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When it comes to street photography, I am a huge believer that there is no “best” camera for street photography. Ever different camera has its own strengths and weaknesses, and are all used in different situations. I have shot with many types of cameras, including point and shoots, disposable film cameras, DSLR’s, and even rangefinders.
Recently I have been shooting quite a bit with my rangefinder, and it has truly helped my street photography from both a technical and artistic point of view. Although rangefinders can be expensive, I believe that they can be a great investment. There are many strengths that rangefinders have over many other traditional types of cameras when it comes to street photography. In this blog post I will best outline my thoughts on how shooting with a rangefinder will make you a better street photographer.
When I started photography, I had a weak understanding of exposure and how it translated into ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I had no idea what a “stop” was, and how my DSLR would calculate the ideal exposure. Although I knew the basics, I was more reliant on my camera to help determine the settings for me, which crippled my perception of how to use manual settings.
However with my Contax IIIa film rangefinder, it became a totally different ball-game. The camera is fully-manual, which forced me to truly understand the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. The first few rolls of film I shot with my rangefinder were horrible– either too overexposed or underexposed. After many rolls of practice and diligence, I now know exposure like the back of my hand and no longer need to rely on a light-meter to gauge my shots.
Now I can look at the sky and based on how h3ly the light is, I will know exactly which settings to use. When I walk into the shade, I will instinctively lower my aperture by a stop (or even two) based on the darkness. It gives me a h3 sense of liberation and freedom, and a peace of mind that I am controlling my camera– rather than my camera having a mind of its own.
The frustration of shooting with a DSLR for street photography is that I often take way too many images– most of them which don’t make my “keeper” pile. With my 16 GB CF card, I can easily take a thousand photos yet only have 5 truly remarkable shots.
Shooting with a rangefinder is different. They are much more simple than DSLR’s, which helps you focus on taking each image individually instead of just shooting your camera like a semi-automatic gun. This especially is true when it comes to shooting with film. Each roll of my film only holds 24 exposures, which means that every shot I take has to count. This makes me question which shots I truly want to take and which shots aren’t worth it.
There is no secret that rangefinders are simply more low-key for street photography than DSLR’s. When shooting with my rangefinder, people rarely notice that I am taking photos of them because the shutter is nearly silent and my camera looks far less threatening. However when I am shooting street photography with my bulky DSLR, they always notice the loud clacking sound of my shutter and feel more threatened with the “professional-looking” body.
One of the most important things about street photography is to be invisible and not stand out in the crowd. Therefore if you wish to get every possible advantage to capture photos without your subjects noticing, shooting with a rangefinder is key.
When shooting street photography with a rangefinder, you have to focus manually for everything. Although it may seem as a burden at first, it rather liberates you as a street photographer and gives you more flexibility. The reason I say this is because when you are shooting street photography, it is essential to pre-focus your shots, especially when you have to capture “the decisive moment” in a fraction of a second. For example, I always keep my lens at a 5-foot focusing distance, and keep my aperture at f/16 or f/11 to ensure that my shots will be in focus. I have noticed that autofocus can be quite lousy for shooting street photographs of moving subjects with a DSLR, and manual focusing works far greater.
If you have ever shot with a rangefinder, one of the first things you will notice is how large and bright the viewfinder is. Also because you aren’t looking at a scene through the lens of your camera, you have a much larger peripheral view. Therefore when you are trying to frame or anticipate a shot, you will be able to see everything that is going in front of you with the optical viewfinder. Viewfinders on most DSLR’s are quite pitiful, with the small and dark view they provide. To take great street photographs, it is important to not have your vision obscured in any way.
In conclusion, using a rangefinder for street photography can definitely help you become a better street photographer through its strengths (and limitations). However don’t expect to buy a new Leica M9-P and expect all of your images to come out great. Remember, it is never the camera—but the photographer who takes the images. Giving better paints to an expert painter will help him or her create better paintings, but giving better paints to an amateur won’t do the same.
Have you ever shot with a rangefinder before? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.
