Digital Rangefinder Cameras - The Answer?
There comes a time when all of us must admit that we change - age finally has an effect on what we do or how we do what we do.
For a number of years my good friend John Robert Young has been telling me that I must ditch my outrageously heavy Nikons and change to something lighter. When I started out as a photographer gear tended to be heavy and we young, fit professionals tended to have two or three - or perhaps more - film bodies with a different lens fitted to each, ready to catch whatever presented itself. That was all well and good whilst we were young and capable but the years have exacted a toll.
Then, when the first flush of exuberant youth was overtaken by the hard won voice of experience we all began to look at ways of reducing the load we carried. Perhaps a zoom lens replaced a number of primes or the mega-telephoto was ditched and replaced with a teleconverter for those rare times when a long lens was needed. We all pruned our kit back to the bare minimum needed to do the job, conscious that we were successful and didn’t need to have a gratuitous display of cameras to prove it.
I eventually replaced all my big Billingham and Domke bags with a single smaller one, forcing myself to use only what would fit into that. My photography improved, as did my back. I was happy, life was good and all looked rosy on the film front. Film was here forever. There was nothing on the horizon that could replace film, certainly not the new-fangled digital cameras with their tiny sensors and certainly not within my working lifetime.
But as we all know that carefully mapped timeline failed spectacularly. Very quickly the quality of digital surpassed film and its ease of use meant that continuing to shoot film in a competitive market was a pointless exercise. And then, gradually at first, digital cameras began to grow in size. DX bodies morphed into FX full-frame bodies and zoom lens quality rapidly accelerated. We found that we had to have both zooms and fast primes if we were to succeed. Bodies had to be duplicated in an effort to cover ourselves if things went wrong. Whereas film bodies were updated every five or ten years - or when they wore out - digital bodies seemed to need to be replaced every couple of years, when something better, which was inevitably bigger and more expensive, was introduced. Camera bags grew again, with shoulder bags morphing into rucksacks and we photographers, now older and increasingly unfit, began to suffer once again. Age may bring lots of things but wisdom isn’t always one of them.
So with this in mind John Robert Young, a longtime Leica user, suggested that I have an extended play with his Fuji X-Pro1 system and generously loaned me a body and two lenses. I departed from him thinking that the weight of the bag meant that I had left most of the key items behind. Was this about to usher in a new era in my photography?
I’ve had the kit for a month now and I have to confess that the results - the quality of the RAW files themselves - are outstanding. However, despite trying so very, very hard to like the kit, I have learnt a few things about camera design. One of them is that if a reasonable quality SLR, like a basic Pentax let’s say, had appeared on the marketplace before a Leica or a Contax or any of the other esteemed rangefinder cameras, the worldwide market for rangefinder cameras, and the enthusiasm for them that their owners have, would have been tiny. It was only, I submit, because the ability to manufacture an easy-to-use SLR in the 1920s was beyond the economic and technological grasp of the camera industry that rangefinders gained the prominence that they did. If Leica had found a way to cram a working mirror box with an instant return mirror and a pentaprism into their camera in 1930, don’t you think they would have done it? Of course they would. Whilst Kine Exakta and others did have SLR cameras in the 1930s, they were woefully inadequate and their very failings drove users towards the faster operating rangefinders of the day. The first eye-level viewfinder SLR was produced in Hungary in 1948 and this Duflex was also the first to incorporate an instant-return mirror, paving the way for the next generation of popular SLRs in the 1960s, such as Pentax, Nikon and Canon.
In a nutshell, the only two reasons that I can discover for the popularity of rangefinder cameras are their quiet shutters and their relatively small size and light(ish) weight. In the main the viewfinders are rubbish and the ease of focussing is certainly nothing to write home about, even with normal or wide-angle lenses. Why on earth would you not want to see the scene through the taking lens if cameras were available that had that facility?
So, leaping forward 90 years from the arrival of the first Leica 1, if I wanted to use a relatively small, quiet, lightweight camera that equalled my Nikons in terms of quality yet did away with the complicated, large, heavy mirror and prism system that allows me to look through my taking lens, I would look for a rangefinder camera that, 1) had a brilliant electronic viewing and focussing system and, 2) had the ability to take pictures as fast as, let’s say, a lever wind-on Nikon F, circa 1960. Surely that’s not too much to ask is it?
