The digital rangefinder camera may be on life support (1). The evidence is in plain sight. Even Leica seems to be telling us as much. That is an issue for rangefinder lenses in general. A camera (which doesn’t currently exist) is needed to be the platform for all manual focus lenses that classic camera and film nerds (2)(3) can call their own. The SL, SL2, or SL2-s are viable options but, IMHO, are not the platform because they are big and bulky. The world needs a full frame, rangefinder/retro style, small digital camera, with a cracking EVF, and a thin sensor stack. Dear Leica, it is your ball to drop. How things develop will determine if the platform is an on-ramp or off-ramp for rangefinder lenses and rangefinder film cameras.
My Leica Story and a primer on EVF’s 2015-2021
My Leica story is different than most. I didn’t sit around coveting a Leica camera for 2 decades before I saved up enough money to actually buy one. I am not the hipster at the skate park who gets style points from the red dot. I literally love my cameras (I am a self described fanboy don’t forget) but I didn’t wind up here just because…Leica. I got where I am primarily because I abhor using large autofocus and/or zoom lenses for personal use and travel. I also have a commercial client who wants “The Leica.”
Until recently, I traveled solo for about 4 weeks/year carrying a single backpack. When I used to travel, I traveled alone with a bus ticket or my thumb. There was no sherpa or tour group carrying my stuff around for me. In a relatively recent trip to the Himalayas weight and size were critical. My 5D and whatever menagerie of zoom lens nonsense I had at the time was not going to cut it so I purchased the original Sony A7 and a few f4 zoom lenses which were pretty tiny. The original A7 was a so-so first generation camera with miserable little batteries but it was tiny and took good pictures and that is what really mattered at 11,000 feet.
At that time (2016-2017), the photo nerds were recommending adapting vintage lenses to mirrorless cameras. While I was in Japan, I found myself at a Contax specialty shop and partook in the action. I found that I loved the manual focus lenses (which were even smaller than my Sony f/4 zooms) but the experience of using them on a mirrorless camera was so ragingly bad that it must have been some inside joke that all of the nerds got together and were recommending that people partake in this stupidity.
The EVF of that era had such an astonishingly poor refresh rate, such bad detail, and such bad focus peaking it was impossible to focus manual lenses unless you were photographing garden gnomes and parked cars in broad daylight.
ANYWAY, I was looking for a small format digital camera with small format lenses that I could use for personal and travel use. Given how bad all of the EVF’s were at that time, a digital rangefinder was a no brainer. It was actually the only option. I got a Leica M10. What I found was that I enjoyed using the rangefinder and tiny rangefinder lenses so much, I fell down a deep, dark, Leica rabbit hole. Life was good in my hole back in 2018.
ANYWAY, time goes on and the EVF technology gets better and better and somewhere along the way I found myself with a Panasonic S1 with a Kolari Ultra Thin Sensor Stack modification so I could use my rangefinder lenses on commercial shoots where the M10 was being asked to do things it wasn’t designed to do.
I started to use my Panasonic S1 more and more and…wait for it…I was using my M10 less and less. I also found I liked my Panasonic S1 more than any of my Sony cameras including my A7iii and A7riii (4) which I use all the time for commercial shoots.
While I was deep in the rangefinder rabbit hole, the EVF technology caught up. I would say that focusing with the Panasonic S1, although a different experience from a rangefinder, is comparable in speed to the rangefinder and equal or better with regard to accuracy. With the EVF, however, I am more confident I got the shot, I am more willing to shoot lenses wide open, I can use longer and shorter focal lengths, and being able to focus anywhere in the image and skip recomposing after I obtain focus is an unmitigated benefit. Last, when I have my Panasonic, I don’t need to worry about my rangefinder going out of calibration.
Now there is trouble in paradise.
I want (need?) a digital body with an EVF that will accept rangefinder lenses that I can use along side my M7. An SL size camera is great for commercial work but I don’t get excited about taking an SL size camera on vacation, on hike, or anywhere for that matter where I am not getting paid. In 2021, I am questioning the relevance of the digital rangefinder camera and I am looking for other options.
