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Friday, May 04, 2007

The M8: Coda

A final wrap-up regarding my comments on the Leica M8.

It, um, drew a lot of responses, from all over the internet. Overall, responses seemed to be about evenly divided between people who thought my reports were reasonable and fair, and people who had complaints. (The former included some M8 owners, and the latter included some people who obviously didn't even read the articles, but never mind about that.) The complaints, in turn, were divided between those who thought I was overly critical and/or needlessly provocative, and those who felt I was not critical enough.

For the most part, the complaints can be explained by the fact that it was only a brief user report based on brief experience, not a full review. Many years ago it was my personal policy that I would use a camera exclusively for a minimum of three months—for "real" work, not just tests and trials—before I'd write a review of it. That was a good policy, but it's not always practical.

Complaints part A: Cons were too con
1. Shutter lag. Writing a brief review based on a week's experience is problematic, though, that I can't deny. One of the stickiest problems arose because of one friend who felt that something I'd said wasn't factually accurate. He thinks that the shutter lag of the M8 is actually very good, when I reported it as being not very good. He's right that this is a measurable property (shutter lag is defined as the time between the press of the shutter release and the beginning of the exposure) and shouldn't be misrepresented. Others who've tried the camera—even including some M8 owners—didn't disagree with my conclusion that shutter lag was only so-so, however. But it's quite possible that I was fooled by the poorish shutter feel and/or by the various noises happening after the shutter press; perhaps image capture happens earlier in that sequence of noises that it seems to.

If I'd been able to look into this, I would have. My problem is that by the time I heard this from him, the camera was long gone. It's not a happy state of affairs to realize a conclusion you've put into "print" might be wrong, but maybe this one was. On the other hand, I reported my impression accurately, as far as it went, and I think I have to leave it at that for now.

2. Comparisons to the XTi. Another common objection to my reports was that people felt it was needlessly provocative to compare the M8 to the Canon XTi. While I can see their point, I don't agree at all. If you look at it the other way around, you can imagine that Canon might be offended if anyone said that a tiny little company building only its second digital product (rebadgings aside) could better the expertise of the world's leader in the category.

If it were possible to look at the two cameras totally objectively as tools, putting aside their relative positions in their makers' lines and their relative status, the contrast/compare on the XTi vs. M8 could be fascinating. On the one hand you have the biggest, richest camera company in the world, that makes its own sensors, and enjoys the best economies of scale of any DSLR manufacturer, creating its most affordable (and hence most important!) DSLR, the #1 selling DSLR in the world. The engineering, materials science, and manufacturing expertise that goes into such a camera is staggering. On the other hand you have an impecunious, struggling old-World manufacturer of hand-built mechanical cameras, one that has essentially no firsthand expertise in digital sensors and actually fairly little in electronics, making a low-volume, partly hand-built, one-off, large-sensor rangefinder for the carriage trade and its loyal existing customer base. The prices don't begin to tell the story, because if Leica had to develop the XTi, it would have to sell for $10k (or more), and if Canon made the M8 it would sell for $2k (if not less). In various ways, one camera runs rings around the other, and in other ways, vice versa. I don't think it's necessarily an insult to either company to compare the two. It's legitimately interesting. Of course I was aware that it would make some of the snobs see red, but then again, if I ran my life based on what they think, I would have had to kill myself long ago.

3. Off-axis LCD viewing. Some readers felt I made way too much of this. Who needs to look at the LCD off axis? One M8 owner wrote to say that he never looks at his LCD off axis. Well, duh—but what comes first, the chicken or the horse? (Sorry—old yolk.) If you can't see the image off axis, naturally you'd better learn to look at it on axis. Maybe I made too much of the whole issue. Maybe a $4,800 camera should just have a better LCD. You decide.

4. The importance of lenses to digital. The single thing I said in either review that drew the most violently negative reactions was the statement "my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result." It's ironic that Leica aficionados would object to this so strenuously, since it's one of the few things that Erwin Puts and I apparently agree on. But in any event, this requires a more extensive article to explain, so I'll write about this topic in the future.

