How I Got That Shot: Fooling a Leica Rangefinder

February 20, 2013

© Grant Cornett

A portrait of Josie Lenwell, taken for TIME during a demonstration. The sun was at camera right, and Cornett's assistant carried a bare strobe at camera left, raised about ten to 12 feet above the ground. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Grant Cornett loves Leicas. A portrait and still-life shooter whose clients include TIME, Marie Claire, Esquire, Travel+Leisure and Coca-Cola, Cornett has been shooting with a Leica rangefinder since 2000. He started with an M6 and now, having gone digital, regularly uses the M9. His favorite lens for shooting portraits is a Leica, too: a 75mm f/1.4 Summilux. It was designed in 1980 by Walter Mandler, Leica’s legendary designer, and manufactured for less than two decades. “It’s a beautiful lens. There’s a glow to it,” Cornett explains, “and there’s almost no depth of field.” For his still lifes, he says, his lens of choice is the 90mm Elmar, and for day-to-day shooting, he’ll switch to a 30mm or 50mm Summilux.

When he began shooting outdoor portraits with the 75mm Summilux lens, he wanted to find a way to shoot at an aperture of f/1.4, while using a flash to overpower the sunlight, “which is hard to do because you can’t sync it in camera.” He explains, “If you shot at f/1.4 at the shutter speed it syncs at, [the image] would be white.”  

To get the effect he wanted with the lens he prefers to use, he had to find a way to fool the camera. “The only way to do it was to put a six-stop or nine-stop ND [neutral density] filter on the lens,” he says, “to get the camera to think you’re shooting at a smaller aperture.” Trying to compose images with such an opaque filter over the lens of a DSLR would be nearly impossible, he notes, “But I shoot a rangefinder [camera], and with a rangefinder, I’m not seeing through the lens.” The effect he got after shooting several tests using an ND filter inspired him to try shooting portraits outdoors mixing daylight and strobe. “You’re using the sun or the ambient light as a key light,” and using a strobe as fill. When he tested the technique indoors, he would use two light sources.

He decided to use the technique last year on assignment for TIME magazine during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He had been assigned to photograph portraits of both Convention delegates and the protesters marching in a demonstration near the convention hall.

Logistics: The biggest challenge in taking the portraits of demonstrators he says, was trying to light and photograph a moving target while “walking in a parade, shooting with a rangefinder at a large aperture and keeping the face sharp.” Working at the Convention, he notes, he was also under tight deadline pressure to deliver dozens of portraits to post on TIME’s website before the event ended.

Lighting: Cornett captured the faces of several protesters, including Josie Lenwell, whom he photographed when the sun was high in the sky at camera right. His assistant carried a bare Quantum strobe to Cornett’s left, about ten to 12 feet from Lenwell, and about eight or nine feet above the ground, so the light slightly raked her face. “That was an equal mix of sunlight and fill from the strobe,” Cornett recalls.

“The sun is underexposed,” Cornett adds; he shot with his Leica M9 and his f/1.4 lens at about 1/180 of a second.

When he shoots indoors, he typically uses a strobe with a grid. In one of his earliest tests to shoot an in-studio portrait, he photographed Gerald Dearing, a friend of a friend. For this test, Cornett recalls, he used a Profoto strobe firing into an umbrella at camera left as his key light. “It was probably ten feet up, and he was seated,” Cornett says. Then he placed a Quantum with a five-degree grid spot at camera right, underlighting his face. “It was below the subject, about two feet below his eye line, and about five feet away, just raking his face.”

The dramatic lighting, coupled with the shallow depth of field, creates an image of the white-haired Dearing that is reminiscent of a classic portrait painting.

As Cornett notes, “I don’t like flat lighting. I like hard lights and hard shadow.”

Related Article:

Grant Cornett Photo Gallery