I am not the only one questioning the relevance of the digital rangefinder camera.
I get the feeling I am not alone. Everywhere I look there is evidence hiding in plain sight that more and more people are coming to the realization that the EVF has matured such that focusing with an EVF is as easy and quick, and in some ways a better overall experience, as focusing a rangefinder.
I offer you the following as evidence:
- Prominent Leica associated you tubers like Matt Day and Steve Huff are talking about their SL more and more and rangefinders less and less. Steve Huff seems to have abandoned rangefinders in general. Even Mr. Leica just got an SL and he mirrored pretty much everything I am saying in this post
- In 2021, Leica had a promotion offering a free Leica M-L adapter with purchase of a Leica SL. Clearly Leica is encouraging you to use your m-lenses on an SL body. This link will probably die soon but if you are reading this in 2021 this is the link
- Leica added 0.3mm close focusing to the new 35mm Summicron. That tells me there is either a 0.3m focusing rangefinder in the works or they feel that people will be putting these on a cameras with an EVF. More are coming. NB:after nearly 100 years, a close focusing rangefinder seems unlikely.
- Leica marketing did what would be considered a full court press trying to convince people that the old mantra that “M lenses work best on an M body” is old news. Here is a video Leica produced about the topic
- John Kreidler (@leicaproimage) on the Leica Blog has a post titled Freedom to Focus where he described his experience using M lenses on an SL.
- Numerous comments on the forums and in direct conversations with others in the community who have made the switch including Pepe Diaz who everyone knows is no nonsense.
If I am reading the tea leaves correctly, the tide is turning against the rangefinder for digital bodies. Even Leica doesnt seem to be hiding this fact anymore. The rangefinder was the best thing going for small, manual focus, lenses in 2016. In 2021, there seems to be a burgeoning groundswell suggesting that rangefinders for digital cameras are not the way forward.
That is the lesson of the SL, SL2, and SL2-s. These cameras proved that the EVF is now good enough that the rangefinder is unnecessary and, in some ways, is a liability.
If I am correct, and nothing else changes, things go sideways (at least a little) for rangefinder lenses.
I say that the future may be dimmer for rangefinder lenses because if I had it all to do over again in 2021, I might never have picked up a Leica body nor a rangefinder lens. My math is different than 2015 because the EVF’s are different. I would be willing to be that I am not unique.
We all know that rangefinder lenses don’t adapt well to most mirrorless cameras because of the sensor stack issue. At the time of the writing of this post, if I wanted to use rangefinder lenses on a camera with a great EVF, the only options are a Leica SL, SL2 or SL2-s because Leica designed them to work with rangefinder lenses.
My math tells me that if I was was not already invested in Leica, there is a close to zero chance that because I didn’t already own rangefinder lenses and/or had some relationship with Leica, I would never have entered the rangefinder lens world. This is why:
- The SL is a big, professional, DSLR size body. If you remember my Leica origin story, I was looking for something small and styley. An SL camera wouldn’t be on my short list of cameras to own. Given that I would have purchased something else that isn’t compatible with rangefinder lenses, I would likely never purchase rangefinder lenses moving forward.
- If I did, for whatever reason, go with an SL body and I didn’t already own a set of rangefinder lenses my math would still tell me that rangefinder lenses didn’t make sense because of the cost, scarcity, and poor minimum focusing distance. Moreover, in my hands, most rangefinder lenses are almost too small to compliment an SL/DSLR size camera. I would probably have chosen some of the smaller SLR lenses from Olympus, Nikon, Contax, or Pentax for their cost, availability, and/or better minimum focusing distance.
My point here is that if I was not already invested in rangefinder lenses there is no math WITH THE CURRENT CAMERA OPTIONS (more on this in a minute) that would suggest that I would buy rangefinder lenses.
