Lisbon Pool. Snapshot.

I'd just finished shooting for five days at a trade show for Tivoli Systems (now part of IBM) and I was out walking through the streets of Lisbon with an old Leica M3 and a 35mm lens.  I walked by this pool and shot just as the boy jumped.  Of course, since the camera was already focused at its hyperfocal distance there was no delay for autofocusing and no shutter delay. I was able to capture the action as it unfolded.

I didn't have a light meter with me but I had the paper with the exposure pictograms that used to come in every box of Kodak film taped to the bottom plate of the camera and covered with Scotch tape.  I'd set the shutter and aperture for sunlight and didn't need to change the exposure again until I walked into the open shade.

Because of these two technical aspects my film shots from 14 years ago are more consistent and more in focus than what I get from the most advanced digital cameras.  Besides the immediate gratification have we really come so far?

I know that the feisty ones among you will immediately respond that all the current cameras can be used in manual exposure as well.  And that's true.  But I sure am finding fewer and fewer lenses with distance scales and even fewer with depth of field scales.  And that's a pity for street shooters.


wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Bravo Kirk - well said. Throwing history and/or past good inventions away never turned out to be a good idea until now.

D said...

Oh, so true. I just returned to occasionally using my OM-1 for street photography and have been surprised at how easy it is in some ways compared to my dSLRs and my m43 camera. The exposure latitude is much wider with BW film so even if I don't always get perfect exposure, it's usually within acceptable range. And the ability to accurately zone focus beats slow or hunting AF any day. Plus, I have a focus screen that I can focus quickly and accurately with, which unfortunately isn't the case with any of my more modern cameras (the manually focus quickly part).

Still, I am not gonna give up my digital cameras. I'm ain't that nostalgic, and an Olympus OM-1 seems like a lead weight after wandering around with an E-P3 and outweighs the new OMD enough to be noticeable.

Soeren Engelbrecht said...

Absolutely !! Last summer, I took a snapshot of my wife and mother-in-law using my 1938 Leica:


My mother-in-law actually commented afterwards, how fast my camera was !! She told me how she usually didn't like having her picture taken, because she had to "wait around" before the photographer was done. My "trick" that day was to pre-focus and set the exposure while she was away for a moment, and when she can back, I just had to raise the camera and press the button. Pure mechanical joy :-)

Soeren Engelbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacques said...

I know that feeling... :-)
Though the medium has changed, I still often go for the full manual settings, looking around me and guessing the aperture and speed for a set ISO, as in old times... And it works incredibly well !!!
So well in fact that most of my dusk or night shots are done that way. When I'm to lazy to change from the camera's metering system (whatever one) I get a "correct but flat" picture !

Manual focusing is another thing (because of our "new" viewfinders), AF works pretty well, but on older MF lenses you can be just as quick and precise... Mastering a bit of hyper focal technique with manual metering can allow one to be extremely quick and efficient on a street situation... :-)

latent_image said...

I used to shoot a lot of transparency film on assignment. So often the most interesting shots were the ones with tricky exposures. Usually the first time in one of these situations, I'd have to think it through carefully and also bracket while making notes. Of course the scene itself typically would be changing rapidly from whatever it was that caught my attention. However, from then on, I'd have it. No metering at all. Just set the shutter speed and aperture and click. Fast! If you pay attention, there are a lot of visual clues to the correct exposure.

Cedric Canard said...

I remember having the pictogram info from the film box taped to my camera. It worked too. And yes, I miss the distance/dof scales on lenses. I used those all the time. It's easy to be accused of glorifying and embellishing the past when talking about such things but on occasion I get to play with older film cameras that belong to friends and it's as good as I remember it. I wouldn't say it was better than shooting digital but it was a lot of fun. And easy too (once it became second-natured).

BTW I don't comment often Kirk, but I enjoy all your posts so thanks.

Joel Wolford said...

Great article, Kirk. Here's a couple of links to pics of kodak guides,one for iso 200 and one for 400, although, as you know, you can just do the math for whatever iso you're using if you have only one of them. Both from photo.net.





Carlo Santin said...

I don't think we've progressed at all, certainly not as much as some would like to believe. All this amazing tech, cameras that can shoot in the dark and focus faster than the human eye, and I don't think the actual quality of photographs has improved. I'm talking about the ability of a photograph to tell a story, to say something interesting and that has value (an idea you dealt with in an earlier post). Something like HDR is too often a visual trick, giving only the appearance of something interesting.

