Home Feature Articles Intuition, exposure and the decisive moment

Intuition, exposure and the decisive moment

Jonathan Slack takes us into the world of Leica beta testing. With 16 years' experience, these are some tips and tricks he has learned. This presentation was originally made to the members of the Leica Society International, meeting in Wetzlar in late October…


When I started testing for Leica back in 2008, it was a solitary business. There were several of us involved, but we reported back individually to the relevant product manager at Leica. These days it’s a much more sociable affair, with a forum where we can discuss the issues between numerous photographers. There are some professionals and one or two dedicated amateurs. We discuss how we take images, how we set up our cameras, and the role of intuition in our photography.

As a result of this, I’ve come to think a lot about the actual process of taking a photograph. I’ve also realised that most people are very much set into one methodology (which they use for everything), but it’s remarkable how different that is between one photographer and another.

In this article, I would like to discuss this, and to suggest some methods of shooting as a result. If I do my job properly, you might come away with some new ideas to inform your photography.

Following are my scattered thoughts on the subject

My father

When I started taking photographs in the late 1960s, my father said to me, “Take a ranging shot, then think about the composition and exposure carefully and get it right”.

That seemed like a good idea, but over the years it has become increasingly the case that the first shot is the best one, and that the minute I start thinking about the details I lose my mojo.

Returning to film

These days, many people have returned to film. One of the reasons often given is that it has helped them to “slow down and think about their photography again”.

Although I think it’s great that film has had a renaissance, I’m not so sure that this is a good reason to use it.

My favourite young film photographer, Kit Young, shoots only film, which he develops and wet prints himself. He can shoot up to 15 rolls of Tri-X a day.

Robert Doisneau

The French humanist photographer, and pioneer of photojournalism with Cartier Bresson and others, famously said:

“If I knew how to take a good photograph, I’d do it every time”

When I first heard this I thought it was funny, and of course Doisneau and many other photographers take consistently good photographs, but the more I’ve considered the remark the more significant and relevant it seems.

Most of us can recognise that good photograph instantly – especially when it was taken by someone else. We can gather huge amounts of information instantly, without thinking about it at all (that comes later).

So how is it we can all recognise a good photo instantly, but even the best photographers don’t “know how to take one” (every time at least).

Craig Semetko

I first met Craig at Wetzlar when he gave his excellent talk ‘Serendipity’. He proposed that the more you practised, the luckier you get, and that it was remarkable how often he found important peripheral motifs in images which he couldn’t remember having seen at the time.

This is something I have also noticed, but is it luck? Or is it just that one’s subconscious recognises and includes such motifs without reference to the conscious mind?

Thinking, fast and slow

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book makes a clear definition between two different types of thinking: Type 1 thinking (which could be labelled ‘intuition’) and Type 2 thinking (which might be called rational reasoning).

Slowing down and thinking about your photographs is Type 2 thinking. Recognising that great image is Type 1 thinking.

To my mind, Robert Doisneau is really complaining that he cannot rationalise a good image.


Chess Grand Masters are incredibly good at working out a move instantly after their opponent moves (or after a very cursory view of a chess situation during exhibition matches).

Regarding this, Herbert Simon said

“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

Herbert Simon again

“Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognise familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it. Good intuitive judgments come to mind with the same immediacy as ‘doggie’”

Daniel Kahneman again:

“In particular, the accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics.”

So that a photographer’s intuition is made up of everything he has ever seen and everything he has ever read, something Type 2 thinking (rational reasoning) simply doesn’t have access to. But there isn’t a free lunch – just like the chess grand master, you must have the information before your subconscious can use it!

Of course, this explains why Robert Doisneau actually took great photographs, why my father’s advice was good for a beginner (but not the experienced photographer). And why Craig Semetko’s and my images often have important peripheral motifs that we hadn’t remembered seeing at the time. ‍

The proposition

So, my proposition is that rather than thinking rationally about it, we should be letting our intuition and experience make the decisions about the photographs we take.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for a shoot, of course you should. But on the other hand, you should be prepared to grab the shots which come along, even if they don’t seem to correspond to the plan.

There’s nothing wrong walking ten miles in the dark to catch that perfect sunrise at the Old Man of Hoy, but be prepared so that you can get the image of a lifetime on the walk back.

We should be ready at all times to catch that Decisive Moment.

How to catch it

During the years of testing, I have spent a lot of time discussing with other photographers how they shoot, and two things have struck me forcibly.

