Released a decade ago, the M8 was Leica’s first digital rangefinder. By the standards of most people, this thing is now old technology; it’s long in the tooth, many times superseded. Yet in the context of this blog – where I’ve been known to talk about cameras from the 1930’s as still being relevant today – it could be considered a relatively new camera. So which is it? Is it old and not worth the time of day, or can and should the Leica M8 simply be regarded as a perfectly useable second hand camera in the same way most of the kit I talk about can?
- 1 The Leica M8 review
- 1.1 Familiar “M” features
- 1.2 The unfamiliar
- 1.3 The total shooting experience
- 1.4 Vintage digital?
- 1.5 The Leica M8 sensor
- 1.6 Low light/high ISO performance of the Leica M8
- 2 The photos – getting the most out of the Leica M8
- 3 Conclusions (Skip to the end)
We live in a bizarre world when it comes to digital cameras. Anything more than a few years old is deemed out of date and worth replacing, yet when any given camera is released, it’s touted as the latest and greatest within its class. How is it possible that in the space of just a few years, a camera can go from being awesome to something that absolutely must be replaced? The reality is, it doesn’t. As most of us are acutely aware, the camera industry and the buzz that surrounds it sells us these apparently endless upgrades, seemingly just to help it sustain its own spiralling existence. Technology in our modern world creates a race, a race for bigger, better, faster, and above all else – if you’ll excuse my cynicism – happier, richer company share holders.
Of course, in many ways it’s hard to argue that bigger (pixel counts and higher ISOs), better (more features and configuration options) and faster (fps, write speeds etc) don’t provide various advantage to some people. And because “some people” translates into “all people” in a world where most cameras are designed to be all things to all men, it’s not hard to see why digital cameras continue to see “advancements” in their design and functions.
The problem for us consumers is where does all this advancement end? And really, do we need any of it, or do we just buy it because it’s sold to us? It could be said that the desires of most photographers are manipulated by the manufacturers. One minute we need autofocus and evaluative metering, then before we know it we are being sold 5 axis image stabilisation and the ability to comfortably shoot at 12,800iso. 25 years ago no one would have dreamed it possible or necessary to shoot in the ways this modern technology allows, yet for some today it now can’t be lived without.
What’s interesting about the rangefinder camera is that it wasn’t designed to be all things to all men. The rangefinder is designed to appeal to a much more narrow niche of photographer. What’s interesting about this niche of photographer is that it’s actually not changed in its collective desire in anyway close to how the desires of the average photographer have changed.
This is largely because as a niche, we are harder to convince that more technology is better for us. Us rangefinder shooters aren’t so fussed about 301 point autofocus, ten trillion pixels and the ability to shoot a black cat in a coal mine whilst riding a bucking bronco. We shoot manual focus cameras with vastly limited functions and make what we have work for us. I don’t think many rangefinder photographers would argue with the fact that we actually revel in the limitations our equipment imposes on us.
For Leica as a brand, even within the realms of digital photography this collective mentality born out in the apparent commercial (or at very least critical success) of two of their most recent camera releases: the M typ 262 and M-D. Both these cameras take the digital Leica M and attempt to pair down the concept rather than build upon it in the way the rest of the camera industry would. The 262 has only a couple of pages of features in its menu and a much reduced feature set compared to the video enabled, live view touting m240. The M-D takes things a whole step further by – like the special edition M60 that came before – removing almost everything apart from the absolutely essential – including the screen on the back of the camera.
By this merit, if Leica users really are so much less inspired by consistent upgrades, surely an older more simple earlier generation Leica would do the trick just as well? This is the question I asked myself that spurned on the interest in the Leica M8 after I had to give the £12,000 M60 back to Leica. I loved shooting with the M60, but I can’t afford one. I can’t even afford the M-D now the concept is in larger scale production. What I can afford is an early model Leica, such as the M8… … Or as it turns out, an M9.
