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Rangefinder Renaissance: your opinions?
Old 10-04-2004   #1
Huck Finn
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Rangefinder Renaissance: your opinions?

I was on a beach in the Caribbean last week with limited internet access when news was breaking from Photokina with details on the new Zeiss Ikon. I guess you've got to take the good with the bad. Since returning, I've had a chance to develop some opinions about the changing Rangefinder landscape, I wonder what other folks' opinions are about the big picture. Here are mine.

1. If you look at the Rangefinder section of last December's Popular Photography "buyer's guide" issue, it's interesting howthe basic options for M-cameras have remained more or less the same - with some improvements. Oh, the players have changed, but not the choices so much. (Based on Doug's comment in another thread, it unfortunately seems that the future of the Contax G system is uncertain.)

- The Konica Hexar RF has morphed into the Zeiss Ikon with 7 Zeiss lenses to replace the 5 Hexanon-M lenses.

- The Leica M7 returns. (Pop Photo did not include the MP in its report, but it returns as well.)

- The Rollei 35 RF has morphed into the Voigtlander Bessa R3A as Cosina recognized what Rollei did not - the opportunity that the 40mm lens offered for a higher magnification viewfinder. Cosina/Voigtlander lenses replace the Rollei/Zeiss lenses.

- The Voigtlander Bessa R2 returns with the addition of autoexposure & electronic shutter.

2. The biggest change is the move to battery dependence. With the Cosina-built cameras going electric, the Leica MP is now the only mechanical rangefinder on the market. What a change from 2 years ago when the Hexar RF was the only electronic, manual focus rangefinder on the market.

3. The Zeiss Ikon is a breakthrough camera, providing the longest effective baselength ever for a metered RF camera with 28mm framelines. Only the Nikon SP had a longer EBL among RF cameras offering 28mm framelines.

4. On the negative side, the number of M-mount RF lens manufacturers has dropped from 4 to 3 and the number of M-mount cameras builders from 3 to 2. I should note that I am regarding the Zeiss Ikon as a Cosina-built camera even though it represents a collaboration between Zeiss & Cosina. Since Zeiss outsourced the R&D and is not a camera builder anyway, I see the long term future of this camera lying in the hands of Mr. Kobayashi - although I may be wrong.

I do not like the loss of options for mechanical rangefinder cameras, but overall I see the changes as being very positive for the rangefinder landscape. The major reason for this IMO is the announcement of the 7 new Zeiss lenses. To now have 3 separate quality lens lines from which to choose - each covering the full RF spectrum - more than compensates for the loss of the Rollei/Zeiss &Hexanon-M lenses, especially given the fact that 2 of the Hexanon-M lenses were scarce. Furthermore, the Zeiss-Ikon & the Bessa R3A both represent major innovations in rangefinder camera design. The used market will continue to provide mechanical cameras for interested buyers for years to come.

My 2 cents. Any thoughts?
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Last edited by Huck Finn : 10-04-2004 at 20:05.
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Old 10-04-2004   #2
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Huck,

the changes you describe cover the last five years. Five years ago, the landscape was decidedly different. Only Leica, and Russian/Chinese rangefinders.

Since then, Cosina, Rollei, Konica and now Zeiss have entered the scene. Some are (commercially) succesful, others less. So I don't think it's merely a morphing of one brands' offering into an others'. The period for that is too short. But even the less commerically succesful (Hexar RF) has lead the red dot company to release of an auto exposure M7.
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Old 10-04-2004   #3
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I wish the makers of new rangefinder models success, but I think they are competing in a very limited niche market. Film-based rangefinders do have certain advantages over film-based SLRs, but I don't think they will offer much in terms of future technological innovation. I still shoot some of my work with film-based rangefinders simply because of nostalgia and the fact that I love the mechanical and optical precision of some of the classic rangefinders of the 1950s and 1960s. I'm not looking for the latest models in this class of cameras, which is inherently limited in the range of lens focal lengths it can support. When I have serious work to do I often rely on my film-based SLRs, which give me telephoto and macro capabilities that are lacking in rangefinders.

