Leica Rangefinder for Street Photography – Good Things Come In Small Packages

"Morning Ashram" - Adam Mareli (Leica M9, 75mm Summicron)

Eric’s Note: For this guest blog post, I am honored to have Adam Marelli talk about his experiences shooting with a Leica M9/M6 for street photography. This blog post will be especially helpful for those of you who currently shoot with a DSLR or are currently thinking about making the jump to a rangefinder. Make sure to read more to see his inspirational images and great thoughts on the pros of using a Leica rangefinder for street photography.

Intro

"Cobra Boy" - Adam Mareli (Leica M9, 28mm Elmarit)
"Cobra Boy" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 28mm Elmarit)

As a photographer and a sculptor, the only thing more important than inspiration is a good quality tool. When I picked up a Leica for the first time, it felt like it was built for street work. Small, solid, and matte black, it fit perfectly in one hand. Within a few weeks and a dozen rolls of film, I discovered that in order to use a Leica properly I needed to understand its strengths and weaknesses, otherwise I would never realize the full potential of its rangefinder design.

When I was considering the switch from a medium format Hasselblad to a 35mm rangefinder, the goal was to find a compact, high quality alternative that would be ideal for travel. Based on a quirky design from the 1930’s, Leica rangefinders has always been the camera of choice for artists. Originally their cameras were popular among the Surrealist artists who were looking for an alternative to large format cameras and old movie cameras. I figured why not give it a try.

Why Use A Leica

It is Discreet

"Meditation" - Adam Mareli (Leica M9, 28mm Elmarit)
"Meditation" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 28mm Elmarit)

If you are running from a bear in the woods, you only need to be faster than the guy next to you. This is how I see street photography. Every major city around the world is littered with photographers. In order to catch candid moments, I don’t need to be invisible, I just have to be less obvious than the people around me. There are two distinct advantages of a Leica rangefinder over an SLR or a pocket camera. The Leica is about half of the size of any decent SLR, so most people think its an antique. And while a pocket camera is smaller, it has to be awkwardly held two feet in front of your face. When I finished university I wanted everyone to know I was a photographer. But once I started to travel more, I realized that its better if everyone thinks I am an amateur. They act more natural and don’t pay nearly as much attention to my “Old fashion” camera.” Recently a photographer friend of mine was shooting at the United Nations, here in New York, and he said “Pulling out his Nikon D700 felt like a rifle.” He was with another photographer using a Leica M9 and for the first time realized the advantage of not being the biggest guy in the room.

You Have Both Eyes Open

"Missing A Generation" - Adam Mareli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)
"Missing A Generation" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)

A rangefinder camera is designed for your right eye. The rest of your face is not behind the camera. Most of your face is exposed. When I run into a situation where I am talking to a person while shooting, they can see my face, expressions, and my mouth. Instead of moving the camera away from my face, the work flow is uninterrupted. With a rangefinder, you are free to talk to your subjects, make them smile, and share a moment all while taking pictures. When I work in countries where I do not speak the language, like India, if I could not smile at people to make them feel comfortable, I don’t think some of the pictures would be possible.

You Can Focus in Low Light

"Gesti" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 35mm Summicron)
"Gesti" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 35mm Summicron)

Photographing on the street is rarely ideal. Some of the best pictures happen before sun rise, after sun set, or in the dark interiors. The viewfinder of a Leica is offset from the lens, so you watch life without having to look through the lens. This allows for the brightest viewfinder possible. During the day this is not terribly important, but auto focus systems are notoriously slow in the dark. They either send out a terrible orange beam that says “Hey I’m taking a picture,” or they move in and out searching for focus. Leica uses a split image system which allows for accurate focus in near black conditions. All of the responsibility of a properly focused image is on the photographer, where it should be.

You Can Watch the Full Scene

"Yawn" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)
"Yawn" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)

When I use an DSLR, it feels like a horse wearing blinders. DSLRs only allow the photographer to see exactly what the lens is seeing. Before shooting a Leica, I did not understand why anyone would want to see more than the actual image capture. With a Leica, there are frame lines inside of the view finder that outline the image which will be taken. When lenses are changed the frame lines change accordingly. Using a 50mm lens, for example, there is ample space around the frame lines. Its possible to watch a scene develop and select a picture from a larger composition. I believe this has helped the composition of my images tremendously because I can see alternate compositions without moving the camera around. Initially it can be a little disorienting seeing more of a scene, but after a while, it makes returning to a DSLR nearly impossible.

