A Day in the Life: London Street Photography with the Leica M6

Written by and published on

This article is part diary, part camera review, part lens review and part film review, all based around my average day-to-day exploits as a film-based street photographer and photojournalist in London.

I shoot street or reportage photography almost every day, and my life is based around practising documentary photography in between paid journalistic assignments or teaching courses in street photography. No matter what I do or where I go I will have my camera, and ideally a clear head and open eyes.


My every-day carry for London street photography has been the same for some time now: A Leica M6, fitted with the Leica APO-Summicron-M 90mm f/2 lens and loaded with either ILFORD Delta or Kentmere film made by HARMAN technology. I’ll also have a wider option in my pocket, currently the Olympus XA (formerly a Fuji Klasse or a Rollei 35AFM) which will be loaded with colour film but used sparingly.

This kit has taken me a few years of trial and error to get to, and has involved owning many different kinds of cameras from many different brands. What I use today is a collection of gear that best represents, assists, and somewhat defines the way I go about shooting my images.

I start in Angel, where I have lived since 2016. Occasionally I’ll pass through Chapel Market as a warm-up before heading for the bus stop, but more often than not I’ll skip this unless I’ve been in a creative rut and need something familiar to help break me out of that mindset.

I’ll normally begin either at Waterloo or in Chinatown, which tend to be productive places to be in the early afternoon. If I start at Waterloo then I’ll normally head down along the Southbank towards Tower Bridge, then across for Whitechapel. If starting in Chinatown, I’ll spend my day around the West End, which is something I’ve been doing a lot of recently. My route is very flexible, and I’ll normally change my mind about where I’m headed a few times a day, which results in some very zig-zaggy navigation.

Most recently I have been spending a lot of time around the West End, which is a great area for photographing in crowds. I’m looking for moments of interactivity, or oddities – especially in people. Inanimate objects can add to a scene, but rarely make a scene in and of itself to me. It won’t be a “complete” image for me without the human element – even if that’s simply evidence of human involvement in the scene; I’m not much for prelapsarian scenes.

Even something as mundane as a dry patch left behind by someone stood in the rain with an umbrella can add a touch of surrealism to an otherwise mediocre scene.


The 90mm focal length is perfect for picking these details out and allows me to document the way I see, both close-up and far away. I’ve tried wider lenses, but for the way I shoot, nothing beats the field of view and rendering of a 90mm. Some people take it as a bit of a statement, and I’ve written about my preference for longer lenses in street and photojournalism in the past.

For me it isn’t about keeping a distance from my subjects – I’ve no concern with getting closer but tend to dislike the perspective offered by a 35mm/wider. Instead, it’s about isolating my subjects, whether through a tight composition or through depth of field.The APO is my favourite variation by far, although a little heavy. When I want something a little lighter I’ll use the f/4-c version, which is very cheap, but a fantastic performer. I’ll gladly push my film to accommodate for the slower aperture.

I like to shoot in open spaces, so when covering the West End I’ll allocate my time between Trafalgar Square, Westminster, and some of the side roads along Oxford Street. I’ve probably created some of my best work in these areas.

A constant stream of characters, and lively events leaves me with a lot to keep my eyes open for. I’ll habitually check my meter, and practice focusing my rangefinder on different things, pretty much at random, so that I have the camera to my eye more often than not. This gives me a better chance of being able to react to something happening – a technique I picked up from fellow rangefinder photographer Benjamin Gordon.

The meter in the M6 is perfect, and I’ve yet to use anything more intuitive. I use it’s arrows as guidelines, a rough starting point for me to work from, rather than anything truly important, unless I’m shooting slide film. I almost always meter from the shadows, and then work things out from there, so I can quickly change the exposure for a different value if necessary. The most important thing to me is that my subject is exposed for correctly – anything else is dealt with through composition. I’ve never worried about burning the highlights on any film I’ve shot, so as long as my subject exposure is good I don’t have anything to worry about.

I used to search for interesting characters or light, before lining up a shot – a very “New Wave Street” approach; silhouettes, light-architecture, and so on. These days I’m a little more fast paced in my approach, watching peoples behaviour. This tends to be more interesting, and more unique than a subject who simply looks interesting. I’ll wait for a potential subject to interact in some way with other elements of the scene before knowing that I’ll make an image at that time. Interaction doesn’t need to be literal, and can be more about the way I imagine the frame to look in my head than what’s actually in front of me (emphasis through composition and exposure).

My choice of everyday film has changed over time, but I’ve mostly settled on Kentmere 400. 400 speed films are the most diverse to me, useable indoors and out, in a variety of conditions. I cycled through all of Ilford’s offerings, but now mostly save anything other than Kentmere for special events, when I know something will be happening. Kentmere has a fantastic and consistent aesthetic, and at the price-point it makes sense to be my most used stock.

