Los Angeles with Anna - Part III - How I shoot my Leica M10 Stopped Down
Anna wanted to do the backlot tour at the Universal Studios theme park. Admittedly, I was less than amused, and noticeably lackluster in enthusiasm. I mean, I wouldn't know where to begin to arrange such an excursion? It wasn't the sort of thing my life experience had prepared me to do. Even with our visit to Hong Kong Disneyland, we relied on her friend Lessy to show us the way, albeit ferried to and fro by the car service of my choice.
Not knowing how best to proceed, I did what anyone in my position should do. I reached out for advice on Facebook.
To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. But then I received an offer which was so exceptionally on the mark, that it wouldn't make sense to refuse it. It was the proverbial gift horse, which my mother told me never to look in the mouth... well... TV mom to be exact. I grew up very much a latchkey kid without much supervision during my formative years. Passing through York Mills C.I. as an itinerant with "astronaut parents" ahead of 1997, I spent many hours glued to after-school reruns of NBC's "Must See TV", learning from the example of Hollywood's best make-believe parents.
How could I say no? Both Claire Huxtable and Elyse Keaton would've reminded me of my manners.
Besides, it's not as if improvising has worked out famously well for us. Just a day earlier, we were suppose to drive up to Red Rock Canyon State Park for another day trip. Unfortunately, that never happened, since Anna slept through my constant rapping on her hotel room door. And when we decided to salvage what's left of our waning afternoon by falling back on the requisite Hollywood tour, we somehow left out Grauman's Chinese Theater. Complete amateurs we are. But I suppose in our defense, it wasn't as if Anna was exactly dying to see the hand prints of bygone celebrities on the sidewalk, judging from her lack of interest on the Walk of Fame.
Having said that, not all was lost. On our second attempt up Griffith Observatory, to redeem our botched viewing of the famed Hollywood sign, we hired a car service instead of foolishly driving up ourselves. That got us passed the park rangers. Guess my TV moms didn't raise any fool.
It may appear that I am beating a dead horse, publishing a third blog post from our visit to Los Angeles - which I am. Really, I am! But then again, it's not as if I've been out much with a camera since parting ways with Anna. She's visiting her folks again... I mean again? Seriously! How is that possible? Although to be fair, it's not as if I'm working on anything particularly important, relaxing on a canoe in the middle of Lake Placid. So in order to fill my once a week quota for the blog, I have to write something - anything! But, what to write about? Time to shove a circle into a square again.
For this post, I've decided against writing something technical about the Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH or the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron ASPH. Both lenses have been around for quite some time, so it's not really all that interesting to review something that has already been reviewed. I wouldn't waste your time on that. Besides, If you really want to know how the 21 SEM or the APO 50 renders, you can see for yourself with the hundred or so sample images I've uploaded over the last two to three posts (including this post).
Instead, what I'd rather write about is my shooting technique. You see, over the last couple of weeks, I've fielded more than a couple of messages asking me how I shot the 21 SEM during my visit. Frankly, I found the question somewhat unusual, since I've never really thought about the way I shot a lens, let alone any particular lens. From my perspective, I shoot more or less the same with any lens within the wide to normal focal range. Any difference in shooting depends more on the situation than the lens, with only the issue of distortion being the relevant cause for concern. Okay... so maybe I do shoot differently with the 21 SEM.
Having said that, distortion is my constant obsession. Minimizing or manipulating distortion heavily dictates my shooting technique and the way I frame my composition. So in order to deal with distortion, the way I shoot my M10 may be somewhat unconventional - especially when compared to most Leica photographers. Upon making that realization, I thought it might be insightful to write about my shooting technique. At the very least, it would give me a topic of discussion for my weekly quota.
In determining my shooting technique, the first question I ask myself is whether I would be shooting wide open (at f/1.4 or faster), or stopping down. When I'm shooting wide open, critical focus is essential. To accomplish that, I would either rely on fine tuning focus through the viewfinder then reframe for composition, or select a focus point in live view or through an external EVF, aided by focusing aids. Either way, both techniques require a more deliberate approach in shooting, which follows a more conventional method. Consequently, the resulting image capture tends to appear more premeditated with the intentional look of a subject forced to hold a pose.
However, when I'm stopped down, the shooting technique is completely different. Critical focusing is no longer an issue, given an increased margin of error from a deeper depth of field. And because of that, my shooting technique no longer needs to be as deliberate. As long as my subject's distance from the camera's film or sensor plane is close enough to the pre-focused distance I've set, focus will be acquired through zone focusing.
It may not be immediately clear to most, but this unconventional method in relying on the distance scale to acquire focus is actually what a rangefinder is designed to do. It is after all why a rangefinder is called a rangefinder. And by foregoing a deliberate method of image capture, a rangefinder becomes a better tool for documentation. You're free from the cumbersome process of fine tuning focus, so greater attention can be placed on the process of composition. Essentially, the variable of focusing is simplified by no longer being a priority. As a result, more concentration can be shifted towards framing, thus resulting in a more natural image capture of an unsuspecting subject.