Complaints part B: Cons weren't con enough
1. IR/color issues. A number of people felt I let Leica off too easily, and that there are serious issues with the camera that I hardly touched on. It appears that a number of people feel that the color and IR sensitivity issues are inexcusable, and that an expensive camera that requires IR filters as a band-aid, after-the-fact fix to a problem that never should have existed in the first place is outrageous. Well, I don't know. I guess it seems to me that if the company says you need to use IR filters, then you just use IR filters. I didn't, and it's doubtless what caused the uncorrectable pinkish cast of some of my interior shots. So I didn't make a big deal about that. Again, a full review that didn't treat this issue thoroughly would be remiss, but I wasn't writing a full review.

2. The distorting of the purpose and applications of the legacy focal lengths. Several people took me to task for not addressing this issue, and perhaps I should have. One of the main purposes of the M8, these complainants felt, was to be able to use the lenses you already had; but your old 35mm lens is no longer a 35mm, and your old 50mm standard lens is suddenly a decidedly non-standard, and much less useful, 65mm. The most-used lens on 35mm Leicas is the 35mm Summicron. To get the same thing on the M8, you need to spend $3,200 for a lens that's bigger and heavier (the 28mm Summicron) and feels different. (Leica introduced a slower 28mm with the M8 to ease these folks' pain.) Moreover, you may already have a 35mm Summicron and not a 28mm Summicron, which means you either have to change the way you see or buy a new lens. Well, okay; I see the complaint. Maybe it is indeed more of an issue with a camera that accepts mainly primes, and is less of an issue with DSLRs, which take zooms. But I guess my feeling is that we're all used to dealing with "magnification factors" with digital sensors by now, so you just figure this stuff out as part of your purchase decision, and then deal with it.

3. High failure rate and "recalls." I gather that a fairly significant fraction of M8 buyers have had to return their M8s to Leica, or have had their cameras stop working, necessitating a trip back to Leica. Again, while a legitimate issue for a full review, this just isn't something that I think ought to be reported in a user report. Simply stated, I was giving my impressions of my own personal experience during the short time I had the camera, and that just wasn't part of my experience. If the camera I was using had stopped working while I had it (alarming thought!), you can bet I would have written about it. But it didn't—it worked fine.

The worst thing about writing about Leicas is that once you say anything negative, some people completely ignore anything and everything positive that you also said. So it was with my M8 posts. The M8 is a cool camera. People are doing good work with them. Some people really like them, and I understand why. If you're accustomed to rangefinder viewing or just really like rangefinder viewing, it's close to the only game in town.

It's also a deeply flawed product that probably hadn't reached a true v.1.0 at the time of its release, and that provides such spectacularly bad value that you'd best be rich enough to be able to shrug off the cost if you intend to buy one. And it's going to be outdated in no time, hopefully when Leica itself brings out a v.2 that fixes all the problems it learned about from its own early adopters a.k.a. beta testers. I'm glad the M8 exists, and I hope it's successful so Leica can build the M9 and M10 and M11, and so other makers are encouraged to bring competitors to market—I'd love to see a Zeiss Ikon digital and an Epson R-D2, for example, just as I'd love to see digicam-sized cameras with large sensors and real optical viewfinders that are large and usable. We'll see.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It must've consumed a lot of time and effort to write those exceedingly long posts on your blog?

11:19 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Mike Johnston: "It's also a deeply flawed product that probably hadn't reached a true v.1.0 at the time of its release, and that provides such spectacularly bad value that you'd best be rich enough to be able to shrug off the cost if you intend to buy one."

That pretty much sums up my perspective. I enjoy the camera and appreciate its existence. As I've written previously, the M8 is neither sublime nor abysmal. I agree that it's clearly a version 0.9, rather like those short-lived DeLorean cars.

I've come to view the M8 as a sort of photographic vacation. I would spend its price on a brief vacation. So, instead, I imagine I've bought a different type of diversionary experience that I can use at any time. (As long as the camera turns on, that is.)

11:45 AM  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Seems the M8 may live up to be the digital equivalent of the short lived M5...

11:52 AM  
Blogger Colin [] said...


