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  • Mark Wylie

Using a Leica M

I’ve used a fair number of cameras for street photography, but the system that I have used - and continue to use - the most is the Leica M rangefinder system. Currently, I mainly shoot on a digital M10-P and M10 Monochrom, but I also use an MP film camera when certain projects come along. In this article, I am going to talk about my shooting experience of using this type of camera. This is not a pros and cons article of rangefinder photography or about the cult of Leica, but it is about what I have learnt over the years of shooting these quirky little machines.

My set up has changed over time as my photography has changed. In the early days, I pretty much exclusively used a 50mm lens. I still use a 50mm lens, but not that often now as my photographic style changed around three to four years ago. I became less focused on candid street portraits and more interested in capturing the context in which people operate. This led me to use lenses like 28 and 35mm. I’ve ended up sticking with the 35mm as it is the Swiss army of knife of lenses, wide enough to capture a scene, useful for portraits and fine for close up images of people if you are a budding Bruce Gilden. It’s a very versatile lens to use.

My set up is very simple with a camera, lens and spare battery being often all I need. I don’t find that I really need much more for general street and documentary photography. An advantage of getting to know a specific focal length is that you learn to ‘see’ scenes in terms of that lens’ angle of view. I can look at a scene and nowadays pretty much know what will and won’t be in the image, which helps with pre-visualisation (more on this later).

For me, the quickest way to use the camera on the street is to zone focus (or range focus as it is also known). Zone focusing is where you set the aperture on the lens to a larger number (usually F8 or F11), which can give you a large depth of field. With the 35mm at F8 anything from 9ft to infinity is in focus. This means that I don’t need to worry about fiddling around with the focus and the rangefinder patch. My lens has a focus tab on it, which makes it easy to focus by feel. I usually keep things simple when zone focusing and either set the tab to a ‘near’ setting (meaning anything from around 3 to 8 feet is in focus) and a ‘far’ setting, which is the 9 foot to infinity setting. When I first started with this approach, I would practice moving the lens tab by feel to the ‘correct’ position as I walked around in quiet moments. After a while, it gets pretty second nature, meaning that I didn’t need to think about it, and that my mind can be more fully focused on what is unfolding before my eyes.

Using an M10 series camera, I can set it up so that the aperture is at F8, the shutter fires at a minimum of around 1/250 to 1/500th second (there is a setting in menu that allows me to set a minimum shutter speed), depending on the conditions, and I just leave the camera on auto ISO. It’s then basically a glorified point and shoot. Once the camera is set up, the main thing really is to make sure that it is ready to go. My camera will go to sleep after a few minutes of inactivity, meaning that you need to tap the shutter to wake it up. As the camera can take a couple of seconds to do this, it can mean that you are just watching a scene evaporate before your eyes as the camera refuses to do anything. To cover this, I either tap the camera as I approach people to get it moving, or I tap it just before I raise it to my eye. By the time it gets to my eye, it’s often ready to go.

One of the main advantages of using a rangefinder is that of pre-visualisation. Pre-visualising how a scene will look recorded helps me to predict how the elements within that view will work together. It also increases my level of engagement with the world around me, as in order to capture an image of a scene I find that it helps to imagine how elements might be moving together into some sort of whole. When looking through the viewfinder everything is in focus, unlike with a DLSR or mirrorless where often the lens is wide open to increase the amount of light available. For me, when using those types of cameras, I tend to shoot more wide open with the focus being on specific elements in the scene. WIth a rangefinder, everything is in focus as you are obviously not looking through the lens. This has a considerable impact on how I think about images, meaning that quite often rangefinder photos tend to lean towards layering and multiple elements combining within a scene.

Many people want to buy black cameras as they are apparently more stealthy. It’s true that you get noticed more with a silver camera, but in practice, I never really noticed any difference between the camera types in terms of visibility - both are equally obvious! What’s more important is my approach to shooting when out in public places. For me, I tend to treat it as ‘work’. I know that when I put my ‘I am working hat’ on, I give myself more reason to push into less comfortable territory than if I think I am just doing it for ‘fun’. In the second case, it’s easier to find excuses to back out. However, it is fun!

My style tends to change and evolve over time, but generally speaking I see my approach as a spatial one. Sometimes I will step back and document the scene, but at other times I will move in much closer if the situation demands it. I find that the more contextual shots encourage reflectiveness, peace and harmony, whilst the close up shots have more immediacy, energy, disharmony and a much stronger sense of being ‘in the moment’.

When I am shooting the big scene images, I often have time to set up the shot and compose it precisely. The up close images, require a different approach. In these situations there are three factors that help me to get images (assuming the camera is set up right): speed, timing and accuracy.

As moments can come and go so quickly on the street, it’s naturally important to be able to speedily react to what is happening in a situation. Once a moment has gone, it’s gone forever. Therefore, I always keep the camera in my hand with a short camera strap ( Annie Barton Sensuality) securing the camera in case it falls out of my hand. I don’t like wearing a camera around my neck or sling style, both feel slow and cumbersome in comparison to just holding it. For me, an M10 and a 35 summicron is a weight that I can comfortably hold in my hand for hours. I find my 50mm summilux, the silver brass version, causes my wrist to ache after a while (so I can see why the new M11 is lighter in the black version, as I suspect Leica know that most people hold their cameras in a similar way to me, in the hand).

Timing is important (particularly amongst suspicious people). I tend to use the Winogrand approach of quickly raising the camera, shooting, and dropping it again so that people either (a) don’t notice that I have taken the shot at all or (b) are uncertain if I did or didn’t click the shutter. Either way, I usually just stare beyond people to make it appear that my attention was elsewhere other than on them.

Of course, if you are reacting quickly to a situation and trying to time the actions right, then it pays to be accurate. After all, it’s no point seeing something and shooting quickly if what appears on the LCD screen afterwards is completely different to what you imagined would happen. This is probably the trickiest part, as it relies on being able to quickly assess the scene and the composition in a few mere moments. I’m still practising this!

So these are just some of the things that i have picked up about using rangefinder style cameras. In some ways, they are very simple to use (such as when focusing with the rangefinder patch), but in other ways, they take quite some time to become proficient with, such as when zone focusing. The main idea really is to practice, practice and then practice some more.

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