First, how many different ways there are of shooting,

Secondly, how few photographers change their methodology in different shooting environments. M users in particular seem to be split into two camps, they either shoot entirely manually, or else they use Auto ISO and Aperture priority.


Apparently, the best camera is the one you have with you, so make sure that you always have your best camera with you. Better than that, make sure that it’s in your hand, not in your bag (or even slung over your shoulder). There are other things to consider beyond this.

  1. Don’t switch your camera off – startup time is the time between getting the shot and missing it.
  2. Put your standby time on ‘never’ – wakeup time is also the time between getting and missing a shot.


Many of the photographers I know who use Leica M cameras seriously always use manual exposure, it’s kind of the definitive statement. But I don’t think it’s always the best answer (even if you’re really good at it).

The time I will use fully manual exposure is if I’m working an event, and I’m in a room where the lighting on people’s faces is reasonably uniform, but the background light changes wildly in different directions. That is the time to use Manual Exposure and Manual ISO – do a few test shots to get exactly the correct exposure for the skin, and then keep to it unless things change.

Every situation is different, and you should be prepared to change your type of camera setting to match the situation.

I’d like to try your patience and show you some images from the M11 in Lightroom:

‍This is a series of images shot at ISO 64 and f/8 on the M11 with the 75mm APO Summicron. I used multi spot exposure and the second shot at 1/45th is the exposure the camera recommended. I did not use a tripod.

So the first shot is one stop over-exposed, the second shot correct, the third shot one stop under (1/90s) then 1/180s, 1/160s etc down to the final shot which was shot at ISO 64, f/8 and 1/3000s (six stops under-exposed). The one-stop underexposed image turned out to be the best ‘out of the camera’ (both one stop over and the recommended reading had unrecoverable blown highlights).

Benefits of under exposure

‍Here I have slightly increased the exposure on the third shot. Then on the last shot (six stops under-exposed) I have increased the exposure by five stops and then pushed the highlights a bit.

‍Here they are side by side

‍And here is a screenshot of 100% zoom in of the respective images. I think there are several things one can take from this comparison:

  1. There is no visible noise in the right-hand shot, which has been pushed by 5 stops.
  2. The increased shutter speed has meant that the underexposed shot has more detail (1/90s with a 75mm lens seems to be pushing your luck – especially if you drink as much coffee as I do).
  3. The final shot at 1/3000s is equivalent to around 5,000 ISO.

So the Classic rule: Expose To The Right, while logically sensible (to reduce noise) is very prone to the risk of blown (and unrecoverable highlights). While under-exposure only seems to punish you with a bit of extra post-processing (of course, this might be important if shooting an event).


The other classic rule is to keep the ISO as low as possible (again, to reduce noise), but the effective ISO of the 1/3000s shot in the last frame is 5000 ISO, and there isn’t any noticeable noise. But there is much more detail than in the 1/90s shot, where camera shake has spoiled the image.

With a high-resolution modern sensor such as that in the M11, it seems to me that the risk of camera shake is much more than the risk of incorrect exposure, except of course, over-exposure!

To that end, in reasonable but varying light, rather than using Manual ISO and shutter speed, I would thoroughly recommend using Auto ISO, with the maximum ISO set around 5000 or 6400. The slowest shutter speed should be set to 2x or 4x the focal length of the lens you are using.

I still think that one of the most valuable features of the recent M cameras is the ability to set the shutter speed to be a factor of the focal length. Unless the light is terrible, I favour focal length x4 so that if I’m using my 75 APO the camera will choose around 1/300th second. That way, you can be pretty sure that you can take advantage of the wonderful modern high-resolution sensors without suffering from camera shake.

I then normally have a -2/3 stop exposure compensation, this ensures that you don’t over-expose the image (and leaves nice saturated colours too).

Shooting less?

One of the arguments for shooting film is that you don’t fill up your hard drives with rubbish. But if you shoot fewer images, you won’t just get less bad ones, you’ll also get less good ones as well.

The answer is to shoot lots, but save only the winners. Psychologically, it’s easier to pick the right ones when importing, but culling later on is just as effective.


Of course, this depends on your camera and your project, but think hard about the best way to ensure that you can focus fast, and that you decide on the subject, not the camera!

Eye focus and person focus is a wonderful development, but in my experience it has a tendency to focus on the wrong person, and by the time you’ve sorted that out the moment has gone.

