The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 5. Without a Map, You Won’t Reach Your Destination
The Importance of Planning
All you wanted was to learn a little and enjoy taking photos with your Leica, and here I come to spoil the fun with a chapter about planning.
Let me explain why good planning is essential if a photo shoot is to be successful. In the first chapter, I advised you to keep your camera ready at all times and not to let it languish in your camera bag. Carrying your Leica over your shoulder or hung around your neck enables you to react quickly, but you still need to find your subjects. After all, even a Leica doesn’t have a built-in “great subject” alarm.
What is the Best Way to Find Interesting Subjects?
You can only find what you look for and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t find anything. Even your primed Leica won’t help. You need to take the time to look for a theme and develop your ideas.
Robert Capa, who was one of the founders of the Magnum agency said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I think this quote is often misinterpreted. I believe Capa was referring to psychological and emotional closeness rather than physical proximity to the subject. The intensity of a photo is all about the emotional link between the photographer and the situation being portrayed.
How Does Closeness Develop between the Photographer and the Subject?
There are many ways to approach a subject. The simplest approach is to photograph familiar people and places. My daughter, for example, doesn’t even notice any more when I get out my camera and take a couple of snaps. Ever since she was born, her father has carried a camera and taken photos, and our family bond means I don’t have to build a relationship with her every time I want to take a photo.
In 2013, Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson published a book called SON. The book portrays the relationships between Anderson, his ailing father, and his growing son. The photos contrast his father’s suffering with his son’s lightheartedness and the result is a poetic, multi-layered family story. It is a great example of a theme that anyone can tackle—with or without the additional sub-theme of illness.
Other photographers prefer to deal with places rather than people, such as Magnum member Alec Soth, who chose the Mississippi River and Niagara Falls as his subjects. Rather than typical travel photo books, Soth has created picture books that look behind the scenes and portray his highly personal feelings toward his subjects. Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren has published several photo books about his homeland, offering a personal perspective that engenders curiosity in the viewer about the land and its people.
What Does All of This Have to Do with Planning?
Neither I nor any of the photographers I have mentioned simply left the house and started shooting. We all did our research, developed a plan, and created a certain closeness to the subject before we began to shoot. Practically speaking, you won’t have to find a theme if you find a specific person or event to photograph. It could be a child’s birthday, a wedding, famous visitors in town, a car race, a portrait of an artist, your mother-in-law, or a story about the longest freeway in the country. Or maybe you could get to know the anglers at the local fishing spot or the town fire brigade. Have you spotted the difference between the professional and amateur themes here? Exactly—there is none! A professional photographer can be given an assignment of photographing a birthday, just as a hobbyist could choose to capture a personal view of a state official’s visit, even if he doesn’t get press accreditation (not all pros do either, by the way). It would do some newspapers good, too, if they moved away from printing the same old pictures of the same old hands being shaken.
The other way to find a theme is simply to give yourself an assignment. This can be any subject that interests you, like my “People at Polo Matches” project, for example. An assignment can be quite specific—such as events at the emergency ward at a hospital—or it can be more conceptual, like my German Angst series (chapter 3 On Assignment).
Once I have an assignment, whether one of my own or for someone else, I begin my background research. For simpler subjects, access to the Internet means I usually need my iPad or iPhone to find what I need. For complex subjects I often purchase relevant literature. I always try to learn as much as I can about the subject as well as the geography of the location so I can plan a detailed schedule. You can build a schedule around the timing of the events you will cover, the position of the sun at a climbing wall, or any other aspect of your theme.
Planning can involve photographing recurring or special events. For example, in the course of my German Angst project, I visited the Karneval (Mardi Gras) celebrations in Cologne. I had an idea of what to expect before I went, but the photos I captured exceeded my wildest hopes. By researching, I challenged Lady Luck and was rewarded with fantastic images.
