Rangefinders, Distance Meters - Antique and Vintage Cameras

Primus Distance Gauge

W. Butcher & Sons

London

England

Image of Primus Distance Gauge

Scale to 4'. The subject is sighted through a tubular finder, a plumb bob moves against a scale showing the distance of the subject.

References & Notes:
Photographic Fashions, p. 132.

Leitz Long Base Rangefinder

1923

E. Leitz G.M.B.H.

Wetzlar

Germany

Swing prism. Double image. Circular secondary image. Scale to 1 m. Base length of 85 mm. Version with large dial.

With:
"Leitz Range Finders", leaflet, d. Aug 1937.

When introduced a small wheel was fitted, in 1930 the dial was larger.

Code Names:
FOFER - Rangefinder.

References & Notes:
BJA 1925, p. 363.

Zeros

c. 1933

Hugo Meyer & Co.

Görlitz

Germany

Swing mirror acted on by screw and lever. Double image in small square on edge of field. Scale to 3', base length of 2 ⅜". Images are not gilded or coloured.

Serial Number:
438 .

With:
Leather case.

This is an upright model with a shoe fitting. The fitting has the early shape of a disc with two segments cut off. The price was 36/-.

References & Notes:
BJA 1934, pp. 272, 574.

Heyde Telemeter

c. 1925

Early model

G. Heyde

Dresden

Germany

Scale to 1 metre and 4'.

Improved Model

c. 1928

Split image. Scale to 1 m.

Early versions used a slide bar to change the distance, later c. 1928, a wheel was used, the finish also changed from plain metal to black crackle paint.

References & Notes:
BJA 1926, p. 743. BJA 1929, p. 645.

Zeiss Distance Meter

Early Model

Zeiss-Ikon A. G.

Dresden

Germany

Swing mirror. Split image. Scale in metres. Model no. 1344/1. The price was 24/-. Smooth black finish, nickel dial, front of meter removable to access mechanism.

With:
Case.

Later Model

Swing mirror. Split image. Scale in feet. Black crackle finish, black dial, ends of meter removable to access mechanism.

References & Notes:
BJA 1931, p. 581. Goodyears Cat. (ZI) 1933, p. 28.

Ensign Range-Finder

c. 1933

Houghton-Butcher Manufacturing Co.

London

England

Swing mirror acted on by cam. Double image in central strip of finder. Scale to 3'. One finder contains a yellow filter.

This model is screwed on to the camera or used in the hand, there is no accessory shoe fitting. The price was 32/6.

References & Notes:
Ensign Cat. 1934, p. 51.

Voigtländer

Voigtländer & Sohn

Braunschweig

West Germany

Double image in centre of field. Scale to 3.5'. Base length of 36 mm. The outside field is coloured pink. Model no. 93/184.

With:
Leather case.

References & Notes:
Blue Book 1960/61, p.99.

Corfield Telemeter

1949

K.G. Corfield

Wolverhampton

England

Swing mirror, split image. Scale to 3'. Cream enamel body, leatherette panels.

Serial Number:
F7954 , written inside box..

With:
Instructions, box.

A curious rangefinder designed for use on a finger for which there is an elastic strip. The meter is very large compared to those that fit in an accessory shoe. Two rubber plugs can be removed allowing adjustment to the fixed mirror. Also produced in metres and with an un-painted metal body. This example comes in a box having a yellow label.

Corfield Telemeter

1949

Swing mirror, split image. Scale to 1 metre. Cream enamel body, leatherette panels.

Serial Number:
M1643 , written on instruction sheet..

With:
Instructions. Letter from R.G. Lewis, receipt from R.G. Lewis dated April 1950. Box.

Similar to the previous example but the box has a white label with black and red printing rather than a yellow label.

Watameter

Edmund Wateler

Braunschweig

West Germany

Scale to 55 cm, double image.

Notes:
Similar models were sold with a close focusing position, another showed the distance in the finder.

References & Notes:
BJA 1952, p. 223.

Johnson Wray

Scale to 3 feet, double image. Swing mirror.

With:
Case.

N & G Telemeter

Newman & Guardia Ltd

London

England

Image of N & G Telemeter

Scale to 1 yard. The base of the subject is sighted through sighting notches, a plumb bob moves against a scale showing the distance of the subject. After taking the reading the top of the plumb bob can be clamped by finger pressure.

