Rangefinders are Awful - Featuring the Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G
You might not believe me, but I do not particularly find Leica rangefinders to be the best cameras around. For the most part, I believe there is much to dislike about rangefinders. They’re not particularly accurate to frame, don’t have autofocus, and cannot do spot metering through the viewfinder. They’re antiquated, whether we’re talking about film or digital rangefinders. And if it weren’t for the fact that rangefinders are compact, I wouldn’t opt for a Leica M-mount camera. In short, they are inferior to (D)SLRs and mirrorless cameras.
That said, Leica optics are remarkably precise for their size. For the sake of compactness, I am willing to forgo the prospect of accurate through-the-lens framing, autofocus, and spot metering. If however compactness is all I care about, then why don’t I just rely on my iPhone or carry around a compact camera like the Contax T2 - which I did for over ten years? Unfortunately, both the iPhone and Contax T2 do not have full manual controls where actual knobs and dials should be. Invariably, this ruins their photo taking ergonomics.
Of course, there is also the Contax G System. It ticks off most of the boxes, with manual controls in all the right places along with autofocus. Best of all, it is compact with a selection of tiny lenses. That said, it does not have through-the-lens viewing and an ergonomically intuitive manual focus mechanism - both being essentially a deal breaker for me. And if all that were not enough of a deterrent, the Contax G system depends too much on electronics that can no longer be serviced. So if you have one and it breaks on you, you’re out of luck.
However, if size doesn’t matter - that is to say - if I do not have to be encumbered by a camera’s heft, then the best camera in my book would be the Nikon F4. Personally, I love how It has analog dials and controls for the shutter speed, film speed, metering mode, and focusing mode, in addition to having the option to rewind the film manually. I also love how I do not need to rely on my right hand to change the aperture setting. That said, I truly dislike its width. Its 4 Double-A battery compartment makes its hand grip stick out like a sore thumb.
Alright, I admit it! I cannot get over the issue of girth. But, the Nikon F4’s problem isn’t just isolated to its width. There’s also the issue of user experience offered by the Nikon F4 when shooting more contemporary G-series lenses. On the Nikon F4, they are just not as responsive as on the Nikon F6. By comparison, the contemporary G-series lenses are a joy to autofocus on the Nikon F6. For that reason, you would think that I would crown the Nikon F6 as the undisputed champion. However, it too has its share of problems.
Most notably, the Nikon F6 is designed around G-series lenses, which do not have aperture rings. Because of that, manual adjustment of the aperture setting isn’t done intuitively with the left hand. Rather, the adjustment is compounded to yet another less intuitive dial accessed by the right hand. That said, if I had to pick between no aperture dial or less width and better autofocus, then I guess I can get used to yet another dial on the right of the camera. I just wished the dials on the Nikon F6 were analog and not reliant on a digital readout.
Regardless of my misgivings toward the Nikon F6, I still think it’s a much better camera than any analog Leica rangefinder. To support my opinion, I can offer the results from the photowalk shared on this blog entry. In an effort to offer the guise of variety on this otherwise creatively stagnant dog-and-pony show, I decided to shoot outside the normal focal range. Ideally, I would have wanted to shoot a telephoto zoom. But, I did not want to commit myself too much with excess girth - just to prove a point. Instead, I went towards the other extreme.
So for this photowalk, I decided on the Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G, which I shot exclusively at the widest end of the focal range. If I were to shoot at the 14mm focal length on a Leica M-mount rangefinder, I would only be able to compose reliably on live view with a Leica M10 or Leica M240 and their respective variants. To do that reliably with an analog rangefinder is impossible, given the extreme distortions. I mean, even with an external finder corrected for the exact focal length, you still won’t be able to evaluate the distortion as it really is.
And that is the point. With a rangefinder, you never really know what you are photographing. At the telephoto extreme of the focal range, you cannot see enough details in the finder window to know for sure what you are photographing, especially if the subject is at a significant distance. And at the super wide extreme, there’s just so much distortion impacting the documentation that any harmless tilt of the camera could ruin the photo. In other words, you will likely end up with disfiguring distortions if you compose blindly with a rangefinder.
Still, would I give up my Leica M-mount rangefinder for the Nikon F6 or any contemporary full frame mirrorless digital camera system? After all, many of them are noticeably more compact than their (D)SLR predecessors. Assuming that I do not prefer shooting film, I do not believe I will. Don't get me wrong. I believe that mirrorless systems are phenomenally good. They perform exceptionally well at the telephoto range as well at the super wide range. And on top of that, they have the benefit of contemporary high ISO and increased dynamic range.
That said, I normally shoot at low ISO and my metering is normally accurate. As such, creature comforts like high ISO and increased dynamic range really doesn’t mean all that much to me. On top of that, I usually shoot at the normal range, between 28mm to 50mm. Thus, I really do not need through-the-lens viewing. So when it comes right down to it, even a superior camera like the Nikon F6 is doomed by its size. It is just too big for me to slip into my everyday bag. As such, I will never carry it around, which means I will never use it.
As awful as rangefinders really are, they are more compact from their body to their lenses. For that reason, we are more likely to use it when the opportunity hits us. Still, if size is really the overriding concern, then why not switch to a cropped format system like the Fujifilm X system? I mean ergonomically, what Fujifilm offers is the perfect system in terms of size and analog dials. That said, a cropped system is not without compromises. For the sake of compactness, you are giving up a certain amount of flexibility in the quality of image reproduction.
Still, it’s not as if there is a bygone Fujifilm analog system that can enjoy the lenses from the Fujifilm X system. If there were, I might have seriously considered it. But for my needs, which tend to be within the normal focal range, would it make sense for me to accept a degradation in image quality and rendering for the prospect of shooting telephoto and super wide angle lenses with it? Frankly, the trade-off would be too much, given that I really have no reason or opportunity to document at either extremes of the focal range.
Given the reality of my needs, sticking to my trusty rangefinder is my best choice, despite how awful it is. To be frank, I can live with imprecise rangefinder framing within the normal focal range because distortions are minimal and foreseeable, and can normally be corrected with relative ease. On top of that, I can live without autofocus because the shooting distance from my willing subject does not warrant it. Besides, I have already adapted to the limitations of rangefinder photography and am accustomed to how awful it really is.
Yes, Leica rangefinders may not be the best cameras around. In fact, they can be downright awful. However, they offer the best possible compromise with regards to size, shooting ergonomics, and image reproduction. Fact is, they are the Goldilocks of imaging options. And where they fall short in creature comfort, it is up to you to make up for the shortfall. For that reason, Leica rangefinders - especially analog versions - are immensely satisfying to shoot, since your results depends solely on whatever you put into the documentation process.
Nevertheless, if I have an intern following me around with my camera bag, I would switch to the Nikon F6 in a heartbeat. That said, what professional reason is there for a working photographer to shoot with the Nikon F6? And therein lies the reality of contemporary photography. There would never be a situation where an intern is tasked to follow a photographer shooting a camera like the Nikon F6. For that reason, it comes as no surprise that I’ve settled on an analog Leica M-mount rangefinder, seeing that I’m no longer a working photographer.
Every photo on this blog entry exhibits some demonstration of distortion. But because I had the advantage of through-the-lens framing, I was able to compose each photo by minimizing instances of distortion when they were noticeably disfiguring and optimizing instances of them when they were visually appealing. It’s definitely not a task that can be accomplished by an analog Leica rangefinder.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, cropped automatically from full negative during the scanning process. A handful of images had some minor adjustment in exposure. All images shot at box speed.