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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leica M8 Pro and Con: Con

Gman Music and Cosmic Records, Waukesha, Wisconsin


This half of my 2-part brief User Report of the Leica M8—the first part is here—is going to be an exercise in mind games. The perplex of device, psychology, history, function, status, loyalty, and tradition that is Leica is like a religion, in that it doesn't easily admit of soberly objective analysis. Some say you've either got to believe, or you don't get it; others think faith blinds the gullible and the fat old has-been Emperor is parading around in a Speedo. Some people think it's just another camera, and some people think it's magic juju, and a lot more people fall in between somewhere. Everybody vectors in on it from different directions, has different axes to grind and oxen to gore and sacred cows to bow down before. That's the reality; it is what it is. So to get a better handle on the M8—or to better communicate my take on it, perhaps I should say—allow me to set up and play with a few simple thought experiments (in a thought experiment, you simply take a situation that is not real, and imagine that it is real, and then examine the conclusions that derive therefrom).

Let us play.

What if the M8 were a Leica rangefinder, but not digital?
For a quarter-century and more, Leica's gotten hammered when it tries to think new, from the M5 flop to the tepid semi-acceptance of the R8. (Oddly, considering its signature camera has such a strong identity, it's like the company keeps struggling to find an identity.) It has learned its lesson: with the digital M, the designers clearly tried to preserve as much M as possible in the design—all the way to the removeable bottom plate, which is as much of a "technological male nipple" as any feature I've ever seen on a camera. The principle was very clearly "make it feel and behave as much like an M7 as possible."

How'd they do? Well, pretty well, as I elaborated yesterday. Then again, the gestalt of the Barnack camera was to sacrifice quality for stealth—for portability, small size, quiet operation, and unobtrusiveness. And in that regard, the world has shifted around the Leica while the Leica has stayed the same. Most any bread-and-butter digicam fits the original Leica gestalt better than the Leica does, these days—they're smaller, quieter, less obtrusive, more portable (see Mitch Alland's comment in the "Leica M8 Pro and Con: Pro" thread).

A "Barnack camera" (i.e., thread-mount Leica). Prior to roughly 1950, many serious amateurs and most professionals looked down their noses at 35mm cameras because of their low enlargement quality, often deriding them as "toys" and refusing to take them seriously.

Mind you, I'm not knocking Leica's choices. It made the M8 as much like an M as possible because that's what its faithful wanted, and giving your customers what they want can hardly be construed as a bad thing. The M8 is trying to be an M that just happens to be digital; but in terms of my thought experiment, if it were a film camera, it would feel not so much like a Leica but like a clunky, cheaper copy of a Leica. The feeling of build quality is almost there but not quite; the shutter delay doesn't have the razor-sharp responsiveness of the film M's (the Canon XTi to which I compared the M8 has a markedly better, quicker, and more responsive shutter feel); the controls, although nicely conceived, are somewhat slow and unsure; and the always-ready, always-on, tough-as-nails feel of the film cameras just doesn't translate to what is, after all, mainly a piece of electronics. Nice try—A for effort—but a miss. If it weren't a digital camera, the M8 wouldn't quite make it as a Leica.

But, of course, it is a digital camera. So if that's what you want, then there you are.

What about the opposite?
That is, what if the M8 were digital, but not a Leica?

With some of my shooting I got great files from the M8. It's clearly a DSLR-quality sensor capable of high-quality results. With more experience, no doubt I could do even better.

There's some question about the color accuracy, if the forums are any indication—one issue after another comes up and gets hashed to death. This may be a manifestation of the remorselessness of Leica-obsession, but I doubt that that's the entire cause. I can't draw any solid conclusions about colors because I didn't perform any real tests and I didn't use the M8 for very long. I had no problems with shadows. But the camera had pinkeye. I might be spoiled, as my regular camera has unusually good color accuracy. However, unbidden, my friend Nick H. reported, "Having shot about a dozen images on my little SD card with Mike L.'s loaner M8 and my 40 Rokkor, I ran them through the preliminary 'processing' routine last night. This involves laying out the images in Adobe Bridge and inspecting them in Camera Raw to see how much adjustment they need before being dumped into Photoshop for final tweaking and printing. The first thing that struck me was the color rendering. Your face was imaged in a lurid shade of deep pink not usually seen outside of Toys 'R' Us, and it was only with some heroic manipulations of the Color Temperature, Tint, and Saturation sliders that I could get you to appear mostly human although still not at all well."

(A note to skeptics: in real life I do indeed look like a well human.)

Second, the camera is slow. It writes files to the card slowly, and a "burst" is not very burst-like at all. Scrolling through images on the LCD screen, you can flick through three or four quickly before the camera has to pause to catch up. When magnifying the LCD image to look at details, if you zoom all the way in quickly, the image is at first coarsely pixelated until the buffer catches up and the "detailed detail" appears. This is like going back in time, to earlier generations of DSLRs, and it destroys the sense of undefeatable positive responsiveness that the film cameras always had. Speed performance, at any rate, is pretty marginal by current standards.

The shutter has a "rubbery" feel, more than the usual delay, and it's loud. It makes a muffled "thunk" sound followed by a grinding whirr. Not that it's bad in any objective sense; it's a soft-sounding noise, and it's lower than the shutter sound of many a DSLR (although the Canon XTi, in a direct comparison, is quieter). But it's louder than a film M, and, again, the world has changed—many digicams are silent. Silent, as in no noise at all. It's in these contexts that the M8 has to be judged as being on the loud side.

