Rangefinder Cameras.

Rangefinder Cameras: A History & Introduction (Part 1)

IPA Craft & Tools 11 Comments

Guest Post by Benny Ng.

Photograph by Benny Ng

In the beginning..

In the early 1900s, there was a man with a vision for portable photography. His name was Oskar Barnack, and in 1914, he created the Ur-Leica, forefather of the 35mm film format that we know today. This camera was also the cornerstone of the evolution of the rangefinder system of photography.

In the early days of rangefinder photography, there were several manufacturers and quite a few differing formats of lens to camera interface as each sought to develop their own proprietary mount. Many of the early lens mounts were not coupled as the cameras used external rangefinders or relied on scale focusing. The camera was basically a film box and everything else was added onto the outside of it. Towards the end of the 1930s, the two predominant formats were Leica’s Thread Mount (L39 or M39) and Zeiss, Contax (C) Mount, with several Leica copies which were modifications of the Leica 39mm screw thread with a different pitch. Interestingly, Nikon (then Nippon Kogaku) used a modified Contax mount (S mount) instead, although they did not produce screw mount lenses for other companies. After the war however, things took a change, the world was in chaos and the Leica Thread Mount rose to be the most popular lens mount for 35mm rangefinder camera systems.

Photograph by Benny Ng

The popularity of the Leica Thread Mount (LTM) can be traced back to 1945, when ALL German patents were cancelled as war reparation, including the rangefinder-coupled LTM mount. During that time, any manufacturer could make lenses in this mount, and to date, there are more than 70 manufacturers of LTM lenses from Asia to America, with hundreds of types of lenses made. Lenses from different makers could be fitted on cameras from other makers. And so, it wasn’t strange to see a French lens with a German viewfinder mounted on a Japanese camera. This was the golden age of rangefinder photography.

As companies raced to outdo each other, some of the fastest and most compact lenses were introduced. To date, it is almost impossible to find a 35mm lens smaller than the Leitz Elmar 3.5cm f/3.5 lens, and similarly, the Leitz Hector 2.8cm f/6.3 must surely rank as the smallest 28mm lens. The speed barrier on the 50mm lens was broken time and again, but Canon held onto the crown with the introduction of the Canon 50mm f/0.95 when they unveiled the Canon 7 rangefinder camera in 1961. This remains as the fastest 35mm format 50mm lens and was only equaled 40 years later, in 2008, by Leica with the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH, another rangefinder lens. However, due to the weight and size of the lens, the Canon 50mm f/0.95 sports a proprietary bayonet mount used exclusively on the Canon 7 and 7s cameras.

Of importance to note is that rangefinder cameras from Soviet Union like FED used a thread mount in M39X1 specification (39mm X 1mm DIN thread) as opposed to Leica’s M39X0.977 specification. The result of this was the optical registration of 28.8mm could not be achieved when these differing specifications are coupled, hence affecting focus.

Although the mount is now considered “retired” in favour of the newer M mount, lenses are still occasionally offered in beloved Leica Thread Mount as a commemorative edition, and in remembrance of 35mm photography’s heritage. The recent rangefinder renaissance includes LTM lenses from Pentax, Minolta, Ricoh, Konica, Rollei, as well as Leica themselves.

Text and Picture by Benny Ng.


Read Rangefinder Cameras: A History & Introduction (Part 2)

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Comments 11

  1. Found this article and site via tumblr, very nice read, one small pedantic correction however, you have put that Nikon did not produce screw mount lenses for other companies. Am sure this is ment to be did produce. (Didn’t the first Canon camera have a Nikon lens? As well as lenses for the Tower/Nicca cameras.) 
    It is interesting that the bigest beneficiary of the cancelation of German camera patents was probably their Japanese allies, although I am sure that different industries benefited in different ways.   

  2. Thank you for the informative article. I have always liked the range-finder. I have always wanted one.

    I will miss the days of film, and the range-finder. It was a sad day when film for the most part went to the grave.

    I am sure that those were some very good days.

    Thanks again.


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