Hello, __________ (insert your name here):

It was nice bumping into you on ___________ (insert street name here). You certainly looked uncomfortable lugging around that __________ (Nikon/Canon) SLR and all those lenses. I know you were disappointed to discover that my “cool” little camera wasn’t actually a top secret __________ (Nikon/Canon) Micro Four Thirds camera. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll develop a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses sometime soon.

When you nodded toward my camera and asked, “How many megapixels is that?” I answered with either the truth or a lie. Specifically, if I said “18,” then I was carrying a Leica M9 digital rangefinder and I told you the truth. If I said “12,” then I was carrying a Leica M6 TTL and I lied. The Leica M6 TTL is a 35mm film camera, and not a digital camera. In my experience, most people who ask about the megapixel count in my M6 simply don’t know what a film camera is. I find this a rather startling development, but I am getting older and the world is getting younger. In any event, I’ve spent too much time on too many street corners trying too often to explain that film cameras don’t actually have megapixels — only to see people shake their heads and walk away in disgust. So anytime somebody asks how many megapixels are in my M6, I just say “12.” That’s the file size that results from each scanned negative. I hope you’ll forgive the fib.

You mentioned that the Leica’s body shape caught your eye and that you, too, were looking to get a rangefinder — specifically the __________ (Panasonic GF-1 / Olympus Pen / Sony NEX / Ricoh GXR).

I explained that the camera you mentioned is not actually a rangefinder, and that it was just styled to look like a classic rangefinder. You seemed to doubt me, so I pointed out that my camera has no live view, no video, no auto focusing, no face detection, no scene modes, and no matrix metering.

You seemed quite __________ (horrified / befuddled / disgusted) by the sparsity of features on the Leica, and mentioned that you couldn’t possibly live without __________ (live view / video capability / auto-focus / face detection / scene mode / matrix metering). I assure you, the __________ (Panasonic / Olympus / Sony / Ricoh) camera you purchase will have all those features, but it’s definitely NOT a rangefinder.

You asked why I was so __________ (stupid / old-fashioned / technophobic) that I would choose to shoot with this camera, instead of the model you’re considering. I answered that it was because all those faux-rangefinder cameras lack the one single feature I need most in a camera. When you asked what that feature was, I replied “an actual rangefinder.”

That unleashed a barrage of questions about what makes a camera a rangefinder; what’s different about a rangefinder; and why someone might choose to use a rangefinder. It was at this point that I gave you my card, and invited you to visit my website and read this “open letter.” Hopefully it will answer all your questions.

First off, just because a camera is styled to resemble a rangefinder doesn’t mean you can call it a rangefinder. You can buy an adapter kit that makes an old Volkswagon Beetle look like a Formula 1 racer, but that doesn’t mean it could compete on the Formula 1 circuit. Rangefinder cameras get their name for a very specific reason — they contain a mechanical range-finding focusing mechanism, hence the name “rangefinder.” Rangefinder focusing is fundamentally very different than the contrast-detect focusing employed by the __________ (Panasonic / Olympus / Sony / Ricoh) camera that you’re considering.

Before we look at rangefinder focusing, let’s look at how the contrast-detect focusing works on the camera you want. Contrast-detect focusing does exactly what it sounds like — it automatically adjusts the lens’ focus until your camera’s on-board computer determines the maximum amount of contrast between adjacent pixels on the sensor. Contrast-detect focusing works under the assumption that an object is in focus whenever the contrast intensity between it, and the objects around it, is maximized. It doesn’t focus as rapidly as the phase-detection method used by true SLR cameras, but today’s higher-end contrast-detect models are responsive enough to satisfy most casual situations. I once owned a Panasonic DMC-G1 Micro Four Thirds (mFT) camera, and had no complaints about its contrast-detect focus.

Rangefinder focusing works in a more direct way — it determines focus by measuring exactly how far an object is from your camera. Rangefinders do this by using a pair of windows, spaced some distance apart on the front of a camera. If you look at the photo of my Leica M6, you’ll see all manner of little glass windows on the front of the camera — windows that you won’t see on any of the faux-rangefinders. Looking directly into the Leica’s front (with the lens facing you), you’ll see a big window on the far right and a tiny window on the far left. When you turn the camera around so that the lens faces away from you (and toward your subject) you’ll see only one window — the viewfinder. When you look through the viewfinder on the back of the camera, you’re looking straight through that big, bright glass window that you see on the front. In the middle of your view is a small rectangular patch with a double image. That second image comes from the second, smaller window on the front of your camera. An internal mirror projects that second window’s image into the center of the main viewfinder. When you rotate the focus dial on a Leica M-series lens, the double image converges and diverges. When the two images align perfectly, then the lens is focused.

Probably the easiest way to understand this is to use your own eyes. Hold your right hand in front of your face, at arms’ length. Hold your left hand just a few centimeters from your nose. Focus your eyes on your right hand, and notice that you now appear to have two left hands — a double image. Refocus your eyes on your left hand, and notice that you now appear to have two right hands — again, a double image. That’s right — rangefinder cameras and human eyesight work exactly alike.