Needless to say, all film-based cameras are steadily losing ground to digital models. I am not heavily into digital photography, but I do have a digital camera and it is indispensable when I need quick results. So what is the future for manufacturers of film-based rangefinders? Sadly, I would assume it is a rather limited future.
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Old 10-05-2004   #4
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Interesting observations, Huck. I wouldn't think of the new Zeiss Ikon as morphed from the Hexar, as its genesis is different. Similar, of course, except for the motor winder. But there were (maybe no longer?) rumors of some new RF coming out of the Konica-Minolta merger, reasonable given that both companies have done M-mount RF cameras, and very well too.

Is there an RF renaissance? I'd like to see the sales figures. If so, it's good news, of course, possibly leading to more product development.

Let's not forget the Epson, too! As the many players in the digicam biz saturate the market, they may reach out to the niches like us mechanical RF nuts. I bet they're watching closely how well the Epson is received. And will Leica really follow through with one of their own? Can they afford not to?

Ah, on the Zeiss lens facility in Tokyo... My info may have been wrong. In an email back from Kyocera's US headquarters, I'm informed that they're still very active with Zeiss, but their arrangment to manufacture Zeiss lenses is not an exclusive one. Wouldn't say any more than that.
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Old 10-05-2004   #5
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A couple of notes . . .

The term "rangefinder renaissance" was coined by Stephen Gandy on his cameraquest.com website to describe the resurgence in the manufacture of rangefinder cameras by anyone other than Leica. At the time that he noted the change in the market, I believe that the Konica Hexar RF, the Cosina Voigtlander series, & the Contax G were the other rangefinder products on the market.

My observation that the Hexar RF has "morphed" into the Zeiss Ikon is not to describe a linear descent. I think that the Zeiss Ikon is the "spiritual" heir to the Hexar RF. By that I mean that it is a Leica-like camera in look & design with a Leica-length baseline. And of course, it is electronic & AE but not AF like the Hexar RF - minus the motorized film advance. I expect the Zeiss Ikon to be more Leica-like in price as well than Cosina products - although it will probably fill a spot somewhere between the two. When the ZI emerged, I was struck by the way that as soon as one alternative to Leica disappeared, another very much like it appeared to fill its spot in the RF line-up.

Doug, I called Kyocera yesterday & got very much the same answer as you. Actually your information makes more sense to me than what I was told by Kyocera. I had to remind myself that in calling New Jersey, I was talking to a far flung outpost of the Kyocera corporation, well removed from the corporations's nerve center in Japan. Kyocera-USA is technically a separate company from Kyocera International as well - at least if it follows the normal corporate arrangements within the industry. In a similar lack of corporate communication, when Martin called Hasselblad-USA last week, they knew nothing about their role as distributors of the Zeiss Ikon & when I called them yesterday, I was told that this arrangement had not yet been confirmed at the New Jersey offices in USA.

Why would Zeiss offer 2 competing lens lines in the same small niche market? Why would Zeiss turn to Cosina as the Japanese manufacturer of this new camera when they already have a relationship with Kyocera? Or if it was Cosina who came to them, why would they undercut their Japanese partner, Kyocera, by joining in partnership with a competitor? Contax owners have to hope that Kyocera will continue to support the product if the divorce becomes final. Certainly Kyocera has the capability of producing their own lens line for the Contax G if Zeiss pulls out. Or they could negotiate a licensing arrangement similar to the ones that Rollei & Hasselblad have with Zeiss.
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Old 10-05-2004   #6
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I think that we clearly are in a rangefinder renaissance, renaissance meaning a new beginning. Where in that renaissance are we, time till tell. As Doug mentioned there were rumors of a Konica-Minolta RF, and also of one from Nikon. Huck you forgot to mention the Nikon S3 2000, which perhaps was never sold to be a true production option. And as Oldprof says, we are a limited niche market, we shall see how much new stuff we can support. Gandy's statement that only 8000 R2s were sold was shocking to me, much fewer that I would have thought. The renaissance will continue as long as new product continue to come into the market.

The good news is that we do have choices, and those choices seem to be segregated to distinct pricing levels, giving users room to grow. Ultimately, if the quality of the lesser priced items is high enough, the market will force the makers of the higher priced ones to respond with changes of quality or price.

