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Friday, April 27, 2007

Leica M8 Pro and Con: Pro

Leicas are good.

The first Leica I ever saw was an M4-P at Industrial Photo in Silver Spring, Maryland, when I was a first-year photography student. I handled it for about 30 seconds, maybe a minute. It felt awkward, unfamiliar, and strange, and I made a distinct mental note: nope, this is not the one for me. I went back to looking at Yashica-era Contaxes, my favorites at the time.

Leicas strike at lot of people that way, at first. Accordingly—mainly in the many volumes of what is by far the largest body of literature devoted to a camera marque—a sort of protective lore has grown up around them, to prevent such snap misimpressions from festering. Nine years later, I bought my own first M Leica, an M6. An enthusiastic follower of the lore myself by then, I set about discerning, learning, and mastering all the camera-handling skills, arcane film-loading protocols, secret handshakes, and so forth.

Eventually that M6 went the way of all cameras, and I started using Olympus OM-4Ts (still probably my lifetime favorite cameras). About five years after I sold my M6, I ran into Nick Zavalishin at Photo East. Nick's a studio pro, but since he was on his own time he happened to be wearing a sparkling mint M6 around his neck. We were outside the Leica booth, where Ralph Gibson was signing books. Nick hadn't heard about pre-focusing, so I was telling him about it. By chance, Nick had a 4th-gen. 35mm Summicron on his M6, which had been my main lens. I took Nick's camera and, without lifting it to my eye, looked at Ralph, focused the camera, and handed it back to Nick. "See how I did," I said. "It should be focused on Ralph." Nick checked, and sure enough, it was.

It's like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget.

And if you really get used to a Leica, nothing else will serve, either. It kinda gets under your skin. You get used to having nothing available but prime lenses—no zooms—in set increments within a fairly narrow range of focal lengths. (.72X Leicas can use lenses from 21mm to 135mm, but for practical purposes their best range is from 28mm to 90mm.) Your eye gets used to seeing like your lens does. You practice pre-focusing—that is, guestimating distance by eye and setting focus by feel—and get used to having a rather cavalier attitude toward the viewfinder, which you only use sometimes. You stop getting distracted by depth of field considerations, since you never look through the lens (think about it—with an SLR, you're always seeing the least d.o.f. the lens is capable of). You get used to the ultraresponsive shutter and addicted to the quiet little "snick," the one that splits into two parts at slow shutters speeds and that hardly anyone ever notices.

Something happened
But then something happened. It went about like this:

• 1994—We don't need no stinkin' digital.

• 1998—Please don't take away my film. Will they still make film? Somebody please tell me they're going to keep making film.

• 2002—Hey, this digital stuff ain't so bad.

• 2006—We don't need no stinkin' film.

2002 was the year that Leica conceded that maybe even consumers would be buying digital cameras in another two decades or more. (Leica lives behind the curve.)

We all know the history. The 3-megapixel, $3,000 Canon D30 changed the landscape, and the original Digital Rebel did it again. Before you knew it, film scanners had fallen off the map, never mind film cameras. And Leicaphiles started swapping rumors of a digital M.

It was a few years in coming, but that's nothing—the half-life of a Leica rumor must be a decade or so. By ordinary Leica standards, the M8 arrived lickety-split, a pleasant surprise. And lo and behold—Leica didn't reinvent the wheel, or play feature-wars with the Asians, or dare to be different—the company did exactly what the overwhelming majority of diehard Leica users wanted it to do: it made a digital M.

Cut to last week, a neat quarter-century since I saw that M4-P at Industrial Photo. I'm at Ancora Coffee in Madison, where some of Wayne Brabender's pictures are being exhibited, with a T.O.P. reader named Mike Lougee, from Minneapolis. I fully expected to take a look-see at Mike's M8 and nothing more, because I had checked with my insurance agent and found that somebody else's $5+k camera would not be covered while it was in my possession. I can't afford a $5k camera at all, but I certainly can't afford $5k to pay for someone else's camera that I break or lose—and that I don't get to keep!

But Mike had also checked with his insurance agent, and he was covered. Mike must be a generous guy, and trusting. The upshot was, I got to use a borrowed M8 for the better part of a week. Not long enough to really get to know it intimately, but long enough to get familiar with it. And remember—it's like riding that bike.

