Street Photography With The Leica M

My photography is, for the most part, a solitary endeavor. A man with a camera, taking pictures of things or places. I don't believe there is anything wrong with this, especially when I spend most of my time in the busy, noisy, people-filled environment of retail automotive marketing. I can really recharge my batteries by getting away and standing alone on a windswept cliff trying to get the perfect exposure of a Pacific coast sunset. 

I am aware however that this kind of photography is a very safe space for an essentially reclusive person like me. Unless it is work-required, I avoid social gatherings and crowds make me uneasy. And as much as I could probably spend the rest of my days happily clicking away on some desolate stretch of beach waiting for the waves to splash just the right way or the sun to glint perfectly off the surf, there is an insistent nagging within me to photograph people. 

I realize for me, this is a 12-step program. As much as I'd like to immediately sign up for a workshop where professional models pose as I hone my portrait skills, I know I need to move through this process slowly and methodically. And so, I am starting with street photography. My tool is the Leica M rangefinder and my classroom is San Francisco.

Through two sessions this year and last, I've challenged myself to learn the craft of the street photographer. You'd think this would be an easy process. Grab a camera. Go somewhere where there are people. Take a bunch of pictures. As the world passes by your lens, you might get a good shot. As luck would have it, sometimes this works. This shot I took last year in Chinatown is an example.


The man with the sunglasses, the woman reacting, the parade dancer, bystanders with their smart phones. A slice of life moment on the streets of this fascinating neighborhood. This had all the potential of being a really good street shot. I clicked this off as I was practicing zone focusing, which is critical if you are going to capture "the decisive moment" with a manual focus camera. If I had moved in closer and concentrated on my composition, this would have been a stronger photograph. As it was, I was oblivious to my subject, obsessed with the markings on my lens and just happened to get what little I got by pure luck.

What is zone focusing? Essentially, it means setting your focus and aperture in such a way that whatever you shoot within a pre-determined distance will be pretty much in focus. Once you are out on the street and start shooting, this will enable you to react quickly, making only small focus adjustments rather than fumbling around like I was. Becoming skillful at this also requires you to spend a lot of time with one camera and one lens. Cartier-Bresson shot almost exclusively with a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm lens. I know this is an over-used expression, but when you shoot one camera and one lens over and over again, I can imagine that the device does begin to disappear and become a true extension of your own eye.

Another thing I have learned in street photography. Move in close and then, move in even closer. This is the concept of street photography that will be difficult for me to master. It requires some interaction with your subject and the possibility of getting a negative reaction. I made several shots of the man in this fish shop from some distance away. They all looked like vacation snapshots. Finally, I moved in closer.


I liked the interaction of the shopkeeper and his customer. The attention of the man passing by and the blurred motion of the people in the foreground all combined to accurately depict daily life on the streets of Chinatown. I nailed the focus here and was pleased that the exposure revealed good detail inside the shop without overexposing anything outside on the street. While I was taking this photograph, I was worried that the shopkeeper might be upset that I was taking pictures of him. Ultimately, after this shot, he saw me and smiled. I wished I still had the camera to my eye.

Some of your subjects might not be so gracious. I was trying to get a good shot of the two kids in the left of this next frame. They were lighting small firecrackers and enjoying the startled reaction of passers by. The facial expressions of the young girl were priceless but right after this shot, as I moved in, she became aware of me and my camera and ran inside.

Summer in Chinatown.jpg

I've done all of my street photography so far with my 35mm Summicron lens. In this case, if I had been using my 50mm Summilux and stepped a few feet to my right, I might have captured a nice slice of life before the girl fled for the safe confines of the produce shop.

My 50 would have helped in this next shot as well. Using the 35 and my reluctance to leave the comfort of the recessed storefront resulted in ordinary when it could have been extraordinary.


Sometimes, all that is required in getting a satisfying street shot is to simply be patient, wait and watch the world go by. I got this next shot outside the Ferry Building on San Francisco's Embarcadero. So San Francisco...mother on her smart phone and kids being kids.

Mom and Kids (Embarcadero).jpg

I was trying to get a good shot of this meat shop in Chinatown when the woman walked into the frame and peered through the glass. She paused for only a moment and then went on her way.


Late on my most most recent shooting day, I settled back into my comfort zone and photographed the clock on the Ferry Building in the setting afternoon sun. I'm still far better at this kind of shooting. When I posted this on Flickr, it showed up in Explore and has over 5,500 views.

Ferry Building:Clock Tower in Sunlight.jpg

I am hoping to get better at this and get more comfortable shooting on the streets and eventually, maybe...even doing some portrait work. We shall see.

Up next: Street Photography With The Leica M & My Ah-Ha Moment!