July 25, 2013 07:13 pm
Good to see I'm not the only one who likes the Sony NEX-5. Can't really agree with point 2 though: I don't think using a film camera as opposed to a digital lets you focus more. I'd rather say it will make you miss potentially good shots because you're more careful about when you press the button. That's how it works for me anyway, I get better shots when I can just let go and shoot. Great candid shots often happen by accident, not design, and digital gives you more freedom to create more accidents.
June 27, 2013 12:29 am
This person is complete ignorant, and have no idea what his talking about. He only accepts whats been said by others and what others think is best, and have zero knowledge of photography and cameras.
Please dont call yourself a photographer, as your work is utter meaningless crap with high contrast preset.
February 22, 2013 11:13 am
This is a great article and the photos are nice also, especially the one with the guy staring at his phone with the oh so appropriate phrase in the background. I agree with all of you saying anything positive about using film. If you use a dslr to produce "art" , stop it! Go get a film camera, whether it be range finder or 35mm, its up to you, and go make actual art. If you can see the photo immediately after taking it then you may as well just get a tatoo that states "i hate fun". If you want to make art, you must use film, if you're shooting sports, action, anything for a job, get a dslr.
August 16, 2011 08:16 pm
I honestly think that rangefinder cameras are just excessively hyped these days.
They are a nice piece of pretty low tech. The rangefinder concept is interesting.
But honestly, everybody is acting as if they were superior to SLRs, which they aren't.
It doesn't matter IMO whether I point with an SLR or with a rangefinder at people. Either they see me or they don't. Probability is equally big.
All this fuzz about rangefinders reminds me of another bohemian discussion concerning my other big hobby: single speeders in cycling.
July 4, 2011 05:00 pm
July 2, 2011 09:53 pm
i started photography with an SLR canon cam,and have heard about rangefinder in the past but i cannot remember.Please, what is a rangefinder?Thanks
May 14, 2011 08:18 pm
I also believe that there is no “best” camera for street photography. Any camera you have is good for street photography.
May 10, 2011 05:01 am
My first job, in the middle '70s, was shooting Special Education classroom activities in northern Illinois using Nikon 35 F1 and medium format Hassleblad. I shot some of my own film in these cameras but never really connected what I was seeing in the viewfinder to the final print until I purchased, from a camera collector, a twenty year old ContaxII 35mm rangefinder with a nikkor 25mm lens. I found a matching attachable 25mm viewfinder. When I put the camera strap around my neck I felt like I was wearing jewelry. The camera was all metal and just well balanced. I shot Tri-X and processed in HC110. I could print up to 11X14 and it looked like medium format work. But the real advantage for me was I was using a rangefinder. It was partly the look of the camera, it just did not look like a big deal. Also, It was small enough that I could wear it around my neck with a short strap so the camera was mid chest high and was always there ready for use when exploring my environment looking for pictures. My goal was of course to purchase a Leica and a number of lenses but due to the $$ requirements I went on to the world of Canon. For the past 15 years I have been using a 4X5 field camera in order to keep my B&W interests going and in order to achieve higher quality black and white work . But now ,after hauling a view camera around Europe over a dozen times and carrying a 4 X5 40lb. backpack to lunch with my wife I realize working with Canon Mark I and IIs is what physically suites me. However, my plan is to go back to rangefinder shooting just so I can get those images that appear quickly and disappear. I have my eye on the Fujifilm X100 digital rangefinder. It was supposed to be released in the US this spring but when I visited B&H in March a very lonely sales person behind the Fujifilm counter said he could have sold a dozen just this week. In summary a rangefinder as outlined in this article really is a different tool that will provide different results . It is differnt than point and shot photography and a lot different than the pro-line gear.
May 9, 2011 02:58 am
It's not 'discrete' (meaning separate or apart from), but 'discreet' (meaning unobtrusive).
Not only is a rangefinder more discreet, but one is more likely to be carrying it due to its small size. Hard to shoot (street) photos if the camera is at home.
May 8, 2011 03:29 am
Hi there!.. Nice topic but you forgot the newbie.. That means not only Pro will read your Blogs. So im suggesting, define first Rangefinder, whatever will be what kind of cameras that might be.. Even Pro sometimes they dont know without the add-ons "the rolls of films"..
