Manual Focusing in the Dark: SLR vs RF

by Johnny Martyr


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

“I am always impressed by how you achieve focus of fleeting moments with a manual focus RF in low light!”

It was very kind of him to post this, and timely too because I had just starting typing this blog about my different experiences with shooting available light candid portraits with an SLR verses a rangefinder.

Before I go any further I just wanted to note that the featured image was taken with my Leica M6 TTL 0.85, Voigtlander 40mm 1.4 lens and Kodak TMAX P3200 rated and processed for 6400 in Kodak HC110b. My shutter was 1/60th and my aperture may have been f2. I was very close to the couple at a wedding that I photographed last week so DoF was pretty shallow. This type of image is pretty exemplary of my wedding photography and thus appropriate to illustrate what I’m about do discuss.

There are a lot of SLR vs. RF articles and threads online. And though I’m an enthusiastic rangefinder photographer, I’ve always been reluctant to reiterate the benefits (and deficits) of shooting with one because this is such an over discussed topic. But one thing that I don’t see a lot of chatter about is this difference that I have been experiencing for over a decade.

When I am shooting in very dim light at very wide apertures, focus is honestly not very easy to achieve with any manual focus camera. It requires not just looking through the finder but working in some zone focusing and various other techniques that show you understand how depth of field works!

But I’ve actually been laughed at by other, less capable, more conventional wedding photographers when they see me shooting in near total darkness with manual focus cameras like my Leica M6 or Nikon FM2n.

Not to martyr myself though. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I also get plenty of positive vibes from folks who understand the challenge involved in what I’m doing and are astonished or incredulous when they are in the same incredibly dark spaces that I shoot in and see it for themselves.

But I think that the general consensus is that manual focus is the wrong tool to use for shooting fast moving subjects in dim light such as wedding receptions, unless you’re using flash. Beyond this, people also seem to believe that rangefinders are even less suitable than SLR’s.

And I’ll readily admit that I can more quickly and more accurately blow off focused images in dim light at full aperture with my wife’s D810 and any auto focus normal Nikkor than with my Leica M6 TTL and fast Voigtlander 40mm 1.4, but this does not mean that the M6 is not an absolutely perfect and exquisite tool for what I’m doing. And the FM2n‘s not too bad either.

First let me talk about this difference between RF’s and SLR’s for his kind of work. Then we can talk about why I insist on doing it.

RF vs SLR

I find that while I’m in the act of shooting available light candids with an M6, I don’t FEEL like I’m hitting focus at all. It almost feels like I’m just going through the motions of using a camera but I’m not actually doing anything and can’t possibly hope for shots to be in focus. The only reason I keep shooting is that my brain tells me to keep going based on experience. There is something scary and liberating about this feeling that maybe you too, have experienced and is a block for doing your best work with a rangefinder.

I think this sense of senselessness comes from the inability to see your depth of field with a rangefinder. So when I focus on the eye of a guest who is dancing, what I see is the full scene, in focus. And the only thing that tells me that her eye will be the only thing in focus, is my mind. It’s hard to trust that!

And yet, the resulting photos look great. I nail focus with my M6 so much that when I’m choosing between which shots to finalize, I’m looking for which moment is strongest, not which version is in focus.

Yet with an SLR, I am the opposite. While shooting, things look in-focus in the viewfinder and I feel confident in the moment that I nailed focus. But my hit ratio for shooting with a manual SLR in these conditions is much lower than when shooting with an RF. Often after shooting the same scene with an SLR and I’m culling photos, I have to choose between where I did and didn’t hit focus correctly moreso than being able to distinguish by content as I am with a rangefinder.

I am not sure if these results are some sort of placebo effect wherein, because I’m using a more simple viewfinder, I compensate by giving my focusing more attention and thus the results are more accurate. Or if the actual devices differ significantly in how I see and interact with the world that one is inherently more effective than the other. But these are my personal findings.

Now, everyone’s different. I am not telling you this because I am recommending everyone should ditch their Nikons for Leica’s. I mean, I haven’t even done that yet. But what one would infer from Andy’s comment, which I think probably echoes many shooters’ perceptions, is that it is especially challenging to shoot low light candids with a rangefinder.

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

If you don’t believe me, I do recommend that you give a Leica, or other quality rangefinder a try for some low light dancing at the next wedding or party that you attend. Don’t be afraid to really use your rangefinder!

I can only imagine that people struggle with rangefinder focusing because they didn’t read my blog about focusing techniques. ๐Ÿ˜ If you are following these, I think it’s all pretty straight forward, and will improve SLR shooting too as we put more thought into our shooting.

But Why?

And “thought in shooting” brings me to my other point here. Why do I shoot low light candids with manual focus cameras to begin with? Any current, pro or semi-pro level DSLR or mirrorless body and a normal prime auto focus lens would be easier, produce more, and more accurate results. And you know that I am fervently against the whole “I shoot film because it slows me down” malarkey.

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

By shooting fast moving people with a shallow depth of field and manual focus, we are really putting our fingerprint on the image aren’t we? If focus is slightly off, this is evidence of the physical and mental reactions of the photographer. This reminds the viewer that there was a person there, interacting with the people in the frame. There is a larger story available to the viewer when an image is not so technically perfect that the perspective of the photographer is nearly fully removed from the scene. And that is why I do what I do.

Sure I enjoy fine mechanical cameras and the athleticism of shooting them rapidly in difficult situations. But I am not doing this for nostalgia or personal enjoyment alone. Or just to be different. Or to show off for camera nerds. I’m doing this to bring humanity to my photography. Digital shooters can add fake film grain to digital images all they like, but this only separates us even further and deepens the lie that their images are telling. Film photography with manual cameras is just more honest because it can exhibit the practices, efforts, instincts and intentions of the photographer in a way that servos and software are completely divorced from. My photography is about people interacting with people, so manual focus seems like the most effective way to fully tell that story. Rangefinder or SLR. Or even with a Deardorff!

Thanks for reading, happy shooting

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One thought on “Manual Focusing in the Dark: SLR vs RF

Add yours

  1. M parallax correction, and range finder, and frame outline, and provision to glimpse the shot at instance itโ€™s made, and the use I made with 35,50, all this constituted an ensemble.

    I focus with right eye, unlike M, SLR used horizontally obscures a greater portion of face of person focusing before it throws blackout time like a stone.

    Liked by 1 person

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