During the 1970’s era Leitz, now Leica, invented the Auto focus technique and created a prototype called the Correfot, based on their SLR model, in 1976. Being Leitz they where not convinced that the focusing quality was up to their standards, they sold the idea to their then partner Minolta and the rest is history.

Most photographers today never even used a real manual focus camera. Auto focus rules.

Auto focus was and is a very useful addition to the arsenal of photographic techniques. 
But somehow simple things got very complicated and one could ask how that happened. How did yesterdays simple cameras become todays menu driven monsters? Even more important, what can we do to get our camera back and make it work for us and not against us?


Let’s have a look at history.

Nikon F

When Nikon released the Nikon F in 1959 Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras became usable for professional photographers. It was the first reflex with a decent finder and a good mirror mechanism, among other important properties. The F was actually a very good camera, I used one myself for a long time in the 1980’s.

By the way, in those early days 35mm photography was restricted to a very specialised type of documentary photography, most photographers used 120 (medium format) or even bigger cameras. Many newspapers and magazines would not even accept the 35mm format.

Before the Nikon F serious 35mm photography was created with rangefinder cameras like the Leica. Not because they where that good but because there was no serious alternative. 

It is a Leica induced myth that documentary photographers used Leica because it was the best camera. The Zeiss Contax was considered to be much better and was used by a lot of famous photographers like Robert Capa. Many of his photographs are claimed to be made with a Leica but where actually shot using a Contax or Rolleiflex.
During the Korean war photographers like Douglas Duncan discovered Nikkor lenses while in Japan and fitted these to their German cameras. These optics where superior to the German glass. 

With the Nikon F photographers started to discover the advantages of a reflex camera, especially when using longer lenses then ca. 90mm, which are very difficult to handle when using a rangefinder (see Visoflex), or extreme wide angle lenses. A lot of the photographs that where fashionable in the ’60s would not have been possible without the reflex type cameras like the Hasselblad and Nikon.


The SLR camera became popular because it was very versatile. It may not be the best choice for some types of photography, especially the documentary type of work, but it stil is a jack of all trades and is ‘good enough’ for almost everything. Hence it’s popularity and the reason why the (D)SLR is by far the most used type today.

For the purpose of discussing viewfinders I include Mirrorless cameras as part of the Single Lens camera type because they use the camera lens to view the subject like an SLR camera.


An SLR camera looks at the subject through a single lens mounted on the camera. Please view the link to understand the principle. A Mirrorless camera does not use a mirror (obviously) but does follow the single lens principle.

Other types of camera are, among others, the Twin Lens Reflex or TLR (for example the Rolleiflex) and the Range Finder or RF (like the Leica).

The viewfinder defines the type of camera, giving us an indication of the importance of how we view the subject in relation to the way we operate the camera.

Advantages of the SLR

Looking through the same lens for viewing and focussing has some advantages.

Eye parallax

Most importantly, there is no difference in viewing angle. The RF and TLR view the subject at a slightly different angle then the actual lens that will take the picture and that can be a problem, especially when working close to the subject. We call this the eye parallax.


Second advantage is that you see exactly the same image that the lens sees, no guessing or having to use separate frames or add-on lenses, think i.e. close up photography. That seems normal now but photographers have been struggling with that for decades and the only real solution before the SLR would be to use a view camera.

Disadvantages of the SLR

There are also some disadvantages to a Single Lens Reflex viewfinder.

Dark viewfinder with some lenses

If your lens has a small aperture, like a 5.6/400mm, the image in the viewfinder is rather dark, the lens will not allow a lot of light through. The viewfinder will only see the amount of light that the lens can pass through.


You have to use the viewfinder to focus, meaning that you will need a mechanism in the viewfinder (like a focusing screen) to see if the image is in-focus or not. This mechanism can not be optimised for all focal lengths and lens angles, it will always be a compromise and it can be difficult to focus 100% accurate. This is one of the reasons that Auto focus became popular with professional users.

Time parallax

Using an SLR, after pushing the shutter release the aperture has to close to the aperture setting selected for the picture and the mirror has to move out of the way, or the electronics have to switch between viewfinder and picture taking and set the correct focus distance on the lens in case of some mirrorless cameras.

This takes some time and as a result the image will not be created the instance you push the shutter release, this time difference can be as big as a few milliseconds, very noticeable when photographing.
We call this time parallax and it can be a big issue when trying to catch ‘the decisive moment’. 

A true Range Finder camera (or a TLR) does not have this time parallax and is therefore more suited for the type of photography where catching the exact right moment is important. This is one of the reasons that many documentary photographers use both SLR and RF cameras and select the one best suited for the actual photograph they intend to make.

