Rangefinder vs SLR Cameras: Main Differences Explained

Photography has been around a long time. There have been many different styles and shapes of the camera since their invention but the two most popular style of the camera remains the rangefinder and SLR.

Both camera styles have pros and cons but the main differences between the rangefinder and SLR are how light makes its way to the film (or sensor) and to the viewfinder. SLR cameras have a mirror that moves, or reflexes, bouncing light coming through the lens into the viewfinder. This makes SLR cameras extremely accurate with focusing and composing the scene because what you see in the viewfinder is what gets onto the film (or sensor). The sound of the moving mirror in SLR style cameras is generally louder. SLR style cameras are generally larger than rangefinder-style cameras because they have to accommodate the mirror. In rangefinder cameras, the light goes straight through the lens and hits the film (or sensor). However, for focusing and composing with rangefinder cameras, light enters through an area of the body of the camera, not the lens. This makes the rangefinder generally smaller and quieter than the SLR-style camera since it doesn’t have a moving mirror. However, the cameras can suffer from parallax error, which is the accuracy between what you see in the viewfinder and what ends up on the film.

To understand which camera is best for your style of photography, let’s look more close as to what each camera is. We will also discuss the similarities of each camera, how to focus with each style, even if you are a beginner, and some of the best cameras available of each type.

What Is A Rangefinder?

Leica M6 35mm Film Rangefinder Camera

Rangefinder cameras were the first style of cameras produced for the 35mm film. Since they have no mirrors that move inside of the camera (unlike the SLR cameras) they generally are smaller and quieter than SLR cameras. The body of this camera is generally small and rectangular. Rangefinder cameras generally have several windows on the front of the camera used for focusing. To focus using this camera, look through the viewfinder on the right or left on the back of the camera and match up two images.

In rangefinder cameras, like most Leica cameras, the image is made by light hitting the film in the camera. Once the shutter is pressed, light hits the film directly without a mirror moving inside of the camera making this style of camera unobtrusive and quiet.

What Are SLR Cameras?

Canon AE-1 35mm Film SLR

An SLR (or Single Lens Reflex) and a DSLR camera (or Digital Single Lens Reflex) style cameras tend to be slightly larger and heavier than rangefinder-style camera to accommodate the mirror and pentaprism inside the camera. The big bump on the top of the camera above the lens is where the pentaprism is located.

In SLR cameras, the image is focused by the light coming through the lens and bouncing off of a mirror inside of the camera. The light then travels up through a pentaprism, which flips the image right-side-up, and the light through the viewfinder on the back. Once the shutter button is pressed, the mirror moves out of the way to allow the light to hit the film behind it.

What About Digital Mirrorless Cameras?

Even though this article is not about digital mirrorless cameras, it is a good idea to be familiar with this style of camera since it has become popular over the last decade. Digital Mirrorless cameras, like the name suggests, do not have a moving mirror in front of the sensor used to focus the camera. Technically, all rangefinder-style cameras are mirrorless, even the non-digital versions. This also means that all digital cameras (besides DSLRs) are mirrorless cameras – even your cellphone!

Some digital mirrorless cameras have adopted the SLR style because so many people are used to it and like having the viewfinder in the middle of the camera. One of the most popular cameras of this type is the Sony Alpha series.

What About DSLR Cameras?

DSLR cameras work the same as a regular SLR camera. However, the only differences are DSLR cameras have a digital sensor where the film would be, they are generally larger, they have a large battery, and a screen on the back to playback your images and change settings. You can also use the back screen to take images if you don’t want to or aren’t able to look through the viewfinder.

Now we have an idea of what a rangefinder and SLR and DSLR camera styles are. Below are a few similarities and differences between the two camera styles.

Similarities and Differences Between Rangefinders And SLR Cameras

Some of the most asked questions in photography deal with the rangefinder vs SLR debate. To the average eye, these camera styles may look similar, but once you look closer there are several differences. 

How Are Rangefinders And SLR Cameras The Same?

Both the rangefinder and the SLR film cameras are capable of using a 35mm film. You can use either black and white film or color negative film for both cameras. Both digital rangefinder and digital SLRs can take SD cards to store digital images. Though there are some rangefinder cameras that have fixed lenses, you are able to change the lens on most digital and film-based rangefinder and SLR cameras. All of both camera styles have viewfinders to compose and focus your image, but only some are optical while the digital versions have screens to view or replay your images and to change settings.

How Are Rangefinders And SLR Different?

