One of my favourite environments to photograph is a protest. Over the last few years I’ve had plenty of opportunities to document all kinds of demonstrations and protests; peaceful, violent, and everything in between. I think that this kind of documentary offers insight into the ways society communicates in groups in a really unique way, and I really try and make images that are significant, emotional, and hopefully long lasting.
Protests are incredibly diverse situations, and photographing them can call upon all kinds of techniques, both relating to the camera, and to people skills. I find that navigating these events with different kinds of camera can have a real effect on the resulting images, and I wanted to discuss some of the things I’ve found in particular in terms of the differences in shooting with a rangefinder vs an SLR.
Until very recently I’ve only really shot rangefinders for the majority of my work, including most protest coverage, as that’s simply the method I prefer. However I recently decided that I wanted to see how autofocus, as well as other aspects of SLR cameras could be useful to my workflow, and started to shoot with the Nikon F4. When I discuss rangefinders/SLR in this article my experience is mostly centred around the Leica M6 and Nikon F4. I know there are some cameras in each category that may behave differently to these, but I think that in use my experiences with these are generalisable enough to the majority of use cases.
One of the main draws of a rangefinder system is the weight – a camera and lens combo is more likely than not going to weight less as a rangefinder than it’s SLR equivalent. This can be due to a few factors – no autofocus system, smaller batteries, cloth shutter, no mirror/prism setup. Although I didn’t have many issues while shooting with the weight of the F4 I do notice myself tireder at the end of an average day as a result of the larger combined weight of camera body and lenses. It doesn’t help that I tend to carry a second lens with the SLR kit, whereas with a rangefinder I am normally just happy with one (usually a 90mm).
I’d say the rangefinder wins in terms of practical size and weight, especially when I need to be able to move quickly around a scene, and react with my camera to events happening around me.
I usually prefer to shoot on longer focal lengths for general purpose photography, but for protests I usually remain at either 50mm or 90mm. I couldn’t go longer than 135 simply because of the restrictions of the rangefinder, so an SLR offers me something I’ve wanted to incorporate into my work for a while now – 80-200mm.
The focal length restrictions of rangefinders don’t really affect people who prefer to shoot wide, but for photographers like me, who tend to spot their compositions a little further away, it can feel frustrating to not have the reach. I’ve settled into shooting the majority of my work in 90mm, and have been really pleased with what that lens offers me.
However I’ve always wanted to at least try my hand with a proper telephoto-zoom, and the 80-200 really fulfils that curiosity. I tried combining a 50mm prime with the 80-200 zoom, by shooting the fast action closer in on the 50, and when things were quieter, or when I was further away, switching to the 80-200, and usually leaving it at 200mm.
The results from this were really pleasing, although I definitely need to spend more time at the longer length to really feel out the edges.
I think that in terms of focal length both styles of camera will deliver, but you really need to be aware of the way you see. I’ll happily shoot at 85/90mm on either system, but when it comes to needing longer than that the SLR is the only choice.
Composition, and Peripheral Vision
Composing through a rangefinder is by far my favourite way to make an image. I take full advantage of the frame-lines, especially on 90mm, to review as much of the environment as possible before surgically positioning my frame around what I want to include, focusing, recomposing, and then shooting. I have a lot of practice with this method, and can execute a shot very quickly. 90mm is the focal length I see in, which means often I have already done most of the framing before lifting the camera to my eye.
This meant it was natural for me to do the same with the SLR, simply looking at the scene and pre-composing before bringing the camera to my eye. However this became a little trickier when using any lens other than 90mm, and I found myself making adjustments when using 50 and 200mm. As I said before, I need to learn that longer focal length a little better, and hopefully this will make me more efficient at pre-composing.
Something that did affect me quite a bit in practical use was the ability/inability to see beyond the frame. One of my favourite things about the rangefinder for fast paced with is the affordance to see beyond the limits of your frame. I’ve shot with rangefinders my entire career, so I think I actually take this for granted – so when it came to using an SLR I found myself with blinkers on, unable to see what was going on around me.
This means that although they are not especially bad there is more wrong with my SLR frames than my rangefinder frames when it comes to pure precision – especially with unclean edges.
