Go Back   Rangefinderforum.com > Cameras / Gear / Photography > Coffee With Mentors > Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author


“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  


Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 


Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."


I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!


Thread Tools Search this Thread Display Modes

Old 05-30-2018   #1
Bill Pierce
Registered User
Bill Pierce's Avatar
Bill Pierce is offline
Join Date: Sep 2007
Posts: 1,183

Are there too many unessential controls on today’s digital cameras - and, if so, what do we do about it? Selecting the color, contrast, sharpness and size options for jpegs alone can be incredibly time consuming (and force you into an unalterable decision) at a time when you should be paying attention to your subject. Should your focus be single, continuous or manual? What mode? What focus point position? And your advance - single or continuous and, if continuous, what frame rate. Stills or motion and, if motion, what level of image quality. Is your shutter speed one that would benefit from image stabilization or one where image stabilization actually presents problems. And how about those menus - those many menus and sub menus and sub sub menus. It’s like reading Moby Dick on the back of your camera. No wonder you aren’t paying attention to what’s in front of you.

And yet, when you look at the vast spectrum of film work that certainly by today’s standards was done with cameras that suffered from lack of features, you realize a camera can be a simple tool made to deal with what’s in front of you. What are some of the techniques that you can use to restore simplicity and make it a little easier to deal with the subject? I’m sure that everybody has come up with certain fixes. One of mine is that all the function buttons on my cameras are set to nothing, none, zero. Obviously, I have a bunch of others, but I’m much more interested in borrowing yours if I haven’t already thought of them. And, of course, there is always the chance that I am an idiot and what cameras need are even more features.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #2
On leave from Gallifrey
Keith's Avatar
Keith is offline
Join Date: May 2006
Location: Australia
Posts: 18,645
Because I quite like digital I'm currently picking up my RD1. That camera really doesn't give you many choices and with the screen reversed it has even fewer. I was a bit critical of Leica's decision to make a digital camera with no screen initially but I have to say it makes sense to me now.

For me it's not really about settings it's about the choice of tool.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #3
Registered User
css9450's Avatar
css9450 is offline
Join Date: Mar 2007
Location: Chicago
Posts: 2,053
There's really only a few controls I ever use on my DSLRs. The majority go unused forever.
Nikon S2, S3, F, F2, F3, FM2, FA, N90S, D80, D7000, D750, Sony a6000, Canon IIf, Leica CL, Tower type 3, Zorki 4, Vito B, Perkeo II, Rollei 35....
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #4
Registered User
Dogman is offline
Join Date: Oct 2007
Posts: 1,560
I tend to try and make my cameras as simple to use as possible and I set them all the same way.

Yes, I set my function buttons to nothing as well. I also turn off the LCD touch control of any camera with that feature. Using Fujis, I try to keep the information in the viewfinder as minimal as possible--it's distracting. I really only need to see a histogram, distance scale and my exposure information along with the bright lines and focus confirmation squares.

While I might sometimes let the camera pick the focus point on fast moving subjects, normally I only use the center AF focus point--I focus and recompose. After all, I did it for 30+ years using split image screens on Nikons and rangefinder patches on Leicas and even with AF Canon EOS film bodies that had their "eye control" AF. I found it a faster way to work than chasing AF points around in the viewfinder with whatever gizmo was required.

I use auto white balance and mostly auto ISO for simplicity's sake. I shoot Raw, mostly never shoot JPEGs, so I never set anything like film simulations or JPEG parameters with a final JPEG image in mind.

If I find I don't use a feature on a dedicated button or dial, I lock out that button/dial if possible. Sometimes a little gaffer tape comes in handy to "lock" a button/dial I don't use.

And I generally have the JPEG set to "Monochrome" so my screen shows the review image in B&W. I often do this even when I'm shooting for a final image in color. I find it's easier for me to judge tonal relationships and texture in B&W on the LCD...but I really shoot B&W mostly anyway so this feature comes in handy.

I'm sure there are others but I forget. That's enough anyway.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #5
back alley
back alley's Avatar
back alley is offline
Join Date: Jul 2003
Location: true north strong & free
Posts: 49,211
i mostly learned to shoot with a rangefinder on the street...i decided way back when what worked for me and made the shooting experience the most pleasurable for me. no matter what camera i was using it was set up just like the last body i used.
i like aperture priority, spot metering and a central spot. i also don't use the function buttons. i focus and recompose...i try to keep things simple and the same.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #6
Registered User
Contarama is offline
Join Date: Sep 2010
Location: Tulsa
Posts: 1,263
Just about any camera I quickly learn the best way for me to use it. Most are similar in function. I like my Df and I have a function button assigned to bring up a main menu so to speak. The F2 is another angle altogether really yet so alike the Df. I am a firm believer in the system...maybe it helps make things more simple

I almost want to say my lenses are more important than my blocks
Art is the ability to make something...even if it is a big mess...
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #7
Registered User
zuiko85 is offline
Join Date: Dec 2011
Posts: 2,042
Get a Nikkormat FT2.
Now you have discovered the real reason people stick with film. It's what the camera you long for takes.

