DSLR vs. Rangefinder Shooting Methodology - An argument for purposeful photography

DSLR vs. Rangefinder Method

Once we get past the “who’s a pro” argument and embrace the facts that anybody with a camera is indeed a photographer (as noted in “What is a Photographer”) and we zip on past the differentiating details of what a discerning professional actually is ( as noted in “How you can select a real Photographer”) we come to the obvious crossroads of ultimately letting the work speak for itself – and this is where the kids are put back in preschool, where they belong, and the discerning professionals stand their ground with their head up high touting their winner’s grin, thinking “yep…can’t fool anybody here bub”. There are no biases, and no access to fake quality because the portfolio speaks a thousand words that cannot be bent or twisted in any flavor – they either got it, or they don’t.

I want to make it absolutely clear that we are discussing not mom and pops capturing memories with their camera, but rather compensated photographers that are charging for their services, or are thinking of charging for their services – let it be clear.

Were also not here to discuss the stages of learning photography, or how pretty much all of us were beginners and amateurs at one point - were here to discuss the end result, the cheese, the mullah, the image! The facts are we that we all are competing at the same level, for the same customers and allot of times for the same paycheck, so then let’s begin.

How does a Digital SLR work?

A DSLR has a body and a lens like any other camera, however the Single Lens Reflex denotes the fact that there is a mirror in front of the sensor at a 45 degree angle which, when down will reflect what the lens sees into the viewfinder up top. The benefits are that you see what the lens sees, and if you zoom or change lenses, you immediately see what that actually looks like. But were not here to discuss camera specs and modes of operation, we are here to discuss mentalities associated with their use.

DSLR Shooting Method

The invention of modern Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras, and specifically the ridiculous performance beasts that are DSLR’s has created a wonderful opportunity for photographers to be more equipped to capture any moment, quicker than ever. The frame rates of capture and the incredible autofocus capabilities in the latest generation of cameras is astounding, and even shocking! But as with any modern convenience, it changes things. Think about what “TV Dinners” did to home cooking, and preceding that what having full time career professional mom’s did to our culture before that – it’s all a cascading effect, one causing the next and in sense a “culturalization” of norms to new norms. There is nothing wrong with TV dinners, and nor do I have a problem with working moms, I am just ringing a bell most of you have forgotten existed – a 50 year old bell that, back then, was the norm and what is our reality today was farfetched then. What would grandma have said about TV dinners 50 years ago, or about being full time at the office instead of home? What kind of comments do you think grandma would make about those two changes in our culture with the mentality of “back then”? How times have changed! As so, with changing times comes changing norms and the DSLR is but a natural progression of advancement and change, and a welcomed one at that. But what has it done to the photography industry?

Because of the convenience and speed DSLR’s have crippled the latest generation of photographers in ways that cannot be simply reversed – it has made photographers lazy! The DSLR shooter often purchases a DSLR because, quite honestly it’s the only accessible camera they can get currently, anywhere! So in essence, once an amateur falls in love with making images and purchases their first high performance DSLR, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy and they’re set on this path - “The DSLR Method”. What is the “DLSR method” you ask? It’s simply “spray and pray”, or the “take a bunch of photos and hope you got one” approach to (what should be) the art of photography. There is no studying the scene, contemplating the shot, waiting for that perfect moment and being sure of what you’re capturing, when and why before you even touch the camera. There is only “ooh, pretty…and 20 clicks later……done”.

The DLSR method does not often involve thinking, nor is there much planning of a shot. Generally what happens with a DSLR method shooter is the following;

1.       They see something interesting, they don’t know what it is yet, but their brain tells them its picture worthy.

2.       Without thinking or pondering anything, shots are fired, and they’re usually at least 3-4 dozen in number for good measure.

3.       After which the photographer looks at the back of the camera, scrolling through the images to see if he’s “got something”.

4.       Not being inspired by any of the images on the back of the screen, he then thinks to himself “ahh, I shot in RAW, I’m sure I’ll figure it out later in Photoshop when I get home, after all I have like 30 shots”!

Do you see the problem there? He’s not sure he got “it”, but he got enough random shots that he’s “bound” to get one right….hopefully. And this is the condition which the very large majority of photographers you know, heard of, or seen suffer from. Even many of the higher end photographers that you expect to have mastered their craft still do this silly exercise, except they’ve just gotten better at the “DSLR Method” then the rest. So if this is not the correct approach, what else is there?

