Out of my comfort zone: Street photography with the Leica M.

As a hobbyist photographer, I take pictures and fiddle with various cameras because it gives me pleasure, relieves stress, relaxes me, provides a creative release and is fun. Because I enjoy it, because it is fun, I do it often. The benefit of doing something often is that you get better at doing it. Your understanding of it and your skill at doing it improves. It's like exercise. If you enjoy walking and walk every day, your health will improve...unintended or not.

I think my technical skills have improved over the last six and half years. I'm getting better at seeing, composing, exposing. I'm feeling more confident in my ability to use the equipment properly. But I've mostly limited myself to a solitary pursuit of subject matter. I shoot landscapes, buildings, relics, interesting patterns, objects. And I take a lot of photos of my cameras and related accessories. I've avoided most photography which requires interaction with other people. The type of photography I've done so far is that which I find the most enjoyable, fun and...comfortable. And while there's nothing wrong with that, there is a part of me that admires photographers who can take great portraits or who are good at street photography. Because I've never found people photography or street photography fun, I've avoided it and have never grown my skills.

I wrote in an earlier post, that I bought my Leica M9-P as a learning tool. A digital platform to give me faster access to my images so that I could grow as a photographer. It occurred to me several weeks ago that the M camera and my 35mm Summicron was the perfect kit to venture out and try some street photography. Maybe I could practice some of the street photography skills I have read about and conquer my fear of photographing around people. 

The Leica M system really shines for this kind of photography. The small, light rangefinder would be easy to carry and the 35mm lens is the perfect focal length for shooting on the streets. I wanted my images to be in black and white and the M9 provides a very cool feature that allows you to create a black and white JPEG and a raw (DNG) color file at the same time.

I live just an hour from one of the great street photography cities of the world, San Francisco. So last weekend, I headed to the city, M9 in hand, a fresh SD card in the slot and an extra battery in my pocket to push myself out of my comfort zone. I cranked the ISO up to 1000 so I could shoot most everything at f/11 or 16. I used zone focusing for all of the shots in this gallery, making good use of the well marked depth-of-field scale on the top of the Summicron lens.

My hotel was in Union Square, so it was a short walk to Chinatown. At first, I settled into my old habit of avoiding people.

I became aware of a few things while shooting the Leica on the streets. First, there really is an advantage to using a rangefinder for this type of photography as you watch the world move into and out of your frame lines. In a way, the camera sort of becomes invisible, more an extension of your own seeing. I never feel this way shooting one of my 35mm SLRs. With my Nikon F2, for instance, I feel much more like I am looking at the world through a tube. There is also a bit more connection with what I am shooting using a rangefinder. I suppose it is because you are looking directly through the viewfinder at your subject rather than at an image reflected off the mirror of an SLR. Lastly, my vintage looking digital Leica rangefinder did not seem to intimidate anyone at all. I've tried this type of photography with my Nikons and my Contax RX SLRs and it seemed people were far more aware of those cameras. Or at least, that is how I perceived it. With a bit more confidence, I started shooting some people.

I watched this woman gazing at the food through this shop window for some time before she moved to the left side of the frame, which I thought made an interesting shot.

Just down the street, a busy fish market.

I lost my nerve while photographing in this alley. Just to the left, out of frame, three guys were huddled doing who knows what. The saw me with my camera and gave me a look that I read as "back off." I did, but grabbed this shot of some cool urban art before disappearing with my Leica in the crowd.

There was a parade of some sort. Too many people to get anything really good here. I clicked off several shots and liked this one best.

I am fascinated with the dark alleys and back spaces off the main streets in San Francisco. I'd love to come back and spend just a day shooting in these places.

I stopped and watched this woman folding old cardboard boxes neatly into the back of a truck for recycling I suppose. I tried to get a good shot of her, then a shot of her and the Transamerica Tower in the background and then a shot of her and her helper on the ground. It never worked out for me and towards the end, she noticed me and started waving me off. My only negative interaction of the day.

I made my way out of Chinatown, back towards Union Square. Couldn't resist stopping at the Leica Store and picking up a soft shutter release. In typical Leica fashion, it set me back $75. There were plenty of people milling about Union Square and along Powell Street as I made my way towards Market.

The sun was starting to set as I crossed Market to make my way back up Powell to Union Square. I clicked off this shot which like a lot.

I like the way the M9 renders in black and white mode and even at a high ISO setting, I don't think the images got grainy or gritty looking. And even if they did, for urban street photography, this might be just fine. Zone focusing, especially with the 35mm lens, worked just like I read it would, freeing up my attention to getting a good shot rather than worrying if I was in focus. With practice, this might even be faster than autofocus, at least on the AF cameras I have used. I can see why so many accomplished street photographers, past and present, use the Leica M. It's just a perfect tool for this kind of shooting. Most importantly, I had fun this day which grew my confidence level. 

On the way out of town, crossing the Golden Gate into Marin County, I looked up and the bridge towers were, as is so often the case, disappearing into the fog. When traffic slowed to a stop, I grabbed the M and shot this through the condensation of the front window of the car. It was a good day of photography.