Say What You Will, But Leica Just Ate My Nikon’s Lunch

Pittsburgh, rain, umbrella, couple, love, cultural district

This isn’t a Leica vs. Nikon article or an article professing that one camera is superior to all other cameras.  This is simply me sharing with you my recent experience shooting street photography on a rainy evening in the 412 (that’s a hip way of saying Pittsburgh, I’m so hip sometimes).  Only once or twice in my entire photography career have I found myself as frustrated as I did yesterday evening with the D810.

Disclaimer:  Please don’t interpret this article as an endorsement to go out and sell your Nikon gear to buy Leica gear.  If I had been shooting anything but street photography the title of this article would have probably been reversed.

First, a little about my setup and style when shooting street.  My Nikon D810 was fitted with the NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G, auto ISO, auto-focus, aperture priority.  My Leica M (Typ 262) was fitted with the Leica 35mm f/2.0 Summicron-M Aspherical lens and the same settings as the D810 except its manual focus only (I zone focus when shooting street with a Leica).  Had I been able to attach my 35mm f/2D old-school lens to the D810 I could have easily zone focused and been frustration free, but that lens isn’t weatherproof and it was pouring down rain.  So why the frustration with the Nikon setup?

In the years since I started PhotolisticLife I have had the opportunity to shoot with almost every great camera/lens that has come about.  Everything from a $200 camera to a $7,000+ camera.  Never in my life have I had the amount of trouble locking focus as I have had with the Nikon D810.  It’s not a lens/camera combination problem as I have used many, many different Nikon lenses and still find that in difficult lighting it can be finicky when it comes to locking focus.  I’ve used three different D810 bodies and all have had the same issue.  The funny thing is, sometimes they work flawlessly and then in similar situations on a different day (or sometimes the same day) they start acting up again.  Thus, the D810 has a solid place in my landscape, still life, and any type of photography that doesn’t rely on speed stable of equipment, but will never be my street shooter.

After spending about 20 minutes with the D810 searching for focus I bagged it and pulled out my Leica, set it to f/4 and ISO 5000, and never missed another shot that evening.  Leica wins that round.  To be completely fair, if the D810 could easily be set up to zone (or hyper-focal distance) focus it would easily eat the Leica’s lunch on just about every front (specifically low light and frame rate speed).


At the end of the day this article is simply me venting some frustrations with my D810…  Your mileage may vary.  Regardless, you can shoot street photography with literally any camera, and do it well.  You certainly don’t need a Leica to create great street photography.  I suppose it comes down to the old “use the camera that is best for you“.  Further more, I’ve created some really great street photography with the D810 in tough lighting conditions…  Last night was some of the toughest light I’ve shot in due to the rain and low light.

The D810 locks focus quickly and easily in decent light.  Low light has seen mixed results from my experience.

Who knows, perhaps all three copies of the D810 I’ve used were flawed in some way.  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  As always, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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11 replies on “Say What You Will, But Leica Just Ate My Nikon’s Lunch”
  1. says: Steve Frankel

    I just upgraded to a Fujifilm X-T2 with a 23mm f2 lens. It’s weather-proof, fast-focusing and –judging from my other Fuji gear — built like trucks. I wonder how it would have done at a lot less money.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Only one way to find out! Give it a try and feel free to share your experience with me via the contact page and I may post it as a follow up. Take care.

  2. says: Anonymous

    Do you still have the Nikon Df that you were impressed with at one time. It could have allowed you to zone focus with your old 35mm D lens and hopefully saved you some of that frustration 🙂
    Ben Casper

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Absolutely. It’s been sitting on a shelf for the last year. I’m patiently waiting for the DF2 (if such a thing is coming). The DF’s 16mp is too small for a lot of the work I’ve been doing (means I can’t sell the images bc they can’t be printed large enough). In a perfect world I would still choose the Df over any other camera out there.

  3. says: Lewsh

    I ‘m just not familiar I guess but can’t you take autofocus off the 50 1.8G and shoot manual focus thereby equaling the zone focusing that you’re looking for?

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Zone focusing is a pain with newer lenses as they do not have the markings to make it quick and/or easy. If I asked you to set your lens, any lens, to be in focus from 5 feet away to about 10 feet away you would either have to reference a handy app on your phone or visit a website to help walk you through the calculation needed to determine how far to focus in front of you at the selected aperture. Change the aperture? You’d need to recalculate. Hyperfocal is slightly easier but also not quick or easy without the marking on the lens. Now, add to that only having one hand to do all this because you are holding an umbrella. When shooting street I simply don’t have (or want to) take the time to do these adjustments that could be done in a second with my Leica. So short answer is yeah, you could switch the lens to manual mode and work out the distance… eventually. But why would I fumble with it each time I wanted to adjust my aperture? Thanks for reading, happy shooting.

      1. says: Lewsh

        Thanks so much for clarifying your choice of camera for street photography and why. I hadn’t thought it out so well. Experience is the best teacher.

  4. says: John Robin

    I would have suggested trying the D810 with an old Nikon manual lens, like the solid 50mm f1.8. It has the DOF marks on the lens barrel so you could do a 1:1 comparison with the Leica. I love the Nikon digital cameras I’ve used (D80, D300, D500, D810), but I do miss my old manual film cameras (FM, FE) which were stolen a few years ago.

    I learned photography on manual film cameras. The technology of auto focus is a great thing, but the removal of those “funny little lines” on the lens barrel is a net loss for the hobby, I think.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Agreed. Yes, I certainly think with the right lens the D810 works just as well but I typically opt for more current lenses with the D810 for various reasons (coatings, optics, etc.) so the lack of DOF markings make them a problem in poor light where the Leica (or any camera using a lens with the needed markings, though I do prefer full frame cameras for the dynamic range in poor light) excel. I think a 1:1 comparison would have the D810 bearing the Leica on every front but size and experience (there is something truly special about using range finders as you probably know from your film days). Sorry to hear about the theft of your manual cameras… Had that not happened would you still be using them? I’m a huge fan of using film.

  5. says: John Robin

    To answer your question about film cameras, yes I think I would still use them. I still have a Minolta TLR I take out once in a while for landscape or street photography. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe I will take that camera to the Million Woman march my wife and I are going to in Oakland. Contrasting the experience between film and digital, I find that with film I think more carefully about things like composition and negative space. Thanks for the blog post!

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Absolutely. And light! When I shoot with film I am always more conscious of the light (intensity, temperature, direction). Enjoy shooting!

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