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.

What Is a Rangefinder Camera? When Are They Used?

Last Updated on

golfer using rangefinder

If you’re a professional or aspiring photographer, you are probably familiar with rangefinder cameras. Although these cameras have a rich history, they slowly faded in popularity in the early 2000s. 

By standing out among this age’s imposing and intimidating modern cameras, these easy-to-use, straightforward gadgets are still a go-to for vintage photographers today. Depending on the photographer’s preference, a rangefinder helps refine the artistic approach to photography, eliminating any unnecessary complications.

However, there are multiple sets of opinions regarding these gadgets. After fading away after their period of glory since their advent, these cameras have now returned with a bang and are being used for beautiful photography projects.

What exactly are rangefinder cameras, and how are they used? Check out this detailed guide to find out.

binoculars divider

What Is a Rangefinder Camera?

Rangefinder cameras can be simply described as gadgets that revolutionized conventional photography back in the mid-19th century. Made with a unique focusing system, these cameras helped take sharply focused photos from a distance, which was unprecedented at that time.

The 3A Kodak Autographic Special, launched in 1916, was one of the first rangefinder cameras to be marketed for professional consumers. However, today, rangefinders are primarily associated with the renowned brand Leica.

Consisting mainly of a rangefinder, calibrating wheel, and viewfinder, these cameras are still used today for specific purposes and allow photographers to experiment with multiple techniques. Read through the next section to see how these cameras work.

Man hunter using rangefinder
Image credit: PRESSLAB, Shutterstock

How Do They Work?

Rangefinder cameras primarily work using the two windows located at the front. Through these two windows, the photographer can witness the space in front of the camera through separate viewpoints.

Then, the lenses and mirrors in the camera use the information provided by the two windows to compare the images and decipher the distance between them. Some rangefinder cameras even show you two images on top of each other. This way, the photographer can see if the lens is focused correctly if the images align.

On the other hand, in some rangefinder cameras, the photographer might need to gauge the distance through the rangefinder using a scale on the focusing mechanism. Believe it or not, the accuracy of this method made rangefinders one of the go-to methods to use comparative data for lens focus. This l

Lets photographers focus precisely on a wide-angle lens without any hassle, making it a staple in the professional gear of street photographers and journalists, even after the invention of reflex cameras.

What Are the Different Types of Rangefinder Cameras?

In a nutshell, a rangefinder camera helps the photographer measure the distance between his camera and the object. However, after the advent of this device, there were many breakthroughs in the field, resulting in several product variations.

While the basic working principle remains the same, there are multiple types of rangefinder cameras that photographers can choose from, depending on their purpose and preference. Here are some common types of rangefinder cameras:

Optical Rangefinders

Optical rangefinder cameras complete their purpose using the distance between two rangefinder windows. The camera calculates the angle upon which the image converges at the base by capturing two separate images at different distances.

This means that the longer the base, the more accurate the rangefinder is. Optical rangefinders were mainly used in WWII by the navy. They had extensive base lengths so that soldiers could quickly determine the distance and proximity of an enemy ship approaching them.

An optical rangefinder camera is classified into two types: coupled and uncoupled. The former provides a link between the distance ring of the lens so that photographers can directly focus on the object. The

latter first measures how far you are from the subject. After that, you must manually transfer the measurement to the camera’s distance ring and focus on the object.

Photographers can also purchase uncoupled rangefinders individually and use them with any camera device if it has a focusing lens integrated into its system.

Boy golfer using rangefinder
Image credit: Olimpik, Shutterstock

Sonar Rangefinders

Apart from the dual-window system, some rangefinders also use sonar to gauge the distance between the camera and the object. This means the camera will emit sound waves and calculate the distance by the time it takes the waves to bounce back from the object.

While these rangefinders were once commonly used in submarines and marine warfare, this technology was also abundantly used in modern Polaroid cameras.

Infrared Rangefinders

Infrared rangefinder cameras are undoubtedly the most advanced of their kind used in film cameras back in the 1980s. However, instead of infrared rangefinders, these devices were commonly known as autofocus devices.

While sonar rangefinders use sound to measure the distance between the camera and the object, infrared rangefinders use light as their primary medium. By measuring the light’s return delay after being reflected from the camera, the device can accurately determine the distance between the camera and the object.

binoculars divider Where Is a Rangefinder Camera Used?

Today, rangefinder cameras seldom make it into discussions regarding professional photography and breakthroughs in the industry. There are mainly two reasons for rangefinder cameras to have faded out of view for a few decades.

Firstly, the increase of creative and professional photographers globally led to a demand for advanced technology. Secondly, there was an increased convenience of taking photos, primarily through smartphones and digital cameras.

Let’s face it; no photographer really needs a rangefinder camera today. However, if you consider yourself a professional photographer who is true to their roots, then owning an individual rangefinder device can help you sharpen and refine your technique in multiple ways.

Rangefinder cameras have various advantages over other types of cameras, which has brought them into the limelight of conventional photography in the last few years. Similarly, their ease of use and low-profile appearance also appeal to photographers worldwide.

