Focusing - SLR vs. Rangefinder vs. TLR vs. Zone Focusing vs. Ground Glass vs. Fixed

SLR vs. Rangefinder vs. TLR vs. Zone Focusing vs. Ground Glass vs. Fixed

by Karen Nakamura


With the demise of TLRs as contemporary cameras and only large format photographers using ground glass, single lens reflex and rangefinders remain as the major current manual focusing options for curmudgeonly photographers who refuse to go auto-focus (or who like myself, use AF for their professional photography, and manual focus for their fine art photos).

This page is dedicated to explaining the difference between the various options. First, there's a chart explaining the different types of focusing devices, then a section on the great SLR vs. Rangefinder debate.

Type System Description Pros Cons Executive Summary
SLR A camera design which uses only one lens system as both the focusing and taking lens. A 45° mirror in the camera box reflects the image from the lens upwards onto a focusing screen. A waist-level finder allows you to view the image from above. Most SLRs however use a pentaprism to further bounce the image around until it emerges parallel to the taking lens through an eye-level viewfinder. + What you see is what you get, including filter effects.
+ Auto-focus and auto-exposure are usually seamless.
+ New and vintage SLRs are usually inexpensive.
+ Focusing telephoto lenses is a cinch.

- Heavier
- Louder
- Mirror slap vibration
- Wide-angle lenses subject to distortion unless exotic materials (aspheric surfaces, ED glass) are used because of need for retrofocus designs.
- Wide-angle lenses difficult to focus.
-Flash sync speeds are limited with focal plane shutters (<1/125sec or slower in most cases)

Great for portraiture, sports, nature, and general photography.

TLR A camera design that uses separate taking lens and focusing lens mounted one above the other in a single unit. The focusing lens on the top is mounted so that the image bounces off an internally mounted 45° mirror to a focusing screen on the top of the camera. You view the image from above using a waist-level viewfinder.The bottom lens system is the taking lens.

+Very quiet


+No mirror slap vibration

+Simple to manufacture, fix, and adjust to keep in focus

+Leaf shutter lenses can flash sync up to 1/500 sec

-Usually manual focus

-Most TLRs do not have interchangeable lenses (Mamiya 330 is the notable counterexample)

-Waist-level finders are hard to orient (left-to-right reversal)

-Viewfinder image does not always match film image, including filter effects and parallax error

-Bulkier than SLRs or rangefinders

Great for nostalgia value

Type System Description Pros Cons Executive Summary
Rangefinder A type of focusing aid which uses parallax difference to ascertain the distance to the subject. Coupled rangefinders connect the rangefinder distance gauge directly to the camera lens, so that when the rangefinder is in focus so is the camera. Uncoupled rangefinders merely give you a distance reading which you must then transfer onto the camera lens.

+Very quiet
+No mirror slap vibration
+Wide angle lenses are usually highly corrected without resorting to exotic materials.
+Focusing wide-angle lenses is a cinch.

- Usually manual focus.
- Viewfinder image does not always match film image, including filter effects and parallax error.
- New rangefinders are usually expensive. Vintage rangefinders can be obtained inexpensively but usually do not have interchangeable lenses.
- Telephoto lenses can be hard to focus.
- Extremely wide angle (<35mm) and telephoto lenses (>90mm) need auxiliary viewfinders in most rangefinders

Great for street, straight, and available light photography.

Type System Description Pros Cons Executive Summary
Scale / Zone

A focusing aid on the lens body that indicates the distance to the subject. The photographer guesstimates the distance and dials the lens to that position.

Often found in very wide angle cameras; in point and shoot cameras (typical sequence is: head, head and shoulders, group photo, single tree, many trees); disposable cameras; polaroid cameras, etc.


+Usually quiet

+Very Reliable

+Focusing wide-angle lenses is a cinch.

-Hard to focus without a tape rule

-Cannot be used with large aperture lenses

-Cannot be used with telephoto lenses

Used in superwide angle lenses (< 20mm), disposable cameras, and other situations where the depth of field is greater than any concerns on the part of the photographer for selective focus.

Some people attach an accessory rangefinder to their scale focus cameras, thus turning them into uncoupled rangefinders.

