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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!


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Old 08-28-2016   #1
Bill Pierce
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Long before there was autofocus, there was manual focus. It worked well for rangefinders. Well, it worked well if the lens cam and feeler arm were well within tolerances and you weren’t using a long lens. It sort of worked well for SLRs, especially with longer lenses, but you usually stopped down a little bit just to make sure. Then there came autofocus, and over the years it was improved for both DSLRs and mirrorless digitals until we came to trust it and rely on it. Actually, some of us went a little too far. We became focus fanatics.

Most modern digital cameras come out of the box set so that a partial depression of the shutter button activates the autofocus and a full push triggers the shutter and takes the picture. I see grown ups, even aged professionals, focusing with every frame. After all, if you don’t change the out of the box focus setting, the camera is going to autofocus with every depression of the shutter button. And if your subject is not in the usually central focus frame, you are going to have to refocus and reframe. Fortunately, most cameras are set up so that focus activation can be transferred to some button independent of the shutter release. With many subjects you can focus once and then concentrate on the other important elements of the picture until the subject gets close or moves further away and not have your attention diverted by having to constantly focus. Who would be so stupid to leave the camera set so that you had to refocus with every frame? ME. I got a new camera and didn’t bother to reset the focus controls. Has anybody else done this? Do you also feel like an idiot?
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Old 08-28-2016   #2
Tim Murphy
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Dear Bill,

Stupid is as stupid does. If it worked 20 years ago it should still work now, right?

I've been using autofocus SLR's and DSLR's for decades and I only recently discovered back button focus, so yes I've been an idiot too!


Tim Murphy
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Old 08-28-2016   #3
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My Pany G1 only refocuses each shot if I'm stupid enough to completely release the shutter button between each shot. If I merely release to the 1/2 way position after one shot, as I usually do when shooting a short series and actually want to retain the first shot's focus, I can shoot again without refocusing. For extended series I use the function button I've chosen for trapping the focus.
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Old 08-28-2016   #4
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I think it's an age thing Bill. It happens to me often enough that after a few choice words, I remember why the camera isn't focusing. I use the shutter button when covering regular events, and the back focus button for sports. Many times when I've come from one and start the other I'm flummoxed as to why the d*#m camera isn't working right.

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Old 08-28-2016   #5
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the only exception to back button focus is when using face detection ; )
I have shot a roll or two with no film in the camera... being "slow on the uptake" is not a new phenomenon.
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Old 08-28-2016   #6
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<----same here. Thanks for the enlightenment.
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Old 08-28-2016   #7
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It is popular theme on P.O.T.N. Most of beginners never know about it. I learned about back button focusing back in 2009. Canon using weird combination of settings for it.
It was good in Canon 5D, but for 5D MKII it is weird.
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Old 08-28-2016   #8
genius and moron
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I'm a moron, not allowed to have auto focus.
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Old 08-28-2016   #9
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I just found out I'm an idiot... Well maybe not... Ill have trying to see...
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Old 08-28-2016   #10
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none of my cameras have autofocus. Does that mean I win?
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Old 08-28-2016   #11
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You rang?

I've never found shutter-button autofocus to be an issue.

Does that mean I'm a bigger idiot, or less of one?

I think I also find shutter-button focus more ergonomic and intuitive, and less poke-myself-in-the-eye.
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Old 08-28-2016   #12
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AF is so fast these days that it isn't a distraction for me, I just do it. I do catch myself on occasion half pressing the Leica and waiting for the focus light to go off...... Duh!
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Old 08-29-2016   #13
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I knew it was there. I use it. I forget to switch it off when I'm done with whatever series I'm shooting.
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Old 08-29-2016   #14
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I find that back-button AF is extremely useful in certain situations, where the shutter button is already half-pressed in anticipation of some action, and I don't want AF jittering around while I'm waiting for something to happen. Alternately, if I'm holding a rigid position with a long lens for too long I find using BBF easier to avoid inadvertently firing off a few shots if I start to get the shakes...
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Old 08-29-2016   #15
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Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Who would be so stupid to leave the camera set so that you had to refocus with every frame? ME. I got a new camera and didn’t bother to reset the focus controls. Has anybody else done this? Do you also feel like an idiot?
Me, and I'll continue to be stupid too.
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Old 08-29-2016   #16
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Originally Posted by Darthfeeble View Post
AF is so fast these days that it isn't a distraction for me
Yes. I have used back button focus since the F5 in the 90s and continued it with the D1h, D700 and E5 OMD.

However, with my XP2 I don't use back button focus. First, the button location isn't ideal. But the focus is so fast it isn't an issue at all for me and I don't miss it. Without a second shutter release on a grip BBF was always a pain shooting portrait.

That is not to say I haven't adjusted AF controls. I change them as needed for the situation. Mostly moving between AF-S (single point, often with face detect on) to AF-C in zone mode. If I am going to be taking multiple shots at the same focal distance I will often just focus and then flip to MF. Switch is right on the front so it is easy to do.

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Old 08-29-2016   #17
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I'm still futzing around with my Fuji cameras after several months of use. Backbutton focus is different for them than any of the Olympus and Canon cameras I've used that way for years. I guess a lot of it has to do with the placement of the AFL button off to the right side instead of underneath the natural position of my thumb. It's not an intuitive movement for me. Mostly I've just used a half-press of the shutter button and then locked focus with the AFL button as an On/Off switch. But then I forget to lock focus and the camera refocuses every shot. So, yes, absolutely. I feel like an idiot...often.
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Old 08-29-2016   #18
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Practically the first thing I have done with every modern camera that had AF (after turning off all stupid bleeps, beeps, and other irrelevant noises, of course) is turn off the AF and see how well I could manually focus the camera.
  • On some occasions, I have left AF off and never reenabled it. The camera worked better for me without it.
  • On other occasions, I found the AF system was more useful than the manual focusing ... I find I only rarely keep such cameras for very long.
  • And on others, I found the AF was a useful convenience worth enabling occasionally. Sometimes I prefer it to be on the shutter release at the half press for easy access. Sometimes I prefer it to be on a separate button for "focus on demand" situations. It's a good thing when cameras afford the user sensible control options, in my opinion.

I at least try not to be an idiot.

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Old 08-29-2016   #19
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Originally Posted by Timmyjoe View Post
blazing saddles Many times when I've come from one and start the other I'm flummoxed as to why the d*#m camera isn't working right.
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