Leica Rangefinder Philosophy for the Real World by Jean-Pierre Vazquez

Leica Rangefinder Philosophy for the Real World by Jean-Pierre Vazquez

I’ve been hanging around this website for a while now. Mr. Huff has brought some incredible content to the masses and I’m very proud to be writing this article for him. I’ve read most of the reviews and essays multiple times. I have visually digested high ISO comparisons, lens samples, the pros and cons of multiple camera bags, and the philosophy of photography from many amazing photographers. The Leica rangefinder philosophy is, in many respects, my mantra. It is how I composed my best/favorite photos, how my fingers and thumbs move to create an exposure triangle, and how I attempt to blend the surreal and daily into a simple composition (with a pinch of juxtaposition). Finally, I yearn to become both a part of the scene while being invisible at the same time. In a word: discrete.

I may go off on a couple of tangents, so please bear with me

It has taken time and effort to get to this point. As a purist in many respects, I started off wanting to set my film camera manually and not edit at all. I learned to pre-visualize, scale focus, and meter light with grey matter alone. One learns to feel a moment just before it happens. My camera, 35 and 50 are my closest friends, and bitter enemies. I’ve had to get over my fears of getting close to people. These lenses taught me more than all the articles and forums I’ve read.

As I developed (pun intended), I tried to get closer to people. And I also made the move to digital. Ah yes… The move into the fray. I could still use my vintage lenses, but there was a clarity and smoothness that I hadn’t experienced with film. I could take more than sets of 24 and 36 frames, but still was thoughtful about my exposures. Slow, but precise. Mechanical, but with an exquisite manual focus smoothness that must be felt to truly understand.

Many photographers are gear addicts. Daily, I search for gorgeous lenses, look up the camera pr0n groups on Flickr, and sample the tastiest films from Portra to Tri-X. In essence, I live vicariously through others to tame my gear appetites.

I seek samples of crons, luxes, elmars, etc. Leica has marketed their masterpieces in such a way that if it is not their tools being used, you’re just a hobbyist. If you’re passionate about photography, nothing is like a Leica. They have lenses with the most beautiful in and out of focus areas. So I laid down the coin to at least make the move to cropped-sensor digital, clocked in hundreds of research hours on technique and applying that knowledge. I’m still scratching the surface of finding my ‘voice’ through photography, let alone honing and applying my Rangefinder philosophy.

And here I am, almost three years into my photography obsession, and I’ve realized that the finger/eye/brain balance of Leica rangefinder philosophy can be applied to an entry-level DSLR with a couple of lenses. That, and a keen eye. The rangefinder, physically/economically, is out of my reach. But I can at least attempt to document and interpret my life photographically, philosophically, with the Rangefinder spirit in mind. I’ll get closer, understand faster, and be more considerate of each moment in my life. A different medium, but a tool for expression nonetheless.

41 Comments

  1. Oh and before I get jumped by the Leica gang (lol) I should add the following: Spending just 10 seconds looking at these images tells you that Leica glass (and sensors probably) are way superior to the Canon’s. Leica are not at all overpriced in my mind and they should be viewed as the best – or at least one of the best. My point is that buying a Leica will not make you take better images. Maybe most people reading this already know this but I am very grateful for the trick you played on me with this post. You taught me that I need to focus on my photography and stop wasting time thinking about how a new camera might make my pictures better. Hope that saved me a scalding 🙂

    Thanks.

    • As response to both of your comments, first, thank you wholeheartedly! A couple of these are still my favorite images that I was able to take. I’m glad this post had an impact on you. There’s a beautiful/interesting/scary world out there just waiting to be discovered, waiting on equipment means missing out on making photos and sharing emotions. As with anything, there’s lust-worthy cameras and lenses out there, they’re just not the be all end all to nice images.

      You made my day with your comments, thank you again. If I get the chance to travel overseas I’ll make sure to at least say hey. Have a great weekend!