Funnily enough, since starting this review I’ve actually sidestepped to the Leica M9. I will of course come to my reasoning at the end of this post. In the meanwhile, you might notice that I used the the word “sidestepped” rather than “upgraded”. Whilst actually the M9 has been an upgrade for me, some wouldn’t see it as such. I actually think its just as valid to see the M8 as a better camera – and though I’m not sure it’s better for me – I certainly wouldn’t argue with anyone who had that opinion about their M8. I’m also so bored of the endless upgrade path of modern technology that I refuse to reinforce it just by the merits of newer and “better” by using words like upgrade in this context. The fact is, take the chronology out of the Leica M line up, and each camera – given the right goals of the user – is capable of standing proud in its own right.
This is exactly what I want to talk about in this review. Not how the M8 is “still a viable choice in 2016” as most modern reviews of the Leica M8 seem to pan out. Instead – just as I do with a lot of the film cameras I write about – I want to write about what’s good and not so good about the M8, and who I think it’s most suited to… Regardless of how old or new it is, and regardless of its somewhat limited feature set.
The Leica M8 review
I’m coming at this entirely from the perspective of someone who already shoots, and has shot a number of Leica M film cameras over number of years now. To this end the M8’s familiarity when comparing this camera to a film M camera was what initially struck me about it.
Familiar “M” features
Leica rangefinders feel solid. The Leica M8 is no exception. Not only do they feel solid, but they are solid. I dented the cil of my mates Ford Focus with mine when I dropped it getting out of his car. Dent in the car, no dent in the camera. This solidity helps breed familiarity when coming from a film M. You pick the M8 up, and despite the obviously lacking film advance and the slight increase in physical bulk, you feel pretty much like you have a Leica film camera in your hand.
The light meter
The light meter also has a very familiar feel to it. Having owned, shot and loved an M7 for a good while, the Leica M8 meter feels like a home from home. Of course you have to take into account that it’s the highlights you need to be careful of, and not the shadows in the way you do with film, but once you get past that, you find it has a very easy to use centre weighted light meter.
As in the Leica M7, aperture priority brings up a shutter speed. This shutter speed can be locked in for reframing by half pressing the shutter button. Then in manual mode – like in the manual mode of the M7 and M6 TTL – there are a series of three LEDs that signify under over or correct exposure. With correct exposure being indicated by a circle and under and over being indicated by arrows, to adjust settings to gain correct exposure you simply turn either shutter or aperture dial in the direction the arrow points. It’s all pretty rudimentary, but feels – just like the M7 – all you need to get by to get good well considered exposures that you can trust are going to be right without needing to look at the screen…
Which is a good job really, as the screen on the back of the Leica M8 is shit. There is no other way to describe it. If you take a shot with the M8 and think you’re going to use the screen on the back to check your work – at least in daylight – you have another thing coming. The picture on the back is simply impossible to see in anything other than heavily subdued light, and when you can see it the quality is so low it’s hard to check for accurate focus. This might sound like an issue, but actually it becomes a reason to just not look at the screen after every photo. If the only way you can see a photo on the screen is by tucking the camera up your t-shirt and putting you face into the neck hole (I actually did this on the last time I took the M8 out), then 9 times out of 10, you’re probably just not going to bother with the screen on the back.
I for one, find this quite liberating. Since I’ve learned to use the meter, and I know shots are in focus because I’m used to rangefinder focusing, I just don’t need to check on the back of the camera. For some reason, with most of my digital cameras I still look at the screen (a lot) – can’t do that with the M8, it’s too shit. This is quite a back handed compliment I know, but if you’re used to shooting a film Leica, not being able to check the screen just makes the M8 feel more like what you’re used to.
Of course, not all feels the same as a film M rangefinder in use – in fact some features do feel very alien. Obviously (elephant in the room) it’s a digital camera, but I’ll come back to that point later.
I think perhaps the most obvious difference between the M8 and a film Leica – at least to your subject – is the noise it makes when you press the button. Unlike the subtle smooth cloth shutter sound of film Leicas, the M8 has a metal shutter, and of course a electronic shutter cock mechanism. I find the sound it makes quite satisfying in a way, and actually it’s nowhere near as loud as some of my compact point & shoot film cameras, though really, it’s click, clunk whirr is in the same vein as some of them. As such it’s not half as unimposing a shooting experience as you might expect or wish from a Leica rangefinder, though I got used to it quite quickly – and really I don’t think it’s as bad as many make out.
