I was asked recently by a reader if I could compare the various 35mm rangefinder cameras that I’ve been using over the past few months. I guess it’s important at the outset to say that I’ve only been playing with a small subset of the genus rangefinder. Specifically, the few that I’ve been using all use the Leica Thread Mount (LTM) 39mm screw thread lenses. In addition my reasons for using these cameras is partly aesthetic and partly the pleasure of using such tactile cameras. I doubt if anyone uses these cameras for convenience, ease of use or simplicity of operation.
The first 35mm rangefinder camera that I bought was a Russian copy of the German Leica cameras; the so-called Barnack Leicas that came before the M-series bodies. The Zorki 4 is slightly larger than the Leica III cameras I’ve used but still sits relatively unobtrusively in the hand. Like all of the cameras described here it is not a light piece of kit but whilst cruder in terms of build quality and therefore operation than the Leicas it is still a satisfyingly tactile experience. The Zorki 4K is basically the same camera but it has what we now consider the more usual wind-on lever rather than a knob for the purpose. I have both the Zorki 4 and 4K and definitely prefer the 4K with the lever wind-on.
One common feature of all of these cameras is that the rangefinder/viewfinder are generally calibrated for the standard lens. For the Zorkis I use this is 50mm. My Chroma Glass lens has a 24mm field of view and as this lives on the Zorki 4 I have a matching, and cheap, auxiliary viewfinder that sits in the cold shoe. I also use a 35mm lens and for this I have a Russian-made turret viewfinder that offers a range of focal lengths. To start with, using one window to focus and another to compose the image is a little awkward but I found I very quickly adapted to this new way of working. Some, like my Canon VT and VL2, have an adjustable viewfinder that caters for both 35mm and 50mm lenses.
One word of caution with these old Zorki rangefinders. Quality control was not always the best in these Soviet-era factories where quantity often trumped quality when considering manufacturing success. You need to be cautious when purchasing from that well-known auction site therefore that the model you choose has at least been CLAd and preferably film-tested by the seller. It’s worth paying a little bit more for this reassurance.
Leica, or more specifically the so-called Barnack Leicas, was the manufacturer everyone was trying to emulate. With good reason. I have played with the Leica IIIb and the Leica IIIf and from a purely tactile and pleasure of use perspective they are probably the most satisfying 35mm cameras I’ve ever used. Period. They are however bottom loaders and need a specially cut leader to ensure that you don’t foul the shutter curtain during loading. To someone raised on back loading cameras it’s quite a shock to the system. It’s also a right royal pain in the backside if I’m honest. Loading a new roll of film stood on the canal towpath was not a pleasant experience. The Horizon S3 Pro is easier to load and that’s saying something.
But, having got that particular elephant out in the open I have to say that the Leica IIIf that I own is an absolute joy to use, film loading aside. That aspect will get better with practice, I loaded a film sat on a wall outside a church recently, but it will never be as straightforward as a back-loading camera. The shutter release is silky smooth and fires with the quietest of sounds. I genuinely enjoy the sound of this shutter releasing. The camera body is small, despite its weight, fits in the palm of my hand and can easily be dropped unobtrusively into a pocket. Pair it with a collapsible 50mm f3.5 Elmar lens and you’ve a pretty potent kit in your hands that easily slips into a pocket.
Canon also joined the fray producing Leica-clones but I have never used these. Instead, after chatting to Jon and spending way too many hours online I opted for the Canon V-series. These cameras move the concept on and some would suggest they are a bridge between the Barnack style of rangefinder cameras and the Leica M-series. I have the Canon VT de luxe (VTDM) and the Canon VL2. The T stands for trigger and the L for lever. V is the Roman numeral for five, thus these are so-called Series 5 cameras.
The trigger film advance was a revelation for me as I’d not used one before. In truth I’m not sure that I’d known about them before purchasing this camera. The trigger folds up into the base of the camera when not in use and it took me precisely six frames to become accustomed to using it instead of a lever to wind on. The trigger mechanism does add to the height of this camera though so it’s not as small as the Leica IIIf. Indeed, the Canon VL2 whilst slightly smaller is also larger than the Leica.
That said the Canon V-series rangefinders are a joy to use. Being the more usual back loaders they are also easy to load on the hoof.
The final camera I bought was a FED-4 rangefinder. This was the cheapest of the set, slightly bigger and definitely a little rougher around the edges. It’s big selling point for me was the built in light meter. It’s uncoupled but very easy to use; move a dial to align the needles then read off the settings on the dial and transfer them to the camera. My meter appears to work very well which is a bonus. The viewfinder however is not as clear or as easy to use compared to the Leica and Canon models. If I’m honest, whilst still enjoyable to use this is the least used of my rangefinders.
A quick summary.
The Barnack Leicas are the smallest of this small collection and exude quality, they are the most expensive but are a delight to use (apart from film loading). The Canon V-series are well made, score on ease of use (especially film loading) and purchasing one is a little easier on the wallet compared to the Leica III models.
The Zorki 4/4K are considerably cheaper, less well made in general terms, but they are still great fun to use. Care is needed when purchasing to ensure it’s a decent copy but if you get a good copy you’ll be very happy. For those on a very tight budget the FED-4 is definitely worth a look and of those I’ve discussed here is the only one with a built-in light meter albeit an uncoupled one.
So far I’ve just been talking about camera bodies but the lenses are also a factor and an important one too. As yet my knowledge is not yet advanced enough to comment with any confidence but camera bodies are in essence just light tight boxes designed to hold film and lens in the appropriate relationship to each other. Film and lens choice might arguably make more difference than the camera body. I have native 50mm lenses for the Leica (Elmar f3.5 collapsible) and Canon (Canon f1.4) bodies but also have a set of three Soviet-era Jupiter lenses, a 35mm, 50mm and a very recent acquisition a 135mm. Thus far I’ve been very happy with the look of the images I’ve been able to create with this modest set of glass.
It’s hard to draw a specific conclusion as I’ve enjoyed, indeed continue to enjoy using each of the cameras mentioned here. To my mind, the most practical of this small selection would be the Canon V-series but, film-loading aside, the Leica III are, for my tastes, the most satisfying for actually taking photographs with.
2 thoughts on “Thoughts on LTM rangefinder cameras”
Many thanks for this, Dave! An excellently written and insightful review, if I might say, and just what I needed. Very helpful.
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That’s fabulous … really pleased it helps!
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