When I first got my feet wet in street photography and heard of Leica cameras, I couldn’t quite understand the hype surrounding it. Sure it looked like a cool and retro old-school camera, but why the heavy pricetag? After doing my homework, it seemed like everyone who owned one would rave and praise it. In Chris Week’s street photography documentary, “Documenting the Human Condition” he highly encourages everyone to try shooting with a rangefinder and noticed that the “haters” have never shot with Leica’s themselves. This piqued my interest, however I never even dreamed that I would have the chance to shoot with a Leica.
Fast-forward a few years. After a wonderful series of big breaks and pure luck, I was given the opportunity to shoot with the Leica M9 in the streets of Paris. When I found out the news, my jaw dropped to the floor and I danced around like a madman. However at the same time, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I have always shot most of my street photography with a DSLR before, but soon started to find its limitations of being far too big, heavy, and conspicuous. Although I would still get great images, I would be tired lugging the camera around all day and when I pointed my DSLR people would assume that I was the paparazzi. It just didn’t feel right.
I remember the first photo that I took with the Leica M9 and the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux when I was in Paris. I just got off the train from the airport, and I saw a lovely looking old lady with a diagonal shadow cascading over her shoulder. I knew I had to capture the moment, and I edged closely to her, crouched down, and took a photo extremely closely to her. I heard the shutter go off—smooth like butter. The lady looked back at me and smiled. She wasn’t afraid of my camera at all—and I captured the image I wanted. It just felt right.
Armed with the Leica M9 on the streets of Paris, I felt liberated. I could roam the city, admire the beautiful architecture, stumble upon hidden alleyways, while capturing all the fascinating people. Keeping my 35mm f/1.4 Summilux prefocused at 1.2 meters and at f/8 helped me stay on top of my toes and ready to capture the decisive moment whenever it folded right before my eyes. When shooting with a DSLR, I would be restricted to only what I saw through the lens. However with the Leica M9, the large and bright viewfinder showed a more complete image of the scene that was right in front of me. Therefore the second that someone would be entering the frame, I would get nearly half a second more time to spot them coming and capture them.
The Leica M9 really helped me stay stealthy and low-key on the streets when I wanted to. One day I was walking around the Luxemborg gardens in Paris and I suddenly saw two lovers on the corner of the street, ready to embrace. I knew I had only half a second to capture this moment. The woman threw her arms around her boyfriend’s shoulders, and both of them closed their eyes before they were about to kiss and click—I got the shot. Shutter as smooth as butter. They didn’t notice me taking the photo and in a split second I was gone.
When approaching most of the local Parisians and asking to take their photo, most of them looked back at me—and smiled at the Asian tourist with an old-looking camera strapped around my shoulders. They didn’t see me as a paparazzi or threatening, and felt very comfortable about me taking their images. I am sure this experience would have been far different if I had a hulking DSLR pointed to their face almost like a gun.
Roaming the streets of Paris and just shooting street photography made me feel liberated like a bird flying wherever it wanted to go. I had no restraints—nothing holding me back. I didn’t have to worry about my job, my stresses, my struggles. My only mission was to capture the beauty of Paris and nothing else. I skipped all the touristy crap (the Eiffel tower and Notre Dame are cliché as hell) and went off the beaten path. I tried my best to speak my broken French to the locals, who greeted me warmly and showed me the best places to take photos. The fact that my Leica was so light and comfortable, it felt like an extension of my body—rather than something that was holding me down.
Many people often ask me how people react when I shoot them in Paris. Well first of all, I notice that most Parisians in the inner-city are pretty grumpy people. Most of them frown and seem generally annoyed when I take their photos. However there were very few people who seemed to care enough to approach me and say anything about it. This is the advantage of looking like an Asian tourist.
One of my most memorable memories of shooting street photography in Paris was when I went out with Charlie Kirk, a Japanese street photographer who shoots with a Leica and a flash. He lent me his flash for one night, and I had a ton of fun on the streets and captured fascinating images. One of my most memorable images was of one young girl who had her other friend in a headlock (playing around) in the middle of the night near a lamp post. I saw a potential photography moment, and slowly circled around them to get in front of them. Then I crouched down on one knee, armed my flash with my left hand elevated to the top left, and turned my Leica vertically and snapped the photo. Afterwards the girls went hysterical—and started laughing and obviously looked embarrassed. I told them I would make them famous, and they kept giggling as we walked away.
It is really hard to take a bad photo when in Paris, but even more difficult to take a truly unique and powerful image there. However as much as I loved shooting street photography there, it was the people that I met and interacted with was the most memorable. I am so glad that I was able to lose my Leica virginity there, as the camera really helped me capture all the decisive moments that made the city special for myself. Everyone’s first time shooting with a Leica is different, but remember what they say: you never forget your first time ;)
More of my favorite photos from Paris:
Got any more questions about street photography in Paris or the Leica M9? Make sure to leave a comment below!