The “Best Settings” and How to Use The Leica M9 for Street Photography

After traveling and having done many workshops on street photography, I have met many Leica M9/rangefinder users who have had difficulty configuring their camera for shooting on the streets. There are lots of misconceptions out there, which make things confusing for people. Therefore here is some advice I have for Leica m9 users (or Fuji x100 or rangefinder users) when shooting street photography. (Note that for the original video, the audio gets cut out at 16 minutes, so I edited the video down). 

Check out the video below, and I have things written in more detail below!

1. Crank up the iso

Most Leica m9 owners (and other photographers) are scared to raise their iso. They ask, “isn’t high iso really grainy?”

My statement is that I think in street photography, grain is beautiful in black and white and should be embraced.

My suggestion is to keep your iso at around 800-1600 during the day and one it starts getting dark, crank it up to iso 2500. The reason I say this is because in street photography, you need a fast shutter speed. Things happen quickly, and people move quickly as well. If you want a sharp image, you will need a high iso and shutter speed. Rule of thumb, I try to keep my shutter speed at least 250ths of a second to avoid blurry subjects.

2. Zone focus

Leicas are engineered to zone focus when shooting street photography on the streets. You will see there is a very clear focusing scale on the lens barrel (if you have Leica glass) and a depth-of-field scale.

I recommend shooting at f/8-f/16 to get a nice depth of field (to get as much in your scene as in focus). Prefocus your lens dead center (1.2 meters) or keep it at 3 meters if you prefer to shoot far away.

More information about zone focusing here.

3. Use a 35mm or 28mm lens

Sure Henri cartier-Bresson shot with a 50mm lens but I don’t recommend the focal length. Why? A friend recently made a point that interested me. Henri cartier-Bresson was shooting in the mid 20th century, where streets weren’t as narrow or crowded as nowadays. Therefore a 50mm would have probably served him pretty well. However nowadays if you live in the city, things are always jam packed. I would state that the 35mm is equivalent today to the 50mm hcb used in his time.

A 35mm is a great focal length for street photography is because it is somewhat wide (to allow you to capture more in the scene, but not too wide). It also mimics the focal length your eye naturally sees (the scene in front of you as well to the periphery).

Also shooting anything closer than a 35mm means that you have far less depth of field when shooting street photography. It make zone focusing far more difficult. I also highly recommend against people shooting street photography wide-open, as you waste precious time to capture the decisive moment. Your camera should be set up to simply make it a point and shoot.

A 28mm lens is even greater for zone focusing, because you get a much deeper depth of field. A 28mm is a great focal length, but note you have to get far closer to your subject (if shooting single people). However it makes a better multi-subject lens. Anything wider than a 28mm is not practical for street photography with a Leica, as the parallax error in using an external finder makes shooting subjects close very difficult.

4. Turn off your LCD screen

Not only will turning off your LCD screen save you precious battery life (I can shoot an entire day on a battery) but it will prevent you from chimping when shooting street photography. As previously discussed, chimping is a horrible habit to have in street photography, as you can miss the decisive moment when out shooting in the streets.

5. Shoot with black and white preview

Brett (a Leica akademie instructor in London) taught me a cool trick when I met him in Paris for the Leica magnum event. Turn your image file to dng + jpg basic and set your color to black and white, and high contrast.

When you are sitting in a cafe or eating lunch after a bit of shooting, you can review what your shots look like (in black and white if you prefer it).

6. Learn your focusing distances

Generally in street photography there are two distances you will take photos of people. Either 1.2 meters (roughly two arm lengths apart) or 3 meters away (around half a room away).

Focus by feel. If your left finger is on the focusing tab, having it dead center will be 1.2 meters. Having it rotated 45 degrees to the right will be roughly 3 meters. Assuming you are zone focusing, you should nail your focus almost every single time.

7. Shoot compressed

You will never blow up a street photograph to ridiculous proportions. Keep your files compressed and save room on your hard drive or memory card.

Note that although this how-to guide is more Leica specific, you can also use it for other cameras as well (especially when it comes to zone focusing and setting your iso high!)

Leica M9 or rangefinder users- what other advice would you give? Share them in the comments below!