For example this shot has a character on the right hand side I didn’t want to include, something that I would have absolutely dealt with through a rangefinder.
I’ve never had an issue with this in the past, as I have felt like I have full control over what I’m including, and not including, across my entire frame. With the SLR I found myself without this ability, and the work suffers from it. This will be something I really need to work on, as it’s never presented a problem to me in the past, but clearly I’ve become complacent in a certain area, and I would rather address that.
There’s also the matter of safety. Being aware of your surroundings is immensely important during a protest, and anything that limits your awareness can be incredibly dangerous. I’ve never felt worried that I couldn’t see what was going on when using a rangefinder, as I can open both eyes as well as see outside of my frame. SLR’s lock you into tunnel vision, and I found myself in a really different mindset as a result.
Somewhat related to this is the direct vision I lose from shutter blackout on the F4, from the mirror rising when the image is taken. This led to missing what I felt was the shot I was going for a couple of times, as I’m used to being able to constantly understand what is going on in and around my frame. Losing that damaged my timing, but hopefully it will be something I can adjust to.
I think that I prefer rangefinders in this area, but only because I am so familiar with the way they operate, and the way to see “around” them. Hopefully with time I will bring my skill with SLR’s to this level, and not be held back by a lack of peripheral vision, timing issues with shutter blackout, and having learnt my way around the longer focal length.
Most film rangefinders that I have shot with have a maximum top shutter speed of 1/1000ths which I’ve definitely found limiting in the past. I enjoy shooting 400 speed film more than any other, but in bright sunlight this can mean compromising my aperture in order to get the exposure I want. I started using ND8 filters, which reduces my exposure by three stops – normally enough to make things tolerable, but in a protest situation I don’t enjoy fiddling with filters as the light changes.
The F4 offers a top speed of 1/8000ths, which makes a great difference. I’m not the happiest with the exposures so far, but I will have to get to grips with the meter and other aspects before I am comfortable in understanding how to get a similar exposure to the results from my M6.
The F4, and majority of SLR’s with 1/4000ths or higher shutter speeds have the edge here.
Nikon F4, Kentmere 400
For lower speeds both cameras perform very well. I really enjoy panning for motion, although this is easier with a digital camera where I have multiple attempts and can gauge exactly how the affect looks at different speeds. I was expecting that the size and weight of the F4 would make it harder to hold steady over a period of time, but was happy to find useable results down to 1/2 a second. Leica’s have always delivered in this area, and I have no trouble with exposure down to a second, either held steady, or panning.
I think rangefinders have nicer capabilities for wide aperture lenses – the notorious Noctilux f/0.95 being the obvious example. An equivalent SLR lens would be terribly unwieldy, and much harder to focus. Wider apertures can mean faster shutter speeds when appropriate, but I’ve never really deliberately stopped further open for the specific reason of wanting a higher shutter speed. Instead I prefer to start as wide open as possible, then shift lower if I am too far overexposed at the maximum shutter speed. For low light use I much prefer relying on the larger aperture lenses I have for my Leica than the f/1.4 50mm which is the largest aperture lens I own for my Nikon.
Leica M4, Delta 3200 @ 8000, 7artisans 50mm f/1.1 @ 1.1
There are a few differences in the mechanical operating speed of each camera, which some people may find difficult. The M6 requires that I wind on for each shot, whereas the F4 automatically winds. There is the option of a Leicavit, which some users say works for them, but I just don’t see it as the kind of tool that would work for me. I can change a roll of film in my M6 in around 45 seconds, whereas the F4 is much faster, especially with the auto-rewind. I do like the option to wind by hand, which really saves the batteries, and brings the timing to around the same as the M6.
Neither camera is especially slow – it depends on the way the user wants to work, and how familiar they are with the workings of the cameras.
I can focus the rangefinder on my M6 about as quickly as the F4 focuses in good light, so I’d say it’s about a draw on that one. I enjoy the freedom in the autofocus system, especially as it’s only a central point, so very similar to my M6. I found a few times that the markings of the focus area were faint, but most SLR’s will have a little red square light up, which solves that issue.