      PS: that’s am awesome camera combo. You need to dust it off and give it some love. Lol

  2. I think this is the best article I have ever read on here. Jean-Pierre, the second image is my personal favourite in this post (I have not had a chance to look at your other work yet) but regardless of the images, you really hit home with this piece. Firstly, I assumed (as I am sure you intended the viewer to) that these were taken on a digital Leica. When I saw the image of the little girl, I started justifying the purchase of an M9/Other digital M by telling myself that the quality is just a step above the rest and that you may not have got the shot if you were using a DSLR etc. etc. I literally had to read over the whole post when you eluded to the fact you were using a crop sensor DSLR for your work. What this teaches me is simple – Most of the hype around Lieca rangefinders, in my mind at least, is just that – hype. I really really like the look, feel, build, culture, craftsmanship etc. of Leica rangefinders and totally understand the following however it really disappoints me when I see tons of weak images shot on a £12,000 camera/lens combo. Learning to appreciate what you already have and making the most of it seems to be the most important mantra both in and out of photography. Regarding your equipment, You are clearly doing just fine with your set up but I have a Fuji X-e1 and 27mm 2.8 that I no longer use, If you are ever in London, give me a shout and it is yours. This is a serious offer – you probably just saved me £3-4k with this post anyway lol.

    Steve Huff, if you are reading this: Nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for you and the site. Whilst my comments above might sound a bit like “it’s not the camera it’s the photographer” I really appreciate the time and effort that you put into this site and helping photographers make informed decisions about the gear that they invest in is certainly of the utmost importance to the whole photographic community.

    Thanks.

  3. Exquisit photos!

    But does the author really want to say: “Mr. Huff has brought some incredible content TO THE MASSES”? That makes the writer sound like a snob.

  4. Nick, medsrx, michiel, Jason h, wing, al-m, magda, mark alan, Jason howe, carsia, andrea, andre bogaert, tom nirider:
    Thank you so much for the kind comments!

    Steve Huff:
    Thanks for this opportunity to share my thoughts and photos!

  5. “And here I am, almost three years into my photography obsession, and I’ve realized that the finger/eye/brain balance of Leica rangefinder philosophy can be applied to an entry-level DSLR with a couple of lenses. That, and a keen eye. The rangefinder, physically/economically, is out of my reach. But I can at least attempt to document and interpret my life photographically, philosophically, with the Rangefinder spirit in mind.”

    Great words indeed – I started shooting in this way 3 months ago for a year-long project, and it’s VERY satisfying.

    And, great shoots too. Keep on.

  6. Oh man, iam briefly sent back to memory lane when i used to ahve an old zorki an a 50mm juipter, the pictures on that thing came out so punchy and nice. then i broke the camera when i unkowingly cocked the shutter before i changed the shutter dial. Since then, digital came and the cost of film made any wish of going back pretty sad.

    That said, i think the reason why rangefinders are such a niche market now is solely because of the manufacturers.They could build an affordable rangefinder canonet styled digital camera but no one wants to really. Leica is content with pumping out camera bling, so is Voigtlander for that matter. The heads of these companies got to understand that if they make more affordale things for the masses, things like the vw beetle, that they will ceate a bigger consumer fan base, not some tiny niche market.i once had a person who didnt know that the m9 she bought was manual focus.lol.

    To this i have to tip my hat off to canon or nikon, who succeed at creating affordable cameras which get more people nto photography. I don;t know why makers like leica or voigtlander have to create such expensive niche systems, if only a thousand people can afford your camera one year, chances are, onlt those thousand can afford them next year. No new customers means just that, no new customers. It wouldnt take cosina that much to create a entry level rangefinder [ not the epson] at around 600-750 so people who do want to use or try a rangefinder again can do so. No, they have to make cameras that are out of the reach for the majority. Now i get the argument that something great will cost more, but no one will buy a car if no one can afford it. You make more money if more people buy lower cost items then luxury items. And if making money is not the first priority for compaies like leica or voigtlander, it better be cause what’s next could be a thing called bankruptcy.