Most Mirrorless cameras, including so called semi range finder types, have a considerable time parallax and are not suited for ‘decisive moment’ types of photography.

Subject relation

With an SLR, only the in-focus part of the image is clearly visible, everything else is more-or-less out of focus depending on the focal length and full aperture of the lens used.

You have no information about what is happening in the foreground and background.
This can be very important when you want to make a photograph that shows a relation between different objects because you cannot see all objects clearly, if at all. This is where the Range Finder type excels and it is the main reason why you would want to use a camera like a Leica today.

Zone focusing

Zone focusing is not very practical with an SLR. We will get back to that very important issue later.

So, you see that the (D)SLR and Mirrorless camera viewfinders are not perfect. They are rather average universal tools that can do everything reasonably well but that do not excel at anything other then using long lenses for sport and wildlife photography.

Auto focus

As described exact 100% accurate focusing could be a problem with the classic SLR viewfinders. 

The image could be to dark, the focusing mechanism could be difficult to use and this mechanism would be in the centre of the viewed image where the action often takes place, obstructing important subject information. Professional cameras offered different focusing screens to remedy this issue a little. 

All this changed with the invention of the Auto focus.

The first systems used only one focusing point at the center of the viewfinder. You would point the focusing point at the subject, focus, maybe re-compose the image and take the photograph. Exactly the same procedure as used with manual focusing, it worked very well and allowed for a lot of control on what would be in-focus.

Even better, there where hardly any disadvantages with the early Auto focus cameras. Focusing was fast enough and worked almost 100% accurate, much better then the previous manual focusing using an SLR viewfinder. 

My first Auto focus camera was the Nikon F4, in my opinion one of the best cameras ever build. I wish they would make an exact replica with a digital sensor, it would be sensational.


Unfortunately, the Japanese manufacturers could not help themselves and added a lot of options to the Auto focus mechanism, spoiling the lot in the process.

Auto focus now has become another mechanism that has to be checked and cannot be relied on unconditionally. That is a bad thing. Reliable focus is a basic requirement for a camera.

Nowadays you have to be lucky. Did the camera focus correctly, or not? 

We see a lot of pictures with a perfectly in-focus background instead of a sharp subject. The photographer probably chose the wrong Auto focus mode. Or the Auto focus module of that camera model is flawed anyway, not uncommon.

It takes a lot of effort to understand and remember all the AF modes and to know what setting to use for what type of photograph. And you have to set that mode somehow before making a picture, either using one of the 1000 buttons on the outside of the camera or, even worse, somewhere in a menu.
Simply taking a photograph is not possible anymore, you have to program your camera first.

Photography used to be simple, but it is soiled by todays cameras.


What can you do about it?

Get a simple camera

You could forget about all those option packed computerised monsters and get yourself a simple camera with only basic options.

Unfortunately those are not easy to find, the best known is the Leica digital camera. It is expensive but price wise it does compare reasonably wel with other high end cameras from other manufacturers. You have to pay extra to have less.

Single focus point

Another possible option could be to forget about all these Auto focus modes and only use one focus point in the center of the viewfinder. This is a tried method that has worked for centuries with Manual focusing and early Auto focusing. It will work fine for almost all subjects, provided that the Auto focus module itself is reliable which is not always the case.

Point the focusing spot on the subject that needs to be in-focus, focus, re-compose and shoot. Very reliable.

Only use another focusing mode for the very specialised subjects like sports, wildlife and fast-action. These are specialised subjects and if you want to photograph these it pays off to get acquainted with the more complicated modes of your camera’s Auto focus. These modes remain some sort of hit-and-miss game though.

Manual focus

Yes, this still works. Not that good with Auto focus lenses, very good with lenses designed for Manual focus, like the Zeiss ZE and ZF range of reflex camera optics.

For most people it will be a new technique to master, but it works remarkably wel, photographers used nothing else for decades.

Most subjects don’t move. Do you need Auto focus to picture a landscape or a building?
Even people usually don’t move that much.

If fast moving action really is a problem try one of the techniques below.

Depth of field

You do know about depth of field, don’t you? If not, learn about it NOW.

Use that technique to increase the field of focus. Now you can afford to be a little off focus, it will be absorbed by the depth of field.

Some modern lenses, especially zoom types, have no depth of field table. Make sure this option is available when purchasing a lens.


Do you really need to shoot everything with the aperture fully opened, having a blurred foreground and background and focussing on the bokeh of your lens?
Bokeh should be a byproduct of a photograph, not a goal in itself. 

Do you know any significant historical photograph that relies on bokeh? Forget about it.