I favour a spot focus point, usually slightly above and to the left of the centre, (a nod to the rule of thirds). That way I can get the subject in the spot and the camera will focus when I press the shutter. Using spot metering means that you will also be metering on that point, That works for the SL2 and the M11.

When I first met Herbert Piel at Wetzlar in 2018, we were joking about practising rangefinder focusing in the kitchen in the evenings and our wives teasing us about it.

These days my eyes aren’t what they were, but I still regularly practice focusing with my M11, and I’m still confident at f/2 with a 75mm lens. It’s no different from practising a musical instrument.


To summarise what I’ve been talking about:

We should practice and shoot lots, and look at as many images to gain experience, but it’s better to trust intuition than to ‘slow down and think about it’.

Shoot as many images as you can – but only keep the good ones! The answer to storage space problems is better curation, not fewer shots.

Carry your camera with you at all times, preferably switched on and in your hand.

Let the camera sort out the exposure and the shutter speed, it’s good at it and as long as you’ve entered sensible parameters for Auto ISO and exposure compensation, it’ll do an excellent job.

Choose a minimum shutter speed in the auto-ISO settings to make sure that you don’t get camera shake.

Ensure that you don’t overexpose, it’s almost the only thing you really can’t fix in post-processing.

Focus point and Aperture should be the photographer’s responsibility, not the camera’s. It’s a serious artistic component in every image.

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.

John Ruskin

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  1. .
    “..a photographer’s intuition is made up of everything he has ever seen and everything he has ever read, something Type 2 thinking (rational reasoning) simply doesn’t have access to..”

    Stop me if I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but visiting Mexico a few years ago – before Covid – I felt that I simply MUST take a photograph of a Mexican dog crossing a road. There were cobbled roads where I was walking, in the town of Ajijic, and the sight of the cobbled road made me think that I must wait for a dog to cross.

    I didn’t know why ..but I just felt that compulsion for some reason. I waited, and after a while ..I don’t know how long.. a dog appeared, and crossed the road in front of me, and I took a photo.

    A few years later, my Beloved and I were in Munich, and she saw that there was either that Leica 100 travelling exhibition, or a Magnum exhibition, or a show of Sergio Larrain’s photos in an insurance building nearby, so we went to have a look.

    Well, blow me down!” as (Tony) Hancock used to say: there on the wall was a photo by Sergio Larrain of a dog – in Mexico, I think – crossing a road. Everything about the two photos ..his from the 1960s and mine from 2013.. was pretty much identical; his had a child sitting on the cobbled pavement at the lower left, mine had a car parked against the kerb at lower left; his had houses on the right of the street, mine had houses on the right side of the street; his had distant trees and beyond them mountains in the far centre, as did mine! The main difference is that his dog was crossing the cobbled street from left to right, and mine from right to left. (His is black-&-white, and mine’s in colour, but – to me – that makes little difference.)

    So I must have seen – and absorbed into my subconscious – his picture, MANY years before ..and not even consciously known that I had! I had absolutely no memory of having ever seen his picture, until I saw it on that exhibition wall. It must have had some persistent, subliminal effect on me ages before, without my even knowing.

    So, as you say, Jono, “..a photographer’s intuition is made up of everything he has ever seen and everything he has ever read..” ..and I just shot what I felt impelled to shoot – and I did it – without, in the moment, knowing why.

    ..And your ‘A Team of Experts’ photo looks uncannily just like – as I’m sure you know! – the men in the centre of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’.

    Larrain, by the way – I’ve read up on him since, and seen oh so many of his photos – said ..and I’m quoting from his Magnum page.. “A good image is created by a state of grace. Grace expresses itself when it has been freed from conventions, free like a child in his early discovery of the reality. The game is then to organize the rectangle

    For what it may be worth, here are the two pics side by side, Larrain’s and mine: https://www.edituk.com/Mexican_Dogs.html

    • Hi There David
      Thank you so much for that story – and for the two pictures, and for the quote from Larrain, you could construe that Intuition is the state of grace, and that my recommendations for settings is just some help in organising the rectangle!
      I think it’s all really interesting stuff, and all the comments and remarks I’ve had since then have made it seem even more the case
      Thank you again
      All the best

  2. Wise words, Jonathan. May of your encompassed issues in this article, I struggle with daily. Have got a lot of inspiration to move on having read you fine thoughts about this. Thank you.

