How to Master Shooting Street Photography on a Leica or Rangefinder

Practical tips on how to master shooting with your Leica or rangefinder:

1. Focusing

Honestly 90% of mastering shooting with a Leica or a rangefinder is just mastering the focusing.

First of all, I recommend for all manual-focusing lenses, to get a lens with a focusing tab. I think the best lens for a Leica in street photography is the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH, as it is the sharpest lens, and the best ergonomic (with good balance).

bottom focusing tab
View of bottom of Leica MP, note the focusing tab.

With the focusing tab, you want to memorize the positions:

  • Default distance: Tab in the dead-center (which is 1.2 meters, which is roughly 2 arm lengths away)
  • “Close” distance: Tab is 45 degrees to the left (roughly .8 meters, roughly 1 arm length away)
  • “Far” distance: Tab is 45 degrees to the right (roughly 3 meters, further than 2 arm lengths away)
Tab in center distance. 1.2 meters, a good default distance for street photography
Tab in center distance. 1.2 meters, a good default distance for street photography
"Close" distance. Focusing tab 45 degrees to the left. If you're shooting street photography and your subject is close to you.
“Close” distance. Focusing tab 45 degrees to the left. If you’re shooting street photography and your subject is close to you.
"Far" focusing distance (roughly 3 meters). This is good if your subject is around 2-arm lengths away+ from you.
“Far” focusing distance (roughly 3 meters). This is good if your subject is around 2-arm lengths away+ from you.

Basically this concept is ‘zone focusing‘: the idea that you set your aperture to f/8-f/16, and you try to roughly get your subject in focus. Keep your ISO high, around 1600-3200.


2. ‘Set it and forget it!’

Good default distance is f/8, pre-focused at 1.2 meters
Good default distance is f/8, pre-focused at 1.2 meters

Honestly the best thing about shooting with a Leica M rangefinder isn’t that it is fancy or whatever; it is because it is the ultimate simple camera.

What do I mean by that? You ideally want the Leica to be a glorified ‘point and shoot camera’:

  • You don’t think before you shoot.
  • You don’t think while you shoot.
  • You don’t think about focusing (your fingers memorize the focusing distances)

Thus, you ideally want to just point and shoot in street photography with your Leica. You want to see something you find interesting that you want to photograph, and you just shoot without thinking!

If you are shooting with a digital Leica M camera, these are the settings I recommend:

  • Aperture: f/8
  • ISO: 1600 (or 3200 when it is darker)
  • Shutter: Aperture-priority (A) mode

Don’t get suckered into thinking of shooting everything ‘wide open’ at f/1.4 or f/2. Bokeh is overrated in street photography. Shooting wide-open is nice for portraits, but not for the streets.

If you shoot with a film Leica, pick up a copy of FILM NOTES (print or digital edition) to practice your zone-focusing settings when shooting street photography.

3. Shoot head-on with a 35mm lens

Leica MP, Zone Focusing at f8, shutter-speed 250. Shot during sunset.
Film Leica MP, Zone Focusing at f8, shutter-speed 250. Shot during sunset.

To practice making better street photographs on your Leica, practice getting close, and filling the frame with your subjects.

I generally think that 35mm is an ideal focal length when shooting with a Leica or rangefinder.

What the viewfinder lines look like when looking through a Leica
What the viewfinder lines look like when looking through a Leica

Why? Here is my rationale:

  • If you wear glasses, 35mm is the maximum that you can see the viewfinder framing lines). If you wear glasses, I don’t recommend shooting with a 28mm (Garry Winogrand did it, but you won’t be able to frame as accurately when shooting with glasses and a 28mm lens).
  • It is easier to fill the frame with a 35mm lens, and getting close enough to your subjects.

There are lots of great 35mm lenses for Leica M-mount:

  • Affordable option: 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar Voigtlander lens (sharp, small, compact, and based on a old Leica design. Very good, because it has a focusing tab).
  • Best option: Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens

I recommend shooting WITHOUT a lens hood, in order not to block your viewfinder. If you want to protect the front element of your lens, just buy a clear B+W UV filter.

4. Shooting with a neck strap and flash

ERIC KIM x Leica MP x HENRI NECK STRAP x SF 20 Flash
ERIC KIM x Leica MP x HENRI NECK STRAP x SF Flash

The best flash for Leica is the SF 24D flash (TTL compatible with digital). If you prefer to shoot fully-manual, shoot with the SF 20 flash.

I generally think that if you want to shoot street photography with a flash, get a neck strap (HENRI NECK STRAP). Why? You will just walk around, and always have your camera ready before you see interesting ‘decisive moments‘ in street photography.

tucson-contact-jpeg red lady hair
People think this picture is a candid photo. It is not. Portra 400. See photos with flash and without flash.