And finally (saving the worst for last), the LCD screen is downright poor. You have to change its brightness settings manually, and even so, in bright sunlight you can't see the image well enough to evaluate your cropping. Indoors, where the LCD image is visible, it's a bit grainy, with an oversharpened look (maybe that can be fixed in the settings)—and highly directional. The directionality is its real Achilles' heel. If you're as little as 10 or 20 degrees off-axis, the image is degraded such that you can't evaluate color or exposure even approximately. Worse, by the time you're off-axis by about 30 degrees or more looking down from above, the image disappears altogether.

On axis, above, the LCD is fine. As little as 30 degrees off axis from above, as in the picture below, and the image is all but invisible.

This isn't poor performance for a $4,800 camera—it's on the poor side for the average pocket digicam, and I don't know of any current DSLR that's anywhere close to as bad. In fact, just to be sure of myself here, it was at this point that I hopped in the car and zoomed down to the local Circuit City to compare it directly to the Canon XTi, and what I found was what I expected—the XTi's LCD screen (like that of the D80, D40, 30D, D200, E-500, A100, etc., etc.) was much better.

The best way to use the M8, then, is to ignore the LCD screen completely—just shoot, then look at your files for the first time after downloading them. I'm sure this suits many veteran Leicaphiles, but that's no excuse. It has a curious side-effect that's also very un-Leica-like...as far as the LCD screen is concerned, I felt somewhat "blinded" at times. This is directly contrary to the Leica's traditional virtue, which is that the bright, water-clear viewfinder always made it seem like you could always see everything, even when the light was bad.

Putting aside for a moment the ghosts in the air and the weight of tradition, the Canon XTi that I pressed into service as a point of comparison emerged looking surprisingly good. It's better not just generically, but even at some of the things that are considered the Leica's traditional stocks-in-trade: the XTi is just as small, light, and portable; it's just as quiet, if not more so; it's considerably more responsive, positive, and fast; and—most damning to the German camera, bordering on a sacrilege—the Canon's shutter feel and shutter lag are both decidedly better than the Leica's. It doesn't have rangefinder viewing, of course, but, offsetting that, its LCD is easily superior. It can't take Leica primes, but it can use teles and zooms, which the M8 can't. Plus, its metering is more accurate, and users report fewer problems with color (hardly surprising, since Canon has vastly more experience with digital sensors). The M8 is far, far more nicely built, in accordance at least to some degree with the disparity in cost, and the Canon hasn't got a fraction of the Leica's panache. But point-for-point, even at some of the most Leica-esque of virtues, the XTi is arguably a better camera. And not just for the money. (Pity about that crappy viewfinder, and I sure hope users can defeat that zany mind-of-its-own pop-up flash in the settings menus.)

So, vis-à-vis thought experiment #2, if the M8 weren't a Leica rangefinder, it wouldn't rank very highly as a digital camera. It's okay; it's just that the entry-level Canon I compared it to is better, never mind the more expensive models.

Of course, it is a Leica rangefinder. So if that's what you want, there you go—again.

Cost is relative
there's one final issue that I haven't covered yet (which will eventually lead me to one last thought experiment). Namely, cost.

If you persist in demanding or expecting that your expenditure be efficient, the M8 doesn't make a whole lot of dollars-and-cents sense.

However, luxury goods are defined as goods which are more desirable, and sell better, when they cost more rather than less. The M8 is a luxury product, and consequently there's quite a premium to pay for it. Presumably, buyers like that about it.

Not me, though. I'm never going to pay $4,800 for a digital camera, personally. I'm just plain not rich enough, for one thing. But even if I were rich, I'd still be a cheapskate. And even if I weren't a cheapskate, I still wouldn't be very status-conscious, because I just don't care very much about that sort of thing (my watch is a big dopey-looking Timex, for instance. I like it because the face lights up in the dark). So nothing—well, no camera—can sell me on $4k worth of prestige. Or even $2k worth. It just isn't possible. I'm not susceptible.

Not only that, but as a camera reviewer and magazine writer, I would never recommend that anyone else pay $4,800 for a digital camera, either. The march of progress and the pace of obsolescence is just too swift. The premium the M8 demands over even a Canon 5D is $2k, which is, in terms of cost-efficiency, crazy.

Mind you, when I say I would never recommend a $4,800 camera to other people, that's not the same thing as saying other people shouldn't buy one. They should if they want to. And maybe they just can. If there's one thing I've learned in dealing with photography enthusiasts over the years, it's that price is relative.

A little story comes to mind. I had a girlfriend once who asked me to help her buy a nice stereo. I planned a whole afternoon of store-hopping, fully expecting to expose her to a lot of different equipment and educate her enough about the options so that she could make an intelligent choice. Almost as an afterthought, as we walked into the first store (it was a Myer-Emco in Washington, D.C.), I thought I'd have her "calibrate her ears" by first listening to the store's reference system. She listened to half of a song, and said, "Okay. I'll take it."

"No, no," I said, shocked. "I didn't mean you should actually buy this one. I just wanted you to hear it before we go upstairs to listen to some other speakers—"

"What do you mean? Are there better ones upstairs?"

"No, but—"

"Isn't this a good one?"

"Yes, it's a very good one, but—"

"So what's the problem? I like it," she chirped. "I'll take it."

The salesman had this bright, happy, dazed look.

So anyway, after loading $12k worth of stereo gear into her big black BMW (that was a lot of dough for a stereo back in the mid-'80s), we were on our way back to her place to set it up when we happened to pass an certain antiques store. "Ooh, I saw the most gorgeous little Renaissance madonna in there a few weeks ago," she exclaimed. "I'm going to stop and get it." Then, half to herself, she added, "No, on second thought, it's $6,000, and I've got to try to be good. I've already spent enough money for one day!"

