by Jim Mathis
11035 W 96th Place
Overland Park, KS 66214
913 269-6709


Types of Cameras

Let’s talk about cameras. Cameras are generally categorized based upon the viewing system. The viewing system shows the photographer what he is getting. In the past, with film and chemical based systems we had: viewfinder cameras, rangefinder cameras, single-lens reflex or SLR cameras, twin-lens reflex or TLR cameras, and view cameras. These terms all have to do with the viewing system.

Viewfinder cameras have some sort of optical viewfinder that the photographer looks through to compose the photographs. These can range from nothing more than a peep hole to very sophisticated optical systems. Rangefinder cameras are viewfinder cameras with a mechanical focusing apparatus built in to the viewfinder or in some cases a separate window. SLR cameras use a complicated mirror system that allows the photographer to see directly through the taking lens. The mirror swings out of the way when the shutter is released. Some SLRs use a two-way fixed mirror. In either case a very accurate preview of what will be captured is seen in the viewfinder. TLR cameras use two identical lenses to accomplish the same purpose but without the movable mirror. With a view camera, the photographer looks at an image on a ground glass at the back of the camera. When he is ready to expose the film, the photographer places a film holder in front of the ground glass and makes the exposure. A view camera is the most accurate, but also the most cumbersome type of camera. It is used almost exclusively for inanimate objects, usually in the controlled environs of a studio.

There have also been many combinations of these systems through the years, especially in the first half of the twentieth century. There have been view cameras with rangefinders, normally called press cameras; waist-level SLRs; and even twin-lens view cameras.

Lancaster wooden view camera from the 1880’s

Graflex 4x5 Single-lens-reflex (SLR) from the 1930’s.

Canon 7 35mm rangefinder camera from the 1950’s.


In the digital age there is less need for view cameras, TLR cameras have fallen out of favor, and autofocus has all but eliminated the need for rangefinder cameras. That leaves viewfinder cameras, now referred to as “point and shoot” or PS and SLRs, called DSLR in their digital form. A new viewing system has also emerged called the electronic viewfinder or EVF camera. This system combines elements of both PS and DSLR cameras.

Most photographers start with a PS or point and shoot style camera. Modern electronics allow an amazing range of features. Almost all have automatic focusing, automatic exposure, built-in flash, automatic color-balance, and most have some sort of variable angle lens called a zoom lens. These cameras are also usually quite small. Most can easily be carried in a pocket or purse.

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