Seven Recommended Rangefinder Focusing Techniques

Many photographers struggle with focusing rangefinder cameras. Some photographers, unfortunately, tend to shoot only wider/slower lenses or give up on rangefinders entirely for this reason. But I don’t think photography should always be easy and by learning to use simpler cameras, we can internalize concepts and develop instincts and reflexes that apply to any type of camera.

I think that peoples’ trouble with rangefinders begins with SLRs. This may sound funny but what I mean to say is that, when we pick up our first rangefinder, we often try to use it like an SLR.  I did that for years myself, and remember the frustration.

But I found that it takes more of a photographer to use less of a camera. And have no doubt about it, a rangefinder does less for you than an SLR and needs to be approached this way.  

By allowing us to focus through the taking lens itself, SLR’s alleviate the need to adopt habits that rangefinders encourage and, I think, make us stronger photographers as a whole.

With an SLR, we tend to live inside the viewfinder.  

By living inside the viewfinder, I mean that we tend to treat SLR finders like magic boxes that we look inside of to see the future; our images almost exactly as they will eventually appear on film. 

When we look into a rangefinder we are immediately struck with how rudimentary the viewfinder is, and the fact that we are most definitely, not peering into a magic box.  With a rangefinder, I think the photographer sheds any illusion that they are looking into something more than some of panes of glass.  And thus one must accept more agency for the images that one wants to create.

I imagine that many photographers carry their live-inside-the-viewfinder method of focusing into their use of rangefinders. And this may be fine with conservative use. But why spend the money and time on any camera and not push the system to its limits as well as become a more effective shooter?

Below are seven techniques that I find are important to embrace in order to focus rangefinder cameras more quickly and more accurately. You’ll notice that each technique involves and relies on the others to work and make sense. I may have even overlapped some of them too much in trying to describe what I do. But like everything with photography, all the elements affect one another. None are fully isolated. And therefore, you will find yourself employing different techniques and combinations of techniques for different subjects and scenes.

Before we get going, I also want to point out that while analog Leica cameras and lenses are my personal rangefinder preference, I also use Voigtlander and some Japanese fixed lens rangefinders too. Regardless of your brand preference or model, a rangefinder is a rangefinder and this advice should apply.

Technique One: Service Your Rangefinder

It’s not a focusing technique per se, but I can’t say it enough. Service your rangefinder.

Even a cheap, fixed lens RF like an Olympus XA will benefit from professional service. Will service cost more than the camera? Maybe. But so will the cost of film and processing over a short period of time. Why not make those shots count? And certainly if you purchase a costly interchangeable lens rangefinder camera and lenses, you owe it to yourself for them to be working properly!

Nikon FM2n | Nikkor 55mm 2.8 Micro AIS | Kodak TMAX 100 | Kodak HC110b |

Send out both the body and your fastest/longest lenses to be calibrated for one another, together. Specific bodies need to be set up with specific lenses in order to maximize focusing accuracy.

This is not SLR World where we just throw any old lens on any old camera then go shoot a portrait session at full aperture. The faster and longer a rangefinder lens is, the more carefully it must be calibrated for your camera and your camera for it. (Also, be sure that the rangefinder you’re using has a long enough effective baselength to accurately focus the lens you’ve mounted to it!) Rangefinder windows can also become dim with age and require either interior cleaning or full out replacement of the beamsplitter. Be certain that your rangefinder is serviced and in top mechanical and optical condition before demanding perfect focus from it.

Failing to do this first will make all other efforts moot.

Technique Two: Pre-set Your Focus

Most of us probably learn to manually focus cameras by looking into the viewfinder and jockeying the focus ring back and forth until the image looks as it should. This is a bad habit encouraged by the SLR and it’s the first step we take before falling into helpless dependency on our viewfinder. Remember, don’t live inside your viewfinder – look at your surroundings! Be aware of what you’re shooting.

There are a couple ways to pre-set your focus, including hyper focal distance and simply guessing distance.

1930 Leica III | Leitz 5cm f3.5 Nickel Elmar | Kodak Tri-X 400 | Kodak HC110b

Street photographers know to use hyperfocal distance to pre-set their focus and avoid looking into their viewfinders too often or unnecessarily. This is good practice for all of us, no matter what type of camera we’re using or genre we’re shooting.