There are several specific ways in which rangefinder cameras are used today.

golfplayer using rangefinders
Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

Street Photography

Street photographers typically use rangefinder cameras to capture moving objects and quickly bring them into focus. Besides that, uncoupled optical rangefinders also let them holistically capture a scene, bringing brilliant results.

Documentary Photographers

Documentary photographers mainly need to capture real-life scenes without letting them deviate from their actual nature. With their focusing abilities, rangefinders can easily let such photographers capture the subjects they want with ease and simplicity.

Besides that, these cameras are affordable compared to high-end autofocus devices so that they can be carried around to obscure locations and rough environments without any concern.

Portrait Photographers

Apart from efficiently capturing moving objects and scenarios, rangefinder cameras are also ideal for portrait photography.

By helping the photographer gauge the distance between the camera and the object and focusing on it adequately, rangefinder cameras can produce unique single and family portraits.

Sports Photography

A rangefinder camera lets you observe the ongoings outside your frame and doesn’t cause a blackout when you press the shutter. That’s because there are no flipping mirrors involved in its operation, unlike other cameras.

This makes them ideal for sports photography, where professionals need to capture moving objects accurately.

binoculars divider Advantages of Rangefinder Cameras

golfer measuring distance using rangefinder
Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

Now that you have all the necessary information about rangefinder cameras, you are probably ready to purchase one for yourself. However, whether you are a seasoned photographer or an aspiring amateur, you should know whether the device will work well before investing in it.

Here’s a list of advantages you will get by using rangefinder cameras, so you can see if they fit your needs and preferences:

Accurate Focus

You can get sharp images with rangefinder cameras because of their excellent focusing method.

Low Light Focus

With its distance-measuring mechanism, you can even focus on your subject in low light.

Outside Frame Visibility

While operating a rangefinder camera, you can easily see things outside the frame, even when focusing on a single object.

Lightweight and Portable

Attributing to the simplicity of the device, it is lightweight and portable. You can carry it wherever you want on photography assignments without worrying about its weight or profile. Also, the device won’t become intrusive while you capture your desired photos.

binoculars divider Disadvantages of Rangefinder Cameras

golf player using Rangefinder in the field
Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

While there are multiple advantages of using a rangefinder camera, there are always two sides to a coin, even in this age. Here, we have listed down the disadvantages of rangefinder cameras so you can get an honest representation of the device before making a decision.

No Zoom Lenses

The lenses integrated into rangefinder cameras are mainly prime lenses. That’s why you will seldom find a rangefinder with a zoom lens. However, if you don’t usually work with zoom lenses, this might not be a drawback.

No Image Preview

When operating a rangefinder camera, you are not viewing the object through the lens. So, when you press the shutter, you don’t know how your image will turn out.

No Flash

Most of the time, rangefinder cameras come without a built-in flash. But you can always integrate an external flash with the hot shoe and use it accordingly.

binoculars divider Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

golfer measuring distance using rangefinder
Image Credit: trattieritratti, Shutterstock

After reading the advantages and disadvantages of rangefinder cameras, you have either decided on purchasing one or passing on it. If you still have some questions regarding the device, here are answers to some FAQs to give you further insight:

What Are the Primary Uses of Rangefinder Cameras?

Rangefinder cameras are mainly used for street photography, documentary photography, and photojournalism. Their simplicity and low-profile appearance let professionals carry them and operate them efficiently. Also, the range-focusing feature lets them focus on moving objects.

From Where Does a Rangefinder Camera Get Its Name?

A rangefinder camera uses a rangefinder device to let photographers gauge the distance between the camera and the subject. That’s why they are called rangefinder cameras.

Are Rangefinders and Viewfinders Different?

Yes, rangefinders and viewfinders are two different parts of a camera. The rangefinder lets you measure the distance between the subject and the camera while the viewfinder focuses on the image itself.

What Is the Difference Between an SLR and a Rangefinder Camera?

A single-lens reflex (SLR) camera works using a reflex system, while its mechanism involves a flipping mirror and viewfinder. However, a rangefinder does not have a flipping mirror. Furthermore, rangefinder cameras are more lightweight, compact, and provide noiseless operation.

Most importantly, rangefinder cameras lack the bells and whistles offered by high-end SLR and digital SLR (DSLR) cameras. If you’re seeking simplicity, that’s a plus point. But, if you’re looking for an all-in-one device, then a rangefinder won’t work for you.

binoculars divider Conclusion

While rangefinder cameras might be considered outdated amidst the current advancements in photography gadgets, these devices have yet to lose their charm in the field. After briefly becoming obscure following their period of glory, rangefinder cameras are getting the appreciation they deserve in the field once again.

Like modern SLR and DSLR cameras, rangefinders have a variety of benefits and are used for various purposes. However, if you’re a photographer, deciding whether these cameras are suitable for you involves closely assessing your needs and preferences.

Featured Image Credit: LarsZ, Shutterstock

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.