Optics Mag is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Read more.

Rangefinder vs. SLR: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated on

Range Finder VS SLR

Over the decades, the camera has evolved through many different mechanics and shapes. Now, the rangefinder and SLR remain two of the most popular styles. Of course, both cameras have pros and cons, but the main difference between the rangefinder and SLR is how the light rays pass through the sensor and to the viewfinder.

In general, rangefinders are better for street photography, while SLRs are a better option for beginners. To determine which camera will give you the photography results you want, keep reading to thoroughly explore each camera’s specifics.

scope crosshairs divider 2

Overview of Rangefinder

boy golfer watching into rangefinder_Olimpik_shutterstock

Image Credit: Olimpik, Shutterstock

Rangefinders are also known as mirrorless cameras. Since they are small and discreet, these cameras are specifically popular amongst street photographers. Originally, rangefinders used the same 35mm film as SLR cameras while utilizing a different focus method since they didn’t need a mirror.

This type of camera is fitted with a rangefinder, typically a split-image or ground glass rangefinder. Until the 1980s, the most common type of film camera were rangefinders, until autofocus became prevalent.

It’s worth noting that the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera doesn’t show the image exactly as it will be captured. This is due to parallax error as the viewfinder window is above and to the side of the lens, requiring photographers to be careful about the framing.

Moreover, most rangers have shorter flange focal distances due to a limited selection of lenses available for the camera body. Photographers that prefer wide-angle photography can feel limited with rangefinders since only three manufacturers produce wide-angle lenses for Leica-mount rangefinders.

How It Works

Rangefinders’ focusing method differs from other cameras since they don’t feature mirrors. Instead, the viewfinder of a rangefinder camera is a separate visual system mounted extremely close to the lens, not requiring the photographer to look through the lens via a mirror.

The viewfinder for this camera shows two overlapping images of the subject, calculating the range of the subject by aligning the images. With the help of this parallax effect, photographers can focus their lenses.

golfer using rangefinder

Image Credit: LarsZ, Shutterstock

When to Choose a Rangefinder Camera

Rangefinders are versatile cameras, which means you can use them for any type of photography. However, professionals usually prefer to use rangefinder cameras for street photography and photojournalism. This is due to the lightweight and portable nature of these cameras.

Plus, the range focusing method of a rangefinder camera allows you to capture perfect shots of moving subjects without worrying about missing the focus. Since these cameras don’t feature a blackout when you press the shutter, photographers prefer to use rangefinders for sports photography.

You can thank the lack of a flipping mirror for this blackout-free photography. Rangefinder cameras also allow you to view the action outside the frame, making it easier to press the shutter at the perfect moment and use range focusing on tack-sharp subjects.

golfplayer using rangefinders

Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

Tips for Using a Rangefinder Camera

A rangefinder is a tricky camera, so you must keep certain tips in mind to get a better shot. The best trick is to separate the focusing and framing into different steps; this will help ensure everything is lined up before you press the shutter.

Also, make sure both your eyes are open while focusing on reducing the strain on your facial muscles and increasing the contrast of the rangefinder patch. It would also help to leave some cropping room when framing your scene by stepping back and cropping the image later instead of losing an important aspect due to parallax error.

Lastly, the photographer must keep the depth of field in mind as the viewfinder will leave everything in focus, but a wide aperture can blur some parts of your shot. By calculating the depth of field, they can maintain the right parts of the shot in focus.

Pros
  • Quieter and smaller due to the mirrorless nature
  • Creates sharper images as the lens is close to the film plane
  • Great for street photography
  • No shutter shake allows you to shoot handheld at lower shutter speeds
  • Larger viewfinder allows a greater field of vision
  • Allows you to better anticipate your shot
Cons
  • Slower shutter max shutter speeds
  • Not an ideal portrait camera

scope crosshairs divider 2Overview of SLR

pentax slr camera

Image Credit: 2427999, Pixabay

An SLR, short for a single-lens reflex camera, contains an internal reflex mirror, allowing photographers to look through the optical viewfinder. This way, they can see exactly what the lens sees and capture an accurate shot every time.

SLR cameras are also available as DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex.) The mirror inside these cameras lights up into a pentaprism, which reflects the image into the photographer’s eye. In addition, the mirror flips out of the way once the photographer presses the shutter, ensuring the light hits the image sensor directly.