One dynamic of our RF niche of course is that we have a very strong used equipment market. This has survived dispite the years of very limited production of new items to feed it. We can all go out and find very good quality bodies and lenses (owned by fondlers not photographers) from the 1950s or 60s and before. Let's see how this market is effected. At this point I think it will be safe to say that it will not move much, everyone who would get over the CV image problem that they have probably has already bought has bought those very good modern lenses. I am interested to see where the Zeiss lens prices land, their direct competition may be the pristine late Leica used market. New Zeiss or 5 year old Leica? Two very good choices?
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Old 10-05-2004   #7
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Sure, Gandy coined the term "Rangefinder Renaissance" to sell his Cosina Voigtlander cameras; to a certain extent, he's responsible for the renaissance by making us think we're riding the crest of a "renaissance" wave.

However, I'm not going to delude myself. Digital is outselling film and the use of RF won't go back to the pros because digital has inherent advantages, like quickness of results. Rangefinders are, as my wife put it wisely, for photography geeks, and the good news here is that there are many of us!

After all, a photographer who has never shot film is rather a digitographer...

Again, and back to the topic... I'm not sure if there's a renaissance or not. I'm inclined to see this resurgence of rangefinders as a market phenomenon, or, as others would say, a match made in Heaven: photo geeks find the cameras they like and stick to them.
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Old 10-05-2004   #8
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In some ways, you can say I am a product of the Rangefinder Renaissance. Last year, I didn't have any range finders, only shot approx 20% of my work on film, and all my work was done on SLRs or medium/large format. With the current SLR's and high end lenses, I can work faster with the new technologies without any compromises in image quality. And using digital allows me to go from camera to press quickly, with sitting in the drivers seat all the way up to the final layout. For real work, a rangefinder just isn't in the cards as its limiting and far to slow to keep up with demands of professional work.

But on a personal level, I've definitely bought into the range finder renaissance. Purely for nostalgia reasons, and the fact I find them appealing both visually and mechanically. They are fun to shoot with and a diversion from SLRs, or 'going back to basics' for me. I believe there is somewhat of a renaissance based on the higher than normal exposure RFs have been getting lately, and its one of the reasons that I decided to dive in and give them a try. It may be fueled by the new offereings of late, of just a normal ripple in the market. Either way, they do seem to be getting a lot more exposure than I am used to in the past.


Will the renaissance last? Or even grow?

Range finders are ideal in specific situations, but overall are very limiting compared to an SLR. And with film sales slowly dwindling and giving way to digital, I cant really see range finders as a growth market. I do see CV taking advantage of a niche market and capturing some of the used RF market share. But I can't see it making even a slightest dent in the SLR market. I think as SolaresLarraves wife stated, its a renaissance for us 'photography geeks'.

Frankly, the technology inherent in the current high end SLR's allow me to concentrate on the image I want to make, and not overcoming the limitations of the equipment in hand, or putting undue attention on the technical process. SLR's are just so damn versatile, nearly foolproof, and transparent while shooting compared to a RF. Rarely do I need to switch from AE or AF to get the results I told the camera I wanted. RFs on the other hand add more technical work between you and the image itself, and require you to split your mind between the equipment and the image. A higher workload with no advantage to the end result, the image. If you can tell the camera to give you a 1/2 stop compensation, get my subject in perfect focus, add nice bokeh to my background, and do so while moving and and out of varied lighting, why would I want to bother with it over concentraing soley on the image I am making?

This is why I believe RF will remain collector pieces, and for users that like the technical process of photography as much as the creation of the image itself. Its for people like me that will occasionally shot with a high tech $4k SLR/lens package on full manual mode using the sunny 16 rule and GNs with a manual flash for daylight balanced fill flash image. I like to return to basics so I don't become dependent on the technology, as well as its just fun for a chance of pace to see if I can still nail it. The RF's give me that same change, as well as doing so in a very compact format. I carry a RF in my briefcase, along with the miniature digital P&S I carry in my front pocket. Between them I get film and digital, macro, P&S ease, full manual, all in a very very compact package.