Riding shotgun
It was really nice to reacquaint with a Leica M c. 2007. It felt very familiar. Coming from my oversized, overweight Wunderplastik DSLR with its large and clumsy zoom lens, it was a positive pleasure to wear the M8 like a necklace without having it get in the way. Rangefinder focusing is always a bit awkward at first, but it wasn't long before it became second nature again.

Metering and default white balance outdoors seem fine. Voightlander 21mm lens.

There's not too much different about the M8. It's slightly larger than a real M camera—thicker—and there's no cocking lever to hook your right thumb on. I've never used an M7, so the "A" setting on the shutter speed dial was new to me, too. The oddest and most "precious" feature about the M8 is the fully detachable bottom plate, which never did have much of a rationale on the film cameras, and now has none at all, save the fact that it replicates what the film cameras had. Leica did a nice job with the digital controls, with one exception, which is that once you're in delete mode, you can switch files—pictures—in delete mode and delete the new one with a single click. This led to the first time I've ever deleted by mistake a picture I actually wanted to keep. Most DSLRs make you hit two buttons consecutively, which is safer. Other than that, the digital controls are simple, straightforward, nicely laid out, easy to understand and use.

The main felicity of an M camera is the way it rides shotgun, always there, always on the alert, always ready to go. The M8 is not really different, so long as you have charge in the battery and space on the card. Whereas most cameras want to make it possible to do more and more until you can do an infinite number of things, an M camera doesn't let you do a lot. It pares away what isn't really needed and just leaves what is. The M8's designers respected this principle.

I wasn't able to do a whole lot of shooting with the M8—five sessions, none very long or intense, resulting in not quite a whole 1-GB card. Outdoors the metering is pretty accurate and the default white balance good. The files are large and detailed, as you can see in the example below.

The whole frame. Voigtlander 35mm ƒ/1.7 Ultron.

A central detail (sharpened)

A note-taker, ever-ready
It strikes me that there are four really good reasons to want an M8. The first is if you want DSLR quality but you're accustomed to the feel and handling of rangefinders, especially if your other cameras happen to be M Leicas. Or you just got used to the interface over the years. It might be a relief not to have to switch over to a much more electronically-oriented DSLR to shoot digitally. Second reason is if you already have a lot of Leica M lenses and perhaps other accessories that you know and like and want to continue to use. Third, you might desire the exclusivity: few people can afford to pay the premium, so your M8 will always be the camera of choice for only a select few. Fourth, it comes passably close to the "DMD"—the "Decisive Moment Digital"—that I described some time ago: a handy, portable camera that has a large image sensor and accepts small, compact, but top-quality prime lenses. A note-taker, ever-ready. It's not exactly what I had in mind, but it serves the stated purpose.

I enjoyed my brief sortie with the M8. It's straightforward to use, and like most Leicas (indeed, most rangefinders) encourages you to pay attention to what you're looking at rather than what you're looking through. Using the M8 felt like old home week, 21st-century style. A pleasure.

My thanks to Mike Lougee for the kind loan.


Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "That's a nice backgrounder and summary, Mike.

"I've had an M8 since early February, have used it in all kinds of conditions and agree with your key points. The initial batch of M8s, shipped last November, had some serious problems which Leica has largely remedied through firmware and trips back to Solms. The M8 does, however, still have some quirks. The white balance can be quite adventurous; the power switch on many (mine included) is a bit funky; and cyan vignetting still occurs occasionally with wide-angle lenses. Aside from the power switch issue (which can apparently be fixed only by German elves) the other oddities seem indefinitely intractable and are just part of the camera's character. (The drop-plate bottom is a real hoot.)

"I originally bought an M7 to visit a different and simpler style of 35mm photography. Having a few M lenses from that excursion I was naturally eager for the 'digital M' to appear. In my experience, aside from some new product bumps, the M8 has offered a nearly perfect transition to digital for the M.

"I don't see the M8 as a 'status' symbol at all. The vast majority of the public think it looks like grandpa's old camera and have no idea what an 'M8' is. ('Look mommy, that man has to take his camera apart to change his SD card. That must be a really old camera!') Several years ago a friend's home was burglarized. He had several cameras, among them a Leica M6 and a couple of lenses. The burglars left that several-thousand-dollar kit behind, preferring to snatch a point-and-shoot. True story.

"The M8 is a wonderful little camera. The quality of M lenses, in combination with the unique optical relationship that those lenses have with the sensor, make the M8 quite capable of recording some breathtaking images. But, as yoou noted, rangefinder photography has its practical limits. (This is contrary to some new and born-again enthusiasts' opinions, rather like boys with a hammer seeing a nail-filled world.) I am delighted to have mine. But it's also made me appreciate just how really good and versatile today's digital SLR cameras really are. It's easy to see why the rangefinder camera was nearly wiped away by the SLR.