SLR cameras are known for their versatility and flexibility, allowing you to excel in various types of photography. Plus, they’re more affordable and easily available than rangefinder cameras.

While SLR cameras are commonly used, they’re overshadowed by DSLRs, their digital counterpart, since they offer more features and are easier to handle. However, professionals that prefer to store their images on film still opt for high-quality SLR cameras.

How It Works

An SLR camera utilizes its lens, mirror, focusing screen, prism, and eyepiece for light to move through its body. These cameras feature light and small mirrors, which easily move up and down. This mirror receives the light through the lens and reflects it into a pentaprism.

Then, the pentaprism reflects the light into the photographer’s eye, displaying the image. This way, the photographer determines whether they have a perfect shot before pressing the shutter. Once they press the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way.

Now, the light directly hits the image sensor and captures the image the photographer wants. Next, the viewfinder goes black for a split second as the mirror is in the upper position. This closes the focusing screen and prevents extra light from getting through the eyepiece while the shutter is still open.

Then, the mirror moves back into place, and the photographer is ready to take another shot.

dslr with ultrawide angle zoom lens

Image Credit: Sahil Pandita, Unsplash

When to Choose an SLR Camera

Photographers that prioritize precision above all in their images opt for SLRs. Those that want to view their subjects analogously should opt for SLR cameras, as they allow you to look directly through the lens. They’re also great options for those that value good quality in their images.

However, SLRs are not the right choice if you’re looking for something to use on the go, such as for street photography or photojournalism. These cameras can be large and obtrusive, with loud shutters making it tricky to photograph discreetly.

Photographers who value creative freedom in their work should opt for SLR cameras as they allow you to easily work with interchangeable lenses. In addition, SLRs are ideal for portrait and action photography due to their precision priority.

slr camera

Image Credit: Alexei_other, Pixabay

Tips for Using an SLR Camera

The best tip to remember while using an SLR camera is to learn different shooting modes. The more you get familiar with the versatility of your SLR, the better you’ll be able to utilize its endless features to get varying shots in one photoshoot.

It’s also important to learn how to use your camera’s Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, as it will eventually help you learn how to shoot in full Manual mode. Easing into it is much more practical than experimenting with full Manual mode in the first go.

There’s no doubt that the shutter reflex of an SLR camera increases the camera shake, which is why you must invest in a quality tripod. With a trusty tripod, you’ll feel much less limited while shooting and achieve more accurate shots.

Finally, the best trick to handling an SLR is to get to know the camera’s autofocus capabilities; this will help you get the best shots even in action.

Pros
  • Allows you to preview your depth of field
  • Great for portraits and action photography
  • Straightforward split image focusing creates accurate images
  • Faster shutter speeds
  • A broad range of affordable, interchangeable lenses
  • More widely made
  • Easier to learn on
Cons
  • Large, loud, and heavy
  • Shutter reflex increases camera shake

scope crosshairs divider 2Rangefinder VS SLR

Rangefinders and SLRs are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, both cameras can use 35mm film, black and white film, or color negative film. Both cameras also use SD cards to store digital images.

Moreover, photographers can change the lens on most rangefinders and SLRs, which have viewfinders to compose and focus the image. But that’s about where their similarities end; their differences are much more abundant.

Most of these differences have to do with the camera’s inner workings, which is why you must be aware of them before making the purchase. Here are a few ways in which rangefinder and SLR cameras differ.

golfer measuring distance using rangefinder

Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

Viewfinder Blockage

One of the main ways a rangefinder differs from an SLR is its viewfinder blockage. While using an SLR camera, you’ll find that it can block the viewfinder if you opt for certain lenses. This is because when certain lenses are attached to your DSLR, the mirror system causes the lens to partially block the viewfinder.

Traditional rangefinders also face this issue, but digital rangefinders don’t. In addition, since these cameras don’t have a mirror system, photographers can enjoy an unobstructed view through the viewfinder regardless of how big their attached lens is.

You’ll find that the lack of a mirror system creates a lot of benefits for rangefinder cameras, especially with their size and weight.

