Do Cameras Impart Their Own “Look” to Street Photography?

If ever there was a “vexed question,” it’s this one. Time and again this subject comes up for discussion, not always in connection with street photography but with photography in general.

I’ve read hundreds of comments in forums and I’ve taken note of what technical experts have to tell us about the topic and to these (contradictory) chunks of information I can add my own experience.

A surprising number of people deny that cameras and lenses play any part in the “look” of a photo. They say, essentially: “It’s the photographer, stupid,” as if those who detect a characteristic look are deceiving themselves.

Expert Opinion
The experts, on the other hand, are cautious — and I don’t think any of them would be prepared to put their reputations on the line, and, without looking at the EXIF, say: “This shot was taken by a Canon 5DIV or Leica M10.”

A few people — they tend to be enthusiasts who pay a lot of attention to photo quality — insist there’s a recognisable look to images taken with certain camera/lens combinations. By this, they don’t simply mean sharpness and contrast, but something more: call it “personality,” for want of a better word. In digital photography this can be the result of in-camera JPEG processing but it goes further and seems to appear even when the photographer shoots in RAW.

Getting The Look
I bought my first digital camera on account of the “look” that was being achieved by users of the Fuji S5 Pro. Their shots seemed to have more appealing colours and a greater dynamic range while lacking any harshness in their overall image quality. Based on a Nikon body and hence able to accept Nikon lenses, the S5 Pro featured a sensor with two different sorts of photodiode (cells), one of which was specially designed to receive extremely bright light. Fuji marketed the camera to wedding photographers (think: white wedding dress; black suit) but people like me used it for landscapes and other types of photography as well.

I loved the dynamic range of the S5 Pro and I still take it out occasionally. My featured image (above) was taken with it — and it coped well with both the shade and the intensely lit areas in this Bangkok street scene. Its only drawback is its limited resolution: 6 megapixels devoted to each type of cell, yet not giving a true 12MP spatial resolution, just 6MP+.

The point I’m making is that my experience with the Fuji S5 Pro confirmed my suspicion that cameras can indeed produce images which have a unique look. If it was true for the Fuji, could it not also be true for other brands and models?

The Leica Look
The most talked about “look” is, of course, the Leica look. But is there really such a thing — and can it not be replicated by any quality camera with a great lens and appropriate processing?

For street photographers willing to splash the cash, Leica is often the brand of choice. These cameras are reasonably light to carry, with sturdy engineering and compact lenses of terrific quality. But I think they also get chosen because the “Leica Look” shows up particularly well in black and white. Their characteristic look is less noticeable in colour, which Leica photographers tend to use less, maybe for this very reason.

Let me try to analyse the Leica Look because I agree it’s real, but I don’t think it necessarily applies to all Leica cameras and lenses. The Leica Q in particular, with the strong corrections it makes to lens aberrations in software — even in RAW — give its output a “look” all of its own.

First, Leica images tend to be tack sharp across the whole photo, always a sign of a top quality lens. Second, the images have an appealing glow, especially in flesh tones. Third, even images taken with digital Leicas look a bit less “digital” than those taken with other cameras. Clearly, there is something going on that Leica have succeeded in making part of their brand — a bit like the fabled Scottish Highland water which is supposed to be a key factor in the unique quality of Scotch whisky. Funnily enough, both seem to have almost indefinable qualities like “depth” and “pop.”

Another parallel, somewhat closer than whisky, would be the violins made by Stradivarius at the end of the seventeenth century. Every musician admires the sound of a Strad and nearly all violinists would like one if they could afford it. Christian Tetzlaff is an exception in preferring a modern instrument, having switched from Strad to a 2002 violin made by Stefan-Peter Greiner (greinerviolins.com). Equally, few photographers give up their Leicas for other brands once they’ve made the initial investment.

Like or Leica?
You can find a really in-depth analysis of the Leica Look (and how to replicate it) on a website called Like-a-Look (but the URL is: www.leicalook.com). Today, there’s an app for everything, and in photography there’s a Photoshop plug-in or a Lightroom preset. Like-a-Look is a Lightroom preset. Its aim is to simulate the look of photos taken with classic rangefinders such as the Leica M.

The developer of Like-a-Look refers to Colour Rendering, Micro-Contrast, and Sharpness as being the three main factors involved in producing or reproducing the Leica Look. Unique colour rendering in certain cameras “may not be as technically accurate as other cameras when measured electronically, but they give a more realistic ‘feel’ according to many viewers.” As regards micro-contrast: “We use a method that enhances contrast without creating thick dark lines and unnatural shadows.” Sharpness also gets addressed by the preset: “A lot of the perceived sharpness is due to low noise, reduced flare and the colour shifts produced in-camera.”

Like-a-Look’s developer is firmly of the opinion that the Leica Look can be simulated, up to a point: “If you…have a good camera with a good sensor and a good lens, then it’s possible to get a similar ‘Leica Look’ without having a camera with a red dot.”

Substitute “outstanding” for “good” in the above paragraph and I’d tend to agree. Digital images are infinitely malleable. Their resolution now easily matches the resolution of 35mm film and you can, if you wish, use older lenses with their unique quirks and capabilities. It’s also possible to simulate the look of various types of film (and the processes used to develop them). Given all these tools at our disposal, the uniqueness of the Leica Look — and other “looks” — is gradually being eroded.

Back to Fuji
However, what remains is the ease with which you get The Look if you use the original camera that produces it. Fuji cameras, for example, are renowned for the appealing way in which they render colour. It is, say the experts, the result of Fuji’s long experience with colour film processing. It’s in the DNA of the company and its products. If you print the out-of-camera Fuji JPEG you’ll get proper Fuji colour.

Can you get Fuji colour from a Canon? Yes, after fixing up the image in Photoshop. It will take you a while to get it just right, but you’ll be able to get very close to the look of Fuji output, providing you work with an image from a camera/lens of equivalent or superior quality. A friend who is a Photoshop expert helped me make the above photo of a lady with multi-coloured hair (who is probably NOT searching her phone for a Lightroom preset) into something resembling a Fuji X image (although not one from the S5 Pro).

In summary: I personally think you can recognise the characteristic look which certain cameras/lenses impart to an image, but it’s impossible to identify it every time. I also think it’s not especially important because (if the truth be told) you can take great street photos with any good quality camera.

So why not have a glass of Suntory Yamazaki 18-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky, check out the musicians who use a Greiner violin — and have a think about it?

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