Hyper focal distance can be set using the distance and depth of field scales on your lens. The technique works works best with wider lenses and apertures like f8 or smaller. Set the infinity mark of your distance scale on the f8 that appears right of center on your depth of field scale. Consult the number of feet indicated by the same aperture (f8 in this example) left of center. In the case of my Voigtlander 40mm 1.4 Nokton, using these settings puts everything from seven feet to infinity, in focus. Find a subject that’s more than seven feet away and they will now be in focus. Your viewfinder is only for composition now.

Practice hyperfocal distance but also, in tandem, practice guessing distance.

Infinity is easy. If you’re shooting landscapes or any subject on the horizon, there’s no need to use your camera to focus at all, rotate the lens to infinity. There. You’re in focus.

When I took fireworks photos with my 1930 Leica, for example, this is all that I did. I set the lens to infinity and then forgot about focus for the remainder of my shoot.

Focusing on infinity and using hyperfocal distance alleviates the need to depend on your rangefinder for focus at all. But when you’re focusing a longer/faster lens at a wider aperture and closer distances, out of necessity or just because you want to blur the background, another technique must be employed.

Before even lifting your camera to your eye, guess the focus. Just take a guess and set it on your lens. The idea is to get the focus distance in the ballpark and to use the rangefinder simply to verify and refine your guess, not to do all of the work. At dimly light wedding receptions, I set my focus for five or six feet and walk towards and away from people to bring them within distance. Sometimes your subject will move into the frame and literally focus themselves!

I started out by learning what my minimum distance of three feet looked like, my middle distances of about ten feet and infinity. Three feet is a little further than the length of my arm and the closest that most rangefinder lenses can focus. I taught my daughter to extend her arm to subjects with her Instax viewfinder cameras. If she can touch the subject with the tips of her fingers, she’s too close to it so she needs to take a couple steps backwards. This ensures that she is not too close to the subject for it to be in focus. Six feet is good to recognize for social distancing! Find some distances that you like to frame subjects at, then remember what those distances look like. Quiz yourself by guessing then focusing with your camera and checking the distance. Do this often, in different spaces and you’ll pick it up quickly!

If you get into a grove with pre-focusing, you’ll probably find that you don’t need to jockey the focus ring back and forth so much, if at all. If you pre-focus AND use the rangefinder to focus, it’s like a two factor authentication for focus; more accurate than using the rangefinder alone.

Technique Three: Know Your Depth of Field

Everyone loves lenses. We probably own many more lenses than we really need. And that’s fun. But the problem is that it can be difficult to learn a particular lenses’ depth of field on an instinctual level if we don’t use a particular lens regularly enough.

Leica M6 TTL 0.85 | Leitz 90mm f2 Summicron E55 Pre-ASPH | Kodak Tri-X 400 | Kodak HC110b

A large part of the disconnect that one may feel when looking through a rangefinder is that they unapologetically offer no visual sense of depth of field. Alarming to some, liberating to others, no matter how you see it, this is another reason that you have to be more of a photographer to use less of a camera.

Zone focusing is a technique that is closely related to hyperfocal distance and guessing. Viewfinder-type cameras (such as Fuji Instax) sometimes employ zone focus marks such as a mountain symbol for infinity (a far away subject), two people symbol for middle distance (a subject 7-10 feet away) and a single person for close distance (a subject 3-5 feet way). I didn’t discuss zone focusing with pre-setting focus because I recommend using it at an instinctual level that is rooted in ones understanding of depth of field.

Take some time to study the depth of field scale marked on your rangefinder lens. Gain an understanding of the relationship between focus distance and aperture of a particular lens. Most everyone knows that the smaller your aperture, the more depth of field you have. But notice that the further away your subject, the more depth of field also. For whatever reason, distance to subject is often forgotten about as an influencing factor on depth of field. Translate this knowledge into habits. You’re more likely to miss focus on closer subjects than further ones, so spend more time focusing on the closer subjects.