I know what you're thinking. From a conventional perspective, it may seem unnerving not to confirm focus before pressing the shutter. But think about it. If you already know you're going to be in focus within a range of distance, why would you trouble yourself by adding an unnecessary step to the image capture? All for the sake of confirming focus that is already certain? Wouldn't that be redundant and a waste of effort?
From my perspective, simplification is key to taking better pictures. Following that rationale, if simplifying one essential variable is beneficial, wouldn't simplifying two be even better? As counterintuitive as this may sound, much of my zone focusing is shot from the waist or different eye level perspectives. In other words, I simplify my shooting technique even further by not framing through the viewfinder, when stopped down. Admittedly, it may seem rather foolish to practice such an unreliable shooting technique - much to the chagrin of my TV moms. But then again, they never taught me how to deal with distortion.
Especially when shooting wide angle conventionally (at eye level and at close range), distortion can be a handful. Case in point would be the distortion experienced when fitting a subject, from head to toe, inside the frame. Since conventional technique shoots from eye level, the camera is tilted to accommodate the subject's feet in frame. Tilting increases distortion, where different parts of the subject will be on different focal planes. As a result, the head being on the closest focal plane will be the most prominent, while the rest of the body on further focal planes will be shortened from the weight of linear perspective. This is why most paparazzi images of the famous never look complimentary. The head is normal, while the legs are short and stubby.
But as soon as the camera is shot leveled from the waist, with the film or sensor plane perpendicular to the subject, distortion from varying focal planes no longer becomes an issue. With the subject's head to toe positioned within a single focal plane, any resulting distortion of the subject will be constant and only found around the edge of the frame. In this scenario, distortion is minimized, and potentially optimized if the subject is properly placed in frame. As long as the subject is positioned standing in the middle third of the frame, horizontal stretching will be under control while vertical stretching can be exploited to enhance the silhouette of the subject.
For this reason, I always have a small bubble leveler on my hot shoe. It makes it possible for me to shoot blindly at a leveled position without having to frame the composition inside the viewfinder. Of course, modern cameras like the Leica M10 come equip with new creature comforts. With live view for example, one can benefit from through-the-lens electronic visual verification at waist level. However, live view isn't perfect and comes with limitations. It is often obscured by glare, which was the case under the southern California sun. And it's not as if the M10 comes with an articulating display. There are many shooting angles that cannot be assisted by live view.
Still, digital technology makes shooting blindly less unreliable through trial and error. Additional shots can be made at no expense to insure successful image capture, which can then be confirmed immediately on image review after documentation.
Mind you, I seldom shoot blindly at 50mm, since distortion at that focal length isn't an issue compelling me to shoot away from eye level. If there isn't a reason to shoot blindly, why would I? It's not as if I want to shoot blindly. I only do it because there is an advantage at wide angles. But since there is no need to control distortion at 50mm, why would I risk adding uncertainty to my documentation? Shooting blindly is less reliable.
However, refraining from shooting blindly doesn't mean I don't practice zone focusing at the 50mm focal length, when stopped down. Why wouldn't I, if I have a margin of error to play with, because of the increased depth of field? It gives me more flexibility in documentation, thereby giving me greater control over the image capture.
Case in point would be the photos I took of Anna at Griffith Observatory overlooking the Hollywood sign. It isn't immediately clear, but those shots were taken at f/16, with Anna standing just inside the near acceptable limit, and the Hollywood sign near the far acceptable limit. Unfortunately, I couldn't fit both Anna and the Hollywood sign inside the depth of field from my shooting distance with the APO 50. As such, the Hollywood sign is slightly not in focus - although it could also be caused by the refraction from the minimum depth of field or distortion from the rising heat waves off the sun soaked mountain side.
Admittedly, this doesn't sound like I'm simplifying my shooting technique. In this case I'm not. But let me put it to you another way. If I didn't try to optimize focus in this way, in extending depth of field to cover Anna and Hollywood sign, the Hollywood sign would probably be even more out of focused. This would have been the case if I set Anna as the focus point. And if I did, I would pretty much be wasting all the depth of field in front of her.
Therein lies the moral of this post. When you shoot stopped down, you are granted a margin of error in focusing. Because of that, it makes perfect sense to experiment a little in shooting. At the very least, through trial and error, you will gain experience with your gear. This will make you more confident. So, if and when you're faced with an unconventional shooting situation, familiarity will let you face it head on with the unconventional approach you've been mastering through experimentation.
If you have a Leica M10 or any rangefinder, do yourself a favor, and give it a try.
Ironic that I wrote a blogpost on shooting stopped down. Coincidentally, I currently have an article published on Viewfinder, the publication from the International Leica Society, advocating the opinion that fast Leica lenses should be shot wide open. Yikes!
All images shot on the Leica M10. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Images have not been cropped unless stated otherwise.
Last, I would like to thank Mike, formerly of East Rockaway, for arranging our Universal Studios backlot tour. I didn't think I was going enjoy myself, but I had a great time. So much better than going to Disneyland! Mike, I owe you one! My TV moms would expect no less from me.
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