SLR vs RF – Johnny Martyr Thought & Photography

by Johnny Martir

I got a big compliment from Andy at analogue_dreams (his blog can be found here) recently on the image above. He says:

“I’m always impressed with how you achieve momentary focus with RF manual focus in low light!”

He was so kind to post this, and also timely as I just started typing this blog about my different experiences with shooting the mild candid portraits available with rangefinder verse SLRs.

Before I go any further, I just want to note that the featured image was taken with my Leica M6 TTL 0.85, Voigtlander 40mm 1.4 and Kodak TMAX P3200 lens and processed for the 6400 on the Kodak HC110b. My shutter is 1/60 and my aperture is maybe f2. I was very close to the couple at the wedding I shot last week so the DoF is pretty shallow. This type of image is fairly modeled on my wedding photography and is therefore perfect for illustrating what I will be discussing.

There are many articles and threads on SLR vs. RF online. And while I’m an avid rangefinder photographer, I’ve always been reluctant to reiterate the benefits (and drawbacks) of shooting with one because it’s such a topic that gets covered too much. But one thing I don’t see a lot of chat about is this distinction I’ve had for over a decade.

When I shoot in very low light at very wide apertures, focus is frankly not easy to achieve with any manual focus camera. This requires not only looking through the finder but working across multiple focusing zones and a variety of other techniques that shows you understand how depth of field works!

But I’m actually laughed at by other less capable and more conventional wedding photographers when they see me shooting in complete darkness with a manual focus camera like my Leica M6 or Nikon FM2n.

Not to be a martyr himself. 😉 I also get a lot of positive vibes from people who understand the challenges involved in what I do and are astonished or in disbelief when they are in a very dark room that I shoot at and see for myself.

But I think the general consensus is that manual focus is the wrong tool to use for photographing fast-moving subjects in low light like wedding receptions, unless you’re using flash. Beyond this, people also seem to believe that rangefinders are even less suitable than SLRs.

And I will readily admit that I was able to defocus images faster and more accurately in low light at full aperture with my wife’s D810 and any autofocus normal Nikkor than I could with my Leica M6 TTL and fast Voigtlander 40mm 1.4, but this doesn’t mean anything. that the M6 ​​isn’t exactly a perfect and beautiful tool for what I do. And FM2n isn’t too shabby either.

First let me talk about the difference between RF and SLR for the type of work. Then we can talk about why I insist on doing it.

RF vs SLRs

I find that when I’m shooting candid available light with the M6, I don’t FEEL like I’m in focus at all. It feels like I’m just doing movement using the camera but I’m not actually doing anything and can’t possibly expect the shot to be in focus. The only reason I keep shooting is because my brain tells me to keep going based on experience. There is something terrifying and liberating about this feeling that you too have probably experienced and that is a hindrance to doing your best job with a spotter.

I think this feeling of illogicality stems from being unable to see your depth of field with a rangefinder. So when I focus on the dancing guests’ eyes, what I see is the full view, in focus. And the only thing that was telling me his eyes would be the only focus, was my mind. Hard to believe it!

However, the resulting photos look good. I focus so much on my M6 that when I’m choosing between shots to complete, I’m looking for which moment was strongest, not which version to focus on.

But with SLRs, I’m the other way around. When shooting, things look in focus in the viewfinder and I feel confident when I get it in focus. But my hit ratio for shooting with a manual SLR in these conditions is much lower than when shooting with RF. Often after shooting the same scene with an SLR and I’m selecting photos, I have to choose between where I did and not hitting focus properly more than being able to tell the difference based on content like I would with a rangefinder.

I’m not sure if this result is some kind of placebo effect where, since I’m using a simpler viewfinder, I compensate by paying more attention to focusing so the results are more accurate. Or if the actual devices differ significantly in how I see and interact with the world, one is inherently more effective than the other. But these are my personal findings.

Now, everyone is different. I’m not telling you this because I recommend everyone should ditch their Nikons for a Leica. I mean, I haven’t even done that yet. But what one would conclude from Andy’s comments, which I think may echo the perception of many shooters, is that they are specifically challenging to shoot candid low light with a rangefinder.

So I’m here to say that on the scale of a Mirrorless field camera up to 8×10, the Leica M6 is actually a lot closer to the Sony Alpha than the Deardorff!

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you try out a Leica, or some other quality rangefinder for dancing in low light at the next wedding or party you attend. Don’t be afraid to actually use your rangefinder!

I can only imagine that people struggle with rangefinder focusing because they didn’t read my blog on focusing techniques. 😁 If you follow this I think it’s pretty straight forward, and will improve SLR shooting as well as we think more about our shots.

But Why?

And the “thought in the shot” brings me to my other point here. Why do I shoot candid low light with a manual focus camera? Any of today’s pro or semi-pro level DSLR cameras or mirrorless bodies and normal prime autofocus lenses will be easier, produce more results, and be more accurate. And you know I’m totally against the whole “I shoot movies because it slows me down” whole nonsense.

I shoot manual focus film cameras in low light without flash because I don’t like making thousands of technically perfect photos that have little or no soul. I prefer to create a few hundred organic images that not only say something about the scene but also say something about the shooter and the emotional connection of everyone involved in a photograph. Creating photos like this requires the photographer to put more of themselves (and less electronics) into each image.

By photographing fast-moving people with a shallow depth of field and manual focus, we really do fingerprint the image, right? If the focus is slightly off, this is evidence of a physical and mental reaction from the photographer. It reminds the viewer that someone is there, interacting with the people in the frame. There is a bigger story in store for the viewer when an image is so technically imperfect that the photographer’s perspective is almost completely removed from the scene. And that’s why I do what I do.

Of course I enjoy a good, athletic mechanical camera shooting quickly in difficult situations. But I’m not doing this for nostalgia or personal enjoyment. Or just to be different. Or to show off for camera nerds. I do this to bring humanity into my photography. Digital shooters can add fake film grain to digital images as they please, but this only separates us further and deepens the lies their images tell. Film photography with manual cameras is more honest as it can demonstrate the photographer’s practice, effort, instincts and intentions in such a way that the servo and software are completely separate. My photography is about people interacting with people, so manual focus seemed the most effective way to fully tell the story. rangefinder or SLR. Or even with Deardorff!

Thanks for reading, happy shooting

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