Five Best Affordable Rangefinder Cameras

Five Best Affordable Rangefinder Cameras

2000 1125 Josh Solomon

Rangefinders. The mere mention of this type of camera inspires visions of the erstwhile street shooter; a clandestine spirit who is here and not here, never participating but always observing. We imagine these shooters gripping their German rangefinders tight and clicking away down the boulevard, every snap announcing the creation of a new masterpiece. Names and images flash across the mind; Henri Cartier-Bresson’s man jumping across a puddle, Robert Capa’s images of D-Day at Normandy, Ilse Bing’s perfectly composed self-portrait, Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara. We ask ourselves how anybody could make images so perfectly composed, timeless, and beautiful. A thought forms in the back of our minds; perhaps if we use a rangefinder, we can see the way the masters saw. Perhaps we, too, can achieve greatness with these machines.

Yes, rangefinders bring with them a romance that’s irresistible to the average photo geek. But there’s only one way to find out if rangefinders can truly help us realize our photographic potential, and that’s to try the damn things out.

Sounds great, but there’s one problem – the rangefinders that everyone talks about (interchangeable lens cameras, Leicas, etc.) are expensive. Bodies are two to three times more expensive than their SLR counterparts and a single rangefinder lens can cost as much as an entire SLR system. Ouch. So how can the casual enthusiast experience the joy and mystique of the rangefinder without sacrificing a couple of figures on their bank statement? Easy. Try a fixed lens rangefinder.

From the late 1960s all the way up to the early 1980s, the humble fixed-lens rangefinder played a similar role as the point-and-shoot camera later would. Fixed-lens rangefinders were less expensive cameras with which one could make above-average pictures of families and vacations. But while they were meant for consumers, their image quality was anything but consumer-grade. Some of these cameras had lenses that outperformed many SLR lenses of the time, and have since become legends on their own merit.

Today it’s no different, and the value proposition of the fixed lens rangefinder has even improved with age. They almost never exceed the $150 mark, making them the perfect choice for shooters on a budget looking to experience the rangefinder way of life. And though there are many of these machines to choose from, here are five of our favorites.

Canonet GIII QL17

The Canonet line of fixed-lens rangefinders is perhaps the genre’s most famous line, if not certainly the longest-lived. The first Canonet was introduced in 1961 as an easy-to-use, high quality camera for the masses, its claim to fame an incredibly fast 45mm f/1.9 lens. The masses rejoiced and bought the Canonet in spades, and the consumer fixed-lens rangefinder was born.

Fast-forward to 1972 and we get the final, and greatest, iteration of the Canonet line, the Canonet GIII QL17. Small, sleek, and incredibly quiet, the Canonet embodied everything great about rangefinders, and even added some convenience features. The QL in the name denoted Canon’s “Quick Load” tech which made bottom-loading rangefinders seem clumsy and outdated by comparison, and the famously short focusing throw of the GIII QL17 made grabbing snapshots quick and easy in comparison to older, longer throw rangefinder lenses. Impressive.

But what really earns this camera a spot on our list is that amazing jewel of a lens. The 40mm f/1.7 of the Canonet GIII QL17 is one of best in the business, and showcases everything great about Canon’s old-school optics. It’s sharp, contrasty, and renders color incredibly well. Altogether a fantastic camera.

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Yashica Electro 35 GSN

Along with the Canonet GIII QL17, the Yashica Electro 35 may be one of the most famous cameras on this list. It’s a hugely popular camera that can be found almost everywhere, and its even earned itself some fame as Peter Parker’s camera in The Amazing Spider-Man. And if Hollywood likes it, it must be good, right?

Although I would hesitate to recommend the Electro 35 to any modern photojournalist (fictional or real), today it remains an incredibly capable camera for the enthusiast film shooter. Although it operates exclusively in aperture-priority, the meter almost never fails to deliver great results and makes the Electro 35 singularly easy to use. And when that ease of use is housed in a chunky, oversized, oh-so-70s brass enclosure, it’s hard not to love the camera.

Lovable though the Yashica’s chunky looks (it’s the largest camera on this list) and easy operation are, the real reason for the camera’s popularity is its beautiful Yashinon lens. The Yashinon-DX 45mm f/1.7 found on the Electro 35 is one of Yashica’s best and has gained its fair share of acolytes. It’s sharp but never clinical, and its colors are vivid but never garish. It’s as good a lens as any, and at the price these things go for it’s impossible to call it anything but a fantastic deal.

