Leica Rangefinder Philosophy by Robert Boyer

Leica Rangefinder Philosophy by Robert Boyer

I am sure you all know Leica’s official rangefinder philosophy, if not you can read it on Leica’s site. What I am going to talk about is my rangefinder philosophy. Well mine along with my take on some other much more famous people’s age old thoughts on the matter. I wanted to run the risk of rehashing some old ground with possibly a couple of fresh insights that I didn’t really grasp until I used a Leica M series for a while, or more specifically didn’t use one for a long period.

First off Leica M cameras, and rangefinders do not do everything well, and sometimes not at all or so badly you wouldn’t really want to go through the pain to try. What they do extremely well – probably better than any other type of camera is make images of normal sized things at normal distances. You can’t get really really close to things and you can’t be really really far away. Where they excel is what I will call human distances. Distances that we all know and live everyday with our fellow normal sized human beings and objects. With people you feel close to you are spend a lot of time at this optimal “people” distance. You know what I mean – actually at the same table while sharing a meal, sitting at a table or a desk or even on the same sofa as them, Walking with them, elbow to elbow, etc, etc.

If you are not comfortable at this kind of distance, then get comfortable with who you are shooting before you start, this is the distance where Leica M cameras and their traditional range of optics covered by the built in viewfinder are absolute magic. I have been shooting with Leica M cameras for 25 years and a good 90% of all the shots I have ever made, personal or professional, are with a 35mm or a 50mm. Of course there are the 10% where I use a 90mm or 21mm for a very specific and special kind of shot but that is not my norm. I can almost guarantee that the kind of images you make will change using a Leica M with a 35mm or 50mm lens. In fact they will be different than the images you make with any other camera. Even your SLR camera with the same angle of view. I noticed this myself about 10 years ago in reviewing my images. Yep even if I use the equivalent focal lengths my SLR images are way way different.

I think for me I actually tend to back off a little with SLR cameras, even with the same focal lengths, let alone my tendency to choose a slightly longer lens on an SLR. The other very very subtle but powerful distinction for me were my framing choices. There is a definite difference, even if subconscious, between how I frame when I can see outside the picture frame with a rangefinder versus having the frame masked off from view. I think that is the major reason I never really took to the Contax G system and sold my kit after a year. Don’t get me wrong – there was and is a lot to like about the Contax G but that was the giant deal killer for me. I didn’t believe this myself and thought it was all just in my head but if you look at other photographers that use Leica M cameras and SLR’s the difference stands out for them as well – Don’t believe me, check out Jeanloup Sieff. He used Leica M’s and Hasselblad’s. if you can’t tell which is which from across the room you have to be blind. Is he good with both, sure he is but they are very different. Your images will be to.

So what else besides all the fuzzy, artsy, non-quantitiaive stuff that I just described that makes a huge difference. Well for starters my entire Leica kit fits in a itty bitty Domke F-803. (Hey that’s how I found this site, I need a new one and I was searching for experience with that new/old fabric they now have). I can’t get one DSLR and one f2.8 zoom in that bag. I carry 2 Leica M’s, three lenses, and one point and shoot digital in that bag. There is one big difference. Another one is absolutely no-compromise in image quality, actually an upgrade. Need more? How about better than any AF system at that optimal people distance at large apertures. Yep I said better, I can shoot faster with better focus accuracy manually focusing my M at f2.8 and larger than my state of the art DSLR autofocus. It might take a tiny change in technique and some practice but for most people that would be true. How about the average shooter shooting a 50mm at 1/15 with a little bit of care and practice. Steadier people can do that reliably down to 1/8 – who the heck needs VR when you can do that AND you have F1.4 or F1.0 or F0.95?

Okay – I have droned on for way too long here for my first guest appearance. Maybe some more day to day tips if you guys are at all interested in this kind of stuff.

Thanks a lot Steve. Love your site.


From Steve: Thanks Robert! You can read and see more of Robert Boyer at his web site/blog HERE.

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  1. Hi Robert, great article, the ‘human’ distance etc. I’m trying to get the best out of the MM and really like using the orange filter. I don’t know about you but I try to have my camera half-focused (or as near as I guess before looking through the viewfinder). So getting it sharp is easy. Brilliant bits of kit.

    • Stewart,

      Thanks for the feedback – wow – I forgot I wrote this it;s been so long but am glad that you enjoyed my take on dealing with rangefinders… Been meaning to do some follow up articles for Steve’s site but have been a bit busy – at least now it’s on my mind again.