Ahem. Anyway, like I say, this stuff is relative. A price that's out of sight for some is trivial to others. Same as it ever was. And it's not for a reviewer to judge what's worth what to whom.

The bottom line
But on to my last thought experiment. In this review, I can't fall back on the standard reviewer's parting "would I buy it" shot. I know I'm not going to buy it for what it costs. To get down to my own bottom-line verdict, I had to imagine that the M8 doesn't cost what it does. What if there were no premium to pay? What if the M8 cost, say, $1,500, roughly double the price of a Canon XTi?

To sum up from above, the M8 doesn't quite make it for me as an M camera. It's physically similar to the film versions but misses the gestalt, perhaps unavoidably. To me it ends up feeling more like a weird replica of an M than a real one. And it's a decent but not great digital camera, bettered by average DSLRs in both operability and, to a lesser extent, image quality. But if for some reason your digital camera must be a Leica or your Leica must be digital, then it's the only game in town. And I can see that. As ennumerated yesterday, there are some good reasons to want one.

I didn't hate the M8. I actually kinda liked it, for exactly the reason I'm supposed to, namely, that it reminded me of the film versions. I can see how others might like it, too. If it were my camera, I could get used to it. So would I buy one if it cost $1,500? Surprisingly, I actually didn't have to think very long or hard about this. The honest answer, I'm afraid, is no. I know some people are crazy about the lenses, but my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result. And I can't get excited enough about the lens quality to be willing to put up with such a compromised body, and a shooting experience that, while pleasant, is not spot-on.

This is just one guy's opinion, a single data input, nothing more. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

ERRATUM*: The quote that originally appeared at the top of this page was not an actual quote. My apologies for screwing up.

UPDATE: Read Colin Jago's response to this review.

Featured [partial] Comment by Carsten Bockermann: "...To continue the Leica tradition of small, fast cameras with truly excellent lenses, I think we need a new system designed from scratch." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

Feature [partial] Comment by William: "...This camera suffers from distorted color performance due to its IR sensitivity. IR light is minimally at removed before the sensor by a very thin, relatively inefficient optical filter in order to achieve the highest possible optical performance (all filtering—analog or digital—degrades information content to some degree). So, Leica traded color fidelity for optical fidelity. This means that color photography must be done with an IR filter in front of the lens.

"I have looked at hundreds of on-line M8 photos since December because I love the rangefinder/M esthetic and the idea of a digital M mount rangefinder really appeals to me. Pixel-peeping clearly reveals the M8's excellent image quality. This camera takes full advantage of Leica lenses as well as glass from Voightlander, Zeiss, Rokkor and others. Leica's strategy to eliminate the pre-sensor anti-aliasing filter and use a thin IR filter is a success. But viewing even low-resolution, on-line M8 color images shows IR contamination is problematic on most images recorded without on-lens IR filters. No amount of post-processing manipulation can eliminate the color distortion (post-processing can produce some amount of improvement). While IR contamination is most evident in the blacks and greens, all colors are affected to some degree. The color on the majority of M8 images I've seen just isn't right." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

*That's Latin for "egg on face."

58 Comments:

Blogger BayAreafilmguy said...

Oh man, a slighlty negative review of a Leica...

Get ready to be pounced on!

10:25 PM  
Blogger Mitch Alland said...

Great review, Mike! In my comment on your "pro" article I wrote about my love for the "35mm aesthetic" in B&W as the reason for not being attracted to the M8, which produces a medium format film look up through ISO640. But now I can see, reading your "con" article, that the M8 doesn't have the gestalt — gotta like that word — of a Leica M.

So, I have these two M6s sitting in my dehumidifier in Bangkok together with a range of Leica-M lenses and the only reason I've been keeping all this equipment is on the off-chance that I'll eventually go on a two-week trek to New Guinea where battery charging would be impossible: I even tried to contact (unsuccessfully) Chris Rainier, who runs workshops going there. But I doubt I'll ever get to New Guinea; and I know that I'll never go back to film, barring New Guinea, because scannning and spotting are not something that I want to do again, not to speak of driving a couple of miles in Bangkok traffic -- we're talking about 45min each way -- to the pro lab to get film developed and contact sheets made, as I don't want to get into "tropical processing". And to top it all, my favorite lens, the DR Summicron, cannot be used of the M8 because of its large flange. Looks like I'm about to let sanity take over...

—Mitch/Paris

10:39 PM  
Blogger Mitch Alland said...

Mike, another thought: you write, "my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result". Can you expand on the reasons for this?

—Mitch/Paris

10:44 PM  
Blogger paul said...

YES! You do think it sounds like a gravel crusher!

I feel so vindicated. :-)

11:12 PM  
Blogger hugo said...

Maybe you should have put in a bit more effort with that rich former girl friend :-)

11:24 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

About the reddish-pink skintones… could this have been due to the M8's IR sensitivity? This article at Smugmug claims that the IR sensitivity of digital sensors tends to cause overly red skintones and more noticeable blood vessels, especially with lighting from flash units.

I don't know anything about the topic, myself. Just thought they sounded related.

12:20 AM  
Blogger Intensecure said...

Having the read the almost fanatical fetishism going on at that Leica Users Forum that you linked to, then I see no hope for the future of Leica.The way it was dissected as a holy relic, and then justified as superior to all other electronic cameras - despite being much the same, if maybe even more crude - just made the heart sadden with the false idol that they were venerating.
It has become (always was?)an object of almost unholy devotion, but in this era of disposable electronics, instant redundancy,and almost instant change and improvement (for the main part) brought to mind the dying of a legend, and the futility of worship of anything mechanical or electronic as the world moves on.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Player said...

