Leica Street Photography (1) – Shooting from the Hip
What is Street Photography?
To me the term ‘Street Photography‘ is associated with unplanned unrequested candid photos of people taken in a street environment. Many street photographers stop people and ask them if they can take their photo. This is fine but to me this is then a ‘Street Portrait‘ and could just as easily be a model standing in the street (as I often do) or a homeless person / shop worker / other. Although I work with models on a regular basis I do not think I have the confidence to jump out in front of someone and take a photo as I would be worried they may not appreciate it. This has lead to me using the technique known as ‘Zone Focusing‘. I can work closely with my subjects and yet they are often unaware I am taking a photography and as a result at no point feel threatened by me.
Here are a sample of Leica street photography images I took in London. All images are zone focused (link below) and shot from waist level without looking through the viewfinder.
A how to guide for zone focusing Leica lenses (specifically on Leica M cameras but the rules apply to most rangefinder cameras)
Zone focusing Leica M camera system
1. What is zone focusing / Hyperfocal Distance?
Zone focusing is dialing in a predetermined focal distance and aperture onto your camera lens as shown in the header photo. Here the lens is set to infinity. This is also known as the hyperfocal distance.
2. How does zone focusing work?
The lines on the top of the lens shown in the header photo indicate at every given aperture what the depth of field (“DOF”) will be in focus at each focal length. A wider aperture (lower f. stop number) gives a more shallow DOF and a smaller aperture (higher f. stop number) gives a greater DOF. This is indicated by the hyperfocal distance lines on the top of the lens. In the example lens photo shown it is clear to see that the space between the two f2.8 lines is much smaller than the space between the two f16 lines. The distance number in meters or feet opposite the line at f2 is the focal distance. If you set this at say 1.2m (“2” is opposite the 1.2m number) then at f8 you look at the distance numbers opposite the two “8” numbers. Each lens focal length is different but on a 35mm lens this means at f8 everything between 1m and 1.6m is in focus.
3. When would you use zone focusing?
Zone focusing is very useful for street photography when using manual focus lenses such as Leica cameras. Things often happen very quickly so candid street photography would be almost impossible without zone focusing when using manual focus cameras. You do not always have time to bring the camera to your eye and then focus and compose to get the shot. If you have set the camera lens to a predetermined distance then you know if you are within that distance from your subject that the subject is in focus and all you need to do is to compose and take the photo.
4. What is a good lens for zone focused Leica street photography?
The most common focal lengths used for street photography range between 50mm and 21mm (50mm, 40mm, 35mm, 28mm, 24mm, 21mm for example) depending on personal preference and the working distance you like to keep between you and your subject. Longer lenses such as 50mm means you can be further away from your subject than if you were using 21mm. As you often stop a lens down for street photography (dial in a higher f. stop number) you do not need fast lenses such as a Leica Summilux ASPH 50mm f1.4 It just means you are carrying unnecessary weight. I find black lenses better than silver as they sparkle less in the light so do not attract attention to themselves as much. Small compact lenses are less noticeable than a larger lens. For zone focusing Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f2.8 lenses are quite popular in the street and for travel photography.
5. Lenses with a focus tab are great for zone focusing
I find lenses with a focus “tab” much easier to zone focus as I can alter the predetermined focal distance on the lens without looking. If you select one lens then learn to master it you will soon know by touch at what focal distance the lens is set at. My personal preference is to have the tab pointing directly at the floor which on my lens is 1.2m. I keep my finger on the tab as I walk around. If a subject is closer to me than 1.2m I move the tab to the left perhaps 45 degrees and this reduces the focal distance towards 0.7m. If a subject is further away I move it 45 degrees to the right and this dials in a long focal distance towards 3m and then infinity. After each photo I return the tab to the centre ready for the next image. I am reasonably new to street photography but I found this method works the best for my style.
6. Street photography at eye level or waist level using zone focusing?
Street photography can be captured at eye level but also at waist level if you do not want to draw attention to yourself. I find bringing a camera to eye level with a subject looking towards you can scare them resulting in an unnatural pose such as hand over their face, a change in expression or potentially verbal confrontation.
7. Examples images of street photography that were zone focused at different focal lengths
50mm lens (Leica Summarit 50mm f1.5 (1954) on Leica M9)
35mm lens (Leica Summaron 35mm f3.5 (1951) on Leica M9)
35mm lens (Voigtlander Color Skopar PII 35mm f2.5 on Leica M9)
21mm focal length (15mm f4.5 Voigtlander Super Wide Heliar on Leica M8 with 1.33x crop)(19mm)
8. What are my favourite lenses for zone focused Leica street photography?
After a few recent trips to London I found I like to work close to my subjects (roughly 1m distance). For this reason I found 50mm far too tight and it resulted in many headless photos. 35mm was a good focal length when I was standing still and taking photos of people passing me by. I like the vintage look of the silver 1951 Leica Summaron 35mm f3.5 but I prefer the easier to use black Voigtlander Color Skopar PII 35mm f2.5 with plastic focus tab. I often move fast so am in and out of a situation very quickly. As a result 35mm can also be too tight sometimes. I found my favourite focal length was the equivalent of 21mm but using a 15mm f4.5 Super Wide Heliar on my crop sensor Leica M8 rather than using my M9. I have a super sharp 21mm f2.8 Zeiss ZM Biogon however it is larger, silver and without focus tab so I think less suited to street photography.
Zone Focusing Leica Lenses
If you have never tried zone focusing Leica lenses (or any lenses) you should. It is great for all sorts of photography not just street photography. I use zone focusing for moving subjects during Leica wedding photography and also for fast moving children photography. I hope this post makes some sense. It is easier in practice than it looks written down! 🙂