Why the disadvantages of a Leica makes for better street photographs

The first thing I should say is that as soon as I started learning about street photography I started to learn about Leica. Street photography and Leica go hand in hand and the brand has a long history of producing cameras for almost all of the most celebrated street photographers. I was enthralled by this, who wouldn't want the best? What's more, their all mechanical precision and durability, the heavy all metal bodies and the fact that they can be repaired rather than thrown out when they break make them all the more alluring. I recently bought a Leica M6TTL and I have no regrets. It's a camera I hope to keep for life which will never be outdated because let's face it, it was outdated when it was new!

If you're reading this it's likely that you know about Leica rangefinders. The internet is full of material on why Leica's are supposedly perfect, so I will not repeat that here. Instead, I hope to convey why I think they are totally imperfect, and yet make great cameras for street photography. In fact, I can honestly say that for the un-initiated they are the hardest cameras to use, but once you overcome these obstacles you will learn to love a rangefinder.

A new Leica rangefinder is as outdated today as they were in the 1960's and for my camera, the M6TTL which was produced from 1999 to 2003, was outdated then. What they have going for them, however, is an innate simplicity that makes them beautiful to use.

Whilst some Leica's do have a meter, all but the newest have manual exposure only meaning you must set your camera settings, ISO, aperture and shutter speed, and reset them whenever the light changes. To a beginning photographer this sounds like a nightmare! Each time you take a shot in auto, the camera chooses the settings and upon reviewing the shots, you'll notice that the exposure settings are different almost every time! How can you possibly get correct exposure using manual settings without taking forever each time? The answer lies in the fact that auto settings over complicatethings and can actually give poor results, whilst a good understanding of light and colour allows the photographer to get better results with the use of manual settings.

To take this concept further, it comes down to reflectivity and the fact that a camera light meter is a relatively simplistic tool. A light meter reacts to the amount of light falling on its sensor and makes a suggestion as to the camera settings. The problem lies in the the fact that that light meter is unintelligent, and assumes that it is pointed at a colour with mid level of reflectivity. This may work well with a wide scene with lots of different colours because the scene is averaged out and the exposure settings suggested by the meter should be suitable. In practice, however, this may not work. Imagine a scene in which you photograph a person wearing dark clothes walking past a dark wall. Clearly, the most important part of the photograph to expose correctly is the persons face. With light skin in an overall dark scene, the camera meter is fooled into overexposure because it wrongly assumed that the scene is of mid reflectivity. The result is that the suggested setting brings up the dark wall and makes it a lighter tone and in turn overexposes the face. So in essence, correct exposure relates to the amount of light present, whereas the cameras meter reacts to this as well as the reflectivity (or colour) of the subject.

So how does this relate to Leica? Well, a manual Leica or any other camera for that matter forces you to learn correct exposure. It forces you to learn to expose for the amount of light present rather than the colour from which you take a meter reading, it forces you to learn when to override the cameras suggested settings. Finally, it makes you learn to see the light, quite literally. You begin to realise that the light doesn't change as much as you think and that the multitude of camera settings used when the camera is in auto mode relate as much to colour as to the amount of light present. I prefer to think of this as a mental spot meter. A manual camera forces you to think about what you are trying to photograph and decide what you want to expose for. You may waste a few frames initially or miss a few interesting moments, but it's worth persevering and the results will be worth it.

The next flaw in a Leica that I want to discuss is again, a blessing in disguise, but only if you use this flaw to your advantage. This flaw relates to the fact that with a rangefinder you don't look through the lens. Rather, you look through a viewfinder which is offset to the left. This so called flaw is in essence the reason why SLR cameras were invented because by looking through the lens, you can see exactly what is in focus and you can see exactly what is in the frame, thereby eliminating the main drawbacks of a rangefinder. Moreover, an SLR permits the use of any focal length, or zoom lenses for that mater, whereas with a rangefinder is only truly compatible with lenses for which it has dedicated frame lines within the viewfinder. Up to now, I have painted a picture of a rangefinder which is quite negative, however I plan now on discussing these drawbacks in relation to street photography and how they can be used to help achieve great photos.

By looking through the viewfinder rather than the lens you will notice that everything is in focus. You have an uninhibited view of the scene. One of the aspects of a great street photograph is often that the scene appears layered. Interest in the foreground, mid distance and background can yield some fantastic results. This type of shot becomes harder with an SLR. An SLR camera is designed to have a bright viewfinder and the only way it can achieve this is by having the aperture fixed wide open until the moment immediately prior to releasing the shutter. The result of this is that with fast, prime lenses, much of the frame is out of focus, especially if you are up close with your subjects. One trick to street photography is that an interesting subject in the foreground can be made even better when an interesting subject is found in the background providing a layered image multiple points of interest.  With a rangefinder, everything in the viewfinder is sharp. The photographer can spend his or her time thinking more about composition rather than focus or depth of field, safe in the knowledge that a sufficient depth of field will yield both in correct focus.

By removing the depth of field from the viewfinder, it forces the photographer to find interesting angles and compositions. A rangefinder makes things more difficult, forcing the photographer to concentrate on composition, the most important aspect of photography. With an SLR, many beginners take poorly composed photographs with a wide open aperture. Moving up from a phone camera or point and shoot which doesn't allow for a shallow depth of field can leave you impressed by these photos with a shallow depth of field because it can hide the flaws or make the subject stand out. It doesn't change the fact, however, that a poorly composed photograph remains a poorly composed photograph, despite the pleasing look of a shallow depth of field. Eliminating the depth of field from the equation during composition shows the photographer all the information they need. It forces you to hunt for interesting subjects and backgrounds because at the end of the day, an ugly background is still ugly if it is blurred, it's just less ugly than if it was sharp!

Flaw number three is the limited number of frame lines in the viewfinder and the 'spare space' around the edges of the frame. For the uninitiated, a Leica or other rangefinder camera has a fixed viewfinder. This means that if you use a telephoto lens, you must use a frameline in the centre of the image, whilst the remainder of the viewfinder is outside the edge of the frame. Conversely, a wide angle lens is paired with frame lines that full more of the viewfinder. Most Leica's have a viewfinder with a magnification of 0.72 (in relation to life size) meaning there is (just) enough space for frame lines for 28mm lenses. Additionally, framelines for 35, 50, 75, 90 and 135 mm lenses can also be found (in a Leica M6, older Leica's omit the 28 and 135 mm framelines). The general consensus is that the 28 mm framelines can be very hard to see as they are so wide within the viewfinder, whilst the telephoto framelines represent only a small area and can be hard to frame accurately. Many people who use these longer lenses prefer to use SLR's. What's more, because of the fixed framelines, zoom lenses are not a viable option because you would have to guess the composition!

One advantage of a rangefinder which specifically applies to street photography is the space you see around the edges of the frame. This is not dead space, and it can be used to see what is coming into the frame. You can leave the camera to your eye for longer and be ready to take the shot. Clearly, the real strength of a rangefinder comes with the use of 35 or 50 mm lenses. This may seem like a huge limitation, and it is, however it forces you zoom with your feet, and hunt for a better composition. Being limited like this sets you free as a photographer, and your photos will improve no end. It also forces you to get close to your subjects which is key in street photography. You can always spot a street photo taken from afar with a telephoto lens. They often lack something, a sense of place perhaps. It can be difficult to put your finger on it, but it's always visible. Getting up close with a 50mm or wider works wonders. It makes you work hard for your shots and can be intimidating at times, but the results are worth it.