Viewfinder, frame lines & effective focal lengths
Unfortunately there is a significant part of the design that I didn’t get used to as quickly. From a user point of view, the most notable difference between the M8 and any other Leica I have tried is the frame line configuration. Because the sensor is a 1.3x crop format, the frame lines in the viewfinder need to be of a different configuration to that in a full frame Leica. The 28/90 lines and 50/75 lines still share the same pairings – this obviously couldn’t be changed because its part of the mechanical legacy of the system.
What is different in terms of frame lines is the pairing with the 35mm lines. In Leicas that otherwise share a set of frame lines with the 35mm lines, the usual pairing is with 135mm lines. In the case of the M8 the lines paired with the 35mm lines are for a 24mm lens.
Effective focal lengths
This addition of a wider angle lens simply wouldn’t be possible in a full frame camera with the standard 0.72x viewfinder. In that instance the 28mm lines are right at the edge of the finder leaving no room for 24mm lines at all. The difference with the M8 is two fold. For a start, the sensor is smaller, therefore the field of view given by the lenses equates to a longer effective focal length. This means that any lens mounted on the camera requires smaller frame lines than when mounted on a full frame camera. If you are interested, these are the very rough equivalent focal lengths given by mounting the standard focal lengths on the M8:
24mm = 31mm
28mm = 36mm
35mm = 45mm
50mm = 65mm
75mm = 97mm
90mm = 117mm
You’ll notice that a 24mm lens gives an equivalent of around 30mm. As such the frame lines in the viewfinder for a 24mm lens, are smaller than those for a 28mm lens in a full frame camera.
0.62x mag finder
In addition to the different frame line configuration, the magnification of the viewfinder is reduced from the standard 0.72x to a lower 0.62x, meaning there is even more space around the 24mm lines than you might expect.
In use, I found all this quite confusing to start with. Mounting a 35mm lens is especially baffling. The outside lines in the finder with a 35mm lens attached are fairly similar in size to 35mm lines in a full frame 0.72x finder, so knowing I had a 35mm lens on the camera meant that instinctually I was trying to use lines that felt appropriate. In reality, it’s actually the smaller inner lines that need to be used for 35mm lenses. This took a little bit of getting used to – and even now swapping to and from film and the M8 I find myself having to adjust a mind set when using the 35mm lens.
A 28mm preference
Of course, what’s been handy for me is that for the most part I shoot 28mm and 50mm lenses. And despite the fact I’m not used to shooting 35mm, I’ve actually found mounting one of the 28mm lenses I’ve been using the most successful. This brings up lines that are almost perfectly equivalent to 35mm lines in the viewfinder, but thanks to the crop format you get 35mm equivalent focal length with a 28mm lens depth of field. I found very quickly that this gave me a camera that I felt I could snap quite quickly and easily with. Conversely to the rest of the familiar feeling shooting experience of a Leica rangefinder, this ease of shooting gave me a much more digital-like sense of being able to just snap away quite readily – which of course has its pros and cons…
The total shooting experience
I really feel that there is enough familiarity in shooting a Leica M8 when coming from a film M to make most feel at home. For me at least it had a big impact on how positive I felt shooting with the M8 initially. The shutter dial, aperture on the lens and the viewfinder with rangefinder focusing all wrapped up in a solid feeling lump of kit had me sold within the day – at least with the actual experience of taking a photo. What takes a little more getting used to is the photographic outcome.
The one major and entirely undebatable difference between this Leica M camera and the large majority of those that I’ve shot before is of course that it’s digital. Familiarity or otherwise in terms of the feel of the camera, for some there is no getting past this. Sometimes, it surprises me a little me to read and hear, but there are a lot of people out there who just don’t think Leica should have ever bothered with digital cameras; they think that the concept of a Leica being a life long lasting tool jars with replaceable nature of digital cameras. And you know, in some ways I completely get this mentality.
However old, and however still functioning this Leica M8 is, it doesn’t feel like it has the same chance as living as long as my M-A. With my 50 something year old M3 wagging it’s spritely finger and using the words “in my day” a lot in one corner of my camera cabinet. And with my old iiia just looking on knowingly, occasionally sipping a glass of fine fortified wine in the other corner, it’s really not hard to look at the M8 as a bit of a young pretender, destined to burn itself out at an early age like some sort of tortured rock star.