      Ps. I have a very very strange way of shooting people compared to most non-nutty people but I do generally try to be close to where I need to be when raising my camera. The bigger thing to me is that when manual focusing I tend NOT to over do the fine tuning back and forth I turn it until it looks good and shoot – I actually pay way more attention to the subject than anything else when looking through the viewfinder – the funny thing is that I get a really good hit rate paying more attention to the subject than to focus aids of any type… The bottom line is do what works for you and don’t be afraid to tray new things – you may find refinements to what is already working for you even if you don’t change wholesale to a “new” way of doing things….

      Evidence of my insanity in how I do things…


  2. I use the metabones adapter. It is built well, but does focus past infinity like most of them do. My biggest complaint is the lens release tab is too big and gets in the way if my fingers. I’d probably go Voigtlander adapter next time, despite the price.

  3. These feelings about rangefinder shooting mirror my new feelings with the NEX-5. I am shooting that little camera with the equally tiny 35 1.4 Nokton, and, with the tilt up screen, I am able to shoot things never before possible. It is like combining a rangefinder with a waistlevel Rollei. My DSLRs and medium format cameras are spending more and more time on the shelf!

  4. Robert

    I have been looking through your site the last few days. Very nicely done. I few more posts about film and I may be convinced that I don’t need an M9. Yet.

    • Ps. The shots that Steve H. included on this post were all shot on TRI-X developed by me. The prints look better but hey, I am lazy and just did a quick and dirty scan.


  5. @Robert: Allow me to get back to your original post.

    “Human distance”. That is the core concept of the photography that attracts me most.

    “Human distance” must have a different meaning for different people, and would vary according to the imge you wish to create: is it a portrait, is it a “portrait” of more than one person, is it a situation? How close would you like to come, and do you have it in yourself to even attempt that? Do you dare to capture the image that leaves out everything that is not essential to that image? Think of the music of Miles Davis. Towards the end of his career he left out (for whatever reason) more and more notes.

    Would it matter, once photographer and subject(s) have, in whatever way, established their “human distance”, what equipment is used, except for the photographer, what hΓ© feels comfortable with?

    I wonder. It’s a fascinating issue, certainly looking at Sieff’s pictures once again (thanks for the link!). His “human distance” often appears to be 3 m’s or even a bit further (and his images are compelling).


    • Michiel,

      Yes it can mean a lot of different distances but unless we get into really existential pot smoking meta-thought it probably doesn’t mean macro and it probably doesn’t mean 50 meters away with a 300mm. It’s somewhere in the not too close but pretty close range.

      One of the things you probably notice about Sieff’s work (one of my favorites and a kindred spirit) is that very consistently he opts for a wider view and closer up than a lot of his constituents – his work is compelling and in my view it is compelling in a way that I find challenging as a viewer and a photographer. You cannot argue that his compositions are simple graphically as most good photographs are, you could even say minimalistic but not in the normal way you would think of because a lot of his work is highly complex with more going on that what first meets the eye. A prototypical example is his photograph of the woman / car driver / doorman in what appears to be monaco. It is commercial work not journalistic work. If you have a chance pick up the retrospective of decades of his work called “Jeanloup Sieff 40 years of photography” it;s not comprehensive but it is well printed and edited by him. The great parts are his comments about each of the photos he selected – they are hilarious.


      • Many thanks for your reply Robert; I like to think beyond the simple technicalities of picturetaking (a monkey could master that, one could say) and follow up on the questions many pictures pose: why are some images compelling, and some not?

        Great tip on the Sieff book; I’ll try to find it!


        • Good luck – I bought mine in the 90’s at some point. I think it is out of print and even used ones seem to bring $400+. Hey I must have good taste in photographic art πŸ˜‰ Actually a lot of photographer’s monographs that I have in my non-collection (I bought them to study and steal from) actually have gone way way up in value in the last 10 years. Maybe I should start a pay service to talk about what photo books I am buying – sort of an aesthetic financial investment consultant of sorts.


        • Ps. You may want to try your library if you have a good one near by. I did want to mention that so you guys don’t think I am some sort of snobby rich guy that advises buying $500 out of print books like it was nothing. Far from it I am a regular person that waffles between starving artist and corporate sell out year to year to get by.


          • Actually some $40 used from Amazon USA (they’ve got a few) but they don’t ship it to Holland. Apparently it’s quite sizeable.