There are more differences in both of these cameras than similarities with these two styles of cameras. Most of these differences are on the inside of the camera and this is why it is important that you do product research on the camera you are purchasing:

  • Viewfinder Blockage: Should you choose to put a bigger lens on your film rangefinder, you may block your viewfinder. With a SLR or DSLR camera since the image is coming through the lens, it won’t block any windows needed to see an image in the viewfinder like rangefinder cameras. However, digital rangefinders do not have this problem.
  • Lens Options: Rangefinder cameras work very well with fixed lenses (lenses that don’t have multiple focal lengths). There are very few zoom lenses that have been adapted for rangefinder cameras. Viewfinder parallax is also a problem with lenses on rangefinder cameras. It wasn’t until the creation of digital rangefinders when this problem was mostly fixed. SLR and DSLR cameras generally work well with zoom and fixed lenses. However, wide-angle lenses can be much smaller on rangefinder cameras because the flange distance is much smaller than SLR (or DSLR) cameras.
  • Viewfinder blackouts: A rangefinder’s viewfinder does not need to blackout like an SLR. The reason a DSLR or SLR camera blacks out when taking an image, is that the mirror used to view the image moves out of the way of the light hitting the film or sensor behind it. With a rangefinder, you will generally have eyes on your subject the entire time.
  • Viewfinder Location: The viewfinder on a rangefinder is on the top and the back of the camera and either on the right or left side of the camera. On SLR (or DSLR) cameras the viewfinder is on the back and top of the camera but in the middle.
  • Focusing: Rangefinders can suffer from viewfinder parallax when focusing up close. For this reason, film-based rangefinders are not great for close-up photography. SLR and DSLR cameras do not have this problem since what you see in the viewfinder is what the film (or sensor) sees when you press the shutter.
  • Size and weight: Because of the battery and the mirror in SLR (or DSLR), these cameras are generally much bigger and heavier than a rangefinder. This makes rangefinder more discreet (along with how quiet the shutter is) and is what makes them best for documentary and street photography.
  • Field of View: Rangefinder cameras generally have a wider field of view in the viewfinder than SLR cameras which allows you to see beyond the normal frame lines of the lens. This helps the photographer to see action before it comes into the frame to make it possible to predict a good image as it happens.

The above contains most of the main differences you will see with rangefinders vs SLR cameras. One other big difference is how they both focus.

Focusing Tips With A Rangefinder Or SLR Camera

Learning how to focus on both cameras can be tricky. It can be frustrating when you have an idea for a shot, but the focus is not happening as quickly as you’d like. The following tips can help:

  • Learn how to manual focus on an SLR camera: Depending on the manufacturer of your camera, to focus using a film-based SLR camera when looking through the viewfinder you will move your lens until either the circle in the middle of the frame is in focus or when the two images inside of the circle match up, or both. If you are using a DSLR camera, most have built-in markers or a green dot viewfinder display to let you know when your lens is in focus while in manual focus mode.
  • Learn how to use zone focus: Use the markings on your rangefinder’s lens to help you focus without looking through your viewfinder. This is called “Zone Focusing“. The marks on your lens mark the areas of focus on your lens. Use the marks to find out how far or close you need to be for your subject to be in focus.
  • Learn your rangefinder’s lag time: Focus your camera and shoot consistently. Understand how your camera resets itself and how long it takes to set up the next shot. 
  • Lighting will help with the camera’s focus: The more light you have the easier the focus will be. This is true when manually or automatically focusing your camera. However, if where you are focusing does not have natural light, then move your subject closer to a window or lighting fixture..
  • Use both of your eyes on a rangefinder: Unlike a DSLR or SLR camera, a rangefinder camera has the viewfinder on either the left or the right side of the camera. This makes using both eyes to focus and compose your image much easier. It also allows you to keep one on the viewfinder and the other on your subject while shooting.

Some of the Best Film and Digital Rangefinders Available

There are a bunch of rangefinder cameras that you can purchase. However, you want to make sure that you do your homework on the best film and digital rangefinders available. 

