These days you are most likely to find me wandering the streets of London with a Leica M Monochrom hanging from my neck. Street photography and Leica have been inextricably linked for decades and this is solely down to Leica’s M system camera and its rangefinder focus mechanism.
This is not to say that you cannot be a street photographer without a rangefinder camera or, transversely, that you cannot shoot anything but the streets with a Leica. It is simply that this style of camera is the preferred tool of the serious street photographer.
If you’re unfamiliar with Rangefinders, the name is simply a reference to the distance oriented method by which you focus the lens. You are presented, within the viewfinder, 2 overlapping versions of the scene and as you turn the lens to find focus, the overlapping images merge together into one, at which point you are focused!
It does raise the question of why use a Leica rangefinder once you realize the camera is pretty much manual. Focusing, especially, is an entirely manual exercise. My camera will struggle to reach 4 fps. The viewfinder is essentially just a viewing frame where the image does not travel through the lens and is not related to the focal length either. It is just a ‘window’ for you to frame the shot. Side stepping image quality, there’s more and improved functionality out there in the DSLR world. And the cost?! US$13000 for a Camera, lens, spare battery and a strap!
It just doesn’t make sense, does it?!
I actually traded my entire ‘bag’ of Canon bodies and lenses for this camera, never more convinced this was the system for me. I have always been a manual photographer, actively disliking AF for its constant need to slave my compositions to specific points in the frame. The mirror system means bodies are big and lenses, good quality lenses, are bulky too. Compare a Canon 5D Mark II and a Leica Monochrom, each with a 35mm f/2 lens, and the Leica is 2/3s the weight and I dare say the size too. Factor in shutter noise and you are a lot more conspicuous in a crowd with a DSLR.
Rangefinder cameras, generally much smaller, quieter and inconspicuous than their DSLR counterparts aren’t just the subjective opinions of a few desperate fans. I recently read that quite a few US court rooms dictate that cameras, “… shall produce no greater sound than a 35mm Leica “M” Series rangefinder camera.”.
For most of you, I concede, not the right camera. For me? Definitely. I want lightweight, quiet, inconspicuous and excellent image quality.
On the streets
I plan exactly where I will take photographs. My style is slightly minimalist and the contextual environment is paramount. With a history oriented to architecture photography, I am picky about my backgrounds.
Of course many locations are new to me and, once I get there, I have to establish the best vantage points. How and precisely where are the people interacting with this place?
So I wait. And watch. I am largely ignored and, for all intents and purposes, I don’t look the least bit ‘professional’ just have a compact camera around my neck.
After a few minutes I know where to focus and do so in readiness.
I can’t count the occasions where the people who are at the scene or walking through it are simply doing just that. If the scene is extraordinary, then the people ignoring it make a good composition. How dare they not notice how wonderful the building behind them is?! Otherwise it will just make a dull photograph.
Patience does pay off and, eventually, you are rewarded with a great image.
I did mention the downsides of using an entirely manual set up, but there are distinct advantages. The boy, in the image above, ran through the fountains only once. He didn’t think he’d be caught by the water jets as they erupted and he reacted so quickly and ran to escape, but I got the shot. I’d already focused my lens and was just hanging around needing only to point at my chosen scene and press the shutter.
Did you realize that, with a full frame camera, set an aperture of f8 focused to a distance of 3m away and everything will be in focus from 2m to 10m? This is called zone focusing and allows me to focus without lifting camera to eye. Very stealthy! Why 3m away? I am frequently around this distance from a subject when I want to take their photo.
This business man was clearly checking his phone, probably for emails, whilst smoking his fat cigar. He couldn’t stand still, so I waited, wondering whether he’d step on the larger steps. A good result!
How do I improve my street photography
Whatever your camera, there is some helpful advice I can pass on after learning some hard lessons.
Have a plan, even if it is, “I’m going to walk from place A to B”. Before I head out, I put together a list of interesting places, items, or a theme. When it has rained, I will always look for reflections in puddles. Either way I look for reflections in the windows of buildings. Lately, I have been interested in phone boxes and graffiti.
Be like the tourist, walk confidently, look and stare. Whilst everyone seems to be able to see the skulking photographer, camera clutched at chest height, no one pays the tourist attention… unless they get in your way, which they quite frequently do! Be bold, see your shot, stand firm and take it. If the subjects see you, wave and smile and walk away. Like a tourist!
Look around you. Simply taking random snapshots of ordinary people in normal life situations is not going to be rewarding for very long. Additionally, think about the viewer of your photograph too – what will they see from your image? As I walk around I look at the buildings and signs, graffiti, bill boards and giant posters. People in front of these can be a great juxtaposition. So look around you and mentally picture a person, or a group, as a foreground subject. Is it worth waiting a few minutes to see if anyone interesting turns up?
I hope this article gives a glimpse into life with a rangefinder camera which, for me at least, is the perfect camera.