The question is though, what age will that be? It’s not like reasonably complex electronics weren’t used in prior to digital cameras. I’ve used point & shoot cameras with autofocus and autoexposure from the 70’s that still work, but then of course there are models from much later which are now dying en mass. The Ricoh GR1 for example. But then that’s made by Ricoh – a company well known for slightly shitty build quality.
In this case we are talking about a Leica. The M8 – unlike the later M9 which is known for a sensor corrosion issue (that Leica fixes for free) – isn’t much known for serious failure. Leica M8 cameras are still going strong 10 full years after their introduction. So what would be an acceptable life span? Assuming the electronics doesn’t burn out and shutters don’t jam, would another 10 years suffice to have made the original investment viable for the naysayers? Another 17 years? (That would make them 27 – you know, like Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain etc)
One way or another, we probably aren’t talking about measuring the lifespan of these things in the average human lifetimes of normal people – but they certainly could push the envelope of digital camera lifespans… The question is of course, is the Leica M8 still worth taking a photo with after 10 years, and would it be still worth taking a photo with one in 10 (or 17) more?
The answer is of course yes… This is why I get so irked by the chronology applied so much more heavily to digital cameras. If you want your photos to look the way the Leica M8 (or any other camera for that matter) takes a photo, then there is a very good reason to shoot one. What’s most fascinating about the Leica M8 is that even on the day the M8 was released there were questions about the images it produces. Fair ones too! Yet it still has its hardened fans, even now.
The Leica M8 sensor
There is no doubting that the sensor in the Leica M8 has a very strong signature look. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that the images this thing produces are quite unlike those produced by any other camera. Used in the right way the strong look of the Leica M8 can be harnessed to great benefit, but to harness the look it’s quite useful to understand a bit about the technology behind it.
The crop factor factor
From a design point of view, the concept of a digital rangefinder posed a few problems that are actually still suffered by cameras even 10 years later. These problems were largely caused by the lens designs most commonly used on rangefinder cameras. Since rangefinders don’t have mirror boxes like SLR cameras do, the back focal distance of the lenses can be a lot shorter. This is one of the biggest advantages the rangefinder design has – it allows both the body of the camera and the lenses themselves to be smaller and the lenses higher quality too. The issue is, the short back focal distances of some rangefinder lenses can create an angle of light that is strongly oblique toward the edges of the frame. This isn’t an issue with film, but it does cause compatibility issues with normal digital sensors.
I talked about this in my recent Zeiss 28mm Biogon review. If you mount that lens on a Sony A7 series camera, the edges of the frame are soft and smeary. With some lenses the smeariness is only half the issue too. Heavy vignetting and strong colour shifts can also come into play with some lenses. This is because, despite the A7 series cameras having a short flange back distance, the sensors aren’t designed to be compatible with lenses with such short back focal distances (this is why don’t lenses are so much bigger than M mount lenses). This is a good illustration of the problem Leica were faced with when designing their first digital rangefinder. Many of the preexisting lenses that would be used on the cameras had short back focal distances, and since it would be such a disaster for the system if the older lenses weren’t compatible, it was the technology of the sensor that needed to be changed, not the lens designs.
Increasing corner performance
If the problem of oblique light rays is greater the further toward the edges and corners of the sensor, one way to solve this is to make the sensor smaller than the full frame 24x36mm standard frame size of 35mm film. As mentioned the Leica M8 uses a 1.3x crop 27x18mm sensor. By effectively putting the corners of the frame closer to the centre of any given lenses image circle, the angle of light toward the edge of the frame isn’t as oblique and therefore doesn’t cause such serious issues. As mentioned above, this means lenses have different effective focal lengths when compared to the 35mm format they are used on, but the pay off is more consistent corners and edges.
Additionally to the smaller sensor, offset micro lenses were used in the sensors design. Micro lenses are tiny lenses that sit on the top of each photodiode on the sensor to direct the light toward the diode below. By offsetting these lenses to an increasing degree toward the edge of the frame, the problem of the oblique light rays was again reduced.
