Of flash photography, zone focusing, and rangefinders.

I have two observations about the use of flash and zone focusing, as they pertain to rangefinder photography:

  1. Flash photography is anathema to rangefinder photography.  Indeed it is intrusive to any type of intimate photography.
  2. Show me a photographer who operates a rangefinder exclusively with zone focusing, and I’ll show you a photographer who cannot competently focus a rangefinder.

—Peter.

19 thoughts on “Of flash photography, zone focusing, and rangefinders.

  1. gmlane says:

    Peter, I couldn’t agree with you more. With my dslr cameras, I always used a flash even in daylight for fill. And when I switched to Leica, it was so freeing not to have a flash, which I will never own again. I never zone focus even when it can be difficult to focus. Learning to focus a rangefinder is part of the art of composing your picture.

    • I’ve been secretly using a flash with my M-E over the last little while and although it solves the lack of light issue in these dark Canadian winter months, it also completely destroys the spontaneity of a given moment… and it ruins the ambiance.

      Of course, flash photography is useful (especially for posed shots), but it’s not a natural partner to rangefinder photography — unless you subscribe to the “shock and awe” subset of street photography.

  2. Luiz Paulo says:

    I do not agree with the flash destroying the spontaneity. Especially using remote flash — it is intrusive as much as pointing the camera to the subject — in my experience at least. Using the basics like bouncing the light to the wall or to the ceiling creates a soft atmosphere — It’s like christmas lights to the subjects as they once said. By other hand I don’t use flash so much just because I’m lazy. 🙂

  3. andygemmell says:

    Yeah I would say I’m not qualified to comment on either given my lack of knowledge with using a flash and also only using a rangefinder for a short period of time.

    I do think though there are some very skilled people who would and could maintain that intimate feel in their photography using flash. For me it would come down to experience and a real commitment to understanding the tools. Once you have mastered those then it is really just an extension of the camera. I’m a bit like Luiz…too lazy so this would not apply to me. All that said though it is just another piece of gear to think about…like carrying too many lenses!

    Zone focusing…exclusively is the key word here. There will have been some great images created over time where DoF was not the key to their (the photographers) objective in the image, so perhaps zone focusing was used in those. But beyond solely using that method I’d personally find it a little tiresome all the time. It’s nice to practice and shoot wide open where focusing becomes very important.

  4. Adam Spencer says:

    I purchased a mint used Leica(Metz) SF58 for a very good price, and have to say it has added another dimension to my M8, now admittedly, my only lens is the summarit 35 2.5 and the M8 has one less stop then M9 and I do think that with 1 or 2 extra stops my use for it would diminish but as a upgrade to summilux or M9 costs a lot more then £200 for the flash its good for my set up. It is big and unbalancing, although much lighter and better balanced with lithium batteries but what I like is you can turn the power right down and or bounce to the point where its invisible you have used flash, then you can turn it up a little. Mine came with a difusser and Coloured filters which enable you to balance the white balance in tungsten/candle lit rooms by matching the flash colour. Like the camera its self the flash is simple to operate with only a few well laid out menu options. It becomes familier quickly and I have wondered around and although not forgotten the flash is attached become very unconcerned by it, once I’ve dialled in the level of power I want (removed). Leica use the same flash points as Nikon so you can venture into triggers, but that really suits set situations rather then spontaneous. r.e zone focusing, the range finder is designed for it but there’s the uncertainty in the back of my mind that the focus won’t be optimise.

  5. Chris D. says:

    When using my M9 & M240, available light images have a distinctive look, especially shot with the lens wide open. For some commercial assignments I need to use a flash; many times it’s use is dictated by the constraints of the assignment. But in all situations the flash (or multiple flash) is used for aesthetic or technical reasons. Some commercial jobs must be shot with supplemental lighting and they can be spontaneous, with admittedly a different look.

    • I agree with everything you’ve written Chris.

      For the benefit of some readers, however, I’d like to make the distinction between “flash” lighting and the more general “supplemental lighting”… the latter of which can encompass any form of lighting, including continuous lighting (tungsten, fluorescent, LED, etc.), which can be a lot less intrusive than flash.

      • Chris D says:

        Peter, completely agree with you on supplemental lighting. I neglected to comment on the zone focusing issue. Using too much aperture can be a crutch to hide missed focus. That said, as fantastic as the quality of a Leica lens is wide-open, when you need to stop down F8-16 to hold depth (for architectural interiors i.e.), the quality of the optic is all the more stunning. And the true level of dust on the sensor rears it’s ugly head!

        • gmlane says:

          Chris’ your comment about dust on the sensor is a good one. Just yesterday, I was frustrated by the amount of dust that could be seen on my sensor at F16. I have the M9 with two Lux lenses, the 50 and 35, and I infrequently change them. Usually, I will shoot with one or the other for several months. I am extraordinarily careful when I change the lenses. Nevertheless, I always have a fair bit of dust and have difficulty blowing it off with my Giotto. Having said this, generally the only time I notice dust in my pictures is when I shoot between F8-16 with a blue sky in the background. I’ve had Leica clean my sensor a couple of times, but now have decided to live with the dust since it’s easy to remove in post processing. Also, street photography and portraits are my preferred genre, and I just about never see the dust on these pictures. I am curious what you, Peter and others have experienced and do about dust. Thanks.

