Would Henri Cartier-Bresson use a Leica today?

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My Leica M-E coupled with a 35mm Summicron. The best street camera? Not really.

Talk about street photography and two names will come to mind: Henri Cartier-Bresson (HCB) and Leica.

For one, the French master pioneered the concept of candid photography and famously published a book entitled “The Decisive Moment”, a catchphrase that became associated with street photography ever since.

HCB used Leica 35mm film rangefinders. Why? Because this was over half a century ago when large medium format twin-lens reflex cameras and 4 x 5 press cameras were the common gear. HCB preferred something smaller and more discreet, so that he could shoot unnoticed, and back then the Leica rangefinder was a mini-camera. HCB would then wrap his Leica’s chrome body with black tape to make it less conspicuous.

And with all this a myth was born.

I. Is the rangefinder really the best camera for street photography today?

First things first, I’m being a provocateur here. The purpose of this post is to debunk the whole idea that the rangefinder is the perfect camera for street photography, as advocated by many photo bloggers everywhere in the internet. Most of these photographers most likely had never used a rangefinder camera of any sorts in their lives – they just keep repeating what others say about this topic. Over and over again, they are the first to tell you that the rangefinder is the best street photography camera.

I’m a proud owner of a Leica M-E and I have two beautiful Leica lenses – a 35mm Summicron and a 50mm Summilux – that in no way I’m going to part ways with. This was my first Leica set and thus it’s got a special place in my gear collection.

But for street photography?

Yes, I can use my Leica and I had used it indeed quite diligently and with interesting results. But does it beat my other cameras for street shooting, say my Olympus OMD-EM5 or my Fujifilm X-E3 with whatever micro 4/3 or Fujinon lens, respectively, or my recently purchased Sony RX1R II?

No effing way.

Below are the most common bullshit theories you will read from photo bloggers that tell us the rangefinder IS the best camera for street photography. And my response based on my de facto experience using a Leica M-E in the streets.

II. “The rangefinder is discreet.”

Yes, indeed it is. And so is every camera that is not a DSLR with a zoom lens or a large medium format beast. Remember, HCB used Leicas because in those days Leica was one of the few camera manufacturers, or maybe even the only one, producing 35mm film mini-cameras. So it’s not that HCB had much choice.

Not the same now. You got all the mirrorless cameras which are as small as a Leica or even smaller, and able to produce stellar results. And if being discreet and unnoticed is the rule of the game, how about shooting waist level with a flip-out screen? Your subject will hardly know you are taking a photo as you are not raising the camera to your eye and pointing towards your subject. Can’t do this with a rangefinder. With some of the latest mirrorless cameras, you can even trigger the shutter by touching the screen, leaving the shutter button alone. Want to be more discreet than this?

III. “The rangefinder’s shutter sound is unobtrusive.”

Now this is relative. Yes, a DSLR with its mirror box click-clacking every time you press the shutter button is obviously noisier than a rangefinder AND any other type of camera with no mirror box.

But to state that every rangefinder’s shutter sound is unobtrusive is really not accurate. Take my Leica M-E as an example. Every time I press the shutter I get the following sound sequence: (1) click (2) wheeeeez. The “click” is the focal plane shutter which is not the most silent to start with. But the subsequent “wheeeeez” ruins everything and that’s the shutter mechanism re-cocking itself. It sounds like a cheap film camera from the 90s advancing film. I don’t get any of this when using my other mirrorless cameras, especially my Sony RX1R II which is nearly silent with its leaf shutter.

By the way, this very notion of “silent shutter for street photography” makes me sick anyway. I don’t know where you shoot your street scenes, but normally I shoot mine in urban locations with background noise, so nobody will notice my shutter sound anyway – whatever camera I use, provided it is not a DSLR.

IV. “Through the viewfinder of the rangefinder you can see outside the framing lines, so you will anticipate subjects getting into your frame.”

I don’t want to be too harsh on this one because this is very personal and really depends on your habits. So my comments on this one are based on, let’s say, myself as a human being and the way I interact with my surroundings when I’m holding a camera.

When I’m walking around the streets with a camera, it’s not that I keep my eye in the viewfinder all the time. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite because I want to be discreet. So this whole thing about anticipation of subjects moving into the frame is bullshit for me. And really, what kind of person are you if you need this type of viewfinder to anticipate a scene? Do you walk around the streets with your eyes shut when not looking through the camera’s viewfinder?

Talking about anticipation and being able to see outside your framelines? How about this: use your camera’s back screen live view, have it turned on for quick checks on its framing, raise your head and look around, you get all the peripheral vision you need. I guess you can anticipate everything now, no?

As a matter of fact, when I’m using the 35mm Summicron lens, my Leica M-E’s frame lines are pretty much at the edge of the viewfinder, so is not that I can see much outside of the framelines anyway. Things get better when I use the 50mm Summilux because the frame gets smaller though, so you have to consider your viewfinder’s magnification factor, its framelines and the lens you are using.

Framelines: 35mm (top) and 50mm (bottom). Note the lens obstruction at the bottom right corner.

But one thing these so-called experts will never tell you, probably because they lack the experience: most likely the lower right corner of your framelines will get some sort of blockage from the lens. You did not anticipate this one, did you?