Fixed Focus

Focus is fixed at the lenses' hyperfocal distance. User cannot change focus or lens aperture.


+ You don't have to focus.

+ No focusing mechanism to make/break

+ Cheap, cheap, cheap

- Cannot focus more closely than the short end of the hyperfocal distance (usually 6 feet)

- Focus is not the sharpest possible

- Lens aperture is usually set at f8~f16, making it difficult to shoot in dark environs.

-Lens is also on the wide side, telephoto fixed focus cameras are rare.

You get what you pay for. Most commonly found on point-and-shoot cameras.

Direct View Focusing is made directly on the focal plane on a sheet of ground glass. Most commonly found on large-format cameras.

+ Extremely accurate

+ Can be used on lenses that shift the focal plane (tilt/shift, etc.)


- Difficult to focus on small format cameras

- Image can be dim with small apertures. Black cape over head can get hot and stuffy

- Only for the patient

The only realistic option for large format. A great option for tilt/shift lenses on medium format. Useless for small format 35mm.

Type System Description Pros Cons Executive Summary



The Great Rangefinder vs. Single Lens Reflex Debate

Ever since single lens reflex cameras became popular and eclipsed rangefinders in the 1970s, there has been a debate over which is better. Well, I think Dante Stella's page on the debate ("Does a Rangefinder Make You A Better Photographer") puts it eloquently and concisely: No.

Cameras are artistic tools. Pick the tool that you like the most.

Size and Weight: Now getting to the oft-said remark that rangefinders are lighter than SLRs. Rangefinders are a bit lighter than most pro SLRs, but no rangefinder is as light as the 365 gram Canon Kiss 5 (Rebel Ti to Americans). Sorry, chrome + brass is just heavier than polycarbonate + plastic. Granted, your Leica M3 will last another 50 years, but it is heavier. With a contemporary inexpensive rangefinder like the Voigtlander Bessa R, you could get a rangefinder set that just weighs about 550 grams, but it's still heavier than the Canon Kiss 5, and it has a slower lens.

Except for the smaller fixed-lens rangefinders (Canonets, Yashica GX, etc.), rangefinders also aren't significantly smaller than the compact 35mms. The Canon P is only about 1 cm (0.5") shorter and is the same width as the Nikon FE. They are about the same weight (790oz). With 50mm lenses on both, the FE is only 1cm deeper than the P as well. Of course the P is more solid (it feels like it's made of solid brass; you could pound nails with it) and the P will work without batteries, but the FE has a meter and aperture-priority.

That being said, one thing is that despite being made of solid brass or other metals, rangefinders lenses are much smaller and usually lighter than SLR lenses. This is because rangefinder lenses do not need auto-diaphragms or auto-focusing motors. See the chart below.


SLRs Weight Weight Rangefinders
  System Weight


Leica M7
+ Canon 35mm f/2
+ Voigtlander 50mm f/1.7
+ Canon 100mm f/4 Mk. I
Canon P
+ Canon 35mm f/2.8 Serenar Mk I
+ KMZ Jupiter-8 50mm f/2
+ Canon 100mm f/4 Mk. I
  Bodies + Standard Lenses
Nikon F5 + 50mm f/1.4
Leica M7 + Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4
Canon EOS-3 + EF 50mm f/1.4
Yashica Lynx 14 (50mm f/1.4)
Canon EOS 7e + 50mm f/1.4
Canon VI L + Canon 50mm f/1.4
Nikon S2 + Nikkor S.C. 50mm f/1.4
Nikon FE + Series E 50mm f/1.8
Yashica Electro 35 GSN (45mm f/1.7)
Miranda Sensorex + 50mm f/1.8
Yashica Electro 35 GX (40mm f/1.7)

