The Benefits of Shooting Street Photography with a Leica (or rangefinder)

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Eric’s Note: This is article is part of an on-going weekly column by Japancamerahunter (Bellamy Hunt) where he talks about vintage cameras, film, and street photography. You can check out his part articles here

So, it looks like Eric has got himself a Leica M9, the lucky little so and so. So I thought that this would be as good a time as any to write a post about the perceived benefits of shooting with a rangefinder, or more specifically a Leica.

Now It has to be said that I am a big Leica fan, but that does not mean that they are the only rangefinders. I also have a Contax G2, a Konica Hexar and a Canon 7. They all have their differences, so good, some bad. What I am going to talk about in this is the general benefits that I have found using a rangefinder.

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

The perfect camera? Hold on a second

I think Eric has said before that there is no such thing as the perfect street camera, and everyone has a favorite camera. For a very long time I only shot a Nikon F3/T with a 50mm f1.2 lens. I was very happy with this combination and the camera in general, until the day I dropped it and it died. At this point I found myself without a regular camera. Several of my friends had been shooting with rangefinders for some time and they suggested that perhaps this would be a good opportunity to give it a try. So I did….but not without studying a little bit first. Luckily ‘ol Japancamerahunter can help you with that bit.

Right, time for some technical stuff for all you nerds out there.

A rangefinder camera is named so for the range finding mechanism that allows the photographer to measure the distance of the subject for accurate focusing.

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

The Viewfinder

The viewfinder that you find on a rangefinder camera is offset from the lens, which means that the image you see will not be the exact image that will be recorded. This is known as parallax error. At large distances it is barely noticeable, but at closer ranges it becomes more obvious. This means that a rangefinder is not the right camera for a macro photographer as the camera would not actually be pointing at the subject at extreme close up.

In contrast to this an SLR camera transmits images ‘through the lens’ so that the image you see is the image recorded. This makes them a good choice for macro photographers or people who use zoom lenses. The advantage that SLR’s have is that you never need an external viewfinder, you can use zoom lenses and you can automatically see the depth of field through the lens.

The Shutter

The real difference and, in my opinion, advantage to a rangefinder is the lack of moving mirror, which leads to a quitter shutter, and lack of what you could call shutter lag and ‘blackout’. This lends itself to a more organic, fluid approach to shooting, especially when you consider the viewfinder itself. Many rangefinders viewfinders have a 0.8X magnification and some even have a 1.1X view, which is a very ‘real’ field of view. This gives you the chance to shoot with both eyes open, which helps you to ‘frame’ the world.

The Size

The differences between shooting an SLR and a rangefinder on the street are marked. The most obvious being the size of the camera, especially with modern cameras. A ‘pro’ DSLR is often a hefty bit of kit, and when you start adding bits of glass to your bag, things get heavy very quickly. Even with only one lens, you are looking at something which has a fair bit of size to it.

Most rangefinders are pretty compact, and the lenses are certainly so. Leica rangefinders like the M9  (and film versions) are big enough to know they are there, but compact enough for you to be able to use them all day without getting a hernia.

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Unobtrusiveness

For me one of the main things about shooting a rangefinder camera is the unobtrusive nature of the camera. Although I love my SLR cameras, I find that when I am on the street, they garner a certain reaction from the people that I am shooting, and it is not always a positive one. Many people feel as if you are some kind of paparazzi when they see a giant black camera pointing at them. When I am walking through a crowd or a bustling street the rangefinder really comes into its own. You can blend into the crowd and move seamlessly without people reacting. And when they do it is usually with a look of surprise at seeing a type of camera that they are not used to.

Rangefinders are quiet, some of them so quiet that I have been able to shoot in places where I definitely should not have a camera. This is because of the lack of mirror, so there is no clatter as the mirror snaps up.

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

To sum it up

But what really sells the rangefinder camera for me (and hopefully for you) is the way that you can really shoot what you see. It is like you have a recording device attached to your eye, which is ideal when you are shooting street.

The lenses are very simple and very pure, there are no zoom lenses. Most rangefinders are still manual focus, this makes you really concentrate on how you focus. One of the terms you will learn with a rangefinder is ‘zone focusing’ where you learn how to judge distances based on your f-stop.

 Is a rangefinder right for you?

Using a rangefinder is a fairly big step for any photographer to take, but it is a first class way for you to improve your ability, especially in street photography. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest street photographers have used Leica camera’s, they are the perfect camera for the situation.