Don’t be put off by the talk on other websites and forums about these cameras being hard to power and destined to die. The adapters needed to use modern batteries in the Electro are available for cheap, and the “Pad of Death” problem is overblown. Face it, every vintage camera has its quirks and mechanical breakdowns. But to get a camera as good as the Yashica for under $100, a little faith is not too much to ask.

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Olympus 35 SP/SPn

Fixed-lens rangefinders are often scoffed at as being inferior imitations of certain German rangefinders, but the Olympus 35 SP is one camera that takes that stereotype and breaks it over its knee. The whiz kids from Shinjuku somehow came up with a camera that put both amateur models and professional models to shame, and still does to this day.

The Olympus 35 SP somehow crammed not one, but two light meters into its body. One was an average scene meter but the other was a special spot meter that allowed for extreme fine tuning of the exposure. This is an innovation that still has not been matched by any film camera manufacturer and has cemented the Olympus 35 SP in camera history.

But it isn’t all technological wizardry that gives the Olympus 35 SP its street cred; its lens also deserves similar praise. The Zuiko 42mm f/1.7 lens found on the 35 SP most closely matches the 43.27mm diagonal of a normal 35mm frame, which means that the lens will render objects almost exactly the way our eyes perceive them. Try finding another camera that can do that, this cheap, while looking as beautiful. Good luck.

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Konica Auto S3

Of all the cameras on the list, this is the one that gets the least amount of fanfare. It’s the Konica Auto S3, and the kind of quiet praise it only occasionally receives makes it one of the camera world’s unsung heroes. Fix that, shall we?

The Konica Auto S3 is, on the surface, a rather typical camera. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s another “me-too” machine from another unremarkable Japanese brand. But spend time talking to old, experienced photogs and you’ll find that a select few say it’s the best fixed-lens rangefinder ever made, with an almost religious conviction. So what’s the deal with this inconspicuous fellow?

Perhaps more than any other camera on this list, the Konica Auto S3’s lens is the reason for the camera’s greatness. The 38mm f/1.8 Hexanon lens on the Auto S3 is consistently heralded as one of the greatest fixed-lens rangefinder lenses of all time, if not one of the all-time greatest lenses for 35mm photography. Due to the brand’s absence in today’s market, younger shooters may not know that Konica was considered one of the few companies whose lenses could seriously and consistently trade blows with the very best from Leica and Zeiss. Think I’m full of it? Check out the results and see if you can resist buying one for yourself.

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Olympus XA

Ah, the Olympus XA, the most non-rangefinder-looking camera to ever be a rangefinder. Ask any photo geek to describe an ideal rangefinder, pull an XA out of your pocket, and watch their heads spin. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun.

The XA is a rangefinder in the loosest sense of the term. Sure, the XA’s got a rangefinder mechanism for focusing, but much of what we expect in a rangefinder is tossed aside and replaced with better. It’s electronically controlled instead of fully mechanical, uses aperture-priority auto-exposure without manual override, and embraces plastic over of the old guard’s brass and aluminum. Tradition be damned, because guess what? The XA is capable of out-shooting every other camera on this list (and many three-times-the-price cameras not listed here).

How does it do it? Two simple ways – first, you can fit this camera in your pocket and take it everywhere you go. This is the smallest camera on the list, and it fits in your pocket in a way that few cameras do (though everyone seems to say that every camera can fit in your pocket). Because it’s so portable, it can easily become “the camera you have with you” at all times, which if we remember the old adage, makes it the best camera. Though many rangefinders are often touted as being small take-everywhere cameras, no other rangefinder comes within spitting distance of the XA on this front.

Second, the XA doesn’t achieve its compact form at the cost of features or image quality. This thing was designed by Maitani after all (if you don’t know his work, you should), and in true Olympus fashion its miniscule 35mm f/2.8 F. Zuiko lens delivers incredible results. It’s sharp, contrasty, and most importantly, has its own signature character. The exposure system is flawless, it feels tight and refined, and it’s got a wonderfully cohesive attachable flash. If you want a daily carry-around rangefinder that’ll fit in your pocket and give you great results, look no further than the XA.