Pre-focusing on my M6 is an aspect I use a lot, and all of my lenses have a focusing tab (either inbuilt, or rubber add-ons) which leave it to muscle memory as I raise the camera. I also find it easier to move with my subject with the M6, whereas with the F4 I find myself focusing and refocusing constantly, never sure if it’s dead on.
In low light or rapidly moving environments I prefer my rangefinder at the moment, as I trust my ability to manually achieve focus more than I trust the SLR. I also find SLR’s in general difficult to manually focus because I have trouble seeing it clearly, so the F4 is generally autofocus only.
For me personally the M6 is the easier camera for me to focus reliably and consistently in all conditions, including fast paced scenes requiring fast reactions.
There are a few details about the cameras that are neither really positive or negative, but simply features of that particular camera. For example the F4 will cycle through the first few dead shots on a roll of film, to then go on a shoot usually exactly 36 frames. With my M6 I can normally load carefully enough that I manage to squeeze 38-40, but often end up with a half-first frame.
Both the M6 and Nikon F4 are known as very reliable cameras, and many other SLR/Rangefinders share this. They are rugged in different ways, both sturdily built, but with the F4 having the edge with weather sealing. Both cameras are staples for photojournalists, and have been used in all kinds of conditions.
The F4 has a film window, although my memory isn’t that bad yet – I know what film is in each of my cameras most of the time.
I haven’t had to worry much about reliability with either camera, however there were a few things about the F4 which slowed me down to begin with. For example at one point I was very worried something had broken, as everything was refusing to work, and the red warning light was flashing. Turns out I had accidentally knocked the R2 rewind lever, and hadn’t noticed. The M6 in comparison is incredibly simple, with very little to confuse a user or to go wrong. The F4 and other SLR’s tend to have so many moving parts that when something is acting up it can take a while to figure out exactly what specifically is going wrong.
For an SLR I really appreciate the external manual controls of the F4. Having the shutter dial, ISO, even exposure compensation not locked away from me in menus is underrated.
The viewfinder in the F4 is not something I enjoy – far more clutter than I’m used to. I really dislike the more modern meter, and the arrows indicating focus only confuse me, as I’m used to the arrows in my M6 meaning exposure. I think the M6 meter is so intuitive and easy, I wish there were a way to implement it into all of my other cameras. I’ve taken to metering as close by eye as possible and using the F4 manually, only checking the meter for a rough confirmation instead of relying on it entirely. This means I fix exposure for the shadows at the start of the protest and more or less leave it there – unless the light changes drastically, at which point I set it again.
When it comes to the form factor both cameras appeal to different people in different ways. The SLR seems more “serious” whereas I find the M6 is friendlier. When it comes to the way people treat me with either I have had mixed responses. My body language with the M6 is more natural, as it is more “me” whereas the F4 makes me seem like a paparazzo.
People definitely notice my F4, whether it’s up to my eye or by my side. This has meant that a few attempts at candid portraiture (usually a non-issue with my Leica with any lens) have resulted in failure. If I point my 200mm at someone there is no avoiding that they are my subject. With the M6 I am far more able to use “tricks” and social engineering to pretend that I was photographing something else.
Protestors, counter-protestors, police, and other journalists tend to approach me differently depending on which camera I’m carrying, and I definitely think that the M6 is less confrontational overall.
One of the most practical reasons I’m hoping to integrate an SLR into my protest photography is that I have found myself increasingly in situations where the mood of the crowd is making me think twice about my safety. I’ll always value a shot more than my camera, and occasionally my safety, but that moment of hesitation is something that stays with me. My Leica M6 cost around £1500, and I had it CLAed soon after acquiring it, bringing the cost up a little. My 90mm APO is around the same, making my “standard” Leica everyday carry worth around £3k.
In contrast my Nikon F4s, 50mm 1.4, and 80-200mm cost me around £300.
I can run the same film through both cameras, and take roughly the same images with them.
Nikon F4, Kentmere 400When it comes to which camera I’d rather be using to fend off bottles being thrown at myself and other journalists by protestors, or while being shoved aside by overzealous officers I know I’d feel much safer holding the F4.