The Leica M6 is often described as being “invisible”. To me, this means that there is very little the camera actually does, other than respond to my direct input. The exposure is adjusted and readjusted constantly throughout the day as I mentioned earlier, which means the only thing that actually needs to be done in the moment is focusing, framing, and pressing the shutter. It also means that the camera is light enough to stay in my hand all day, rather than around my neck or on my shoulder. This is perfect, as I don’t consider myself to be actively “photographing” unless I’m holding the camera – a mindset thing more than anything else.


On an “average” day, shooting purely street, I’ll take maybe ten shots in total, which means it takes me a while to finish a roll. I shoot frugally, and try and get the image right the first time. This means that I’ll often have a backlog of film waiting to develop for months at a time. I prefer this, as it means my focus is entirely on the next day’s shooting, rather than being preoccupied with what’s been before. After development I scan using a Plustek 8100, which constantly delivers crisp results.


Thanks for taking the time to read about my average workflow for shooting street photography in London with the Leica M6. If you’re interested in more of my work, please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland

~ Simon

Share your knowledge, story or project

At the heart of EMULSIVE is the concept of helping promote the transfer of knowledge across the film photography community. You can support this goal by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.

If you like what you're reading you can also help this personal passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and giving as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.


More related reading

Previous

Camera review: 14 years with the “invisible” Nikon FM3a

5 Frames… With Fujifilm Fujicolor Pro 400H (EI 400 / 120 format / Zeiss Super Ikonta 532/16) – by Randy H Saint-Louis

Next

8 thoughts on “A Day in the Life: London Street Photography with the Leica M6”

  1. Thank you, Mr. King, for posting this article. If I’m allowed to ask, without judgment (and of course without any obligation on your part to answer), is this how you spend your days? Is it an economically viable pursuit? Does it get boring?

    Reply
    • Hi Gary! Yes, this is how I spend the majority of my time at the moment – as I mention in the second paragraph my time is split between paid documentary photography and teaching. I also take on clients in portraiture, food, product – pretty much any genre of photography. I also work jobs on the side from time to time, but this depends on what projects I have lined up.
      In terms of boredom I’d say no. I’m not photographing a location, I’m photographing characters and moments, and will always be able to find new ones – thus mitigating boredom. I am able to explore London constantly, which is always engaging. If I ever felt bored then I would change something up in my workflow – different focal length, do something different with my film, and so on.
      Thanks for asking! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Thanks for letting us peak into your working process. I don’t practice the ‘go for the jugular’ type of photography some people engage in. I like your approach, much like someone fishing a meandering stream.

    Street photography should be about discovery, not confrontation. I just don’t understand that type of mind-set some photographers seem to thrive on.

    I admire the iconic work of Elliott Erwitt. I was fortunate to meet him years ago at my daughter’s university. A kind, witty gentleman. He’s so good at acting invisible while keeping an eagle eye on his surroundings.

    When I wander with my M2 and a 40mm lens I take along a sense of seeing something different, or funny or odd. Since I don’t do photography as a profession, but rather as an avocation, I seem to always find at least one thing that I’m pleased with. And, I don’t get anyone mad at me.

    Technically, I didn’t like the M6 and sold mine off. I began to resent the LED’s in the viewfinder; much preferring the classic look of the M2 or M4 viewfinder. Different strokes for different folks… 🙂

    Regards,
    Dan Castelli

    Reply
    • I agree Dan – I think that the idea of confrontation has become so entangled in the general process for street and documentary photography that people almost expect to encounter it from the get-go, which can affect their approach. The M2 and 40mm is a great kit, I’m sure it serves your discoveries well!
      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      Reply
  3. Argh, 90mm is not the way to document …to much distance and no contact to the scene…be brave and begin with 40mm …90mm is not lively

    Reply
    • I think the opposite so who’s the right one? Dare we say a subjective statement is an absolute truth? 35-40mm shots are a dime-a-trillion. Its refreshing to see a new take on the bland often repeated methods. Main reason I primarily use a 50mm prime. It forces me to experiment, and often has a result way better than I expected. This goes for any size, including 90mm.

      Reply
      • The truth of the matter that there are just a few lenses that are made for classic rangefinders. So, 40, 50, 90 or 35 should be chosen on the basis of what you and your brain respond to. It’s been my observation that the ‘exotics’ of lenses lose their appeal quickly. But, someone out there will be happy with a 12mm lens on a M3, and will be doing work that just blows us away.

        Reply
    • I use everything from 21mm to 300mm, but my favourite way of seeing at the time of writing this is at 90mm. A short tele lens is no excuse for not getting close – you still need to work a scene at that length – and I don’t think any of my images suffer from something as ambiguous as too much distance, or not enough contact with the scene.
      There is merits to all kinds of lenses for all kinds of genres.

      Reply

Join the discussion