The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 3. The Leica Rangefinder
Uses and Limitations
I know you really want to get out and start taking photos, but there is still one technical aspect of the Leica M we need to look at. The rangefinder is the single most important element of the Leica-based composition process, so it is essential to take a close look at how it works.
Opinions on the Leica rangefinder are divided: Some see it as a clunky anachronism while others see it as the ultimate photographic tool. Whatever you think, the rangefinder is a masterpiece of mechanical engineering. So how does a rangefinder work? Unlike with a single lens reflex (SLR) camera with which the photographer views the subject directly through the lens by way of a mirror and a pentaprism, a Leica photographer views a scene through the viewfinder window built into the upper-left corner of the camera body.
In high-quality SLRs, the viewfinder covers up to 100 percent of the frame. In contrast, the rectangle displayed in the Leica viewfinder gives only a general indication of the framing that will appear in the final image. In an SLR, the effect of swapping lenses is immediately and completely visible in the viewfinder, whereas in a Leica, it is only the size of the Bright-line frame that changes while the overall viewfinder image remains the same.
Using an SLR, you can focus anywhere within the frame, whereas with a Leica, you can only use the dedicated rectangle in the center of the Bright-line frame. Don’t worry, I’m not going to explain precisely how the rangefinder works—that would be confusing and wouldn’t help you take better pictures or increase your enjoyment of photography. There is only one thing you really have to remember: If the window located beneath the shutter speed dial is covered, you won’t be able to measure distances or focus successfully.
How Does the Leica Viewfinder Affect Our Photography?
As I already mentioned, macro and telephoto photography are not a Leica’s strong points. In the case of telephoto lenses, the longer the lens, the smaller the rangefinder window in the viewfinder, which makes precise focusing increasingly difficult.
The camera’s design means that the rangefinder window has to be placed several centimeters away from the viewfinder, so at subject distances of less than 70cm (about 28 inches), the parallax effect is too great for accurate framing. To see the parallax effect for yourself, hold up your index finger, move it about two feet away from your face and then look at it with your right eye (with your left eye closed) and then with your left eye (with your right eye closed). You will see that your finger appears to jump sideways when you switch eyes. In this case, the cause of the effect is the distance between your eyes rather than the distance between the viewfinder and rangefinder windows.
Forget macro and telephoto shots. Few of us need a universal do-it-all camera, just as we don’t use a screwdriver to drive in a nail or a hammer to affix a screw. Instead, let’s talk about the advantages of the rangefinder system.
The rangefinder makes smaller cameras possible and correspondingly compact lenses with improved optical correction. Because a rangefinder camera has no mirror, lenses can be designed to sit closer to the sensor or film; and because there are no mirror movements involved, the camera is quieter. These are all good reasons to use this type of camera for documentary photography of human subjects. Leica cameras remain the tool of choice for many members of the Magnum agency, and other famous photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica to perfect his highly personal style of candid street photography.
Using Your Leica
Now that we’ve got all that out of the way, let’s take some photos. Pick up your camera, rest your right index finger on the shutter release button, support the camera body with your left hand and grasp the focusing ring with your left thumb and index finger. If you raise the camera to your right eye, you can rest your left arm against your ribs. Using your right eye to focus prevents your nose from interfering with the camera and helps to avoid grease marks on the monitor. You can now frame your subject in the Bright-line frame in the viewfinder.
If you want to know why I attach such importance to posture, just take a look at a bunch of tourists at any popular site. They usually hold their camera at any old angle in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. The chance of the photos they shoot coming out well is more a matter of luck than intent. My aim is to spot as many sources of shooting errors as possible and eliminate them.
The more firmly and securely you hold your camera, the less risk there is of your images coming out blurred and the better you can concentrate on framing your subject. Place your subject within the Bright-line frame and take a step forward or to the side. Move your body to frame the subject and, when you are satisfied with your composition, use the split-image rectangle to focus. Your subject doesn’t have to be in the center of the frame just because the focusing rectangle is positioned there.
A Small Tip
If you are working at maximum aperture (often a good idea when you are shooting with a Leica M), remember not to rotate or tip the camera once you have set focus. Only move the camera left, right, up, or down in the plane you have focused on; otherwise, you run the risk of losing the focus and spoiling your image.
Optimal Focus for a Portrait
If you are shooting portraits, typically the best thing to focus on is the eye or the side of the subject’s face that is closest to the camera, although the best spot can vary depending on the type of lens you are using and the camera-to-subject distance. You don’t have to take as much care focusing if you use a wide-angle lens at a relatively large distance, but things get trickier if you are using a bright standard or telephoto lens at maximum aperture to shoot a portrait of someone close by. A portrait with in-focus nostrils or ears but blurred eyes is no use to anyone.