The interesting corollary to all of this is that in my situation, because a digital rangefinder wouldn’t be my first choice, I also probably never would have purchased my Leica M7 film camera. Because I use both digital and film cameras side by side and like to swap lenses between the two, if rangefinder lenses don’t make sense for digital, I would be less inclined to buy a film rangefinder to compliment my digital travel/personal use camera.
This is another reason why I say that the SL, because it proved once and for all that a digital EVF is equal or superior to a rangefinder, it is the rangefinder killer. If you shoot film and digital side by side, at the time of writing, film rangefinders make less sense than an SLR given the poor cross compatibility with most mirrorless cameras.
Be the platform.
Even if I eventually get my SL size camera with all of the bells and whistles for commercial work which I think will happen at some point (4), it won’t satisfy my wants, needs, or desires for a small, bombproof, stylish rangefinder size digital camera I can use alongside a film camera when I am traveling. I am not alone. Fuji gets it. Nikon also gets it.
What Fuji and Nikon don’t get, however, is that their offerings don’t serve the hobbyists (5) that would would want a platform where they can 1) use adapted SLR lenses 2) use adapted rangefinder lenses and/or 3) want to use it as a companion to a film camera.
The Fuji and Nikon offerings are crop sensor so if you are switching between a film camera you need to hassle with the crop factor. Fuji and Nikon offerings also have a sensor stack that is not accommodating to rangefinder lenses. Therefore, even though their rangefinder style cameras fit the size and style I am after their current offerings are not sufficient for my needs.
What the world needs is a dedicated hobbyist (5) camera that will serve as a platform for all of the nerds (3) who play cameras and lenses. This platform should have a thin sensor stack so both SLR and rangefinder lenses will work. This platform should excite camera nerds with knobs and dials because everyone knows that camera nerds like retro style knobs and dials. Heft, metal, and weather proofing will go a long way to activate camera nerds. Camera nerds like heavy things. A medium resolution sensor (lets say around 24-30mp) is all that is necessary especially given that the intent is to allow for the use of older and adapted lenses. It has to be full frame so people wouldn’t need to mess around with crop factors or speed boosters. Moreover, the full frame sensor would help the nerds crush and cream their bokeh as camera nerds are want to do. Video and IBIS are negotiable. If someone is asking, I would appreciate a dual SD card slot.
What I am describing is a digital, M style, rangefinder-less, camera intended to be used as a platform for all manual focus lenses. This camera would be able to compliment any film SLR or rangefinder with an appropriate adapter if needed.
Platforms generally win. Shopify, Ebay, Google, Amazon, WordPress, and Windows are all platforms. Manual focus classic lens and nerds need a platform.
I could be wrong but if someone goes so far as to play camera lenses on the weekends, do camera meet ups, make camera friends online, creep around in camera forums, buy old things they feel guilty about on eBay, import them from another country and pay duties, use film, put up vintage camera posters on their walls, and build shelves and shrines for their collections do you really think they are are saying to themselves “OMG I love this fiddly little plastic feeling Sony camera attached to my Summicron, Flektogon, or Primoplan?” They are not. I can assure you they are not. The Sony camera is there as a placeholder because there is currently no great platform for camera nerds (4)
Dear Leica, given that you are the only company making cameras with a thin sensor stack, the ball is in your court. You can be that platform for all of the people playing vintage lens games. If you don’t someone else will. Maybe Sigma will step up. They are known to build cameras that innnovate. Maybe Nikon will release a full frame ZFc? Maybe Sony would want to put out a camera with a thin sensor stack?
Stop with the Messsucher
There will be the people in the forums saying that I am an idiot and Leica is synonymous with the rangefinder. Maybe they are correct. I am, however, not calling for the death of the rangefinder. Technology doesn’t generally die (6)
I am fully aware that this entire argument sounds like the prediction that film would die at the hands of digital cameras, vinyl would die at the hands of the CD, and all of the other doomsday technology predictions. With the exception of the fax machine which actually needs to die, technology doesn’t generally die (6) and I am not calling for the death of the rangefinder. That would be dumb. There will always be a hardcore rangefinder contingency and I am hoping that Leica continues to service them. There will always be collectors. My math right now tells me that for most normal people however, the digital rangefinder isn’t the best option in 2021.
