A rangefinder as teacher

“Battling obstacles can give rise to great beauty — so much so that in art, and in math, it’s often more fruitful to impose constraints on ourselves.”Steven Strogatz

For the past six months I’ve been using – and enjoying – a Zeiss Ikon rangefinder and the very nice Zeiss 35mm f/2.0 lens.

Yes, a film camera.

Nominally, I’m doing Michael Johnston’s exercise to use a simple film rangefinder, a single prime lens, and black-and-white film for a year. The benefit, as he tells it:

A year with a single Leica and a single lens, looking at light and ignoring color, will teach you as much about actually seeing photographs as three years in any photo school, and as much as ten or fifteen years (or more) of mucking about buying and selling and shopping for gear like the average hobbyist.


As a life-long breaker of inconsequential rules, I’ve already deviated a little bit: although Johnston insists on a Leica, I settled on the merely Leica-like Zeiss camera; he also insists on only using black and white film, but that gets depressing so I’ve thrown in some color film. And I still carry a digital camera with me because I’m an American goddamnit and sometimes I need instant gratification.

Anyway, I came to a realization while walking the dog and the camera the other day: this is a valuable exercise because a rangefinder and a moderately wide lens gives you absolutely, positively zero gimmicks to lean on to make interesting images.

First, a wide-angle lens doesn’t easily let you fill your subject in the frame like you might be able to with a telephoto zoom.

Next, a moderate wide angle (35–40mm or so in 35mm camera terms) does not give you attention-grabbing spacial distortion like an ultra-wide lens. You can get hints of exaggerated depth, but you have to get very close.

But not too close: the closest that you can focus a rangefinder is around a meter, which doesn’t sound bad unless you’re used to SLR lenses that typically let you focus within inches of the lens.

Finally, you can’t really go insane with the much-coveted effect of knocking the background out of focus. You can a little bit, but you you lack the tools to reduce a background to some sort of dream-like haze.

So, you don’t have exaggerated spatial depth, nor can you isolate subjects with ‘more zoom’, close-ups, or pinpoint focus. You are essentially powerless in your quest for popularity on Flickr or DSLR photography forums. Your pictures will look basically like (the horror!) real life.

(In particular, the stellar Zeiss 2/35 lens is almost flawless. I can see it vignette wide open, but otherwise it takes “photo-realistic” to a new level.)

So how do you make compelling images without that bag of tricks? The old fashioned way! You really nail light, color, form, and composition. You make sure that your backgrounds and foregrounds complement your subject. You develop excellent timing and a sense for how the camera and lens ‘sees’. You learn to watch for distractions in all sides and the corners of your frame. You don’t take a picture if all those elements don’t come together.

In short, you’ll have to become a more sophisticated photographer with a better critical eye. No tricks or technical tropes allowed.

You’re on your own. Shit. It’s not easy.

All told, I think I’m getting a little better. I don’t possess any sort of built-in artistic genius, but I know this much: when I get decent image with this camera and lens, I know that I worked for it. And that’s satisfying, even if it’s not destined to blow up on the forums.

Here are some of my favorites from the past few months.

A box of shoes
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This is about as close as you can focus
Some guy taking a nap
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Recovering from finals week
Empty shelves at a book store
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No religion here
My mother and brother hugging after his college graduation
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My little brother’s graduation
The edge of a porch swing
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Yeah, too much B&W gets boring after a while
My brother belting out a tune
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Karaoke night
Sunset along a bike path
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Lines, light, and shadow

Am I doing it wrong?

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