In general I was happy with the results from my foray into SLR photography, especially with the potential to explore the possibilities of longer lenses. As much as I love using my M6 I think the F4 definitely has a strong argument for use as a protest camera specifically – the cost alone swings the scales largely in it’s favour. Something I didn’t bring up in that specific point was accessibility – to any aspiring photojournalist a film SLR will offer much better value for money, and offer a more diverse machine to learn with.
In protest environments I didn’t find myself behaving any different, and I don’t think any of the images seem to be in anyone else’s “style” than my own. I think this gives me to confidence to continue using both systems, although I will lean towards the F4 in situations I feel it may turn violent, or be overly crowded. The difficulty with peripheral vision is one I will have to address, and I welcome any advice on this in the comments.
The M6 is still my favourite camera for more “general” street photography and reportage work. It will remain my everyday carry, and is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. Its size and weight make this a non-decision, but I also feel that the camera is just more me. I know that’s as subjective as it gets, but with most areas of photography that’s as specific an answer as you’ll get as to why one thing works where something else does not.
If you’ve enjoyed this piece you might enjoy some of the other writing I’ve produced for 35mmc. If you like my work please consider following me on Instagram, here. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.
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34 thoughts on “Rangefinder vs. SLR – Protest Photography – by Simon King”
Advantage of the F4/F4S is that if anyone tries to attack you, you have a weapon to swing & knock them out with. hehe
That beast is a bloody tank innit! I love mine.
I hope it never comes to that!
Thank you for this detailed article and good shoot ! I did a lot of press and protest (in my youth);) I used leica M4 and 35mm f/2 to be in the heart of the action and the 0.72 sight can actually see out of frame. Also, at the time, the Nikon F2 and F3 motorized with 80-200 f/4.5 then, the f/2.8 (the weight was worse than the F4s used later). It allows to be remote, isolated the subject of its environment, to have the useful detail. The SLR isolates the photographer from the action around him, but is indispensable and complementary to the telemetry. In the evening, the Leica allows impossible images with the reflex while maintaining a low film iso of 400 or 800. ;;
In Portland, Oregon, things get violent quickly. While I would love to use my Leicas, there is way to much debris in the air. I have found a two camera kit, a war torn F3P with an 85 f1.4 and a black F with a Prism and a 300mm f2.8 Adaptall Tamron lens create exhibition worthy images on Tri-X
I’ve heard things have been pretty interesting in Portland recently – stay safe!
If you don’t mind biffing the neg up a bit, why not use a 35mm or even a 28mm lens? Then, you’ll hardly have to worry about focusing at all. Granted, you’ll still have to stay a respectable distance back from the scrum, unless you enjoy rugby (but Leicas deserve kindlier treatment!)
35mm is my second least favourite lens after 28mm. It works for some, but not for me. 50mm and above is where I make my best work.
I agree. I shot most of my project on the Catalan Independence movement using an M7 and 28mm Summicron, switching to a 35mm Summilux when there was not enough light. The best images are when you are immersed in the events, not hiding on the sidelines.
eg with 35mm f1.4: https://transienteye.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/image-003501-state-of-independence.jpg
Equipment cost is a major issue. I shot on the front line of a conflict between police and protesters where a mix of beer and yellow acrylic paint was being thrown. I am still not sure how the camera and lens survived.
Another excellent article from Simon, a clear communicator in matters photographic. Here he addresses the considerations when deciding to use the RF or SLR; eg the ceiling for long lenses but the ability to see outside the frame. BTW, he should publish his riot pictures; a book.
Thank you Steve! Really appreciate your support, and glad you find my writing so useful!
Hopefully I’ll have a decent sequence of images worth publishing one day – but I’m a few hundred rolls away from that for sure!
Simon, that is a good post and opiniom right there. I often worry about my gear when shooting because it costs a lot of money. Few years ago i was travelling by bike throught Austria, Slovenia, Italy to France. I was sleeping in nature, near the road, in someone’s house or garden. I had a dslr and laptop with me and it was awful. Constant fear of equipment was discouraging me from making connections with all kind of the people. It’s because you always think about this in the back of your head when making every single decision. From that day i always think about minimal equipement and cost of it to do what i want / need to with gear.