          • Ps. Correction of correction – the prices went down since last year, now you can get it for $50-$200 and there appear to be 6 new copies available from various sellers on Amazon. Hmmm maybe that investment business won’t work out.


  6. Robert,

    Tks for the fantastic article. Can u elaborate a little more on the the secrets to shooting fast with an M?? Tks in advance! πŸ™‚

        • Steve – I will get crackin’ on a shooting fast post. Most of my readers couldn’t care less about Leica M’s they are all about work-flow stuff. I enjoy the change of pace for my own sanity. You can’t become too too single minded.


          • Hey Steve & Robert,
            I second Robert writing MORE for the site. You, Steve, went single minded entrenepeur for this ‘Place’ to takeoff like it seems to have done, and bringing the talents and inputs of it’s members for ‘Editorial Content’ is a fantastic way to boost article postings and site traffic, too. It also can help with the ‘sanity’ thing as Robert noted in his change’o pace comment. Recharge-rebalance-acclimate to the heat.
            Besides, one look at your ‘comment’ self-portait suggest you might not have all your lugnuts chugged up tightly :-)!
            Peace Folks,
            Richard in Michigan

          • Here’s the short version.

            1 Pre-visualize

            2 Pre-set the exposure

            3 Pre-focus/pre-judge depth of field (so use a smaller aperture; f4 f.i.)

            4 Frame and shoot.

            At least that’s how I used to do it with the FM2, 2.0/35mm and a roll of Tri-X… πŸ™‚

  7. Thank You!
    Thank you for bringing into words the objective realities of what makes Rangefinder Photography be:
    a) intrinsically different than slr photography visually,
    b) situationally superior to SLR’s and
    c) situationally inferior to SLR’s.
    I especially appreciated taking such a non-Leica centric verbiage in your approach. Leica has done such a powerfully successful job of ‘preaching’ their Marketing Strategies and Camera Usage Philosophies, they’ve built something akin to Apple’s Cult of Users. (Disclosure:OSX & OS9 User Here!) Like any good ‘religion’ the M-Cult(?) has customs, mantras, and genuflections to ‘divine’ principles, but these linga-franca’s of communication inside of the ‘m-cult’ makes communication to non-members and especially non-photographers an even bigger hurdle than it might otherwise be. So often we’re left with uttering marketing buzzwords like “ultimate quality”, “german engineering”, and “tools of the Masters”. These phrases say a LOT and they speak truths I don’t argue with, but they do little to answer WHY questions. ie: Why a Multi-Thousand Dollar Lens and Many-Thousand Dollar Camera would be a ‘Better’ choice than a 1K Dollar NikCanTax dSLR & 300buck Fifty?
    Nice Writing Sir,
    Thank You,
    Richard in Michigan

    • My oh my – thank you for the kind words – I am blushing. Truth be know – I do think Leica has perfected the RF to a degree nobody else has, I own a bunch of Leica glass but also some wonderful examples of other companies glass (that fits on my M cameras) as well. The “problem” with rangefinders is that all of what I wrote in more non-coded terms is true but the subtle point of practice that I made is essential. If you pick it up once or even for a week you will not have nearly enough practice to experience some of the wonderful-ness.


  8. Robert

    I very much enjoyed your article and images. Though, my most used lenses are the 35mm and 90mm, with the 35 being my most used by a wide margin. Which for me is saying something since I am a camera and lens junkie; I have most of the lens range.

    I agree with your comments about human distances and the differences between how a range finder and SLR cameras render an image. Particularly of people.

    In my experience, the size of the camera and the quietness of the shutter play a roll. Leica bodies and lenses are small and with the exception of the M8 the shutters are quiet. This lets you be closer to your subject and helps them relax if they are aware of you. The newest DSLR bodies now have shutters that are fairly quite, but the lenses and bodies are still bigger and a bit more intimidating.

    In terms of rendering the image, the required retro-focus design and larger lens element sizes for an SLR lens adds complexity and difficulty to the design and manufacturing processes. Put simply, it is harder to make a lens with large lens elements render an image with the same quality as a lens with smaller lens elements, and lenses that don’t need to provide clearance for a mirror to move. So production costs and expected uses (subject and output media) may play a greater role in the design.

    • Paul,

      There are a lot of Leica folks that love the 35/90 combo. To tell you the truth when I am carrying two bodies I usually go 35 on one and 90 on the other. When I am carrying one body I go with either a 50 or a 35. When I talked about images I make I was referring to the actual images in total. By far I end up taking way more images with my wider lens than the 90 even when I have two bodies with a 90 pre-mounted.


