The benefits of simplicity. A street photographer's zen.

Lisbon, Portugal.

When we work with fully manual cameras that have no meters, no autofocusing mechanism and no zoom lenses we tend to work more quickly because we aren't slowed down by having to make choice after choice at the time of shooting. 

When I shot with a Leica M4 and a 50mm lens I followed the same routine when I was outside. I would Scotch tape a Kodak exposure guide (small slip of paper with pictograms on it) to the bottom of the camera. I would walk outside and judge the light, then I would look at the guide to decide the right exposure setting. I would set it on the camera and it would stay set until I noticed that the light had changed. 

I liked working at f5.6 or f8.0 apertures on the 50mm when I worked with Tri-X because in any light short of full sun I could use those apertures and work within the limitations of the camera's 1/1,000th of second top shutter speed. I would preset a hyperfocal distance that would cover the usual subject and if needed would fine tune depending on the distance from my camera to the subject. 

With the camera set this way taking a good picture was as easy as seeing the subject, raising the camera to the eye and then pushing the shutter button. No thought. No second thoughts. 

Once the moment is captured we might try to fine tune. It is usually futile as the clearest seeing of the image seems to be the moment of recognition. 

Auto focus introduces conscious thinking. Everything from deciding on the focus points to confirming focus. None of it is instantaneous. None of it is reflexive. It's different. Ah well.

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Craig said...


As a regular reader, it is obvious that you know all of the controls and the operation of your DSLRs and mirrorless systems intimately.

I'm wondering if you ever set the ISO & WB, set the camera to jpeg, put the metering mode to manual, and follow your old film routine when you're out on your walks shooting Austin for yourself?

If so, does digital offer the same freedom and exposure latitude that film used to offer, and are you as satisfied with the results?

Just curious,

- Craig C.

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the Olympus 15mm body cap lens?

Edward Richards said...

I was just thinking before I read this post that with the high ISO capabilities and increased DOF of smaller cameras, you could shoot the same way, but have even less to worry about with focus. Turn off the autofocus and set for a zone. Use the higher ISO to set the APS camera to f11. Or just use one of the manual focus lenses to remove temptation.:-)

streetlevelphotography.com said...

Simple is beautiful and apparently expensive in the digital age. The nearest digital has to the film experience is the Leica M Edition 60, refreshingly LCD panel free to kill the chimper in you and have the bailiffs banging on your door. Okay, the M-E might qualify due to its 'retro' LCD panel. There's still a meter in both though, so not quite there.

Gato said...

I like this, though I have never been a street photographer and will most likely never again use a fully manual camera. To me, the mechanics of photography can easily be a distraction from the picture - which is the point of the exercise.

I go back to the days when "real" photographers said they would never own a camera with a built in meter, and I have at times had the little chart you write about taped to my own camera. with the beginning of automatic cameras I became a heavy used of "A" mode (with appropriate compensation dialed in) as giving me the best exposures with the distraction from the subject - at least under most outdoor or ambient light conditions. That's about as close to your manual camera zen as I ever expect to get again.

Anonymous said...

"Auto focus introduces conscious thinking. Everything from deciding on the focus points to confirming focus. None of it is instantaneous. None of it is reflexive. It's different. Ah well."

I agree that it's different and autofocus introduces conscious thinking but I'd argue that it's more or less the same with active manual focusing with the help of visual focusing aids. It requires conscious thinking, too. Not that much different from AF shooting in that sense, is it.

Apart from using manual focus mode, setting up a fixed focus point before aiming and snapping รก la Leica M would be the equivalent of setting a fixed focus point to a given distance in cameras that let you do that in AF mode. Same kind of simplicity. Similarly reflexive and instantaneous, even quicker. If/when the camera has a leaf shutter lens, even better for street shooting.

Ricoh GR and GXR cameras let you do just that. The GXR with two interchangeable primes and one zoom lens. Use either regular AF, fixed focus point AF or MF with or without peaking. Toggle between eternity and, say, 10ft with a push of a button. Want to ignore the exposure and focus cues given by the lcd, no problem, add an optical viewfinder and turn the lcd off. Shoot RAW in DNG format. Enjoy the simplicity of shooting.
No wonder they've been popular among street shooters. Quite the contrary among the masses in the mainstream, though. Ah well.

George McKay said...

It's far from perfect but these days my default street photography gear is my iphone - in keeping with the worn cliche of the best camera is the one you're carrying at the moment.

Kirk Tuck said...

Anonymous...Ahhh, no. When you shoot with a rangefinder camera you aren't necessarily bringing it up to your eye and using a focusing aid. You pre-focus so there is NO delay between recognition and shooting. You learn over time, and it becomes instinctive to judge approximate distance. It happens as you walk so that when something catches your mind/eye you can pull the camera up and push the button. Much different from making a choice.