You totally answered my question about whether the M8 was a "real M camera." It's pretty shocking to read an objective review.

Assuming your Con blog is spot-on accurate, who would buy the camera if it was only 1500 bucks? At least paying 4800 clams gives the illusion it's a real M camera.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

Mike, let's for a moment disregard all the uninteresting stuff in your post about the overpriced optical iPod [BTW, I completely concur with your assessment], could you tell me more anout the girlfriend you mention?

I mean, there's a lady not only well endowed [monetary at least] - she has no trouble spending 12K on loudspeakers! that sounds like every males dream.

Usually my girlfriends have great trouble with my stereo; actually, any guy I've ever met being interested in listening to good music on good equipment had to go through a lot of rouble persuading his female significant other about the importance of it.

Please, forget about Leica and tell us more about her: is she married, age, address, telephone numbers, e-mail, IM ...

3:04 AM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

Mike,

our history with Leica Ms seems to be very similar. Like you, I handled an M4-P in the early 1980s and found it rather strange (I used a Nikon SLR at the time). In 1991 I finally bought my first Leica, an M6. It took me more than a year to really get the hang of RF shooting, but after that I buried the Nikons in the closet and used the Leicas almost exclusively.

More or less our of curiosity I bought a Nikon D70 in 2004 and - oops! - it allowed for pretty good 16x20 prints, which did in fact surprise me. After a while I liked digital so much I switched to Nikon DSLRs completely. Of course I hated their size and weight and feared the loss of the 'unobtrusiveness' the Leica is so famous for. In practice that didn't happen - I found that the way I interact with people is so much more important than the size of camera.

Still, a few weeks ago I borrowed an M8 for a long weekend. It felt similar to an M6, although 'not quite there' in terms of build quality. The user interface is horribly slow compared to my Nikon D200s. And worst of all, I found the M8 to be quite noisy (acoustically). While its sound seems a little less loud than that of most DSLRs, it lasts much longer, so in the end it is more noticeable.

I had hoped for superior image quality, but in my (limited) testing I couldn't find it. I am under the impression that some Leica lenses that were great on film don't work all that well with a digital sensor. The same is BTW true for some Nikkors from the film era, the good news being that Nikon (and other DSLR manufacturers, of course) offer lenses that are designed for digital sensors and play well with them.

To sum it up: to continue the Leica tradition of small, fast cameras with truly excellent lenses, I think we need a new system designed from scratch.

Carsten

3:40 AM  
Blogger Guy Batey said...

Aren't women great? I find it half terrifying and half wholely admirable the way they can buy a hi-fi in 5 minutes flat, while the average man will spend 5 months feverishly scouring websites and reviews. Then they'll spend more time singing along to it than any fool on a Linn 'tune test'.

Anyway, back to Leica's...

3:54 AM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Do U still have the phone number of that girlfriend? :)

Nice review, I never understood leicas and rangefinders alltogether, so this is not a game for me, and Leica to me it's just a myth.

3:56 AM  
Blogger xtoph said...

ooof. that certainly was a body blow to the m8. i'm sorry to hear a confirmation of some of the points that niggled at me and made me not really want one of these (mainly responsiveness issues). it hurts because i doubt there is an upgraded model, fixing the outstanding issues, waiting in the wings for xmas release (or even next xmas), and i'd be happy if there were one.

two things though: first, though i am sure it isn't the first time you've heard it said, your resistance to status-marking commodities sounds suspiciously like it is... wait for it... also bound up in a certain kind of status. you want to see yourself as the kind of fellow who doesn't care about luxury goods? kinda like steve jobs wearing mock turtlenecks and jeans everywhere? rebel type? well, isn't that one of the classic status poses?

this isn't meant to be a personal attack--heck, i tend to think of myself as a person who doesn't give a flying hoot about status and prestige issues. but i know i am caught in a larger system, a commodity symbol system, and styling myself as someone who doesn't want to play still gets assimilated into that system, gets chewed up and digested into a pretty tangled knot of motivations and perceptions on the parts of both others and myself, and... well, it's hard to disentangle. for instance, what if there were no leica badge at all on that camera, and it were sitting on a library shelf along with myriad other cameras waiting to be checked out by whoever needed to use one of them, for free, just like library books? would you check it out from time to time? what for? how often? just a thought experiment.

oh, and, funny story, i once had a similar experience helping a friend buy a new camera, we were supposed to go shopping the next day but on the way to a movie happened to pass a camera store... i pointed out the canon eos3 just to show her some of the neat tricks it could do, and damned if she didn't buy the thing on the spot, whole transaction took about 5 minutes. money changes everything.

4:00 AM  
Blogger Robin P said...

Thank you so much for this Mike, those of us that will never be able to afford Leica will feel much better now! Very comforting to be able to think that it wouldn't be worth the money even if we had it to spare.

I really empathise with your girlfriend shopping for stereo story - its always fun spending someone else's money but so frustrating when they simplify the experience.

Finally a comment on your observation "but my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result."
It would be nice to fully accept this argument and hope that improving our sharpening skills can save money on glass but I believe this would be over simplifying the issue. The one area that shows a big difference between old glass and the new "designed for digital" lenses is very high contrast / contre-jour work, coincidentally the same type of photography where film still makes a good result easier to obtain than digital.

Cheers, Robin

5:03 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Possibly your best article yet, Mike. You and I are continents apart politically, but we think just alike when it comes to spending hard-earned dollars on camera equipment. Panache doesn't give me better photos. But I also agree that people should buy whatever make/model they enjoy for whatever reasons they enjoy it. And they have no need to justify their purchase to anyone else.

