A rangefinder camera is a specific tool. It’s great for some things (documentary) and terrible for other photo applications (sports, wildlife…). Wide angle to normal focal length lenses are the rangefinder’s strength.
When we talk rangefinders the discussion centers around Leica simply because Leica occupies 95% of the thought and user space. Yes, they are expensive. No, they don’t take photos that are technically better than a $400 Canon Rebel.
Most people think the lenses are the reason to use a Leica rangefinder. That is a side benefit. In the mid-1980’s I purchased my first Leica, an M2, paired with a new 35mm Summicron. Those first 11×14’s I made in the darkroom stunned me with their contrast and corner-to-corner sharpness compared to the images from my Nikkor 35/2. There’s lot of great glass out there. I also use Voightlander and Zeiss lenses. I’m currently using a Zeiss 35/2.8 Biogon-C. It’s technically the best 35 I’ve used, even compared to my Leica 35/2 ASPH. Leica lenses are built to last forever. The Zeiss and Voightlanders may not be as well built, but they can be just as good optically and cost a LOT less.
Rangefinder photography at its core is about seeing though the rangefinder’s viewfinder window.
Famed National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard said it best in his book “The Photographic Essay.”
“With an SLR, you are looking at your subject through the optic; you are literally seeing what the picture is going to look like. You have a device that will show you your depth of field, the area that will or will not be in critical focus. This is particularly true for me, because I’m often shooting at the maximum aperture of the lens, the aperture you actually view through. This helps you see how areas of color are affected. It can tell you if that blue has a hard edge, or if it’s somewhat soft and blended into something else.”
“When you look through a rangefinder, though, everything is sharp. The rangefinder window is by and large a focusing and framing device that lets you pick a part of the subject you want to be in critical focus. The only real way you can tell how the rest of the picture is going to look is by experience, or maybe a quick look at the depth-of-field scale on the lens itself. I think the rangefinder frees you up in a certain way. You are probably going to work a little looser in a structural sense, because everything is clean, clear and sharp. When I look through an SLR, I think I’m a little bit more aware of compositional elements, of the structure of the image. With a rangefinder camera, I’m seeing certain spatial relationships.”
My first M2 and 35 Summicron was the only camera I used for a project in a documentary photo class in college on the Short North area of Columbus, Ohio. It was the image below that changed everything. I remember thinking I never would have made this image with my Nikon. Seeing though the rangefinder window freed me in the way Allard describes. Leica M’s have been cameras I’ve enjoyed using ever since. For the kind of photography I enjoy they are a wonderful tool.