Leica M9 Lessons

2001_033_05.jpgRemember the couple of semi-sarcastic posts I made a while ago? If you don't they were meant in jest to educate and amuse. I was shocked that people were finding their way to this site with google keywords "Ansel Adams Lightroom presets" - sort of the epitome of missing the whole point of Ansel Adam's entire philosophy of making a photograph. Anyway here is the deal, guess how many visits the site has from people that are searching for "Leica M9 autofocus lens". Don't bother - let's just say a lot. Instead of being sarcastic I thought it may be better to share a couple of rangefinder lessons that I learned along the way and set up a couple of expectations for the uninitiated.

Focusing - you will have to practice but you may also have to try some things that are really way different than you are doing with your current kit. I mentioned somewhere that rangefinders are fantastic for making images of normal sized things that are pretty close to you. Well if you need to be really fast at doing that you may not have time to really really focus precisely. Believe it or not even the most fantastic DSLR autofocus systems are really not that good at dealing with things that are normal size pretty close where you have to take the picture very quickly. 2001_033_14.jpgSo what to do? Well for a lot of situations the best thing to do is pre-focus, just not the way you are thinking. What you may be thinking when I mention pre-focus is to precisely focus on a certain point and wait for the subject to be at that point - this works great for some things and I do it all the time but there is another way as well.

The other way to prefocus is to select an aperture that gives you the depth of field required for your situation and just shoot. Don't worry about focusing again until the situation changes. How do you "know" when the situation changes - easy you guess. That may sound impossible but it's actually really easy. The best way to describe this is to give you an example. Let's take a 35mm f2 summicron, the ne plus ultra of street photography everywhere around the world. Let's see are we really going to be taking pictures of stuff from closest focus distance to infinity? Nope we are going to be shooting people about 5 feet away give or take. Set your focus distance at 5 feet and your aperture at f8 - cool you now have instant autofocus with no delay for everything you shoot from about 3.5 feet to about 9 feet. How do you know that? 2001_033_21.jpgEvery M series lens has this handy little "auto focus" feature built in, it's called a depth of field scale. How do you know if your situation changes? Well if you cannot tell the difference between 3 feet and 8 feet you better hang it up. If your situation is different change the lens setting, change the aperture, whatever. This also takes some practice but once you get the hang of it you will not really need 5 feet wide tolerances, you will get by with a 1 or 2 feet tolerances. This is because you will get to know the lens you are using and the image sizes it makes on film for the subjects you shoot at what distances. Old timers call this zone focusing and it is an essential technique for working really really fast with confidence - maybe even faster than auto-focus in a lot of situations.

What about the exposure thing? Well you can use the same sort of idea. Set the exposure and forget about it until the light/situation changes. Done. Again an example is called for - in any giving situation meter the palm of your hand in shadow (turn it away from the light and make sure it is not being filled by your white shirt, or other things that are not going to also fill your subject) set the exposure to about 1 stop less than your meter says (zone iv). Do a quick check of your palm in the light - it should be about 2 to 3 stops more than it was in shadow (zone vi - vii). If this is the case you are golden on both negative and slide film, with slide film you may want to temper it down a bit if the reading is 3 stops more than it was in shadow, with negative film, let it be.2001_033_22.jpg If you are asking what if the subject gets more light - well the only thing they will get is more fill light like off of a building or a white card - unless your light changes. How do you know if it changes? Look. Are you in the sun? Are you in the shade of a building? Did that change?

I am oversimplifying this a bit - but it is really simple. What's more is after a little practice you will actually get MORE consistent exposures that your evaluative vunder meter. The only time the brand new fantastic metering is actually good is if the light is changing really fast (rare) or you have no idea what you are doing. To tell you the truth I actually meter and set my exposure closer to the way I just described most of the time. it is far better than having 400 images of the exact same subject, in the exact same light with exposures all over the map somewhere between a bit over and a bit under at 1/10 of a stop increments just because you changed the framing a bit or the subject turned their head a little bit one way or the other into the shadow or into the light.

2001_033_19.jpgHope this helps people trying to understand what the world would be like without a meter changing the exposure every 1/8000 th of a second and what it might be like without auto-focus. I really hope it helps some of the lost souls searching the inter-webs looking for the long lost Leica M9 auto-focus lens knowing that all of us are just leaving out the auto-focus specs because we are idiots or something.


Ps. The included shots are not supposed to be the best images ever made - they were the first thing that I came across that I happened to use the two set it and forget it techniques just discussed. I just set the scanner to auto and let her rip - I am so lazy I didn't even crop off the film holder edges (as usual) or do any fine tuning - I am pretty sure if I spent 10 seconds on contrast/dodge/burn and added some sharpening to deal with what the scanner takes away - you might even be impressed.

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