The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 1. The Invisible Photographer
Clothing and Behavior
In my introduction, I promised you a photo book that takes an unusual approach, which is why this chapter is not about multi-pocket vests and jackets, off-road shoes, all-weather hats, or photo bags. In my opinion, specialized photo clothing only benefits the person selling it.
Why am I so adamant about this? Simply because this book is about photographing people in their normal, everyday surroundings. Imagine the following scenario with two very different photographers setting out to capture images at a flea market:
Photographer #1 dresses in a comfortable pair of red pants with big pockets from a safari equipment supplier, adds a pair of neon green sneakers (the kind that enable you to fly through the streets), and completes his outfit with a khaki-colored photo vest with a film manufacturer’s logo on it. He then grabs his largest camera bag (you never know what you are going to need), shoulders his tripod with its hydraulic tilt/swivel head, hangs a DSLR with a telephoto zoom around his neck, and pulls on his Yankees cap. Anyone who sees him on location will probably assume he is either some kind of strange cargo-laden parrot or simply insane. Neither will help him with the job at hand.
Photographer #2 dresses in jeans, comfortable everyday shoes, and an inconspicuous jacket with a couple of pockets in which he puts a spare battery, a memory card (or film), and a spare lens. He carries his Leica over his shoulder and most people will assume he is just another casual market visitor. His photographic intentions are not immediately obvious.
Meanwhile, simply getting to the location carrying all that gear has taken its toll and our “parrot” needs a drink. While taking a break, he suddenly spots a potential victim: an aging antiques dealer. He has seen on TV how photographers chase stars, so he sets off at a run. Unfortunately, his tripod slips off his shoulder, landing on the ground with a crash and ensuring that everyone is now looking his way. While bending down to pick it up, his camera bag slips off other shoulder and, in an attempt to rescue it, he knocks his cap off and sends it flying into the drinks in the booth where he had been resting. At this point he loses his nerve and decides to go home and take some comparison test shots for his favorite DSLR forum instead.
Photographer #2, our Leica man, has also spotted the antiques dealer. He walks calmly up to the seller’s booth, slowly raises the camera, focuses calmly, and releases the shutter. Maybe the dealer has spotted him, but the calm concentration he radiates communicates no sense of disquiet. Maybe the antiques man gave the photographer his permission with a slight smile or maybe he asked what the photos were for—we don’t really know.
You might find this comparison an exaggeration, but there are more characters like our photographer #1 on the prowl than you might think. Even pro photographers often give too little thought to what they wear, the gear they take along, and how they behave with their subjects. When I am out and about, I often hear remarks like, “Have you taken any photos yet? Really? I didn’t notice.”
I try to blend in with the environment and adapt my movements appropriately. I dress and behave as inconspicuously as possible and don’t use large photo bags or huge lenses. And a Leica, of course, is small, quiet, and unobtrusive. An M-series camera doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a pro-grade photographic tool and, as a result, Leica users are often greeted with a friendly smile or even amusement and make comments like, “I didn’t know you could still take photos with such an old camera.” Consider how you would feel as a subject if you were approached by someone holding a huge DSLR with an even larger lens attached. Like most people, you would probably feel threatened if confronted with someone whose face is almost completely obscured by a large black machine with a huge protrusion on its front.
Apart from one eye, a Leica user’s face is almost completely visible and his facial expression is identifiable and therefore not off-putting. You see? Great photography, and Leica M photography especially, requires more than just knowing how to operate a camera.
I have made it my guiding motto to take photos of others as I would have others take photos of my family or me. This doesn’t mean that I don’t create humorous images; I just avoid embarrassing my subjects. I am quite capable of having a laugh about a funny photo of myself.
Many documentary photographers use military-sounding terms such as aiming and shooting to describe how they work. When asked about his technique, Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of the legendary Magnum photo agency, summarized his approach thus: “Aim well, shoot fast, and scram.” There are situations in which I prefer to remain invisible and unrecognized, but I don’t like to “steal” an image of a subject. I appreciate positive reactions and enjoy making contact with people. Peter Turnley, an American photographer living in Paris, works in a similar way. If you check out his Facebook page, his website, or one of his fantastic Parisian photo books, you will see that taking photos can be just as much about making friends as capturing images.