Buy it on eBay

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Buy it from F Stop Cameras

Find one at B&H Photo

That does it for our list of the five best rangefinders that won’t break the bank. Think we’ve nailed it? Think we’ve missed a couple? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • I’d have expected a Sony camera, what with the Spidey movies belonging to Sony Pictures.
    Guess Pete couldn’t afford one of the alphas on Jameson’s pay…

  • The Konica would be my choice. Beautifully made, excellent Hexanon lens and almost silent in operation. However for those venturing back into film, it could be an idea also to look at the non-RF quality 35mm cameras, which you zone focus. You would be surprised how few wrongly focussed shots you will get. The two that spring to mind are the Rollei 35 series and the Minox 35 series. The Minox is a bit smaller, lighter and “plasticky” but otherwise just as capable as the more sought after Rolleis, especially the expensive 35S. Compared with the rangefinders, the advantage is that these are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket, so will have them with you for that “decisive moment”.

    • Thanks for the info Wilson! Those super compact 35mm cameras are no slouch. Expect to see one of them on the site soon!

    • The Konica Auto S3 is cheaply made, I have disassembled a few and i was most disappointed. The Konica is several notches down compared with the Canonet series. It has a good lens, but the camera is bland, lacks personality and it’s dubious origins don’t make it very compelling in my eyes. For gorgeous looks, fabulous build, same lens and total silence, you should be looking at another Konica, the Auto SE.

  • Love the review. A not so well-kept secret is that the Konica Auto S3 has “doppelgängers”, i.e same design, lens and operation but sold under a different brand for marketing reasons. Try the Vivitar 35ES or Revue 400SE, they’re identical….and often cheaper!

    • Thanks Oliver! I’ll definitely keep an eye out for those Konica equivalents.

    • Actually, no but it’s . Not the same lenses and not the same inside either. Both the Vivitar 35ES and the Revue 400SE have a 40mm f/1.7 whereas the Konica has a 38mm f/1.8 of a different design and coating. I know that several websites like to say they are the same cameras because they look similar and have a shutter-priority mode. However, the Konica Auto S3 really stands out in terms of optical quality with a higher resolution than the 40mm Summicron. The Konica also has a very unique and innovative flashmatic system with a pin in the hot shoe that no other camera of this era has. On the Konica, the hot shoe is more in the middle and the viewfinder is brighter. The Konica wasn’t even made anymore (1973 to 1977) when the Vivitar and Revue were available on the market (1978). They could have been clones of the much more similar Minolta Hi-Matic 7sII (lens of the same size, focal length and maximum aperture, made in 1977, similarly dim viewfinder) but according to Foto-Quelle (the owner of the Revue brand), the Revue 400SE was made by Cosina (which most probably also made the Vivitar 35ES and Prinz 35ER).

      • My understanding is that Cosina also made the HiMatic 7siii for Minolta. The Minolta, Revue and Vivitar are often associated with the Auto S3, mainly I think because of the rangefinder assembly which is common to all four cameras (the bright-lines and aperture scale in all these cameras is identical) – This may have been brought in as a part by both Cosina and Konica.

  • Great list–thanks. I’ve owned 4 or 5 Electros, and I will say this: all of them came to me with the pad-of-death problem (listen for a very distinct thunk when you rewind. Don’t hear it? You need to replace the POD). But it is a fairly easy fix if you want to try your hand at camera repair, despite what many sites suggest. And I enthusiastically agree: the lens is outstanding. it’s a great little camera.

    • Thanks for reading Mike! I’ve experience POD on the Electro 35 only a couple of times, but the lens makes the fix totally worth it!

  • Nice write-up (as usual) I would group the Canonet QL19 with the QL17 because of how similar they are and the fact that you can probably find a QL19 for about half the price. I haven’t used a QL17 but after using my QL19 for several years I find it nothing short of amazing. The only issue I have is the light meter being one stop off which I can compensate with adjusting the ISO speed. Also there are close copies of the Konica Auto S3 to look out for. I found a Revue 400SE for next to nothing that’s a real gem. I tend to use it more than the QL19 because its smaller and lighter.

  • A couple of others. olympus rc35 and add to wilson’s zone focus XA2 and XA3. All very capable

  • I would add the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s and the Konica Auto S2. Both have the benefit of not requiring a battery. You can use one for the meter’s, or not. They both have lenses that are comparable to any camera on this list. The great benefit of these 60’s and 70’s rangefinders is the ease of use – somewhere between a point-and-shoot and a fully manual SLR. Yet the photo quality rivals the best cameras of the era.

  • Thank you for yet another great article. I followed the eBay link to the Canon GIII QL page and found an interesting note on batteries. Apparently the original batteries were 1.35V not 1.5V as today which affects the meter reading. Any views on that? How big an issue is it in your view?