Well back then 15 years ago, Im using my father's T90 Canon,Films Cameras is a little bit costly for an average man like me.. So kodus to digital. It doesnt mean that you have to full your 4 GB CF card just to get 5 pictures out of it..I'd agree with "dr germ".. Because sometimes you can not foresee what will happen in every seconds of a time..so you need to be ready at all times to click your camera if a scene pops up.. Burst it if you want to catch all movements in a single second.. So as many Pros advice always bring you camera at all times.. But for me, my dSLR is on my side whenever i go for a walk, even if i go to work. Thats the reason i why i buy my 7D EOS Canon. Nobody knows, maybe next morning you can not use you camera anymore...lols.
Bottom line is, if you're having a dSLR, i think you graduated for a luck photographer.. So all pictures that you had taken is an image to preserve and display to all mankind, to see wat they didn't see at that particular moment.. Well Thanks fo the Tips and advice..sometimes you need to right-click and refresh your mind..(,")
May 7, 2011 11:41 pm
Photographers and camera personals got much to learn for us to reach the peek of our chosen career.
May 7, 2011 08:53 am
You missed my point.
What I was trying to say, as it relates to the original article, was that the claim one takes "better" photos by taking fewer photos (due to constraints, say, of film vs digital) is bogus. If I take only one shot, it is special and unique of course, simply by virtue of being, well unique, but I'll never know if I didn't miss a vastly better shot a split second later. Which, then, is exactly what you were saying in your second reply.
I guess just like bob above I also just fail to be impressed by any of the supposedly special street photographs in the article (to say it kindly).
Love the pics on *your* website by the way.
May 7, 2011 06:45 am
Or else you just use Canon S95...
Regards from bailouted Portugal.
May 7, 2011 04:48 am
Oh, and in regards to "you've taken that look almost the same", 'almost', is critical. A tiny change in expression can make a huge difference but the real point is that you don't know if they're going to be the same when you shoot. They may end up being completely different, you have no way of knowing.
I've done my time; I shot live punk gigs back in the 70s, audience gob raining down on me in the press pit, red eye back to town and processing at dawn to hit a press deadline. Film, 36 shot limit, semi auto exposure in massively changing lighting conditions, manual focus in low light. I'll take digital fully auto, thank you.
May 7, 2011 04:40 am
@ dr germ
"when you shoot a thousand frames to fill a card on the dSLR, it becomes painfully obvious from the repetition that none of the pictures is unique in any way (you’ve got a dozen that look almost the same of each scene, right?)"
But why is that important. The end result, the final shot is *all* that matters. How you took it, how long you waited, how many shots it took you to get it contribute nothing to your viewers experience. You can teach technique in college, if you like, but if you're taking pictures, when you put a picture on a wall, a website, in front of any viewer, there is nothing else but the picture. If there is, you've failed.
May 7, 2011 01:53 am
I started out shooting a Yashica Electro 35 GSN for my street work. It's a great camera with a great lens, but, I wanted something more manual so I picked up a Fed 2 with an Industar-61. I have learned so much by being forced to do everything manually.
One thing the author should've mentioned is that rangefinders are terribly addicting! You start out with one, and you find another at an antique store, then you want something with interchangeable lenses, then you get the Leica fever and there's just no turning back!
May 6, 2011 10:48 pm
Probably a topic for another thread, Prateek but in a nutshell, it would depend on what country. Here in the UK, photograph who you want, where you want in public spaces. You may not defaim or slander but otherwise, do as you please. Private property the same applies but you must have permission of the owner of the property. You also need permission for military sites and airports and airfields.
The above is your statutory right and anyone who threatens or intimidates you is breaking the law.
In the US it's broadly the same but for publication a signed release is a sensible precaution. Other countries will vary.
May 6, 2011 10:39 pm
This article fails to answer one basic question... what is a rangefinder?
May 6, 2011 10:00 pm
Street photography is indeed a lovely subject, but I had a few queries regarding the people in the photographs...
