Leica M6 Street Photography – Tokyo Files – by Mark Forbes

After shooting the Leica M6 for just over a year, including a decent period with it as my only film camera, I thought it was time to put pen to paper; or fingers to keys, as the case may be. This is the first post of this style that I’ve written, so just bear with me as it evolves – part camera review, part musings on 35mm film photography, and part travel journal with some street photography taken in Japan…

I started shooting film in late 2002, during a trip to Europe, on a plastic fantastic Canon EOS300V and the “gem” that is the 28-90mm kit lens. Like all (most?) beginners, I lived on the green square for most of that trip. When I came back from 8 weeks overseas, I started working full time straight away and didn’t do much shooting for a while.

Around a year later I visited the USA just around the time that DSLRs were starting to take off. I ended up spending all of my meagre savings on a Canon 300D. It’s film sister camera was promptly shelved as I dived into the heady world of 6MP digital goodness…… fast forward, and I’m now shooting jobs (documentary / editorial / architecture / events / weddings) on the workhorse that is the 5Diii.

Mirror Mirror // Portra 400

Aside from all of that I’ve always enjoyed shooting plenty of street photography. I’ve found it to be a really engaging and interesting way to spend time – there are so many different ways that people shoot on the street. This also means that it so varied and hard to define – how many posts have you read about people arguing about what can and what can’t be called street photography? Anyway, enough of an intro, you came here to read about the M6 right?

Eye Eye // Ilford XP2 400
So fast forward almost 15 years from the last time I’d shot on film. Actually, that is not quite true, as I’d had a short-lived flirtation with a Nikon FM3A for a few rolls a couple of years ago, but I found that it didn’t really gel with me. Shooting an film SLR wasn’t different enough for me from the day to day digital, so off it went.

Early in February 2016 I was planning a trip to Tokyo. The aim in heading to Japan primarily was to go to Fukushima to shoot a photo documentary about the 5 year anniversary of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – which if you’re interested you can find on my blog here: F is For Fukushima.

Prior to heading up to Fukushima I squeezed in some time off in Tokyo. Having been there once before I knew how amazing it was…is…and wanted to spend some time dedicated to street photography for a few days. And what better place to do it than in among the overcrowded, hectic, jam-packed Japanese capital.

Shibuya // Tmax 400

Choosing a Camera

Once the decision was made that I was going to Tokyo, I also felt compelled to start looking for a film camera. I’d been shooting street photography for a while, and knew I wanted … needed?… to try something different for a change. So I started asking the oracle of all things google on what were good options for shooting street on film.

35mm it was to be, as it needed to be small enough to not be too obtrusive – as my staple street shooter at the time was the (very capable) original X100. As mentioned earlier I wasn’t keen on an SLR style body – as I shoot enough of that on digital. There were a heap of options from cheap P&S to not so cheap: Oly XAs, Contax T2/T3, Ricoh GRs, Konica Hexar AF, Oly Mju & Trip 35s, Lecias plus a few other options from Oly, CaNikon, Yashica, Fuji etc. In the end, I was after something fully manual (focus and exposure), with an inbuilt meter, while interchangeable lenses would be great to give some more options down the track, rangefinders sounded interesting having had no experience, oh yeah and also (most importantly) it had to be all black….. 🙂

So after stumbling across a good looking used M6 classic in the window of a secondhand shop in Melbourne, it was love at first sight. After a bit of haggling to get as much of a discount as possible(!), the 1984 M6 headed out the door with me.

Jimbocho // TriX 400

Next task was a lens. Time again to consult the smart little hamster in the googling wheel. Options at the cheaper end were generally Russian, mid-priced (and nicely compact) Voigtlander Cosina (VC), a step up to Zeiss or just go and sell one of your kidneys (again) Leica. The reviews of the VC (or if you want the full mouthful, the: Voigtlander Wide Angle Color-Skopar Pan 35mm f/2.5-M PII) seemed generally positive, glowing on some. So the performance seemed to be there. Secondly being the 2.5 option it was compact – another box ticked. Lastly, and most importantly, you could get it in black. Hook, line and sinker. Sold.