  3. Fascinating article and some very good tips. I have a mantra- “you make your luck”. I like the simplicity of using a Leica – it’s just like using a film camera if you ignore all the added technology. I believe n keeping it simple and also use the auto set up frequently to avoid missing the shot. Focusing is the priority. Whilst shooting a multitude of frames you can also miss the shot. So intuition is very important. I also use the EVF as I often use wide angle ( 10, 12 and 15mm Voigtlander – wonderful lenses) for good dramatic affect. On the other hand, sometimes patience is a virtue particularly when street shooting. Getting the people in a scene in certain positions can make a picture.

    • Hi There Jonathan, I also have a mantra:
      If a photograph is interesting then nobody cares if it’s technically good, If it isn’t interesting then nobody cares at all.
      All the best

  4. „Focus point and aperture should be the photographer responsability“ I agree, this is the reason I went down the rabbit hole of the M.
    But if you are after THE moment a full auto like the Q or an iPhone might yield bette results
    So let‘s practise, the focus practise in the kitchen, now that winter is knocking sounds great

    • Hi Christophe.
      Don’t agree about the Q or an iPhone – I think an M is more likely to yield the perfect moment (at least using the rangefinder) – no black out, no shutter lag etc. . . . not to criticise the Q or the iPhone, both of which are great

  5. This is the article I’ve been waiting to read.

    That may be an overstatement, but I truly enjoyed this — at points I thought “If I got my act together I could do THAT with my M240?’

    In an earlier LHSA presentation, you said ‘ to alleviate the boredom, I decided to scatter my talk with pictures of pets and children“. While I’m all for more pix of children (and I enjoyed yours) I think the article stands just fine on some of your stunning photos. The photo of Jason Burns is a carved monument to intensity.

    I enjoyed the interplay between cognitive theory and highly technical advice. May I repay this by suggesting a contemporary view (based on modern research): Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain?

    • Thank you so much Kathy, you could certainly do that with your M240 (although the ISO limitation might spoil it a bit).
      Ah – more pets and children – (and you have a good memory!) I live out in the country, and there aren’t too many gritty street photos to be taken! I sent Jason Burns a copy of that photo, and he never even replied (he’s actually a lovely guy too).
      . . . and I’ll think about your suggestion, someone who read this felt the exposure examples were a terrible yawn, but he did like the rest of it.

  6. Thanks Jono,
    I happened to see you article on your site a few days ago and enjoyed reading it twice. One thing that struck me was this juxtaposition of “Practice, practice, practice” and “Intuition”. I’m a big fan of jazz and I’m always struck by how when jazz musicians practice a lot then how they play their instrument becomes more second nature. They also then seem find it easier to improvise and also are free to be more inventive.

    I’m sure this is true of photographers. When you spend considerable time each day or each week taking pictures, the mechanic aspects become second nature, freeing you up to see things in a new way.

    • HI Jon
      I’m glad you enjoyed it, and thank you for posting. I’m not a musician, but I do listen to a lot of Jazz, and I think that your analogy is spot on. We don’t really think of the act of taking photos as part of the art, but i certainly think it is, and learning to use a camera intuitively is improved with practice and experience.

  7. In my view, your best article which is amazing considering how superb your articles are.

    My shooting style has changed over the years especially since owning the low noise/high iso Leica SL2-S in combination with the amazing Topaz denoise, sharpening, and gigapixel software.

    I used to be very methodical and in manual mode in my early Kodachrome 25 and 64 days and onward. I now mostly use centre weighted metering (I know what it is doing), auto ISO set to 6400), spot autofocus (I know where it is focusing), usually minus 1/3 fstop compensation. For years I have shot intuitively and my first shot is usually the best – especially on capturing “decisive moments”. In my personal experience, the more you carry your camera and are in the moment observing your surroundings the more intuitive I become and the better I am anticipating a decisive moment. I am still very methodical on capturing some of my images but that is mostly when I am capturing a concept image. I never chimp while I am capturing images as that breaks my creative flow. I do not take repeat images and only take additional images if I am capturing different viewpoints or changing focal lengths. In the early days of digital, I used to bracket image exposure but I no longer do that. I get to know my camera and use it in a simplistic mode so that I am confident that I am in charge of what I want captured. My experience with matrix metering, and “intelligent autofocus “ is that I cannot predict what the camera is going to do and get many more image misses. With centre weighted metering I can shift the image frame and lock exposure and the exposure I want is in the bag.
    What I particularly love about Leica cameras is the core settings are readily available with a simple interface and not countless buttons that I cannot INTUITIVELY remember with muscle memory. I like to be in the zone and have a camera that is an extension of my arm and will capture the moment without distracting me on settings.