If I took some candid street photographs ... say of an employee on a railway platform doing something... then what are my rights as a photographer regarding publishing the photos on my website or on flickr, etc? Can the person who features in the photograph sue me or make a case against me for something even if I am not or do not intend to sell any prints of the same
May 6, 2011 09:13 pm
Many excellent points regarding understanding what one is ACTUALLY doing while creating photos. Using a range finder clearly requires or forces one to understand things that more advanced cameras do automatically. As some one who DID need to learn about the relationships between aperture, shutter speed, ISO (ASA), focal length, etc. ("back in the day"), I see the value of such knowledge. Given the capabilities of modern cameras, writer's argument is a little like encouraging more letter writing and less email, less driving and more walking (or horseback riding), more trips to the library book shelves and less Googling. The writer seems to be a capable photographer, but the article reads a little like talking to a curmudgeonly elderly person who complains about "How you young people don't know how good you have it." I have NO interest in returning to buying my film in bulk (100 foot rolls), mixing my chemicals, or waiting (and waiting) for my results--but I AM glad I know about such things.
May 6, 2011 08:12 pm
For me it's all about what's in the shot; nothing else. Auto focus, auto exposure, all those things give me less to do that distracts from I'm trying to get and lets me work faster, more efficiently. I see a shot, point, shoot. The less that gets between seeing the shot and grabbing it the better chance I have of getting what I want.
That's just me.
Great shots Eric.
May 6, 2011 07:11 pm
This blog is always flooded with useful articles
May 6, 2011 05:19 pm
i completely agree. i have been shooting street for a few years and have tried shooting it with different cameras (slr, dslr, p&s, mobile phones, mf slr, mf tlr) and the rangefinder is perfect for being "invisible". i love my rangefinders.
May 6, 2011 05:19 pm
To echo the comments made by Ken R
Whilst my main camera is an Olympus E5 (a tank in every sense of the word), if I'm wandering the streets looking for moments of interest, my m4/3 oly EPL-1 with a Panny 20mm pancake serves the purpose perfectly. Quiet, discreet and easy to adjust, it does the job as well as any rangefinder...and for a fraction of the cost. Sure, in an ideal world, I would love an M9...but who but the truly fortunate (or the truly pretentious) can spend £9000+ on a camera system?
May 6, 2011 03:41 pm
Another great advantage of a rangefinder camera is that the eye piece is NOT in the middle of the camera, but on the side. This lets you watch the subject with both eyes right up until you are ready to take the shot. I have a 1958 Canon P rangefinder which I use for streetscape.......It has the frames for 35, 50 and 100mm lenses in the viewfinder. So not only can I watch the subject/scene initially with both eyes, but when I am ready to take the shot and close my left eye, I can watch the subject move into the 50 or 100mm frame in the viewfinder [I usually use the 100mm lens] giving me the opportunity to compose on the move.
The shutter noise is not the problem with a DSLR but, the flapping of the mirror. The other advantage of a rangefinder camera is that you do not 'lose' the subject for a fraction of a second as you do with a DSLR when the mirror flip flops.........quite important in candid photography.
May 6, 2011 03:29 pm
Here's a thought - when you take pics with the range finder, on film, you are really taking no better or more remarkable photos than with a dSLR. Only when you shoot a thousand frames to fill a card on the dSLR, it becomes painfully obvious from the repetition that none of the pictures is unique in any way (you've got a dozen that look almost the same of each scene, right?)
If you use film and shoot only a single frame of each scene, it can still stink, but because there's only a single one, it's unique by definition.
Bottom line - don't kid yourself. Range finder, film, do nothing for the quality of your pics. It's all in your head, dude.
Try this for fun - next time you shoot a whole card, randomly select, say 24 frames throughout the entire set and copy only those 24 to your computer. Look at them. Are they "unique"? Now add the rest of the pics. How much uniqueness is left? If there's any difference in your perception of the original 24 before and after adding the remaining 976, then you know I am right.