Shooting the Leica M6 on the Street

The experience of using the M6 to shoot in the street really is a joy. Loading it, winding it on, focusing with the patch, and using the meter – which is accurate and very simple. Also the fact that (aside from the meter) it is all manual – and can be used at all shutter speeds without a battery if needs be. I found the process of rangefinder focusing quite addictive and very enjoyable.

The fact that the camera is (relatively) small compared to SLRs, and the shutter really is very unobtrusive is great. Not so quiet however that there isn’t an audible and satisfying click when the camera is fired. Depending on how you usually shoot, you really can get very close to people and capture what is going on without people changing their behaviour – which for me is a very important aspect in how I like to shoot on the street. The shots in the next set were all taken after returning from Japan.

Click // Ilford XP2 400
News // Fuji Industrial 400
Big Day // Portra 400
What lies beneath // Portra 400
En Point // Fuji Industrial 400
In the summertime // Fuji Industrial 400
In Rainbows // Portra 400

Sorted. I was able to squeeze in 3 test rolls on the new camera to get dev’d and scanned before taking off to Japan. The results were ok, and trusting the two red LED meter arrows seemed reliable, but getting used to having the single ISO of a film roll after the ease of digital took a little bit of time.

As a result, I left with a mixture of excitement and paranoia about not being able to look at the screen on the back of the camera in the street photographers paradise of Tokyo.

All in all, probably due to the mild paranoia mentioned above, across the 5 days I was in town, I ended up shooting 3 rolls of colour and 4 rolls of B&W and a fair bit of X100 (all the shots in this post are from the M6). And because I hadn’t shot film in many many years, instead of sticking to one type, like the kid in the candy store I shot a few different ones (Superia 400, Portra 400, Portra 800, XP2, Tmax & TriX). Maybe it is because there are so many people and so many colours and things going on in Tokyo – but I was happier with the B&W over the colour shots.

Subway // Portra 800

Shooting locations

Before I flew in I spent a bit (ok a lot) of time planning out where I wanted to go. I made myself up a google map with location pins (81 to be exact) of important stuff around the town. Forget asking people for directions, and don’t think you’ll be able to just look at street signs and numbers – it’s not gonna happen…. 😉

I wanted to go to the Tsukiji fish market to see the tuna auctions, and to get in there you need to get into the waiting room at some offensively obscene hour. It was also February, which meant it was properly cold. So, as a result, I decided to choose an Airbnb as close as possible to the market. I mean 3 mins walk close. It was great on the morning that I got up a 3.20 am to go the market, but not so great on the other days. Turns out there are little fish shops all around that area – who would have thought? They also get up with their forklifts and mini trucks every morning the markets are open at around 3 am. So like all Tokyo apartments this was *tiny*, but also had the bonus 3 am wake ups most days.

Tsukiji market // Portra 800
Tsukiji market // Portra 800

Ok, after getting the Tsukiji market done and dusted, there was a bucket list of places that I wanted to go. The vast majority of them would involve getting on the underground/subway. Probably the best system in the world. Much like pretty much everything in Japan, the trains just work properly – as they should. They run on time, they’re clean (but usually full of people), they’re fast and if you miss one, there is another one coming in about 6 mins – and it’ll be on time too. Once you’re on the train they are a joy (navigating inside some of the larger Tokyo train stations not so much). Oh, and if you like shooting street they’re also great, especially as pretty much no-one in Tokyo seems to care about cameras. Japan do make the odd camera or two….

It’s all B&W from here on in too…..

Subway // Tmax 400
Subway // TriX 400

One of the reasons that I enjoyed shooting so much in B&W was that there are stunning patterns and geometry in so many different parts of the city that can be used as backdrops for the locals. You can guarantee if you sit and wait in a good spot for just a minute or two that you will find someone interesting walk straight into the frame… like shooting fish in a barrel.

Tokyo International Forum // Ilford XP2 400
Ginza // Ilford XP2 400

The buildings and skyscrapers in Tokyo also throw up some great architecture and lines that beg to be shot. The 3 shots below were all taken in Shinjuku, with the last two being the outside and then inside of the NS Building.

