camera

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I’ve owned quite a few cameras, film and digital. Some were used for newspaper work, most for artistic purposes or personal memories. Lately I have been drawn to candid photography trending between street and documentary. Not all cameras are created equal for the purpose and I will explain my choices here pertaining to digital cameras.

Film cameras are not the focus of this post, but anyone wanting one can check out used Leicas on Ebay. I particularly like the M2. You can find a lot of cheaper older IIIc models, but they might need some work. My M4-P was also a great camera. Leicas are the Rolls Royces of film cameras and have been documenting life in the hands of the greatest photographers since before World War II. So no contest there, they are built like Swiss vaults. Their digital cameras, I wouldn’t bother unless I was rich and would consider them disposable.

A street camera should be discreet, meaning small. When a subject sees you take their photograph they change. It’s like quantum mechanics! The observer changes the state of the subject. You do not want people to see you take their photo. You don’t see actors looking straight at the camera in movies, there are good reasons for this. There are exceptions of course and street portraits can be beautiful, but generally, you want to be a ninja photographer. This practically eliminates DSLRs which today are huge with large lenses. That leaves mirrorless cameras.

Panasonic Lumix GM5

Panasonic Lumix GM5

The first feature I find necessary is a viewfinder. Taking a photo with the back screen is an exercise I don’t want to get used to. I can’t understand why anyone would buy a camera without one. I find it much more natural and easier to frame an image through a viewfinder, and I like it to be in the corner, not in the middle where it forces you to hide your face behind the camera. If your subject sees you, better have a smile on your face, it might avoid you some trouble, looking like some pervert taking snapshots for dubious reasons.

Size matters, as far as sensors are concerned. Though image quality isn’t the primary focus in Street and documentary photography, a minimum of resolution is necessary. I consider three sizes of sensors to be large enough for the task: Full frame, APS-C and Micro-4/3rd. Bigger is better, but larger sensors mean a larger and sometimes more expensive camera. I used a Fuji X100S with an APS-C sensor producing unbelievable images, but it always felt flimsy and indeed died after 5K shots. I now have opted for Micro-4/3rd (Lumix GM5) which are smaller and just good enough with quality prime lenses (fixed focal, not zooms). Forget megapixels, today they are meaningless. Anything with 10mp or above is plenty. Spend money on good glass, not more megapixels.

Depending on where you live and the type of photography you like, you might want to get a weather sealed camera and lenses. You will pay a premium but if you don’t mind working in the rain, more power to you. If you hope to work for a newspaper of press agency, it is a must. Cameras like the Fuji X-Pro2 or Sony a6300 would be prime examples, though Sony has few lenses available and fewer bright ones even. Fuji, I am suspicious about now. Olympus has great OM-D models but with the viewfinder in the wrong place (for me). I wish their new Pen-F model was weather-sealed. I am now in the North of France and ordered a Lumix GM5 which is not weather sealed. That will limit my time outside quite a bit, given that it rains an average of 220 days a year here, which is why I don’t plan on staying too long! My next camera might be an Olympus OM-D E-M5 MkII, too bad for the viewfinder position, but it is a pretty rugged camera.

That is pretty much it. Again, the lenses are where you should spend your money. Get a 35mm equivalent: 23mm for APS-C and 17mm for Micro-4/3rd. A 35mm is always a 35mm on Full frame of course, and be done with it. Avoid zooms, there are just too many optical elements in them and quality suffers. Try to get a lens with an aperture of 2.8 or brighter (2.0, 1.8, 1.4…) if you can afford one. Get a spare battery and memory card. I also like to get a UV filter to protect my lenses, and a small metal lens hood.

I will review the Panasonic Lumix GM5 as soon as I get it (Monday) and take a couple hundred shots. They have been discontinued unfortunately, and there are a few remaining in stock, so if you want one, hurry up if you don’t want to have to buy a used one. They are also fairly cheap for a Micro-4/3rd. camera with a kit lens included. The GM5 is small and has all the features I want in a street camera but the weather sealing, including price.

In another life, on another continent, I used to work as a photographer for a daily newspaper. The job was fun. I was eighteen, zooming around with my Nikons on a sports bike from town to town. There were no digital cameras back then, computers could barely spell-check. The action was in the dark room as well as the field. My father had set-up such a room adjacent to my bedroom. I was processing film and making prints every other day.

Photography took me from being a shy teenager to a more confident young man. I remember one of my first assignment when I was supposed to take a group photograph in a large hall. “Would you please gather for a photo?” Nobody even glanced at me. I grabbed a chair, climbed on it, and yelled the same request. Now I had their attention. It was a little intimidating but it worked, and I used the same method henceforth.

After starting with a Practika and an OM-10, I became a Nikon guy: FA, F3, F5. I loved the F3 but can’t remember the F5 much. The technology was already becoming intrusive. Too many buttons, too much electronics, and an auto-focus that could not keep up. The new cameras didn’t make better pictures. After all, the camera body is just a black box with a hole in it and a shutter. The lens is what matters. I always suggest friends to make sure the lens they buy costs more than the camera. No cheap zooms!

When digital started invading, it was too much for me. I hated the grainy pictures and excessive features of the cameras. Lenses and camera bodies became plastic. I was done. I kept my F3 for many years but then sold it. I’ll have to buy another one some time!