Viewfinder Blackouts

SLR cameras have viewfinder blackouts due to their mirror system. When the photographer presses the shutter, the viewfinder goes black for a split second as the mirror is in the upper position.

This closes the focusing screen and prevents extra light from getting through the eyepiece while the shutter is still open. Then, the mirror moves back into place, and the photographer is ready to take another shot.

Rangefinders have mirrorless systems, which is why photographers don’t face this issue and can have their eyes on the subject at all times. Those that want a clear and unobstructed viewfinder should opt for rangefinder cameras.

golf player using Rangefinder in the field

Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

Viewfinder Location

Another difference between the rangefinder and SLR is their viewfinder location. On a rangefinder camera, the viewfinder is typically located on the top and the back of the camera, which allows photographers to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds. You may also find the viewfinder on a rangefinder camera’s right or left side.

On the other hand, SLRs feature their viewfinders on the back and top of the camera body, usually right in the middle. As a result, photographers must hold the camera to their eyes to view the shot. Those that prioritize accuracy should opt for SLRs.

Lens Options

SLR cameras are more widely used and easy to work with, which is why many lens options are available that are compatible with SLRs. The mirror system of this camera type allows for more lens attachments with various designs.

On the other hand, rangefinder cameras only have a few compatible lenses, allowing for less creative freedom while shooting. While using SLR cameras, photographers can also change the aperture and shutter speed of their shot without removing the lens from the camera body.

A rangefinder camera would require you to detach the lens before changing the aperture, shutter speed, and other similar settings. This can be quite tedious during street photography, which rangefinders are typically used for.

Those who want to experiment with wide-angle photography would also have trouble with rangefinders, as they are incompatible with wide-angle lenses. It’s also worth noting that SLR cameras offer many features you won’t find in a rangefinder, such as built-in flash units, autofocus systems, and image stabilization.

camera of a wedding photographer in action

Image Credit: Natilyn Hicks (Natilyn Photography), Unsplash

Focusing

Focusing is the main difference between SLRs and rangefinders. Rangefinders use a separate viewfinder located above the lens, which is why these cameras suffer from viewfinder parallax when focusing up close. As a result, most photographers don’t use rangefinders for close-up photography.

Meanwhile, SLR cameras allow photographers to see the image through the viewfinder so they can focus on it directly. This way, they’re able to achieve accurate shots every time, even with close-up photography.

Size and Weight

SLR cameras are typically bigger and heavier than rangefinder cameras due to their battery and mirror system, which is why they are better suited for portrait photography. Rangefinders are lighter, smaller, and unobtrusive, making them an ideal pick for street photography and photojournalism. In addition, their shutters are exceptionally quiet.

man using canon camera

Image Credit: Piqsels

Field of View

As compared to rangefinders, SLR cameras have a narrow field of view as these cameras use full-frame sensors. Meanwhile, rangefinders use smaller sensors, which is why they’re a better pick for those that prefer a wider field of view while shooting. These cameras also allow you to see beyond the normal frame lines of the lens.

Photographers that want to predict a good image as it happens by seeing action before it comes into the frame should opt for rangefinders. However, if you don’t mind sacrificing a little field of view for better accuracy while shooting, you may be better suited to SLR cameras.

Price

Rangefinder cameras are much more expensive than SLRs and also less available. The average price of a rangefinder is approximately $9,000, while the cost of an SLR or DSLR can range from $100–$6,000.

scope crosshairs divider 2

Summing Up

Both the SLR and rangefinder seem quite similar to the untrained eye due to their appearance. But once you study their interiors, you’ll see how truly different they are. Now that you’re well acquainted with the differences between rangefinders and SLRs, you can weigh the pros and cons to get yourself a camera that suits your photography style best.

About the Author Jeff Weishaupt

Jeff is a tech professional by day, writer, and amateur photographer by night. He's had the privilege of leading software teams for startups to the Fortune 100 over the past two decades. He currently works in the data privacy space. Jeff's amateur photography interests started in 2008 when he got his first DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel. Since then, he's taken tens of thousands of photos. His favorite handheld camera these days is his Google Pixel 6 XL. He loves taking photos of nature and his kids. In 2016, he bought his first drone, the Mavic Pro. Taking photos from the air is an amazing perspective, and he loves to take his drone while traveling.

Jeff Weishaupt Profile Picture