With:
Instruction sheet, pouch.

focorect

1950s

Model M

Hermann Schneider & Co.

Hamburg

W. Germany

Image of focorect

Scale to 3.5', double image.

Attributes:
Depth of field scale.

Serial Number:
2990201 .

This is an unusual device that combines a rangefinder with a variable focus 'close-up' lens. The device clamps to the front of the camera lens which is set to infinity, focusing is by altering the separation of the lenses in the focorect, the movement is coupled to the rangefinder. Produced in two sizes - standard to fit lenses of 27 - 37 mm diameter and M to fit lenses of 23 - 32 mm diameter. In Britain the focorect was distributed by Johnsons, the M model cost £18.1.5.

References & Notes:
AP 6/6/1956, p. 89.

Flexameter

1950s

Kurt Kühn

Wetzlar

Germany

Two examples:

  • Instructions, box.
  • Leather case. Sold by Lewis, Newcombe Ltd., London, 41, Old Bond St.

Lens:
f2.8, 50 mm.

This simple device attaches to a camera via the accessory shoe to provide a large waist-level screen and focusing lens, interchangeable masks allow for different film formats.

Autorange

Scale to 3', double image.

Combined View-finder, Level and Telemeter

1907

First version

Watson & Sons Ltd

London

England

This is a conventional direct-vision finder with a single negative lens and alignment post, at the rear of the finder a frame is hinged so that it remains vertical when the finder is tilted, to this frame a second frame is attached that will remain horizontal. The finder is levelled by aligning the edge of the horizontal frame with a centre line engraved on the lens. To use as a telemeter the finder is tilted downwards so that the pointer aligns with the centre line on the lens and the base of the subject, the horizontal frame will then point to a value on the distance scale engraved on the lens above the centre line.

The finder was supplied with three masks to fit behind the lens for different angles of view, a mirror for use at waist-level could be attached behind the pointer.

There were two slightly different versions, the first (the example shown here) is depicted in the British Journal Almanac of 1908, in the 1912 issue it is described as 'improved' and that a patent has been applied for.

The drawing of the second version shows the pointer to be suspended from the top of the rear section rather than the bottom. Its use as a telemeter is slightly different: the finder is levelled by ensuring the horizontal frame aligns with the centre line of the lens, the base of the subject is then observed against the distance scale engraved on the lens. Two scales were engraved, one for eye-level use the other for use at waist-level.

As a finder and a level this instrument works well, it is less successful as a telemeter as the strong negative lens makes the numbers on the glass difficult to read.

References & Notes:
BP 11147/1911. BJA 1908, pp. 724, 994. BJA 1912, pp. 692, 939. BJA 1913, p. 966.


With the increasing use of hand cameras where focusing on a ground glass screen was impossible or inconvenient, separate distance meters came to be used. Originally these were called distance meters or telemeters, the term rangefinder applied to the 'two position' optical devices was used a few years later. Some common arrangements are listed below.

Subject Angle (Declination)
These work by aiming a sight at an object, a level or plumb bob will then show the angle the object makes to the horizontal which can be converted into a distance. Popular examples work on a quadrant and plumb bob (Primus, N&G) or built into a view-finder where a level indicates the distance which is marked on the finder lens (Watson).1

Standard Subject Size
These are based on the principle that the height of a person or the size of a persons head does not differ greatly. By measuring the size of the image of the person at the camera the approximate distance of that person is given. An early patent was for the legs of a pair of callipers to be adjusted until they matched the subject (person), the callipers were connected to the lens so that making the adjustment focused the lens. A much later implementation was on a Ricoh camera where the view-finder showed a lozenge shape that changed in size as the camera was focused, the lozenge matched the size of a persons head.2

Focusing Tube
More or less a camera in tubular form with a lens at one end and a focusing screen at the other, the distance could be read from a scale after focusing.3

Optical, 'Two Positions'
The object is viewed from two positions, the angle subtended by the object gives the distance.4