  8. Dear Jono,

    excellent article and stunning images. Congratulations on both! I enjoyed reading your thoughts and I particularly like the way you are encouraging us to actually take photos. I am not sure if I agree with all you are bringing forward, especially when it comes to film photography. But what you are sharing here with us is at least thought-provoking, and I would definitely agree with your plea to take rather more than less images.

    Thanks again! Jörg-Peter

    • Hi there Jörg Peter – I hope you’re having a good time in London? Thank you for the kind words, it would be dreadful if you agreed with everything!, but the intention was to provoke thought, so I’ve succeeded there!
      Thank you again
      all the best

  9. Very interesting and informative, Jonathan.Made all the better with Monochrome images So refreshing to see and they emphasise the points made

    • Thank you Mike – really glad you enjoyed the images – always the most important point
      all the best

  10. Hi Jono,
    Unfortunately I had to miss your talk at the LSA Annual Meeting, so i am very happy to see it written here. My wife enjoyed it in person, but I was elsewhere in the Wetzlar environs pursuing either Leica history in old buildings, or in the Archives.

    I agree with almost everything you write, as I am an intuitive sort of photographer. My own working system is to leave the exposure on auto, vary ISO in order to get an exposure timing that is usable, and leave the exposure compensation down 2/3 of a stop. Unlike yourself, I take very few pictures, unless I am on an assignment. Quick to the eye and back down again, still allowing for FR focus. I have the image review function set to off, and even have half cases where there is a leather piece over the monitor. I shoot like it was film, except that I don’t have to be as fiddly about exposure because the camera helps me. If I am in a situation with, for example, bright sky and a dark foreground subject, I vary exposure by deciding where it ought to be placed, based on my experience, via first aiming the camera for this, and then holding that exposure setting.

    It is all very simple and almost automatic. Yes, pattern recognition is the key, but you have had to learn the patterns.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi There Ed
      Sorry you missed the talk – I think there were quite a lot of you in the same situation (pursuing history). Please thank your wife for watching in person!
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, worth doing both!
      All the best

  11. Hi Jono,

    A very thoughtful article!

    I think your exposure advice is spot on. For most shots, especially unplanned street shots, Auto-ISO and aperture priority, with exposure compensation set to -2/3 seems to result in a high success rate. If I am not trying for a shallow depth of field I will stop down to f/5.6-f/8. Fairly recent cameras, especially Leica, handle noise well so i don’t worry about the occasional shot where ISO is way above the “normal” range. The noise is either not noticeable or can be reduced in post processing. Forcing the use of a tripod for scenic shots for the sake of ISO 100 seems very constrictive to me. For the occasional posed shot, I will open up to f/2 or f/2.8.

    • Hi There Bill
      Thank you for your comments – I thought of you several times when I was writing it. I was talking to Hari about this as well, and we both agreed that we hadn’t had to reduce noise in post processing at least since the advent of the M10 (I’m still unhappy about the way Topaz AI damages the ‘structure’ of the image – especially with the Monochrom cameras).
      All the best

  12. It was great to meet you again in Wetzlar two weeks ago, Jono. It is also good to have you on our Board at Leica Society International. I always find discussing photography with you stimulating, as , while we have different photographic interests, we almost always agree on what makes a good or great photograph. You also manage to make great photos for lens and camera tests and always avoid the boring stuff which many ‘testers’ turn up with. To put it another way, you are always true to yourself with your photography and that is what counts.

    On technical points, we are both around the same age, but your eyes are definitely better than mine. I agree with you about your practice point, but often I just grab a camera going out the door and the first few images that I take are my ‘practice’. On the x4 point, I agree that modern digital cameras usually need at least x2, so for a 50mm lens it would be 1/125th for me. With film, though, I can happily use 1/60th for 50mm, notwithstanding arthritic hands etc.

    Keep up the great work.


    • Hi There William
      Great to meet up again – as you said, it’s all about friendship, and the LSI is great for that (so nice to see enthusiastic youngsters and quite a few women).
      Thank you very much for the kind words, I recently bought a (very expensive) pair of varifocals, after using MonoVision for 20 years (different dioptre lenses in each eye). I was expecting it to be an improvement, but even after leaving it for a couple of months to settle down I still far prefer the MonoVision (something to try?). The only thing the Varifocals are better for is driving in an air conditioned car!
      Thanks again – lets meet up again soon (Dublin sounds just the ticket!). If not I guess it’ll be Porto next year?
      All the best


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