Friday, February 01, 2008

Rangefinders and Me

Most people don't care what camera they have or if they do take some time to choose they will pick the one with the most mega-pixels or the smallest dimensions. Both of these are important factors but there are some profound effects that different cameras can have on the way we take photographs. I've been thinking a lot about this since I finally saved up enough to get a Leica M8, the digital rangefinder camera and have been reacquainting myself with rangefinder photography.

Over many years of using, film, digital, large-format, medium-format, 35mm Single Lens Reflexes (SLRs) and rangefinders I find that each type of camera has a different character that combined with my own psychological peculiarities profoundly affect the photographs I take.

A quick run through how I got where I am now for context. My first "proper" camera was a second-hand Olympus OM-2, a camera I bought when I was 13 or so.

It was a lovely small 35mm SLR and I used that until I was 18 when my dad allowed me to borrow his medium-format Bronica SQ on a semi-permanent basis.

I used this camera until I was about 20 when my grandfather left me some money in his will with strict instructions to spend it on something. At the time my favourie photographers were Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz, both of whom used Leicas. And so it was that I got my father to pick up a second hand Leica M6 and a 1970s 50mm Summicron lens for me from Campkins Cameras in Cambridge.

I still remember handling it for the first time, the way it felt so natural in my hands. I'd loved the compactness of my OM-2 but for years I'd been used to the Bronica and Mamiyas at college. It was a breath of fresh air to have so small a camera again.

For anyone who has never used a rangefinder camera (which all Leica M series are) it is somewhat different to a SLR. Firstly you don't look through the lens, you look through a viewfinder that presents you with a much wider view of your surroundings. Going back to an SLR feels like looking down a tunnel in comparison. Second rangefinders are smaller than SLRs because they don't have all the mirrors and pentaprisms that SLRs need in order to allow you to look through the lens that puts the light onto the film (or sensor these days). This lack of extra mecahnicals has the added benefit of relative quiet. A rangefinder is much quieter when you press the shutter as the camera has no mirror to quickly get out of the way. Many perople do not like rangefinders because they can't accept long telephoto lenses, are seldom auto-focus and don't give you a depth-of-field preview. Certainly were I a wildlife or sports photographer whose stock in trade is long lens shots I would not choose a rangefinder.

So why do they work so well for me? well the majority of photographs I take tend to be of people within the context of an environment or of an environment alone. In both instances the position and relationship of the me, the photographer, to the scene is very important. I like my photographs to give the viewer the feeling of being a participant in the scene, to be within the environment rather than voyeuristically looking on from afar. For this reason I've never liked using long lenses for my pictures as they have the inbuilt quality of removing the viewer from the centre of the action and compressing depth.

When taking photographs I find the wider viewfinder puts me within my surroundings more; I feel part of the scene rather than feeling like I'm only observing a tiny proprtion of it through the lens. Seeing more than I can shoot helps me anticipate action, enables me to play with different compositions more easily, work out whether I need to move closer to or back off from my subject and all the while knowing that the camera is quiet and discreet enough not to become the centre of attention.

When I finally made the decision to go digital (a mixture of not being able to find the chemicals I liked to use for film processing anymore and a desire for an easier life) I opted to get a Canon 20D, the best semi-pro digital SLR available at the time.

It is a very fine camera but I do have complaints though they would equally apply to any other modern SLR. Firstly, compared to the Leica it is huge. It is very hard to work disreetly; the camera is so big and loud that it draws attention to itself at once; you become the centre of the action rather than reacting to what is going on unobtrusively. Second it tries to automate everything. I find that the more I have to concentrate, the more I take better pictures. By forcing me to focus manually, as the Leica does, I feel more connected to the scene. You can, of course, use Canon lenses without the auto-focus but the manner of their construction is so biased toward automatically focussing that using the lenses manually is rather like driving a car with powered steering compared to one without. I don't feel directly connected to the mechanics of the camera as I do with a fully manual lens.

Similarly I find being forced to manually select aperture and shutter speed also concentrates my mind though this works equally well on the Canon as it does on the Leica so this is not to praise one sort of camera over the other.

Many people vastly prefer auto-focus and auto-exposure because it frees them to concentrate only on composition and when to fire the shutter. I can totally understand that viewpoint but it doesn't work for me. The less I have to do, the lazier and less focussed I become. I end up with
very voyeuristic photographs, exercises in composition rather than photos where I am involved in the action. The Leica, being in effect totally manual, makes me work for my photographs whilst its design and dimension allow me to position myself within an environment and work without becoming the centre of attention, without contaminating the scene too much with my presence. It is for this same reason that I don't use flash, it attracts too much attention to itself, but that's a topic for another post in its own right.

So my point is that there is no "best camera" out there for everyone. I've used pretty much every type of camera there is and I can see merits and applications for all of them (except the Leica R9 which is as God-awful a piece of expensive rubbish as I can think of and I still don't understand what my dad sees in his) but everyone has differing priorities and needs. Choosing the right camera is more than looking in at the brochures to see which is the latest and has the most megapixels. It has to feel right, to sit in your hand and come to your eye naturally. The more your camera helps you concentrate on the moment of taking the picture and the more it feels like an extension of your eye into the world the better the photographs you take will be.

Here are a few photogaphs I don't think I'd have been able to take with a non-rangefinder camera. Rangefinders aren't for everyone but they really work for me:

Heg Quizzical

A Tourist, A Pigeon and Admiral of the Fleet, The First Earl Jellicoe



Lazy Afternoon

Quiet on the Building Sites


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Blogger wickedjoey said...

awesome pictures! I like them!

4:22 pm  
Blogger Mr Atrocity said...

Thank you wickedjoey, you are very kind.

6:37 pm  

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