Shinjuku // TriX 400
NS Building // TriX 400
NS Building // TriX400

In terms of where I spent most of my time….it was probably Ginza. There are so many interesting spots there, and it was also not that far from Tsukiji where I stayed. So it made a logical start and end to the day. The other spots that I’d mapped down to visit were Harajuku, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa (a bit of a hike, and probably not on everyone’s must see list of Tokyo spots), the platforms at the Tocho building & Bunkyo Civic Centre, Ebisu, ride the driverless monorail (Yurikamome line) and also visit a few of the dedicated photography bookstores in Jimbocho. I picked up a nice 2nd handbook by the well-known Japanese photographer Daido Moriyamama and a couple of other random books too.

Shibuya // Tmax 400
Tsukiji // Tmax 400
Jimbocho // TriX 400
Jimbocho // TriX 400

Tokyo in the darkness is just as spectacular as it is in the daytime – maybe even more so. The main parts of town are lit in all kinds of neon and streetlights from every direction. I picked up a roll of 3200 with the intention of shooting it at night, but in the end to try out something different (and often because that is what was loaded from the daytime) I just ended up continuing to shoot 400 speed film in the evenings. This was enjoyable too as it really made you work the photos given the low speed film limitation. Some of the shots below would have been at 1/15 or 1/8 which is still just handhold-able (for a 35mm length) as the camera and lens is well weighted.

Ginza // TriX 400
Tsukiji // TriX 400
Tsukiji // TriX 400
Tsukiji // TriX 400

I visited a few camera/film stores during the 5 days that I was there too. Including the famously well-stocked Yodobashi in Shinjuku where I picked up a few rolls. For those that havn’t been to Japan before, Fujiflim is reasonably priced (depending on your currency conversion), while Kodak not so much. Makes sense in terms of where it all comes from, but don’t just expect that because it is one of the biggest film photography centres in the world that everything will be cheap as chips.

Everything in Japan and especially Tokyo is so different to any place you can travel to. So many people, buildings and interesting things to look at. The language barrier is very high – as a traveller it isn’t safe to assume that English is widely spoken (by locals of any age) but with a little wifi router and the connection to the oracle you can pretty much figure out most things. I would recommend a trip to Japan to anyone – just a beautiful place with a great vibe.

Final thoughts

Shooting film again was a joy and I wish that I’d shot more of it when I was there. To begin with, I really enjoyed the limitations that a single fixed lens gave, and also the single speed film loaded – forcing you to be more creative. Even loading the camera was a non-event. I read about people saying this was hard, but it really wasn’t that difficult. The focus on the VC was well damped and had decent resistance to it. Since returning I’ve had a lot more practice with estimating distances and not using the patch at all (both with the M6 and a Rollei 35SE – which is completely zone focus – but that is for another post) . While I was in Tokyo though all of the focusing was done with the camera up to my eye.

In terms of the M6, is it worth the money? Would I recommend it? Well, I can say it truly is a joy to shoot with and feels incredibly well made. Is it worth all the hype? Without a doubt I could have taken most, if not all of the shots here with a much much cheaper setup – there are plenty of other good rangefinders (and compact 35mm) options about – Rollei 35SE i’m looking at you. In the end, for me it really just comes down to choosing gear that you enjoy shooting. If photography is your main thing, and your budget can stretch to it, then I think part of why we shoot is to try things out until we find what fits. These things hold their value very well (and if kept in good nick should increase in value over time) so if you do give one a go and don’t like it – or don’t think it’s worth it, you’ll be able to move it on for around what you paid for it. Or you could get at least two and a half mju ii’s instead…. 😉


Jimbocho // TriX 400


Thanks for reading – if you’ve made it down this far, you deserve a medal.

You can find me at a few different spots linked below. Feel free to follow along, and drop me a note to say g’day.

Portfolio & blog: www.markforbes.com.au
IGs – 35mm film: @_markforbes_ & Assigned work: @markforbesphotographer
Facebook: Mark Forbes – Photography
Documentary weddings – www.onewhiteday.com.au
Limited edition numbered and signed prints of the photos on my website are available to purchase if you’re interested – just contact me for more information.

Thanks, Mark.