I'm always struck by the simplicity of something like my Nikon FE. No menu diving, no white balance issues, no concerns about batteries running out, no custom settings or tone curves. Just basic exposure and trying to figure out how to take an interesting photograph. Go figure.

Kirk I have to tell you, your most interesting pictures on this site are always the ones taken on film. They always seem to have a story to tell and there always seems to be a number of nuances and subtleties present in those photos. The digital images you post here are always hit and miss for me.

lsumners said...

One of my pet peaves- auto focus lens that have non existence manual focus rings

Silvertooth said...

Pre-focusing and hyperfocal focus are wonderful as are the old viewfinders and focusing screens. As I have become more dependent on autofocus, I find that I limit myself to the eleven AF points in the camera. It is slow to focus and recompose. Live view is slow on the D90. Using my X-700, the viewfinder is big enough and bright enough that the entire finder is the focus point. Sometimes I do think "old school" is better.

Sam said...

I still have and appreciate the D80 that got me into "serious" photography. I really appreciate it for instant lighting proofs or sudden events. If I am out hunting for pictures, though, I take a "real" camera.

I've described it this way before: You can get those apps that let you "paint" on your iPad. Some artists can make wonderful creations like that. But it is not "painting". Painting requires paint. Photography requires film.


Scott Baker said...

I think there are only so many calories your brain can burn when taking a picture. If they are all burnt determining the appropriate metering mode, or autofocus mode, or drive mode, or trying to remember if you have hi-speed sync enabled in both the camera and the flash gun, then that doesn't leave much for the basic elements of composition and exposure. With an old film camera there is clarity, because the only things you CAN think about are important things.

cidereye said...

Agreed, or even when they have manual focusing rings they are often far too narrow to be of any real use! Grrrrrrrr

Luis CS said...


congratulations for your interesting posts! When I was a child, in the sixties, bathing in this pool was forbidden. But the poor boys of the neighborhood did not care, and went there in our hot summer. They took turns, and one of them would stay out looking for the police. When a cop came, the watchboy whistled, and all the group started running away, half-naked. I think it was good fun for everybody, policeman included, and it was the source of many funny pictures of naked boys running up the street.
All the best

Luis CS
Lisbon, Portugal

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Cedric. It's starting to feel like family around here.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks for filling in the blanks, Luis. I loved my time in Portugal. It's such a wonderful country. Hope everything gets better quickly!

John said...

I've always been a bit baffled by this concept. I have never used a leica or any rangefinder. i have heard more folks rave about the ability to "zone focus" and i simply don't understand why that is any more possible with a rangefinder than it is with an slr or any other camera with the same image area/sensor size? (i only stipulate the sensor size as to eliminate the depth of field differential of two different formates.)

If you take your leica and "zone focus" at 6 feet and i pre-focus a nikon or canon at 6 feet (using manual focus, autofocus or a range guide on an older lens) then turn off autofocus, how are the two cameras then different in terms of focusing? if we are both at f8, everything is the same! I don't get it!

i have often done this at events that are very dark where autofocus is difficult. i know i'm doing some pretty basic groups and candids and i know i can stay within a certain range of 5-8 feet. prefocus to that distance, turn off autofocus and shoot away.

what am i missing??

John gillooly

Luis CS said...

Until I got my Nikon FM2, and even after I got it, I often carried one (with slide film) or two (one for slides, one for negatives) Minox 35 GTs. One had to do zone focusing in the Minox. It worked wonderfully for landscapes, but many of the people pictures I took when light levels were low are just badly focused - especially when they were next to me and/or moving fast (e.g., children). Guesstimating distances is not the same as measuring them. Many famous pictures taken with a rangefinder camera and zone focusing are not precisely focused (just go to a Cartier-Bresson exhibition). They touch us in spite of the less than perfect, not because of the perfection in focus. On the other hand, manual focusing with aids - split image/superposition in the Nikon FM2 and the Leica M, respectively - is as easy and effective as autofocus, as far as I am concerned.
@John Gillooly
You can prefocus with a modern AF camera, and I do it often. But most modern lenses do not give you any useful information on depth of field. Although you can use the depth of field preview button in the cameras that have it, the differences in depth of field with different apertures are not always very clear.

Luis CS
Lisbon, Portugal