Now, like a number of people who decide to get into doing street photography the word ‘Leica’ at some point crosses your mind. Those expensive little cameras with the so-called ‘best lenses in the world’. Like a lot of people, I got caught up in the hype that if I was to do street photography then I needed a small, high quality, unobtrusive camera. Of course, the Leica on paper was pretty perfect for this. Enter my M7 about 6 years ago. I bought the M7 as it was more modern than the M6, pretty cheap used as Leica’s go due to their flaky electronics and if you are mad enough to buy one new, you can still get one (I later had a Leica MP – much more reliable, if a bit slower in practice). Some time after acquiring the camera (at a very good price) from Evilbay, I managed to attach a 35mm Voigtlander lens to it. Then, I loaded up with Kodak Tri-X (because I read it was a good film, my prior encounters with black and white were all with Ilford (which I have returned to using more nowadays as it scans better)).
Now, I must admit using a rangefinder to start with was a bit of a pain, I was missing loads of shots – if anything moved it was pretty much out of the question. I tried zone focusing, but have never been that good at it. Some people are much better at judging distances than me.
Over time, with a hell of a lot of persistence, I managed to get to grips with the camera. I found out that if I didn’t use it for a while I would get quite rusty with it, but as I used it more and more, I would get back into the groove with it.
A basic kit is expensive, but they are cameras for life (well, maybe apart from my M7 as the electronics go AWOL from time to time). Whilst they are quite limited in many ways, but do excel at street and candid reportage. They are rubbish in my view for landscape and anything that requires tight framing.
However, there is something about them which makes them just lovely to use. It’s not just that you are using a piece of photographic history, but there is the whole ‘feel’ of the thing. They feel very small and purposeful.
They also are quite committing cameras to use as you don’t look through a lens, like in a DSLR. This means that you have to pre-imagine what sort of image you want. This is great as it makes you more focused on what you are doing. You can certainly do grab shots with the camera, but for me at least, the psychological attitude to using it is very different to a DSLR (I like using both formats of cameras, but I prefer the rangefinder design for more committed work).
You definitely don’t need a Leica for street photography. Any camera that you can practically use will do. Joel Meyerowitz even shot street on a 10×8 large format camera. They are overpriced, limited in many ways, infuriatingly temperamental (in the case of the M7), and weirdly cultish. However, the one advantage is that you can sell them at not much loss of money if you play your cards right. I don’t think I will be able to say the same for my DSLR if I come to sell that in a few years time…