Man — I love rangefinder cameras! Even though they of course have their own shortcomings, I generally find them much more intuitive than an SLR, not to mention TLR cameras. Why? I’ll get into that in a moment. But first, I’d like to say few words as a prologue.
I shoot with a Leica M6, which is the best camera I’ve ever owned. As a Leica guy, I feel like I always have to be defending myself and explaining that a camera like that is not just for showing off. (That’s just a bonus.) There is actually a long list of legit reasons why anyone would choose to shoot with a Leica. This article aims to illuminate that a bit.
I find Leica philosophy fascinating. Looking at the camera, you’d never know just how much of clever design and engineering decisions has gone into it. It looks simple and many of us have no idea why exactly Leica shooters praise them so much.
I was planning to name this article “How to shoot with a Leica” but I suppose most information on this article can be applied to rangefinder shooting in general. I’ve had my share of Canonets and Yashica Electros, and from that experience I can say that they are not the same as shooting with a Leica. The same principles can be applied to Canonets and other rangefinders as well, but generally I’ll be writing specifically from a Leica shooter’s point of view. Back in the day, I actually started with Canonets but gravitated towards Leicas pretty shortly. I was into the idea of a rangefinder but I needed one that would properly work. There are many rangefinder models out there but if you need one that is suitable for some serious shooting, it kind of narrows the options down quite considerably. In that situation, you’re already looking at the Leica, Bessa (etc.) territory.
The perfect viewfinder
Alright, let’s get to the actual chase! So why is a Leica such a good shooter’s camera? In my opinion it all boils down to the viewfinder. Doesn’t sound like a big of a deal but trust me, it’ll get interesting. First of all it’s brighter than anything in the universe and it’s located right at the corner of the camera — not in the center as in SLR’s. You’ve probably heard Leica proponents talking about the viewfinder placement and brightness to the death, but to really appreciate the benefits, let’s dive into the matter a bit deeper.
So, as mentioned, rangefinders have the viewfinder window located in the top left corner of the camera body, which enables you to keep your other eye open while you shoot. This is somewhat harder, if not possible to do with an SLR. It also enables to advance the film without having to take the camera away from your eye.
When you use your right eye to shoot, the camera is off-set from your face quite enough, which enables you to advance the film without having to remove the camera from your eye between shots. Film lever is located at the far right side of the camera. Shooting with your right eye creates plenty of distance between your face and the lever, that you can easily advance the film while still looking from the viewfinder at the same time.
With an SLR, even if you’d shoot with your right eye, there’s not enough room to advance the film without first putting some distance between your face and the camera. Basically you’ll be jerking the camera in and away from you eye between each shot. Many of Leica’s hidden features are genius, but less apparent. Small details like these, all of them put together, enables you to keep your focus on your subject without distractions or interruptions. Cameras should not get in the way. It should be just an extension to your body. It’s a cliche, but for a reason.
Leica’s perfect light meter design
Leica isn’t a camera that have just been thrown together. People who made it, have actually put some thought into it with specific goals in mind. Have you ever wondered why they’ve been making practically the same camera for something like 70 years and counting? Why change something that is perfect? Even Leica’s light meters have been designed in a genius way that doesn’t take your attention away from the subject. There’s only couple of red led arrows to indicate whether you need more or less light. It isn’t a typical needle that you have to actually look at directly. Arrow is a very strong and clear icon. If the arrow points left, it means turn the aperture ring to the left, and vice versa. You don’t have to take you eye away from the subject, because you can clearly see the big red arrow with just a corner of your eye. Granted, it is a skill that you’ll have to learn and get used to. In the beginning I practically stared at the meter reading before realising it can be read with the corner of the eye, while concentrating on the subject. It is almost like someone whispering the correct settings. A match needle meter reading is more like reading a text, that requires more of your attention than a person whispering the directions. All these design decisions are made in order to avoid any distractions. They may seem strange at first, but after a while you will realise why they’re there.
Another important thing to mention about the Leica light meter, is that if you can turn the camera completely light meter free (much like any Leica prior to M5) if you take the battery out. I sometimes enjoy tremendously shooting without a meter. If you have a match needle meter, similar to Olympus OM-1 (a camera that I also enjoy a lot) it will have the needle always visible. You can take the battery out, but the needle will still bounce around in the corner of the viewfinder with it’s indicator chart included. Leica light meter vanishes completely, because there’s no chart or a needle.
While I’m at the topic of light meters, a non-illuminated match needle meter, typical in most old cameras, is sometimes impossible to read, if it happens to be laid over a dark background. It may not sound like a big deal, but small annoyances like that will compromise your attention. Ideally the shooting situation should be completely hassle-free. Leica’s red led arrows are practically always clearly visible, no matter what the scene is. Genius.
