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The History of the 35mm Rangefinder Camera
Early compact film cameras had a lens that was either fixed focus (i.e. had no focus adjustment), or scale-focusing, where the distance to the subject had to be guessed.
Fixed and scale focusing is fine at medium distances with relatively short focal length lenses and small apertures - due to their wide depth of field. However, lenses with larger apertures or longer focal lengths need a more precise method of focusing, especially at shorter distances.
To bring improved performance to smaller format cameras, and get the best possible results from their lens, a convenient gadget that could measure distances was needed. Such devices existed - the split-image (or coincidence) rangefinder - which was in widespread use for surveying, maritime and military applications.
The split-image rangefinder is an optical device that uses a single viewing eyepiece, which light enters through two windows separated by a short distance. One beam of light enters the eyepiece directly, and the other is reflected by a mirror or prism, so that it also passes through the eyepiece, where the two beams are merged. This produces two overlapping, misaligned images, since each arises from a slightly different viewpoint. One window source is adjusted to tilt the second image until the two align as one, at which point the images are said to be 'in coincidence'. The degree of rotation of the second image determines the distance to the target by the mathematical principle of 'parallax triangulation'.
Rangefinder accessories that clipped into a camera's accessory shoe (also known as telemeters) were available from the 1930s, and took the guess work out of scale focusing. The next step was for manufacturers to integrate a rangefinder into their cameras. The first example is generally accepted to be the 1916 Kodak 3A Autographic Special, which used A122 roll film (a 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 inch negative).
The first 35mm camera with a built-in rangefinder was the 1932 Leica II (or model D). The rangefinder had its own viewing window, but its adjustment control was coupled to the focusing mechanism, i.e. the distance did not have to be read from a scale, and transferred to the lens; aligning the images also set the focus distance in one single operation. The Leica had a horizontally travelling fabric focal-plane shutter, and interchangeable screw mounted lens.
In 1936, Zeiss produced the Contax II, which took rangefinder integration a step further, and was the first 35mm camera with a combined rangefinder and viewfinder, rather than two separate viewing windows. The Contax had a vertically travelling metal shutter, and interchangeable bayonet mounted lens.
Whilst Leica and Contax each took a slightly different design route, collectively they created a genre; the 35mm rangefinder 'system' camera, which had a focal-plane shutter, interchangeable lenses, and a complete set of accessories.
Although rangefinder design stabilized for a while after 1936, changes to the viewfinder optics influenced the future of rangefinder camera evolution. Significant among these were: the Albada bright-line finder, the bright-frame finder, and automatic frame-line parallax compensation. All three of these advances first appeared on cameras which were not equipped with rangefinders.
The Albada viewfinder, first seen in the 1935 Zeiss Contaflex 35mm - a Twin Lens Reflex - introduced an optically reflected fixed image defining the edges of the field. Briefly, this was a white outline painted on the eyepiece assembly, which through the use of a half-silvered mirror surface on the front objective lens formed a virtual image of the outline at the same apparent distance as the image of the scene.
In 1939, the Minox, a sub-miniature viewfinder 'spy' camera, designed to take close-up images (of secret documents!), featured a mechanical coupling between the viewfinder and the lens which caused the entire optical assembly to pivot as the lens was focused, compensating automatically for parallax. This system was not copied, but inspired Leica to develop an alternative methodology.
A new method for presenting a sharply focused and illuminated sighting frame was developed for military use in WWII. The frame-lines were lit through their own light collecting window. This innovation found its way into the 1947 Argus Model 21 - a viewfinder camera - where it was called the 'Markfinder', but went on to became known as the bright-frame finder. In addition to its own viewing benefits, the projection (rather than reflection) of frame-lines opened the way forward to develop movable, and therefore parallax correcting frame-lines.
The point I'm trying to make here is ... there is little to be gained by researching and documenting every first use of new technology in a rangefinder camera, because the probability is, that technology was not inspired by the rangefinder camera. I have therefore set-aside thoughts about first light meters, and so on.
While Leica and Contax quickly gained a reputation as the premier manufacturers of 35mm rangefinder cameras, a challenge to their dominance came in the form of the 1941 Kodak Ektra. This boasted many new features, but two of the most relevant were a parallax-compensating, and zoom-able viewfinder. Previously, rangefinder cameras had finders with frame-lines for a 'standard' lens, so wide or telephoto lenses required an auxiliary viewfinder (that slotted into the accessory shoe). Despite the Kodak's sophistication, it was a sales disaster, which is rumoured to be attributable to it being a left-handed' camera (i.e. the shutter release was on the user's left). Nevertheless, its ideas were incorporated into other manufacturers' future designs.
1948, the Japanese Nippon Kogaku company produced their first 35mm camera, which they named the Nikon (often referred to as the Nikon One). The Nikon represents a milestone in 35mm rangefinder development because it combined the best features of Leica and Contax; it was essentially a Contax copy with Leica style modifications. For example, it looks like a Contax, and has a bayonet lens mount, but has a Leica style fabric shutter.
In many ways, the Nikon was a role model for the future of 35mm system rangefinder development, in as much as it took an existing idea and attempted to make it better, rather than in a new direction; lens performance was improved, shutters were made faster and more robust, etc. Like Nikon, there were numerous Japanese companies copying Leica and Contax designs, and attempting to refine them. While Nikons gravitated towards Contax features, others such as Canon more closely emulated Leicas.
However, rangefinder technology also spawned a sub-set of cameras; models that incorporated a rangefinder, but had fixed lenses, often set in a leaf shutter, and were not system cameras. These cameras appear to have become popular in the mid-1950s, although the earliest example I can identify is the 1947 Konica I. While Leica and Contax pursued specialisation in rangefinder cameras, most other manufactures produced several different types of camera model, which significantly included viewfinder types supplemented with their more sophisticated rangefinder cousins. For example, in the 1950s, Agfa sold the viewfinder Silette and Solinette, alongside the rangefinder equipped Super Sillette and Super Solinette, while Voigtlander had the viewfinder Vito B, and the rangefinder Vito BR.
The Leica M3 of 1954 cracked the issue of projected parallax-compensating frame lines, and the automatic adjustment of frame-line sizes. An appropriately sized frame came into view automatically when either a 50mm, 90mm, or 135mm lens was mounted. The M3 crushed the competition, and became the grand-daddy of an enduring line of M cameras. The Leica rangefinder survived and evolved, despite shifts in photographers' allegiances, based on its brand name and reputation for unrivalled quality.
Towards the end of the 1950s, leading manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon turned their main attention to the upcoming SLR. Contax stopped producing rangefinder cameras in 1962. Increasing automation, compactness, affordability and popularity of the SLR caused a significant reduction in system rangefinder buying options by the mid 1970s. Meanwhile, the non-system rangefinder soldered-on, performing its unchanged role of offering a better quality alternative to viewfinder cameras. This status quo ended by the early 1980s, when autofocus became wide-spread, and the rangefinder was redundant.
Japanese interchangeable-lens rangefinder cameras enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity during the mid to late 1990s, courtesy of the Contax G1/G2 (1994), Konica Hexar RF (1999), and Cosina-made Voigtlander Bessa-R (2000). The Contax and Konica were expensive, high quality, auto-everything, and only technically rangefinder cameras because their autofocus system used a twin-window like that of the older mechanical rangefinders. The Bessa-R was a Leica M6 impersonator. All of these models tapped into the retro-vibe of the golden age of rangefinder cameras.