In the first of a series on Leica rangefinder cameras, renowned photographer Mark Fairhurst explains why he loves using them.
I have been a professional photographer since the late 1970s, producing work for clients such as Dunhill, Wilkinson Sword, and BMW to name but a few. The formats I used would be unknown to today’s new photographers: 10×8, 5×4, 6×6 and 35mm.
I was taught by a master photographer who told me that you should be able to produce a good image from any camera you happen to use. This is as true today as it was then but that said, there is one make in particular that always inspires me.
Created by Oskar Barnack in 1913, his revolutionary UR model made photography more portable and easier to carry out than ever before. The key was a new medium, 35mm ﬁlm that was originally designed for cinematic use. Until then, half- and whole-plate or 120mm format cameras were used. They were slow and bulky machines that took a long time to set up.
Released after exhaustive trials in 1925, the UR model was the future of photography. The brand has since become the camera of dreams for many, and almost mythical for some. Its rangefinder cameras are expensive, very far from perfect, not easy to master but capable of taking pictures in their purist form.
Called ‘messsucher’ in German, the rangeﬁnder body produces two images through the viewﬁnder. The photographer must carefully rotate the focus ring until they overlap, at which point the image is in focus.
It forces the photographer to slow down, and is an almost zen-like way of taking images. The photographer must think about what they are doing, to compose the shot, and to set the exposure. Then, and only then, can they focus and finally press the shutter. While modern-day digital versions of this coveted brand might offer automatic exposure, the way you take a photo is still very old school – and if you get it wrong then you have no one to blame but yourself.
I have used Leica rangefinder cameras for some years now. I broke away from advertising photography in 2003, moving into shooting portraits for magazines; the Queen, aristocracy, politicians, celebrities, and the general public have been in my ‘ﬁring’ line since and many were photographed using a Leica.
There are very real advantages to using a Leica beyond the image quality. It’s a small, unobtrusive camera, which means the subjects seem able to relax more than they do with a professional DSLR camera. They feel less intimidated; shooting portraits is 97 percent psychology, and only 3 percent technical ability. The less there is to upset or distract your subject, the better.
This ability to break down barriers goes a long way to help create a good rapport – and a good rapport is the fastest and most reliable way to capture those rare, fleeting moments in time where a subject’s soul is laid bare, moments that inevitably lead to the photographer’s Holy Grail, a double-page spread.
With beautifully sharp lenses and intuitive ergonomics, I believe the Leica rangefinder is one of the best camera systems anyone could hope to have in their kit bag. Be it digital or ﬁlm, the system has been an ice-breaker with many of the people I have photographed but that would count for naught if the images didn’t pop from the page.
I try to travel light these days, which is a far cry from the days when my assistant and I would have to organise several hard cases of equipment to attend a shoot. It’s just the one small Billingham bag now, and perhaps another bag for lights and stands.
It’s a wonderful way to travel, not least because I’m still inspired by my little Leica; robust and well-designed, it begs me to be daring, to break the mould, to think outside of the box.
As I hope you’ll agree from the images you see here, all of which were shot with a Leica rangefinder camera.
Mark Fairhurst @MrMarkFairhurst