Thanks for the link in the earlier post.

Please do write more about how you see the importance of lenses having changed in the digital world.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my brief encounters it makes for a great B&W camera, all be it the old Ducatis... sometimes the stared sometimes the didn't and as it purred a sigh of relief

5:01 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Opinions are like…. Well you all know that one. I loved the article on the M8, please continue with the provocative thought inspiring articles, there is nothing more important than to challenge the status quo. I personally would buy the XTI if given the choice of only the two. Just because of price.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Boris Liberman said...

Mike, I really enjoy reading your thoughts about M8. I think they go way beyond the specific camera and the specific review you wrote. By the way, yesterday I got to handle Canon EOS 400D (Rebel XTi?). Well, it is good to know that Pentax still produces K10s ;-).

Ultimately, I do agree with your conclusion (it was conclusion, right?) where you expressed your anticipation of more Digital RF cameras in the future( and more refined too) .

If it was like K10D (but RF) and size and weight of XTi - it would be quite lovely, don't you think?

By the way, Canon used to produce their own RF cameras, didn't they?

3:56 AM  
Blogger Player said...

Most disappointing to me is that Leica digital photography doesn't seem superior, in any way, to the garden-variety choices like Nikon or Canon, which means that the lovely quality of Leica M lenses seems to have been lost in the digital translation.

6:28 AM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

Oooh... Zeiss Ikon Digital... Now we're talking, Mike! I'd shuffle my pennies together and give them to Canon if that meant they could make one for me to buy for under $2k... :-)

1:39 PM  
Blogger NGV said...

Hi Mike,
Precisely, in the last sentence of your post, you mention the Epson R-D1 (or its theoretical follow-up), does anyone know whether a compared review of both cameras has been run?


5:12 AM  
Blogger Mike Spivey said...

I (30D owner) loved the XTi comparison, although it might not be quite fair. There is an argument that ALL dSLRs should be compared to the XTi. Most would stomp the XTi in ease of use but fall behind in image quality.

You must admit comparing to the Rebel is "nose tweaking". M8 users buy the camera because of the history and prestige. To a point, the pricier, the better. Thins out the "unwashed". Many of them will happily suffer the limitations and revel in the workarounds. They did not buy the camera to crank out thousands of multipurpose shots like you and I. They bought the camera for style and will not use it for photography in areas that the camera was not designed for. And because of that, they will take some beautiful pictures.

But you could argue that your review was not aimed for Leica aficionados. For a guy with a little money to burn wanting a stylish, smaller walkaround camera, your review points out things that this type of buyer would not likely put up with.

The M8 will satisfy Leica fans but probably not make too many converts.

Don't let negative comments soften your opinions. There are too many "fan reviews" already.
Mike Spivey

9:07 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

great article, well-thought out. I'd also be interested to read a more complete story on your thoughts regarding lenses for digital.

10:22 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

"Most would stomp the XTi in ease of use but fall behind in image quality."

I agree that the XTi, as a top selling market opener, should be a point of comparison, but I disagree about the ease of use. I specifically chose the XTi over the 30D for its usability. You can't imagine how great it is to have everything on one screen, versus split across two or three, and having a single dial offers a different, not inferior, user experience.

If anything, the XTi is so easy to use, it becomes difficult to master. In manual modes it does exactly what you tell it, even if you aren't quite skilled enough to notice that you told it something stupid, and in creative modes it's too hands off. The new Nikons strike a better balance and thus are superior learning tools, especially w/r to ISO, and offer a "cooler," possibly more explanatory, interface. That graphic indicating the size of the aperture looks like something I would use all the time. The Pentaxes are fierce learning machines too (with GREAT shutter sounds, very iconic).

As for the M8 comparison -- if you truly love the M8, "warts and all," you shouldn't care that the XTi beats it in arbitrary areas. My wife's crummy old Impreza has a ton of features my dad's new Cadillac does not and it probably has a better ride. But it's not a Cadillac!

11:40 AM  
Blogger Praveen said...


Take a look at a user's experience with an M8 in Iraq. Quite interesting...

12:01 PM  

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