    • Hey there. Yeah, technically this is true and I’ve talked about it elsewhere on the site here before, but essentially my view is that the impact of .15 volts on exposure metering has been massively overblown on the internet. Yes, the voltage is incrementally different, however, I’ve been shooting a different vintage camera every week for three years using nothing but modern batteries and I’ve never had an incorrect exposure resulting from the use of these batteries.

      I feel the issue of battery voltage ruining exposures is a myth for three reasons – First, film’s exposure latitude is so great these days that you could very well shoot many films two, three, and even four stops off proper exposure and still get perfectly acceptable images. I do it all the time, on purpose, because I like saturating my film with more light than is “proper”. Secondly, many vintage cameras have voltage regulators built into them, which automatically output the proper amount of power while dissipating the remainder, in this case .15 volts. Not all cameras have these, mind you, and certainly the older the camera the less likely it is to have a regulator. The final reason I think this issue is a myth is simply because I know how intense photo geeks can be. We love nitpicking, we love showing how smart we are, and we love doing things “the right way”, especially when we talk about the older generation of photographers. And in my experience, it’s usually the old-timers who grew up shooting these with the poisonous mercury batteries that are the ones who tell me I’m a fool for shooting the wrong batteries.

      The takeaway here is if you’re not convinced, try shooting a modern battery. When your photos come back perfect you’ll probably be convinced. Hope this helps!

      • I know I am several years late in replying to this, but I have noticed that using a 1.5V battery on the QL17giii makes it just over 1 stop off if you use the ‘correct’ ISO value of the film for its light meter. So if you set it to 200 on ISO 200 film, it will underexpose by around 1 stop. I just always set the ISO 1 stop slower (100 in this case) to allow for this.

  • Thank you for a very swift and informative answer. Congratulations on the whole site – content and visual sides. It’s a pleasure to return.

  • I have a black copy of lastest model of Yashica Electro 35 line, the GX and very satified about it. It has a much smaller body than the other Electro 35 siblings and the fantastic 40mm f1.7 lens which I think is on par with the lens on QL17 GIII. The only cons of GX it only has aperture priority mode, and it’s fairly uncommon.

    • Agreed! It is far less common to find than other bread and butter Electro 35, but l have found more times the GX than the original Glll made in Japan.

  • Has anyone tried the Yashica Electro CC? I’m intrigued by the wider lens but I’m not sure if the quality is up to par with the GSN.

  • Any chance you’ll do a part two to this? Would love to see more vintage rangefinders! These are beautiful little cameras and I just picked up a Yashica GSN (kinda wishing I got the black GTN) but it was cheap enough I may just get another! Thanks for putting up these great reviews. I’ve been poring over so many of them as I recently also picked up a K1000 SE for the girlfriend as well as an Olympus OM-4T for myself!

    Keep up the great work. Love the format of the site and the great reviews.

    • Hey Adrian, thanks for the kind words. I’ll talk to the guys and we’ll put together a Part 2 in the next week or so. These are always fun. Thanks again.

  • Another candidate would be the Retina II/IIa. I had one that I really enjoyed. It’s almost as pocketable as the XA, with great German quality and, to me, a more timeless “camera-y” look and feel to it. For some the lack of a meter could hurt it (it didn’t bother me), and I still feel the Schneider 50-f2 is too long a lens to be stuck with, but hey, it is a Schneider. They’re still cheap too.

  • Great article! Now to track down part 2! The Olympus 35RC has an amazing lens. Only 2.8 maximum aperture but in a much smaller body. It gave stunning results with Kodachrome 25… and anything else I fed it.

  • Missing from this list, and you will see what I mean should you try one out, is the Agfa Ambi-Silette. For less than the cost of a good steak dinner, it is a truly stunning piece of equipment……..”Poor man’s Leica” I believe they termed it, back in the day.

  • After owning it for almost 30 years, I reluctantly sold my Konica Auto S3 because the light meter was broken and I couldn’t shoot without it. I loved that camera. My photos were sharp and it allowed me to photograph in low light without a flash. I loved my rangefinder so much that I plan to buy another and your list (and this forum) is extremely helpful. I may experiment with another type…perhaps the Canonet or Olympus. Just for a change. But I highly recommend a working Konica Auto S3.