"By the way, if you're interested in seeing how an M8 is put together take a look at this M8 dissection by Mark Norton on the Leica User Forum. (Warning: Not for the faint.)"


Blogger Mitch Alland said...

Although I have two M6s and a whole range of Leica-M lenses, I have been attracted to getting the M8. The main reason is, from what I can see in Sean Reid's excellent reviews and in many example pcitures on the web, the M8 produces pictures with the look of medium format film, but I like the "35mm aesthetic": I like the grain and the rougher gradation of 35mm film. My feeling is that I can get this look digitally only with small-sensor cameras and, since I bough the Ricoh GR-D in July followed by the Leica D-Lux 3 in December, haven't touched my M6s or shot a frame of film.

To me small sensor cameras are a new format, the way 35mm was a new format when the fist Leicas were sold, characterized graininess at speeds over ISO100-200 and great depth of field. You can see examples, mostly B&W, from my small sensor cameras here:

To shoot pictures with the 35mm aesthetic with the M8 I would have to shoot at ISO1250 or 2500, which is very fast for Bangkok, where I live. Alternatively, I could add grain in post processing, but I prefer to work more directly by getting what I want with the GR-D or the D-Lux — I do a lot of post processing anyway, pretty much what I would do in the darkroom.

The above is the main reason that I haven't been attarcted by the M8: and I haven't gotten into the need for IR cut filters for color or the 0.68x viefinder — my M6 have the 0.85x viewfinder that I really like, but let's leave that for another day.


12:51 AM  
Blogger nzyan said...

Thanks for the article! I just pointed to it from the Leica User Forum:


1:27 AM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

Thanks, Mike. Excellent perception. In my case, my first feel of an M camera I knew it was right. It was tight, compact, had everything I needed to take pictures and nothing more. And that was in the days when everyone's camera was mechanical, with the possible exception of needing a battery for the meter.

Things have changed today for everyone but Leica. I would say they've always been ahead of the curve. You just have to slow down enough to see it.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Player said...

"It's slightly larger than a real M camera—thicker—and there's no cocking lever to hook your right thumb on."

Mike, the M8 isn't a "real M camera"? Or am I reading too much into the sentence?

Very interesting review!

3:08 AM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

Hmm. Leica behind the curve? First successful 35mm camera (invented 24x36 frame). First rangefinder with built-in parallax-corrected frame lines. First SLR with selective (“spot”) metering. First to demonstrate the feasibility of autofocus, presented as a focus-assist device for the SLR. First to make a convertible 35mm SLR, able to shoot either film or digital. Certainly not behind the curve in lens design; with Leica you buy an f/1.4 because you intend to shoot it at f/1.4, not just so you can shoot at f/2.

But you’re right; Leica doesn’t offer a welter of menus, or a choice of which side you want the control knobs on, or AF, or face recognition, or the fastest motor or advertising to tell you it’s the professional’s choice and should be yours. Leica just offers image quality and ergonomics. If you want something else, Leica isn’t for you.

3:17 AM  
Blogger Robin P said...

Great first paragraph Mike, OK I'll admit that I've never even handled a Leica so my version would read
"It looked awkward, unfamiliar, and strange, and I made a distinct mental note: nope, this is not the one for me. Best not to tempt fate by acquiring a taste for something you can't afford."
There IS something about rangefinders though and for the moment I'm happy with my Voigtlander Bessa R and wondering if a second-hand Epson RD-1 will ever be affordable.

That Leica myth really is powerful - how many of us have long since given up reading the minutiae of the latest Canon or Nikon tests but still avidly jump on every word written about the M8......

Cheers, Robin

4:39 AM  
Blogger Brambor said...

The best thing about shooting with Leica M is focusing during low light and portability.

The worst thing is paying too much and dealing with exclusivity.

6:48 AM  
Blogger andy said...

Mike, I too swapped A Leica M and an OM-4T but in reverse order to you. I used an OM-4T, actually the OM-4Ti to be precise, for years until I succumbed to trying an M7. After a year or two I switched back after realizing that, yes, at f/1.4 Leica lenses were a bit sharper than Zuikos, but, no, I didn't see any better through the Leica VF than through the OM's movie screen.

But by then the digi revolution occurred.