RF vs SLR, is kind of like parking a Porsche in the garage, and taking out a 69 Chevy Nova for a drive. Its fun to drive the Nova, it gets you back to basics, and it will do most of what you need for that scenario. But when you need to do some serious driving, the Nova doesn't come close to Porsche.

While I wouldn't part with my SLR, the RFs are the ones I would rather fondle and admire, and talk out for coffee! Speaking of which, I have a new photo to upload of my new Konica S3!
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Old 10-05-2004   #9
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I can't wait to see her Stephen.
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Old 10-05-2004   #10
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Often when I use a "modern" camera (AE/AF) I am reminded of why I choose to use completely manual cameras. Recently I was photographing our cat in tall grass and the focus was on the grass and not the cat's eyes where I wanted it. Yes, I could have changed the focus selection window but by then the shot would be gone.

Instances such as this are why I divested myself of every modern Nikon SLR that I owned and concentrate entirely on manual cameras. I have a digital camera which I use frequently, but never for anything I consider to be a serious subject.

Few current lenses perform better than the Zeiss, Angenieux, and Kinoptik lenses from thirty to fifty years ago so I have no incentive to change to anything modern. My skills as a photographer fall far short of the potential my equipment is capable of, until I catch up I'll use what I have.

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Old 10-05-2004   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by Honu-Hugger
Recently I was photographing our cat in tall grass ....
I have quite the same issue, but in opposite with the rangefinders. Trying to track a moving object at speed,while focusing, composing, and setting exposure is pretty much impossible. Dynamic tracking AF and AE will render me several excellent quality shots. Trying to do the same with a rangefinder would render me mad! A cat, person, or lively baby is quite easy in contrast, in which case I just switch to manual mode to avoid the issue you mention.

I find having the choice is head and shoulders above not, and why I couldn't part with the SLR over the RF, even in spite of my affinity for the RFs.

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Old 10-05-2004   #12
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But then, Stephen, when photographing moving subjects with a rangefinder you practice the hyperfocus principle: small aperture, adequate shutterspeed and trust on the resulting DOF.

Still, I admit, it's not as good as what you may get with a super dooper SLR camera.

Not long ago I realized why I like RFs so much. It's not the nostalgia (I can't be nostalgic of something I didn't experience), it's simply that RFs allow me to focus faster, because I don't have to strain my eyes trying to see through the ground glass. With the RF patch, there are no ambiguities.

Besides... I kinda love the feel of a solid camera in my hands.
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Old 10-05-2004   #13
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This is one of those 'darned if I know' kind of questions. By what measure would you call something a renaisance? Number of cams on the market? Number of RF users?

I can't image large numbers of people taking up RF photography, especially with so many digital offerings around. It's sufficient for me if RF's simply hold their own in a niche market and make enough profit for their manufacturers that they keep at it.

I'd be more tempted to dub it 'Rangefinder Survival'

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Old 10-05-2004   #14
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I use hyperfocal settings on my rangefinders, as well as my SLR's. But its very limiting photographically,and only works in limited scenarios. Its one of the reasons there are no sports photographers shooting with rangefinders and hyperfocal settings! They can't get those awesome shots with shallow depth of field, nice bokeh, and subjects that stand off a page with a rangefinder, hyperfocal settings, and a short telephoto.

Its also just like macro. Again you are very limited. Yes you can shoot macro with a rangefinder, but is it the best tool for the job? Or is it limiting you to the point that you are bound by the limitations of the equipment where you wouldn't be with an SLR with beneficial technologies.

My point was that an SLR is far more versatile than a rangefinder. I still have the option of shooting with hyperfocal settings, manual exposure, and manual focus. I can even throw away the batteries and shoot fully manual. Or, I choose the use of longer telephotos, AF, AE, dynamic tracking, focus zones, priority release, etc. I basically get everything a rangefinder has, plus more if I choose to use it.

If I had to only choose one, it would be the one with the fewest limitations, and that would clearly be an SLR.