Thin OLPF (for corner sharpness)
To make things slightly more complicated, the size of the sensor and these offset micro lenses seemingly weren’t the only methods used to improve image quality into the corners of the frame. Leica also changed the design of the optical low pass filter or OLPF. The OLPF is a multi layered filter that sits on top of the surface of the sensor. The main purposes of this filter are to cut infrared as well as reducing problems with moire and aliasing. The issue is, the filter also compounds the effects of oblique light rays toward the edge of the frame. As I understand it, Leica reduced the thickness of the filter so as to reduce the impact it had on image quality into the corners.
The relevance of all of this is that whilst the decreased sensor size and micro lenses only benefited objective image quality, the changes to the OLPF came with both positive and negative side effects.
Thin OLPF (for odd colours)
Possibly one of the most commonly known oddities with the Leica M8 is its susceptibility to odd colour shifts due to its sensitivity to infrared light. Because the OLPF was made thinner, its effectiveness at cutting infrared light was reduced. The result of this is that subjects that reflect a lot of infrared light can be susceptible to colour shift. The two most obvious cases of this happening are in foliage which shifts toward yellow, and dark manmade material which shifts heavily toward magenta. Unfortunately, once you start noticing the colour shift you start seeing it in skin tones, and then eventually – at least in artificial light – almost everything.
IR cut filters
This was seemingly something that just slipped through the net at Leica before the camera was released. I don’t know the details really, but either Leica didn’t notice the colour shift or didn’t think it would matter in practice. Of course it did matter and there was a bit of uproar from early users of the camera. Leica’s response was to issue a couple infrared cut screw on lens filters with the purchase of a Leica M8. These filters help in natural light, but to my eye in low artificial light – and especially in situations with mixed white balance – colour response isn’t quite right regardless of whether or not a filter is used. That being said, largely speaking they do correct the problem – though of course they also introduce other potential for issues that come along with the use of any sort of filter – but that’s a story for another day.
I wrote a post comparing images with and without an IR filter here
Thin OLPF (for sharpness)
An arguably positive outcome of thinning the OLPF is an increase in sharpness. In today’s cameras where pixel counts have become so massive, and image processing so advanced, the antialiasing and anti-moire element of the OLPF in cameras has become pretty much redundant. As such, for the large part are we a now seeing cameras being released without these image softening filters. But this has not always been the case – back in the days of early digital cameras aliasing and moire were real issues.
Briefly, for the uninitiated, aliasing (in very simple terms) is were a solid straight edge becomes jagged due to visible square pixels (more on wiki) and moire is where close parallel straight lines can appear as unusual patterns (more on wiki). In early digital cameras part of the OLPF’s job was to slightly soften the image to reduce the potential for these issues.
By removing this image softening part of the Leica M8’s OLPF, Leica made a camera that at least at low ISO’s was capable of producing really very sharp images – especially of course when combined with Leica’s good quality lenses. There is more to this than just a sharp photo too, though I shall come back to that point a little later…
What I have to wonder is which came first in all this. When Leica set out to make the M8, did they intend to make a camera that bucked the trends of the day and took exceptionally sharp images through its lack of antialiasing in the OLPF, or did it simply come as some sort of happy accident result of trying to solve the corner performance issues? Either way, the thin OLPF adds up to a big portion of what makes the look of the M8 unique.
Of course many claim the use of a CCD is a big part of what creates the look of the images the Leica M8 creates. To my mind it’s nigh on impossible to pin any specific praise to the use of a CCD. I’ve even asked the question in a separate post here – have a read of it, and the comments below if you’re interested in the specifics of the CCD. I’m also really interested in more peoples thought on what part the CCD actually plays…
Low light/high ISO performance of the Leica M8
The final and possibly most negative thing spoken about with regard to the Leica M8 and its sensor is its low light capability. Read any single review of the Leica M8 on the Internet, especially ones that have been written in more recent times and you will invariably find words to the effect of “Takes great photos, but really only at low ISOs”. To be blunt, I find this perspective nothing short of myopic.