You See the Human Scale

"Side By Side" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)
"Side By Side" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)

In comparison to the DSLR line up, Leica’s lens options might seem a bit limited. The longest rangefinder lens Leica makes is a 135mm, hardly a telephoto by Nikon or Canon standards. They do not make a fish eye and they only make one marco lens. The strength of the Leica line up is between 18mm and 90mm’s. What seems like a short coming is really just a preference. The majority of my street work focuses on people. I don’t shoot tiny insects or photograph from helicopters. I could reach out and touch most of the people in my pictures. This is where Leica is at its finest. From three feet to thirty feet is where it all happens. Using a Leica is not much different than seeing with your own eyes. If I need to get out a magnified glass or a pair of binoculars to see a subject, its no longer street work, it feels more like a science project. Its encourages us to get close, be a part of the action. I’ve always said, “If I had to take one lens around the world, all I need is one fast 35mm lens.”

How About Film and Digital?

"Bucket Bath" - Adam Marelli (75mm APO-Summicron)
"Bucket Bath" - Adam Marelli (75mm APO-Summicron)

Its not clear what will become of film photography. Last year was the first time in over a two decades where there was an increase in film sales. Film may not be around forever, but I hope it stays. I still prefer to shoot all of my black and white work in film and the color profile of Fuji Provia 100F still has me smitten. Sure any digital image can be adjusted to look like a film image, but the artist side of me enjoys the physical nature of film and its distinct strengths. The difference between shooting a digital M9 and an film M6 is almost nonexistent. Unlike the design changes that affected SLRs, Leica rangefinders shoot exactly the same whether they are film or digital. The shutter speed, aperture and shutter release are all in the same place. It makes going between the two cameras easy and fun.

It Has Properly Placed Controls

"Refusing To Bathe" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)
"Refusing To Bathe" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 90mm Summicron)

One thing that I never liked about DSLR’s, even though I use a 5D on occasion, is the placement of the controls. I enjoy when tools follow a consistent logic. The aperture and focus are functions of the lens, while the shutter speed is a function of the camera. By placing all of the functions of a camera at the fingertips of the right hand, something gets lost. The relationship of the parts on a camera starts to blend into one mass of computer thinking. Spinning a dial on the camera to change focus zones or aperture are features that are not necessary for street work. Some people swear by these functions, but if you like straightforward mechanics the Leica works wonderfully. Its probably the same reason that people still buy manual transmission cars. They don’t buy them for fuel efficiency, they prefer to make manual decisions.

Remember, Advice is for Politicians

"Sitting" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 75mm APO-Summicron)
"Sitting" - Adam Marelli (Leica M9, 75mm APO-Summicron)

Choosing a camera should be a personal decision. There are top of the line professionals who work in every format and every camera system. What works for one person may not work for you. I write about photography to share the lessons I have learned over the years through trial and error. It would only be considered advice, if you decide to take it. But each photographers needs, preferences, and inspiration are all different. Ultimately the experience of shooting on the street will be rewarding if you are excited to go outside and work.

About Adam Marelli

When he’s not being harassed by customs agents, Adam Marelli lives in New York City. He works as an artist, photographer, and architectural consultant, regularly contributing to the New York Times. He originally found Leica as a tool for capturing inspiration on the road, but photography now occupies a major part of work and documentation. During 2011, he will be working in Southern India and Tanna, a tiny island in the South Pacific, where he is building and documenting slum redevelopment projects and an artist residency. Packed in a small carry on, will be a Leica M9 and M6 to report on his findings.

You can read more about Adam’s travels on his site: www.adammarelliphoto.com

So have you ever made the leap from a DSLR or any other camera to Leica or any other rangefinder? Did you regret it or love it? Share your stories by leaving a comment below!

36 thoughts on “Leica Rangefinder for Street Photography – Good Things Come In Small Packages”

  1. similar feeling! i don’t like to say i switched from my hassy 500c to the leica m9/m6 because i still use both and the hassy is always my first love, but i have to say that since moving to the a rangefinder, it’s a new ball game altogether! i love the new challenges that comes with the leica and it’s size is perfect to travel around compared to the beast of a hassy, each serves it’s own purposes and has its pros and cons, but i’m really starting to fall in love with the leicas! I agree with what Adam said about film, at the end of the day film renders colours, textures and mood like no other :)

  2. I made the jump from SLR to range-finder about a year ago. After playing around with a Canonet 28 for a few weeks, I bought a second hand M8. Little did I know, that would be the last time I ever used my SLR.
    “The M series feels just right” -This might sound like a cliché statement, but it’s so true. Like Adam, I feel it has exactly what I need, exactly where I need it.
    It wasn’t long after I bought the M8 that I “part-exchanged” it for an M9 -Something you should be prepared for if you are thinking of buying an M8.