          • The sensor picks up a lot of dust for sure.

            I rarely stop down beyond f/4, so I (mostly) avoid it. Whenever I’ve stopped down further, it makes me cringe.

            • Chris D says:

              When I purchased my first digicam, a Canon, I always sent it into our local dealer for a good cleaning. $25 later and time out of service, the chip was once again dirty after but a few days of shooting. I’ve gotten over the fear of wet-cleaning my full frame Canon & Leica chips. Totally impractical to send in a body every time you see a spec of dust when shot at F8-16. I also made a LR profile of dust deletion points with a specific focal length lens closed down. It’s not perfect as many times the deletion patterns don’t match from image to image, but it’s faster than starting over on every image.

  6. I will comment on “Flash photography is anathema to rangefinder photography. Indeed it is intrusive to any type of intimate photography.” in reverse order.

    I whole-heartedly agree that flash is intrusive to intimate photography. And after watching only one youtube video of Bruce Gilden in action, I can say that I would never approach street photography that way as to me it just seems rude.

    But on your first point, I am not sure if that is worded quite right. Or if it is assumed that “rangefinder photography” = “candid/intimate photography”. When I first became aware of rangefinder cameras and how they operate, I was intrigued. I liked the idea of being able to zone focus if using wider focal lengths and shooting stopped down to f8 or narrower. I also liked the smaller camera bodies and lenses vs. (D)SLRs. But even before I jumped into the pool, I was perplexed by the aversion to flash by most rangefinder photographers.

    My first jump into the pool was with a Voigtlander R3M and matching 250th anniverasry edition 50mm Heliar f/2 collapsible lens. So shooting with film typically of the ISO 100 or 400 variety, I quickly found I would be very limited in low-light situations as I cannot just turn a dial and instantly have ISO 6400 like I would on my Canon 5D II.

    My second jump was to an M8. And in practice I found even ISO 640 in low-light to leave me with less than desirable results.

    So I did some research to find a flash that I could used on both cameras. I decided on a Nikon SB-25 because it gives the option to use an “Auto” mode where you set the flash with what ISO and Aperture you are using and it will determine flash output based on that. I typically would set the ISO setting higher that what the actual film speed is or what the M8 was set to in order to basically be doing flash exposure compensation.

    For me, this achieves what I need when taking snapshots or portraits of my family indoors. Especially when I want to use ISO 100 and also shoot at f/5.6 or f/8. I don’t want to be stuck shooting wide open and possibly still not have a fast enough shutter speed. And having four kids and sometimes wanting more than just one of them to be in focus means shooting stopped down.

    For other reasons I recently gave up on the M8 and sold it. And I sold the R3M and replaced it with the R3A because I found I do like using Aperture Priority for shooting sometimes. But if it weren’t for having the option of using a flash when I need it, I would have given up on rangefinders completely.

  7. Cory Laskowitz says:

    It depends on the lens. A 21mm could be set to 10′ at f8 and have a huge depth of field and almost NEVER need to be focused. Not so with any focal length longer that 35mm. Never, ever use flash.

    • Chris D says:

      I respectfully disagree with the never-ever mindset. When used properly, flash can add a beneficial aesthetic component to an image. If you’re predominantly a street-shooter or in Peter’s case a candid portraits’ shooter (if I can categorize you using that term) where a flash could be distracting to “the moment” I could see rarely using flash. If I used the never-ever mindset, I’d be out of business in short order.

  8. I don’t think anyone exclusive zone focuses unless they are limiting their work to just one genre. Otherwise, all Leica shooters have to manually focus as they approach wider apertures.

    I think the bigger issue is with most Leica shooters depriving themselves the joy of using the best system for zone focusing in photography.

  9. ashwinrao1 says:

    I Disagree regarding the flash bit: see the work of my good friend and famous grunge photographer Charles Peterson’s, in which flash and RF’s are used extensively, he happened to shoot my wedding, so I may be biased. Flash was used when the lights dimmed…to great effect …, I do agree that for my work, I am not accomplished in using flash for my rF work and don’t use it….

  10. Antonio says:

    I can’t agree with either of those. I use zone focussing all the time, just as Cartier Breton did!

  11. I can’t comment on zone focusing as I don’t use a RF. But IMO you are right about flash: at best, it’s unnecessary.

    The only situation where it would actually be useful is out of doors when you have nowhere to place your subject except in the harsh midday summer sun. But if the light is that bad in the first place, I’ll find a solution which eliminates the harsh sun and the need for flash.

    If I used it for my work… I’d soon have very little work at all. (ATM I do two disparate types of subject). Even if I loved flash, I’d never get away with it. And even if were allowed, I’d shun it as it would ruin the photos.

    A flash unit is also just another damned thing to carry around. And it intrudes upon the people you’re trying to photograph. Do you want people firing flashes in your face? Worse than that: do you want to be firing it at all? I sure don’t. But if other people do, hey, it’s not my money or my photographs. I don’t want to make photography a bore for other people.

    For some, it’s just another toy to play/show-off with and used for the sake of it. But if you can’t stand to have even slightly grainy/noisy images, you have no choice but to use it in some cases.

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