    • I think if Cosina felt they could profitably make a digital range finder for 750 dollars (or even Euros), then they, or someone else may. I think we need to accept that range finder users are a tiny niche. The bulk of the market is taken by Leica, so Cosina would be going after scraps. There would be R&D costs, manufacture, and warranty servicing costs, along with employment, taxes, insurance, bills, shipping, advertising, packaging, all to be paid for by selling an extremely niche product at the price of a mass market one. Then once you’ve sold some of these cameras, you then need to compete with those cameras being sold on the used market.

      If you and I cannot afford an M9, I’d suggest that’s our problem, not Leica’s or indeed Cosina’s.

      • Cosina DID make a digital rangefinder: it’s called the Epson R-D1 (..and various subsequent versions).

        It has a Leica-M lens mount, a Sony 6mpxl APS sensor, built-in colour “filters” (just dial in red, yellow, green, etc, to simulate glass filters with b&w film), has RAPID replay and zoom of pics you’ve just shot, a QUIET manually-cocked shutter, quirky “analog” dials for White Balance, battery charge, number of shots left, etc, and is a great manual-focus digital rangefinder. It looks like a film camera, but the “rewind” knob is a menu knob.

        Have a look in any specialist second-hand dealer, or on eBay.

      • And if Leica has no customers anymore and goes out of business, that wouldn’t be my problem either because I don’t NEED to buy any of their cameras.

        Leica and Minolta once collaborated on their cl cle, until it got popular and Leica decide to axe it in order to save their m camera. Leica has almost gone bankrupt once. They are not very far ahead of bankruptcy in these times either.

        The bulk of the market is taken by Leica, but it is a minsicule market. A very very very very tiny insignificance market.

        The camera business is not unlike any other. In order to make cameras, you need money. In order to make money you need to make good cameras. In order to make alot of money you need to make cameras that people can buy alot of. Money is what makes this world go around, good or bad.Leica can charge 70 thousand for their cameras for all I care, but it will do them no good.

        Since the 60’s Leica has been painting themselves into a corner and the times have moved on by.They have alot of “potential” consumers. But they “choose” not to tap into that market. No i’m not a Leica basher, i just call it the way i see it. Their tteeny weenie niche market indicates I’m not far off base with my comments.

        We can accept that the rangefinder market is now a tiny niche, but why would a business accep that? If you ran a business, would you sit there and “accept ” what youre selling is a small niche market or wouldn’t you rather want to proactively build on that grass roots fan base? If you build it, as they say, they will come. If Leica and Cosina don’t want to build it, then who will come? You, as a business cannot sit there and just keep telling yourself that just because it is a small niche market now, that it’s pointless to create a bigger potential customer base. If apple or bill Gates thought that way , there wouldnt be pcs or ipods.

        Leica has a choice, be a leader or to follow their old paths.It looks like the ladder rather than the former. It would be a shame if Leica went out of business someday but they were to go under, they would have no one to blame but themselves..and that would also, not be our problem. But they can’t say i didn’t warn them. LOL

        • Leitz, the company which originally made the Leica, “..has almost gone bankrupt..” more than once ..originally saved by its Canadian offshoot (when the Leica CL and M5 didn’t bring in enough cash) by restarting manufacture of the M4 as the M4-2 and then as the M4-P ..and the company was sold to the optical instrument firm (think theodolites) Wild-Heerbrugg in the 1970s.

          The upmarket scarf brand Hermès bought a one-third stake, and then Andreas Kaufmann bought the entire Leica-Camera company, but has now sold almost half to American investment outfit Blackstone.

          They obviously see the “niche” market as a sufficiently prosperous one ..like Vuitton luggage. Like luxury yachts. Like Rolls-Royce cars (now owned by Audi/VolksWagen). Like private jets. These all seem to make money, and there are sufficient people to buy these high-priced items.

