There’s a certain mystique to shooting on a rangefinder camera. Some of this mystique is based on factually superior characteristics to other types of cameras. But some of this mystique is pure hype born out of the exclusivity of the rangefinder user base and clever marketing intended to tap into the often fat wallets of rangefinder shooters.
Soft shutter releases, though functional on any type of camera, seem to be most popular in the rangefinder crowd where precision craftsmanship and the subtleties of technique are a constant driver of interest.
For the uninitiated, a soft shutter release button is a tiny, circular disc with a tapered male screw thread on the bottom. The button screws into the female threads which are commonly found on shutter release buttons of many classic cameras. Soft shutter release buttons come in myriad shapes, sizes, materials, and colors. The top is either flat, concave or convex; each with a supposed benefit to squeezing the shutter release more gently, thus enabling a photographer to shoot below the shutter speed reciprocal of the lens. So, in theory, with a soft shutter release button installed, a photographer can take sharp, unblurred photos as at 1/15th of a second or even slower with a 50mm lens, for example.
A preliminary search on eBay for “soft shutter release” shows no less than 800 results, ranging in price from $0.82 to a staggering $300.00 with matching hot shoe cover.
Personally, every time I buy anything nicer than a cheap, $5 generic soft shutter release, the accessory manages to come unscrewed and is lost within a few months of normal use. The cheapies seem to be made of a softer metal, aluminum perhaps, that is bitten by the threads of the actual release button and thus it stays in. More expensive buttons are made of brass or steel and proponents recommend a drop of nail polish on the threads to keep the soft shutter button in place.
Benefits aside, I strongly disagree with the notion of applying my wife’s cosmetics to a $2000 camera in order to keep an aftermarket accessory from getting lost. If anything, I’d recommed Loc-Tite or other similar product but even this seems unwise to me. I believe that the threaded hole in the camera’s shutter release button opens up to the actual shutter release mechanism. So dropping sticky liquids in there seems flat out stupid to me.
Furthermore, we don’t use drops of nail polish to hold our screw mount lenses onto our cameras. We don’t use drops of nail polish onto the screws which hold our cameras together. So why would we need to hold these aftermarket accessories in place with an adhesive compound? Probably because they aren’t machined to fit precisely enough not to fall out! And why would anyone bother machining them so well when they can rely on the inevitable repeat business?
LTM Leica bodies do not even have such a feature and Leica M bodies have it for use with remote shutter release or timer. Leica themselves have not manufactured their own soft shutter release until long after the popularity of aftermarket versions came to a peak. So top rangefinder manufacturer, Leica really haven’t endorsed this accessory or designed their cameras with it in mind.
There are some shooters who use a Leica OTZNO as a soft shutter release, however, it was originally designed only to be an adapter for a timer or remote release. Nobody seems to apply nail polish to these. And they work, not just as simple buttons like a typical soft shutter release disc, but rather they hold the built-in shutter release button stationary and act on the shutter release mechanism via a plunger like a remote release.
Consider why the threads are tapered. The tapering helps keep the remote device stationary while the plunger presses in. If the primary purpose of the threaded hole in the shutter release was to hold a soft shutter release button, the threads would be straight, like the Leica OTZNO and Nikon AR-1.
In the 1960’s, Nikon designed a soft release that works more accurately in conjunction with the camera. On bodies like the F, F2, FM, FE, and Nikkormats, there is a threaded collar around the shutter release button. These threads are straight and not tapered. For which a soft shutter release assembly, called the AR-1, can be fitted if desired. I have several official Nikon AR-1’s and several generic copies. None of these have ever come close to unscrewing accidentally and no use of nail polish has been required or suggested.
I’ve also read chat threads of soft release buttons breaking off at the thread, leaving part of the release permanently stuck in the camera. This has never happened to me but seems plausible given the tiny size of these accessories and potential forces that might act upon them.
In my earlier days I chased the rangefinder mystique. I dared to burn 400 ISO film in low light at very slow shutter speeds. I tried various shapes and brands of soft shutter releases, different breathing techniques. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But my current position is that it’s not worth installing a soft shutter release button on a camera that wasn’t designed for it and that if I want to shoot below the lens reciprocal, I’ll do just as well without an extra bit of metal screwed into the bit of metal that’s already built into the camera. From a basic physics standpoint, I don’t see any logic in how making a button marginally taller or larger will make it press more gently. More easily perhaps but not more gently. I believe that this action is fully governed by the mechanism inside the camera body.
I’m convinced that soft shutter releases are nothing more than a fashion statement for armchair photographers and camera collectors.
So there’s my stance.
Recently I became aware of photojournalist Tarek Charara‘s enthusiasm for using Tom Abrahamson soft release buttons to create his amazing travel photography. Determined to get another angle on the story, I asked Tarek if he’d mind sharing his thoughts and images with me. Look out for Ahhhh, Soft Release… PART TWO for the other side of the story!
Thanks for reading, and feel free to release in the comments section below! 😉