Affordable LTM Rangefinders
19 Apr 2009
It is not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to assemble an enviable, functional vintage rangefinder system that will likely be unique amongst your friends and artsy associates. If you're thinking about getting into film, do it with a bit of flair and panache. Everyone else is using either an SLR or a Holga. Here's another option.
First, some rangefinder basics. The vast majority of rangefinders were made in one of three lens mounts. The most popular today is the Leica M mount. Most cameras and lenses built for this mount are extremely expensive and out of range for the beginning amateur. The Contax mount is a possible option, but not the one I'll be discussing in this essay. Nikon rangefinders use a variation of the Contax mount, but these cameras are also highly collectible and quite pricey. Another option is the Leica thread mount, also known as the Leica screw mount, also known as the M39 mount, but which I'll simply call "LTM" hereafter.
The LTM was the very first rangefinder mount popularized by Leica in the 1930s. Without conducting too exhaustive a review of the subject, I'd like to focus on several cameras in this mount which can be had today at affordable prices. They are: (1) the Leica IIIf, (2) Canon rangefinders, and (3) the Voigtlander Bessa R.
The Leica IIIf is the most commonly available postwar Leica and one of the last available in LTM (there was a IIIg but it is rare and collectible). It has the advantage of the "snob appeal" of the Leica name and legendary build quality. Its main disadvantages are functional. Film advance is by a knob, not a lever. To load and unload film you must remove the bottom cover of the camera which most regard as rather cumbersome.
The Canon rangefinders of the 1950s can be classified into three groups. First, the series II, III and IV cameras which in form and function strongly resemble the Leica III series, sharing many of the same advantages and disadvantages. Canon fans claim the Canon build quality was equal to or better than the Leicas of the same period plus having the advantage of an integrated viewfinder and rangefinder as opposed to comparable Leicas which had separate viewing ports for these two functions.
The Canon V and VI series are some of my personal favorites. I inherited my father's VL in mint condition; it is itself a work of mechanical art. Many regard these as the most aesthetically handsome 35mm cameras ever made. The cameras in this series came in two variations, trigger advance and lever advance. I have never seen or used a trigger advance Canon. I don't know of any other camera that uses this method of film advance and I have no idea what possessed Canon to invent it. I'm sure it works just fine and if you really want to be unique this is one way to do it. Also the trigger advance models tend to sell for less than the others. The cameras in this series also use a conventional hinged back for film loading which will be familiar to any SLR user, and do not require field stripping the camera like the old Leicas and their imitators. This group also includes the L series, supposedly a budget series, though the only disadvantage of the L-1 is the absence of a self-timer; the L-2 and L-3 lack the 1/1000 top speed. The Canon P (for "popular") was the most commercially successful of this series; many regard it today as functionally the best shooter of the lot.
The Canon 7 series (which remained in production through the late 1960s) shares the same functional advantages of the VI series, but it's bigger and uglier and is correspondingly cheaper today. It does, however, have an extremely wide rangefinder baselength which means its focusing accruracy is superior.
In the 1990s Cosina of Japan acquired the rights to the defunct Voigtlander brand name and produced the Voigtlander Bessa R, the only camera in LTM mount ever built with a through-the-lens light meter. In addition, the Bessa R has a plastic body. In contrast all the other cameras discussed above are all-metal and lack meters, except the Canon 7 series which had a non coupled selenium or Cds meter which may or may not still work. The Bessa R is small, light and easy to use. Subsequent Bessa models, such as the R2 and R3, were fitted with the Leica M mount. Only the original Bessa R was made in LTM.
None of these cameras are still in production today and all are readily available on the used market. Good examples of each may be had for between $250 to $400 (in the U.S. at least). Aside from ebay an excellent source for used classics is KEH in Atlanta which enjoys a fine reputation for understated equipment ratings.
Affordable lenses in LTM include the Cosina/Voigtlander lenses, many of which may still be purchased new today, several Soviet-era lenses and a few Canons. My personal recommendations are as follows.
For an affordable high-quality standard lens you can't beat a Jupiter 8. It is a copy of the famous Zeiss Sonnar manufactured in the Soviet Union from the late 50s through the late 80s. Focal length is 50mm; maximum aperture is f/2. It is readily available from ebay or at Fedka in New York. The Jupiter 3 is of similar design but with a faster maximum aperture of f/1.5. Supposedly it has focus compatibility problems with non-Soviet cameras.
For a wide angle the most affordable high-quality option is the Jupiter 12, a Soviet copy of the Zeiss biogon. Focal length is 35mm; maximum aperture is f/2.8. Unfortunately due to the size of the rear element this lens will not fit on a Bessa R or Canon V, VI or 7 series. There is some info on the blogosphere to suggest that a later model Jupiter 12 in black finish has a slightly smaller rear element and will fit just barely onto the later Canon rangefinders, thought not the Bessa. I haven't tried this yet. The safest choice is to get a Voigtlander Color Skopar 35mm f/2.5 which seems to enjoy a good reputation on the photo blogs. I was luck enough to inherit a Canon 35mm f/2.8. It's a pretty good lens but for the money you're probably better off with the Skopar.
High-speed portrait lenses are ungodly expensive. I was lucky to find a Serenar (Canon's brand name for their early rangefinder lenses) 85mm f/2 for $150; they usually go for $250 or thereabouts and are still the most affordable option. Unfortunately the highly-regarded Soviet Jupiter 9 85/2 has focus compatibility problems with non-Soviet cameras and must be avoided. You can probably find a Canon 100/3.5 without breaking the bank, and there's always the Voigtlander 75/2.5 and 90/3.5 though for the money I'd buy a classic Canon 85.
The 135mm lenses in LTM are not nearly as expensive as the portrait lengths. As of this writing KEH has a 135/3.5 Canon in excellent condition listed for $115.
So there you have it, my personal two cents worth on how to build an affordable classic rangefinder system without relying entirely on Soviet equipment, which is a big topic for another day.