          They’re (the current Leica Camera company) trying to follow Apple ..which doesn’t want the whole personal computer market (or mobile phone market) ..they want the biggest chunk of that sector which delivers the biggest profit. They (Apple) make “desirable”, and more expensive, computers and phones, which deliver more cash to them per item sold than the “commodity” Dell and HP computers.

          That’s what Kaufmann’s aiming for. He’s not aiming for Canon’s or Nikon’s market. He’s aiming for “expensive = desirable”. He could be selling expensive cars or scarves, planes or yachts ..but in this case he’s selling cameras.

          • And yet, we continue to talk about Leica. Like in the car industry, yes, there’s Detroit and mass production. But there is also Ferrari and limited production. Is a Ferrari practical? Of course not, and neither is a Leica.

            But at this moment I am traveling through Europe for three weeks with several cameras on tow: Nikon D800, Leica M9, and the Sony X100. What do I find myself using most? The Leica M9. Visiting the working-class neighborhoods of Paris, Berlin, and Prague to capture everyday life, I have discovered (in Paris) that my D800 got some not-so-friendly looks the minute people saw it on my hands. Switching to the M9 the story could not have been more different. People relaxed and never did I get those nasty looks that the big rig seemed to generate.

            And finally, we could talk all day about how it doesn’t make any sense to spend all that money for the retro rangefinders made by Leica, but the conversation will always come back to the the quality of the optics and the mood created by those photographs. Yes, many cameras can replicate this Leica look with enough work, but that’s precisely the point, as Leica’s can accomplish it without even trying. Not for everyone, though, but neither is a Ferrari if you can do with a minivan.

          • My “point” was not about whether using a Leica or not would help ones photography . It is about potential market share. It is about creating a market share. With cameras like the Fuji x100 or xpro 1 or even the nex 7 ,one could argue those also could have been Leicas customers.That’s money in the bank, who in business rejects money if they can get it?

            Everyone knows Kaufmann’s not aiming for any of the Canon or Nikon market…her CAN”T. Leica doesn’t have the tech and know how or buills to do it even if they wanted to.What Iam saying is that they should look for and exploit a new market, something other then premium bling.That’s business 101.

            Leica is a very tiny camera company, but let’s not compare it’s business with Vuitton.The camera business is a little different than the purse and baggage one. Cameras need technology updates , a purse does not.In order to get tech, you need R&D,.To get R&D, you need money.Leica and its “fans” spend too much time sitting on the fence when it comes to this.Without Panasonic and others, it would be in a deeper technological hole.

            As for the comparison to a Ferrari ad Minivan….that’s a little off. In cameras, the canon 1d or nikon d3 is a Ferrari. The Leica is a decked out gold played rolls Royce and a 100 horse power engine. Sorry, I don;t buy into the Leica discreet myth. There are plenty type of cameras smaller and more quite or discreet than the Leica. ..like the Nikon V1.

          • I don’t own a rangefinder or a Leica, so take this with a pinch or two of salt.

            Supply and demand: there’s a very short supply of Leica products, and a very high demand. Leica knows that every unit produced will be sold, so they can have an easier time calculating how much revenue they’ll have. As opposed to Canon that will sell a large amount of a product and then eventually offer discounts and still be making money as the demand goes down (but not as high of return as when the product first came out).

            Vogue: Leica and all their products are beautiful. I research photos of leica’s and lenses themselves. They are worth the price for sexy-factor alone.

            Size/Perfomance: size matters, and like any small, light sports car you pay the price for big performance in a small package.

            If Leica sent me any of their cameras and lenses, I would use the camera like there’s no tomorrow and shout it from the rooftops. Leica is synonymous with awesomness. But I shoot an entry level Canon, and my goal shooting that camera is for people to look at my photos and forget about what camera i’m shooting. When people see me using a Canon, they think i’m a newb or a tourist, and that’s just fine with me.