At this point, a forum dweller is assuredly going remind me that the M stands for messsucher which means rangefinder in German. Moreover, they will remind me that it is a crime against humanity to recommend an M style camera with an EVF. Respectfully, whatever. If Netflix can go from sending DVD’s in the mail to streaming, Harley Davidson can sell electric motorcycles that are almost silent, and Microsoft can essentially abandon Office as the center of their world, the earth will somehow continue to spin if an M got an EVF. Forbes might even write an article about how it was one of the greatest corporate pivots of all time.
I believe that given the popularity of adapted lenses there just might be a new generation of photographers who never used a rangefinder, who don’t understand or care why putting an EVF on an M camera as a transgression, and who will want something small, portable, and made of metal for their adapted lens hobby. These people will say “I get it” and this platform may be their entry point into Leica and/or classic lenses in general. Once they are on the platform they could use legacy or future release rangefinder lenses…or not. They could pair their EVF camera with a film Leica or an SLR. They could use their platform and make it their own.
Conversely, it is also possible that the reverse might happen. If someone makes an inspiring full frame camera suited to adapted lenses but lacks a thin sensor stack (e.g. so it is not entirely rangefinder lens compatible), it is possible that someone like me would never enter the rangefinder lens world in the first place and/or might even sell their rangefinder lenses and compliment this platform camera with a Nikon FE2, FM3A or Olympus OM4 (7) rather than an M7. For me, cross compatibility between the digital and film cameras is more important than the rangefinder. You see where I am going with this? The platform can be an on-ramp or off ramp to a film rangefinder (or rangefinder lenses in general) depending on who makes the platform and if the platform has a thin sensor stack that will support rangefinder lenses.
So who are these camera nerds I keep talking about?
I have no real information regarding the market for Leica cameras. What I can infer from the forums, Facebook groups, and emails I get, it seems to that rich white dudes in photo vests and khaki pants are the stereotypical user and they are pretty interested in SL bodies. Will they continue to buy rangefinders once Leica gets the word out that the SL is a better user experience which Leica seems to be doing? I don’t know the answers to those questions.
Maybe the future is the old dudes yelling in the forums about the purity of messeucher who are using their dusty lenses from 1950 and don’t seem to be actually buying much new gear. Are they the future of the rangefinder? Probably not. They are going to be dead soon.
Maybe it is professional or even part time professional photographers? If that is so, Sony level AF-C and Profoto integration from the L mount alliance will be an absolute requirement before we can talk rangefinder lenses (4).
I contend that there is a bigger, unserved, market of yet to be indoctrinated fanboys and fangirls. That market is the skate, hipster, and analog crowd.
- Is it possible that there are trendy, film loving, hipsters who might lose their interest in film who will eventually (probably inevitably) turn to digital and want to use the lenses they purchased as a hobby during the pandemic? I think so.
- Are there more hipsters buying $3000 M6’s (which you can barely even find these days) or are there more anesthesiologists looking to take an SL2 for a guided photo tour to the arctic? I vote hipsters
- Are there more people in Loius Vuitton and Gucci stores under the age 35 or cardiologists with camera hobbies? Have you been to a Loius Vuitton or Gucci store lately?
- Are there more people who buy $1200 iPhones or retired film buffs from the 70’s that just love rangefinders and won’t shoot anything else. Have you been in an Apple store lately?
My math is that there are loads of people who want nice stuff and nobody, I mean nobody, who fancies themselves enough of a camera nerd such that they use manual focus lenses loves using a Sony or any of the other full frame cameras that are available today for their adapted lenses. They love the Sony images. They don’t love the Sony style. They certainly are not inspired to take one on vacation, to the art gallery opening, to the coffee shop, to the car meet, or to a wedding to prove their prowess with that special lens from 1974.
There are nerds looking for a platform to play cameras and lenses.
Someone needs to be that platform.
In conclusion… What is a fanboy to do?