Only shoot wide open (the aperture fully opened) when there is not enough light to do otherwise. With todays high ISO options there is no need to shoot wide open. Use the depth of field + the improved optical rendering of a closed aperture.

Pre focus

Very simple and easy to use.

Imagine a runner on a track. You know that this person will be at a certain spot after a certain amount of time (the track is fixed). Focus on that spot, click when the runner has reached the spot, or just before that moment if you have to consider time parallax. Add a little depth of field for variation, done.

Zone focusing

This is the most important technique of them all, closely related to the depth-of-field technique, but unfortunately very difficult to obtain with a camera that views through the lens like a (D)SLR or Mirrorless camera.

In documentary photography a saying goes “f8 and be there”.
This technique was used for most of the historic photographs that you know, it was the only way to catch a ‘decisive moment’ because the photographer did not have to spend any time focusing.

All photographs in this post where made using this technique combined with rangefinder focusing.

If your lens does not have a depth of field scale you can not use zone focusing.


How does it work?

Use a medium wide angle or normal lens, like a 35mm or 50mm on a 'full frame' 24cm x 36cm sensor.
Set your aperture to a value that offers a good depth of field, like f8.

Look at your depth of field scale. If your subject is somewhere between ca. 1.5 and 2.5 meters (almost all normal people pictures will be in that range), set the distance to ca. 1.6 meter. Now everything between ca. 1.2 and 2.5 meters will be in focus (using a 35mm lens).

No need to focus, just shoot, everything between ca. 1.2 and 2.5 meters is sharp!
That is to say, sharp enough. Depth of field is a relative value and with the current digital perfection and high MB sensors ‘sharp’ is a subjective sensation.

Never the less, it works in real life. Set a usable aperture, set the approximate distance to your subject and let the depth of field do the rest. Your photographs will be sharp. You did not have to use any focusing mechanism. If you combine this zone focusing technique with a pre-set aperture and shutter speed (see Getting it right the first time) you wil beat any menu driven camera in operating speed. Just point, compose and click.


Japanese camera manufacturers seem to have forgotten these important techniques. A lot of lenses don’t have a depth of field indication anymore. The techniques will work, optical rules wil always apply, but you will have to guess a little more.

A bigger restriction is the viewfinder.
A reflex viewfinder looks through the lens, and when using zone focusing (and any depth of field technique) the subject may not be in perfect focus in the viewfinder.

This perfect focus is handled by the depth of field and the aperture used, but an SLR looks through the lens at full aperture and will not show the depth of field result (mirrorless cameras do have this option though).

That means that almost everything in the SLR viewfinder is more or less out of focus, making it difficult to judge the right moment, expression etc.
In general, zone focussing wil not work that good with a (D)SLR.

This is where the Range Finder excels.
An RF camera uses a separate viewfinder and it’s image is not influenced by the aperture set on the lens. Everything is in focus in the viewfinder, it looks and acts like a simple little window.

This is the biggest disadvantage of the SLR type of camera, zone focusing became impossible. Some users add separate viewfinders attached to the flash shoe and that remedies the issue, provided that the lens has a depth of field scale.

General thoughts

Buttons and menu options

In general, forget about al the options that your DSLR or Mirrorless camera has to offer.

These options and settings where mostly added because the manufacturer could simply do it and because the other guys have the options to. It has more to do with Japanese pride then actual functionality. You do NOT need them for most subjects. A camera needs to be simple to operate.

Menu banks

Many menu options are only relevant when shooting JPEG, you can forget about them when shooting RAW. Your settings for sharpness, contrast, tone, white balance etc. are all lost when using RAW, these are set in the post-production software, in camera they only apply to JPEG. No need to set them when you shoot only RAW.

Do you really need a lot of settings personalised in a specific menu bank? Why? Because you can, so you think you have to?

Back to Basics

You only need some very basic settings to make a photograph.
Shutter speed - Aperture - ISO - Focus

All the rest is window dressing. There is a digital Leica without a screen on the back of the camera. Think about that. No menu access (there is no menu), almost nothing can be set. And it works very wel. You do not need al these options and buttons.

There is a reason that camera design evolved to the SLR models we used to be familiar with in the Film era. It worked.
A photographer should be able to see how the basic settings, Aperture - Shutter speed - ISO - Focusing distance, are set even when a camera is switched off. That is simple basic photography. Any camera that can not perform such a basic function should not be taken serious.
There is nothing 'Retro' about shutter speed dials and aperture rings. You need them.

Frame rate

Frame rate has been invented for people that cannot take a picture at the right moment, it is for lazy people and very bad photographers that shoot now and select later. Who cares. It is like going on Holiday, taking a 1000 pictures and only seeing where you have actually been when you are back home.