Fast forward twenty four years.. I started reading about photography online, rangefinders in particular. I had thought that film was dead for sure, and the last few rolls were displayed in some old museum. Not so it seemed. I found the Rangefinder Forum and started reading..

Rangefinders are different from SLR cameras. You don’t see through the lens. They have a window in the left corner through which you focus and compose your images. Sometimes that task is even divided between two small windows. It gives you a nice clear view of your subject and often a bit around it. The absence of a mirror reduces vibrations and noise. It is the street photography camera par excellence. Some of the most famous photographers used rangefinders, like Henri Cartier Bresson. The best rangefinders are made by Leica, the company that practically invented the 35mm camera in 1913.

I used to dream about buying a Leica M6 back then, but it cost a small fortune. Not so much anymore on Ebay! Still, out of my budget at the moment. I went for a 1946 Leica IIIc ($220) and a Summitar 50mm/f2 lens from 1949. What a great camera! The rangefinder is very small and needs some attention. I can barely see the ghost image, which makes focusing very difficult. All the knobs are very stiff, but the camera looks great.

Leica IIIc

Leica IIIc

Summitar 2/50 on IIIc

Summitar 2/50 on IIIc

I will send it to Youxin Ye for a CLA (Cleaning, Lubrication, Adjustment) after I finish the test film Iam shooting right now. I also ordered a Zorki 4K on Ebay ($50 shipped) from Russia so I wouldn’t be without a camera. It will use my Leica Summitar Lens. The Zorki is a very interesting camera in it’s own right, an “improved” Leica copy. It would be a good first film rangefinder. Even with a Russian lens included, these cameras are very affordable.

Zorki 4K

Zorki 4K

A modern alternative to a classic Leica, other than a $5000 new Leica, would be a Voightlander R2M, R2A, R3M, R3A, R4A or R4M. The “M” means manual, “A” means automatic. The M models will work even with dead batteries. Other Leica copies are good on the used market, such as the Canon P, Minolta CLE and the Nikon viewfinders. The most interesting Leica models, for me, are the M2, M4 and M6. I will eventually buy a used M6. The Russian copies are made by Zorki and FED.

Why use film? Even though digital quality has recently caught up with film, sort of, film quality is way up there. I favor black-and-white. It has a certain charm and look. Today scanning negatives seems to be the norm. I plan on getting a dedicated film scanner an later, an enlarger for prints. A little bit at a time. I do have other projects and need to pace myself. Also keep in mind that your digital camera will be obsolete in six months due to “digital rot.” Old Leicas in many cases will increase in value, though not always. They will never go below a certain price however. The Nikon D1X. The must-have $5,500 camera of 2003, today worth about $75 to $250.

If you are one of my local friends, I could develop B&W negatives for you and scan them, just ask (not for free). I am not sufficiently equipped yet for any photographic job. This will remain a hobby at this time. I might make a few tutorial videos on developing. In any case you can expect photography related articles in the near future.

Photographing a lightning storm is easier than it seems, assuming you have the right camera and a bit of luck and patience. The same technique applies to fireworks. People wonder how I took the photo below right when lightning struck. I’ll let you in on the secret…

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

I didn’t. No amount of expresso could make anyone that fast! The shot is actually of three different lightning events a few minutes apart.

First, you’ll need a camera that has what is called a pause ‘B’ or ‘T’ speed setting. Yes, that’s what those two you never used are for! Pause B keeps the shutter open as long as you keep the shutter button pressed. Pause T keeps the shutter open until you change the setting. So, pause T is better because you don’t need to keep pressing the button and risking moving the camera, which by the way must be on a tripod.

Choose a low sensitivity film, like 25 or 50 asa/iso. Your exposure will last a few minutes and you don’t want to over-expose the background or get thick lightning looking like a defective lightsaber.. Same goes for digital cameras. A fast setting or film will increase the grain, you’ll lose details.

You’ll have to play with the f stop. I like to start with 4 or 5.6. I tend to avoid lenses that can’t open to at least 2.8. No matter what your lens is, open to at least one stop over the minimum, two is better. Lenses usually do not perform at their best at the extreme of their aperture range.

Get a thick, black piece of fabric like felt to cover the lens. A plastic cap would work, but you risk moving the camera. Make sure no light will enter the lens when you hold it in front of it. Now you just have to wait for the perfect storm! And by the way, don’t expose yourself in an open field or too close to the storm, lightning is a dangerous subject. I took the photo out of an appartment balcony for protection.

Now you’re ready! Lightning all over, your camera is up, you’re standing there in your yellow raincoat holding an old fedora to cover your lens. Open the shutter. Remove the hat! Count seconds (I tap my foot for rhythm). Bam! You got one, cover the lens (keep the shutter open) stop counting. Bam! Shit, you missed that one. Wait a bit, uncover, count… Wham! Number two is in. Close the shutter. Note the exposure time and f stop for future reference. Do it all over again…

With a bit of practice, you will produce amazing photos. There are many other interesting things you can photograph at night with a long exposure, and that are no doubt less dangerous than a storm. Look at the photo below:

Marina Jack in Sarasota

Marina Jack in Sarasota

The exposure was 20 minutes! I was getting pretty bored, but the result was worth the wait. The light traces are of car headlights and taillights. You don’t see the cars because they were not long enough in front of the camera to imprint the film.

Have fun with this technique! I’d like to see pictures posted in the comments.. Questions are welcome. Merry Christmas everyone 🙂

Gil.