Leica R3 + 50mm f/2.0

Leica M7 + Summicron-M 50mm f/2
Zeiss Contaflex IV (50mm f/2.8)
Canon P + Canon 50mm f/2.8
Canon Kiss 5 (Rebel Ti) + 50mm f/1.8
Ricoh 500 (45mm f/2.8)
  Bodies Only
Canon EOS 1v
Leica M7 (w/batt.)
Canon 7
Leica M3
Canon EOS 7e
Nikon S2
Canon P
Leica IIIf
Canon Kiss 5 (Rebel Ti)
Voigtlander Bessa R
    35mm Lenses
Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2
Canon 35mm f/1.5
Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7
Canon 35mm f/1.8
Canon 35mm f/2.0 Mk I
Canon 35mm f/2.0 Mk II
Serenar 35mm f/2.8 Mk I
Canon 35mm f/2.8 Mk II
    50mm Lenses
Canon 50mm f/0.95
Canon 50mm f/1.4 Mk II 8.6
Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5
Nikon Nikkor S-C. 50mm f/1.4 7.1
Canon 50mm f/1.8 Mk III
Leica 50mm f/2.0 Summicron-R (II)
Leica 50mm f/2.0 Summicron-M (recent)
    100mm Lenses
Canon 100mm f/2
Serenar 100mm f/3.5 Mk I
Canon 100mm f/3.5 Mk II
Canon 100mm f/3.5 Mk III
Serenar 100mm f/4 Mk I
Serenar 100mm f/4 Mk II


Sound: The Yashica GSN/GXs with their Copal SV leaf shutters are the quietest of the rangefinders. The Leicas with their cloth focal plane shutters are quiet, much quieter than the Canon EOS 7e, the quietest of the SLRs. The Leica shutters make a "SLURCH" sound that is lower in frequency and subjectively quieter than the "CLACK" sound of metal blade shutters and the "CLISSHIRP" of motor-drive SLRs. The solidity of the metal Leicas also helps dampen the sound. Robert Monaghan has an excellent page detailing the sound quality/quantity of various medium format and 35mm cameras.

Mirror Blackout: The one thing that you can say about rangefinders is that there is no mirror blackout so you can see exactly what you took. The shutter delay on a modern Leica M7 is only 13 msec. (about 1/75 sec). Granted, the shutter delay and mirror blackout on a Canon EOS 1v is only about 75msec (less than 1/10 sec.) so it's not a big deal, but it is nice to see the exact moment (what Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment) the film was exposed (and whether the flash went off or not). However, most of us do not have EOS 1v or EOS 3s, regular SLR mirror blackouts are about 150 msec or 1/6th sec. In comparison, the fastest digital point-and-shoot camera has a blazing 300 msec (1/3 sec.) shutter delay.

SLR mirrors these days are fairly well damped, so mirror slap is no longer a significant issue (much of the vibration with SLRs you feel is shutter recoil, the mirror coming down, and the winding motor) except with long lenses on flimsy tripods.

Executive Summary: You don't need an excuse to use rangefinders over SLRs any more than a painter needs an excuse to use oils over pastels. Both have different feel to them. The lenses are also made differently, because the rangefinders have more back focus space so the lens do not have to use what is called a retrofocus design. So the quality of the pictures are different (not better, different). So use what moves you.


Bonus Section: The Great Leica/Zeiss and Nikon/Canon debate summarized!

This is a vast simplification and is based in part on camera/lens designs of the 1950s-1976s. Currently, the differences betweeen manufacturers is slimming (everyone is producing technologically innovative; planned obsolecent; and high contrast camera systems).


  Leica Canon Zeiss Nikon
Flagship Model

M3 / M7 / MP

Canon 7 Contax II/IIa SP / F4
Technology vs. Ruggedness Very conservative about new technology until it is proven in the field. All efforts are made to improve ruggedness through simplicity of design. On the cutting edge of technology. Quickly implements new technologies. Uses new materials and new techniques, sometimes before they are proven reliable. (Was) on the cutting edge of technology. Vastly overdesigned and overengineered both its rangefinder (Contax) and SLR (Contarex) systems. Uses new materials and technologies to improve the ruggedness of its cameras, but rarely to add new features.
Left vs. Right focusing Right Right Left Left
Lens design: contrast or resolution Resolution Contrast Contrast Resolution
Optimized Distance Close Distance Moderate Distance Moderate Aperture Close Distance
Optimized Aperture Full aperture Moderate Aperture Moderate Aperture Full aperture




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