Enjoy the moment, concentrate, take the ONE picture now. Then maybe a second one to improve on the first one. No more. A 1000 pictures on a memory card after one shooting day / session is madness. In the days of film we had 36 exposures per film and we shot as few films as possible, they where expensive and had to be processed.

The one obvious exception would be sports and action photography, but even there a high frame rate is not always needed. It is one of those marketing features, just like high MegaPixel sensors.


When was the last time you printed something like a 2m x 4m print?

For me it was 35 years ago and that was from a 35mm negative, 400 ISO film pushed to its limits. Great print.

A print is viewed at a certain distance to observe the complete picture. It does not have to be all that sharp when viewed close up.

Many photographers never print, just publish on the web. Who needs more then something like 4 MB for a web image?

Any other reason you can think of that necessitates more then ca. 20 MegaPixels?

20+ MegaPixels sensors are not sharper or better. They do not produce better photographs. The image only seems to look better on a monitor when viewed at 100%.

You do not need MegaPixels for your photography unless you are into landscapes, very large prints or working for clients that need HUGE files.

A big number of MegaPixels is not equivalent to sensor size. Some photographers need a big Medium format sensor, some need a lot of MegaPixels, some need both.

20+ MegaPixels will increase sensor noise. Bleeding between pixels on the sensor becomes more of a problem. Absolute quality decreases instead of increases.

Your lenses and photographic technique need to be top-notch to even begin to see the advantage of a high MegaPixel sensor. It will probably just show you that you have a long way to go.

The first digital image I worked with was a scan form a negative, 4 MB in size. That file produced a very good A4 print. No pixels visible.

24 MegaPixels is the sweet spot at this moment. My current camera has it, works fine for me. I have not yet printed these 24 MegaPixel files, my previous camera was 12 MegaPixels and it printed great A3 size prints.


Is all this information useful for the modern photographer?
TLR cameras don't exist anymore and a real RF is so expensive that you can only dream about it.
You are stuck with cameras that all use Auto focus and have mediocre Manual focusing functionality if at all.

Buying an older camera that will allow you to effectively use some of the described techniques will force you to drop digital photography and start using film again. That might be a very useful exercise but may not be what you need right now.

Let's just not forget the tried and tested old school techniques, they have their use in modern photography and can be combined with contemporary approaches. You might for instance use increased depth of field to encounter an imperfect Auto focus implementation.
Zone focussing with the use of a separate viewfinder and a suitable 'prime' lens is a real option.

I may be sceptical about modern camera design, but let's not forget that some impressive progress has been made since the first digital cameras.

There remains a lot to improve but we see some hopeful trends like the 'back to basics' approach that Fujifilm started, that Leica always applied and that Nikon failed to achieve.

Autofocus can be a blessing and the latest implementations can perform admirably.


It may be clear that I ended up using Leica cameras again after disappointing experiences with Nikon and Fuji digital cameras.

Nikon is going in a direction that does not appeal to me, offering us camera bodies that are way to complicated and lenses and cameras that grow bigger and bigger. Compare a Nikon F-S 35mm f/1.4G with a Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 and you get the idea.

Fuji seemed like a possible solution, the poor man's Leica, but in the end I was dissatisfied with the unreliable Auto focus performance and the very poor Manual focusing options. I just could not get the focusing to do what I wanted.

After that there was no other choice left but Leica. I realised that I was trying to find a system that would have the Leica functionality without having to pay the Leica prices. I purchased a Leica M6 and a Carl Zeiss Biogon f/2.0 35 mm and discarded digital photography entirely. Happy times. Of course I ended up with an M10 and Leica optics.

Leica has always been expensive, pre World War II Leica cameras also cost about 1.5 times the average monthly bruto earnings not including the lenses. All good cameras always where and always will be expensive, quality costs money.

Be aware that a Leica RF camera is a tool for experienced users. Effective Range Finder focusing takes a lot of knowledge and practice while the viewfinder does not give you any indication about the final picture, you need to know what a lens wil do in terms of perspective and rendering. Leica is not designed for rich amateurs but is a professional tool used by some of the world's leading documentary photographers (not necessarily photo journalists).

As a bonus, below my setup in the 1980's. A nice Leica M4 and a lot of Nikon gear. The Nikons where the workhorses, the Leica had it's place in the arsenal. The image was captured using the Linhof Technica 4x5 view camera I also used at the time.

And the most important thing:
Make photographs! 

Technique is just a tool, useful when you are not satisfied with your results but in the end not important at all. If you are happy with your photography, job well done!

KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid


The photograph on top was made with a Leica M6 Range Finder camera. Manual focus using the zone focussing technique. Who needs Auto focus.