      • Robert

        I am the same way. Even if I have my full kit of two bodies and all of my lenses the 35mm is used the most. The 30/90 is my favorite two lens combination. The 50 is simply a fun lens and it is probably my second choice if I can only have one lens. In fact right now I have two 50mm lenses, a 50 f1.4 Summilux and a 50 f2.0 Summicorn dual range. Neither of these lenses are are newer than the mid-1960’s and they each have their own personalities, which are different from each other and from my more modern lenses like my 35mm ASPH.

  9. my oh my – thanks all for the positive feedback, much appreciated, I will definitely have to do another guest appearance if Steve H. will have me back. Maybe I talk about wedding photography, or children, or the secrets to shooting fast with an M, or, or, or. God am I ADHD or what? Too old for any kind of drugs or sympathy when I was young that kind of “condition” was know as misbehaving and the “treatment” was not at all pleasant.


    Ps. Steve – kids are tough, when my children started to be self-mobile I thought my camera was broken. I started practicing on my cat shooting wide open and close up. Hey that is good advise for parents to be. Get a cat and shoot it wide open and close up while awake and active to prepare to shoot you child well. Got get me some of that Ektar 100 stuff – been meaning to but I am afraid that it will make me dumb and lazy compared to my E6 film on the exposure front.

  10. Enjoyed both your good article and photos. I’m intrigued by your comment about being able to shoot faster with more accurate focus with manual focus than AF on a DSLR. Would you please share your tips? THanks! I would love to read more of your articles on this website.

  11. Thanks for your article.

    I really enjoyed it and the photos are very beautiful.

    You’ve really got my interest about what the Leica style is. I would love to see a direct comparison of Leica versus a DSLR at same scene and focal length to give me an idea what makes a Leica image πŸ™‚ Maybe a future article?

    • Enjoyed your article very much Robert, thanks. I think many will agree that ‘less is more’ with using a Leica. It does slow you down to a more thoughtful kind of photography. And as we take a shot of a stranger or someone we may not know that well, they relax a little more as they feel they do not have to ‘perform’ for a huge lens in their face. People become a little less guarded and I think we all can find that reflected in our pictures.

    • I wonder what purpose that direct comparison would serve. Good, mediocre Γ‘nd bad pictures can be taken with any kind of equipment, as is amply demonstrated in this blog and in a lot of other places on the net.

      What is it you would like to see? Film and sensor are not aware if there’s a rangefinder or something else the shooter is peering through.

      With film, lenses, film type, porcessing of such and the man with the camera (that’s a quote) are paramount.

      With digital, lenses, sensor, processor, post processing if applicable and the man with the camera are paramount.

      Take your pick.

      (IMHO πŸ™‚ )

      • I was going to respond about the “comparison” request. I don’t know how to do a comparison that would be meaningful in a controlled way – the problem would be that for both SLR and rangefinder you would be over thinking the image or purposefully trying to make the exact same image. The difference in the images I make are not “technical” differences, they are spontaneous effects that seem to produce a theme that is different. A great example for me are my own images of similar types of subjects with differing equipment (rangefinder vs SLR) and the decisions that I seem to gravitate towards in that moment of exposure.

        The reason that I choose Jeanloup Sieff as an example for others to view is that his work is highly visible on and off the web, he had a decades long career of very diverse “people” subjects, he used two systems that I am intimate with (leica RF and Hasselblad SLR), and last but not least – the differences in his photos are very very much the same as I seen in mine as a trend when using an RF vs SLR system for viewing and exposing images.


        • As a non Leica person, I’m fascinated by the Leica passion everyone is sharing and I’m trying to get a grasp on the Leica look.

          I was just wondering if it was something technical that gives Leica it’s look, such as the field of view or depth of view or lens / camera pixie dust magic.

          But from what I’m hearing it’s more of a philosophy in shooting enabled by Leica gear. I can certainly appreciate slow down and relax πŸ™‚

          • There is really a mix of factors:

            1)How you tend to use it, what kind of lenses work best with it, how you see and frame with area visible outside the frame lines vs. masking off – you really do make minor split second decisions you wouldn’t make without seeing outside the frame lines. I guess that is philosophy but it’s a bit more than that.

            2)Really really fast in terms of NO shutter lag in combination with seeing outside the frame lines. A number of practical speed and “moment” related techniques you are almost compelled to use and practice based on the way the camera works.

