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.


"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!