See these lessons from the days of film photography that will make you a better digital shooter.
I grew up shooting manual cameras. There was no Google back then and it took time and effort to get information about shooting skills. But the information was there. Experienced photographers taught us what they knew through books, magazine articles and seminars.
Because of the internet, now there’s so much information available it’s often hard to sift through it all to find accurate and useful help when you need it. I spent a lot of time on the web trying to find the best way to name and file my digital images. There was no consensus. It seemed like every photographer had their own unique “perfect” system. Most of what photographer’s share now isn’t about making pictures, it’s about white balance, HDR, Lightroom, monitor calibration, hard drives and multiple backups.
What happened to the photography? What about the skills you need to take exceptional photographs that are unique to you and your personality, rather than adding to the glut of millions of perfectly exposed snapshots taken every day?
I’m not a theorist. Over the years I’ve used 8×10 and 4×5 view cameras, Rollei and Hasselblad medium format cameras and about every brand of 35mm camera made, both manual and automatic.
From that experience I feel what’s missing in so much modern photography is the skill set that one learns when using manual cameras. The skills you’ll need to have control over the elements that will make up your picture. The manual camera requires a consciousness of what you’re doing and continuous rapid calculations while you work. Those calculations make you think while you shoot. When a computer algorithm makes those calculations for you the image is sharp and well exposed, but is often taken casually without much thought from the photographer, and that shows.
This desire to have more control over the finished photograph is possibly why there is such a renewed interest in Leica cameras, one of the last simple, adjustable, manual cameras being made.
Here are some tips about using a manual camera, and specifically a rangefinder Leica.
There’s no autofocus here. It’s up to you, and this is one of the greatest benefits of using a manual camera. I tried shooting with a Panasonic GF1 digital camera and had to give it up because of the autofocus. Focus is critical to me, especially because I work so close to my subjects.
If someone is sitting by a window and you’re photographing them at an angle from inside the room, you need to always focus on their eye nearest to you, even though it’s the darker eye. If you focus on the further-brighter eye the shot will look out of focus.
Because of the higher contrast of the further eye, autofocus doesn’t always get this right, and the shot is blown.
And it’s not just eyes. When I’m shooting I constantly think about where the focus should be. With the viewfinder on a Leica there’s no image preview. The camera doesn’t show you what will be in and out of focus. You need to calculate that in your head. The good news is you’re in control. With practice this gets very fast. It’s a matter of looking at your photos and remembering which focus points worked and which didn’t. The trick is to be conscious of what you’re after while you’re shooting.
As you work this way you become more aware of depth of field; from near to far, what will be in focus and what won’t. The control you develop will go beyond opening up for less depth of field and closing down for more. You actually start thinking about what you want in focus, and what you don’t, and make small adjustments to your aperture based on the focal length of the lens you’re using to get the result you want.
Normally I’m not a zone focus shooter. With my camera down I focus my lens close to where I think my next shot will be. I can do this without looking. All of my Leica lenses, except my 90mm, have a tab on the focusing ring. With the left side of the focusing tab pointing straight down, all my lenses are focused to 1.5 meters, or 5 feet. From there I’ve memorized how far to turn the focusing ring to adjust for other distances.
When I bring my camera to my eye to shoot I only need to move the tab a fraction to focus the lens.
I use zone focus when I’m hip shooting.
I still practice my fast focusing skills. I look at something and estimate the focus on my lens with my camera down. I bring the camera to my eye and quickly finish focusing.
Most of your fuzzy shots don’t come from bad focus. They come from camera movement. With experience you’ll be able to see the difference between your slightly out of focus shots and your movement blurred images. They both look fuzzy, but each has a distinctive recognizable look.
Before image stabilization the rule of thumb was to always use a shutter speed that is close to the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens you’re using to avoid blur. For instance, with a 50mm lens use 1/60th of a second. With a 135mm lens use at least a 1/125 of a second.
These speeds are way too conservative. They work if you and the subject are fairly still and you’re careful. Remember that a subject moving towards you doesn’t need a shutter speed that’s as fast as one moving across your field of view.
I usually shoot with a 35mm lens, and I shoot quickly. I don’t want to have to think about camera movement when I’m working. I used to shoot everything I could at 1/125 of a second. Nice and safe, right. With the old rule a 35mm lens would need a 1/30th to 1/60th of a second for sharpness.
I looked closely at my pictures and was surprised to see how much camera movement there was. Now my basic shooting speed is a 1/250th. It’s made a huge difference.
Since your Leica doesn’t have image stabilization, a useful skill is to be able to shoot with slow shutter speeds without camera movement.
When you need to make a long, hand held, exposure hold your camera to your eye with both hands. Keep your arms and elbows against your body for stability. Lean against something stable if you can. Putting your back or head against something solid is even better. You can have someone stand behind you and put their back to yours while you shoot.
When you shoot: Take a couple of deep breaths. On your last breath, only breathe out half way. If you hold a full breath, or breathe out all the way, you’ll be tense and won’t be able to hold the camera still.
Relax and gently press the shutter button.
Want to practice and see the longest exposure you can safely use?
Take a piece of pegboard, the masonite with little holes in it, and put a bright light behind the board. Photograph it from the front with different shutter speeds and lens combinations. Keep the board dark so you can clearly see the light coming through the holes. Blow up the images. If the holes are round, the camera didn’t move. If you get oblong holes, keep practicing.
FRAMING THE SHOTS
Composing Leica photographs is best done in your head before you bring your camera to your eye, rather than composing while looking through the viewfinder as you might do with an SLR. As you get experience with manual shooting you’ll find most of the functions performed by automatic cameras become second nature to you, with the advantage of the control you have over the final image.
There are calculations you can do before you bring your camera to your eye:
Exposure – I often take a meter reading of the area I’m working in while there are no subjects, then lower my camera. For practice, I estimate what I think the setting should be before I take the reading. It helps me when I need to set the exposure without the light meter in the camera if I need to shoot quickly.
Focus – Where to focus to lead the eye to the main part of your subject.
Framing and composing the image – I’ve used the same fixed focal length lenses for so long I can see the Leica frame lines without my camera when I look at a subject. I move around the subject and see, in my mind’s eye, how the subject relates to the background. I stand close to someone and know where my 35mm frame will be. When I bring my camera to my eye it’s to accurately point the camera at the scene I’ve already composed.
Something that helps visualize the viewfinder frame: With a 35mm lens the width of the angle of view equals the distance to the subject. For instance, if a subject is six feet away, the width of the photo at the subject plane will also be six feet. Get used to looking at the distance to the subject and turning that distance sideways in your head for framing.
Like all of the other manual camera skills I continue to practice framing. I look at a subject and form the photo in my mind, then I bring my camera to my eye to confirm. From time to time I’ll change to a different fixed focal length lens, a 21, 28, 50 or 90mm and shoot for the whole day with it. It gives me a fresh outlook and keeps me looking from a different perspective.