But sometimes you just have to do the job no matter the price of the gear. If you can buy cheaper but good rangefinder and glass (Bessa R + jupiter 8) or use what you have and hope for the best. Some times bad things happen and we have no control over them. We can only try to reduce the damage. I’m not saying we should embrace them but calculate the possibility and take such event with calm.
BTW can you write more about your BW process? Your images almost doesn’t have grain. How is this possible? Delta 3200 at 8000?! I make it at 1600 in HC-100 and grain is very prominent (looks ok, but it’s really there)
Thanks! I’d hate to be in the situation you described – minimalism is definitely a path for a freer, less stressed mindset! Although those Voigtlanders are almost the price of a Leica these days – I’d say Nikon or Minolta for someone really looking to spend under £100.
Try stand development, and also different chemistry. I also think DDX is great for pushing! Just experiment with your workflow and find what works for you. I also like to slightly overdevelop whenever possible, but not by large margins, just enough to really get that detail out!
Great journalism work.
For me, the Rangefinder is the best because light, quiet, discret, small, and great lenses. But limited for tele lenses.
The SLR, of course I use Nikon too, but not great F4 because too big, and too heavy, but FM3 A, with 50 1’8 ais pancake, 28 2’8 ais, and 105 ais 2’5.
The Leica and the SLR are great, deliver nearly the same results.
I will just say that I prefer the Leica, which is really faster.
Thank you Eric! The FM3a is a great camera, although I find the FM2 to be closer to my M6 in use. Definitely faster focusing with the rangefidner for me though!
Thanks for the fast answer.
The FM2 is also a great beast. I use a Leica M3.
With the M3, I can put in one very little bag : a Voigtlander 15 mm 4’5, a Summicron-C 40 mm f2 and a Nokton 40 mm 1’4 and …a Tele-Elmarit 90mm 2’8. I am ready for everything with a light weight, or put in my pocket.
Well done Simon, nice article and even better pictures. My question is: why frame the article as rangefinder vs SLR instead of rangefinder + SLR? You are right to point out that both have their strengths and weaknesses, but to me this is precisely why they compliment each other so nicely. Wide angle lens on the Leica, telephoto on the Nikon. Classic combo. I read somewhere that Salgado would shoot with two Leicas and a Nikon. 28 and 35 on the Leicas, 60 macro on the Nikon for details. Even though he is known as a Leica photographer, if you look at his work there are lots of close up portraits and details of hands and still lives that he would not have been able to get close enough to to shoot with a rangefinder.
Thank you! Really appreciate that 🙂
I think that for anyone who can work with the two side by side then that’s great for them – but I don’t see that ever being something I would do. I think that the point of my article was, as you said, to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each system for this use case, so the “vs” is appropriate. Whether the conclusion a reader draws is that the systems would work well together, or that one has the edge over the other then that’s down to them.
I know tis is a totally subjective review so take my comments with a pinch of salt. I have a Leica M2 and a Nikon F4 so fairly similar to your comparisons.
While I like the precision of RF focussing, there is no way that I can do it as quickly as an F4. I am not put off by the momentary blackout as the mirror flips up, I have two eyes which also helps when other stuff is happening so that whole rangefinder window angle being bigger is not an issue. I’d go so far as to say that what a lot of people say about taking pictures with rangefinder cameras is a repetition of what they’ve read or heard elsewhere rather than actual personal experience.
It’s the same as those who say they shoot film because it slows them down or for the look.
I agree, everyone’s experience of this sort of thing is different, but it’s still useful to discuss – you never know when you might pick up some new techniques or information!
Interesting comparison article Simon, if I could just add one further consideration which only applies with manual focus cameras. I still have one of my old Canon New F1s with a few lenses from 24mm to 135mm and also a Leica M2 (currently away for CLA), I need to wear spectacles for reading/close up stuff which means I find focusing the SLR much harder than the Rangefinder simply because the focus with the SLR is on the screen in the viewfinder (close up) and the focus of the Rangefinder is in the distance. Dioptre adjustment is necessary fot the SLR but not the Rangefinder in my case.
