Rangefinder Cameras  –  Vintage Camera Type

Typical Rangefinder Camera Traits

Construction: metal
Lens Quality: medium to high
User Controls: moderate to comprehensive

Rangefinder Camera Characteristics

Rangefinder cameras are defined by the eponymous focusing system which uses a pair of prisms to superimpose a double image that, when properly aligned, will tell you the distance to your subject. Since the majority of them were on the more expensive side of the product spectrum, it’s uncommon to find a rangefinder camera that does not offer both quality optics and a sufficient amount of user controls.

Rangefinders started out as camera accessories in the early 1900s and it’s generally agreed that the very first camera to have a rangefinder was the No.3A Autographic Kodak Special. A decade or so later, cameras like the groundbreaking Leica II began sporting integrated rangefinders and although accessory rangefinders were still available, more and more cameras began including them in their design. The vast majority of these models have coupled rangefinders, meaning that the lens is linked directly to the rangefinder as opposed to calculating the distance first with an accessory rangefinder and then adjusting the lens based on the reading.

While expensive models like the Zeiss Ikon Contax I transformed the high end market, humbler cameras like the Argus C3 and—to a somewhat lesser extent—the Kodak 35 RF brought rangefinder to the general public. However, whereas many earlier rangefinders featured interchangeable lenses, more and more manufacturers began producing cheaper models with fixed lenses. By the 1970s, rangefinders began falling out of fashion as camera companies started flooding the market with SLRs.

Rangefinders have appeared in a huge variety of form factors over the decades. Apart from conventional 35mm cameras (example: the Minolta Hi-Matic), they have also adorned everything from enormous press cameras like the Graflex Crown Graphic to tiny shooters such as the Canon 110 ED. There are some odd rangefinders as well. The Bolsey Model C is believed to be the only twin lens reflex camera ever made that also has a rangefinder, the Polaroid Big Shot has a rangefinder but no way to focus the lens apart from moving the whole cameraforward or backward, and several other Polaroids like the Spectra employ a sophisticated sonar-based rangefinder which fires a volley of soundwaves and uses the echo to calculate distance.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of rangefinder cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), 64, 104, 258, 322, 353, 417, 466, 546, 714.