1930 Leica III | Leitz 5cm f2 Nickel Summar | Kodak Tri-X 400 | Kodak HC110b

If a subject is ten feet away and you’re stopped down, you might be able to snag the shot before or without even using the rangefinder to focus at all. If you’re in a situation where action is unfolding quickly, stand further away and stop down. Regardless of if you use your rangefinder or not in a scene like this, you are increasing your chances for good focus.

However, if your subject is 3 feet away and you’re wide open, guess and pre-set your focus then use your rangefinder to hone it in. Don’t try to guess or zone focus this scene 100%, use guessing/zone merely as guides. Understanding the depth of field scale of your lens is not zone focusing alone, it’s understanding when to and NOT to zone focus. So this is what I mean about learning particular lenses and being instinctual.

Very few modern SLR lenses even feature these scales anymore. But as a rangefinder photographer, you’re concerned with doing things yourself and having a full sense of your surroundings so as to take the best photos that you can as quickly and as effectively as possible.

Leitz 5cm f2 Summitar as photographed with Olympus OM-1n | Zuiko 55mm 3.5 Macro | Kodak TMAX P3200 @ 1600 | Kodak HC110b

When you internalize a particular lenses’ depth of field scale, you learn not only to control the DoF and lens performance more accurately, but you can use DoF as a focus aid. The smaller your aperture and wider your lens, the more sloppy your distance guessing from Technique Two can be and still work -because you’re relying on depth of field to cover the inaccuracy of your guess.

But knowing depth of field is not just for guessing focus. When focusing through the rangefinder window, you must place your subject in the center of the viewfinder where the focus patch is. Next you must re-compose. If your DoF is very shallow or your subject is not perfectly parallel to your lens as you re-compose, your focus may become inaccurate when using a longer lens and/or wider aperture. But if you re-compose and know that you have ample depth of field, you will know that your subject will be in focus, despite the slight move. And if you don’t have enough DoF to cover a potential error, maybe you decide not to recompose or simply take a centered and off centered version of the shot to cover yourself.

So understanding depth of field also helps achieve accurately focused rangefinder photos.

Technique Four: Look For Lines

With standard matt screen focusing on SLR’s, you many not have trained your eye to look for lines. Since rangefinders work by splitting the image and aligning it laterally to focus, a good habit is to look for vertical lines on your subject to verify focus.

Eyes, of course, contain concentric circles that, like straight lines, are perfect to focus on when shooting people. This is where an accurately calibrated lens and rangefinder count. In this photo of fellow Leica enthusiast, Ben Eisendrath, I could focus perfectly on his eye at full aperture thanks to the clear line of contrast between his iris and the white of his eye. Notice that depth of field is so shallow and focus falls out from the center so quickly that only Ben’s left eye is in focus. I’ll admit to doing some focus jockeying on this one!

However, in less than perfect lighting conditions you may see that peoples’ eyes are in shadow and difficult to find the lines in. In those instances, the vertical line of the bridge of the nose works nicely to focus on also, or eyeglasses if they wear them, presuming you have enough depth of field to cover the eye beyond the nose or glasses.

I took the image above of local burlesque performer, Lipstick Lamarr. Profile poses like this can be very fast to focus because the subject’s nose contrasted sharply against the shadow that she cast on the wall behind her. Step-by-step; I guessed my distance from Lamarr and set my lens for that distance (I think it was about 3 feet). Next, I put her nose in the center of the viewfinder, in the rangefinder patch since the light was speckled and her eyes were in shadow. I set focus for the bridge of her nose and then recomposed, knowing that at f2.8 at 3 feet (guessing settings based on vague memory and the look of the image) I’d have pretty shallow DoF but enough to cover moving the lens. I recomposed now that focus was done and took the shot.

Speaking of lines, invariably you’re going to get into a situation where the subject is covered in repeating lines such as shadows from window blinds or a fence, or some other pattern. But you don’t have to panic because you’ve already pre-focused. And instead of jockeying back and forth hopelessly, unable to discern one line from the other, you’ll very quickly see the correct alignment of the pattern with a single flick of the focus ring to one side or the other.

Another reason to look for lines in a scene, aside from aiding focus, is that they can be used to help level your photograph using the framelines in your viewfinder. Sure, this can be done with an SLR but for me, personally, I just feel it works more easily with RF framelines.

