High on my vintage camera wishlist is a Leica M rangefinder. The red dot cult – the nickname for Leica fans – is often compared to Apple fanboys, idolizing their toys without rational arguments as to why they are superior. But I can’t help it, the brand hits all the elements I’m looking for: authenticity, history, quality. It’s the kind of heritage I look for in a hobby.
Leica M cameras are expensive. Even badly maintained models that are decades old can still cost 1000 euros. A modern, digital Leica M? A body without lens will run you 7000 euros.
But what makes them so special? A key element is that they’re rangefinders. That’s a type of camera with a special classic focusing technology, developed prior to the modern autofocus – or even the single lens reflex. This is a technology from the time when focusing manually by eye was common, but still as much luck as it was technique. Take this video as an example:
The finder of the rangefinder camera sees the world in front of you, but at the same time you see a transparent spot in the middle, which shows you a ghostly image of the same world. The spot moves while you’re focusing – a transparent overlay moving over the world you see through the finder. Once the image in the spot matches what you see through the finder, the subject in that spot is in focus. Fans of rangefinders say this method of focusing is much more natural, and that with some training you’ll be just as fast and just as accurate as a modern autofocus. Ideal for street photography, where an autofocus hunting for focus can make the difference between perfection or a missed shot.
Super interesting to try, but I can’t afford a Leica. So what are my options? A recurring recommendation is the Yashica Electro 35. I discovered the Electro after reading an article on GearPatrol, and then discovered that luminaries like Steve Huff, Ken Rockwell and JapanCameraHunter agreed. Their conclusion: it’s not a Leica M, but it’s one of the most enjoyable and affordable rangefinders to start with. And even Peter Parker is a fan in the Spiderman movies!
Another advantage of the Electro? They made so many of them. With other vintage cameras it might be a problem to find them, hunting down photography forums or obscure eBay sellers on the other side of the world. But no, the Electro can be found for a few tenners on your local online marketplace. Which is where I got mine!
First thing you notice: jesus, this thing has chonk. I knew the Electro was one of the larger rangefinders from its era, but still, what a lump of metal. Even compared to my not-so-small modern dSLR, a Canon 60D, I have the feeling I’ve got something much more weighty in my hands with the Electro.
The only problem is the battery, as the original PX32 5.6V mercury battery is no longer made. You can still get them from specialist sites that stock these rare batteries, but you’ll pay a fortune. Instead, there’s a simple adapter you can use to convert a modern battery to the proper size for the Electro. I bought one from eBay, and was surprised to find that it was really nothing more than a wood spacer, a plastic tube and a screw. But hey, if it works.
Using the Electro couldn’t be easier. The camera is always in Av (Aperture priority) mode and adapts the shutterspeed automatically to the aperture you’ve set. This makes the the camera a lot easier to use – and less interesting to the pro – than the fully manual Leica M cameras. But hey, I just want to learn how to use a rangefinder, and I won’t say no to some help from the camera.
So this camera is going to be a daily companion in my ONA bag! If I really enjoy shooting the Yashica and want more out of my rangefinder, I’ll let myself think about actually purchasing a Leica M…