May 6, 2011 12:51 pm
I like ryan's idea of using a small card to force some discipline into the process. Everything in this article makes complete sense, with informative comments as well, but given the cost of film I simply can't go there.
May 6, 2011 11:12 am
While I have used RF cameras for years and agree with the points made, you can get the same experience digitally and inexpensively (apart from the shutter noise). The Sony Nex 5 is now my street camera.. The flip out screen enables discreet shooting, especially if used with a shade or some of the other viewing attachments now available. With a little practice and the WA lens you can also shoot blind from the hip or a camera dangling down in your hand without looking down. These sorts of shots can be successfully done and usually require just a bit of cropping/straightening afterwards. The Nex low light performance and dynamic range give lots of margin of error and the quality enables shots to be blown up successfully so you don't have to be too close, meaning wide latitude for focussing with a WA lens.
And yes, the more you know about the iso/shutter/f stop relat5ionship, the easier this is.
May 6, 2011 09:24 am
I took a 4X5 field camera on hike once. THAT setup makes you VERY contemplative about shooting, since packing a dozen holders (for 24 pictures) weighs a ton.
I do much of the same contemplation with my DSLR, but I will admit, the 'do overs' are much easier.
May 6, 2011 08:16 am
Shooting my first street pics with an Olympus Trip; fully automatic and zone focus. Let's see how they turn out.
May 6, 2011 06:16 am
Do you think the upcoming Fuji X100 will be more discrete for street photography than a DSLR?
May 6, 2011 06:15 am
Coming from the film days I can appreciate the finite number of frames and really thinking about your shots. You can do the same with a 256MB card if you can find them... Limit your shots that way...
May 6, 2011 04:45 am
It'd be a more compelling article if any of the photos he included of his 'better street photography' were any good.
May 6, 2011 04:25 am
I'm not sure if I agree with point #2 - just because you have a 64GB card with the capacity for hundreds or thousands of photos doesn't mean you should shoot without thinking. Anyone with self discipline should be able to concentrate regardless of how many shots on their roll/card. If you don't have that discipline, then perhaps you're right; using film could help.
On the other hand, I think you may miss opportunities. Back in my college days, we only shot with film and my instructor would make us shoot a minimum of 100 shots to get 5 prints worthy of turning in for our assignment. This was to allow us to experiment and force us to think about different ways to capture a subject. (High angle, low angle, close, far etc.) We always shot with a purpose in mind, we didn't just blindly shoot to shoot. I think the more purposefully you shoot the more "keepers" you'll come back with regardless of your medium. Digital allows us to keep shooting and experimenting without the worry of cost or or capacity.
May 6, 2011 04:19 am
All great points, Eric. However, 1-4 is true of any old manual SLR camera too. I use a NIkon FM2n and Olympus OM-1, Nikon F3, and even a medium format Hasselblad for street shooting and they all meet 1-4. In fact, I had what many consider THE rangefinder, a Leica M6, but sold it b/c I got better shots with my trusty FM2n and a 35mm lens. :)
May 6, 2011 04:03 am
Totally agree. I personally have sold my dSLR and went to m43. I think I took much better pictures when I shot with film than I did with the big dSLR. Too much computer both in the camera and post production rather than the pre-thinking I used to do with film. The m43 is not film, but I am back to shooting fully manual and am intentionally shooting with a small GB card so I am forced to think before holding down the trigger.
May 6, 2011 04:01 am
I love these tips. Any recommendation on examples of street photography blog or website?
May 6, 2011 03:38 am
nice post, but I can't see the reason to prefer a rangefinder camera instead of a cheap, manual, film SLR (a Nikon FE?)... Your reasons may apply to all manual 35mm film cameras imho.
Maybe point 3, but you don't need an F5 with a 70-200 2.8 to take street photos, probably my FM2 with 35 f2 is as big as a Leica M3 and with the noise of a city you would not hear me shot...
May 6, 2011 02:57 am
This article is very nice, but I think you could have called this "5 reasons to use a manual camera". The reasons you describe could be applied to any non-auto camera, not just a range finder. As for the comment about shooting like 100 images and having only 5 good ones, that is quite normal actually.... With film each shot is more valuable, so it is actually a good thing to not have that much "pressure" I think with digital.
