What Are Digital Rangefinder Cameras?

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Updated July 26, 2022

If you have spent any time learning more about photography, you’ve likely come across Leica cameras and their sister model, “rangefinders.” Although the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the first rangefinder in 1916, it was Leica’s first film camera, the Leica A of 1925, that set the trend in motion.


  • Digital rangefinders cameras are great for photographers who like to have manual control over their cameras.
  • With their tiny lenses, rangefinders are easy to carry with you wherever you go.
  • Aperture details on digital rangefinder cameras are on rangefinder lenses.

Leica rangefinders remained popular through the mid-20th century, before the invention of digital models. So, what are digital rangefinder cameras? Read on to find out, but as we discuss this interesting little device, you might also consider checking out our picks for the best digital camera.

What Digital Rangefinder Cameras Are All About

Insider Tip

Practice shooting with a rangefinder camera to get comfortable with its lag rhythm, which can cause you to miss a critical shot if not mastered.

As mentioned above, rangefinder cameras were popular with street photographers in the mid-20th century due to their small, unobtrusive size, quiet shutter, and ease of use compared to larger film SLR cameras. They were also the first mirrorless cameras on the market and used the same 35mm film as other SLRs.

Today, tons of digital camera models and brands have many features including horizontal split focusing, electronic viewfinders, and F-stop, which is the automatic aperture mode. They also have LCD touchscreens and specific numbers on lenses for a digital camera.

Different camera types use unique focusing methods, and it is beneficial to learn what are the different focus types on a digital camera. A rangefinder camera uses what’s known as a range-finding focusing mechanism, explained in more detail below. This mechanism helps to measure the distance of the subject for accurate focusing.

Unique Attributes of Rangefinders 

Flexible Manual Focusing 

Unlike a standard SLR, a rangefinder’s viewfinder is not located in the middle of the camera body. Instead, it is a separate system mounted close to the lens. But how do you focus on using the rangefinder?

As we stated earlier, Leica rangefinders use a range-finding focusing mechanism. This system uses a separate rectangular window that receives light from a different angle than the light coming through the viewfinder. So, to take a picture, you have to turn the focusing ring until the ghost image on the small rectangular box lines up perfectly with the entire viewfinder, leading to a perfect focus.

Depending on the brand, modern digital rangefinders use either a CMOS or APS-C image sensor that varies in terms of megapixels. This is important when it comes to image quality, as the number of megapixels combined with the size of the sensor dictates image quality. For a more detailed explanation, check out our article discussing what are megapixels on a digital camera.

No Depth of Field in the Viewfinder

The viewfinder in a rangefinder camera is a simple glass piece. Since the viewfinder does not have any depth of field, you have to close the aperture to the f-stop set on the lens, then look at the image through the viewfinder to see if the image appears as you wish. Because you cannot look through the lens with a rangefinder, it makes it impossible to see the aperture’s effect on the depth of field.

Powerful Brightline Frames for Timing Shots

The ability to see outside the frame is very useful in timing a shot because you can see a subject moving into the frame. This feature is useful in sports, street, or wildlife photography. To compose your shot, look at the frame lines inside the viewfinder, which will automatically adjust according to your focal length.

Small Interchangeable Lenses

Leica M-lenses are lightweight and tiny. The lens type is less than half the size of corresponding full-frame camera lenses.


Who uses rangefinder cameras?

Rangefinders are commonly used by news photographers, magazine photographers, street photographers, and other professionals. They are also popular in other types of reportage photography.

Are Leica M3 rangefinders great for portrait photography?

Yes. It is easier to focus on the subject than on other types of cameras.

What is the main disadvantage of rangefinder cameras?

Rangefinders usually have slower shutter speeds ranging from 1/500th of a second to 1 second. So, the aperture cannot open as fast as you may want, making it hard for non-professionals to control the depth of the field.

STAT: CIPA companies shipped about 5.81 million digital cameras to Europe in 2019. (source)

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