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A Road less travelled

Updated: Sep 16

It doesn't have to be a Leica...

Those of you who read the TLI blog will know that whilst we may be great devotees of the Leica brand, we pride ourselves in taking photographic journeys that aren't always in the company of a Leica.

There are other great cameras out there.

I remember as a teenager, staring at the cover of Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited' - wondering what the camera was in the background of the photo of Saint Bob. It wasn't a Leica - that much I knew; Leicas were familiar in our household - my grandfather had kicked off that trend.

And then I started getting the Life Library of Photography books - one a month on a kind of subscription.

The titles were things like 'The Camera' 'The Print' 'Photojournalism' and so on - building to the most comprehensive set of reference books I've ever read about photography. Dylan was cool but the books transfixed me and launched me on a photographic odyssey that has never ended.

And in the pages of the volume on Photojournalism I found the answer to the question of the identity of the mysterious camera featured on the Dylan Album cover; an image of LIFE photographer, Leonard McCombe, showed him holding the same type of camera that I had spotted on the album cover - and now I could see the make - 'NIKON'

It was a Nikon SP. A rangefinder Nikon! I was very intrigued.

The Nikon F Single Lens Reflex was familiar to all...

...But a rangefinder Nikon? I'd no idea they made them! Of course, I would later learn that the Nikon F had not appeared out of nowhere. It was the child of the rangefinder Nikon - which, in itself had been born out of the amalgam of the best features of the German Leica and Contax cameras.

Rangefinder Nikons had sold well in the 'States but not so well in this country - I guess, because the UK was hardly prosperous in the 50's; the heyday of the rangefinder camera...

The Nikon F came to dominate the sixties and destroy the confidence of most photographers in the rangefinder camera. By the time I got into photography, the reflex camera was king but it was seeing that old school rangefinder Nikon and discovering it in the hands of Leonard McCombe that set me on the path to photographic enlightenment. I had found what would prove to be a fascinating camera and was now learning the ways of a master story-teller.

McCombe was one of LIFE magazine's longest serving photographers. And he was also, in my opinion, one of the magazine's true masters of the photo-story. And it was the concept of the photo-story (or photo-essay) that really captured my imagination.

McCombe's stories 'Career Girl' and 'Kim Novak: The Trials of a New Star' remain some of the best work ever published in LIFE. The first story dates from 1948, the second from 1956. Ancient history, you might say... But this is the work of a master - and the lessons he can teach the modern photographer are well worth learning; so much so that we make an appreciation of McCombe's work a key part of the teaching on our photo course, 'The Expressive Camera'.

Of his process, McCombe stated: 'This is the way it usually happens. You come in cold to an unfamiliar situation, where nobody knows you. The scenes you had imagined often turn out to be non-existent. "What's going on?" You ask yourself. "Where's my story?" It's like being on the outside of a shop window looking in. Somehow, you have to break through the glass.'

Who, where, when, why and how? These are the questions every photojournalist must ask. And sometimes those questions can take many frames to answer. McCombe shot almost 5,000 images to produce 'Career Girl' and he would shoot almost as many when he covered Kim Novak's story. Both are masterpieces of story-telling with a camera.

A page from 'Career girl' -

...And a page from 'Novak' -

'Career Girl' was shot with Contax rangefinder cameras, 'Novak' from 1956, with both Contax and the new rangefinder cameras from Nikon: the 'S' series -

McCombe in 1956 - with Contax and Nikon cameras around his neck. Both are fitted with wide angle lenses and supplementary viewfinders.

It doesn't have to be a Leica...

McCombe loved the new Nikon rangefinder cameras when they first appeared. The S2 model with lever wind film advance - rather than the ponderous knob advance of the Contax - combined with the Nikon's big bright viewfinder made the camera an instant hit with McCombe.

But he could just as easily have chosen a Leica M3 - it had come out a year earlier and was being heralded by many as the greatest rangefinder on the planet.

McCombe could have any camera he wanted. But he chose the Nikon.


Because, one eye is good - but two eyes are better.

Lift an M Leica to your eye. You instinctively close one eye to make your composition. Concentrate. The view is crystal clear, the rangefinder patch bright and concise but now open both eyes and the visual impact is diminished. This is a camera that demands all your attention through the viewfinder - and never mind what is happening outside the frame. The Leica demands a kind of focused linear approach.

The Nikon is the polar opposite. The viewfinder is tinted, the rangefinder patch bright but soft-edged. When you lift a Nikon rangefinder camera to frame a photo KEEP BOTH EYES OPEN! And when you do, you will find it a revelation. The bright lines marking the frame appear to float in space - like a head-up display - and the viewfinder patch appears brilliant and somehow three-dimensional. The idea is that with both eyes open, you can follow, focus and frame your shot whilst remaining fully aware of whatever action is happening outside the frame... And adjusting your viewpoint to capture something you would otherwise miss if all your concentration had been devoted to that one-eyed squint through the viewfinder.

McCombe had been covering Novak's story for a few days when the two found themselves in the dining car of a train. McCombe raise his Nikon, intent on taking an intimate shot of Kim. But as he moved to frame and focus (with both eyes open) he saw that everybody else in the diner was transfixed by Novak. Reframing in a flash, McCombe took one of the great pictures of his essay on Novak; perfectly capturing the pressure she was experiencing in the public eye...

On the New York-bound train, the stunning young star removes her jacket as several male passengers unabashedly gape. McCombe, Novak said, “captured a special moment in time. I’m pleased to have been the spark that started a fire in the train’s dining car that night.”

McCombe. A great photographer - who knew exactly how to use a great camera.

Before Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited, his music had been almost exclusively acoustic. His audience were blown away when he 'went electric' some abandoned him but most buckled down for the ride - and were richly rewarded with several decades of great music.

Dylan had the courage to fail. The courage to try something new. In a much humbler, quieter way, we photographers should never let ourselves to get locked into only one way forward. There are many roads to travel and many great cameras to try.

If you are a Leica 'nut' take a trip into the unknown - try a Nikon S rangefinder camera! You might just discover that this is a road well worth taking.

At the crossroads of Highway 61 with Route 49, the blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the secret to the blues. But you won't have to trade your soul for a Nikon Rangefinder...

Well, at least not for now. I guess it's possible that black paint examples might one day start making the crazy money that black paint M Leicas have achieved - but for now at least, that prospect seems way down the road.

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman 2023

Camera images copyright The Latent Image 2023

Historic images copyright various

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