If you have only ever shot with auto-focus cameras, you may wonder why anyone would want to manually focus a camera using a rangefinder. Similarly, you may wonder what possible benefits could come from looking through a viewfinder that’s beside the lens, rather than looking through the lens itself. “Why,” you ask, “would anyone actually choose to shoot with a real rangefinder when the __________ (Panasonic / Olympus / Sony / Ricoh) faux-rangefinder has the ‘advantage’ of both auto-focus and through-the-lens viewing?”

The short answer is simple. It’s because everything has an equal and opposite reaction — meaning every advantage creates an equal and opposite disadvantage. What follows are 10 reasons why neither auto-focus nor through-the-lens viewing are advantageous to me, and why I choose Leica rangefinders for the majority of my street, documentary, reportage, and candid photography:

Reason 1: Because the system has been designed from the ground-up for manual focusing, the lenses all have large, legible distance and depth-of-field scales marked right on the barrel. The advantages of this become apparent if you’ve ever wanted to take a photo, but either time or circumstance prevented you from lifting the camera to your eye. Maybe the moment was fleeting, and you just weren’t fast enough. Or maybe you didn’t want to give away the fact you were about to take a photograph — after all, people change their behaviour when they know they’re being photographed. If your goal is to document “life as it exists,” then advertising your photographic intentions will irrevocably alter the scene you wish to photograph. Autofocus cameras almost always require you to look through the viewfinder or at the rear LCD — if you don’t, then there’s no way to position the autofocus point correctly. By contrast, rangefinders are designed for this very situation. Because there are distance scales on the lens barrel, you can set the focus of the lens without looking through (or at) a viewfinder. If your subject is 5 meters away, simply rotate the lens to 5m, and snap off a shot from the waist. It takes a little bit of practice before you’re an accurate judge of distance, but it’s a valuable skill on the streets.

In addition, since rangefinder lenses are designed specifically for manual focusing, their focus rings are mechanically linked to the focus mechanism. Because of this, it’s very easy to set lens focus “by feel” — particularly for those lenses with tabs. Through practice, I always know a lens’ distance setting by simply feeling the rotational angle of the focus tab. Conversely, most modern lenses “focus by wire,” meaning there’s no mechanical correlation between the rotation of the lens and the actual focus distance.

Also, since rangefinder lenses have depth-of-field markings, I always know how much focusing “slop” I can play with. This, too, is extraordinarily handy. For example, if my 35mm lens is set to f/8 and focused to a bit more than 3m, then a quick glance at the lens barrel shows that everything from 2m to 8m will be in reasonable focus. That tells me I can shoot any subject between 2m and 8m without obsessing over focus. All these factors combine to make manual focusing actually faster and easier in street/candid situations than autofocusing. Obviously barrel markings aren’t limited to rangefinder lenses. However, since most modern cameras are autofocus and most photographers no longer bother to manually focus, lens manufacturers have stopped engraving distance markings on barrels — except for rangefinder lenses.

Reason 2: Because I frame shots by looking through a window, rather than through the lens itself, I can see everything that’s in front of my camera — and I see it with an extensive depth-of-field that’s limited only by my own eyesight. By contrast, when I look through an SLR’s viewfinder (or an electronic viewfinder on a mFT camera), I see the scene through the ‘eye’ of a ‘wide open’ camera lens. If I’m shooting through an f/2 lens, then I see the world in front of me with a shallow f/2 depth-of-field. If my camera is focused on a near object, then any distant objects appear blurred. Similarly, if my camera is focused on a distant object, then the near objects are blurred. If I’m focusing on something close-up and something interesting occurs in the distance, I’ll likely be unaware because of the limited depth-of-field. My situational awareness diminishes greatly with through-the-lens viewing and, if I’m performing candid, street or documentary photography, that means I’m going to miss situations I should be photographing. Compare this to a rangefinder, in which you look through a window, instead of through a lens. The window is clear and bright. There’s no strobing like an mFT. There’s no tunnel vision, like an SLR. There’s no need to hold the camera at arms’ length, like a point-and-shoot. Instead, your eye is free to wander the scene in front of your camera, unencumbered by limited depth-of-field, or other through-the-lens artifacts.

Reason 3: The rangefinder’s internal viewfinder always shows the same field of view, no matter what lens is mounted on the camera. With my eye pressed tightly against the Leica’s .72x viewfinder, I’ll see approximately a 24mm field of view. With a 50mm lens mounted on the camera, I see the same 24mm field of view, plus some frame lines demarcating how the 50mm lens will “crop” that view (see the viewfinder mockup photo earlier in this article). The result is that I can see, and therefor monitor the action going on outside the area being photographed. This is a gigantic benefit because, again, it gives me situational awareness. If I’m using an SLR or mFT, then I’m looking through the lens itself — I cannot see objects outside the frame. With a rangefinder, I’m aware of everything that’s in front of my camera, not just what my lens sees. This lets me time shots precisely, since I can see when something is about to enter the frame. Similarly, it lets me see other action outside the frame, and respond appropriately. Again, if your goal is documentary style photography, a rangefinder’s viewfinder keeps you in touch with your surroundings, and fully engaged with your environment.