  3. Although i am a student i had a nice canon set-up as i had relative who worked in canon. I sold all my lenses,body and flash to fund for the leica m9 and a 35mm lens. The lightness and the portability of the leica really becomes useful and you as a photographer starts to bond with the camera. I have not looked back ever since but sometimes when it rains it would be nice to know that your expensive camera and lens was weather proof.

  4. It’s still a dream far away for me to own a Leica. I hope I will some day.
    After buying an Olympus 35 SP rangefinder I’m starting to feel the magic of a rangefinder.
    I love looking through the viewfinder and I never thought focusing with a rangefinder was so easy. And indeed, people care less of you if you use a camera like this instead of an SLR.
    Is it weird to say that I love the “click” of the shutter? :)

  5. Ironically, I have shot with a Leica all my adult life until I switched to digital. My trusted and true body is still my M3 with a 35mm lens.

  6. I agree 100% with Adam about chosing to switch from one tool to another according to the kind of photography you do. I have been thinking about getting a rangefinder for about 10 years, and in spite of the fact that a lot of them, including leicas, are beautiful photographic tools and objects to have your hands on, it just seems that now is still not the time. Beautiful photos illustrating the interview and good thoughts about the nature of the SP.
    Happy shooting.

  7. As a Leica user for over 50 years I have to agree & disagree.Leica`s are OK when you see something that is stationary or moving slow.I do Street Photography & always bring a least one digital Leica along with me,& they never fail to give me the photo I`am using it for.But it`s always a scene type photo(street musicians,people that are static or just walking slowly,subway shots,etc,etc).The quality is excellent in all their German made cameras,the others made by Panasonic(I had the D-Lux5 & V-Lux2) were to small for my liking.They were Point & Shoot cameras,I re-gifted each within a month of purchasing them.My main Street Photography is done with the Nikon D7000/20mm nikkor lens & D90/18 to 105 zoom,both at ISO 400.Each camera has an extra battery pack attached & are both shot in Program Mode.For color a quick twist of the top dial & I`am in “Auto” color.Nikons are fast & give a very good quality picture.You are welcome to see my FB page if your interested.I`am a true Leica Fan,but after 61 years of Photography I refuse to bow at the altar of an over priced camera company.

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  9. Charles – you are the first person I have read or met who has actually said Nikon DSLR is preferred over Leica (OMG – thats sacrilege isnt it!). For someone who cannot afford a $5000 digital rangefinder I would reserve my comments to “i am glad you say what you say, atleast I can now stop complaining if i had more money” .. lol

    happy to connect with you on FB. I am a Nikon guy too!

  10. Great article. I’m from a dslr background however owned a Leica m6 briefly. I love the convenience and struggled to feel as comfortable with the big sale for street work after trying the rangefinder, however I really enjoyed using the Ricoh GRD3 and found the zone focusing and tiny body even more suitable for street photography.

  11. Since I own a M3 and a M6, I don’t touch my DSLR anymore, except for some fast jobs. The best way to experience the full strenght of a M camera is to use hyperfocal, especially for street photography. There is no faster way to take a picture. You aim, you shoot (after you have preset the speed and the aperture). I encourage every street photographer to discover and learn the hyperfocal and to use it all the time.

    More, I love the silent shutter of the M camera, and the feeling of having a real solid body that you can drop without breaking it. Il love the simplicity of the 3 basic actions: aperture, speed and focus… that drops to 2 actions only with the hyperfocal: aperture and speed. I owned a lot of bodys, and some quite complicated, but the only ones I will keep and use all my life are my 2 M’s.

    1. I couln’t agree with you more. I have a M2 & M3. After I used these cameras, I sold my D90. Regarding my interest in photography, I rarely used my D90. I never worry about any shutter lag of digital camera. I think Leica M4 has most silent shutter sound(my opinion) among Leica M bodies (film camera). But I like my M2 & M3. There are joy of using these M cameras in the street outthere. People will discover this excitement.
      These film RF cameras have just simple and basic function for photography. It is very intuitive and prompt. On the other hand, current DSLR/digital cameras have too much functions.

  12. I think what I like best about this is the right eye viewfinder.. so that your entire face isn’t covered and you can interact… you can watch the scene, judge scale.. most of the benefits seem to be based on that. I think I am with Jaap though on finding something cheaper mostly because I can’t do anything else but. If I could have a Leica without selling a couple cars though.. I would. Guy’s mention of the Leica’s being sturdy and dropping them without breaking.. that is reassuring and scary at the same time.

  13. I switched from Nikon to the Epson R-D1 over a year ago, which led to my current affair with the M8. It is not a perfect camera, but exactly what I have always wanted. The perspective of this article really mirrors my feelings about using an RF!

  14. Inspiring article! I like all parts of the Leica cameras except its viewfinders. I always criticize Leica being conservative on the viewfinder design but Adam Marelli explained the reason with simple English.