Like the awareness of space that depth of field and pre-focusing brings, looking for lines is another example of how being aware of your surroundings leads to holistic improvement in ones work, whereas using auto focus can completely deaden the senses.

Technique Five: Wait For Your Subject 

SLR and particularly digital, auto-everything photographers tend to equate shooting fast with spraying and praying. But shooting with speed, also means setting up quickly so that you’re ready when the time is right to shoot.

Effective rangefinder focusing is often about anticipation. Anticipate the future position of a subject and simply wait for them to come into focus, or make the moment you want.

Jellyfish are slow-moving, unpredictable creatures. So I found vertical lines (tentacles) to focus on, understood I’d have enough depth of field regardless of how near or far they moved. And then I waited. I watched and waited for the jellies to get into a position that I found balanced and appealing. I stopped thinking about focus, and I just watched my subjects. Then I snapped. I did not keep jockeying my focus in a frenzy as the jellies floated about.

When shooting live concerts, I will sometimes focus on the stationary mic or mic stand (Look For Lines), expecting the singer to get closer to it again, and then… snap. I did not follow the singer with my camera, focusing and refocusing as she moved up and down the stage.

The jellyfish and the singer came to my point of focus. I controlled the scene, not the subject.

If shooting a woman drinking wine, I might focus on her face when she’s not taking a sip, shoot that and then shoot again when the glass is on her lips without changing focus. When she places the glass on the bar, I could get a close-up of the glass. I’d focus on the glass and shoot it without her hand, wait and then get a shot of her hand on the glass as she lifts it to her mouth again.

Leica M6 TTL 0.85 | Leitz 90mm f2 Summicron E55 Pre-ASPH | Kodak TMAX 100 | Kodak HC110b

This technique can be a way to grab different versions of a scene without refocusing over and over. Awareness of focus brings awareness of a scene and vice versa. This is how you get perfectly timed and composed moments. Not scrambling focus in and out as the scene changes. Not by chasing subjects. But watching movements and behaviors, anticipating moves and working smarter, not harder.

Technique Six: Focus On What You Can Focus On

Turn something difficult into an asset. Get creative. Don’t rule out a scene because you can’t focus on what you initially wanted to focus on. Don’t throw up your hands and buy an auto-focus, mirrorless wonder! Don’t blame the tools! Find something that you can focus on.

If your depth of field is too shallow or subject too close for hyperfocal distance, focus on something stationary and/or further away. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing this mostly when photographing kids because they are often just moving too damn fast to follow them! I can’t tell you how many new parents I’ve talked to who’ve given up on taking family snapshots with their 35mm film rangefinders, and even SLR’s, in favor of autofocus digitals, simply because they couldn’t keep up with their kids.

Can’t remember what camera/lens I took this with but it was on Kodak TMAX P3200 @ 6400 with Kodak HC110b

But we are not focus automatons! We are not dumb auto focus motors chasing movement. There’s no need to live in the viewfinder. Find something stationary and make that your subject instead of fighting with your fast-moving subject. Listen to what the scene tells you. Cover the scene as the scene wants to be covered.

And this leads me to the final technique that I will recommend for focusing with a rangefinder camera…

Technique Seven: Accept Inaccurate Focus

We all know the famous Henri Cartier-Bresson quote – “sharpness is a bourgeois concept.” Yet we often cast this lesson from the rangefinder master aside and obsess over which lens to buy or kick ourselves if focus is slightly off in a photo. So, if all else fails, just rock the soft focus!

Nikon FM2n | Nikkor 35mm 1.4 AIS | Ilford Delta 3200 @ 6400 | Kodak HC110b

Why do we obsess over sharp focus?

Many of the world’s most celebrated and effective images are soft or completely out of focus.

What makes out of focus photographs great is that they are more than mere lens advertisements. They capture bare, unabashed emotion and make a clear, definitive statement – without being clear at all! Out of focus photographs can sometimes TRANSCEND FOCUS!

For me personally, I value shooting with all manual cameras because I believe that by doing so, one is not only rendering the scene but also documenting ones reaction to it. Missed focus can sometimes express excitement, chaos or simply cause the viewer to explore the other elements of design within an image.