Thanks for posting,
Roy from tozzophoto.com
May 6, 2011 02:55 am
Great article. Some nice advice that I will put to use.
May 6, 2011 02:45 am
Love the article.
I've been shooting street photos for a few years now and everything mentioned here is true.
May 6, 2011 02:29 am
I did some street photography the other day and the sound of my DSLR is really loud. When I'm taking pictures in noisy London it's fine, but when it's quieter the noise really gives me away. That's one of the most annoying things about my camera. I've been looking into other options. Thanks for the article.
May 6, 2011 02:09 am
When it comes to street photography, I love Vivian Maier's shots. Black and white, and sometimes double exposed. I agree on how discreet you can be with a rangefinder. I'm using a TLR and that fraction of a second between focusing the lens and capturing a moment, truly improves the way one takes a picture compared to non-rangefinder cameras.
May 6, 2011 02:02 am
Have you considered shooting black & white film instead and developing your own?
Most of my street shooting was with my D40 & D300 with a 18-200 lens, but It does make it easier with a smaller camera.
I have to admit that I haven't used my rangefinder (Canonet QL 17) for much street shooting, but I may just have to start :)
May 6, 2011 01:52 am
Erik Kerstenbeck - this NYC photograph is out of this world great!
May 6, 2011 01:49 am
A lovely article.
I am following ShootTokyo.com - a blog of a photographer in Tokyo who shoots on a Leica digital viewfinder. It is breathtaking how much you can do with a daily dedication to street photography and an nonintrusive camera. I love his style. Will be adding Eric's blog to my daily reads too, based on this article.
May 6, 2011 01:47 am
This article is interesting, but maybe I miss the point: He leaves me wondering how, with the exception of the first photo, one goes about applying a rangefinder to pre-shot routines and still capture the candid action shots he uses above?
May 6, 2011 01:33 am
Nice...wait a minute...is pic # 5 Pine Avenue in Long Beach?
May 6, 2011 01:28 am
Very nicely written article by Eric! I am from the Vintage Era of 35mm and Medium Format Film cameras so I find it somewhat amusing to hear about not understanding what the relationship between shutter speed, ISO and aperture are - recall hand held light meters? Anyways, I think everyone should dive deep into this to get the fundementals, and even shoot with film just for kicks!
I also like the last statement about better paint does not make a better painting. By understanding your gear, knowing how it works and shooting critically, you will get better results.
I have some pretty nice gear, but this striking image in NYC was taken with an old Nikon D40x, because it was on hand. Its not the equipment, its the vision.
May 6, 2011 01:10 am
I totally agree with your thoughts on rangefinders. I shoot a canonet ql17 when I wander the streets and its perfect. Especially the almost unnoticable shutter sound is so important. I remember not taking shots with my slr, just because I knew it would ruin the moment cause of the shutter noise.
But I like to add another experience. It has to do with the size of a rangefinder. Street photography is all about capturing intimate moments, special situations or just the normal daily things you see in your life. So the most important thing is: to have the camera with you. I often find myself to lazy to take my bulky slr to every place I go. But my small rangefinder, it just fits in my pocket or bag. So the actuall smaller size and also weight of a rangefinder makes take that camera everywhere I go.
So in conclusion, I think I became a better street photographer, just because I always have a camera with me, and I dont skip moments, where I otherwise would have thought i disturb a moment just by the shutter noise.
Finally, I like to add something to your second tip (You will have more keepers) Being quite emotional about photography in general, I just like to say, there is nothing better then having your camera in your hand, taking the "one" picture not knowing if you focused right, if you're exposure was right, then waiting for the developed negatives and have a first glance at that picture and then getting the first print and realizing: YES I DID IT! Of course they will be some misjudged frames too, but in general, it adds to the fun of taking streets shots, not knowing how the end result of the picture will look like!
Thank you for this great post.
Greetings from Germany
P.S. If you like to see some more examples of street photography with a rangefinder, visit my website:
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