They say Leicas are so discreet that they’ll become invisible to the subject. I actually think Leica can become invisible to the photographer instead. It is a camera that you’re able to forget while you’re shooting. It becomes an extension to your body and your second nature. This is what I mean by saying that Leica is a camera that actually works. Not just mechanically, but in every other way as well.
Shooting both eyes open
Leicas are typically intended to to shoot with your both eyes open. It’s also important to note, that you’ll have to shoot with your right eye. Many of us are left-eyed. This is where Leica philosophy and shooting technique may start to feel counter intuitive. And you’re right. This is a camera that has a learning curve. Most of us intuitively will lift the camera to our left eye without ever even thinking about it. Of course you can shoot a Leica with your left eye, but you won’t get the full benefit from it. That way you’ll just block your other eye and render the Leica into any ol’ camera. In order to get the most of it, shoot it with your right eye. It may need some getting used to, but it’s worth the while.
After training yourself to become right eyed, the next step is to learn to shoot with the left eye open. It doesn’t have to be open all the time. I often times shoot left eye closed, if I’m just checking the framing or something. But when you’re actually observing, you can get an amazing field of view by keeping both eyes open. It’ll enable you to predict and anticipate the things to come. Could it be that this is why many of the world’s best candid photographers has been able to pin-point so accurately their timing? Could it be, that there’s a reason why the giants of photography has been using Leicas? I bet the reason is something else than showing off.
After getting used to the Leica viewfinder, you really can’t go back to anything else. Especially when you learn to photograph with both eyes open. After that a smudgy SLR viewfinder will feel like looking through a tube, instead of actually seeing the world around you.
Oh, I’ll just have to mention one really useful rangefinder trick before moving on. Since you’re shooting with both eyes open, you can utilise it in street photography very effectively by giving the impression that you’re looking at something else than the subject, thus taking the pressure away and not scaring them away. They don’t think you’re taking their photograph if it looks like you’re looking slightly pass or over them. Of course they don’t notice that your camera is actually pointing at them! If there’s only a slight difference in the angle, they won’t be able to tell. Start by composing with your left eye closed, making sure that the subject is nicely in the frame. Then — hold the composition, but before opening your left eye, change the direction of your sight (still holding the same composition and camera direction, of course) by looking clearly something else around the actual subject. Don’t make any kind of contact with the subject or react to anything they do. Then just fire away. They’ll notice you, but think you’re taking a picture of something else. Once you’ve taken the actual shot(s), you can even take couple dummy shots of the lamp post next to them, to strengthen the impression that you’re interested in something else.
No depth of field
A rangefinder newbie might find it strange to let go of the depth of field preview, that you have with an SLR. Like I mentioned, I also shoot with an Olympus OM-1. At the moment I have only one lens for it, the 50mm f1.4. OM-1 has an amazingly clear viewfinder for what it is. Especially with f1.4 it looks really bright. The problem is though, that you’re looking at the scene aperture wide open. At f1.4 it the view is extremely mostly out of focus and blurry, because the depth of field is so narrow. To be honest, I actually liked shooting my old f1.8 more, which was slightly easier to compose with, because it had a bit smaller maximum aperture. Even the fast rangefinder lenses don’t have this problem.
I’m usually quite concerned with the background and the other elements in the frame too. I think that with an SLR, it is harder to be aware of the elements in the background, because they are (more or less) out of focus. Rangefinder window on the other hand is just a window at the corner of the camera. There is no blurry background, because you’re not viewing through the wide open aperture of the actual lens. You’re seeing the view like you would with your own eyes. Once I got used to that, I’d never go back. Sure, it is harder to pre-visualise the image, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll learn to pre-visualise even the the depth of field very accurately in your mind.
Advanced shooting technique with both eyes open
I remember reading an interview of the metal drummer Kai Hahto, who once described trying to practice playing almost like having a separate brain for each of his limbs. Anyone who’s ever tried drumming, knows that it is very hard to have your hands and feet working individually, but in unison at the same time. I’ve noticed that you can do a similar thing with your eyes and learn to separate the visual information from each individual eye when shooting. The brain will of course combine both views into one single image, but looking through the viewfinder, it’s much easier separate left eye’s information from the right one’s. When it happens, closing the left eye for a while will make it easier to differentiate again which image is coming from which eye. Basically you can almost use the eyes for different tasks: left eye for observing the surroundings and the right eye for focusing and composing. Almost like having a separate brain for each eye. It’s hard to learn, but when you get the hang of it, it’s bliss and makes the viewfinder less and less restricting.
Congratulations, you’ve now reached the end of this article. Thank you very much for reading. I’ll be back with more esoteric rangefinder philosophy in part two of this series.