Bill Pierce's
Nuts & Bolts 
"The Leica, the SLR, and the
Eye of the Photographer "

New York, January 30, 1998: 

Last month I mentioned that Dirck sent a number of us an email about the two 35-MM still cameras that he uses on assignment, the Leica rangefinder, and the Canon EOS. I was bowled over by the simple intelligence of his comments. I think most of us are used to being told, "The new Whamoflex is the best camera in the world, and anybody who uses anything else is an ass." Of course, it isn't true. No single tool is the best in the world. Try building a house using just a hammer. 

The Leica and the EOS are a relatively popular combination. They are very different cameras that don't step on each others toes. Each outperforms the other in specific situations. 

The Leica is small, quiet; it is unobtrusive. 

Because it is small, it is easy to carry. More important, nobody takes it seriously. It used to be about the same size as all professional 35-mm cameras. But over the years the single-lens reflex has grown in size and impressiveness while the rangefinder has stayed the same. A friend of mine reports on a friend of his that was working in China. He was asked what he did, and, producing his Leica, he said he was a professional photographer. General merriment and a repeat of the question. Once again he showed his Leica, this time to even louder laughter. Finally he showed his larger, motorized SLR. "Ah, you are a photographer." 

The Leica is quieter because there is no mirror, no automatic diaphragm, no motor wind. (Some courts concerned with possible distraction of noisy cameras have defined acceptability as not louder than a Leica.) 

It's not that people don't know they are being photographed when you use a Leica. It's just that they are not constantly being reminded. 

It used to be that the rangefinder camera had a focus advantage with extreme wide­angle lenses and very fast normal and moderately wide­angle lenses over SLRÕs. With the introduction of autofocus the situation changed. While, in many cases, the advantage remains, the Canon EOS-1 and 1N cameras have changed the situation. Any autofocus system has to work with a broad range of lenses, including relatively slow zooms. If you make an autofocus system that focuses the slow lenses, you also create one that doesn't take advantage of the larger apertures of other lenses to increase focusing accuracy. The 1 and 1N have two sets of sensors, one that only works with lenses with an f/2.8 maximum aperture or larger. While the Leica may have the edge in very low light or contrast levels, we are talking about relatively rare shooting conditions. The most noticable advantage of the rangefinder in dim light is the viewing. Working under very low light, there is no question that you can see more with a simple bright-line finder than with the less efficient "through the lens and onto the viewing screen" system of an SLR. And, if you are using flash, you can see the flash go off (rather than lose it when the mirror comes up for an exposure). 

The EOS can do a number of things that the Leica can't do. It can use longer lenses (For all practical purposes, the focusing accuracy and the size of the viewing image limit Leica users to a 90mm.) It can use zoom lenses. It can focus closer. It has a built-in motor. And it's built in meter, unlike the meter in a Leica M6, can produce "automatic" exposure with no manual adjustment of shutter or aperture. The price you pay for this versatility is one of weight and size. 

But none of the differences between these two cameras is as important as the difference in viewfinders. Guess what, the name of the game is seeing. 

When you hold a Leica up to your eye, it has all the charm of lifting a piece of window glass to your eye. There is a slight minification. A bright line finder incates the framing, but you can see beyond it. Everthing appears sharp front to back, and there is no pictorial sense of what will be in focus. The viewfinder is a very expensive 35-mm version of the old wire-frame sportsfinder on a Speed Graphic. 

On the other hand, when you lift the EOS to your eye there is nothing outside of the picture to distract you. You can abserve the effects of focus and depth. You can even see the blending of the out of focus colors. You are in darkened room looking at a color slide. 

How do you put these differences to work? Suppose you are shooting the early stages of a political primary campaign. You can still get close to the candidate, but if you are to get pictures you must shoot from the middle of a crowd of press, supporters and public event whackos. The overkill accuracy of the rangefinder lets you "set and forget" the focus much of the time. The bright line finder with its view outside of the picture frame and its allover sharpness helps you evaluate what is about to happen. It also is a great aid in keeping you from being broadsided by your compatriots. You can stay in touch, not only with the image, but the event. If you maintain your concentration you have a pretty good chance of catching those one or two honest moments that illuminate the candidate or just the process of campaigning. 

Your candidate wins. When a candidate is running for office there is a lot more press and a lot more control of that press. Suddenly you are going to be in a pool with a lot of other photographers, all shooting a highly orchestrated event from exactly the same position. You are going to have to make graphically interesting pictures that at their best will only symbolize what is actually happening in the campaign. At their worst they can at least be a little more interesting visually than those of the sizable competition. Pack away the Leica and pull out the EOS. 

You zoom back and show the candidate against the flag. You try several frames with him at the edge of the frame. The frame on the flag is exact. And the depth-of-field preview shows that the flag is recognizable. The candidate starts to sweat under the heat of the tv lights; so, you zoom in as tight as you can. You feel bad about not including the press secretary looking bored and eating Cheese Duds at the edge of the frame, but you're going for the impact color cover, not the revealing side bar that will end up in the wastebasket. Wait a second, you've got a zoom and a motor. You zoom back just a hair, and knock off just one frame that includes the bag of Cheese Duds. It wonÕt make it into the mag, but it may be good for the contests. 

In other words, the Leica is good for taking pictures. Its windowframe viewfinder lets you predict and capture the fleeting moment. The slide show viewfinder of the EOS lets you make pictures. When the situation itself is not the message, the EOS lets you use graphic and optical controls to create an interesting picture. If the photographer is astute, that picture can be a very powerful symbol of what is happening. 

Obviously, these are not laws of camera use that must be obeyed. They are simply evaluations of what two very good cameras do best. If you think I have totally lost my mind, watch a Leica and an EOS photographer at the same event. The Leica photographer will rarely have his camera to his eye. He will scan the event and, at the right moment, raise his camera to his eye and capture the madness in front of him. The EOS photographer will keep the camera at his eye, trying this framing, this viewpoint, pushing the button when he makes some sense of the madness. 

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