OK, suppose you want to shoot available light photography with the smallest possible full frame 35mm camera.
SLRs are too big, even the smallest SLRs. Most of today's fabulous plastic point and shoots have a faster than 2.8 lens. Who you gonna call? Compact fast lensed RF's of the 70's!!
Compact RF 35's are a favorite of mine as they represent Oskar Barnack's ideal: a small pocketable camera which can easily be taken everywhere.
Fast lensed compact 35 Rangefinders flourished in the 1970's, only to be replaced by the easier to use but often uncontrollable and less featured AF Point and Shoots. Shooting with these little fast lensed Rangefinders is a MUCH different experience than shooting today's AF Point and Shoots: the photog is in control. These little rangefinders make the Photog THINK about what they are doing. Better images are the likely result. Candid low light, no flash situations are yours. Try that with your f/4.5 Point and Shoot zoom.
All the cameras discussed here are quality cameras, all different answers to different priorities, a battle between small size and fewer features Vs larger size and more features.
Why Review These Cameras?
The article's basic interest is compact 35mm Rangefinders with faster than f/2 lenses--in other words low light candid photography on a budget. The core group meeting this criteria are the Olympus RD, Canon G-III 17, Konica S3, Yashica Electro 35 CC, Minolta 7sII and Yashica 35GX. The Olympus SP is slightly larger, but uniquely has a spot metering system.
The second group of cameras is the "smaller is better" crowd represented by the classic Rollei 35S, Olympus XA and XA4.
Some may gripe that I excluded the Minox 35 series. I just don't like them. Aesthetically they are ugly plastic things, and from a practical standpoint they have weird batteries which are difficult to find today. Worse than that, their flashes are bigger than the cameras. ugh. I will admit though, many have told me what fine picture takers they are, and they do have a lot of admirers. See "In Defense of Minox 35's"
What might be the most famous compact 70's rangefinder is not reviewed yet, the Canonet 28 of the film cult classic "Pecker." -- no its not a porn film, See film profile
Compacts 70's fast lensed 35's are different from today's cameras:
Small bodied METAL cameras instead of today's all plastic wonders.
All are Rangefinders, allowing the photog to determine the precise point of focus
All are available light cameras with faster than f/2 lenses. This is important from today's standpoint, since no modern day compact Point and Shoot has a f/2 or faster lens.
Some offer accurate Guide Number electronic flash exposure--which can easily be more accurate than TTL flash since it can't be fooled by off grey subjects. Note you do not need special flash units to take advantage of the GN systems!
ALL offer flash sync at all speeds, up to 1/500th.
Most offer a PC connection or hot shoe, or both. With a sophisticated strobe like the Nikon SB25, you can turn out some nice flash shots with these little cameras, well beyond what they were ever intended for.
ALL have manually set ASA settings, allowing the photog to make exposure compensations.
All have mechanical shutters and still take pics if the battery dies, except the Yashica Electro 35CC with its electronic shutter.
None have built in flash. All are designed for separate flash units.
None have TTL metering, but all have built in meters, something many of the classic rangefinders lack.
None have motorized film advance or rewind.
ALL allow the photog more control of the picture process than today's compact P/S cams.
My 70's Favorites:
Most Features in the smallest package: Olympus RC
Most Capable: a tie between the Olympus RD and Canon G-III 17
Best RF/VF of the test group: Olympus RC/RD when cleaned, Yashica Electro 35 CC
Most useful focal length and f/stop of the test group: the 35/1.8 of the Yashica Electro 35 CC
Best Compact RF with fast lens and manual over-ride, a tie: Olympus RD and Canon G-III 17
Best Guide Number Flash system: Konica S3 which balances ambient light
Easiest to carry: Olympus XA and XA4 with their clamshell covers
Most retro mechanical look: Rollei 35's -- all models
Best camera for metering complicated lighting: Canon T90 with up to 9 multiple spot readings. OK, so it's not in the test group. Hell, it's not even a RF. But it is the best for that situation if you want to make your own decisions and not leave it to the camera to choose for you. The truth is all these cameras have rather basic meters compared to the wonders of today. Yet they will still turn out great pics if a good photog is behind them.
- Favorite Fast Lensed Compacts: The Olympus RD, Canon G-III 17, Konica S3, and Yashica Electro 35CC, in no particular order. The RD has a great AE flash system and overall design. The G-III has parallax compensation and the soundest construction feel. The 35CC has the most useful 35/1.8 lens and very nice VF/RF. The S3 has the most advanced GN flash system built into a compact RF, and a very nice viewfinder / rangefinder.
Favorite 70's Super Small Camera: Auto Exposure only category: Olympus XA or XA4. Manual over-ride category: Olympus RC and Petri Color 35.
How Easily Can You Find these cameras? my experience in the US used market:
Easy to Find: Canon G-III 17, Rollei 35's (a group comment, some are very rare), Olympus XA and RC, Konica S series, most of the Yashica fixed lens rangefinders
Very Hard to Find: Olympus RD, Yashica Electro 35CC and 35GX, Olympus XA4, Minolta 7sII, Olympus SP. Personally I encounter about 25 Canon G-III 17's for every camera in this group.
Hardest to Find: Konica S3 and black enamel G-III 17.