Focusing on Close-Ups
If you are shooting a close-up portrait using a standard lens set to its maximum aperture, you will be working close to the minimum focus distance, so setting focus using the focus ring on the lens doesn’t always work. Because you and your subject are never perfectly still, adjusting the focus ring increases the potential for focus errors. I prefer to frame my subject, set a fixed distance, and then fine-tune focus by moving my body carefully back and forth. I release the shutter every time the split image in the viewfinder indicates correct focus. Try it for yourself—the number of sharp images you capture is sure to increase.
Use your left eye to observe what’s going on around you while you shoot. This way, you have a head start on objects moving from left to right and you will be able to release the shutter at precisely the right moment. It takes a little practice to keep one eye on the viewfinder while you use the other to scan for subjects, but the Leica system makes this approach easy. Fast-moving subjects, too, are simpler to capture, although doing so by adjusting the focus ring while panning often produces blurred results. Pre-focusing on a stationary object such as the surface of a road or a bush located at an appropriate distance is much more reliable. Because you can keep an eye on your surroundings, the Leica viewfinder system makes capturing great photos easier.
Another Valuable Tip
Once you have finished shooting a particular subject, it is a good idea to set focus to infinity. This way, you only ever move the focus ring to the right and you won’t usually have to move it as far as you would if you start from the other end of the scale.
You are correct if you think that you can’t work as precisely with a Leica as you can with a high-end SLR, but there is no other camera in the world that enables you to work as quickly and intuitively. But what makes a great image great? Is it one that is level, well framed, and in focus? Doesn’t that sound like a recipe for a humdrum, everyday snapshot? A great photo isn’t necessarily technically perfect, even if plenty of textbooks would have us believe otherwise. A great photo can break any number of rules. An exciting image can have a sloping horizon, and an interesting image doesn’t have to make sense at a glance. We will be taking a closer look at the aspects of good photography later on.
Photo Exercise #3
What you need: Your Leica, a 35mm or 50mm lens, film or a memory card. Find a street scene and use the technique described above to capture images of moving cars or bicycles in sharp focus in the center of the frame. Try out various apertures, shutter speeds, and distance settings.
As you know, I earn my living taking photographs. I have a lot of fun doing my job, but it is a challenge to find the right content; it makes great demands on my time, too. Nevertheless, I still like to tackle topics that don’t necessarily promise a financial return but that give me the freedom to work without the pressure of deadlines or a client’s demands.
Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, I began work on a project I call “German Angst.” This phrase is often used in English-speaking countries to characterize behavior seen by outsiders as “typically German,” including characteristics such as hesitancy, fastidiousness, and caution. For example, the events in Fukushima appeared to produce a much greater feeling of anxiety in the Germans than it did in the Japanese, and I began to ask myself why.
My research came up with very little literature on the subject, although for the past 25 years a large insurance company has conducted an annual survey into the greatest German fears, and a handful of authors have expressed their thoughts on the subject in books and magazine articles. This lack of information didn’t provide me with a solid foundation to work on, but gave me the inspiration I needed to find out for myself. I decided to delve photographically into the “Germanness” of the Germans in a personal and subjective way.
In the glow of an Easter bonfire in Hamburg
M9, f/2, 1/8 s, ISO 640, 35mm
The aim of this project is not to explain anything, but rather to get my viewers thinking. The result is a sequence of images that amuse, confuse, and often raise unanswered questions. Everyone should form their own opinions about what these images mean.
They were created using my M9 and Typ 240 bodies and lenses with focal lengths between 21mm and 75mm.
In the end, I even managed to make some money with the project, thanks to financial support from the Kulturwerk trust run by the VG Bild-Kunst artists’ association.
Don’t pay too much attention to the captions—just have fun letting your imagination run free.
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
M9, f/16, 1/500 s, ISO 320, 35mm
The port of Hamburg
M8, f/4, 1/30 s, ISO 160, 75mm
Evacuating a retirement home in Koblenz because of an unexploded wartime bomb
M9, f/2, 1/60 s, ISO 640, 50mm
Surgery in Kiel
M9, f/2, 1/60 s, ISO 800, 35 mm
A shopping mall in Oberhausen
M9, f/2.8, 1/60 s, ISO 400, 50mm
Hamburg – Christopher Street Day
M240, f/2, 1/500 s, ISO 200, 50mm, ND Filter
Wind turbines in Dithmarschen
M9, f/22, 1/60 s, ISO 160, 50mm, shot from my car