If I was taking pictures of big game in Africa, I would use a DSLR, if I was taking pictures of the great plains, I would use a field camera and if I am shooting on the street I use a rangefinder…simple as that.

Pictures shot with a Rangefinder by Japan Camera Hunter

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Street Photography with Leica by Bellamy Hunt

Looking for a vintage camera from Japan?

Let Japancamerahunter find your dream classic film camera or lens from Japan. You can shoot him a message at: http://www.japancamerahunter.com/contact/. Also make sure to check out his WebsiteTwitter and Flickr.

For those of you who shoot with a Leica or any other rangefinder, how do you prefer using it compared to any other camera? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! 

14 thoughts on “The Benefits of Shooting Street Photography with a Leica (or rangefinder)”

  1. As someone who shoots street with an SLR, I’d love to move into a rangefinder. I’d like to point out a few more of the advantages of the rangefinder viewfinder itself. One would be how bright it is. Even if you’re using slow glass, the viewfinder will stay bright no matter what lens you’re using. Another would be that since you’re not looking through the lens the whole scene in front of you is in focus. This can help you when you’re working with zone focusing. It will help you see how every subject within your field of view is interacting with each other so you will be less likely to miss that key movement or expression.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Daniel Högberg

      A little late to the discussion.. But I have found that I get better shots with a big dslr.. At least in Sweden people think you are a serious newspaper photographer just out doing your daily job And don’t really care.. With anything else then a dslr you become suspicious and weird and people get aggressive.. But thats in my strange Northern country..

  2. I’m gonna have to agree. If I am doing say sports, or wildlife, or even macro I would use my dslr.
    But for everyday shooting, landscape and street, the rangefinder is my ideal companion.

  3. I don’t have any rangefinder camera, but I use pocket film camera. Just like the famous Japanese street photog Daido Moriyama does.

  4. Jason St clair newman

    I use a M6 and love it for my street work. I can’t actually remember the last time I took out my DSLR (5dmk2) on the street.
    It does take a while to get used to the focusing and system but once you do it’s great, I’ve also found it’s slowed me down and consider my shots more, and in doing so I also become more alert to situations developing. I’m not a fan of machine gun photography, ie taking 400 shots in a session then spending hours over a computer.
    I use digital as well as it has it’s place.
    But using the leica has sparked something more, I recommend it to anyone interested.

  5. I think the RF film cameras are worth of trying. To me, RF cameras are very straightfoward and intuitive tools although some people may say that RF cameras are very primitive. But all that I need to consider is focusing & getting correct exposure condition. When it gets familiar with the cameras, focusing is not a big obstacle although I am still struggling with getting correct exposure. I also learned many things such as exposure and manual operation issues from my mistakes. After I used my RF cameras, I realized that I became more sensitive to the light condition around me.
    By the way, it is so sad that at least three photo labs which offered film development process around my place were out of their business last two years.

  6. I prefer rangefinders to SLRs for their precise focus for many applications It’s a shame that there aren’t any affordable digital rangefinders.

    1. The often overlooked Epson RD-1 is an M-mount rangefinder that will not cost the earth. It is not full frame, but a great camera nonetheless.

  7. I think the biggest benefit of a RF is its quiet shutter and ability to manually focus fast through the RF or using zone focussing.

    Size-wise, there are a lot of analog SLRs that are extremely small. Olympus OM models are much smaller than DSLRs today and I use an Minolta XD7 with prime lenses that is also very small, probably smaller than an M9 (which I think is pretty huge).

    The only RF I own is a black Minolta Hi-Matic 7SII, which is really small, has a nice and extremely sharp 40mm Rokkor lens but has a lousy viewfinder which makes it hard to focus fast. Also, it’s meter does not know how to deal with film faster than ISO800 which also annoys me. As I am a hardcore Minolta fan, I should probably get the CLE with the Rokkor 40mm…

    I wonder about the Konica Hexar being referred to as a RF camera? I thought it has auto-focus? Technically, it’d be a compact camera in RF design, but not a RF as such.

    1. Hio Tobias,
      The Hexar I am referring to is the Hexar RF, which has an M mount. It is a very capable RF camera, although a little heavy. The autowind is a nice touch.
      Thanks
      Bellamy

  8. Pingback: Shooting a Film Leica M6 vs Digital Leica M9 in Tokyo « Professional Photographer « Professional Photographer

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