V. “Viewfinders from rangefinders are a joy to use because they are large and bright.”

The optical viewfinder of a good rangefinder is bright and clear and a massive difference compared to a DSLR because you are not looking through the lens. So from this point of view it’s quite cool. But these viewfinders do have their issues. The one that annoys me the most is how inaccurate your framing can become.

Firstly, because there is this thing called parallax error which is part of the rangefinder basics. And even though cameras like my Leica M-E do have parallax correction – you turn the focusing ring and the framelines will move in accordance with the distance – you still get a noticeable inaccuracy.

And secondly, because the framelines normally don’t represent 100% your frame size, they are usually a bit smaller. So if, like me, you appreciate accurate framing and composition when taking your shot, you will be frustrated. You will need to accept the fact that in many occasions, depending on the distance between the camera and the subject you are shooting, your photo will need some cropping afterwards.

If you ask me, and even though I love my Leica M-E and the clarity of its viewfinder, I much prefer an EVF because I can frame accurately and anticipate the exposure – the colours, the shadows, everything. I’ve owned both Fujifilms X-Pro 1 and X-Pro2, and with both cameras I used the EVF more than the OVF. To the point that I decided to sell both cameras and buy an X-E3.

VI. “The rangefinder is manual focus, so you use zone focusing and are always ready to shoot.”

The whole concept behind this is that by using zone focusing, you are effectively pre-focusing your lens for every scene that will unfold in front of you. So you are ready to shoot at any given time and don’t need to be concerned with autofocus speed, inaccuracy or any other AF related issue that will potentially ruin your shot.

I do use zone focusing when I’m out shooting with my Leica M-E and yes, it does liberate me in some way as I just frame and shoot. But hey, you can use zone focusing not only with a rangefinder camera, but with pretty much every camera that has a distance scale either in the lens body or digitally in the screen. So while zone focusing is cool, it’s not that you can use zone focusing ONLY with a rangefinder. In fact, I learned to zone focus in the very beginning of my photography life using my father’s Canon AE-1 film camera and it was an SLR. So you can take any camera to the streets and zone focus if this is your thing – it doesn’t need to be a rangefinder.

The problem of zone focusing though is that it does limit you as well. You have to use the appropriate aperture to make it work, and mostly this means stopping down all the way from f/8 to f/16. This will obviously slow down your shutter speeds and/or make you crank up your ISO. See where I’m getting? Now depending on your camera’s specs, this may or may not be a problem for you. With my Leica M-E it is a bit of a problem for me because high ISO is really not its strength. Anything above ISO 800 and luminance noise becomes an issue.

Now remember, when zone focusing with f/8 – f/16 you are not getting any subject separation from the background – no bokeh. You may positively argue that, for street photography, bokeh is a rarity because you are telling a story and therefore you want the surroundings and everything else to be in focus. But then maybe not and presetting this sort of rule limits your creativity anyway.

It all depends on the scenario and you may need subject separation. So you open up the aperture of the lens, drop zone focusing and with a rangefinder you will have to manual focus which will obviously slow down the process and make you potentially lose a photo opportunity. It happened to me countless times.

Not a problem if you use an autofocus camera. You can always zone focus with if this is your cup of tea. Turn on autofocus and discard zone focusing when you need a large aperture. Current mirrorless cameras offer quick autofocus and you can even take a shot by touching the screen in the exact location where you want your focus point to be, and that’s a very neat trick for street photography that a rangefinder camera will not offer you.

VII. “The rangefinder camera will slow you down.”

Because rangefinder cameras are manual, simple and basic, you don’t get the bells and whistles of mirrorless cameras or DSLRs and you won’t rely on the auto functions of your camera to set your exposure and focus. Thus you have to take full control, each photo will require more effort and this will “slow you down”, as opposed to shooting hundreds of photos carelessly. This is what the so-called experts say.

And I say this is total bullshit. You can – and you should! – slow down with whatever camera you use, period. Slowing down is about yourself, not the camera you are using. If you need a camera to control the way you approach photography, to “slow you down”, then you are sick. Perhaps it’s time for you to give up on photography and try another hobby. Fishing will slow you down.

VIII. Don’t get me wrong though: I still love my Leica 

Notwithstanding all my rant above, and for the sake of clarity. I don’t mean to be negative on rangefinder cameras. In fact, I still use my Leica M-E regularly, and I truly enjoy it because it is old school, it’s a unique experience and the results are top notch.

The purpose of this post is to debunk the idea that the rangefinder is the perfect camera for street photography. And my honest opinion, following all above, is that it is not.

From my own experience, I feel far more comfortable shooting in the streets with any of my mirrorless cameras than with my Leica. Generally speaking they are faster, lighter and more flexible than a rangefinder.

IX. How about Henri Cartier-Bresson? Would he still use a Leica today?

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Now let’s read this first, coming from HCB himself:

“Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening considerably our field of action. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique. Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see… The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing”.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’m under the impression that HCB didn’t actually care much about his gear, as long as it got out of his way and let him do his job, let him see.

Then what camera would he use today? Probably not a Leica rangefinder because it has no autofocus… In fact, I tend to think HCB would enjoy the convenience of the technology available today and switch the camera to auto-everything. Perhaps a Leica Q? Or a Ricoh GR III which is small, black and discreet?

Or maybe even an iPhone?.. I mean, why not?

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