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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!!

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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:

My 70's Favorites:

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

Lens Performance

Can Any of These Cameras Really Compete with Leica M?   

In some areas, Yes.

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.  

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     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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.