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Most varieties of rangefinder show two images of the same subject, one of which moves when a calibrated wheel is turned; when the two images coincide and fuse into one, the distance can be read off the wheel.
Older, non-coupled rangefinder cameras display the focusing distance and require the photographer to transfer the value to the lens focus ring;
Cameras without built-in rangefinders could have an external rangefinder fitted into the accessory shoe.
Earlier cameras of this type had separate viewfinder and rangefinder windows; later the rangefinder was incorporated into the viewfinder.
More modern designs have rangefinders coupled to the focusing mechanism, so that the lens is focused correctly when the rangefinder images fuse.
Almost all digital cameras, and most later film cameras, measure distance using electroacoustic or electronic means and focus automatically (autofocus); however, it is not customary to speak of this functionality as a rangefinder.
The first rangefinders, sometimes called "telemeters", appeared in the nineteenth century; the first rangefinder camera to be marketed was the 3A Kodak Autographic Special of 1916; the rangefinder was coupled.
Rangefinder cameras were common from the 1930s to the 1970s, but the more advanced models lost ground to single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras.
Rangefinder cameras have been made in all sizes and all film formats over the years, from 35mm through medium format (roll film) to large-format press cameras. Until the mid-1950s most were generally fitted to more expensive models of cameras.
Folding bellows rollfilm cameras, such as the Balda Super Baldax or Mess Baldix, the Kodak Retina II, IIa, IIc, IIIc, and IIIC cameras and the Hans Porst Hapo 66e (a cheaper version of the Balda Mess Baldix), were often fitted with rangefinders.
Kodak Retina I Kodak Retina II Kodak Retina III
Digital imaging technology was applied to rangefinder cameras for the first time in 2004, with the introduction of the Epson R-D1, the first ever digital rangefinder camera. The RD-1 was a collaboration between Epson and Cosina. The R-D1 and later R-D1s use Leica M-mount lenses, or earlier Leica screw mount lenses with an adapter.
Leica released its first digital rangefinder camera, the Leica M8, in 2006. The M8 and R-D1 are expensive compared to more common digital SLRs, and lack several features that are common with modern digital cameras, such as live preview, movie recording, and face detection.