I took the image above with an SLR, not a rangefinder and included it both to make a comment about how SLR focus isn’t perfect either and also because I think it is a nice demonstration of how and why an out of focus image can still be successful. I always aim to nail focus but when it doesn’t happen, as artists, we have to give up the dogma for a moment and be able to see things as they are.

So please folks, don’t give up on your rangefinders! What they lack, you’ll have to make up for with your own skill, talent and creativity! Are you up for the challenge?

Thanks for reading, happy shooting

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31 thoughts on “Seven Recommended Rangefinder Focusing Techniques

  1. I always scale focus first especially when the action is fast. I have used Rollei 35’s since the mid 80’s and have a high percentage of in focus shots. I now use a M3 the most, with it focusing is a snap. The tips you suggest are spot on.

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  2. It’s interesting, I shoot much the same way with my SLR (except for point #1). It probably goes back to my school days when I was studying the work of William Klein and trying to operate the way that he does/did; I’ve tried to emulate his style in my own street photography. I think that the lack of a rangefinder camera need not keep you from operating as if you have one.

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    1. That’s great that you have the same methods with an SLR. When I was learning to shoot, I started with SLR’s and a few years in, got my first fixed lens RF. While I was learning about hyperfocal distance and zone focusing etc, before I shot with a RF as primary camera, I regarded these techniques as special-use or theory type of techniques. When something important was unfolding in front of me, I would always revert to focus jockeying in a panic rather than staying cool and thinking. Anyway, good job! I think these techniques will help probably no matter what type of camera one is shooting. Arguably even mirrorless, but we’ll see how long it takes tech and automation to just completely replace everything I discuss here!

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  3. I agree with Joe – most of these techniques are not restricted to rangefinders. Shooting older film Nikons, I do the same thing – check depth of field, set the focus to approximate distance, and, if time allows and if necessary, fine tune through the viewfinder. I learned much of this by shooting high school basketball with a Rollei and a Strobonar, using the frame finder. Good article on ways to use manual focus cameras and get the results you visualize. Thanks.

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    1. Well, I need to point out that I NEVER said any of these techniques are “restricted to rangefinders.” In fact, a fair amount of my introduction is about applying these techniques to other types of cameras. A major point of my write-up is to encourage use of these techniques, whatever camera one uses, in order to get better in touch with the scene. Maybe I didn’t expand on this point enough but I felt that the article is complicated enough as it is without talking about all manual focus lenses and types of focusing devices which, I’m pretty sure that, most people have significantly less trouble using as novices.

      Rangefinder cameras are an older form of technology than SLR’s (and more common than TLR’s as auxiliary devices for view type cameras) and therefore these techniques, so far as I understand, originated from view and rangefinder type cameras many years prior to the advent of practical SLR’s. (Though perhaps they were also developed alongside TLR’s.) Additionally, and your experience may, and seems to, vary, but I find it not optional but necessary to use these techniques for focusing rangefinders with any amount of speed and accuracy. Whereas I very seldom find any of these necessary with a 1960’s or newer SLR. Finally, I find that photographers (myself included) who started with SLR’s sometimes have a hard time learning RF’s but not really the reverse.

      If we want to go technique by technique, as Joe commented, #1 is fairly obsolete for SLR’s yet it’s absolutely essential for RF’s. #2 is certainly applicable to all manual focus lenses. #3, well SLR’s can preview DoF so it is of diminished necessity with an SLR than with a RF to internalize DoF. Additionally, the need to recompose and understand DoF to cover it is not necessary with a matt focusing screen. #4–looking for lines is not really applicable to matt focusing screens either. #5 is certainly a universally applicable concept and is tied to more than just focus. #6, maybe this is a personal thing but I don’t find focusing on quick-moving targets such as kids or changing my point of focus out of necessity with an SLR or TLR the way that I do with an RF. And of course my #7 technique of accepting soft images is also universally applicable but is also very closely tied to early rangefinder photojournalist philosophy, though not a technical restraint, of course.