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About The Author

39 thoughts on “Leica M6 Street Photography – Tokyo Files – by Mark Forbes”

  1. I disagree Mark, it is you that deserves the medal.

    From the top to the bottom, I was glued to this, pictures and text. There is no such thing as fish in a barrel, this is just great work.

    I have been through many of the phases that you talk about, sometimes now for the second time, but my work never smells much like any fish that I know of, instead one has to enjoy the occasional morsel. 🙂

    Thank you so much.

    1. Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment, appreciate the feedback. Great to know that you liked the photos and that at least one person did make it to the end of the article ?
      Haha, I’ll keep on going for the tasty morsels!
      Thanks, Mark.

  2. Great read and great photos! How did you get the subway/tmax400 in focus as the woman is walking and seems to be in low light!? Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Hi Dan,

      Thanks 🙂 Yeah, I was shooting all of the films in this post at true speed, and it was not great light indoors. This was shot over a year ago, so the settings at the time have been lost to my memory – but I’d say it was shot at f2.5 -2.8 and likely around 1/45 or 1/30 (the slowish movement of the train that was just leaving seems to agree with that). I’d just prefocussed on her, and she wasn’t moving very quickly at all so was just a case of trying to keep a steady hand. Hope that helps 🙂

  3. Great article! I just have purchased an M2 and the little Skopar 35mm and I love the feeling of shooting with a Leica.

    Your photos rock, I have enjoyed all of them. I have been to Tokyo three times and I can’t wait to come back to shoot with film soon. I just have a question, could you get your film hand checked at Narita airport or did they oblige you to pass it through the X-ray machine? This is the only issue that concerns me about traveling with film these days.. . Many thanks!

    1. Hi Oriol,

      Thanks for that. Yeah, they are great fun to shoot with. I opted for the M6 as I wanted a meter, but i’ve seen some nice small external meters for the older M’s (if that is your thing). In terms of getting film hand checked at Narita yes – that was all fine. In fact I had not problem at any airport – expect for departure at Melbourne, where the guy ignored my request and just put it through the scanner. Having said that, consensus seems to be that 400 speed films will be ok for a few machine passes before it is an issue. Films above 1600 are a different story…..If you do want them to be hand scanned best way is to put the canisters in a clear plastic sandwich/zip lock bag ready to go, you can try printing out this flyer from Kodak and putting it in the bag too: http://www.kodak.com/motion/Support/Technical_Information/Transportation/39_Do_Not_X_Ray_39_Labels/default.htm
      Cheers, Mark.

  4. I would say you mastered this pretty well – the shots are great. Some more would be fun, but I will keep an eye on your blog.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post but above all, I loved the pictures. What a fabulous portfolio. I’ve shot on film for 40 years but am in the midst of a creative nadir so am on the lookout for inspiration. As a fan of street photography, your photographs really struck a chord with me.
    While these pictures could have been as good by using other cameras than a Leica, I found it interesting that it was the experience of shooting with the M6 in particular that facilitated you making the photographs, something which wouldn’t have happened had you not been so comfortable with the apparatus.
    I too, love the Rollei 35SE so look forward to an article based on your experience with it.

    1. Hi Jeremy, very kind works – thank you for that. Your comment about the creative nadir strikes a chord with me for sure. I’d been shooting street photography for quite a few years and was feeling something similar. I would go out and shoot on digital often and come back with lots of images, that I liked, but wasn’t really connecting with for some reason. That was when I thought that shooting film again might give me something different in the whole process. Other people might have lots of different ideas on this (and I’ve read quite a few), but it has inspired me to shoot again – and I think that in a large part is as it is more of a challenge to get the shot, but also because you end up thinking more and shooting less.
      I also agree with your comment about how they could have been shot on any camera (within certain limits of course, size being one), but yes, I do agree that it was the enjoyment factor that helped too. Yes, the Rollei is also a joy to shoot with – and has a degree of stealth above the M6. Thanks 🙂

  6. Hi Mark, thoroughly enjoyed this. I’m hoping to visit Japan next summer and you’ve definitely inspired me with this post. Especially loving the black and white shots (the man on the steps is my favourite image), great to to see you plugging into the Japanese street photography vibe. Daido would be proud of some of those! Shooting film seems to have given you a boost and I had a similar experience recently, it was like a real shot in the arm. Interesting reading your experiences with the M6 too; just a matter of time before i try a film Leica and see what all the fuss is about!