I think we've strayed off topic, and I'm sorry if I fueled that. I just wanted to clarify why I made that statement regarding SLRs vs rangefinders. We can always move the SLR vs RF to another thread if it makes sense, rather than here.
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Old 10-05-2004   #15
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i can't say if i'm part of a renaissance or not or if i'm a renaissance man or not.
i do know that most of my techno aware friends think i'm quaint because i use an 'old fashioned camera' and don't even own a digtal point & shoot.
they also think i'm more of an 'artist' because of that.
quaint vs artist?
i'll take the trade off.

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Old 10-05-2004   #16
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Cosina survived by OEM-ing cameras and low end SLR lenses,if somehow ZI RF feels a bit like Vivitar v3800N maybe because they have the same father, Mr.Smallwoods( Kobayashi).Cosina is trying to survive.So buy ZI RF if you can next May.
BTW how many RFF frequent visitors bought Rollei RF w Zeiss 40mm?
Film RF is a really small market, in East Asia, digital is running the show,younger people just don't buy print films anymore.
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Old 10-05-2004   #17
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Very true!
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Old 10-05-2004   #18
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Stephen, thanks for your observations, and I largely agree. But I've been told that in general the modern auto-focus SLR focusing screen is optimized for viewfinder brightness at the expense of focusing ease. Makes sense, as the ubiquitous zooms tend to be slow, dimming the viewfinder, while the AF handles the focusing. Do you find this to be true? And doesn't this undermine the ability to use manual focusing?
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Old 10-05-2004   #19
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Quote:
Originally posted by Doug
Stephen, thanks for your observations, and I largely agree. But I've been told that in general the modern auto-focus SLR focusing screen is optimized for viewfinder brightness at the expense of focusing ease. Makes sense, as the ubiquitous zooms tend to be slow, dimming the viewfinder, while the AF handles the focusing. Do you find this to be true? And doesn't this undermine the ability to use manual focusing?
Good points, Doug. I use a Canon Digital Rebel quite a bit and with adapters use some of my older Pentax and Olympus OM lenses on it. Manual focusing can be challenging. These modern cams assume AF and include NO focusing aids such as mircoprism or split image.

OTOH, I find using AF lenses on it easy and fast. Including my zooms.

I think the question comes down to why use a rangefinder? I doubt there are many shots taken with a rangefinder that couldn't be taken with an SLR.

For me it's a mix of style, history, great handling cams, and the bright viewfinders (at least on modern RF's). And the small lenses. A rangefinder kit is so small and relatively lightweight, I just love carrying it around. My Canon DSLR and lenses get pretty hefty. I use it a lot for nature photography but prefer the smaller, all-metal, RF's for general photography.

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Old 10-06-2004   #20
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Time to Post a Picture from my N70. This was a picture of a happy smiling Nikki at 2 months of age playing with some toys in her baby "recliner". Autofocus Search. With an F1.4 AF-Nikkor her skin did not present enough contrast. By the time the camera locked-on she was one annoyed baby. Critical Focus in manual mode is not easy and takes much longer than my RF's. I switched to my F2 after a while, then to RF's cameras (my SP) not long after that.

Nikon N70 w AF-Nikkor 50mm F1.4.

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Old 10-06-2004   #21
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That is one beautiful baby, Brian!

I assume she takes after her mother.
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Old 10-06-2004   #22
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Quote:
Originally posted by Doug
Stephen, thanks for your observations, and I largely agree. But I've been told that in general the modern auto-focus SLR focusing screen is optimized for viewfinder brightness at the expense of focusing ease. Makes sense, as the ubiquitous zooms tend to be slow, dimming the viewfinder, while the AF handles the focusing. Do you find this to be true? And doesn't this undermine the ability to use manual focusing?

I don't agree, and I'll expand on this. But, rather than have this thread hijacked regarding SLR, I'll post my response in the SLR vs RF thread. Seems more appropriate. Here is the link.

SLR vs RF thread

Brian, The N70 is a low end consumer camera and nortious for being a poor AF performer, as are many of the earlier AF bodies. Technology has taken leaps and bounds since then. I'm not surprised that you had trouble with it. My 6006, 8008, and N90's drove me nuts, and I used MF for most of my shooting with them.

