Know before buying a film camera – Focusing systems


Focusing systems

Know before buying a film camera

Know before buying a film camera – Focusing systems

If you have the interest to start shooting film or already has a film camera, sometime you may wonder there is something wrong with the focus, feeling the struggle to get it right or I love this camera so much but focusing with it is just too painful for me. Few points below which is helpful to choose your own system.

Leica M2 Rangefinder system

Focusing system

I think the most important experience in film photography is focusing because this is where you are going to be in the driver seat and operate the camera through the little window. So if there is anything unpleasant about the focusing which leads to the bad result will seriously affect your whole journey some might not use their cameras anymore.

I first started film photography with Canon QL19 Canonet and then Canon Canonet. At that time I also owned a polaroid SX-70. They both have a different focusing system, Canonet uses rangefinder coupling mechanism with two images overlapping each other and SX70 with split image focusing screen where you need to find a straight line or some form of a line to align them. I like rangefinder more because it gave me a sense of accuracy whether the image is actually in focused or not and it also shortened my time to focus. You have to take a look at these major types of focus mechanism to see which one suits you the best.

There are 4 major types of focusing

1. Horizontal Split Focus Screen

The circle in the middle are split into up and down section. When you point at any vertical straight lines. It will immediately show both on the left and right side. When you focus with your lens focusing barrel. The image will come closer and eventually align, that means the subject is in focus. Split image is useful for high-contrast subjects having vertical elements but low light weaken the contrast which makes you harder to focus.

2. Rangefinder

First of all, it is not through the lens, which means what you see isn’t what actually from the lens. It uses the split image rangefinder mechanism the small box in the middle will show two images. When one overlap another image it means that it is in focus. Harder to focus at night, low light environment and repeating background.

Makina 67 rangefinder system
Makina 67 rangefinder system

3. Matte

All matte surface suitable for quick shooting and low light situation.

Rolleiflex Matte Prism focusing

4. Microprism

There are plenty of options out there such as Nikon equipped with Microprism and split image at the same time with Matte focusing screen as the background. Microprism is useful for complex subjects lacking vertical elements.

FM3a Microprism focusing screen
FM3a Microprism focusing screen

Tips for choosing your right focusing system

  • Try it in any pre-owned camera stores first if you can. So that you know which type you like.
  • Focus quickly from background to a distance of 1 to 2 meters to see how you can handle the focusing. 
  • Look for details to see what kind of focusing mechanism do the best job for you.
  • Test on both situation indoor and outdoor to see if you find it difficult to get something in focus.
Viewfinder 15mm
Rolleiflex 2.8F focusing screen Matte

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