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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.