The current D and F series are significantly bettter than anything in the N series, or pre-D/F series. At least 5 times faster, and rarely hunts on me. Add the fast AFS lenses, and its even quicker. Even those times it does hunt, it typically finds focus just as quickly as I would have if done manually. I have a hard time bettering the AF speed manually in 95% of the cases.
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Old 10-06-2004   #23
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Definitely a tight composition.

Back to the Renaissance issue, kudos to Gandy on coining the phrase. With regards, to the VC Bessa line-up it was high time someone marketed an affordable 35mm RF without trying to match up all the automated techno gizmos.

But with a heavy Al Gore sigh, it is a small market and I wish this boutique manufacturer of RF equipment all the success in the world.

My own renaissance has been an up and down rollercoaster which began in 1972. I do get tempted away by the latest and greatest gadetry for while. Then come back to an old reliable standby and its easy to do since some of the classic RF's tend last forever.

One final note, much of the older and more esoteric RF gear has gone down in price to the point that I'm able to pay for an item with a check rather than on credit.
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35mm Gear Bessa R, Leica II, - IIIg, - M2
Just for fun 35mm Gear a Kodak Retina II, Retina IIa, a Rollei 35 S, plus an Oly 35RC and XA
Modern Medium Format Fuji GW 690III
Vintage MF Folders a Voigtländer Bessa II and Perkeo II - a ZI Mess Ikonta 524/2 - plus an Agfa Super Isolette & a Record III
Digital a D300 and a D700 with some primes - still going a decade later

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Old 10-06-2004   #24
lars
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Having had a Bessa R for over a year now, I have demonstrated to myself that it can be used for many purposes, but isn't versatile enough FOR ME to be used as my sole camera. In fact, I have found my Minolta A1 digital (bought about 6 mos. ago) to be far more useful even though it has slow autofocus (compared to an AF SLR...it's AF speed is on par or better than non-SLR digicams) and is next to impossible to focus manually.

As for focusing, it is easy to focus an RF in low light but quite difficult to focus on a moving subject (eg: my son's head). The fact is, my Minolta Maxxum 7 film SLR can focus in extremely low light, and if I activate the focus assist beam, it can focus in the dark...and it can do so quickly.

Where the Bessa shines is in its small size, relatively quiet shutter noise and unassuming appearance. In short, it is great for street shooting. However, I have found that my A1 is also extremely good for street shooting. I can set it to manual focus, aperture priority (or manual exposure), and it works quite well as a fast street shooter. It's only downside is too much image noise beyond ISO400. It is virtually silent, has a waist level finder (tilting LCD), and its small sensor gives it huge DoF even at f4.

Once these high end digicams come out with a larger sensor (noise-free at ISO800), I can't see any reason for me to use a film RF.

For those times when I need to use film, I can fall back on my Minolta film SLR. And if I really want to get retro, I can use my Nikon F's or buy an FM/FE.

In short, with the dropping cost of digital, the RF is no longer my ideal street shooter. Having said that, I still enjoy shooting with it, but I don't know how long I can use that justification to keep the camera.

...lars
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Old 10-06-2004   #25
jfbell20
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There are several reasons why I will use film rather than digital cameras for some purposes. Firstly, there is the wide-angle lens for the Cosina range. Until full sizes digital sensors become readily available then film bodies will be needed. Secondly I always carry a camera with me. Digital compacts are just not suitable - the batteries tend to be flat when I need them. For this reason I carry a Contax T (the second smallest rangefinder after the Olympus XA). The final reason is the degree of control with a compact camera. Recently there has been a reorganisation at work and several pople are leaving. On such occasions in the past I have used a P&S. Unfortunately the autofocus would sometime focus on a distant wall between two people. With the Contax T this is not a problem (although with flash and a fastish film the depth of field makes zone focussing possible). The only draw back was the comment about me using such an old camera. I pointed out to one female colleage that if being twenty years old was old then being near forty must be ancient. As I picked myself off the floor, I realised the advantage of a camera with a titanium body shell.
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Old 10-06-2004   #26
Pherdinand
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"I pointed out to one female colleage that if being twenty years old was old then being near forty must be ancient."
may i use this reply for similar purposes?
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