leica m8

Are Rangefinders Just Hype or the Real Deal?

Leica M9 Titanium

Recently one of my readers named Reacher Rau suggested that I write a blog post on the pros and cons of using rangefinders. He told me how he always heard how awesome rangefinders such as Leicas were good for street photography, but never heard a discussion about the pros and the cons. Although I have to disclaim that I am not a rangefinder master, I still have enough experience using them so I feel that I can give a pretty unbiased opinion on both sides of the issue.

Leica M9 Money

Do you have Leica M9 envy? Then read this.

Leica M9 Money
Leica M9 = $

Let’s admit it–if you are a street photographer and not driving a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, you probably want the Leica M9. Trust me, I want it really badly too–it has been on my mind for quite a while. But honestly, can we justify purchasing a $6,900 camera just because the camera we have doesn’t pay an homage to Henri Cartier-Bresson and all of the other street photography masters? Mind that this is not taking into account the extra $2000 or so you need to purchase Leica lenses as well. So before you plunge yourself $6,900 deeper into debt, perhaps you should read this:

Leica M9

The Best Camera for Street Photography

This is the best camera for street photography.
This is the best camera for street photography.

Haha–tricked you. As there is no “best” paintbrush for a painter, there is no “best” camera when it comes to the street photographer. The camera is merely a tool, and there are different tools required for different situations and tasks at hand.

In street photography as well as general photography, photographers can sometimes become more obsessed about camera gear over actually taking photos. Photographers who are obsessed with camera gear often feel that their images are lacking due to their equipment, when their underdevelopment of photographic vision is the culprit.

Therefore many individuals fall into this trap and go on a never-ending chase in the hope that buying more expensive camera bodies and lenses will help them get better images. However most of them are quite dismayed when they realize that when they buy the newest and most expensive equipment, their images don’t get any better. Now don’t get me wrong—nice bodies and lenses can indeed give you images with better sharpness, resolution, and color, but they won’t give one intrinsically better photos.

When it comes to street photography, I like to believe that the best policy is to have the least obtrusive camera and lens as possible. The antithesis of an ideal camera for street photography would be a 1D Mark IV with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L lens attached to it.

Although my knowledge of cameras may be limited when compared to the 20+years plus photo veteran, I will try my best to outline the pros and cons of different cameras that street photographers use, including rangefinders, DSLRS, or compact “point and shoots”.

Rangefinders

Leica M9

Rangefinders are glorified for their ability to take images without a battery, being small and unobtrusive, quick in operation, and virtually silent in terms of a shutter sound. Rangefinders are fully manual, meaning that you have to manually focus and manually control exposure through aperture and shutter speed.

The most popular rangefinder (by far) when it comes to street photography is the Leica. It carries all of the fore mentioned characteristics and has a tradition for being built like a tank with superior optics. Shoot—the granddaddy of all street photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson) used a Leica for his entire career.

Taking photos with a rangefinder is much different than many other cameras because what you see through your viewfinder is not necessarily what your photos show up as. There are superimposed grid lines showing the borders of how much your camera will actually capture which many photographers claim that gives them a sense of freedom and seeing entire scenes.

However there are obviously cons with using a rangefinder camera. First of all, rangefinders are fully manual, meaning that one has to learn how to constantly adjust for the changing lighting in an environment with aperture and shutter speed, while modern digital cameras can do this automatically. Although many advocates of using fully-manual settings do not see this as a disadvantage, the aspiring street photographer may have a difficult time constantly adjusting his or her settings.

Furthermore if one decides to get a digital Leica rangefinder, they are most likely going to drop a huge chunk of change.

DSLRS

Canon 5D

It seems that nowadays many street photographers use digital SLRs (DSLRs) to take their photographs. DSLRs are massively popular due to their overall image quality, quick shutter speed, and their ability to interchange lenses, and relative affordability.

However the downside to DSLRs for street photography is that they are relatively large and clunky, and look intimidating to the average person. Furthermore due to the fact that it has a mirror inside, it makes a loud clicking (or clunking) sound when taking photos, which can disturb the serenity of a scene. There is nothing more apparent than the loud mirror-clacking of a DSLR on a quiet subway.

However that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to use a DSLR for street photography. I currently use a Canon 5D for my street photography and in order to make my camera more stealthy, I covered up my “Canon” and “5D” logo with black gaffers tape. I feel the advantage of this is that it converts my “professional-looking camera” into any old generic-looking camera. This makes the camera look less conspicuous in public, and makes people feel less anxious when you are taking photos of them.

Furthermore, DSLRS have great high-ISO capabilities, which make them ideal for shooting at night without having too much noise in the shots. The 5D is infamous for having creating clean images at even high-ISO’s. I never hesitate to shoot my camera at ISO 1600 or even 3200 at night when capturing scenes with faster shutter speeds.

Furthermore, another huge advantage of DSLRs is the ability to interchange one’s lenses. Therefore, one can switch up his or her lenses once in a while if you want to shoot at different focal lengths.

Generally for street photography, I recommend a 35mm “full frame equivalent” lens.

"The Corridor" - Shot by me with my Canon 5D in Prague.
“The Corridor” – Shot by me with my Canon 5D in Prague.

Point and Shoots

There are currently a handful of high-end point-and-shoots on the market that many street photographers use for shooting in the street. These cameras tout larger image sensors, which gives better image quality as well as cleaner images at higher-ISOs.

The advantages of point-and-shoot cameras for street photography is that they are small, have a virtually silent shutter, and that they are unobtrusive. However on the other hand, many point-and-shoot cameras have shutter-lag, which can make it difficult to capture moving people without getting them blurred out.

"Sunflower" - Shot by me and my 5-year old Canon Powershot SD600
“Sunflower” – Shot by me and my 5-year old Canon Powershot SD600

Micro 4/3rds

Micro 4/3rds cameras are also a fantastic option in street photography, because of their near instantaneous autofocus, small form factor and weight, as well as solid image quality. Their image sensors aren’t as good as Aps-c DSLR sized sensors, but they still make beautiful images you can’t complain about.

Learn more about street photography equipment

Check out my newest and up to date recommendations on cameras for street photography here: Recommended equipment for street photography >>