  • Woodbury 1914
    Two fixed mirrors are used. The image from one is deflected by a small amount by a lens combination, in the neutral position the deflection produced by the lenses is zero. The positive part of the lens combination remains fixed to the baseboard, the negative lens (and mirrors, camera lens, front standard etc.) move forward and back along the baseboard so altering the deflection produced by the lens combination.5
  • Swing Mirror
    The subject is viewed by two separated mirrors. One mirror swivels changing the angle of the reflected image. A very popular construction as it is easy to manufacture. Used on the Contax 1.
  • Swing Prism
    A prism is used in place of the mirror. Used in the Leica camera.
  • Rotating Wedge
    Two fixed mirrors are used. In front of one mirror two shallow prisms are arranged, these rotate in opposite directions and so change their deflection and the line of sight. This form requires greater movement to cover the focusing range than the swing prism type, allowing finer movement and greater accuracy. Another advantage is that the prisms need not be located next to the mirror. Used on the Super Ikonta, 1934, where the prisms were mounted on the front standard, a common wheel moved the lens and the prisms.6
  • Swing Wedge
    Two fixed prisms (or similar) are used. In front of one there are two cylindrical lenses, in the neutral position there is no deflection. By swinging one of the lenses a prism of varying angle is formed. Used on the Contax 11 camera, 1936. Rather than two air-separated mirrors or prisms, Zeiss favoured a solid glass rhomboid.7
  • Bantam Special
    Two fixed prisms are used. In front of one, and attached to the front standard, is a lens that moves laterally. As the camera lens is rotated for focusing a cam moves the rangefinder lens parallel to the rangefinder base. A further development of this was to incorporate the lens behind the prism inside the camera housing. The images are considerably magnified by the rangefinder lens, a similar lens in the path of the secondary image and the eyepiece lenses. The Porro prism close to the eyepiece erects the two images. Developed by Joseph Mihalyi.8
  • Leica M2
    The M series used a swivelling lens with the movement coupled to rear of the camera lens. The rangefinder and view-finder were combined in a single window, suspended frames were illuminated from a dedicated window.

Types of image:
  • Split Field
    The two images are displayed one above the other, as the rangefinder is altered one of the images will move. Typically the mirror or prism in front of the eyepiece has part of its surface clear, the rest is silvered to reflect the 'second image'. The field may be split horizontally or just a middle section may be silvered.
  • Double Image
    Part or all of the mirror is semi-silvered giving a double image. Usually the two images are coloured to increase their contrast, this was either by introducing filters or using a different reflective coating to the mirrors.

Rangefinders Built into Cameras
The first coupled rangefinder camera was the 3A Autographic Kodak Special of 1916. It was not until the 1930s, however, that coupled rangefinders became popular, examples are: Agfa Standard, 1930; Roland, 1931; Prominent, 1932; and Leica 11, 1932. A number of cameras were produced with uncoupled rangefinders.

On miniature or solid bodied cameras where the lens is directly attached to the camera body the rangefinder could be coupled to the lens movement by resting a lever, which controlled the rangefinder movement, on the rear of the lens.

References & Notes:
Lipinski. Westminster Cat. 1939, p. 43.

[1] N&G, N&G Cat. 1908, p. 148. Watson, BP 11147/1911. BJA 1908, pp. 724, 994.

[2] L.M. Berthon, BP 7121/1887.

[3] N&G Cat. 1908, p. 147.

[4] There are two forms of this type of rangefinder, the one used on cameras is the 'coincident' type where the two images of the subject are viewed in one finder, one image is moved until the images coincide. In the second form - stereoscopic - the two images are viewed by each eye, the eye/brain fuse the images into one. A graticule is contained in each eyepiece, the rangefinder is altered until the subject and graticule fuse together.
Early proposals were - W. Thorner, BP 22338/1906. Swing mirror type, S.M. Player, BJA 1911, p. 505. Swing mirror type coupled to the lens. P.J. Murray, BP 107213, BJA 1919, p. 266. J. Becker patented a number of ways of coupling the rangefinder with the camera, US 1178474/1916.

[5] BP 13421/1914. This patent seems to be the basis for the rangefinder fitted to the 3A Autographic Kodak Special of 1916 where the arrangement was simplified by fitting a narrow wedge in place of the lens combination.
H.F. Toennies patented (BP 292602/1927) the arrangement of using two lenses of equal but opposite power as the deflection device. As the lens was focused the negative lens slid linearly relative to the positive lens. The patent also shows the base of the rangefinder consisting of a solid glass rhomboid rather than air-spaced mirrors.

[6] BP 405208/1934. ZI Cat. 1937, p. 21.

[7] BP 419915/1934. ZI Cat. 1937, p. 43. Contax Photography, 3rd ed. p. 17.

[8] BP 454134/1936. US 2113307/1938.

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