      So I’m calling them rangefinder focusing techniques, not changing the thrust of my article to “manual focus cameras” where I would then rightfully need to also get into the many differences in technique for using split focus, matt focus, and split prism focus SLR screens, not to mention the myriad forms of auto focus on the market. This is not to say that these rangefinder focusing techniques are not applicable elsewhere. I just feel that they are most necessary to embrace and practice with rangefinder photography, and simply good additions to SLR, TLR, mirrorless and whatever other types of focus might evolve.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. The high school basketball with a Rollei must have been fun 🙂

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  4. Great article Johnny. Although many of these techniques I have employed at some point and have some understanding of (maybe in theory) this piece really puts it together in practical and useable ways coming from a professional RF photographer that does this on a daily basis. I have many rangefinders (more than SLR for some reason despite learning on SLRs and a latecomer to the RF scene) and have struggled a little here an there particularly photographing my daughter (2 year old) so this helps and puts me in a much better place. Thanks for putting this together.

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  5. As you say, I guess there‘s no need for a philosophical battle if these are rangefinder techniques or also non-rangefinder techniques. I use many of them with no regards of the underlying technology. Using scale focussing or looking for vertical lines using the split screen when being out with an SLR – if it fits. Even looking for vertical lines when being out with the Contax G, as its autofocus works even better with it. And yes, using it when out with a rangefinder.
    You made a good summary of the ways to use it. Thank you!

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  6. Hi Johnny! Hope you are all doing great. I don’t usually write in the comments section, BUT I have discovered your blog and ,more important, your work, and I am really impressed and inspired about it! I really enjoy all your content and a lot of the things you say I am totally agree with.

    I am using a M3 for 50mm and M2 for 35mm ( this one will be sold to update for a M6 TTL…your blog had some kind of help for taking this decision).. anyway, I also shoot kodak BW film mostly and dev in HC110 Dilution B since I started photography,

    My question is about scanning actually, could it be possible to know a bit your process of scanning? I feel with HC110 I am getting very pronounced grain using flatbed scanners.

    Thanks again for your time, and your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed the blog and have dared to enter the comments section! Wow, sounds like we are on the same path in several ways!

      I have long tried to compose a post about my scanning techniques but just haven’t managed it yet. The gist of it is that I’m also a flatbed – an ancient Epson V500 that my dad bought when I was still in high school. HC110 is a high acutance developer and, particularly with faster films like Kodak and Ilford 3200 and even slower films but higher resolving lenses stopped down, my scanner has a really hard time. To make matters, arguably, worse, I apply a “high” unsharp mask during scanning to all my images. This practice, I suspect, is one that my work is both celebrated for and railed against. Doing this gives my images a sharpness that I really enjoy but, particularly when combined with the compression on websites like this one, Facebook and Instagram, the grain can look very unconventional and upsets the pixel peepers. While the lions share of my work ends up online in some way and I should perhaps cater to how my images look here, I am very happy with how my prints turn out when I upload my full res edited files to Ilford or Digital Silver Imaging to have silver gelatin prints made. I keep things below 8×12 and show work in galleries etc and nobody’s ever seemed to take issue, as they sometimes do online, with my scans. Maybe they’re just being polite! But I like the look and rest easy in the knowledge that every scanning method is going to have benefits and deficits and you just have to choose what looks and works best for you. I hope this is SOMEWHAT useful though, I know, not directly so.

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  7. I stopped reading at tip #3. That is completely wrong! The lenses and body must be calibrated separately to the common standard. If you do it your way the camera will focus correctly with that one lens only and if that lens is off the whole system will be out of whack

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    1. Calibration is #1 on my list. I think you’re misunderstanding what I wrote in regards to this. I’m not saying that, nor do I think any professional Leica repair tech would, calibrate a camera for however a particular lens is set, even if it is wildly incorrect. What I’m saying is that both the body and lens need to be in agreement. The body or lens may not be calibrated to standard. And once calibrated to standard, it’s more accurate to test a specific body with a specific lens to ensure accuracy. Do you really think that I’m recommending to people that they provide the wrong instructions to professional repair techs and that the repair techs would follow the wrong instructions?

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    1. I think you meant Technique #1, if we’re still talking about focus calibration that is.

