WRITTEN BY: Elwin Tan 27/01/2012 12:30
Compared against SLRs, rangefinders do not require mirrors and prisms, and are generally more compact and unassuming. Granted, you get more accurate framing with SLRs, but without shutter lag, a rangefinder is more superior in terms of timing. Moreover, they encompass the charm and essence of 50's optics engineering. It is no wonder that rangefinders are the perennial favourites of master photographers like Ansel Adams, Sebastiao Salgado and of course, the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Taken with Canon EOS by Matthew Chen
First released in 1954, the Leica M3 is perhaps the most iconic performance rangefinder made. These days, a decent, working, second-hand M3 can set you back at least S$1200. And that's not even including the lens.
But fret not! For the Soviets are here to save your pocket!
The Ukrainian made Fed 5 (first introduced in 1977) is a copy of the M3. Aside from some minor differences, the mode operation is largely the same. Like the Leica M3, production of the Fed 5 and its variants are no longer in production (ended in 1994). The Fed 5B from Red Army Camera (soon to be Dark Room Army) comes refurbished and under warranty for six months.
This manual rangefinder runs on 35mm film and features an Industar/61 2.8/55mm lens, coated with a rare-earth element, lanthanum. A double silk curtain shutter works at speeds from 1s to 1/500s. It also has B mode and a mechanical self timer - exactly what you need for long exposures and self portraits. We currently carry the Fed 5B (without the selenium light meter) and will soon bring in the Fed 5 (with light meter). Hot-shoe flash sync up to 1/30s (anything faster will cause the curtain to close before the flash bounces back to the film). One interesting thing about the Fed 5B (this goes for all the other Fed models as well) is that the lens mount is none other than the popular M39 Leica Screw Mount. This means you can use the LSM Leica Summicrons among other lenses. This versatility is definitely a major plus point for the Fed.
It goes without saying that the production quality of the Soviet manufacturing is a far cry from German standards. But with German standards, comes the German cost. Priced at an affordable S$200 for the basic editions, the Fed 5B has an extremely good performance to cost ratio. In other words, the Fed 5B is the perfect stepping stone for the intermediate analogue photographer, breaking away from the plastic bodies and plastic lenses of the Holgas and Dianas. If you've been pampered by light meters and auto modes of DSLRs or SLRs, you might find the Fed 5 slightly disconcerting. However, a little effort to 'learn from the camera' will definitely pay off with good photographs.
The Fed 5B was my second film camera. I was completely new to photography (my Holga didn't teach me much), but within two rolls, the Fed was churning out excellent photos for me. The 55mm prime lens means that you get a rather narrow field of view; I sometimes find myself having to back up quite a bit to get better composition of scenery and group photos. But with such lenses, it pays off with pretty bokehs and good depth of field. Rangefinder means you get to focus your image guided by 2 overlapping images in the viewfinder. This allows the user to decide which subject should be in focus. Working off some reference points can give you pretty stunning depth. Being a little on the heavy side, the Fed 5 is sturdy and can handle more than a few knocks (I've dropped mine from waist height - ouch, but no problems). Moreover, balance of the camera is superb - you'll feel like you're carrying some serious business. It is definitely wise to invest in a leather case S$75 for long trips and general protection.
The Fed 5B comes in a variety of colours and artist designs to suit any personality. My personal favourites are the Red, Hohloma and Monster by Darbotz.
Its quite impressive how much this Ukrainian wonder taught me in only a year of shooting. I meticulously wrote down the settings I used for every photo taken on the first 2 rolls. After I got the photos back, I scrutinised each photo and referred to the notations I made earlier. This helped shorten the learning curve and greatly improved my judgment of light. With basics out of the way, I started paying more attention to framing, depth and emotion. Going full-manual was the right path to develop the basic skills required for photography. I daresay the decision to buy the Fed 5B was the best I've made last year.
(Pictures taken with Fed 5B by Elwin Tan unless otherwise stated)