digital and film, work by absorbing light through the lens and when the shutter is open, either the sensor or film reacts to the light, providing a documentation of the light that was present in that exact moment.

The shutter speed, aperture and ISO that are set adjust the amount of light that is able to be absorbed by the sensor or film. This is why photography: the manipulation of this light, is seen as part science part art.


What is an SLR?DSC_4518 (2)

SLR stands for Single Lens Reflex. Single Lens – because the camera has one lens, as oppose to older medium format cameras that often came with two, and Reflex because the view in the viewfinder is reflected through the lens itself via a mirror system.

This means that what you see through the viewfinder is, in the simplest terms, ‘what your camera sees.’

When you press the shutter release button, the front mirror springs up to allow the light to pass through the shutter. That’s why it goes black for a second when you take a picture.


What is a Rangefinder?DSC_4471-min

Rangefinder is the name given to cameras the mirrored system. Instead, their viewfinder is a completely separate optic that is in no way connected with the lens or shutter region of the camera.

They get their name simply from the fact that finding your subject’s range, is done completely through the viewfinder.

When you take a picture your view stays constant through the viewfinder.


What’s the Difference?

The difference between these cameras doesn’t end in their viewfinder function. SLRs and Rangefinder cameras require different mindsets to operate.

SLRs show a very literal view of what your photograph will look like. They tend to have interchangeable lenses so you can pick which is most suitable for the kind of photography you’re doing. This obviously changes how zoomed in or cropped each image in and has to be adjusted using the viewfinder.

Rangefinders, on the other hand, tend to come with an integrated lens or at least a prime, non zoom lens. This alleviates the need to precisely adjust the cameras focal length, although it does leave a slightly more noticeable difference between what’s in the viewfinder and how the image comes out.

The most noticable difference between the two is in the design of the camera. The SLR camera almost always features a protruding viewfinder housing on top of the camera body. This is the desing that has stood the test of time and continues to be used on DSLRs of today. The Rangefinder has no need for a mirror casing because it contains no mirrors. Instead it’s viewfinder is often housed just to left or right of the camera back. This makes the Rangefinder smaller and easier to carry (and usually means that there’s less to go wrong.)


Then we come to the matter of price. I own three SLRs. They were all bought for under £50. It only takes one quick browse through eBay at Leica and Voigtlander Rangefinders and you’ll soon see the decimals creeping upwards. (I saw a Leica for £13,000 last week!).

To say Rangefinders are more highly sought after would be an understatement. The Canon Cannonet that is currently under test is a beautiful camera to use. It’s easy to see why people love them. But in the new film resurgence, Rangefinders have become more than quality peace of mind. They’ve become a statement.

I’m writing this just after watching one of my favourite YouTubers (and I’m not a big YouTuber fan) KingJvpes’ video. In the video he declares that he is selling a huge chunk of his SLR collection to buy the Voigtlander Bessa R2 (a pretty expensive Rangefinder). However, he did also say that he is never going to be able to bring himself to sell his favourite camera; the one that began his love for film photography: The Minolta X-700 (an SLR).

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