The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 6. Making Mistakes
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Rules
Do textbooks and rules make sense in a photographic context? If you want to do arithmetic accurately, you have to stick to the rules. If you want to take great photos, you have to know the rules too, but you can ignore them if you want. Many photography textbooks aim to help us avoid making common mistakes and talk about the “right” composition, “correct” exposure and “ideal” shutter speeds.
I think terms like “right” and “wrong” simply don’t apply when it comes to taking photos. Photography is a creative pursuit. Anyone involved in creating photographs for anything other than purely documentary purposes doesn’t need to enslave themselves to rules and should instead concentrate on packing their images with emotion. But don’t get me wrong—an unintentionally blurred image is substandard regardless of how creatively you shoot it. On the other hand, deliberate motion blur can be an effective stylistic device. Let’s take a look at some of the more generally accepted “rules” of photography.
Your subject doesn’t have to be positioned in the center of the frame just because that’s where you focused or because it was the most obvious composition. On the other hand, positioning a portrait subject in the center of the frame can make the shot more interesting. Generally speaking, the subject can be positioned anywhere within the frame.
The rule of thirds is a compositional tool that is popular among photographers and painters. The idea is that you draw imaginary lines through the frame to divide it into nine identically sized areas (or thirds, vertically and horizontally) and then place the subject at an intersection of two of the lines. This is a simple way to create compositions that differentiate clearly between the foreground and the background. However, it is not a guaranteed recipe for great images and there are many photos that leave a positive impression on the viewer precisely because they weren’t composed using strict guidelines.
A sharp background subject can be framed by a blurred foreground, just as blur and depth-of-field effects are highly versatile tools for enhancing a composition. Nevertheless, images that are pin sharp from the near foreground all the way to infinity can be appealing, too if the overall composition is well thought out.
Horizons don’t have to be level but, if you do use a slanted horizon, make sure that it is part of the overall composition; otherwise, it will simply look like you were careless.
As you can see, composition alone gives you a vast range of options, and the best way to find out what works is to try out your own variations. But don’t make the mistake of trying to cram all of your ideas into a single story. Not every style suits every job. Remember: less is sometimes more.
Generally speaking, light comes either from the sun (i.e., daylight) or from an artificial source. Both types have variable brightnesses (i.e., intensity) and temperatures (i.e., color).
Morning daylight has a blue hue, changing to white toward midday and to orange/red at sunset before it once again takes on a blue tone at dusk. The intensity of daylight varies during the day, too, and is brightest at midday. Clouds reduce the sun’s intensity, and shaded daylight tends toward blue. Fashion photographers often use the soft, warm look of early morning or late evening sunlight, which is a tip that you will find in a lot of books on photography.
However, if you know what you are doing, you can also use the cold, hard midday sun to produce excellent photos. This is another aspect of the image capture process that underscores the need to plan in advance the effect you want to produce.
In the realm of artificial light, neon light has a green shimmer while incandescent light bulbs produce an orange glow. Advertising billboards can bathe entire streets in color. The myriad options offered by different sources of light have their proponents and detractors and many textbooks advise you to simply cancel out the effects of artificial light by using artificial daylight (i.e., flash). I like the tension and authenticity that different light sources provide, although I sometimes use flash. I always try to consider the effect I want to achieve before I release the shutter, which often means I will try out several variants for a single shot. This takes us nicely on to our next subject...
Is there such a thing as “correct” exposure? You can use a handheld exposure meter to determine exposure parameters that, objectively speaking, will produce a correct exposure. The question here is whether using these values produces an interesting image. Images produced using standard criteria won’t upset the viewer, but they won’t win any prizes either. If, on the other hand, you decide to expose for highlight or shadow detail, you are sure to produce more engaging results. The selective metering capability built into many Leica models provides you with a great tool for doing just that.
Textbooks often recommend that you prevent unwanted camera shake by using the shortest possible shutter speed, and that you avoid potential focusing errors by stopping the aperture down. This advice is fine if you want to avoid taking risks, but if you do shoot this way, you don’t need a Leica with its excellent lenses. Go ahead and test your limits and those of your camera. Think about how a shot will turn out if you pan the camera during the exposure. Add motion blur or use the selective focus effects offered by wide apertures. Trying new things will mean that you produce more reject material, but that is to be expected. If you break with tradition, your work is sure to gain more attention.
