10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Rangefinder tips

Over the next 10 days, I’ll be posting 10 sets of 10 tips on how to improve your photography: these little tricks represent the way I shoot that’s probably not so conventional, but works for me and ensures that a) I get the shot and b) the equipment is an enabler rather than something that gets in the way.

Disclaimer: I’m assuming you know the basics already, but want to get serious.

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Today we kick off with rangefinders: right now, that’s pretty much only the Leica M (and maybe Epson R-D1) if you shoot digital. Here goes:

10: Timing, timing, timing: shoot lots and get to know the lag rhythm of your camera. It might feel instant, but it isn’t. That split second can make or break the difference in a critical shot, especially during a fast-paced situation – that fleeting expression, or arrangement of people.

9: Get to know your lenses: There is no such thing as the perfect lens. All of them have idiosyncrasies, be it focus breathing, focus shift, curved focus planes, flare under certain conditions, or maybe the ability to produce brilliant 14-pointed stars from point light sources at f16. (Don’t laugh, the Leica 21 Summilux ASPH does this.) The better you know your lenses and the way they draw, the more you can exploit their properties to help your pictorial rendition of a given situation. It’s also why I’ve got eight ways to get to 28mm – there’s a huge difference between the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 ‘Hollywood’ Distagon and the Ricoh GR-Digital III, for instance.

8: Use a soft release and thumb grip (and maybe front grip). Anything that can make your grip more secure or comfortable, and your shutter release action more gentle, is your friend. I like the Thumbs Up, personally.

7: Don’t limit your subjects to the center focus point. You can focus and then recompose. But remember that most lenses aren’t flat field (especially rangefinder designs, which are usually non-retrofocus and spherical) so a little tweak to the focus ring is required for edge subjects – usually to make the focus point slightly closer, as the focal plane will be curved slightly around you. Experience is required to determine exactly how much and when to shift – this is why I also highly recommend using fewer lenses but knowing them well.

6: Use the DoF scales to prefocus. Especially useful with wide lenses, whose large DoF means that you might even be able to shoot hyper focal and not have to focus at all: especially great for being fast and reducing time between seeing the shot and capturing it. Very important skill for street photography and photojournalism. You can practice this by estimating distances and setting your lens with the camera at waist level, then checking in the finder.

5: Pay attention to the edges. The frame lines are a suggestion: there will be more included. With experience, you can push the composition a bit and still get everything in.

4: Shoot with both eyes open. The nice, bright, high-magnification finders are great for letting you a) see what’s outside your frame and might make composition better or worse if included or excluded; and b) you can keep both eyes open to enhance your peripheral vision. It’ll also stop you from getting run over.

3: Know the limitations of the system. By their nature, your finder will probably only cover 28-135, and not be very accurate for 90 and 135. So really, the strengths of the system lie in the 28-75mm range; don’t try and do birding with one of these things and wonder why your results aren’t up to par. (Note: I do use my M9-P for macro work, but that’s a different story entirely.)

2: Less is more. Rangefinders are small and light: why burden yourself and turn photography into endurance sherpa-ing? Try reducing your regular kit to two, or better yet, one lens. Either something which provides to distinctly different perspectives, or perhaps something in-between. I choose 28/50 or 35.

1: Check your rangefinder calibration. There’s nothing worse than shooting an entire series at f1.4 and thinking you nailed focus – or at least remembered doing so in the finder while shooting – then being horrified as you open up the set only to find your subjects’ noses in focus and their eyes a distant plane away. If you know how to calibrate your rangefinder, great; if not, it might be the subject of a future post here (but I take no responsibility if you damage something or void your warranty). If you don’t dare, send it in to your dealer. The best thing you can do is have your body calibrated to match all of your lenses – so send them all in at the same time. The next best thing is to have it calibrated for the lens with the shallowest DoF; the one exception is if the lens suffers from focus shift. Then you’ve got no choice but to calibrate for your most frequently used lens and remember which direction to adjust for later. Check calibration often and if you get a new, shallower DoF lens. One last related point: make sure all of your viewfinder windows (VF, RF patch, frame lines, front VF) are clean – you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to focus!

Bonus for Leica M8/9 users: The meter is center weighted and very heavily biased towards protecting highlights. So, for backlit subjects there are a few ways of compensating. a) Lock exposure with the camera aimed at something of roughly equal luminance but not backlit; this works on the shutter half-press position (with a little dot displayed at the top between the leftmost digits in the finder) if you’ve got the release mode set to standard. b) For M9 users, use the rear dial to activate exposure compensation. I personally don’t like this, because I have no idea if I have it set or not, and if so, how much. c) If you’re shooting with fixed and not auto-ISO, then note the shutter reading in the finder, and move the shutter dial to something appropriate. I use a slightly more complicated method, with auto-ISO: if the shutter speed displayed is over the minimum you set, then you know the camera is in base ISO. I just manually set it to something lower; the camera can’t lower the ISO any more, so it overexposes as desired. If the situation is dark and you’re above base ISO, this doesn’t work. In very dark situations, I usually just leave the camera at ISO 1250 and go manual with the exposure.ย MT

See more of my work with the Leica M9-P here on Flickr: click here And for earlier work with the M8, click here


  1. Hilmar ('Hilmo' on flickr) says:

    Ming, I love your Flickr photos and that is how I came to have a look at your website. Very nice work, please keep it coming.

  2. unidentifiedwalkingobject says:

    What about shooting from the hips? Do you ever do that? I’ve been trying it lately but I still can’t perfect the composition for my shots..

    • I do, but only with wide lenses; it’s tough to judge the perspective without a lot of practice. Swivel screens are helpful, as are bubble levels. If you want to shoot from the hip, the NEX-5 and E-PL3 are great because of their tilt screens.

  3. And oh yeah, tip #4 is golden. I seriously nearly got run over a few times by cows during the Thaipusam festival because i was suffering from viewfinder tunnel vision. Was lucky was shooting with friends who yanked me out of the way each time.

  4. An alternative to the thumb grip (which i admit gives that extra bit of stability) is the external viewfinder. It magnifies nicely and this helps with the focusing, no?

    • Not for a RF – an external (hot shoe) finder gives you a better view especially for wides, but it isn’t RF coupled so you can’t focus accurately. A VF magnifier will screw into the eyepiece and make focusing more accurate, but restrict your VF for longer lenses only. I think you’re thinking of mirrorless cameras – I’ve got a set of tips for those in the works too ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Done. I was actually worried that some of these tips may be too basic. But then again, beginners generally won’t shoot rangefinders.

  6. Not a bad set of tips. Though I feel should come with a disclaimer that only those already comfortable with the basics will know what you’re talking about.

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