I passed on the M8 for all the obvious reasons-- %4800 of them to be exact, and one not so obvious. Olympus came out with the E-400 in Europe last fall. It uses the Kodak 10MP CCd sensor and gives great, film-like files. You can mount the tiny Zuikos on it and zone focus like nobody's business. A 21/3.5 becomes a 42mm equivalent, the best focal length bar none, and you get a bit more real estate on the top and bottom thanks to the 4/3 format. And the whole thing is smaller than anything in the DSLR land, smaller even than the M8. It's smaller even than a Canon AE-1. True. The body cost $800. And nobody will smirk at ya when you wander through the streets.

5000 exposures later I'm a happy camper.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

What, only one picture? (well. out of 1 GB or 90 raw files) It sounds like you renewed your acquaintance but didn't really have any adventures. Continued association, if you can arrange to meet discreetly, could lead to great things. Why, even Michael Reichmann is taking pictures with people in them now!

One thing that bothered me, coming from an M2 which I used with Canon rf lenses about 30 years ago is that the fine new ASPH wonder lenses are really big (on a Leica scale), and quite a bit of the viewframe can be blocked. Did this affect you?


8:34 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"What, only one picture?"

Or three.


10:53 AM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

The apple picture is kewl.
I could never resist a reflection picture, and diner photos are an American staple, aren't they.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Testing Stylesheets said...

" feature-wars with the Asians..."

This isn't meant to be a flame and sorry to chime in here with something so off-topic, but it's a really pity when people believe that non-Occidental nation-companies have to be conflated into and addressed as entire ethnicities. How 1980s/1940s/Stone Age.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

Three pictures? Oh, I missed the apple at the top, which I like. But the car doesn't really count. Was that your "First M8 Exposure," a web standby?

Let's hope you get to take more.


11:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"But the car doesn't really count. Was that your 'First M8 Exposure,' a web standby?"



12:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Hmm. Leica behind the curve? First successful 35mm camera (invented 24x36 frame). First rangefinder with built-in parallax-corrected frame lines. First SLR with selective (“spot”) metering. First to demonstrate the feasibility of autofocus, presented as a focus-assist device for the SLR. First to make a convertible 35mm SLR, able to shoot either film or digital. Certainly not behind the curve in lens design; with Leica you buy an f/1.4 because you intend to shoot it at f/1.4, not just so you can shoot at f/2."

Hi Howard,
I'd argue that most of those "firsts" get chalked up to Leitz's credit, not Leica's. As for the AF claim, can a company can really be given credit for an innovation it never implemented? As for the "covertible SLR" notion, is that really a "first"? Or is it an "only," as in, it flopped, and nobody else followed suit?

The only one I'd REALLY argue with, however, is the last claim, which I think falls much more into the category of mythologizing. The 50mm Summicron was clearly designed to make the widest aperture usable, but the pre-ASPH f/1.4 lenses were no better than everybody else's generally. The 11113/4 50mm was no great shakes wide open, although it had pretty good contrast, and the 11869-72 35mm Summilux was "usable" wide open only if you liked the look of massive aberrations. (I actually thought it was kinda neat.)

Meanwhile, among the things Leica was behind the curve on:

--introducing an SLR;
--built-in light meter;
--AF (implementation, not research);
--on the M, such modernities as a swing open back and dust sealing.

The M Leica is brilliant, possibly the #1 camera design of all time (perhaps second to wooden flat-bed view cameras considered generically), but cutting edge it hasn't been since the Nikon F came out in 1959, if it ever really was.


12:47 PM  
Blogger Juan Buhler said...

Thanks for the impressions Mike.

There is something on your characterization of the typical M user that I highly disagree with though:

"...and get used to having a rather cavalier attitude toward the viewfinder, which you only use sometimes."

The viewfinder is probably the main reason, along with the ergonomics, why I love the Leica! It's big, bright, and shows you what's going on outside the frame. I always look through it, and I don't really consider myself atypical in that sense.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think I bought that M4-p from Industrial and a second one too about 1980-81. They replaced or supplemited my 20year old M-2's...I made a mistake and sold all Leica to go digital and now long for the M vision again with the M8's birth. The world isn't always perfect.

Steven Alexander

2:33 PM  
Blogger Howard Cornelsen said...

Thanks for posting a response to my mythologizing only after letting it sink in a bit.