A good photographer is curious and likes to engage with the people he meets along the way. If you head out with wakeful eyes, an open mind, and an idea of what you are looking for, you are sure to be rewarded with great results. If, however, you think you can casually capture an effective photo story by chance, you are likely to be disappointed. High quality photography takes hard work, both physically and psychologically, but it is also incredibly satisfying.
Photo Exercise #5
Find a theme, do background research, and draft a plan for your shoot. Consider how you can capture your subject in 10 strong images. Remember to research the physical and geographical aspects of the location, such as the position of the sun, water levels, the potential volume of traffic, and scheduled public gatherings.
My Daughter Janne
Even for a professional photographer, shooting family photos is a great way to practice. I find that watching my family and taking photos of them is really relaxing. I don’t have to explain myself because they are used to me snapping away and I can simply get on with doing what I like to do.
I began taking photos of my daughter before her umbilical cord was cut (and I am still amazed that I managed to capture those images with my M6, which required me to set exposure and focus manually and wind the film by hand). Janne has been used to me pointing a camera at her from very early on!
Over the years, I have shot photos of her using color and black-and-white film and I have converted my digital images using the Lightroom Creamtone preset and dialed the colors down to almost nothing. In other words, I have tried just about everything to get the images right. The results always incorporate how I felt at the time. As I looked through my images while choosing the photos for this book, I realized that I often tried new ideas in photos of Janne. I usually test a new camera and new shooting techniques at home and I always show the results to my family first.
My work over the last 12 years also documents developments in photographic technology, which means that between 2004 and 2008, I didn’t take any pictures of my daughter using a Leica. I haven’t shot on film since 2004. Leica was slow to adapt to digital photography, so I used other digital camera systems until Leica caught up.
This color image is monochromatic, and the foreground and background merge almost imperceptibly. The image looks three-dimensional and the strong diagonal composition adds tension. Leica M8, 24mm
This long-term project shows that reportage can follow a process over an indefinite period of time—in this case, my daughter’s childhood. The most important aspect of this type of project is to stick with it. It’s difficult to judge the importance of individual events at the time, so you just continue to collect material.
And by the way, photographing the same person over a period of years is a great way to hone your portrait photography skills.
All the pictures in this book were captured using Leica M cameras. Because there is a significant portion of Janne’s life that was captured using cameras other than Leicas, you will notice that her younger years are not represented here.
Mother and daughter having fun together. A lateral spotlight provided the modest lighting and produced the reflections in Janne’s eyes. I reduced color saturation in Lightroom. M9, f/2, 1/15 s, ISO 640, 50mm, handheld
Janne under the table, because that’s where kids sometimes hang out. The streaked light came from a wall lamp and the overall effect was created using a long exposure. Leica M9, 1/8 s, 50mm
Deliberate overexposure of about one full f-stop. Captured using a 50mm Summicron at maximum aperture, this shot has wonderful background blur. I also used a neutral density filter to enable me to shoot with the aperture wide open. I reduced the intensity of the colors later in Lightroom.
Janne visiting her older sister in Heidelberg. The houses reflected in the shop window and Janne’s critical expression are the main features. The girls were moving toward me so I focused deliberately on the reflections behind them.
Janne and Kalle in a posed image I shot for our annual family calendar
I love the combined effect of Janne’s expression and the clouds in the background. I tilted the camera deliberately and placed the subject off-center to complete the composition.
At a hockey tournament. This shot was captured through the Plexiglas of the trainer’s dugout. The reflected wire mesh gives the image added depth.
An iPhone provided the light for this left-weighted composition. I desaturated the colors in Lightroom.
An evening mood captured in artificial light. The shallow depth of field produced by the wide aperture provides a clean background.
Janne and her friend Carlotta during Halloween. The light came from an LED flashlight pointed upward from waist height. Leica M9, f/4, 1/30 s, ISO 1000, 50mm
The prominent colors in this picture are white and pink, making the contrasting blue sunglasses an important element. The picture seems to be nearly three-dimensional due to the narrow field of depth. Leica M9 with a Voigtlander Nokton 1.2/35 mm at 2.0 with an ND Filter.