I thought it was above all, an objective review. I doubt most Leica fans will see it that way, so batten down the hatches for their rebuttals!

5:39 AM  
Blogger omel said...

It's a pity that this honest review will get a lot of negative flack

6:26 AM  
Blogger Boris said...

Indeed, I think that nowadays Canon L lenses, Pentax Limited lenses (I don't know what is the name of respective Nikon lenses) offer truly excellent optical quality and image quality. So, like you say, if it must be Leica, then of course it is M8. Otherwise, well, otherwise is just this - other-wise.

I had most enjoyable time reading both parts of your story about M8!

Thanks.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I still think lenses are very important in the digital age, and a quick trip to www.slrgear.com will prove this. However, I see no optical superiority in Leica lenses over high quality lenses from dSLR manufacturers. So, lens lust has never been a factor for me owning a Leica. However, the portability of the M mount is hard to beat.

8:42 AM  
Blogger David Bennett said...

And if you want another camera to compare it to; the Nikon D40 has the good qualities that the Canon does - see my blog at

NikonCameraReviews

8:46 AM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

I remember seeing a comment on another site that applies here, I think. The poster said something along the line of: The thing that sets Leica users apart is their willingness to accept defects/quirks that wouldn't be allowed in other brands.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"two things though: first, though i am sure it isn't the first time you've heard it said, your resistance to status-marking commodities sounds suspiciously like it is... wait for it... also bound up in a certain kind of status. you want to see yourself as the kind of fellow who doesn't care about luxury goods? kinda like steve jobs wearing mock turtlenecks and jeans everywhere? rebel type? well, isn't that one of the classic status poses?"

xtoph,
Fascinating! You managed to pack an awful lot into that little comment.

I can see your point and I'm really not certain. For one thing, I've enjoyed a certain "reflected" status over the years because I come from "old money," sort of (basically meaning, I have rich relatives). Second, if I had a lot of money myself, I'm certain I would have a pretty status-conscious car. Not sure exactly what it would be, because I tend not to shop for things I can't afford, but it would be a screamer. And turn heads.

Finally, I've noticed over the years that there are so many things I don't care about, but the three interests I reliably return to are books (and reading and ideas), music, and photography. In all three of those areas I'm as bad as a woman with thirty purses or a guy who won't be seen dead with anything on his wrist but an Omega. I'm actually more of a photo snob than I appear on the blog, because I see myself as serving an audience, and serving the audience is more important to me than staking out my own prejudices.

Funny story with regard to books--years ago, in photo school, I was moving into the school "dorm," which was a brownstone townhouse in which I had a basement suite. I got my little brother to help me move. When we got there, he went inside to look at the place. My roommate had already moved in, but wasn't there. My brother came out and said, "Have you met your roommate yet?" I said no. He said, "Well, I can tell you one thing about him, he's quite the pseudo-intellectual. My god, those books he's got."

But my roommate didn't have any books. They were MY books, which I'd brought over in my car the evening before.

Busted! :-)

--Mike

9:17 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Finally a comment on your observation 'but my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result.' It would be nice to fully accept this argument and hope that improving our sharpening skills can save money on glass but I believe this would be over simplifying the issue. The one area that shows a big difference between old glass and the new "designed for digital" lenses is very high contrast / contre-jour work, coincidentally the same type of photography where film still makes a good result easier to obtain than digital."

Robin P.,
Sean Reid disagrees with this too. Perhaps this is worth more experiment in the future. My sense has been that so much can be done in post-processing to "mimic" certain optical qualities and change and correct the very plastic image, that the end result is not so dependent on the lens image as photographs were with film. But perhaps the story is more complicated than that, and some properties are still very lens-dependent while other things are less so. At the very least, *different* optical properties are highlighted in digital, and some of the things that make a film lens great are not as important in digital.

--Mike

9:27 AM  
Blogger fogg said...

Did you just say you wouldn't buy a Leica and then praise a low level canon dslr?

If you need me, I'll be waiting for the four horsemen...

9:31 AM  
Blogger David Bennett said...

Mike,
Thanks for publishing my comment. I see that the html I used in the link does not work. So maybe the correct thing seems to be to just put the blog name in full - here's hoping.

http://nikoncamerareviews.blogspot.com

9:56 AM  
Blogger David Bennett said...

Last try

nikoncamerareviews.blogspot.com

10:26 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Hahahaha, you're a philosopher Mike. I feel the same way about nice expensive things. Lately I've discovered the difference between wanting and needing, and that's all there is to it. If you can get it without selling your soul, get it. Luxury is only luxury when you can afford it without a second of hesitation
And status, it only requires mentioning when you feel in need of it. If you have taste and manners you don't need no stinking status (it's implied you know you already have it, off course).

11:59 AM  
Blogger ADias said...

Perhaps the first review that buries the myth and... you didn't even discuss the IR problems, Leica's lame IR filter add-on no-solution, stupid lack of AA filter leading to horrible aliasing (that nobody seem to see, but is there) and so on.

12:08 PM  
Blogger William said...

Thank you for an honest, informed review.

Following Rangefinder Forum and the Leica Users Group made me realize the Leica faithful will tolerate any short coming of the M8. The issues you mention are significant. But for me the deal killer is the color image performance.

Though the M8 is very expensive, this camera suffers from distorted color performance due to it's IR sensitivity. IR light is minimally at removed before the sensor by a very thin, relatively inefficient optical filter in order to achieve the highest possible optical performance (all filtering –analog or digital – degrades information content to some degree). So, Leica traded color fidelity for optical fidelity. This means that color photography must be done with an IR filter in front of the lens.

