When I shoot a portrait, I instinctively grab my Canon dSLR, twist on a tube of luxuriously fast L-glass and capture some subtle aspect of my subject’s personality. I’ll photograph landscapes by refitting the same camera body with a different lens, one that’s wickedly sharp and wide. Architecture? Lock on a tilt-shift lens, and I’m a master of perspective. Macros? Products? Concert photography? The same system for all — Canon dSLR and a finely chiseled hunk of appropriate L-class glass. In all these disciplines, photographing all these subjects, it’s as if the camera doesn’t exist. It’s weightless. It’s an extension of my arm, of my eye, and of the synapses firing in my mind. In these moments, it’s not a camera, it’s me.

So why, when I take to the streets, does this extension of my very self suddenly feel like an anvil on my shoulder? Why do its formerly liberating myriad of modes and knobs and buttons become impediments? Because street photography is like nothing else. It demands that the camera go unnoticed. But a dSLR sits as discreetly against one’s body as a feather boa tie with a business suit. Street photography freezes moments. And, though a dSLR also freezes moments, they’re often a half-second later than the one desired. Have you ever tried shooting from the hip with a dSLR? If its lens even has depth-of-field markings, you’d need a microscope to read them. This makes zone focusing impossible. It also means that, until opthamologists figure out a way to put an eye on my hip, street photography with a dSLR is about as practical as using a chainsaw to cut your lawn.

All those other photo disciplines—the portraits; the architecture and landscapes; the macros, products, and concerts—they require specialized camera lenses. But street photography requires something different. It requires a specialized camera body. It requires a rangefinder. And more specifically, if you want to shoot digital, it requires a Leica.

I’d Like a Leica

And thus we arrive at the first of the double entendres in this article’s poetic title. I would like a Leica. Actually, that’s a considerable understatement. Truth is, I would love a Leica… but that proclamation doesn’t rhyme. At times, I’ve even felt like I need a Leica but, since that assertion effectively paints me as a pathetically obsessed photo nerd with misplaced priorities, I’ll retract it.

I’m sure many readers will bristle at my notion that a dSLR isn’t a good street camera, and some may point to stunning examples that will prove me wrong. I’ll save you the trouble. I’ve seen many outstanding and enviable street photos taken with dSLR’s. I’ve even taken a couple myself. But, for me, carrying a dSLR means missing 99% of the shots I want to take. I lose the immediacy, the speed, and the stealthiness that a rangefinder would give me. But, yes, it’s possible to get good street photos with any camera: dSLR, point-and-shoot, or even medium format. Speaking of medium format, on a recent visit to Seattle I actually witnessed two separate occasions of people using Hasselblad H-system cameras for street photography. The fact that I spotted them both, a block away and in the teeming hordes at Pike Place Market, would suggest that it’s a format even more conspicuous than the dSLR. I’m certain there are some high-quality images in those Hasselblad’s… but I’m equally certain that the photographers missed far more photos than they captured.

So if I’m obsessed with being a more efficient street photographer and I’ve identified the impediments and their solutions, why don’t I have a Leica? I’ll give you 15,000 reasons—all of which are worth exactly $1. Yes, that’s what it costs for one Leica M8.2 body and two choice Summilux lenses. As much as I tell myself I need a Leica, the reality is I need to eat.

So, if a dSLR is the wrong tool for the job and the right tool would result in starvation, I had to ask myself, “is there any tool that would be an acceptable compromise?”

What’s Like a Leica?

And here we arrive at the second of the double entendres inherent in this article’s title. What alternative will be most like a Leica? What photographic tool can I use to drastically improve my street photography without triggering personal financial ruin? The street photography bug has bitten and, like Lyme disease, it’ll infect you for life. So how best to live with it? My ability to miss hundreds of fleeting moments with the Canon gear has sent me looking for alternatives. With “bulk” and “speed” being detriments of the dSLR and “cost” being a detriment of a Leica, my first inclination was to try using some sort of advanced point-and-shoot camera for street photography. To this end, I’ve been using the Panasonic LX series for a couple of years.

These cameras are superb. Borrowing both an optical design and body lines from classic Leica rangefinder cameras, the LX series is light weight and, in spite of the tiny sensor, captures remarkably usable images. It offers full manual exposure control, manual focus, and shoots in RAW format. To the casual observer, it appears no different than any of a million other point-and-shoot cameras on the street, which means I’m less likely to draw attention to myself. That’s a real bonus. So too is the fact that the entire camera costs less than a single inexpensive L-class lens.

Slam dunk solution, right? Not so fast. Let’s dissect it a little bit.