            3)Your subject’s reaction when facing that camera vs other cameras but that is not all of it – a little bit yes.

            4)UNCOMPROMISING quality in every way – lenses etc.

            5)Leica lenses are not just about sharpness and quality in technical terms. They tend to have “good” rendering – this would be the aesthetic attributes to the way that the out of focus areas look, the color looks, the in to out of focus transitions. I have lenses that I keep that are inferior technically to some of my newer Leica glass but that have a wonderful rendering. A lot of Zeiss glass is the same way but different. Subtle but there. For instance – my 12-24 Nikkor is a fantastic lens technically but… to tell you the truth looks awful from an overall rendering standpoint. Steve H. has a couple of color shots I believe from PKR (K64) on Zeiss glass that clearly demonstrate a unique Zeiss prime “rendering’ that he is discussing in an article somewhere.

            Oh and a little magic pixie dust – not to be confused with fairy dust – that is completely different – Zeiss uses that for their glass.


            Ps. Some other glass has that magic pixie dust as well but not consistently across the line and across decades.IE – the Nikkor 85 1.4 AI, the 105 2.5, the 28 1.4, etc.

  12. A joy to read and marvelous photographs. I don’t own an M yet, but I have ordered one. I must admit that Steve’s site made me decide to spend a lot of money.

  13. Wonderful article Robert and photos to match. I love how you describe “human distances” it’s a perfect description of how a rangefinder helps photographers see and be present in the world around them.

  14. Excellent article and very clever and concise thoughts! So true and I really love the “human distance” philosophy. I don’t have an M, but everything you’ve said also applies to how I feel I utilise my X1, totally different to any compact or SLR I’ve had!

  15. Robert,
    Great article. It is completely true that the 50 and 28 represent the bulk of my photos. Its nice to hear another perspective about the human scale that Leica offers.

    And for those who are looking for a smaller alternative to the Domke Bags check out Artist and Artisan. Their “Evans Walker” bag lets me carry to lenses some filters and an extra battery with room for the occasional small book for down time. It is three years old now and has not popped a stitch.

  16. Great article Robert and I agree with so much of what you have said. I think also that due to the difficulty of certain shots (high movement and low light) the kind of shots that come out of such a shoot are the ones with either slight movement (giving a unique look) or they are taken when the subject is momentarilly captivated by something and that results in the expressive look that is so typical of rangefinder photographs.

    • I couldn’t agree more – also one of the reasons that I actually like some of the “limitations” of fixed focal length on a camera at any given moment, ONE ISO to work with, no flash, etc. a lot of these limitations are what actually cause really great looking photographs – when you remove some or god forbid all those – guess what – you have a tendency to shoot everything at the “right” shutter speed, sharpest aperture, detail everywhere, etc, etc, etc.

      That and there is a whole lot of liberation when there is no reason to think about adjusting 45 other variables for some mind’s eye thought process of correctness – it’s great not to have the remotest chance in hell of “over thinking” the image.


  17. Oh crap – I forgot to include the details of the photos as well and I can assure you the EXIF is not reliable since my bizarre Bridge accident a while back – well I guess if anyone is interested they can ask but in general they are all film images, shot with an M6, pretty much strain scans from jpegs with a “grade 2” curve applied. With a better scan job the highlights are much better – like the prints. Yep I still shoot a lot of film.


  18. Hey Steve,

    That was fast – holy crap. I forgot one thing, when I stumbled across your site you were using the Domke F-8XX with that waxy finish. I really like it and my old F-803 is pretty much shot from more than a couple of trips around the world. The one question I had regarding that new finish is that I am kind of worried that the waxy stuff will somehow find it’s way on to the front elements of my glass when I am in let’s say a not too careful mood. That and I freaking hate greasy hands – don’t mind dirty but cannot stand greasy – one reason my hands are not so silky smooth.


    • Hey Robert, I put it up quickly as it is a FANTASTIC article. Loved it. As for teh waxwear Domke, I still use it and never once had a problem with a waxy feel or finish. Actually, it doesn’t even really feel waxy! No way for wax to get on your lenses or gear, or your hands. It’s very cool and is a functional bag.

      Thanks again for the article!


      • No problem – I shoot another when I get a chance. Thanks so much for the thoughts on the waxwear – I am going to order one right now, seeing how the bottom of my old one is threadbare.


    • Why thank you “6” – you warm my heart. I did forget something else, links to Jeanloup Sieff – well I guess you guys are pretty good at the google thing πŸ˜‰


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