      Technique #2 is pre-setting focus.

      Technique #3 is about knowing your depth of field.

      1, 2,3. Hard to understand how, if you didn’t read past #1, you’ve confused it with #2 and #3, but okay.

      Thank you for the recommendation. Mine to you is that you finish reading my post, from wherever it was that you left off, before assuming I haven’t done my reading, and share of shooting. 😉

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    1. In this link, diopters and magnifiers are discussed, which, I did not discuss and I would be happy to add my thoughts on. I don’t use either and it didn’t occur to me that many people benefit from these. But I could certainly add this.

      However, my Look for Lines section encompasses the other comments that you’ve linked to. As to if this is what you’re also complaining about or not, is unclear.

      I have stated, in detail my thoughts on the RF vs manual focus notion in other comments here. The assertion is inaccurate.

      But look, you have not addressed my responses to your previous comments, you seem to just be finding new ways to prove me wrong without identifying anything I’ve gotten right or that YOU have gotten wrong. So I have to question what exactly your intentions are.

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  8. Having recently moved from a mirrorless camera system to a rangefinder, I found this article very helpful. I wish it had been published a little earlier as it is a great collection of techniques for manual focus. Thank you Johnny for taking the time and bringing them all together to share.

    The previous systems I used were built around auto-focus, so I really had not spent time building my manual focus skills. (e.g. many lenses don’t have DoF markings and use stepper motors so there is no tactile focus feel). Obviously, on a rangefinder with only manual focus, one learns quickly or retreats.

    The new technique to me that Johnny presented was the idea of guessing the distance and pre-setting focus. I had not seen that technique before and I have found that it integrates extremely well with my own flow, while significantly reducing the amount of time I spend critically focusing. I practiced with it and used it on a recent trip, so thank you!

    There are two other techniques I came across that I would put out for consideration. The first is setting the focus ring to infinity after every photo so that you are only focusing in one direction. This technique didn’t really work for me, but I know that it does for others. I much prefer the approach of guessing the distance for critical focus that Johnny discusses above because it is typically so close to the correct focus for me.

    There is another technique I have found useful and not widely mentioned. Rather than turning the focus ring, one slightly leans toward or away from the subject. Basically, you are using your body to slightly change the focal distance. I found this can be more “precise” than the focus ring at times. For example, if I am trying to critically focus on a flower and I know I have a very shallow depth of the field, I will use this technique. It just seems easier to “dial” in the focus patch with minute body movement at times.

    I also use this technique if I focus on somebody’s eye and recompose the shot. Recomposing the shot changes the focal plane so it is easy to compromise the focus on the eye if shooting with a wide aperture. With a bit of practice, I now dial in a slight lean during the recompose, which retains a clearer focus on the eye.

    I have also heard that some people side step rather than rotate if they recompose a portrait, but for some reason, adding a little lean during the rotation with the recompose works better for me.

    Obviously, your mileage may vary.

    Thank you again, Johnny!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment and messages, Lance! I’ve never tried that return to infinity technique but that sounds cool too. Also, the moving your body rather than the focus, I do that a lot with macro (on an SLR) and maybe am also doing it when pre-setting my focus and allowing the subject to move into the field. There are a lot of nuances to shooting with a rangefinder, thanks for sharing some more!

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      1. You are exactly correct. As I stop to really consider it, I believe macro and portrait recompose are the only times I really use the lean technique.

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  9. I have used so many different cameras in the last 50 years…35mm, 6×6, 4×5 to 8×10. Each one has much to teach. I still say that every photographer must learn what a camera is. The best way is with a view camera then go on to the other great “tools”. For that is what a camera is, a tool to make photographic images. Every master of every craft MUST be completely familiar with his tools. Lately I have returned to black and white film in a 35mm rangefinder (a Nikon S3 with 3.5cm, 5cm and 10.5cm lenses). I’ve owned Leicas as well, but the Nikon just fit my budget.

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  10. Lovely article Johnny! This is probably the most interesting and helpful article I’ve read to help me with my rangefinder photography. I especially like how you combine all the techniques together. Thank you for the tips!