In conclusion, the future is here. The new round of SL cameras proved that EVF’s are as good or better than a rangefinder on a digital camera. Even if you question this thesis, in a few years there will be no question. Leica and everyone else (including me) are telling you as much. If you are not seeing this you are choosing not to see.
A camera the size of the SL, however, is not the future. A digital rangefinder is not the future. The world needs a platform for adapted SLR and rangefinder lenses with a full frame, thin sensor stack, that is bombproof, and retro-hipster chic. How that platform develops will with either be an on-ramp or off ramp for rangefinder lenses and rangefinder film cameras.
All of that leaves me with a multiple choice decision regarding what I am going to do now given that I know that I like focusing manual lenses on a modern EVF as much or better than a rangefinder. What would you do?
- Stop venting about nonsensical first world issues. Keep the M10 and M7 for personal and travel. Keep using the Sony for business.
- Stop venting about nonsensical first world issues. Just use your Sony paired with an adapter for whatever SLR film camera you like.
- Get a Fuji or Olympus rangefinder style camera and a speed booster and match that with whatever SLR film camera you like.
I tried #2 and #3. They didnt work for me. #1 leaves me wanting. As you can see there are no great solutions. I can’t be the only one.
The Leica M11 rumors mention an EVF. Time will tell. Some M11 rumors say there will be an EVF version and a rangefinder version. This is a good idea because I may get what I want. This is a bad idea because my wallet will take a beating. This is also a bad idea because if the sales of the EVF version outweigh the rangefinder version that just might be the end of the messseucher folks. I predict an EVF will result in an upgrade cycle, dumping of legacy digital rangefinder cameras on Leica Classifieds and tough times for the digital rangefinder camera (8)
- This discussion does not in any manner apply to the film rangefinder. I firmly believe that there are valid reasons for owning and shooting a film rangefinder. Long live the film rangefinder.
- I could be wrong but even the most die hard film nerd will turn to digital at some point.
- Used in this context, the word “nerd” is a form of praise praise, affection, and affiliation. I am not too proud to say I am a camera nerd. It is not intended to be derogatory.
- I haven’t used the newer Sony bodies. When I refer to Sony in this article I am referring to the mark 3 of their A7 series cameras. Things may change in the future. I am holding out on updating my Sony gear because 1) I dont need to and 2) I am waiting to see what happens with the L mount alliance cameras. At the time of writing, the AF-C on the SL cameras is not sufficient for my needs and there is no Profoto support which is a requirement of mine. Additionally, I know it might not seem like it from this article but I really do like the Sony cameras for commercial work. The Sony cameras work great and are excellent for what they are designed to do. Sony, if you are listening how about a camera for the camera nerds?
- Lets be honest. We are talking about hobbyist cameras here. Professionals aren’t messing around with manual focus lenses for the majority of work. I expect that professionals might use them on the weekends and for personal stuff but, really, we are talking hobbyist here. The word hobbyist is not derogatory. Don’t take it that way.
- See how I did that? Don‘t be afraid of electronics. They will die but until they do, I like my aperture priority.
- As a rule I am pretty awful at predicting the future. If I were better I would be picking stocks and not writing blog posts. A good rule of thumb is to ignore my predictions.
Given this discussion you might want to future proof your rangefinder lens purchases today. If I am right and the digital rangefinder takes a back seat or is even moderately less compelling moving forward something may also change in the market for rangefinder lenses. Without a rangefinder, the 0.7m focusing distance is a pain point that can’t be justified without a rangefinder. If the digital rangefinder falls, lenses with a minimum focusing distance of less than 0.7m will reign supreme despite my annoyance with them on my rangefinder. Camera lenses are not investments but if I were hedging my bets, 0.5m (or closer) for close focusing distance just might be a better investment at this point.
I would also be sure to consider future proofing wide angle lens purchases. All of those 28 and wider lenses with red disease, even if YOU don’t want to use them digitally, even if YOU are film film film all the way, some day it is possible that the person you want to sell them to might want to use them on a digital camera and that person might not want to deal with red disease.