Kirk Tuck said...

Problem with many AF lenses is that there are no distance scales and no "hard stops." That makes it darn hard to pre-focus and carry the camera around...ready.

Murray Davidson said...

We're off to Lisbon for a long weekend at the end of the month. Haven't been there since it formed one of the many memorable stops on our backpacking InterRail holiday a long, long time ago.
Looking forward to seeing it and all the changes that 34 years have wrought.
I'll also being trying out the new stripped down travel and candid photography kit. There's a particularly large, round number coming up on the personal odometer this year and I have been indulged, being allowed to satisfy GAS. I didn't go for a change of system from the 'anodyne', as Kirk once called it, but for me very serviceable 600D with its family of lenses from 10-300mm, although the EM1 and EM5m2 did call.
Instead I went for the discrete and lightweight, complementary travel kit - RX10 and RX100M3 as a pair.
Street photography with them works well, and a little in Kirk's gestalt (but 2.0) if you just set them up then shoot without changing anything.
I'll let you know how Lisbon turns out.

TMJ said...

Yes no distractions, especially with an M2/3/4 making them the ultimate point and shoot.

Although a longtime film Leica shooter, I am off to Vienna on Friday with my Ricoh GR and 28/35 minifinder as it easily fits into the pocket of my Barbour.

Christer Almqvist said...

Agree. That's why I bought a neat little Zeiss Tessar 2,8 45 mm for my Sony A7. Using AF lenses set to MF is not a solution for street photography.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, what I tried to describe is an AF camera that does have 'hard stops' and a distance scale, so to speak, which makes the 'choice-less' shooting almost as easy and quick as it is with a Leica M or another similar camera. Whether you raise the camera to your eye or not.

You can use either the AF lens modules in the pre-focus mode or manual lenses with the M mount module. You can turn the camera off and then turn it on again, and it's ready to go with your pre-selected focus point in a second. No need to focus or set it up again. Just point and shoot.

As a young boy I started and learned the basics of photography with a simple rangefinder camera, several years before I bought my first SLR camera. That was a hundred and umphty years ago, when there were no AF cameras yet. I am somewhat familiar with the kind of shooting style you described. Been there, done that. I still do at times.

When we reached this decade, I started experimenting with different mirrorless cameras. At one point I found the Ricoh GXR (and GR compact) which is still one of my all-time favourites for certain kind of shooting. Like street shooting.

So basically my message was just to remind about this one (nowadays 'old') quirky, mirrorless camera that can be used as a 'poor man's Leica M' even with the AF modules. Swap the AF module with the GXR Mount module, and you'll have a small mirrorless camera with a native Leica M mount. Either with an EVF or OVF.

Based on my personal experience, it was/is a nice tool when shooting the streets or travelling, for example. I sometimes regret that I sold my GXR system a while back, when I wanted to buy a fancy new video camera asap. I might buy one again at some point, just for the heck of it.

Godfrey DiGiorgi said...

I remember this way of working well. It's how I went about things with my first Rolleiflex, the Argus C3, the Rollei 35S with the broken meter, both my Leica II cameras, and scads of other all manual mechanical cameras.

It's how I like to work today, a good bit of the time, with the various film and digital cameras I have. Although, honestly, aperture priority AE and AutoISO makes it even easier.

I was never one to spend a lot of energy fussing about with settings while taking pictures. Before or after ... fine. During shooting? Ugh ... It's a distraction. Set exposure for the available light once; focus if using a large aperture, spend most of the time framing and waiting for the right moment. Revisit the exposure if the light changes. Do a lot of guessing, and get good at it.

With the digital cameras, I most often have the LCD turned off. I don't look at photos in the thick of shooting a walking session—I look at them afterwards, sometimes days afterwards.

I can blend in AF with the digital cameras (don't have any film cameras with AF) and not distract myself. Something like the Leica X or Olympus E-PL7 ... fit an optical viewfinder, leave AF with face detect on, turn the LCD off. It works fine most of the time.

Someone asked about the Olympus Body Cap Lens. I have both of them ... They're terrific for this kind of casual shooting assuming that f/8 and the hyperfocal are good enough. The 9mm fish-eye is a slightly better performer than the 15mm rectilinear, but both have turned some lovely pictures for me.

All things in their proper time and place. Use this simple zen of shooting when it does the job. Use more precise techniques when they're necessary to getting the results you need. It's all good.

Eric Rose said...

Glad you got this shot off before you blew up your camera ;)

Kirk Tuck said...

Ahh. Eric. A true VSL insider... Thanks!