As a digital camera made in 2006 the problem the Leica M8 faces is one of comparison with every camera that’s come since. In terms of low light performance this can really make the M8 look quite poor. For example, if I were to put it up against my Sony A7r2 – at least by the standards high ISO performance is commonly judged – the M8 would lose quite profoundly. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve taken photos with the Sony at 12,800 ISO in low lit rooms and produced results that completely belie the low light in the room – in fact with that camera I can make a low lit room look quite a lot like a very well lit room with relative ease. I can and have shot the A7r2 in next to no light, and not even worried about letting the ISO creep up well into 5 figures. Short of zooming in to 100% noise is hardly visible at 12,800 ISO, and what noise there is doesn’t degrade the image to any level I’m even remotely uncomfortable with.
The Leica M8 on the other hand maxes out at 2500 ISO, and when shot that high, looks very noisy indeed. So that’s the end of the story then? The M8 is poor in low light compared to modern digital cameras, so it’s best not used for low light shooting!
Well actually, let’s take a look at the two clauses in that sentence for a second. The first one “The Leica M8 is poor in low light when compared to modern digital cameras” is true – I can’t argue with the facts. But the second part – the part that seems so often touted in recent M8 reviews – “it’s best not used for low light shooting” makes some assumptions that I’m not entirely happy with. The first big assumption is that I want my low light photos to look like they were taken good light. The second assumption is that I want my low light photos to be clean of noise. Well, what if both of those assumptions are incorrect?
The wonderful thing about writing this blog is that I know my audience (at least my regular audience) is one made up largely of people with an interest in film photography. As film photographers we know there are limitations to our low light shooting possibilities. Our expectations are such that if we want to take photos in low light, we expect a compromise in terms of grain and resolving power. For example, if I want to shoot in low light with film, my first choice is to shoot Ilford HP5+ at ei3200 and push process it. The results, as I have shown many times on this blog at grainy, dark, and of course black and white. I don’t expect ultimate resolving power, and I don’t expect my photos to all of a sudden look like they were taken in good light.
Digital photographers on the other hand seem to have had their expectations adjusted by possibility. Camera manufactures have sold us the dream of clean low light shooting, and we have bought into it wholesale. In fact, I’d argue, we’ve almost been tricked into thinking it’s something we need. Now, I’m not stupid enough to argue that now the expectations have be sold and bought, we should go back to a time when digital cameras performance was less “good” in low light. These modern cameras have changed the expectations of both the photographer and the eventual viewer of photos. This is especially true in professional fields of photography such as wedding and event photography where absurdly low light reportage photography without the use of flash has become commonplace. Both photographer and client have grown to expect cleaner low light photography. But if you take a step back and look at what’s happened, it’s the technology that’s shifted this expectation very gradually over the last 10 or so years.
My point is though, in that same 10 years, expectations from film hasn’t changed. We as film photographers no more expect to be able to take clean grainless photos in next to no light any more than we did a decade ago. Which brings me slightly long-windedly to what I have to say about the Leica M8. If you as a digital photographer forget your digital expectations and impose your expectations as a film photographer on to the digital M8, then all of a sudden it’s low light performance is a lot easier to swallow.
Now don’t mistake this for me telling you the Leica M8 is a good camera for shooting low light. It’s not, in fact colour results shot at 2500 ISO with the camera aiming for an 18% grey average exposure look, well, shit, and I’m not for one second going to try and convince you otherwise. But, what I am going to try and convince you of is that given film like expectations, it is possible to obtain results that whilst far from objectively perfect, can be quite pleasing.
The photos in this section of my review were taken in a low lit pub, where were I shooting film I would have shot HP5 at ei3200 and pushed it. I’d have expected – as I did last time I went on a similar night out earlier this year – to get results that were dark, grainy and of course black and white. So, when taking the Leica M8 out, I went out with the exact same expectations… And guess what, I got what I expected.
None of these photos are going to win any prizes for their objective quality. I’m under no illusions that they are perfect, in fact I’m not even going to try and argue that the results I’ve got are even close to as good as what I would have got had I shot HP5+ in the manner described above. But, am I happy with them? Well, yes actually I am. They capture the low lit environment and atmosphere of the evening rather well I think. The grain, and the banding of grain that is visible in the unprocessed colour versions of the photos was easy enough to handle with some pretty basic post processing. I didn’t even have to apply noise reduction beyond what LR does as standard upon import. The noise produced by the Leica M8 is sufficiently film-like not to bother me too much, and once dropped into shadow it becomes less intrusive anyway.