 

The Rangefinder Method

 

While the “spray and pray” mentality of “the DLSR method” has its uses, and is a necessity sometimes such as in sports or action photography, there is never, ever an excuse to not planning the shot and actually working at capturing something great. Even sports photographers will setup a shot, and actually wait for it, and only then take several frames, therefore even there the “DSLR Method” is not really being used because planning and timing is critical.

So what is a rangefinder anyway?

The very first cameras which were convenient to use were invented by the legendary Leica camera company in the early 1900’s. Long story short is they INVENTED practical journalistic photography in all senses of the word! And they did it with their Leica M camera – this is a rangefinder camera. Although I will not taught the greatness of Leica in this article, I highly recommend every reader to research who Leica is, and what they brought to the world through their camera systems – you’re just not a pro if you don’t know about Leica! That’s like an astronaut that doesn’t know about Apollo. The gist of a rangefinder is that you’re not actually looking through a lens when making a picture, like you are with an SLR. You’re actually looking through a side window cut into the camera which has the actual frame lines of whatever lens you’re using overlaid. So in essence you’re seeing your frame and a little bit outside of it as well, which is great for anticipating movement into the frame (like somebody walking perpendicular to you). For more information I highly recommend independent study of how a rangefinder works as you would get a better understanding of this article, and you may just fall in love with it as I have.

This radically different (and original) approach to framing, focusing and generally operating the camera is quite different from the SLR, (what you see is what you get) approach. For the inexperienced users out there, you’re probably thinking “what’s the big deal, taking a picture is taking a picture”, but I respectfully disagree. When using a rangefinder you find yourself in a completely different mental space. Because you’re not seeing through the lens, your brain is forced to pre-visualize the scene, the effects of the lens, how it will render the scene and then compute the desired output in your head before you even consciously decide that there is a picture to be made – so in essence you’ve got a picture before you even take a picture. You are so connected to your camera in this “rangefinder method” mode that it’s no longer a camera but rather an extension of your eye as Cartier-Bresson famously said about his Leica.

This pre-visualization and forced involvement required of this rangefinder mindset is the massive divider between the mindless “DSLR method” and the very much planned, computed and purposeful mindset of the “rangefinder method”. As you may have already realized, when employing the “rangefinder method” one tends to take far less shots, wasting (back then) far less film which meant far less cost to the photographer, so the quality had to be there or else. There used to be incentives to purposefully and intentionally make great photos, because if you didn’t, it cost allot of money in film and development. Today, however we are seeing the “shooting is free” approach, which has birth this hideous “DSLR method” in which no objective pre-visualization is required, no planning is necessary and you don’t even need to know what the heck you’re shooting, or why, all to make the camera go “bang”.

I realize that I have spent the majority of this article denoting two mentalities by a technical difference in two camera types – Rangefinder and DSLR. However my intention and focus in this article is not solely on the camera’s technical operation which is really meaningless, but more over on the implied mental space which each of these cameras put the photographer in when using it, and for the rest of their career. There are users of DSLR cameras which actually use the rangefinder methodology in capturing their images, and believe me, it shows. These are the Joe McNally’s and Zack Arias’ of the world. These guys are often veterans of the field with decades of experience and usually exposure to a rangefinder camera previously in their career – experience which I don’t doubt shaped their metal space and set them on their successful career back then, and today with the powerful DSLR. And I can bet you that they all were faced with the daunting learning curve and metal difference between rangefinder and DSLR methods in their purse sense at some point, regardless of the tool which they actually employed – what I’m saying is they were at some point forced to learn how to pre-visualize, plan, wait, work and feel their shots before moving to take them, and this is what I call “The Rangefinder Method”. And I can also bet that their eyes opened when utilizing the rangefinder method in their workflow, and their work was never the same again after that. Although I am pinpointing a metal strategy and strapping a name to it, like “rangefinder”, others may have different names for the same idea and principles, because that’s what this is – and idea or principle. What I have attempted to do is to add a tangible, logical, and understandable hook to my argument, which is glued to something, and which supersedes equipment types and lives at the very heart of creativity itself – your head!

 

In being informed of these two methods, you as the reader now understands the vast differences in quality between photographers – the “why is this guy so much better than that guy” question is answered with a simple explanation of mindset. You now know its not just the experience that matters, but its also the mental space. So my friends, when selecting a photographer, and knowing this invaluable information you are now better equipped in truly finding a true professional photographer which knows how to make great images by pre-visualizing the end result before he even touches his camera, as opposed to accidentally and unreliably capturing shots which in reality anyone could accidentally get just as reliably. 

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