Reason 4: I never lose sight of my subject. With all the other cameras — the ones that show you the view through the lens — you completely lose sight of your subject the instant you take a picture. Either the mirror flips up and out of the way (as with an SLR), or the screen freezes or blacks out (as with live view cameras). The result is that you, the photographer, are momentarily blind at exactly the moment you care about the most — the moment you take the photo. With a rangefinder, you’re looking through a window, not the lens. Taking a photo never obscures your view of the subject — you always have your window on the world and, again, your situational awareness.

Reason 5: Using a rangefinder, I can simply flip a little lever to bring up different framelines within my viewfinder. If, for example, I want to see how much of a scene would be captured with a 90mm lens, I don’t actually have to mount the 90mm lens to find out — I simply poke the frame select lever, and the 90mm framelines appear — allowing me to select the right lens instantly.

Reason 6: Rangefinders and mFT cameras share one major advantage over SLRs — neither has a large reflex mirror that needs to snap up and out of the way every time you take a photo. This provides two benefits: First, the cameras are quieter. And, if you get a rangefinder with a cloth shutter (like my M6 TTL), they’re quieter still. Second, you can handhold much longer shutter speeds with a rangefinder than with an SLR. The rapid speed at which an SLR’s mirror swings up generates a lot of internal vibration. As a ‘rule of thumb,’ SLR shooters know they can’t reliably handhold a camera with a shutter speed any slower than “1 over the focal length.” With a 50mm lens on an SLR, that means the slowest shutter speed you can safely handhold is 1/50s. Rangefinders easily let me double that and, with a soft release and good technique, I can sometimes handhold a 50mm lens at 1/15s — again, its all about being able to adapt quickly and effortlessly to your environment.

Reason 7: As with the previous reason, this is more of a justification for choosing a rangefinder over an SLR than an mFT but, in general, rangefinder lenses are demonstrably smaller and lighter than their SLR counterparts. I can easily and inconspicuously carry a couple extra rangefinder lenses in a pocket — no bag required. Try that with your SLR! With smaller lenses and a smaller camera, I can dodge and weave through a scene easily, and not draw too much attention to myself or my camera (the following photo excepted).

Reason 8: The fidelity-to-size ratio. My Leica has a full-frame 35mm sensor — 4 times larger than the sensor in an mFT — yet the camera is roughly the same size as one of the popular mFT bodies. My images are cleaner, crisper, and possess much greater dynamic range than any mFT camera. Yet I don’t have to put up with the bulk or weight of a full frame SLR in order to achieve images of this quality.

Reason 9: The camera doesn’t fight me. Photographers have only four parameters to set when taking a picture: 1) ISO/film speed, 2) aperture opening, 3) shutter speed, and 4) focus. Does a camera really need to have hundreds of different modes and options, all of which are designed to automatically set these four parameters so the photographer doesn’t have to? Personally, I think it’s easier and more beneficial to spend the time to learn the basics of photography — how to control these four parameters and how they interact — rather than to spend it learning to use a camera’s myriad gimmicks and gadgets. Every “gee whiz” camera I’ve ever owned has put unnecessary and obstructive barriers between me and the four basic parameters. Leica M-series cameras (and most other models of rangefinder) all assume that the photographer knows more about how he wants to capture a specific scene than does a generic computer program… and they’re right!

Reason 10: Leicas are built for use, not for coddling. This may seem a curious statement, since some Leica owners actually do coddle their cameras — displaying them in glass cabinets as if they were priceless museum artifacts. For me, Leicas are priceless — as rugged photographic tools, and not as objects d’art. And it’s this ruggedness that makes them so valuable on the streets. Instead of plastic, the camera body is built from a high-strength magnesium alloy. Instead of plastic, the camera is wrapped in vulcanite. Instead of plastic, the top and bottom plates are machined from single, solid blocks of brass. The camera is built like an actual tool, and not just this years’ disposable photographic toy.

So, __________ (insert your name here). I’m sure you can see why I invited you to visit my website, rather than having this discussion on the street. Obviously, there is no such thing as a perfect camera, and different types of cameras excel at different types of photography. I am, in no way, trying to suggest that a rangefinder is the “best” camera, nor that a Leica is the “ideal” rangefinder to own. In fact, I can assure you that if you shoot sports, wildlife or macros, then a rangefinder is definitely not the camera for you. But if you’re looking to shoot a lot of candid or ‘documentary’ type photography, then a real rangefinder’s size, responsiveness, situational awareness, build quality, and image quality might be just what you’re after.

Hope to see you again sometime. Happy shooting!




©2010 grEGORy simpson

ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “The Art Of Being Awesome” and “A Spontaneous Display of Canadian Exuberance: Canada Day 2010″ were both taken with a Leica M9 and a v4 Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron lens. “Invisibility Malfunction” was shot using that same lens, but on a Leica M6 TTL, loaded with Tri-X film rated at ISO 1600, and developed in Diafine.

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