To get back to the real subject of this chapter, have you ever considered how attractive a Leica can be? Yes, get out and “wear” your Leica! A Leica doesn’t like being kept in a cabinet or at the bottom of a photo bag. It enjoys being slung over your shoulder or carried, perhaps lightly covered, on your chest. A Leica likes to be switched on, primed with a useful combination of aperture and shutter speed, and taken out for a walk in the fresh air. Have you ever asked yourself how many photographic opportunities you have missed because your camera was buried in the depths of your bag or, worse still, you didn’t even have it with you? OK, so you will now take your camera with you wherever you go. Promise? Or maybe you have promised yourself that you will take at least one picture per day. It will be great practice if you do.
Which brings me to this chapter’s lesson. Did I already explain about the lessons? At the end of each chapter you will find a practical exercise that will help you to put the theory covered by the text into practice.
Photo Exercise #1
What you need: Your Leica, a lens (28mm, 35mm, or 50mm), film/memory card
Take your camera and head off to a location of your choice such as a railroad station, a flea market, a busy pedestrian crossing, or a street party. Look for a person or situation that you would like to photograph, raise your camera slowly and calmly to your eye, focus and release the shutter smoothly but positively. Now lower your camera just as calmly. Try to develop a fluid rhythm with no sudden movements. Were you close enough to your subject? If not, get closer. Then get closer still. If you do everything right, hardly anyone will notice you are taking pictures.
The second step in this exercise is to repeat the first step, but this time make eye contact with your subjects and thus obtain permission to shoot. And remember, unspoken permission counts, too.
The Soccer World Cup
What could I photograph to capture the spirit of the World Cup? In Brazil, at the playing venue, there would have been countless opportunities, but what about at home in Germany?
I have to admit, I’m not a big soccer fan, and what I like most about the game is the feeling of community it generates. I like to go to a bar and watch a game on TV, but the game is always less important than watching the people around me. The emotional outbursts from the “barroom coaches” can be extremely funny (even if they are not always politically correct). And if I miss an important play, I can always watch the replays.
During the 2014 tournament, I went to the local sports bar with my wife and daughter, and I took along my M9 and Typ 240 bodies with 50mm and 28mm lenses. My approach was to order a beer with my camera clearly visible before I began to photograph the people around me.
In Germany, public soccer viewings take place in the open, so I was able to move around without any fuss. I began by taking a few snaps of my wife and daughter before branching out to include strangers. Initially, I often had to explain what I was doing. Most people don’t mind being photographed but may be concerned that their images will be published on the Internet without their consent.
I always ask my subjects for permission to publish, whether on social networks or elsewhere, and I always give my subjects my card so they can get in touch and give me a mailing address where I can send images, as a kind of payment. Anyway, what was I going to photograph? I had planned to document the tournament without featuring the game itself, and I wanted to capture the spirit of the event by way of gestures and the interactions among the people watching the game.
I neglected to consider that most of the matches would be broadcast in the evening, and I was already set on not using flash. This meant I had to shoot with very little ambient light, so I used ISO settings between 1600 and 3200 coupled with the maximum available aperture and exposure times of 1/30 or 1/60. Surprisingly, I ended up with very few blurred images. Sure, there was some motion blur involved, but that was mostly deliberate and it contributed to the mood of my images. At high ISO values, my Typ 240 had no problem with the minimal available light, and I only had to perform slight adjustments later in Lightroom. In the end, I was really excited by the number of pin-sharp images I managed to capture by focusing on my subjects’ eyes—an approach that is easy to master using these cameras, even in very poor light. If a person’s eyes are not sharp in the resulting image, it can only be due to sloppy focusing, or unplanned movement on the part of the photographer or the subject. If an entire image was blurred, it is usually because I moved the camera during the exposure.
Take a look at the images and decide for yourself whether I managed to capture an unusual World Cup mood away from the usual hubbub.
The events on the screen are much more important than the presence of the camera
All eyes on the screen. The tension is palpable.
An equal rights outfit. One pattern fits all!
Sometimes the players talk to their fans directly through the screen
Joy and wonder during the Germany vs. Brazil game (Germany won 7-1)
This guy insisted on having his photo taken, and the slight motion blur adds authenticity
The weather was bad during the final and dry seats were rare. The reflections in the window increase the tension.
A still life to round out the sequence