Why do folks insist on making digital cameras behave like film cameras? They are two different beast's. A DSLR will never be less or more that what it is.
The only way to shoot with something like a film SLR.....is to use a film SLR.

I'm likely to get a lot of pushback from these comments......oh well. My opinions are worth what you paid for them.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #8
Kostya Fedot
Ko.Fe.'s Avatar
Ko.Fe. is offline
Join Date: Jul 2013
Location: MiltON.ONtario
Posts: 7,953
I read manual many times and I took tens of thousands of all kind of pictures with my Canon 500D. After it I could manipulate it intuitively and decide which AF mode, AF point and else to set in no time and correct. If I want to have picture for sure and how I want it, I use this camera.

I have tried earlier digital Pen once and it was gobble of non organized menus. I have seen recent version of my Canon DSLR and failed to set on request. It has something too automatic and intrusive set on.

Also after learning about exposure with Canon 500D in Manual mode for one year it somehow strangely combined with my FED-2 first camera and for many years experience. Which was S16 table in the film package. I looked at the weather and dial shutter speed and aperture as it was in this S16 table for this film (ORWO slide).
So now, I prefer all manual film cameras for street. Because S16 table is in my head.
I like Leica M4-2 over Bessa R2M and Canon EOS 300. And because Leica M-E has crappy metering I prefer to use it on the street just like M4-2. It actually works and precisely.
Simple is with M
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #9
Registered User
Timmyjoe's Avatar
Timmyjoe is offline
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Chicago, IL
Posts: 3,093
I remember back when I first started getting really interested in photography, I asked a photographer friend of mine why anyone would need an SLR, because I was making "fine daylight pictures" with my Instamatic. He said an SLR let you make pictures in difficult situations (i.e. low light, fast motion, etc.)

I look at the latest digital cameras the same way.

My newest digital camera is from 2013, so maybe some of the newer ones have a lot more controls. I just ignore most of the controls on my DSLR unless I need them for a certain shooting situation. When I do, I'm glad they're there. Otherwise, I just set the cameras on Aperture Priority and shoot.

  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #10
Starting to get it.
kshapero's Avatar
kshapero is offline
Join Date: Mar 2006
Location: South Florida, USA
Age: 70
Posts: 9,954
Nikon F Meterless Prism camera, Nikkor 50/1.4 lens and a roll of Tri-X.


Cameras, Lenses and Photos
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-30-2018   #11
somewhat colored
Godfrey's Avatar
Godfrey is offline
Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: Silly Valley, California, USA
Posts: 9,326
Complexity ... What should I do about it? My solutions:
  • My Leica M-D has no options or controls to speak of, just exposure and focus for every frame. It only produces raw files. There's no distraction in use.
  • My Leica SL can do a bazillion different things, so I created four user configs that automatically set it up to do what I want per my usual shooting desires. I have to think about what I want
  • My Light L16 has a very nice set of controls to make it do what I want that are mostly pretty intuitive and unobtrusive to use. I rarely think about it much, I just use it.
  • My Polaroid SX-70 I have to decide whether to make the print a little lighter or a little darker, each print.
Good enough for me.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #12
Jamie Pillers
Jamie Pillers's Avatar
Jamie Pillers is online now
Join Date: Jul 2007
Location: Oakland, California
Posts: 4,053
My Fuji X-Pro1:
LCD covered with Aki Asahi leather.
File type set to RAW.
Focus set to manual and AE button used to snap focus the Fuji lens.
Viewfinder set to optical.

So only controls I fiddle with are aperture and shutter speed, just like the ‘old days’.
Talk to a stranger today!

Fuji X-T3; X-Pro1; XF10

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #13
shimokita's Avatar
shimokita is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: Japan, Tokyo
Posts: 862
Simple configuration...

Set C1, C2, C3 for my typical situations, center focus point only, and focus by back of camera button (i.e. disable focus on shutter half press).
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #14
Registered User
RichC is offline
Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: Brighton, UK
Posts: 1,355
As everyone else so far in this thread, I prefer simplicity and repeatability. I know how I like my photos, and how I prefer to use cameras, and set up my camera accordingly so I’m not forever scrabbling or thinking about controls and options.

Personally, I like to be in control, so that means manual aperture, shutter speed, white balance and ISO, and centre-weighted exposure.

Although I prefer operating a camera manually, modern cameras do have functions that make that easier or photographic life in general. For example, on my Sony A7R II I’ve function buttons set to magnify so I can focus accurately, to toggle capture settings on/off (i.e. seeing what you get vs reality in the viewfinder) and to select the lens focal length (so image stabilisation works correctly for my manual lenses).