In summary, the Leica M8 is pretty crap in low light, but only if you compare it to more modern cameras. But really, why make that comparison? If instead you just key your expectations to be closer that of a film shooting experience, and work within the limitations the camera imposes it’s much less disappointing.
The photos – getting the most out of the Leica M8
I’ve come to the conclusion through my experience of taking over a 1000 photos with the Leica M8, having read a lot of reviews, spoken to a good few people and looked at a lot of images, that there are four approaches to finding happiness shooting it:
The limited approach
This is probably the most attractive approach to shooting the Leica M8 for me. As I’ve already mentioned us rangefinder photographers aren’t fussed about the imposition of limitations. The M8 perhaps poses a few more than even some of us would be comfortable with, but abide them or at least work within them and the results can be wonderful.
What I think is quite interesting is that the set of limitations isn’t that far removed from the ones I work with when I shoot film. For example, with film you have to be more careful when considering the light you are shooting in. A roll of Portra 400 shot in my living room with a bit of outside day light and a bit of artificial light, or even just shot in low artificial light can look pretty bloody horrible. Yet shoot Portra 400 in sunny day light and it looks beautiful. This is the same for the Leica M8. Results indoors in even slightly poor light can just look a bit odd
As with film, with the Leica M8 an easy response to this is to shoot for black and white in these circumstances. Black and white conversion hides a wealth of sins in terms of issues with colour but also looks nicer with the higher noise the M8 kicks out.
The real beauty of the Leica M8 comes though when shooting it in good light. The sense of sharpness from the 10mp sensor without any antialiasing is really quite impressive. But beyond being objectively impressive, the results have a look that I supposed is best described as “real” looking; perhaps three dimensional. Not having experienced the Leica M8 at the time, I first noticed this look in results from a Ricoh GR. These cameras also lack antialiasing filters and take really real looking images because of it.
Outdoors in daylight, the affect of the lack of infrared filter is hardly noticeable, and quite easy to deal with where it does have an impact. That being said, where there is an impact, sometimes dealing with it doesn’t seem necessary. The yellow shift in foliage doesn’t actually make anything look a false colour, it just adds a warmth that I think can be played upon.
What really surprised me though was finding joy in embracing the limited range of ISOs. 320iso is the closest to the usual 400 I usually shoot, so a lot of the time not going above that didn’t feel an issue. It also resulted in me getting shots that with any other digital camera would have looked very different. This shot for example I likely would have used a higher ISO and exposed more for the foreground, this didn’t even cross my mind with the Leica M8 in the way it wouldn’t with a film camera.
The black & white approach
There is no doubting – as you will repeated ad nauseam if you search online about the Leica M8 – that this camera makes for a great black & white photo. Be this down to the lack of infrared cut, some mystical power of the CCD sensor, a combination of both, or something else altogether, it is hard to deny great black and white results are easy to achieve.
I don’t think it quite has the super power of just allowing you to click the convert to black and white button as many claim, but it certainly seems very easy to get really nice black and white images without having to spend an age in post process software. This is definitely a bonus of you’re not a fan of spending ages in front of a computer.
The post process approach
That being said, whilst I’m not hugely into strongly post processing my images, if you are happy to push your files to the limits, you can of course get wonderful results. Provided you know what you are doing… As an example of this, I thought I’d show you some photos created by a chap I know – a very good photographer in fact. Chris Mann is his name, he’s a pro portrait photographer by day, but the rest of the time he has a style that I find I can’t get enough of.
You might say that these sorts of results are obtainable with any half decent digital camera, and I guess you’d be right really. But Chris – now a Leica SL shooter – swears that the Leica M8 was one of the most enjoyable cameras to shoot with and gave results that he found really easy to manipulate into the sorts of results he shared with me for the benefit of this post:
He’s good isn’t he?!! Thanks for sharing those Chris!!
The technical approach
This is where things get a little outside of the realms of what I can be bothered with. But just because I can’t be bothered, doesn’t mean others won’t be able to.