  15. Great article! I have recently become quite serious about street photography and love using a Voigtlander Bessa R2a for all of the reasons you describe. As a cheapish alternative to a Leica so far it has produced some lovely pictures. It is much more discreet than my 50D and sometimes gets some admiring looks as it’s a pretty cool looking camera.

    I’ve been experimenting with different types of film and wonder what colour film people would recommend for the street. I like the contrasty look of Velvia for some shots but when the light is very bright people tend to have a very sun-tanned complexion. Haven’t tried Provia yet. Is it similar but with less saturation? I have read that a general purpose film such as Superia 400 is ideal and have a roll of that in my camera at the moment. Also the pro lab I use to process and scan say that reversal film scans better than transparency. Any thoughts on this? Getting back into film has it’s own complications…haha

  16. Adam,

    “Both eyes open…” Thank you for the reminder. Years ago I used a Leica M. But I’ve been using SLRs and now DSLRs for so long, I’d forgotten that I used to shoot with both eyes. Just got an X100 and am finding the frame in the optical viewfinder bright enough to keep my left eye open!

  17. It is one of life’s ironies that the best tool to capture the raw, gritty and unrehearsed images so loved by fans of street photography is a +10,000 tool! I’m not disputing the wisdom of the recommendation- the photographs speak for themselves, simply sayin’!

    1. An old M3 or M6 costs 1 000 $. It’s for a lifetime. Show me one digital camera that will last so long… Digital is conceived to be put in the garbage within 5 years…. I would not buy the M9 for that reason. But with an old film body and a scanner, your in business for a while !

      1. I shoot with a D60 not to be confused with the latest 60D and that beats your comment right there. The best digital shutter as far as noise is concerned. Instead of talking leicas the talk could be just about RF cameras, either cheap or overpriced. Seems that their first quality is to be discreet and it should remain at that. And judging most of the time by some poor quality pictures that people take with leicas seeing their portfolios, they should spend more time at something else, like knowing what they are looking for out there, and less money on cameras that don’t empower them unlike what they think of them.
        Cheers & Happy shooting.

        1. I must add that I was talking in general and not so much in view of your work.
          Anyone should look at his own work and be honest about it in order to get better work done, not regarding the use of a tool that he/she sees as more fitted for the task.
          If Life can be a demanding B.tch! SP is a tougher one to get your hands on.
          Happy shooting!

        2. Agree. I’ve seen garbage taken with $10k Leicas and gorgeous images from a $20 Holga… Having a Leica won’t help if you have “no eye” LOL

  18. Great article and comments above!

    Whilst I cannot afford a Leica at this time, I have ordered and now waiting on a delivery of an old 1950’s FED2. It will be good to go back to film again as it has been about 10 years. I also cannot wait to experience the rangefinder experience and making more of my shots count.

  19. Next best thing when not having the funds for an M9 is to put a used Leica lens on an Olympus PEN with an adapter. Not the same but still good.

  20. does anyone have any experience of using the Leica M 135mm F3.4 Apo Telyt with the Leica M9? I have an M9 and I hear that the viewfinder will not work correctly with this lens. I’d appreciate any help or advice. Thanks. Lance B.

  21. Many people who long to own a Leica M fail to see the affordability of older film Leica rangefinders.

    I recently saw a used M4P rated at “8” on the used scale (“10” = like new) listed for $755US. I also saw a 50mm f/2.8 Elmar rated at “9” for $500US and a 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit “9” rated for $950US, all at reputable Leica dealers (not on eBay). These cameras and lenses are out there for the taking – you just have to look for them.

    No, the M4P does not have a built in meter – $230US for a Sekonic hand meter solves that issue. No, the M4P is not digital – which is a plus IMHO. It also does not cost $8000US like the Leica M9P.

    If a person really wants to own a Leica M, it can be done without spending a king’s ransom. Used M6 bodies – that have built-in meters – can be found in the $1000 to $1500US range, which is much less costly than many “prosumer” digital cameras.

    Get a quality used M4P or M6 and a lens to go with it. Get a brick of Kodak Tri-X or some color print film. You won’t regret it.

  22. Pingback: Interview with Adam Marelli about His Journey to the Remote Island of Tanna — Eric Kim Street Photography

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  24. Wonder if anyone compared film SLRs with Leica M’s? For example, Olympus’ OM SLRs are as small and discreet as Leica M’s, and they cost next to nothing in comparison.

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  26. hi,

    Ive just bought a olympus 35 SP off ebay, and really enjoyed taking my time with the photography. Most of it was spent looking for a suitable shot, rather than snapping away. the quality and feel of the pics was great, interesting colour and grain. Its small too.

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