I have looked at hundreds of on-line M8 photos since December because I love the rangefinder/M esthetic and the idea of a digital M mount rangefinder really appeals to me. Pixel peeping clearly reveals the M8's excellent image quality. This camera takes full advantage of Leica lenses as well as glass from Voightlander, Zeiss, Rokkor and others. Leica's strategy to eliminate the pre-sensor anti-aliasing filter and use a thin IR filter is a success. But viewing even low-resolution, on-line M8 color images shows IR contamination is problematic on most images recorded without on-lens IR filters. No amount of post-processing manipulation can eliminate the color distortion (post-processing can produce some amount of improvement). While IR contamination is most evident in the blacks and greens, all colors are affected to some degree. The color on the majority of M8 images I've seen just isn't right.

At the same time all the B&W M8 images I've seen are very impressive in every way. The M8 may be the best way to shoot digital B&W with an investment of under ~$10K.

Of course placing an IR filter in front of the lens solves the problem. In fact, Leica promises to eventually gift each M8 owner with two free IR filters (and early adopters were given a substantial discount on any Leica M lens as well). However, unless one only needs two IR filters to enjoy their M lens collection, there are additional costs.

While I could afford a M8, I will never buy one. For me, film is not that inconvenient or expensive to overcome my perception of the M8's cost:benefit ratio.

Instead I'm entering digital photography with a D200/wide-andl zoom and a four-strobe/lightstand/Pocket Wizard kit. Leica did not get my ~$5K dollars. I continue to film with a M mount rangefinder (Zeiss Ikon M). For me, this is the best of both worlds (digital and film).

12:35 PM  
Blogger david vatovec said...

Oh, Mike - i forgot to mention:"Hope U'll survive this!" :)

12:53 PM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

In regard to M8 image quality, check the thread http://www.leica-camera-user.com/leica-m8-forum/9022-30-x-40-inch-m8-prints.html#post89115.

At first blush, the poster's contention may seem exaggerated, but Adamson's credentials give him the weight to back it up.

(Long thread, but with a lot of good info from a master printer.)

2:06 PM  
Blogger paul said...

As perfectly as it fits into Leica's historical mindset, I think the Hanns-Peter Cohn quote was made up by Dante Stella:

http://www.dantestella.com/technical/digilux.html

5:02 PM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

I hear what you say about conspicuous consumption: my Rolex watch - a gift (unasked for) from my father - is awful at telling the time...

Part of me wants to take part in, be consumed by, the Leica legend. But my better angels remind me that a.) I have no money and b.) I have a camera already...

Thanks for giving those angels a helping hand :-)

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Paul,
"Our fact-checkers are superb and never make mistakes." --The Iraqi Minister of Information

Thanks. Sometimes I hate the internet.

--Mike

5:46 PM  
Blogger hugo solo said...

A honest view about the M8.
(a G7 owner)

6:13 PM  
Blogger Preston said...

I really appreciate the overall sensitivity and balance of your M8 review. And as a longtime (and dedicated) M6 user, I agree about the Leica lenses being overrated and the prices being wildly high. But I have to differ from you in that I can't see a DSLR as a realistic alternative no matter how cost effective it is. To me the viewing system is the most important part of a camera. I really don't want a projected, focused DSLR viewfinder, useful as it may be to others.

The M8 is the only digital camera I know of that approaches your "DMD" objective if one requires at least the coverage of a film 35mm lens, which rules out the RD-1 without external nonfocusing, uncorrected viewfinders. No others have good viewfinders, and few write RAW, and those that do write very slowly.

The M8 has a nice big clear viewfinder, quick manual focusing, quick manual exposure metering, is pretty fast shot to shot, and writes RAW files with decent dynamic range. These are pretty fundamental attributes for some kinds of photography.

Unfortunately, as you pointed out (and I have verified in playing with one) it is louder, bigger, less precise in feel, and generally a bit inferior to previous M's in every way but imaging.

If Leica should quiet the shutter and offer a wider viewfinder option like they did on the M6 and M7 I will look at the M8 again despite its price. I don't need a status symbol, just a good tool that does what I want it to. Despite its warts, I can't see any clear alternative if one really wants high quality, wide angle, direct viewing and good manual control in a digital camera... DSLR's notwithstanding.

7:00 PM  
Blogger John MacKechnie said...

I caught the last day of the Henri Cartier-Bresson Scrapbook exhibit at ICP today and was reminded once again.......It's not about the Camera.

Leica envy. Perhaps. Cartier- Bresson. With out a doubt.

John MacKechnie

9:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"It's not about the Camera"

No, it's really not.

--Mike

9:05 PM  
Blogger tsj said...

Mike, brave review, but I suggest you see an optometrist, apparently you can’t see the Emperor’s new clothes.

9:24 PM  
Blogger David Kelly said...

Mike, in your opinion what digital camera now available is best suited to fill the Leica's traditional role of being an inconspicuous visual notebook, an "extension of my eye" that is put on in the morning and carried all day? I guess I'm asking what comes closest to your DMD concept that one can actually buy.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Hi David,
If I could find it, I'd buy one.

The M8 comes closest, despite all its problems. A small DSLR with a small prime would also work. Some people also have favorite digicams, although I haven't found one that's within shouting distance.