If you really want to get the objective most out of a Leica M8, you can use a bit of software called M8RAW2DNG. One of the issues with the M8’s files is that they are over compressed DNGs. By typing in some sort of magic code to the buttons on the back you can unlock the M8’s uncompressed RAW files. The problem is, no mass market software can read them. M8RAW2DNG allows these files to be read and unlike the compressed DNGs which don’t have much latitude for adjustment in photo editing software, these files can be pushed and pulled and played with to a more more significant degree.
Here’s a link to a little guide written by Brian Sweeney. As I say, I don’t have the patience to spend that time in front of a computer, but assuming you are more happy to, the increased potential for the Leica M8 is quite incredible really.
Why I now shoot an M9
Before I conclude, I just want to touch on why I personally switched to the Leica M9. For me, the experience of shooting the M8 has – on a personal level – been really quite enjoyable. In the time I’ve had it, it has cemented a suspicion I had about the concept of a rangefinder being as big a part of my attraction to the film M cameras as the use of film itself. It’s also encouraged me to finally take the step to buy an M9, something I feel like I’ve been thinking about for a fair few years now.
This of course raises the question of why did I feel the need to go for an M9 over the M8. Well it’s simple really, it just came down to the size of the sensor. For many, the smaller sensor of the M8 will bring gains in effective depth of field per focal length, or just not be an issue at all. But for me, not having my beloved 50mm Sonnar not work as a 50mm lens was just too big a compromise to swallow. Had the M8 a full frame sensor, I know I would be perfectly satisfied with it.
A few more photos of mine…
Conclusions (Skip to the end)
I must admit, I’ve found writing this review quite difficult. My experience is one thing, but the part where I do a bit of research and read about what others think has been unusually tortuous. Firstly, finding genuine information about it that isn’t wrapped up in hearsay about the unfathomable super powers of a CCD is nigh on impossible. Beyond that, whilst many of the commentators on the camera seem to have very strong opinions about it, a large percentage of these read as regurgitated rather than from actual experience.
Those who do have experience – at least those with a positive view – also now tend to take the “It’s still a viable camera, even 10 years since it was introduced” perspective. I must say find little frustrating and representative of a take on technology that bothers me in an ever wasteful world – especially when pretty much any high end digital camera from the last 10 years is likely to be perfectly viable in the right hands given the right circumstances. “Perfectly viable” is just a given to me, and not a headline!
Of course, what separates this camera from all of the other 10 year old digital camera is that its a Leica, and as such, it’s worth a few more quid than your average 10 year old Nikon. Combine this inflated value with the fact that it’s quite a unique bit of kit and you find yourself with a whole load of divided opinions. These divided opinions and the arguments that come out of them seem to have created mountains out of molehills when it comes to the pros and cons of both image quality and its usability as a camera.
Now, I’m not going argue that the images it creates aren’t quite strongly definable, and in some regards are not as objectively good as you might expect from a later camera. You can’t expect perfection in low light, and you can expect odd colours once in a while. But with these pitfalls comes wonderfully sharp, real looking images. As such, to my mind the pros simply balance out the cons. In use, I’ve found that if you set your expectations right and let this camera’s foibles guide or become a part of your choices when it comes to your post process, you can readily find the outcome is something that suits just fine.
It’s also very hard to argue with oft quoted usability short comings such as the the fact that the screen is shit, and the shutter advance is a little noisy. What I would argue though, is that these issues really aren’t insurmountable to the sort of person who’d be looking to shoot one of these cameras. For those wishing to shoot a rangefinder camera, in the way a rangefinder camera works and feels, who don’t have the budget for an M9 or one of the later models, but also want the immediacy of digital, the M8 is a perfectly viable camera.
None of this is ever likely to be understood by those with a penchant for exploring coal mines with their portable bucking broncos, or those who just can’t figure the concept of a rangefinder – but so be it. I’d argue until I’m blue in the face that those who deride the M8 simply don’t understand the motives and goals of those who find cameras like these work so well for them.
For me this is ultimately the main attraction to the Leica M8. I am a rangefinder photographer, and for all its foibles, a rangefinder is what the M8 remains… and for many, that alone will be enough to let the Leica M8 shine in the way it has for me!
Thanks for reading,