So, I use the “traditional” camera controls (aperture, shutter speed) plus the “standard” digital ones (ISO, white balance, image browsing/magnify/delete, etc.) and about 2-3 additional custom ones. That doesn’t slow me down or confuse; in fact, it makes me faster! If I need the camera to do something unusual (video, say!), once in a blue moon (a few times a year) I’ll need another button or the menu.

What makes a huge difference for me is knowing exactly what my camera does, and how. When I buy a new camera, I spend a couple of days (say 15 hours) memorising important bits in the manual, becoming familiar with the controls and menus, and scouring the web for tips. That saves me staring in incomprehension at a slew of buttons and menu commands when I need to take a photo...!


Portfolio: www.richcutler.co.uk
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #15
Real Men Shoot Film.
Chriscrawfordphoto's Avatar
Chriscrawfordphoto is offline
Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: Fort Wayne, Indiana
Age: 44
Posts: 9,175
My Olympus Pen-F has a bunch of controls i never touch. If you shoot RAW (and you SHOULD) then you don't have to worry about all of those controls for contrast, sharpening, noise reduction, color balance, saturation, etc. You just shoot, worrying only about focus and exposure. Just like with film!

Then you process the RAW files in Lightroom, which is basically the digital version of darkroom work.
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #16
Registered User
Axel's Avatar
Axel is offline
Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: Germany, north
Posts: 645
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Are there too many unessential controls on today’s digital cameras - and, if so, what do we do about it? ...
Isn´t it the same question as in many areas of today´s life?
So many choices, so little time.

I am happy that I learned photography the simple way. Sunny 16 and so
on. So my cameras are all set to manual mode, 1/125s f5,6 and ISO 100 in this sunny days.
Focusing manual (scale or magnifier mode) or single AF with center spot and lock.

I agree that fiddling around with menus, custom functions and tricky automatics can spoil the whole fun and lead to miss photos.
So I think it is only a question of discipline how to use a camera.
Every camera. I disagree that it needs always a simple set of controls.

"Grab the best, dump the rest" when you get a new device with so many
choices, bells and whistles.

My phone stays a phone. Even when it is named IPhone. I am not interested what it could do either when it fits my needs
to make a call when I want and to ring when someone is calling me.
The only modern advantage I really won´t miss anymore from a smartphone
is to keep my shopping list

So my cameras stay cameras. I am just satisfied when I can take my pictures with them.
They should be small and effective and should not disturb the rest of my (or others) real life more than necessary.
I see advantages in compactness, electronic viewfinders or displays, immediate results and the control of them.
The smallest camera I own delivers more functionality than two cases of photo equipment in the old days could do.
That´s real progress for me and it´s my duty to learn how to operate it the way it does what I need.

There are so many ways to photograph and so many reasons to like or not this or that camera, film, digi, whatever.
It is not canons, nikons or leicas fault when a produced camera doesn´t fit somebodys needs. They only can
offer. The choice is always yours. Difficult choices today. No doubt.

just my 5cent
my photos here
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #17
Bike Tourist
Registered User
Bike Tourist's Avatar
Bike Tourist is offline
Join Date: Dec 2005
Location: Central California
Age: 83
Posts: 1,246
Given the economies of scale, I suppose the manufacturers cram as many features into their cameras as they can . . . because they can. And the fear that a buyer might reject buying their product because it lacked something. I rig my camera, no matter the brand, in something resembling the configuration of a film camera.

Except, well . . . auto ISO is a great stress reliever!
Dick Thornton

Stock Portfolio:
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #18
robert blu
quiet photographer
robert blu's Avatar
robert blu is offline
Join Date: Nov 2005
Location: Italy
Age: 71
Posts: 6,130
Shooting raw as Chris says eliminates some of the additional variables. But still are many keys, buttons or menus choices you can accidentally hit or select and it can be a problem, I notice this with my wife's D 109 :-(

For me this is one of the reasons for which I went to the M10 route. Iso, aperture, focus done!


PS: as Dick says probably this is done just because they can do it without too much additional cost. And we live in an era when majority of people prefer quantity to quality. In this case having many options becomes a good selling point. Just my 2 cents!
Remember: today is the Day !
from Ruth Bernhard recipe for a long and happy life

my quiet photographer's blog

My RFF photos and my albums on RFF
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #19
Registered User
willie_901's Avatar
willie_901 is offline
Join Date: Dec 2005
Posts: 5,357
For X-Pro 2:
  • Use raw files
  • Use ISO 200 for bright scenes where dynamic range could be challenging
  • Use ISO 800 for low ambient light scenes where sensitivity is important
  • Manually select shutter time and aperture for the scene/subjects at hand
  • Check to see that the sensor is not over exposed (usually only necessary for bright conditions).
  • Auto-bracket 3 exposures by aperture – typically 0, -1/3 and +1/3
  • Use OVF in focus and recompose mode (in other words, how I focused my Zeiss Ikon M)
  • Use MF mode with back button AF or focus by rotating the fly-by-wire lens barrel

As other mentioned, raw files eliminate the messing about with JPEG rendering parameters.

