All posts tagged viewfinder

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.

It has been about ten weeks since I bought my first rangefinder, a Leica IIIc built in 1946 and a 1949 Summitar 50mm f2 lens. I was first interested in getting a Nikon F3 which was the tool I used for my newspaper work almost thirty years ago. I actually sold the first one, missed it so much I bought the same model again and later stupidly sold it too. I still miss the F3 and will probably buy a third one some time! So why buy a Leica? I always was intrigued by rangefinders but could never afford one. Now some models are old enough to be affordable on the used market. My IIIc was only $220. I liked the experience so much that I bought an M4-P.



Street photography is pretty close to what I used to do for the paper. The exception being that I had a valid reason to photograph people and could explain myself. That gave me the confidence to shoot strangers without having to worry about answering questions about my motives. Now I take photos as an art, or at least I try to.. I must be discreet.. Hence the choice of a rangefinder instead of an SLR like the F3, or worse, one the the huge modern DSLRs. Here are the advantages I find with the rangefinder:

Size: My M4-P is smaller than a single lens reflex and yet it performs as well or better in some areas. The lenses are smaller as well, especially compared to autofocus lenses which contain electronics. A small camera means that people perceive me as an amateur or a tourist. They often think I am taking images of something behind them. Having a small camera pointed at them is not threatening compared to a large DSLR with an imposing zoom. With my Leica I am nearly invisible. I don’t want my subject to pose, which most people do when photographed, even unconsciously. We have been conditioned to smile at the camera since early childhood. For street photography smaller is better.

Chiefland Florida

Chiefland Florida

Silence: Press the shutter button on a Nikon and you get a loud “claclang” from the mirror slapping the bottom of the prism, on top of the shutter noise. Not to mention the motor that may advance the film or just re-arm the shutter in a digital SLR. The Leica shutter sound is a quiet “snik” from the fine tuned components and fabric shutter material. It is very hard to hear even from a few feet away. Most of the time my subjects have no idea I took their picture. I never had anyone turn their head as the shutter went off. Here is an abstract from the Vermont Supreme Court Etiquette for Media:

Not more than one still photographer, utilizing not more than two still cameras with not more than two lenses for each camera and related equipment for print purposes shall be permitted in any court proceeding. Such cameras shall produce no greater sound than a 35mm Leica “M” Series rangefinder camera.

Leicas are well known and appreciated for their quietness. Go photograph some drug dealer on the street behind his back and you’ll understand the necessity for stealth. I avoid being sneaky as much as possible but in some cases you don’t want to be heard.

Focusing: The rangefinder is very easy and fast to focus. There is a rectangle patch in the middle of the viewfinder with a ghost image. It’s like seeing double, literally. As you turn the focus ring on the lens the two images merge. That’s when you are in focus. I much prefer manual focus because you know for sure what you are focusing on. Autofocus systems still get confused sometimes, I don’t.

Framelines: While the IIIc is pretty much a 50mm proposition, my M4-P has framelines for 28, 35, 50, 75, 90 and 135mm lenses. Not only do I see the frameline for the lens I use, but I also can see around the frame. If anything comes into the frame from the side I can see it. This helps composition because I can see what’s outside but near the frame borders in the viewfinder.

Amish Women

Amish Women

Viewfinder in the corner: With the viewfinder in the upper left corner of the camera body my face is not obstructed. People can see who is behind the camera. They can see me smile. They see a human taking a photograph, not just a camera on top of a neck. Subjects react better to a friendly face than to a piece of glass and plastic. The photographer seems less “sneaky.” I think it does make a big difference in how the photographer is perceived.

Slow speeds: Because the rangefinder doesn’t have a mirror there is less vibrations. That means being able to take sharp photos with a lower shutter speed than an SLR. My M4-P is pretty heavy for it’s size, further diminishing vibrations. Since a lot of interesting photo opportunities occur at night, slow speed capabilities is rather important. I would not hesitate to use my 50mm at 1/15th on my Leica.

Of course it’s not all advantages. A rangefinder can’t focus at very close range and will not accept lenses longer than 135mm. It isn’t a good choice for sports or macro but neither is a DSLR for street or candid photography in my opinion. Sometimes what you see in the viewfinder isn’t exactly what you get due to parallax errors. You can’t check your depth of field either since you aren’t looking through the lens.

I mentioned Leica because they popularized the rangefinder and still manufacture both film and digital models. There is just nothing like a Leica when it comes to build quality and awesome lenses. Other brands offer them like Voightlander with their Bessa models, some manual like the R2M. My dream Leica would be the M Monochrom ($8K), a B&W-only digital model, way out of my reach. To anyone starting I would suggest getting a used film model like the M4-P or M6 (with a meter), and if you lack the funds, the aforementioned R2M at $670. Leica lenses are expensive even used but they only increase in value and are a good investment. New, they go from $2K to $11K, but you can find them used on Ebay for a few hundred. Other manufacturers make compatible lenses for much less, like Zeiss and Voightlander, both manufactured by Cosina in Japan and of good quality. The only affordable digital Leica is the M8 (and M8.2) but screens are no longer available, so if you break yours you’re “SOOL.” The Fuji X100S is a good alternative to a digital Leica but not a real rangefinder.

No matter what camera you own, I suggest you take it to the street. Start looking for unusual characters and situations. Learn to frame them correctly. Composition is the most important aspect of street photography. Learn from the best, Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Robert Frank, etc. There is a lot to be learned from other’s photographs. Bottom line is, it’s fun! I love the excitement of waiting to develop a film when you suspect a great image might be on it. It also gets you out of the house and walking. I was spending way too much time between my house and favorite coffee shop… Now I travel more to various locales to photograph people. It does improve my mood and my health. I even believe it has improved my work. I carry my M4-P everywhere I go. You never know when you’ll see a great image.