    1. Hi Nick, thanks for that. Yeah, as I mentioned in the post above, the B&W shots at that time (which was over a year ago now) were my favourites in Tokyo. I couldn’t really get the colour to work for me at the time. Which is funny, as more recently I’ve actually been enjoying shooting colour on the M6 a lot more back in Melbourne. Having said that I do think that B&W can tend to give better shot isolation in certain circumstances, and it certainly has a bit more of a timeless appeal. Yes, definite shot in the arm to shoot film again. If you can get the opportunity to give any of the M’s a try It is worth a go! Thanks

  7. Great article Mark and I particularly enjoy your photos, fantastic street photography. So many peoples approach to ‘street’ is the back of head shots or they’re just too far away, or the photograph is merely of people; it doesn’t say anything. Your work isn’t like this, it’s real photography and some of the shots do evoke the great Moriyama which is no mean feat. Keep shooting and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Hi Neil. Cheers for that – really glad that the shots connected with you. I still do feel that I was quite far away in a few of the Tokyo shots, and they may have been more interesting closer up – which is something that I’ve been working on more recently while shooting locally. It is great that these rangefinder and similar smaller form cameras, with really quiet shutters can allow you to get much closer to people that you can with an SLR. Thanks again 🙂

  8. Hi Mark, interesting you think you couldn’t get colour to work as well as B/W in Tokyo. I think Japanese street photography is so associated with B/W that it must be hard to pull away from that unless you’ve got your own very developed style. I sometimes wonder what Eggleston would soot in Japan?

    1. Hi Nick, yeah, I think for me there was just too much going on in Tokyo for colour to work for me at the time – so just a bit easier to get that isolation I was after. I think if I was going now, I would shoot more colour though for sure. I hadn’t actually looked at much Japanese street photography previously, but have seen a fair bit of it in B&W since. Love Eggleston’s work – such impressive stuff – yeah would love to see his take on it. Thanks

  9. David Luttmann

    Great article and beautiful photos. A paragraph got repeated where you mention people not noticing the camera and therefore not changing their behavior.

  10. Fantastic collection of the life photography (i always trying to avoid this “street photography” term)
    about Leica.. if you want to be the most visible person in Tel Aviv’s streets – go with leica. when we walk with my friend (he is with leica and i with 5d mkii) every 5 minutes someone ask him about the camera etc bla-bla no one pay attention to my big DSLR with mostly attached 35m Sigma Art – not too small lens. or maybe my friend just want this attention ?? 🙂

    1. thanks Victor. Interesting take on the leica vs (D)SLR in Tel Aviv (which is a place that I’d love to shoot in too). Just from my experience here locally in Melbourne and in Tokyo the smaller the camera the better for shooting street. The only exception is if a fellow photographer happens to see the leica – then you will more than likely have a chat 😉

  11. Hi Mark — terrific article, and much of what you say resonates with my feelings about Leicas (I shot primarily with an MP-6 and a pair of M2’s). When I shoot my partner’s band, an F6 or an F5 feels like the right tool for the job, but when I’m travelling or on the street there’s something freeing about using a Leica — I suspect for me it’s primarily the size and the simplicity, and like you I find rangefinder focussing intuitive and enjoyable in itself.

    I actually shot a recent gig with one of the M2’s, as the light was so bad that the F6 was struggling to find focus — manual rangefinder focus worked so much better, and because there was so little light I just set the camera to 1/15 and hoped. Serves me right for covering gigs with film 🙂

    We probably cross paths from time to time in Melbourne — I’m in or around Hosier Lane most weekends.

    Lastly, your portfolio is fantastic — really strong work. I see that you’re not currently using the M6 for your wedding work, but do you think you’d ever consider it?


    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your feedback – it must be nice to have a few different M’s to shoot with! Agree with you on the comment on using the right tool for the job at the time. Street for me feels right with a smaller form camera. With my personal work it is all on film, but with my assigned / paid work it is all on digital (for now). Would be great to shoot some paid work on film, but the client needs to agree that it is beneficial – not so easy.
      Yeah, getting down to 1/15 at a gig is pushing the boundaries at a gig for sure! Thanks for the comment on my portfolio too. In terms of using the M6 for weddings – not at the moment, but never say never. Would be quite hard to blend film and digital in post processing I imagine. Sure, catch you around town! Thanks, Mark.

      1. Yes, I’m spoilt! Having a second M was very helpful, either allowing me to mix colour and B&W or else just avoiding a reload at an inconvenient moment, but the third M was just self-indulgent.

        Like you, I find the metered body more convenient, but apart from that I actually prefer the M2’s — the uncluttered finder is great (I pretty much only shoot 35mm lenses) and the shorter travel on the shutter release (no metering step) feels nicer.

        1. yes, one with each film type loaded would be nice, I tend to do that with the 35SE 🙂 Yes, I only shoot 35mm on the M6 at the moment, but havn’t really noticed the other set of frame lines bothering me. On the subject of meter less, one of my friends has the M4 with the external meter – which does’t look to bad either. Catch you in town 🙂

  12. What a great article Mark! I loved the images and your description of Tokyo, which I’ve only had a 24hr stopover in on my own way back to Aus.

    I’ve owned an M6 Classic and wish I hadn’t sold it. I now love using a 1956 M3 SS and I’ve also just bought a Konica Hexar RF (my 2nd, the 1st being sold). I hope that my preference for discrete Leica shutters will not overcome the much easier on the wallet price of the Hexar when it arrives. Like you, I love the RF shooting experience.

    Thanks too hamish for your great blog and for including guest article such as this.

  13. I have read this post more than once. Thank you for sharing your words and images. Really stellar work! Inspires me to take my lowly M4-P off to Japan!

  14. Great post Mark like others I was compelled to keep reading all the way through enjoying the pictures as I went. It didn’t help with my semi-subconscious Leica urges… I can’t afford one!

    1. cheers Nigel. If you want to have a go at an M mount Leica on a budget, try out a CL. I had one for a few months and it was a joy to shoot. Just keep an eye out for the frame lines that are standard. 🙂

  15. Great pictures by the way
    After decades of using Leica gear I sold al the stuff
    still think its much overprieced and for a lot of people
    just a status symbol
    I miss the Leica M3 the most because of its beautiful viewfinder
    when you like to shoot with a 50mm lens
    So I run into a Nikon S2 by accident and still love to shoot “street”
    with it or take it to a trip when I am not up for large equipment
    The Nikkor S 1,4/50 is maybe not as sharp as a Summilux but in my
    experience the most viewes will not spot it on my pictures

    1. Hi Karl, cheers for the comment 🙂 I agree with your comment about most people not being able to spot the difference. For me I have to say that I’ve change the way the I shoot street since using a rangefinder, and it is just more enjoyable. You’re right that the gear is expensive, i guess at the end of the day if it is what you enjoy doing, you justify what you use as part of the fun! I’ve never shot with an M3, but I do hear people talk about 50mm on that viewfinder being great stuff.

  16. Loved the article. I’m having similar feelings as you did prior to buying your M6. Digital just doesn’t do it for me anymore. At any point, did you ever consider the VC branded rangefinders? R/R2, etc…

    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for that – good to see people still reading through this article after a few years 🙂 . Yes, I did look at the VC rangefinders too, pretty closely. They did get good reviews as well. I figured that if I went down the path of trying the Leica and it didn’t suit that it would hold it’s value well if I was to re-sell it. I also found a good condition 2nd hand one in a store that was reasonably priced compared to those on the internet at the time, so I figured I’d give it a go. Having out a good few rolls through it in the past few years I’m happy with the decision. Having said all of that I’m sure the VC cameras would be just as good. I also can’t say enough good things about the VC 35mm 2.5 lens. It is really the best bang for buck lens I own I think. Good luck with your shopping 🙂

    1. Thanks! I wrote this article a while ago – and now I’m dreaming about going back again! I actually enjoyed writing the article a lot – you should try it for sure 🙂

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