When shooting with a flash on a Leica, here are the benefits:

  • Ability to ALWAYS shoot zone-focusing at f/8. With flash, you will always have enough light. The downside of zone focusing on a Leica is that it doesn’t work when it gets too dark.
  • Increased contrast and saturation in your photos. When shooting on film, note how dramatically better the Kodak Portra 400 photos look like when you shoot with a flash, especially when you’re indoors.

If you shoot with a digital Leica, I recommend shooting with a flash in TTL (through the lens, automatic) settings.

If you shoot with a film Leica or rangefinder, just use manual settings with your flash:

Film Leica MP, f/8, flash at 1/8th power, 1.2 meters
Film Leica MP, f/8, flash at 1/8th power, 1.2 meters

Flash in street photography also works well at long distances. Note the photo of the guy on his phone; this was shot with my flash at full-power at night. It makes the photo looks far more interesting.

Leica MP, flash, Kodak Portra 400, flash on full power

5. Shooting street photography at night with a Leica or rangefinder

Leica MP, flash at 1.2 meters, Kodak Portra 400. First photo I shot.

The downside of shooting with a Leica-M camera at night is that if you aren’t using a flash, you must shoot everything wide open (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8). But this is slow and inefficient. Instead, I recommend shooting with a flash at night.

The second photo.

This is an advanced street photography tip:

Keep shooting until your subject notices you.

The benefit of shooting with a flash (it is very bright and they will notice you photographing them).

6. Shoot gestures: body gestures, or arm gestures

The reason why the Leica M rangefinder camera is the best camera for street photography is this:

It is the fastest camera for street photography

If you master focusing, zone focusing, and you can shoot quickly (without fear, trepidation), in theory:

You should never miss a decisive moment.

What happens quickly in street photography? Gestures. They come and go quickly. If you can react quickly with a Leica, you will never miss the decisive moment.

Hand gesture of woman.
Hand gesture of woman.

7. Always have your Leica on your neck

Long-distance flash photo, film Leica MP, Kodak Tri-X 400 film.
Long-distance flash photo, film Leica MP, Kodak Tri-X 400 film.

To be frank, the Leica isn’t a light camera. Sure, it is lighter than a DSLR with a zoom lens, but still– the Leica has a decent weight and heft to it.

Flash photo I shot while chatting up a gentleman in Paris, catching his laughing gesture.
Flash photo I shot while chatting up a gentleman in Paris, catching his laughing gesture.

It is simple: the more often you carry your camera on your neck, the more decisive moments you will witness, and the more quickly you can react and shoot it.

The principle is simple:

Whenever you leave the house, always carry your Leica or camera around your neck.

I had the idea:

Rappers always wear heavy gold chains; why can’t we do the same in street photography?

Wear your camera like a necklace or a bracelet. Best neck strap is HENRI NECK STRAP, and best wrist strap is HENRI WRIST STRAP.

So as an experiment:

For an entire month, always wear your camera around your neck when you’re out of the house.

Wear your camera around your neck when you’re walking around the block, commuting to work, or just out on the streets. You will probably witness more interesting street photography opportunities.

Conclusion

Leica M9, 35mm lens, flash. Tokyo, 2011
Leica M9, 35mm lens, flash. Tokyo, 2011

If you’re interested in shooting street photography with a Leica or rangefinder, test it out first.

Leica M8.2, shot on RAW, processed with Eric Kim PRESETS
Leica M8.2, shot on RAW, processed with Eric Kim PRESETS

You can buy a cheaper used Leica M8, Leica M9 (if you want to shoot digital) for street photography. What you want to do is experience the rangefinder system in street photography; don’t get a Leica M rangefinder for the sake of it.

If you got swole pockets and want the best, the Leica M10 is the best digital rangefinder for street photography.

The best ‘everyday’ street photography camera is RICOH GR II.

Laughing lady. NYC, 2016
Laughing Lady, NYC. RICOH GR II in Macro mode.

But above all, mastering street photography is more important than mastering your gear. Check out the STREET PHOTOGRAPHY STARTER KIT as a strong foundation, but ultimately, you must shoot more.

Digital Leica or Film Leica?

Film Leica MP

For myself personally, I have no interest in buying another new digital Leica.

Why? Too expensive, and the value of digital Leica’s go down so quickly. Probably better to buy used digital Leica cameras.

In terms of money-value, better to buy a film Leica instead of a digital Leica. Why? It will hold the value longer, and the aesthetics of film will always look superior to the aesthetics of digital photography.

Best value film Leica is the Leica M6, but for a film Leica that will last you for your entire life, get the film Leica MP (I recommend just buying it used; I got mine from my buddy Bellamy Hunt from japancamerahunter.com)

ALL DAY STREET

Street photography is a way of life. Shoot all-day, everyday.

ERIC

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