Musings on Photography

M9 plans

Posted in EOS 5d mark II, equipment, Leica M9 by Paul Butzi on February 5, 2010


Ed Richards asks/comments:

I am curious about what you have in mind for the M9. What you have been posting for the last few years – since you went digital – does not strike me as M9 material. In fact, my assumption, based partially on my own rangefinder shooting a long time ago, is that the Lecia is a people camera first and last. (Maybe a dog camera as well, but you could not prove that be.)

Ah. Yes. People camera first and last. Yes, that’s the perception, I agree. Rangefinders have a reputation as the ideal ‘street photography’ camera. Street photography is, I guess, primarily about photographs of people. And, as Ed observe rather indirectly, I don’t do much photography of people. That’s because, by design, I don’t spend a great deal of time around people, and as a general rule it’s hard to photograph things you don’t spend much time around.

Some of that is, perhaps, an error of Callahanian slant; I have no desire to photograph people, but I’d like a camera with which I might photograph my wife. Or, as Ed points out, my dog. Specifically, I don’t photograph people I don’t know. And street photography is about photographing people you don’t know.

The other part of street photography is the streety bit. Again, by design, my life does not feature a lot of contact with streets. Where I live, we don’t call them streets, we call them roads.

Here’s the thing. Street photography is about making photographs in a situation where you want the camera small and light, because you have to carry it around for long periods. You want it unobtrusive, because you want to avoid the observer effect. And, because the scenes you’re trying to photograph are not just ephemeral, but fleeting and fugitive, you want a camera that handles well, can be operated quickly and with little fuss, and is, above all, responsive.

And by responsive, I mean “when you press the button, the shutter opens”. So you don’t want a camera that, when you press the button, the camera engages in lengthy deliberations about focus and exposure before deigning to open the shutter. You don’t want a camera that, having examined the focus situation, decides the lens is not in focus and refuses to let the shutter open. What you want is “when I press the button, the shutter opens RIGHT NOW”.

And this is because street photographers don’t stand around, camera viewfinder to eye, for hours on end waiting for the arrangement to be right, whereupon they open the shutter. They amble about, and when some quiet inner voice prompts them, they lift the camera to the eye, make any final femtosecond adjustments to focus or exposure, and let the shutter go. And then they go back to letting the camera hang by the strap, or hold it in their hand at their side. Street photography is a subset of what I’ll call ‘impulsive photography’, or maybe ‘intuitive photography’.

Impulsive photography is about feeling the impulse to make a photograph, and having the time needed to get to the point where the shutter opens be very short. There’s no time to get your mind in there, jiggering things up. Now, go read this blog post I wrote back in November 2009.

And that’s why I want an M9. For me, Leica M rangefinders are very much thoughtless cameras. And they are ideal for impulsive photography, even if you are nowhere close to a street filled with people you don’t know.

6 Responses

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  1. Juha Haataja said, on February 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    I debated whether to comment at the November 2009 post or here, but here goes. That (November post) really made me think about the approach to photography. I’m becoming more and more “rational”, passing by things which I have already taken photographs of, although the impulse is there, and now I wonder how much I have lost by not relying on the intuition. Great thanks!

  2. Paul said, on February 5, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Wow I still remember that post! I read it straight after coming up from the operating theatre at the local hospital after braking the ligaments in my left foot. It helped me see where I was heading and shed light on what I was already creating instinctively. My wife gave me a Panasonic GF1 for Christmas that´s the nearest thing I can get to an M9. I miss my M6 viewfinder, nevertheless it´s demanding and laborious on crutches with any camera at all.
    Your continual proficiency in evaluating your creative world is a beacon for my stumbling vision.

  3. Hugh Alison said, on February 5, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Loved the handling and speed of the Leica M2 when I had one, but viewfinders didn’t suit me.

    Eventually I settled on the Canon Eos RT – pellicle mirror, near instant shutter response (9 milliseconds shutter lag, compared to 20 for an M Leica and 65 for a pro SLR). Didn’t want anything else until digital came along in spite of the outdated autofocus.

    See the picture, take the picture. Absolutely thoughtless camera. Wish I could get that way with my 5D2.

    Watching your M9 adventure with great interest.

  4. Ed Richards said, on February 5, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks Paul!

    My first response is that B does not necessarily follow A, at least for the 400 pictures of the same thing. There are a number of things that shoot over and over again with my 4×5, because the light is never the same, and I am never the same.

    All the carry and easy use stuff makes perfect sense – the Leica is just right, and any full frame DSLR is too big. That part I get, and I am green with envy on the M9.:-) But the pictures you have been posting have been mostly wide open 100mm, with the composition depending to a great deal on the balance between in focus and out of focus drawing. You cannot see this at all with the rangefinder. More, these shots are pretty precisely focused and pretty close in – something even a Leica does not do very well wide open at 100mm.

    Facing this same problem, I have been thinking about a Canon S90. A pain to focus because you have to look at a screen, and slow compared to a DSLR or Leica – no fleeting shots – but raw files and supported by DXO, so you can get quite good images from a real pocket camera. What makes me think of it is that I have been using my Iphone camera. Pure crap as a camera, but any camera is better than no camera, and I generally have no camera most of the time because you just do not put a DSLR – even a really tiny one like a Nikon D40 – in your pocket. But every picture I take with the Iphone has me wishing I had even a PS camera instead.

  5. Hugh Alison said, on February 6, 2010 at 5:09 am

    I’ve been thinking about the S90 for the same reasons.

    I’d love a phone with a good 35mm equivalent fixed lens and a decent sensor – about the size of the S90’s sensor.

  6. Adam Maas said, on February 6, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I’ve got to say that based on the photography I’ve seen here in your blog, the M9 looks eminently well suited to your work.

    One thing people often forget is that while the Leica made its name in reportage and street photography, it was specifically designed as a lightweight camera for shooting landscape while hiking. Barnacke was a avid landscapist and hiker but also asthmatic so he wanted a small, light camera. IMHO the M9 (and M8) are actually much better suited to this sort of use than to some of the traditional RF uses like candid work due to their low-light limitations and the M9’s high resolution.

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