The X-Pro 2 has a dual-conversion gain sensor. This is how come I only use two ISO settings. The camera has two psuedo-ISO invariant regions: 200-640 and 800 – 6400. The former maximizes dynamic range with reduced sensitivity and the latter optimizes sensitivity with reduced dynamic range. ISO invariance means there is no S/N loss if I adjust the image brightness in post production instead of in camera using the light meter and the ISO parameter. If an in-camera JPEG would have required ISO 3200 to render with a useful image brightness I just push the brightness by two stops during post-production raw rendering.

I attempt to maximize exposure which limits shutter times by camera and, or subject motion and aperture by DOF. DOF has first priority than I increase shutter time to maximize exposure when the shutter is open. Auto-aperture bracketing three exposures is a just insurance to avoid loss of important highlight-region details. I use lossless raw files and two sequential SDHC cards, so storage is not and issue. In post-production I keep the one with the best exposure and delete the other two.

One consequence of using only two ISOs is chomping is often useless. The in-camera JPEG is just too dark. I consider this a simplification instead of a handicap. After all, you I didn't chip images with my Zeiss Ikon M.

Focusing offers more options. I mostly use the OVF Electronic Rangefinder mode. Focus peaking is useful because the EVF focus region is small. This is simple and fast. However, some could feel the small EVF window could be considered a distraction. I am transitioning from back button MF to using the new f2 WR prime lenses' focusing collar. For me the fly-by-wire system is finally a useful solution.

This system is much more complicated to write and read than it is to actually use. Admittedly it takes some effort to understand how to set the menu parameters up for this system. But after that it is simple. Also, it takes some practice before the minimalistic aspects can be enjoyed.

For close up work I use the EVF. I rarely do close-up work (I don't currently own any lenses with long focal lengths). Otherwise I don't use the EVF. Also, the longest focal length lens I own is 35mm. I would use the EVF for focal lengths above 50mm.

With the X100T usage system is similar. The differences mainly involve ISO selection. I use ISO 200 for almost everything. In extremely low ambient light (which means extreme sensor under exposure) I use ISO 6400. But at this level of sensor underexposure I almost always render the raw file in B&W.
Basically, I mean, ah—well, let’s say that for me anyway when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form.
Garry Winogrand
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #20
seagrove is offline
Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: Georgia, USA
Posts: 259
When I was a newspaper shooter, I used a pair of D2H bodies. With only 11 focus points, it was easy to quickly change the focus point. I shoot only raw so I don't worry with any of the other settings preferring to make those changes in photoshop. About the only other setting that I changed on an as-needed basis was ISO. Today with only a Fuji X100S, I leave the focus point in the center, do a back-button focus, and recompose as necessary. I still prefer to change speed as before. Very little else do I "play" with. On occasion I will spot meter or use the exposure compensation dial but that is about it. My film camera is a Yashica Electro35 GS that I only shoot Tri-X at normal speed with. Occasionally I will add a 3-stop ND filter so I can shoot wide open (or close to it) in the daylight.
Yashica Electro35 GS, Fujifilm X100S (both silver & black bodies), TCL-X100, WCL-X100, sold everything else!
  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #21
daveleo's Avatar
daveleo is offline
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: People's Republic of Mass.
Posts: 3,686
I agree with most of what's been said above in terms of why cameras are complicated and how nice it would be if they weren't.

To this end, I'd like a Q-button menu that has a single (no submenus) matrix of selectable items - I mean that the user selects what items are represented in the Q-menu. So my Q-menu would not necessarily look like yours. I think that would virtually eliminate menu diving and would make life simpler.

I also think that we would then complain that we need much larger Q-matrices.

  Reply With Quote

Old 05-31-2018   #22
Registered User
ptpdprinter is offline
Join Date: Apr 2017
Posts: 1,712
I set my Fuji camera up when I got it and rarely go into the menus. I have no need for function buttons. The three main controls - ISO, shutter speed and aperture - are all available on physical dials. I shoot digital like film. For those that complain about menus, I'd like to know what they are even doing in there. What are they looking for? What are they changing? The way to better photographs is not through the menus; it is through the viewfinder.
  Reply With Quote

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

vB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 21:09.

vBulletin skin developed by: eXtremepixels
Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.6.8
Copyright ©2000 - 2020, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.

All content on this site is Copyright Protected and owned by its respective owner. You may link to content on this site but you may not reproduce any of it in whole or part without written consent from its owner.