Friday, August 08, 2008

The time is right for a digital rangefinder that's not a Leica

My first rangefinder camera was not a Leica. It was a Rollei 35--a tiny 35mm camera with a 40mm lens that you had to zone-focus (in other words, guess) and guestimate exposure, since the meter was less accurate than my guesses. It was quiet and unobtrusive. Years later, I would add the Olympus XA4, the palm-sized, clamshel design camera with (bless 'em) a focusing tab, to my collection, and took some amazing shots with it. Once I could afford one, I bought a Leica M3 from Ken Hansen in New York, but those two little cameras carried me through until then.

The joy of these cameras is that they were in the $100-150 range, while even a used Leica with a lens would set me back around $600 (oh how times have changed!).

Now, in the digital age, there is the Leica M8, for $5,000, plus around $3,000 for a new lens. For street photographers and others who like to work with a small, inconspicuous lens and demand high performance (read: no lag time) and high quality (read: no golf-ball-sized digital grain at ISO 400), there is nothing available for less than that.

Sure, there are compromise cameras such as the Canon G9, Ricoh GRII, or the Sigma DP-1--they're small and offer some great features, but quality starts to suffer by ISO 400 (with the excepton of the Sigma), and there is lag time (notably in the Sigma). Or, you can go with a small-ish DSLR like the Olympus E-410, but it's still bigger than a compact and more noticeable--and you can't see what's going on when the mirror slaps up.

But there is no digital equivalent to the Olympus XA series or Rollei 35. There really should be for the sake of those starting out in street photography, and I am optimistic that there will be one soon. My optimism stems from this week's announcement of the Micro Four Thirds system, developed by Olympus (!) and Panasonic. The sensor will be the same size as an Olympus or Panasonic DSLR, but because the camera won't have a mirror prism, it can be designed "radically smaller and lighter" (to quote the press release). Could they mean Olympus XA-small? I hope so!

But if someone's going to produce a (presumably affordable) digital rangefinder, they should do it right:
• No lag time. Use a mechanical shutter.
• A focus tab that would override autofocus when you wanted to. The XA focus tab design is a fine precedent to follow.
• Aperture and shutter speed dials.
• An optical rangefinder. No EVFs!

Can they do it? Given the timing of the announcement, we may see the first generation of affordable digital rangefinders by the end of September, at Photokina. The technology is there. Here's hopin'.


infrequenttraveller said...

Well, there might be hope. But... is there a market? I'm longig for a digital equivalent of my Olympus mju-II, 43mm lens, clamshell design, weatherproof... However, I'm afraid the usual customer has got used to having at least a 3x zoom - so he won't accept any camera without a zoom lens. Any digital camera along the lines of the Olympus XA or mju-II or Rollei 35 will be a niche product.

Anonymous said...

There is some market for it, certainly, but it will be somewhat of a nitch..seems the XA still has a place for a while, I'd say. Looking forward to finding a real digital XA (or better yet, Leica/Minolta CL!) equivalent in the next 5 or 10 years, because an SLR probably won't do it! The Ricoh GR/GR II approach this market but don't really satisfy it..the Fujifilm F20/30/31 probably come the closest in the affordability and high ISO areas, but need a manual focus option and an optical viewfinder that they don't provide. I'll be shooting a little film for a few more years at least I guess..