I know that the Fuji X-Pro1 is not the very latest generation rangefinder type digital camera, so it is possible that things are slightly better with the latest generation cameras, but the Fuji does have an Electronic View Finder - and it’s complete rubbish. The lag is terrible. I could make and drink a cup of tea in the time that it takes to work. In single frame mode the shutter recycling rate is far slower than hand cranking a 1959 Nikon F. What sort of technological progress is this? I want to take a photograph and have the camera ready as fast as I can flick my thumb, even if I don’t actually take another shot. I could do that 50 years ago with a Nikon or a Leica - well, with any 35mm camera that had a lever wind in fact.
On the Fuji you can’t. Everything is tied up while the file is lovingly caressed into the buffer and then massaged onto the memory card - something that my digital Nikons do without a hiccup - and have done for 15 years or more. The Fuji will shoot at 6fps, but only six frames and then the camera stops for the next few seconds doing whatever it has to do to the files to plant them on the memory card. It’s woeful.
With the lack of moving parts inside, compared to a DSLR where the mirror has to flip up and down rapidly and violently at up to 14 times a second, I just can’t understand why a digital rangefinder without all these gubbins is so alarmingly slow.
And then there are all the buttons on the body that are designed to make it look like a ‘real’ camera and - presumably - appeal to all the traditionalists. The exposure compensation dial, located just under the right thumb, has no lock, meaning that every time the camera is used it is easy to shift the exposure compensation without noticing. Now that’s really useful.
The focus selection lever, to cycle through manual, single and continuous modes, is inconveniently stuck on the front left where it can - and does - get shifted without any effort whatsoever. The number of shots that I’ve taken where the images are completely out of focus doesn’t bear talking about.
Who would have thought that a lens with an aperture ring that has no markings on, and that can rotate completely in either direction, would have escaped the eagle eyes of any halfway competent design team? Every time I rotated the camera from landscape to portrait, the most handy grasp on the camera for my left hand was the aperture ring. In fact it was ages before I discovered that it was an aperture ring. It was only when I noticed that many of my shots had incredibly long exposure times did I start an investigation programme worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
The focussing ring on the lens is not marked either - there is nothing to indicate that it is anything more than a convenient grip. And lest you think that I was being really stupid and lazy, this was after I had read the instruction manual.
This camera seems to me to be like a camel - which as we all know is horse designed by a committee who never actually met each other.
Frankly, if it had been my own camera rather than a dear friend’s, I would have hurled it from the window of a moving car in utter frustration by now, just like other useless items that I have had in the past - particularly mobile phones that always seemed to conspire against me and good design practice until the appearance of the iPhone.
Are there any plus points in this catalogue of misery? Yes there are. The Fuji is compact, although not as compact with a lens fitted as I first expected. It is reassuringly quiet and unobtrusive - when you want it to be. The results are superb and I really can’t fault them. I’m not interested in laboratory quality though. I didn’t shoot test charts, or pages of newspapers or brick walls - just real life. I was impressed, but the rigmarole of getting those results was simply too much for me to put up with.
I’m sure that a former rangefinder user would, as John Robery Young does, think much more highly of its undoubted merits. If one has a relatively slow, considered approach to picture taking and doesn’t need to be ready to shoot milliseconds after the previous shot then, yes, it will appeal. I’ve no doubt that the next iterations of this, and similar cameras will improve the shooting rate whilst Electronic View Finders will undoubtedly improve in leaps and bounds - God knows they’ve got to. 2018 is supposed to be the year the Nikon introduce their FX mirrorless camera if rumours are to be believed, and I can hardly wait. However, the lure for many, including me, is that they are supposed to have the ability to use legacy F-mount lenses and therin lies the problem - the weight saving of a mirrorless body whilst still lugging round full-frame NIKKOR lenses will be negligible.
I was really looking forward to taking the dinky little Fuji X-Pro1 two lens kit with me to Ireland in 2015, but all I took was a pair of Nikon F bodies, a 35mm f/2 lens, a 55mm f/1.4 lens and a 135mm f/2.8 lens with ten or so rolls of colour negative film. I didn’t need an exposure meter as the one thing that experience has taught me is how to assess exposures by eye, to within half a stop every time.
I was going to take my time, yet retain the ability to shoot faster than a digital rangefinder is capable of.
Now, a digital Nikon SP would be interesting...