--Mike

9:47 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Ah well, perhaps the idea is better than the reality. I think to be honest a lot of people, even non Leica users, wanted to the M8 to be a success. Too many premier brands have bitten the dirt with the advent of digital, and the M8 was the "great white hope". Unfortunately the gnomes at Solms don't bring out new models very quickly so it will probably take them a good 5 years to take on board the criticism of the M8 and correct them. Meanwhile the rest of the digital world moves with such breakneck speed there is every chance they might be consigned to dust bin of history.

I wonder what the chance is of a RD 2?

4:27 AM  
Blogger doonster said...

I think you summed up everything that I've been thinking about the M8. I've never owned a leica M, probably never will, but a I see the advantages of the genre.

One thing that strikes me, however, is not how small it is but how large (and this from a EOS 20D user).

These days, cameras for discrete shooting are ever shrinking then Leica come along and grow theirs. I can't imagine it ever being inconspicous unless one zone focuses and shoots from the hip, something that can be done with any camera - makes my 20D completely invisible.

I was intrigued by Sean reid's review of the Leica D-Lux 3. Accepting that small sensors are a different format with different characteristics, this appears to be one of the best discrete street cameras around (I prefer the output to that I've seen from the equivalent Panasonic). Certainly piqued my curiosity.

I'm getting to think that a K100D with thw WA pancake might be close to the best DMD option at present.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Mike, many years ago I used Leica M2 and M4 cameras along with either Nikon or Canon SLRs. I enjoyed each and shot differently with each. It was fun switching modes in my vision.

Now I shoot exclusively with Canon DSLRs.

As I've followed the discussions about the Pentax K10D and Olympus E400, it occurs to me that perhaps they would work well as Leica film equivalents (since they are small, light, and quiet) if you just put an optical finder into their hotshoes and a prime lens on them. I've never touched either camera, but wonder if that would do the trick.

7:59 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

Thanks, Mike, very informative. You rock, like Iggy Pop.

Hey, what did that ex of yours *do* for a living? Or had she gotten a large enheritance?

"my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result."

How? Why?

9:42 AM  
Blogger DonovanCO said...

Mike: probably the most honest evaluation of the M8. As a Leica user since 1967, I would actually recommend today that anyone seeking out a small and capable camera for the street consider buying a Voigtlander, a couple of their exellent lenses and a film scanner. Total cost might be about only 1/3 the cost of a M8 body.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Timothy said...

Mike,

You hit the nail on the head about many of the problems that the M8 has, especially its size, cost, and, relative to the film M, loud shutter cocking.

It's helpful that you point out the cons, because for most people this will be the wrong camera because it's a rangefinder, and for people who compare it to a film-based M, the M8 shortcomings might be a disappointment.

Some of the current issues will be fixed through firmware (between the IR filter and my hand-coded with a Sharpie lenses, the IR issue has been rendered moot for me), but many other will require fixes to the hardware (yes, the screen is pretty bad in sunlight and, although I'm not a "chimper" you do need to check framing accuracy, due to the inherent inaccuracy of rangefinder framelines). And, yes, the first time I heard the shutter (cocking) I nearly had a stroke, but I got used to that pretty quickly.

I am *not* a worshipper at the house of Leica (my cameras get pretty bashed up and would never look very good in a glass case), but I think all of the talk about status, the emperor's new clothes, etc. is off the mark. Last I checked, a EOS-1D Mark III was selling for 4,499.95. If I put M8 digital prints side-by-side with prints from the Canon, I think they'd be equal in quality. Yes, the Canon has far, far, more advanced automatic everything and can practically shoot enough frames-per-second to make a movie, but *that's not what I'm looking for*. I'm looking for a high-quality digital rangefinder that will take the lenses that I already own. Right now that means the only choice is the M8, warts and all.

After using a d200 for a year (and a d70 and various digicams before that), I've been shooting with an M8 for the past two months and have found that, even with its imperfections, it fits my shooting style better than any other digital camera I've used and it pretty consistently delivers extraordinarily good photographs. I do wish it were less expensive.

Mechanically, the M8 is pretty lame when compared to an M3, but we've entered the unfortunate age of the expensive disposable camera -- I can't imagine that anyone will be shooting with any current digital camera in 50 years (do we really think that we'll be able to buy batteries for a d200 or an M8 in 50 years?). This, of course, raises the question of whether a $4000-$5000 camera is ever worth it to anyone but a professional.

Finally, Mike, as the person widely considered the coiner of "bokeh", I'm afraid I have to consider your claim that "my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result" to be a little dubious. I'm not a test-chart lens guy, but I do think that in addition to great resolution (which almost all modern lenses have) there are other less difficult to define qualities that survive the transition to digital. I guess this is where the emperor's new clothes argument comes in -- if you can't measure it, it ain't there.

Thanks for the article.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Gianni Galassi said...

Thank you, Mike, for your smooth and clear attitude. I have been shooting with my M4-P for years. The perfect camera. Three years ago I bought an Epson RD-1. Good enough while waiting for a digital M. Last December I bought an M8. Last February I sold it. Here are my comment as a photographer (www.giannigalassi.com), not a collector.
What's Hot: It's a fetish, it's a Leica, it's a digital rangefinder and accepts the best lenses ever.
What's Not: Almost everything else.
Poor image quality.
Very heavy chromatic aberration (colour fringing) whenever an important contrast is at issue. Heavy presence of moiré artifacts.
"Box" artifacts when narrow patterns are in the picture. Unreliable and unpredictable white balance.
The worst colour management I have ever tested, even in budget digital cameras (heavy colour cast difference between center and border of the frame).
Heavy red cast on most black fabrics, no matter the lighting.
Use of IR filters causes chromatic aberration with short lenses (Leica admitted it officially). Heavy banding whenever a lighting source is inside the picture.
Dust production from within the camera (you clean the sensor, you never change the lens, you have dust again after a few shots.
Bad power management (unpredictable battery life). Unreliable AE-lock mechanics (can be easily lost).
Noisy and unpleasant electric shutter rewind (sounds like a hairdryer).
Card formatting takes an eternity to be performed.
ISO setting available only via software (no dedicated knob or button).
Ugly and bulky battery charger (and it's very slow, too).
Poor bundled software (the same that comes for free with any $50 SD card).
Is that enough for the most overpriced camera of all times?
Briefly, I'll stick to my R-D1 (with Leica lenses) and anxiously wait for an R-D2.
Gianni Galassi - Rome - Italy

12:47 PM  
Blogger Carsten Bockermann said...