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  11. Hey Johnny. I reread this article on a semi-regular basis and came back to it this week after a relatively disastrous day of shooting my fast moving two/three year old grandchildren. After that day I decided to abandon my M3/Cron 50 DR when with them and go back to my FM2 (sort of vaguely imagining that focusing would be quicker/better having spent 40 years with SLRs like my bashed about OM-1). You’ve given me renewed confidence to stick with it and adapt my process to the fast moving little humans!

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    1. That’s so cool that you reread this entry! I’m glad to hear that it’s useful. Believe me, I sometimes reach for an SLR out of exhaustion too. They don’t require you to think as much but you can run into other issues because you’re not thinking! Shooting kids is so difficult no matter what camera you use! My wife, fortunately is excellent with it but I’m not. I tend to wait until they’re doing something slower and more contemplative or at least repetitive, to take photos! Thanks for the comment!

      Like

  12. Hi Johnny,
    I really like your articles and advice and look forward to reading them and am glad when I meet film people like you or me. I still wet print, no scanning here.
    Question: I may have to do a lens focus test and use a loop to view the grain on the negatives to get this answer, but in my thinking, If you wanted razor sharp critical focus on a subject, should one not focus razor sharp on that subject area and not try to let DOF carry them? I realize DOF will help you if you are “slightly off subject focus” but to what degree? I think just as an example, if the DOF “range” shows that “everything” will be in focus from 6′ to 10′ at a certain f stop, and your subject is 8′ away, I think the subject would be in better focus, if it was razor sharp focused on instead of the lens being focused at say 7′ and having DOF try to bring it to razor sharp focus. I think it may be “in focus” but not in critical sharp focus. Dont get me wrong, I love many images I have taken that are soft, or grainy, or blurry, etc. This is more of a technical question of how much can DOF hold as razor sharp vs acceptable sharp. As an example, I have taken many images of painted faces at Fantasy Fest where you can see the pores and pimples on the skin, which help make these images. I had to spot laser focus on the skin to obtain this, I don’t think DOF would have held this degree of sharpness had my focus been off a bit and only relied on DOF. Thoughts?
    PS Most of my rangefinder cameras are 50 plus years old as well and yes, service and adjustments are a must as you mentioned. Keep up the great articles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting – I really appreciate hearing from folks who are following my posts regularly. New material is in the works!

      This is a great question and yes, you’re right, precise focus is less about leaning on DoF and more about nailing the focus on a pin point target, such as the iris of the eye in a portrait.

      That’s not really the type of photography that I practice though, and imagine that only studio and editorial photographers demand this kind of accuracy. For documenting events and daily life, the most important thing is capturing the moment, not hyper accurate focus and seeing pores and pimples. In fact, some of my female clients in particular have expressed their appreciation for the film grain smoothing, not documenting, their pores and pimples! It’s like soft focus filters of old movies.

      Using zone focus and DoF techniques is more about getting things within range and then refining when/if possible for the purpose of speed and readiness to catch the moment.

      What you’re describing is properly done by not being in a rush to be ready for a moment, but taking any and all time needed to properly measure, not only the focus but the depth of field and also take into account MTF charts and any focus shift or back focus issues a lens may exhibit to indicate settings that yield the highest technical resolution. Basically, you have to tether your subject to particular combinations of aperture and focal distance. Rather than following your subject, your subject must follow the preferred technical demands of the lens.

      Maybe it’s possible to do both, to use a laser to measure real distance AND get the moment. But often times, the moment is lost in time-consuming measurements.

      When I worked in motion film and video, when we rehearsed a scene, we’d draw out measuring tape (lasers weren’t common then) from the focal plane of the camera to the talent’s eyeball. And in cinema, lenses go by T-stops, which are custom tailored to a particular lens, not less accurate F-stops. Each step that talent took was then noted on tape on the lens so that as the talent hit points, the focus could be accurately rolled to hit those same exact points.

      While I’m familiar with the practice and principle, I’m admittedly not skilled enough to work at this level and catch unfolding reality with a handheld still camera – it’s simply not my goal, and I find that the gap between reaching for perfection and what you “end up with” is where I find the real art. Which is what I allude to in my last focusing technique.

      Good question and useful discussion though!

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