3 of the Best Film Rangefinders Available

There are those individuals who want to maintain and preserve the cameras because it connects them to the past. Also, film rangefinders deliver a certain feel to the photo once the film is developed. Some of the best film rangefinders are:

  • Canon Canonet QL 17 GIII: While this camera may have been launched in 1972, it still holds true value today. You can use batteries for this camera, but you do not have to. This camera runs on its own mechanics alone and batteries are an option. The aperture ranges from f/1.7 to f/16. 
  • The Contax G2: There are multiple lenses and different accessories that you can use with this camera. For the exposure, the is an AF lock to lock in your ISO. Your ISO on this camera ranges from ISO25 to ISO5000. You can manually set your ISO as well.
  • Leica m6 TTL 0.85: Made between 1998 – 2002 and is Leica’s most advanced film camera with a price to match. Leica has a cult-like following because of the company’s superb, handmade quality. The TTL in the name means Through-The-Lens metering means you will most likely have a great exposure when taking an image. This camera is fully mechanical except for the meter.

3 of the Best Digital Rangefinders Available

Everyone wants the ease of having a digital screen to help you to see your image as you take them. These cameras allow you to have modern conveniences but still have that older feel with the manual focus. These are three of some of the best digital rangefinders available:

  • Leica M Digital Rangefinder Camera: Leica rangefinder cameras are considered the best. This M series rangefinder offers you a 3” LCD screen and the same quiet shutters as most rangefinders. You still can manually focus and run your ISO up to 6400. Let’s not forget how amazing the Leica lenses are as well.
  • Fujifilm X100F Digital Camera / FujiFilm Xpro Series: These digital rangefinders can obtain a shutter speed of up to 1/32,000 per second. There is wi-fi built-in, and it can record videos at 1080p. The Advanced Hybrid Viewfinder notices when an eye is near it to automatically turn on the camera. You also are able to choose between a digital, optical, or hybrid viewfinder. Something that not even Leica cameras can do. Fujifilm lenses are also an incredible value for their price.
  • Olympus Pen F: This rangefinder keeps the same older classic styling to the outer appearance with silver trim and a black body. There are 81 Auto Focus points to help you lock onto your subject. Olympus cameras are known for their small size and the great quality of their lenses and this camera is no exception.

Since we now have the best film and digital rangefinder cameras out of the way it is now time to talk about the best SLR cameras available.

Some of the Best SLR Cameras Available

Film SLR and Digital SLR cameras are easier to come by than rangefinders. Just like film rangefinders, film SLR cameras maintain that older look which can add to their charm.

3 of the Best SLR Film Cameras Available

Film SLR cameras are cool looking because they have been around a long time. The list below for 3 of some of the best-bang-for-your-buck film SLR cameras available.

  • Canon AE-1: This 35mm SLR camera has is probably the most well-known film SLR camera. AE in the name refers to the auto exposure lock function. It was produced between the years 1976 to 1984. Canon made so many of these you can find them for sale and going for not a lot of money on most websites.
  • Pentax K1000: The K1000 is known for its reliability. While it may only have manual control, this is a great film SLR for beginners entering photography. 
  • Olympus OM-1: This film SLR camera has been discontinued but you can still find them used. It comes with a large viewfinder, and yet it still finds a way to be small in both size and weight. Just like the Pentax K1000, it is entirely mechanical.

3 of the Best Digital SLR Cameras Available

Digital SLR cameras can be found everywhere. While you may not have the old world feeling with this camera, you can still create amazing imagery. In my opinion, here are some of the 3 best DSLR cameras available:

  • Canon 5DMarkIV: This full-frame digital camera is considered one of the best digital SLR cameras ever made and the price reflects it. It has a 30.4-megapixel sensor and shoots up to 4k video. It has a responsive touch screen, dual pixel autofocus during video or live view shooting, and can go up to 32000 ISO.
  • Canon EOS Rebel T7i: This entry-level DSLR allows beginners to have all the bells and whistles like the other more expensive DSLRs. The T7i comes with a 45-point viewfinder focus for fast action. The battery has the ability to shoot approx. 2,000 photos before the need to recharge it.
  • Nikon D850: While this DSLR is on the pricey side, there is a reason for it. It is considered one of the best DSLRs made at this time it was produced. There is a 45.7-megapixel sensor and it shoots in 8K and 4K video. Built-in is a 153 point/ 99 cross-type AF lock system.

Conclusion

SLR and rangefinder cameras can appear very similar to the untrained eye. Their outer appearance can be quite similar. However, it is in the interior where they truly become different.

Each camera style has its strengths and weaknesses. The main things to know about each style are rangefinder cameras are generally smaller and lighter, easier to see action before it happens, quieter and more discreet, and best if you want something light and easy to travel with. SLR cameras are best if you want a larger variety of lenses to choose from, to shoot macro or close up photography, longer battery life (for digital versions), if you don’t mind the extra bulk. In the end, it is up to you to decide which camera is better for your photography goals.

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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