  7. Great article and thoughts! One of the great pieces in this blog and it’s true insperation to me.Thx for sharing.

    • There are loads of cheap range finders too, Canon, Yashica, Bessa, even oddities like Yasuhara. The X100 is a very fine camera, but it’s not a range finder. Range finders can be had pretty inexpensively though.

      • Well, pretty inexpensive is actually more than I can afford, lol. I already have a film camera (Pentax Spotmatic) with lenses and then an adapter to use the lenses on my T3i, so there’s no need to buy a rangefinder just for the sake of having one. Olympus XA is pretty neat though 🙂

        The Leica M9 is a gorgeous, capable camera in the right hands. And those lenses, delectable.

        But at this point I’m using all my equipment as much as I can. Even my M42 35 3.5 is now reversed on a cheap-and-modified teleconverter for macro photography. I think a lot of people are too caught up in getting the next latest and greatest because they feel that their skill deserves it. I feel that you should get a camera that:

        A) you can afford
        B) does as much as you need within your price range
        C) can be easily carried everywhere you go

        I carry my t3i and 35 f2 everywhere, i can even take my vintage 135 2.8 since it’s the same size as the 18-55 kit lens. All in a small sling bag. It’s rare that I use burst mode, I am one button away from ISO, WB, Exposure Mode, exposure compensation. and of course my film camera only has three settings to change: aperture, shutter speed, and the switch for metering.

        I don’t have the money to burn on upgrades, so the more I learn to use my camera the better the photos become (in my opinion, of course). If you need super clean high ISO, lots of FPS, and a bunch of dials, be my guest. But for me, I like figuring out ways to maximize what i already have. more cost-effiicient, and infinitely rewarding.

  8. “The Leica rangefinder philosophy is, in many respects, my mantra.”

    Is this what ensures you get chosen for “Daily Inspiration” by Steve?

    Is it a prerequisite.. the “red dot” thing? I’ve seen great and not so great pic’s from all camera’s- it’s not the camera at all.

    I wrote a “DI” piece and haven’t heard a peep.. maybe my philosophy and mantra are holding me back.

    Anywho.. the little girl photo has potential, but like what was previously said on Flickr- the pole comong out of her head and cropping could be a bit better.

    • Did you read the piece? Ultimately, it concludes you don’t need a Leica, that even an inexpensive dslr will suffice if used with patience and craft. Good reminders for the majority of us who will never own a Leica. Thanks, Pierre, for the thoughts and the lovely images.

    • Hey Bobby, I think Mark has quite rightly pointed out that the premise of this post it that one does not need a Leica.

      In relation to your other point, as far as I know the camera you use has no bearing on your piece getting on here, many makes and models have featured.

      With regards to hearing back (or not), I can’t start to imagine how many emails, FB messages etc Steve must get in a day, it is not uncommon to hear nothing back and your post may still go up.

      All the best

      • That could very well be the case.

        I wrote this article partly as a satire so I could hit with the dslr punchline. I count myself infinitely lucky for having this opportunity, but don’t take that as me not having to have worked long and hard to get to the point that Mr.Huff would give me this chance to share my work and thoughts. It is easy to pawn things off as fanboy brotherhood, but I assure you that this was what happened.

  9. Love your essay and my favorite photo was the first one. Your work continues to improve and I am amazed by how talented you are.

  10. “Leica has marketed their masterpieces in such a way that if it is not their tools being used, you’re just a hobbyist.”

    Give me a break.

  11. Great photos and even more to be found on your Flickr account. Have added you, keep up the great work!

  12. Fantastic piece. Wonderful images and a phenomenal attitude. For many of us the Leica rangefinder world is out of the question for whatever reason but we can shoot with the same heart and the same attention to life. Your shots and your outlook exemplify that. Thanks!

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