You’re right, the previous 35/1.4 wasn’t much wide open. Actually, though, I prefer the softer drawing of the pre-aspheric f/1.4’s and find them fully usable wide open. And I maintain the opinion that when you compare Leica lenses with the other brands of the same period, the Leicas are better, and with a few exceptions like that 35, quite usable wide open.

You distinguish between Leica and Leitz. I don’t. I worked for the company when the decision was made to change the name: “Hey, we have one brand, one name recognized around the world. Who ever took a picture with a Leitz?” It was a marketing decision. The separation of the camera division into a separate company to sink or swim came about the same time, but its people and ideals didn’t change.

It’s clear why Leica never produced AF lenses for its cameras: To do so, they would have had to lighten the mounts and lose some of the precision that sets them apart. AF is an achievement, and Leica is the first company to illustrate with a working prototype (the Correfot) that electronics could be used to read and maximize contrast.

In regard to built-in meter, Leica was there (and with a spot meter) when the Nikon F still was changing prisms to get one.

I don’t say I’m right or you’re wrong. You and I have different ways of seeing the same things. The digital module for the reflex camera was a first; it was quite expensive and other companies could make more by building digital-only cameras. Maybe we could agree that Leica may or may not be behind the curve, but they’re following a different track?

In 1997 Leica had the S1, a scanning digital camera which was unfortunately discontinued with a change of ownership now thankfully in the past (

As for affording a Leica, that’s why you buy other equipment. No one ever bought a Leica as his first camera. One day you start to see that it might offer something you’re not getting, and you buy some used Leica goods to check it out; and maybe then you trade in your other equipment to roll in all the way.

Your review is good; it’s more than fair and I thank you for it.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Steven Alexander,
That would have been right around when I was looking at it. I took an optics class at the University of Maryland (wonderful professor, but I've forgotten his name) and I'd stop at Industrial on the way home. I got to be friends with a salesman named Ray, who raised pot-bellied pigs on a farm out in the countryside. A true animal-lover. After I got my M6 I went out there and took a bunch of pictures of the pigs.


3:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Your review is good; it’s more than fair and I thank you for it."

Don't thank me yet. That was on the "Pro" half. The "Con" half is still to come.


3:54 PM  
Blogger Boris Liberman said...

As of now if I were to change systems away from Pentax (limited lenses) it would be Leica M-system. I like shooting towards wide open and it seems to me that modern Leica lenses are optimized to perform great open wide.

Fascinating review, Mike, not your all-too-usual-internet review of the camera, but rather a little essay on the subject.

Most enjoyable, most enjoyable if you ask me.


6:51 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

A friend who shoots a Zorki and I once went to a gallery opening (we weren't supposed to be there, totally Mentos'd our way in). Inside, we met an artist carrying a beautifully polished field camera around his neck, attached with a leather shoelace like he was going to whip it out and take a couple of snapshots in a dim museum.

The ultimate status symbol -- a beautiful tool reduced to an ungainly necklace. He sneered at me and my Digital Rebel when I tried to get the shot.

I wanted to quiz him about the camera, but my Zorki friend flipped him off. We had to leave pretty quickly.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Mich said...

I like the time line, but for me I would add: 2007 rediscovered film and especially B&W, pleeeeeaaaaase don't take it away!

Question regarding the insurance you mention in the setup to the review. Are you simply referring to home/renters policy covering lost or stolen photo equipment or is this a special policy? I have been trying to research this for some time now. I'd like something that includes damage to equipment (understanding that it will be more expensive).

Thanks. Love the blog and your articles on LL.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

All in all a good review but I can't agree either with the comment about, "only using the viewfinder sometimes..." Regardless of camera type used, the viewfinder strikes me as a pretty important feature. Photography is one of the only art forms that imposes a complex machine between the user and the final product. The camera actually makes the picture and it is up to the photographer to know what it is doing and properly control it and framing and composition, well, seem mildly important although one might theorize that if a million Leicas were handed over to a million drunken monkeys for a million years some good pictures might eventually result.

It is the Leica's viewfinder that is particularly a part of its aesthetic--not actually seeing the focus or depth-of-field and being able to see beyond the frame and to have a split second to react to people entering it...

All in all, though, a good review and a good analysis of the Leica's strengths and potential weaknesses. I have been using a Leica M6 and a Leica Mda for wide angle on documentary projects for about eight years now and soon I must find the money for an M8. As much as I hate to admit it, film is becoming too expensive and, even though I am no longer doing daily news work the developing and scanning is seriously interrupting my work flow.

4:51 AM  

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