Gianni,

>>Very heavy chromatic aberration (colour fringing) whenever an important contrast is at issue.

I noticed that, too. The strange thing is that the exact same lenses work very well with film without showing the CA. At least with many DSLRs, the effect can be controlled by software like DxO Optics Pro (which doesn't currently support the M8).

Hopefully your remarks won't be discredited because your exhibition is sponsored by Epson...

2:57 AM  
Blogger dalegaspi said...

Although I would still give you credit for pointing out the warts of the camera but, overall, I still think of this as an unfair review. It should never have been compared to a DSLR. NEVER.

Let me put this in perspective: you need a super-compact. The only compact that is available is a Honda Fit (RD-1) and Toyota Yaris (M8). You cannot argue that a Hummer is better at running over pedestrians (better IQ and faster)...because a Hummer is NOT a compact.

So what is my point? It should have been compared to an RD-1...which is funny because the RD-1 was never mentioned here at all.

BTW i use a D200. I have never even seen an M8 in the flesh. I need a hug.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Arthur said...

It's interesting that you recommend not using the LCD altogether because its display is not clear when you view it off the axis.

Over the course the last 5 months using the M8, when I reviewed an image on the LCD, I have not once viewed it off the axis. I do not see a time when it is necessary unless you are showing the image to someone else.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Over the course the last 5 months using the M8, when I reviewed an image on the LCD, I have not once viewed it off the axis."

Well, uh, doesn't that make sense? I mean, you can't SEE the image off axis, so why wouldn't you learn to look at it on axis? Perhaps if you could just as easily see if off axis as on, you would more often look at it that way.

Doesn't that make sense?

--Mike

8:20 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Gianni Galassi,
I enjoyed looking through your pictures. Thanks for the link.

--Mike

8:22 AM  
Blogger Gianni Galassi said...

Thank you, Mike, for your visit.
Gianni

3:39 PM  
Blogger Zoran said...

I kinda agree with xtoph.
And Mike, I kinda agree with you too;
all lenses are made equal.
Some are just more equal than the others.
Cheers,
Zoran

8:22 PM  
Blogger ef said...

thanx for a candid and helpful pair of reviews. some random musings:

-- much of the criticism i've seen of the M8 and RD-1 sound like they may affect color images more than b&w images. it would be interesting to see evaluations of how these cameras work as strictly b&w cameras. seems likely that a good chunk of the prospective users are b&w shooters.

-- OK, so if the M8 isn't all that hot how do the M8 and RD-1 compare head to head?

-- i wonder if Leica and Epson aren't miss-reading at least part of the rangerfinder user poplation. while i'm sure that there are some nostalgic types, i suspect there are many others who mainly appreciate the spartan elegance of the basic leica design. do removable bottom plates or ornate analog read-outs appeal to such users? is it time for these firms to start some fresh thinking about how the sensibility of spartan elegance that traditional rangefinder cameras expressed in terms of film cameras gets applied to digital cameras? (looking at a calculite foot candle meter might be a good place to start.)

-- as most of us who are used to shooting film are used to carrying something in addition to a camera (like a pocket full of film) perhaps a digital camera aimed at film shooters needn't be completely self contained. if we're shooting raw files anyway do we really need an LCD in every camera body? could we live with a pocket size device that we could tranfer files to for storage and viewing? would this tend to make the cameras more reasonably priced and less delicate?

- ef

4:38 PM  
Blogger nettles said...

With regard to all the discussions about lenses, I wanted to point out (or second) that if one already has a whole host of Leica lenses (or plans on using them with other bodies as acquired), then the M8 might make a good choice.

Full disclosure: I just recently picked up an M8, for many of the reasons mentioned in your 2-part review, and while it has it's pros and cons to be sure, the large collection of lenses some of my friends and family possess make it an attractive way for me to get up and running pretty easily.

To be sure, this is a case particular to my situation, but if, as you say, what one is looking for is a digital Leica, and there are some external reasons to consider it, then I think it makes sense to try it out.

So far, I have been pretty pleased, and, to my eye, the lenses do shoot with a little more visual precision than my 20D's lenses did. But then, that is my objective opinion, and not any advice on the lenses themselves.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for these reviews Mike. I had probably made up my mind to buy the Leica anyway, but your "pro" posting reminded me exactly why I wanted it. I didn't really find anything in the "con" review to affect my decision.

As regards shutter lag, which I was a bit worried about, I did a simple test, and I'm quite happy with it.

M8 shutter lag experiment

NB Why do you only allow Blooger users to comment on your blog?

leica.forthmedia.com

6:21 AM  
Blogger A. B said...

Funny, I was pretty much ready to get an M8 ... then I read this post. You convinced me that only a total tool would spend so much money on a crappy body, and that it would be an insult to the leica lens.

I decided instead to get a 1D mark III, and a few L lenses. Thanks again! =)

3:06 PM  

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