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Buying Your First 35mm Rangefinder
March 2000: The user rangefinder market was shaken up by the superlative Voigtlander Bessa R, and later with the Leica M mount Bessa T and Bessa R2. With a GREAT rangefinder/viewfinder and a bargain price, combined with the superb quality Voigtlander lens lineup in Leica Screw mount, it's impossible not to consider the Bessa R as THE entry level interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder. It is a great bargain in terms of money, and in term of the quality it delivers. With it's great finder and the convenience of TTL metering, the Bessa R is a much more convenient shooter than any of the classic rangefinders without TTL metering. Unfortunately for Leica, it's the camera Leica should have made, but didn't. I wonder how long Leica management will continue to ignore this entry level market, and what effect it will have upon Leica M sales.
The Best Choice from a long term shooting standpoint is a used Leica M with used lenses, or better yet a new M with new lenses if you can afford it. Unfortunately, a used M body in good working condition is likely to cost you $700-1000 or more (for a M2, M3, M4-2, or M4-P). Some will prefer the smaller CL or electronic CLE, but the prices are about the same. M4's, M5's, M6's are more. Used M lenses usually cost at least $300, and recent M lenses can cost $1500 or more used. Translation: the best choice, but the most expensive. A new M6 with used lenses also makes a lot of sense. New M6 prices are at a all time low right now, making them quite a bargain in the long run.
Leica screw mounts such as the IIIa, IIIc and IIIf cost less, usually about half as much as M's, comparing the common bodies and lenses in each group. They have a kind of antique all mechanical charm and great finish, but they are not nearly as easy to use as the later M's and the new Bessa R. The later Canon rangefinders and Niccas (both covered under Profiles) are much better shooters IMHO than the often more costly Leica screw mounts. The relatively easy to find Canon 7 and Canon P offer a lot for the money in used RF's. Either of these can be great shooters. Frankly, from the shootability vs investment standpoint, I would choose a Bessa R and its modern lenses over any classic screw mount camera as a shooter. On the other hand, if collectibles are your interest, the classic screw mount deserve serious consideration.
Collectors have driven up clean used Canon RF and Leica copy prices in the US, often MORE than a worn and ugly M3 or M2. If you want to take pictures instead having your camera on the shelf, a M3 or M2 is actually a much better shooter than the Canons and Leica copies -- and they take the more modern sharper M lenses. Don't worry about wearing out a M3 or M2, it won't happen in your lifetime, or your children's, or their children's. But you will have to have the shutter overhauled every 15 years or so.
Although I do not particularly like their limited choice of lenses and lack of fast lenses, there is NO doubt you will get a LOT for your money if you buy a used Contax G2. While some will argue about Zeiss lenses Vs Leica lenses, for all practical purposes they can be considered the same, i.e. GREAT. Of course the AF Contax is a lot different experience than the M, which probably accounts for the M still apparently outselling the Contax. Likewise a used Konica Hexar using M lenses offers much for the bargain hunter. Still, unless you really need the AF of G2 (which is not nearly so fast as in SLRs), or you really need the AE of the Hexar, I would buy used M's over either.
Collectors have priced Nikon Rangefinders out of bounds for most shooters. Voigtlander surprised the rangefinder world by introducing the Nikon mount R2S in Nikon rangefinder mount in 2002.
Classic Zeiss Contax rangefinders are very under priced in today's market in relationship to their historic value, beautiful workmanship, and optical performance. Their optics often surpassed their Leica contemporaries. If you are willing to make do without a TTL meter and lever advance, you can get some great bargains in Contax Rangefinders. As shooters my favorites are the IIa and IIIa, in that order, followed by the II and III. Avoid the very unreliable I as a shooter. The Color Dial IIa and IIIa are overpriced, at least in the US and Japan, go with the less expensive Black Dial versions. Inexpensive lenses can be had by using the often high quality -- but inconsistent -- Russian lenses made for the Kiev Contax copy. See Contax profiles. Voigtlander also introduced the classic Contax Rangefinder mount Bessa R2C in 2002.
The Russians also made a whole series of Contax II/III copies and derivatives, with lenses from 28 to 135, called the Kiev. In my experience you still have to be careful about quality control, but the Kiev's seem to be more robust and dependable than their Russian screw mount counterparts. The Kiev's better quality is probably because the Kiev was made from the original Zeiss Contax II and III dies which were looted from Germany after the war. Kiev lenses seem to give less trouble too. If a Russian shutter breaks down, don't waste money on it getting repaired -- just buy another one. Though made in cheap mounts, the optics can be quite good -- often copies of pre-war Zeiss designs.
What about VERY LOW PRICED interchangeable lens rangefinders -- Do they Exist ? YES. Russian made Leica screw mount bodies and lenses are cheap, often running $75 or less per body or lens. Personally I much prefer the later Zorki 4, 5, 6 with a large combined viewfinder over the earlier and more plentiful Fed / Zorki Leica II copies. Incidentally, the Zorki 4/5/6 finder is much larger and easier to see than the Leica screw mount finders. Quality control is spotty, and the film advance can feel like a ratchet wrench, but they are very inexpensive and they do take pictures. Their nicest feature is upward compatibility. The beginner on a budget can start out with a Zorki body and normal lens for less than $75. Inexpensive Russian lenses can be added, or you also have the choice of modern Voigtlander screw mount designs. Best of all, add a set of screw mount to bayonet mount adapters and you can treat yourself to the ultimate rangefinder upgrade: a Leica M body. If your Zorki breaks, don't waste money fixing it. Either fix it yourself or just buy another. I once bought five Russian made Leica screw mount lenses, only to have four of them NOT screw on a Leica! -- it seems the production line had a little too much Vodka that day. My mint Zorki 4 looked great, but it was defective from the factory. Eventually my repair guys gave up on its poor interior workmanship, using it for parts. Even so, these Russian beauties are the lowest cost route to a working Leica screw mount outfit.
On a limited budget, other than hoping for the proverbial incredible garage sale bargain, the best choice for a low cost first rangefinder with built in meter is probably a non-interchangeable fast lensed leaf shutter rangefinder --- like those in the Compact RF Profiles section. The better compacts like the Olympus RD, RC, SP, Canon GIII, Konica S3, and Yashica 35 CC offer a lot of camera and picture taking pleasure for not a lot of money. These cameras also give you an introduction into the Rangefinder way of taking pictures. IF you can live without the meter on low budget, yet want interchangeable lenses, the Russian Kiev is worthy of consideration. Yet, if you can afford it, long term the best place is start is arguably the Voigtlander Bessa R, due to its relative low cost and the great new Voigtlander lenses.
The RF way of seeing and experiencing picture taking is substantially different than the SLR way. You might love it, or hate it --- there is no telling until you experience it for yourself.
Revised: November 26, 2003 . Copyright © 1998-2003 Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved. This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind. Information in this document is subject to change without notice. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.