Disadvantages: Age and Dimmer Finders
All of the 70's cameras listed here were comparatively inexpensive when new. They were not designed to be as tough or as well sealed as Leica M's or Nikon F2's. Translation: if you plan to use one on a regular basis, it's a good idea to have the shutter serviced and the VF/RF cleaned. It can make a BIG difference. Even with the service, you will still have a bargain in terms of bucks Vs performance.
This is important, so I'm going to repeat it. These 70's cameras were comparatively modestly priced and not well sealed against dirt. After 30 years, the finders usually fog or haze up. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Do not use one of these on a regular basis without making sure the finder is as clean as it gets. Case in point, I thought I had a relatively clean Olympus RD and RC finder. I had them cleaned anyway when I was doing a shutter lubrication. It made ALL the difference, turning OK finders into bright very usable finders.
My Not So Favorites
- It just escapes me why photogs would choose the various Spartan Rollei 35's when there are so many other small cameras with so many more features...most of them costing much less. Strangely, the Rollei 35's are by far the best selling of this nostalgic group. Of course I am told they have wonderful lenses, but I like to take pics EASILY. At least I can find solace in knowing this is the first time I have ever gone against the majority of photographic opinion....well, maybe the second time. If you like the Rollei 35's, take a look at the Petri Color 35's. The lens may not be up to Zeiss quality, but the design is. It's the camera the Rollei 35 should have been.
- Minox 35's: I just don't like the design, though they can take great pics.
- That's easy, I'm not sure yet. That will be an interesting story since I do not like lens testing and do not much believe in it, unless you are testing your own specific equipment. That story, with it's methods and it's logic, will be a future story.
Can Any of These Cameras Really Compete with Leica M?
In some areas, Yes.
The 70's cameras offer electronic flash sync at all speeds to 1/500th. The M's fastest sync is a paltry 1/60th.
Some of the 70's RF's offer guide number flash control, which can be more accurate than TTL flash. Leica has never offered guide number flash control, and only very recently offered TTL flash.
Some of the 70's RF's lenses are quite sharp, sharp enough to compete even if they can't win.
You can buy approximately ten billion 70's era 35 RF's for the cost of a complete new Leica M outfit.
Even if you own a nice Leica M outfit, sometimes you may want to take a smaller, less expensive camera.
QUIET, SHUSH! As wonderfully quiet as the Leica M series are, all of these leaf shutter rangefinders are quieter!
I chose a blend of the old and new with this group, pitting the best of the compact 35's of the late 70's with two of today's best compacts, the Canon ELPH and the Olympus Stylus Epic. I'm also a fan of the Canon ELPH Jr., with it's aspheric 2.8 lens. All offer the photog a variety of different features, in different packages to suit different needs.
Small is Better, left to right: Olympus XA with flash, Olympus XA4, Olympus Epic, Canon ELPH, Canon ELPH Jr. The smallest ELPHS are APS but compare well to 35. The Epic and the ELPHs are Autofocus and have more features than their older, but more controllable, Olympus XA brothers.
AE Priority, but no manual over-ride: left to right: Konica S3, Yashica Electro 35CC, Yashica 35GX. The Yashica Electro 35 is one of the very few compact 35RFs to have a fast 35mm lens: a 35/1.8. The Yashica 35GX is one of the few compact 35RFs to have parallax correction.
Auto AND manual, left to right: Minolta 7sII, Olympus RC, Olympus SP35, Olympus RD, Canon QL 17 G-III. All have 1.8 or faster lenses, except the small Olympus RC at 2.8. All are leaf shutter, shutter priority, with manual over-ride. None have metering in manual or a spot meter except the largest (surprise), the Olympus SP 35.
- Canon G-III 17 advanced well made compact 35
- Fuji Natura AF with 24/1.9 Lens!
- Konica S3 nice RF/VF and unique flash system
- Minolta 7sII well finished, average features for its class
- Minox 35's: In Defense of
- Olympus Pen D2 f/1.9 lens and 72 shots
- Olympus RD hard to find compact RF with fast lens
- Olympus 35 RC, smallest Rangefinder 35 with AE and manual over-ride?
- Olympus 35SP unique dual metering rangefinder
- Olympus XA and XA4: Super Compact full frame 35's
- Petri Color 35 Family outstanding super compact full frame 35 design
- Rollei 35 Family and the 35 SE the last of a great line
- Rollei 35 Gold 75th Anniversary
- Rollei 35 S Silver
- Rollei 35 Gold Royal Urushi
- Yashica 35 Electro CC compact RF with great 35/1.8 lens
- Yashica 35GX hard to find RF with parallax correction
- Yashica Lynx 14E Historic AE camera design
- Yashica Lynx 14 metered manual
2010 Update: With time many of these fixed lens rangefinders have become more appreciated, especially in terms of their selling prices! My own personal favorites: The Olympus RD and XA - they just feel "right" in my hands!
While all these little cameras have their limitations, I can honestly assure you of one thing:
Any of these cameras WITH YOU is an infinitely better picture taker than your big super SLR system, back home in your camera bag.
Ever try to take a pic of the UFO landing beside the road with that big full featured DSLR back home in the closet? It ain't easy! And no, you can't ask me how I know that.
Revised: March 05, 2010 . Copyright © 1998-2010 Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved. This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind. Information in this document is subject to change without notice. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.