Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Minimum Equipment, Maximum Photography

The Bridal Veil
Leica M3, 50mm f2 Summicron

 An amazing number of the world’s greatest photographers have been Leica rangefinder shooters. The question is, were they Leica shooters because they were great, or were they great because they were Leica shooters?

Neither proposition is entirely correct, yet I suspect it may be closer to the truth to say they were great because they were Leica shooters.

The average well-equipped photographer who sallies forth laden with a pair of DSLRs and a battery of zoom lenses covering a range of 12 to 300mm or more is ready for anything. The problem is that the photographer who is ready for anything is really ready for nothing. In contemplating any subject, he must decide whether he should use a wide angle to encompass the entire scene or move in close for dramatic impact. Should he back off with a telephoto for flattened perspective and/or shallow depth of field, or should he zoom in to concentrate on a specific detail? The options are overwhelming and invite a terminal case of paralysis by analysis.

I once read an article about the travel photographer Gerald Brimacombe, who at that time was working with a pair of digital cameras that most professionals and advanced amateurs would consider too limited for serious work. Yet, he chose to work within the limitations of those cameras and concentrate on what they could do, rather than what they couldn’t do.

Although he happened not to be using Leicas, that concentration is nonetheless the essence of the Leica approach to photography. As Picasso said“Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.”

Poverty in Rural Tennessee
Leica M3, 35mm f2.8 Summaron

 I think it is something like this that made so many Leica shooters great: since using a Leica and one or two or three lenses doesn’t make for a lot of options, they learned to photograph the things that could be photographed with their limited equipment and let the rest of the world go by.

Obviously, you don't have to shoot with Leicas (I don't) to practice the principal of limited means. The standard advice for budding photographers used to be to shoot with only one camera, one lens, and one film for a solid year before adding anything else to the kit.

Of course, all this makes me a voice crying in the wilderness of this gearhead world where some people actually list their photographic arsenals as part of their signatures on internet forums. To them, I would say, "Your cameras are great. Now could I please see your pictures?"


  1. I'm posting an extensive comment from reader Dennis Mook, who has some valuable things to say, but had difficulty posting it so sent me an email instead. Dennis is the creator of "The Wandering Lensman blog

    "I’ve enjoyed your writings immensely. Too bad we don’t live closer to one another as I would love to just sit and talk for hours about photography with you. I may have a slightly different take on your Leica made them great theory.

    My question, although similar in nature, is just a bit different. Were the photographers great, not because they were Leica shooters, but because they were rangefinder shooters?

    (And below I’m not telling you anything you already know. I wrote this as a comment for your blog but it doesn’t seem to work for me, hence the email.)

    The rangefinder’s engineering is the reason a wide variety of focal lengths were not available (generally 28mm to 90mm and sometimes a stretch to 135mm) so the photographer was limited by the viewfinder and focusing mechanism’s combined ability to allow the photographer first to see his subject with good detail as well as accurately focus on his subject. Precise focusing with a rangefinder mechanism is extremely difficult above 90mm (the subject is very small in the viewfinder) as well as with a very wide angle lens, for the same reason. Also, the viewfinder could not show the entire area covered by a really wide angle lens, hence the minimum focal length. To get around this sometimes a supplemental viewfinder was attached to the flash shoe. But using one was slow and cumbersome.

    Because focal lengths are limited one has to largely get up close and personal to make photographs with impact. You can’t just pick anywhere to stand.

    Second, the “window” through which the photographer “sees” doesn’t impose a psychological separation as does a pentaprism. You are looking through a glass window as you would looking out your kitchen window. Both of these combine to provide a different way of seeing and require a different technique, in my opinion.

    The rangefinder shooters were relegated to be up close, personal and be intimately involved with whatever they were photographing. As you remember what Capa is quoted as saying, “If your pictures are not good enough, you aren’t close enough.” This statement has mostly been linked to a photographer’s physical location but I have a different take. I think it could also easily apply to a photographer’s psychological intimacy with the subject. Is the photographer fully emotionally, mentally and psychologically engaged with what he or she is doing? That kind of closeness is equally important, in my view.

    Rangefinder cameras force one to not only be physically close but also emotionally close to make good photographers

    As for Leica, maybe Contax as well (any others?), for years they were the only game in town with professional level lenses. Is that why the best used them? Later, of course, mainly due to David Douglas Duncan, Nikon’s rangefinder lenses became popular, but still the above mentioned restrictions were present.

    So, my friend, was it the Leica or the rangefinder that made those (almost all) men excellent photographers?

    Again, I’m really enjoying your writing. I hope some of the much younger photographers are reading your blog. They could learn a lot."


  2. Over the years I have used everything from 16mms to 4x5. Rangefinder, SLR, TLRs, box cameras, pinhole, and folding cameras. Many times taking a film camera or two and a digital SLR. Shot co!or, slide and black and white. I have settled on using either a 6x6 or 6x9 folding camera and black and white film. I develop and print my black and white images. Using these cameras with fixed lenses is limiting but they seem to be the sweet spot for me. I enjoy the creative control the darkroom gives me. Usually a day in the darkroom is a really good day.

  3. Thanks for visiting my blog. I've spent many hours in the darkroom, although I have to say that my favorite photographic medium is color slide film, of which I've processed thousands of rolls in a Unicolor Film Drum!