Less is more
4 Oct 2009
If you want to make great photographs, leave your pro DSLR, your big heavy lenses and your tripod at home. You don't need them, they'll just get in your way.
This is everything I put in my bag when I want to do serious photography:
1) A notebook and a pen
2) My banged-up Leica M7
3) Three rolls of film.
People say rangefinders are harder to shoot than SLRs. In a sense, it's absolutely true. There is no auto-focus, no 3D matrix metering, no Program mode, no Auto White Balance to save your butt. Then again, with a rangefinder you don't have to fuss about menus and buttons and batteries and, gawd save us all, Face Recognition settings. You're back to the four fundamentals: frame, focus, aperture and speed. Nothing else. With a DSLR, you take pictures (lots of them, usually). With a rangefinder, you create photographs.
On top of the simplicity and sheer effectiveness of this camera, you also benefit from the stunning performance of Leica M lenses. Leitz has been making the best optics in the world for over a century, and it's because they just don't compromise. You won't find a Leica M zoom, they don't make one. Nor will you find an autofocus or motion-stabilized M lens. All Leica M lenses are hand-made, all-metal, optically superb primes. They have the uncanny ability to breathe life into your subjects, to reveal the subtleties of color and texture in a way that no other lens system can rival.
Paradoxically, another thing I love about the M7 is the constraint of film. You only have 36 frames. Each one costs money and loads of processing time. So tell me now: is *this* shot worth taking? Will you print it? If you're not sure, don't press the shutter.
So where does all this lead to? Well, for one you learn to take your time. You observe more. You train yourself to see the print before taking the shot. You suddenly realize that waiting is good. Waiting for the light. Waiting for the expression. Waiting for the moment. And, having mastered the four fundamentals with such a supremely well-crafted tool, when it all comes together you only press that release once. No need to look at a preview screen. No need to take a couple of other shots "just in case". You've already created your photograph and you know it.
Finally, a few words about discretion. My bag is an old ammo bag I got at the local surplus. It looks like hell. I lined the inside with pieces of rug and sheepskin. I've covered my M7 with black hockey tape, mostly to protect it, but also to be invisible. I don't have a neck strap with bright yellow brand names. In fact, I don't have a neck strap at all, just a wrist bungee with a clip I made from parts at the local hardware store. The small bungee lets me get the camera in and out of the bag very quickly. I just took a shot of you reading this article, did you notice?
My point is this: if they don't notice you, then your presence, the "presence of the photographer" won't be felt in the shot. And that makes a big, big difference in your ability to transmit the emotion of the moment to your viewers.
Don't get me wrong. I also own a complete pro DSLR system, with multiple bodies, big zooms and a couple of travel cases full of gear. I use it to cover specific assignments in sports, news and shows. I must say I get some pretty nice shots out of that gear. And there is simply no way to cover those events commercially with a rangefinder. It's just not fast enough. But when I look at everything I've done over the past 35 years as a photographer, there is a much higher ratio of great photographs that came out of that little black brick made by Leica.
Again, it's not only the gear itself. It's mostly the constraints it forces you to overcome that make all the difference.