Glasses have definitely been an issue for me for a while – I still need to try some diopter options!
Simon, thank you for the post. The pictures are exceptional and in their own way are quite inspiring. I particularly like the set of three taken with the M6 and the 90mm using the Delta 100. For me, I simply like the challenge and thought that has to go into using the rangefinder and on that basis I have also deliberately limited myself to just two lens.
Thanks you Stuart! Happy to hear you found my work inspiring! I think that rangefinders definitely offer the most “limited” experience in photography (for me between that and TLR) and would encourage anyone to try and limit their approach in order to encourage creative thinking.
If I was asked to say to identify one advantage of the RF I’d say try using one with a 90mm. The ability to see the wider field and the inner 90mm frame lines is a game changer (for me at least). I’m a total convert. With an SLR or DSLR or Mirrorless, you have to preconceive the frame exactly before lifting to the eye. With the RF because of the inner frame within a wider context you have the ability of fine tuning with camera to eye. I’d say the M and a 90mm is a perfect combo for the sort of work Simon does so effectively. PS my earlier comment was a copy and paste from a Twiter ‘Tweet’ I had made, but Hamish asked me to add the comment as I did.
A very fine discussion to compare systems vs environment. But about that peripheral vision thing: You mention opening both eyes when you use a Rangefinder, but seem to imply that’s not useful with the SLR. My dear sir, that IS how an SLR shooter maintains peripheral vision while shooting, and context during mirror blackout. Open both eyes. You may need to cock your head slightly to bring the off eye above the camera body (and it’s worse if you’re left-eyed) but .. week.. try it.
It may work for some, but with the longer lenses I find it very disorienting to see, for example, 90mm fov out of one eye and regular vision out the other. With the rangefinder I essentially have regular vision but with framelines superimposed.
final words redux: …but .. well.. try it.
Yes – I have done in the past, but I guess I’ll give it another shot at 50mm and below. Sight is different for everyone, what works for some may not for others.
Agreed, works best with a 50.
It’s interesting to hear someone singing the praises of 90mm on an M for something other than portraits. So many M photographers are wide angle or normal shooters and never/hardly ever touch anything telephoto (myself included, I must admit). I’m a big fan of your work. As someone who shoots a 50/90 most of the time, have you thought about swapping out your M6 to one of the .85 finder models?
Thank you for your support! I’ve actually written about using 90mm quite a bit, it’s definitely an underrated M lens for street! I’ve definitely considered the 0.85 finder in the past, but I don’t think it would make enough of a difference to warrant spending the extra money. I’m happy with the way my current system works!
I’m also trying my hand at demonstrations. I have the same photo of the XR protestor under the van but yours packs more punch. I must have been standing next to you with this shot. I mainly use Olympus digital but have tried Olympus OM film and recently a Canon Canonet rangefinder. Not easy… for me. Nice work here . insta: timclarkih
Yes! We must have been very close to have taken the same scene at seemingly the same moment! Hope to see you out at the next set of protests!
For use with the F4 you may consider an AE Action Finder DA-20. (https://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/classics/nikonf4/prisms/index2.htm) although it may be hard to find one (currently i see only the DA-1 for F2 and F, DA-2 for the F3 and the DA-30 for the F5 on eBay) and costly.
Also your choice of the M6 and F4 is one of two extreme ends. For comparison with the M6 a smaller mechanical slr may be more logical. The F3 and F mentioned by Mark, and the F2 are just the same but less automated, the F5 then lacks decent dials. Smaller Nikons were mentioned, the FM3a and FM2 but neither those breath the Spirit of the Leica M. The closest to come there are the Olympus (OM1n, OM2n, ..), and on both sides of that the Pentax KX, Pentax MX and Pentax LX. The LX gives the opportunity to use the unique FC-1 action eyepiece with the FB-1 system finder. That will give the opportunity to have the Peripheral Vision you miss with the Nikon. The LX isn’t cheap and do get a CLA for the LX first to avoid the imminent Sticky Mirror Syndrome though. It will still be cheaper than an M6.