Going into a lot of detail on flash is beyond the scope of this book, but there are still a couple of things I’d like to say on the subject. You can use flash as a main or fill-in light, and you can apply it directly or indirectly. The more direct the flash, the harder the light it produces, so mounting a flash on your camera’s accessory shoe and pointing it straight at the subject will produce stark-looking results. The alternative is to bounce your flash off a wall, ceiling, or a reflector, which makes the light reaching the subject much softer. Both approaches can be used creatively.
If you want to use flash as a fill light, you need to meter exposure for the ambient light (whether you are shooting indoors or out) and then add a dab of flash to supplement it. If, on the other hand, you are using flash as your main light, you can meter for your subject and leave the background as underexposed as you like.
Reflectors are another simple tool for controlling the mood of the lighting in an image and are especially useful in portrait shots.
Images captured using high-sensitivity film or high ISO values usually show more grain or digital noise than ones shot at lower sensitivities. Textbooks often classify noise and grain as errors that are to be avoided, whereas I like to use these effects creatively.
The point of this chapter is to remind you that you need to know the rules in order to break them. If you don’t know why your camera reacts the way it does, you will end up being controlled by technology when you should be using technology to control the results.
Photo Exercise #6
What you need: your Leica M with a 35mm or 50mm lens and a person you know well for your subject. Capture a portrait photo without thinking too hard about how you would normally approach the task. Now alter your framing and shoot some more. It doesn’t matter if your subject is positioned at the edge of the frame or even halfway out of it—go ahead and experiment. Continue the exercise with your subject positioned in partial shadow and try using different exposure parameters. Try out as many different options as possible.
At the Polo Club
While I was still a student, the Hamburger Abendblatt (Hamburg Evening News) commissioned me to photograph some celebrities at the polo club in the Klein Flottbek district of Hamburg. This is really a tennis and hockey club, but there is a polo field nearby where tournaments are occasionally held.
Journalists generally prefer to spend their free time at home, so weekend jobs like this are usually finished quite quickly. However, I found the fast-moving and often dangerous game of polo fascinating to watch, so I went back the following day equipped with my SLR and a telephoto lens.
In the years that followed, I spent many a weekend at the polo field. My sports shots weren’t bad, but they were no match to the ones taken by the real pros in Argentina—the light in Hamburg isn’t as dramatic and the players are not in the same class as their South American counterparts. Additionally, I found that although they were prepared to spend five-figure sums on traveling, taking care of their ponies, and taking part in a tournament, the players weren’t at all interested in spending money on photographs of themselves in action.
I began to wonder how I could successfully portray this highly paradoxical sport. I already had my fill of telephoto sports shots, so once again I turned to a Leica: back then my new M8 with its 35mm lens. I tried out all sorts of exposures and experimented with toning my images, but I wasn’t happy with the results.
The ponies weren’t bothered by my flash. Note that only bright objects in the background show up, while some of the dark areas show no detail at all.
Around the same time, I did a job for Stern magazine in which I increased the drama in the pictures by using daylight flash combined with heavily underexposed backgrounds and this was the technique I decided to use for my polo project.
I dug out my powerful old Quantum flashgun, acquired an adapter for its sync cable, and purchased a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of incidental light reaching the sensor. This enabled me to shoot at the shortest available flash sync speed with my lens stopped down. I metered for the ambient daylight and underexposed as much as possible. The limiting factor was the maximum output of my flash, which had to compensate for the deliberate underexposure. I set the flash to full power and adjusted exposure as necessary using the aperture. To save me having to fumble around too much with focus, I set the lens to a distance of three meters, while the stopped-down aperture took care of sharpness. I wanted to capture shots with the main light coming from a variety of directions, so I decided not to attach my flash to the camera and instead began to practice holding the camera in one hand while I pointed the flash with the other. In spite of the strong flash and my fairly bulky setup, many of the people I photographed didn’t seem to notice me.
The images I captured ended up in an exhibition and a small book, and I use them on my business cards. I had a lot of fun with this project and even earned some money in the bargain.
Portrait of a polo player. This shot uses great depth of field and frontal lighting combined with heavy underexposure that completely darkens the background.
The booklet on the left is the crucial detail that transforms this into an enticing image
Polo player and child’s scooter
And the winner is...
The ultra-short duration of the flash produced a wonderful moment frozen in time
Using fill flash as a creative counterpoint to strong backlight
Incredibly fine detail reproduction