  • I have a couple of these: the Canonet and the Vivitar 35ES. The Canonet was my first ever camera. However after a few years I got rid of it because the shutter kept jamming. But many years later I was looking at my old photos and I liked them so much I bought another Canonet. Worked fine for a couple of years and then the shutter jammed. $200 worth of work later it is working great. I inherited a Vivitar 35ES from my father and it worked fine for a while. Then it had problems but because of its heritage I had it fixed. About $125 but now it is working well. I think if you are going to get into these kinds of cameras you either have to do your own repairs or know a good repair shop. I know a good repair shop but like any kind of good artist they are not cheap.

    This generation of cameras is pretty classic and one nice thing is they have built-in meters. From a user point of view they are very well designed but you have to keep your wits about you. It’s not a point-and-shoot. I’ve messed up a few potentially good shots because I wasn’t mentally in control of what I was doing. I guess practice helps.

    The earlier generation of rangefinders from the 1950s doesn’t have the meters but they have some nice lenses. I have an Argus C3 and a Kodak SIgnet. In both cases I paid $25 for the camera and $100 for CLA and various adjustments. So I don’t know if that’s a bargain or not. But I got a light meter at the Salvation Army for $20 that works great. And those cameras have some great lenses with a lot of character. Not as easy to use as the 1970s generation but rewarding to work with.

  • Great list as always. While not competitive, I sure have fond memories of my Vivitar 35ES, a camera that was stolen and led to a Nikon EM, huge for a teenager. Also, I remember an old Kid Dak with a Scheider lens that took old 126 film. Actually have some nice pics from that one.

  • I have a low light shoot this weekend. Which camera do you think performs best at around f/4, the Canon QL-17 GIII, or the Olympus RC? I will be burning T-Max 3200 film.

    Spirit Vision Photography

  • I shot 1000’s of photos through a Kodak Retna IIIc. Still my favorite camera of all times. If only we could have it on a digital camera.

    Recently played with a $7000 Lica digital it was 80% of what the Kodak was, much easier and better to shoot with for me than any sleep I have ever shot with, however for that money 80% isn’t good enough!

  • I’m actually quite surprised you didn’t include the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, or 9 from the 1960s on this list. They sported similar 45mm f/1.8 or f/1.7 lenses to other cameras on this list. They had a similar array of available shutter speeds from 1/500 – 1s + bulb. They offered accurate CdS lens-mounted metering. And they offered full auto exposure, semi-auto aperture priority mode, or fully manual control over shutter speed and aperture, with hot shoe for flash. In terms of size they were no larger or heavier than the Yashica Electro 35 and they can be found now in working condition for between $50-200.

  • A solid list, and unlike other similar lists, you only include ACTUAL rangefinders. Too bad the Rollei 35 is not technically a rangefinder, as it contends with the XA as the one a fellow can have with him, and it is a lot more reliable too. (not having any 70s micro-electronics in it) The Tessar lens is at least equal to the Zuiko, and the Sonnar is probably better. I will say though that the XA has a “better” focal length. 35 mm is more useful, all-around than 40 or 45mm.

    The Yashica is a BEAST. I’ve got one, and it’s bigger than my OM1N, which is a lot more capable. (although not as fast, since it’s fully manual) One thing that’s awesome about the Yaschica Electros is their slow shutter speed capability. Bring a small-but-sturdy tripod, and 15+s exposures are not a problem.

    I’ve had a Canonet. It’s not in the same league as a Yashica. Controls are not as good and the lens is not as good. It FEELS solid though, which I think convinces a lot of people it’s better than it is.

    Olympus is right up there with the Yashica. Spot metering is a game-changing feature, for a 1969 camera. I don’t know how the others survived. 3 exposure modes too, and the awesome Zuiko lens. Shutter is louder though and not as smooth. I’ve never experienced a quieter mechanical shutter than on the Yashica.

  • The Kodak Signet 40 has a very sharp, radioactive coated 46mm f3.5 lens. I also have the Olympus XA and zone focus XA4; both are very sharp. I like the 28mm on the XA4 as it gives me more angle to work with, and is more forgiving if my guess is a bit off. One obscure rangefinder I only recently found for $20 in a garage sale, is the Mamiya Promatic. Built like a tank, it has a marvelous 50mm 1.7 lens. Took some awesome shots with it last fall.

  • I don’t know who can talk about it. But I’ve often heard about the Minolta Hi-Matic 7Sii, particularly from JapanCameraHunter, but also here with this funny photo:

    This is really a great RF camera.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon