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5 Candid Portraits in Paris with a Leica M3, Summicron 50mm f/2, and Kodak T-MAX 100 Film – By Steve Bleistein

I love Paris. While I live in Japan, my business often takes me to Europe, and whenever it does, I always spend a weekend or so in Paris before moving on to wherever I need to go. Paris is of course a wonderful city for street photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson made a subject of the Paris streets for decades and never ran out of interesting people and scenes to photograph with his Leica. I find the same is true for me and my Leica M3.

While many people prefer a 35mm lens for street photography, for photographing people, I prefer the 50mm focal length, for which the Leica M3 is optimized. There are a lot of 50mm M-mount lenses to choose from, as well as several generations of most of them, including the Summicron f/2, the Summilux f/1.4, the Noctilux f/0.95, and the collapsible Elmar f/2.8 to name the most common, and this is to say nothing of the superb M-mounts of other manufacturers like the Zeiss Sonar f/1.5.

I have used a number of Leica 50mm lenses, and they are all wonderful. However, for street photography I prefer the fourth generation Summicron f/2, and that is the one I pack in my kit when I travel. Why the fourth generation? Ergonomically, I find it the best because of its focus tab and its weight.

When photographing people on the street, I have to move fast. Zone focusing is one-way of course, where I can preset the focus for a depth of field range, and release the shutter when my subject is in the zone. Of course, I have to guess that by sight. At f/8 or f/11, I have a pretty deep zone, so no problem. However, if I want to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/250th, sometimes the light will permit only wider open than f/5.6. My zone becomes increasingly shallow, and guessing accurately is more challenging. Also, when I want to photograph someone from really close, say within a meter or two, the zone is even more shallow.

The tab of the fourth generation Summicron is a tremendous help in adjusting focus rapidly on the fly when I need to be spot on. Typically as I am shooting, I am walking toward my subject. I can set the focus to infinity, and as I am approaching my subject, and I easily adjust the tab with one finger until images in the focus patch of the finder align and then release the shutter. The focus throw of the fourth generation Summicron—that is to say the rotation from infinity to the shortest range—is only 120 degrees, which is just about perfect for both rapidity and accuracy.

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Now you can use this rapid focus technique with any lens and any focal length. However, I find it more challenging when there is no tab, like with the current Summicron 50mm f/2 model, which internally is identical to the fourth generation, and early models like the Summicron 50mm f/2 Dual Range. My pre-aspherical Summilux 50mm f/1.4 also has no tab, and to make rapid focus even harder, the throw of the focus ring is about 180 degrees. That’s a full semicircle, and forget making that distance with one finger! And don’t even get me started on the contortions you have to perform with the Noctilux!

Also, you can forget about the ridiculously priced limited edition APO Summicron 50mm f/2 aspherical. It looks beautiful to be sure, but practically it makes no sense. The aspherical model adds nothing detectable to the sharpness, as the regular ‘cron is already exceedingly sharp even at f/2. And then there is no tab on the APO model, a real deal-breaker for me!

So if you are looking for a great M-mount lens for photographing people in the street, it’s the fourth generation Summicron 50mm that works the best for me. These are widely available used in both black and chrome, and more reasonablly priced the current Summicron model, even used.

I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website bleisteinphoto.com, or my Instagram @sbleistein

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32 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Thorsten Wulff
    July 9, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Excellent Steven, I’ll be in Paris at the end of July and walk in your steps! thank you for the inspirational images and lens info. My favorite here is the one with the kiss.

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      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks! I like that one too!

      • Avatar
        Reply
        James Tappin
        July 9, 2019 at 2:04 pm

        .

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          July 9, 2019 at 8:01 pm

          You know, if I am not mistaken this intersection is at the bottom of Boulevard Saint-Michel right at the Seine with a full view of Notre Dame. I shot this photo only a few days after the fire. If the nun is looking a bit grim, she has cause.

          • Avatar
            James Tappin
            July 11, 2019 at 12:19 pm

            .

          • Avatar
            Steven Bleistein
            July 11, 2019 at 10:50 pm

            James, I have removed both of your comments from the post. They only disparage a person in my photo and have nothing to do with photography, art, or technique. People come to 35mmc to learn, share experience, and exchange ideas, and that is why I write and publish here, not for others to disparage the people who appear in my photos. Hamish can of course overrule my decision if he wishes, but I doubt he will.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Jean-François Bonnin
    July 9, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Great portraits !
    And Houellebcq’s “Soumission” is a good book while taking pictures !

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 12:08 pm

      I picked up Soumission at a used bookstore at Place de l’Odéon.

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    Reply
    Wim HH van Heugten
    July 9, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    Beatiful portraits! I just wonder how these pictures can be so grainy while using TMax 100, especially #4. Are you sure about TMax 100?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks! I’m never squeamish about cropping when it makes sense to do so. #4 is cropped.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Mike
    July 9, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    Fantastic pics.

    I would also consider the Summarit-M 50 which is very perfect in rendering — perhaps “clinical” in some ways, but does streetwork well due to its flare resistance, focus tab and size.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 7:42 pm

      I had forgotten to mention the Summarit. I’ve heard the optics are superb, and the lens intrigues me because it is so compact.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Ed
    July 9, 2019 at 1:06 pm

    Wonderful images, indeed. I marvel at your skill getting so close to strangers and them ignoring your presence altogether.
    In re: to the APO vs pre-APO Summicron, the latter is indeed ‘sharp enough’ for street work (though I never cared for its bokeh @ ƒ/2) but I’d suggest spending a month with the APO before you judge it as ‘practically making no sense’. It does, but not for this style of photography.

    As for Houellebcq’s “Soumission”, it is chillingly apropos visiting Paris nowadays.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 7:50 pm

      Thanks! I’ll check out the APO Summicron. Some of the images are cropped, but even so I got pretty close. Most people don’t notice. In my experience in Paris, sometimes people can get touchy about being photographed, more so than in Tokyo. It also depends on the neighborhood. Shooting in say the 20th caused a bit of a hostile reaction, whereas shooting in the Latin Quarter, the Marais, or around the Centre Pompidou, not so much. There are so many people with cameras taking photos, people don’t really notice.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Scott
        July 9, 2019 at 8:30 pm

        Yes, the APO Summicron is exquisitely sharp, right out to the corners.
        But your pictures are very fine, and would not be improved by more “sharpness.”

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          July 9, 2019 at 8:50 pm

          Sharpness in the corners is a pursuit of prowess In engineering, not art. Only the latter interests me.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Luis Sandoval
    July 9, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Nice! I have the same combo in black, even with the same Leitz filter that the one in the picture. Love that lens.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks! Must look great in black!

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Scott
        July 9, 2019 at 8:20 pm

        There’s a battered vintage black one on eBay right now.
        You can pick it up for just $30,000.00.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Aivaras
    July 9, 2019 at 7:32 pm

    Great sest of photos. I’ll second that the shot with the kiss is outstanding!

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    Reply
    Tom
    July 9, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your words and even more so viewing your images. I love to see good strong street images, thanks for posting. I have a M3 with the Elmar 2.8 but this last while I have been favouring my 1933 Leica iii with the collapsable Elmar 3.5 coupled with TMax 400.

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    Reply
    eric
    July 9, 2019 at 11:40 pm

    Great Camera, a great book (try J.M LeClezio), nice lens, great film, great place, nice subject: congratulations.
    You have cropped a lot! How far you were from the focused person, the ViewFinder of M3 is the best for that.
    Try Trocadero, there are nice captures to make.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 9, 2019 at 11:58 pm

      I cannot recall how far away I was for each. As for shooting in Paris, it is hard to go wrong anywhere in the city.

  • Daniel Castelli
    Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    July 10, 2019 at 4:02 am

    As usual, wonderful candids with technical excellence. However, I am a bit (oh hell, really, really) annoyed with you. Why? To be able to spend a couple of days wandering about Paris between business appointments. Joking, of course. Good for you. Thanks for sharing your pics & thoughts.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 10, 2019 at 9:25 pm

      Ha! Yes, this is how I choose to live. It is also one of the reasons I run my own business. I like living life on my own terms.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    sebcopley
    July 10, 2019 at 6:18 am

    With regards to people being touchy getting their photograph taking in the street in Paris. It is worth remembering France has some very strict privacy laws which impact directly on this style of photography. As I understand it in France everyone who has their photo taken should have given their permission and also maintains rights to their own image.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      July 10, 2019 at 9:41 pm

      I suspect the law is very selectively enforced. There are just too many people taking photos, even if with their phones. The law is likely there to give the police some tool to go after harassing behaviors. I doubt that the police would give much of a hard time to a tourist taking photos of people sitting in a café or walking around the tourist areas, even if someone complained. They would likely just ask you not to do it, and to enjoy the rest of your stay in Paris. Valéry Jardin regularly photographs people in Paris, and I have not heard of her ever getting into legal trouble. Like most of us, if someone protests to her she stops or deletes the photo. (She no longer shoots film from what I understand.) If anyone has even had any trouble with the law in France, please share your experience. I have not heard of any case except for the most extreme.

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    Reply
    Gabe
    July 29, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    This is great. Thank you. You’ve inspired me to get out there and try some street photography. Beautiful images. I’m always over concerned with perfect focus, exposure etc. and it makes me a little crazy. Thanks for the post.

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    Reply
    Mark Alan Thomas
    November 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    The current standard 50mm Summicron does not have a focus tab, but the standard APO Summicron does have one. It’s the special edition APO (e.g. black chrome) that does not.

    But I’m with you: the 4th gen is my favorite.

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