For starters, I’m a middle aged man not a teenager anymore. This means wonky eyesight. The kind of eyesight that makes you fumble for reading glasses and curse the morons who print important product information using a ridiculously tiny font. It’s also the kind of eyesight that makes it impossible to frame a photo with one of those ubiquitous rear-panel LCD’s. The second you thrust your camera out from your body like a father changing a newbon’s diaper, you’ve blown your cover and any chance you might have had at covert photography. Just click the photo on the left and count how many people are staring down the barrel of my lens. Ignoring the fact that everyone within eyeshot has identified me as an idiot taking a photo, there’s still the problem that, even at arm’s length, I can’t see the LCD well enough to select an autofocus point—another fact that’s evident in this photo. My solution to the LCD problem was simple: equip the camera with a 24mm optical viewfinder.

The viewfinder instantly solved a few nagging problems. With it, I could quickly lift the camera to my eye, compose a shot, and release the shutter — and no one’s the wiser. Of course, since the viewfinder is optical, it always displays a 24mm field of view regardless of the lens’ actual zoom level. That’s a problem, but it shouldn’t be insurmountable. I reckoned that, with a little practice, I’d be able to reasonably estimate the field of view at a couple different focal lengths. While that’s certainly possible, the unfortunate fact is that neither camera nor lens gives any visual feedback as to what, exactly, its current focal length is. Push the zoom button briefly, and you have no idea whether your lens has zoomed to 28mm, or 35mm, or 50mm. Without knowing the focal length of your lens, you have no idea how to compose the shot in the optical viewfinder. So I simply kept the camera anchored at 24mm and pretended it was a prime lens, rather than a zoom. Compromise? You bet. But even with these limitations, the viewfinder soon found itself permanently attached to the LX3, and I could happily and stealthily frame 24mm shots to my heart’s content. Everthing was great… if only I could focus.

You see, unlike a rangefinder, there’s no split prism nor any other means to manually focus through the viewfinder. Also, because the viewfinder isn’t coupled to the body, there are no focus confirmation lights displayed within it. This means that even auto-focus becomes risky. Of course, I knew all this when I started down this path. But, since anything short of the Leica (and the 15,000 reasons why I couldn’t own that system) meant “compromise,” I was prepared to deal with it. When the LX3 is set to manual focus mode, you can press a helpful little button that will quickly auto focus on the center point. My assumption was that, looking through the optical viewfinder, I would always have a reasonable idea where its “center” was, and would therefore be able to auto-focus even without visible feedback. It was a good theory, but it failed in practice. First, without visible confirmation of focus, I had no way of knowing whether or not the camera had actually even achieved focus. So I had to turn on the audible focus confirmation beep, which is loud enough to alert everyone in my vicinity that I’m about to take a photo. Not good — I might as well be an idiot holding a camera at arm’s length. Second, my brain’s “ballpark” idea of the viewfinder’s center point is not nearly as accurate as the camera’s. Often, when I thought I was focusing on something in the center of the frame, the camera was actually focusing on something else entirely — specifically, it was focusing on what was actually in the center of the frame, not what I thought was in the center. The result? Hundreds of surreptitiously captured, but hopelessly misfocused images.

But I’m not one to give up easily, so I approached the focus problem from another angle. Since a 24mm lens possesses extensive depth of field, I’d simply pre-focus to the hyperfocal distance then, for most subjects, I wouldn’t even need to re-focus. I’d just point and shoot… literally. Sadly, Panasonic trampled this concept by implementing a “feature” in which the camera always “wakes up” at infinity focus. To actually set the hyperfocal distance, I’d have to fiddle with buttons, modes, menus, and that infernal rear-panel LCD. Then, if I went more than five minutes without taking a photo, the camera would go to sleep and my carefully set focus distance would disappear like a fleeting dream.

So, after two years of trying to force the Panasonic LX into street camera clothing, the end result was essentially the same. 99% of the moments I saw still passed me by—unphotographed, undocumented, and forgotten. The reasons surrounding the missed opportunities are different, but they’re misses all the same. This will absolutely not do. The Panasonic LX series is a marvelous coat-pocket camera, second to none. I love this little thing and have taken some great images with it, but it’s no more a “street” camera than my big bad Canon system. So, is a Leica in my future? One glance at the recent financial crises and its devastation upon my bank account provides an easy answer—not a chance.

But there are many more avenues to explore in my quest to achieve a Leica-like experience with a pauper’s wages. And, in part 2 of this article, I’ll tell you where I’m thinking of going next.

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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