M Mount Lenses for Rangerfinder Cameras
New technology is always fun and thrilling. But today’s photography also includes technologies that have been around for a long time and are still proving their salt.
Rangefinder cameras are one example. One of the first models was developed by Leica in 1932: the Leica IID. Then ZEISS came out with its own 35-mm ZEISS Contax I rangefinder camera, our very first camera. Cameras with the Contax brand name were manufactured by Zeiss Ikon until 1972, and later by a Japanese partner until 2005. In 2004 Carl Zeiss brought this legend back to life by introducing the Zeiss Ikon ZM rangefinder camera for 35-mm film, along with a new range of ZM lenses.
Today, most 35mm rangefinder cameras use ‘M’ mount lenses. Leica set the standard for this. Since 1954 Leica rangefinder cameras have had ‘M’ in their name, and lens manufacturers add ‘M’ to the names of their lenses to indicate their compatibility.
What you see is what you get
The design of a rangefinder camera is very different than that of a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. First, rangefinders are not through-the-lens systems. Instead, the rangefinder camera’s optical system is separate from the imaging lens. There is a viewfinder window at the front and a second rangefinder window built in a few centimetres aside the viewfinder window. When you look through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera, the viewfinder produces the view you see, not the lens. By contrast, with an SLR camera, you see what the lens sees.
Aligning the ‘twin’ images
The rangefinder window – you guessed it – the rangefinder. This is a device that allows you to set the distance from you to your target. Via a mirror, the rangefinder reflects a second image to the viewfinder, creating a ‘twin’ image. As you turn the focus ring, the mirror moves, making it appear as if the smaller image is moving sideways. When both images align to form a single image, you know the lens is perfectly focused.
So why would anyone want to use a rangefinder camera? One reason is that the focusing could be more precise, especially with wide angle lenses, than an autofocus camera. As a result, you are more in control. Sure, manual-focus lenses will give you more control, too, but there’s another key element of rangefinder cameras that adds a completely new dimension to the experience: the framelines.
When you peer through the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera, you see framelines. These not only frame the image, but also show you what is outside the image. An SLR camera cannot do that, because its viewfinder typically shows little more than 90% of what will be recorded.
Being able to see what surrounds the actual image provides more context and more information, which can unlock new creative potential. Seeing the ‘whole’ scene can be helpful, for example, for event photography, documentary, reportage or street photography. Having more context will also make you more purposeful when composing, and you’ll immerse yourself more deeply in the scene. It’s a different kind of experience than shooting with SLR cameras.
This effect is enhanced by the fact the many rangefinder cameras have a cloth shutters, which is quieter than the ‘click’ produced by the shutter of an SLR camera with a movable mirror. A softer shutter will make it less obvious that you’re taking pictures, which again is ideal for travel and street photography and reportage.
Lighter and quieter
Because lenses for rangefinder cameras can be located closer to the film plane or sensor than withy through-the-lens systems like SLRs, rangefinder lenses are usually lighter, smaller and more compact, even in the wide-angle range. This is perfect when if you’re hiking or otherwise on the go. ZEISS offers a complete system of lenses that work with rangefinder cameras: the ZEISS ZM lenses with ten focal lengths. The Carl Zeiss T* ZM-mount lenses were specifically designed to minimize focus shift with aperture changes, which is particularly important in rangefinder photography.