Leica M8

Over the last few years, the digital camera market has been sliced into fine slivers. There are cheap, not-so-cheap, and expensive point-and-shoots; a full spectrum of SLRs from $600 all the way up to $8,000; and stratospherically priced medium-format digital backs, owned by a precious few.

Sitting on its own, outside the realm of the point-and-shoots and SLRs is the Leica M8, a rangefinder camera based on the traditional M-series Leica body. Priced at roughly $5,500 for the body only – with Leica-branded lenses starting at around $1,500 for a 35 or 50mm lens – the M8 sits in the same price category as heavy hitting SLRs like the Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Nikon D3.

If you’ve been considering dropping even a fraction of this kind of money on an SLR, you might be wondering what the M8 delivers that those other cameras don’t. The simple answer is: fewer features, and a very different way of shooting, one that might be ideal for the type of images you like to make. But many shooters will find the Leica approach fraught with complications, with very little upside, given the price of the system.

If you haven’t been considering buying a camera that costs as much as a nice used car, then there’s still much to be learned from the M8. As you’ll see, working with a rangefinder can teach you a lot about how to work with a more affordable SLR.

The camera

The M8 is a very pretty camera. Whether you choose the all black model, or the silver and black model, you will get noticed when carrying the M8. The all-metal body has a beautiful finish and striking, minimalist design, very similar to the Leica M-series 35mm film-based cameras.

The Leica M8 is a beautiful camera, very well-designed and sturdy, but possessed of a few design flaws.

One of the main advantages of the M series is its small size. The compact, quiet cameras allowed unobtrusive, surreptitious street shooting, making it the camera of choice for photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eliott Erwitt.

Leica has kept this traditional design for their shift into the digital realm, so your first impression might be, “Wow, that looks like a Leica.” Your second impression might be “Actually, it looks like a big Leica,” since the M8 is a little thicker than its 35mm predecessors.

In terms of length and width, the M8 body is about the same size as a small SLR body like the Nikon D50 or Canon Rebel XTi. Leica lenses, though, are much smaller than a typical SLR lens, so the overall size of the body with a lens is usually smaller than the smallest prime lenses that you’ll find in the SLR world.

The main difference between a rangefinder and an SLR is that a rangefinder camera uses a separate lens as a viewfinder. Because there’s no mirror in front of the focal plane, as there is with an SLR, Leica can place their lenses closer to the sensor. This means that lenses can be engineered smaller. And, because smaller lenses are generally easier to engineer, Leica lenses have a reputation for extremely good quality.

Lenses for a Leica M series camera are small, compared to lenses for a 35mm or digital SLR.

Leica lenses also lack any type of autofocus mechanism. In fact, pretty much everything on the M8 is manual. There’s no autofocus, no automatic exposure, and very few other automated settings or features. This lets Leica keep the M8’s design very simple.

On the top of the camera you’ll find a power switch (which doubles as a burst mode selector) a shutter button, and a shutter speed dial. You’ll also find a small LCD readout that shows battery life and number of remaining shots. On the back is a 2.5-inch LCD screen, a four-way navigation control, and a few buttons.

Because most of its functions are manual, the Leica’s controls are very simple, as can be seen from the camera’s top.

Because the M8 is a mostly manual camera, its interface can be very simple. There’s no need for controls for features like auto focus mode, auto bracketing, shooting modes, and so on. Most of the controls are for playback operations, and are very simple to use.

The screen is nice, but it’s smaller than what you’ll find on most point-and-shoots and SLRs these days. It’s decent quality, but lacks the brightness and viewing angle of newer screens.

Overall construction is very good. The camera is solid and sturdy and its buttons and controls have a substantial feel to them. But, while the body design is beautiful to look at, there’s been hardly any ergonomic thought put into it. The camera has no moldings of any kind to make it easier to grip, and when you first start carrying around what amounts to a rather slippery $7,000 camera (including the lens), the lack of grips can be very disconcerting.

Plainly, Leica’s designers were more interested in the form of the camera over the function, choosing to preserve the traditional Leica look over good ergonomic design. This misguided dedication to tradition crops up in a few places in the M8, and is the root of many of the camera’s liabilities.

For example, to access the battery or SD card, you must remove the entire bottom of the camera, just as you would do when changing the film on a 35mm Leica. This requires two hands, and the bottom comes off completely, so you have to hassle with it while trying to swap memory cards or batteries. While this is a cute homage to the old days, it’s also a very stupid design. This design was not originally created because it was the best way, but because it was what was possible. Why keep it?

To access the media card or the battery on the M8, you have to remove the entire bottom of the camera. This is always a two-handed operation.

The M8 has other design flaws. The power control – a swiveling switch that surrounds the shutter button – doubles as a shutter mode switch. Rotate the switch to S and the camera powers up into normal single shot mode; rotate to C and it goes to Continuous, or burst, mode; finally, rotate to the timer icon and you have a self timer. While all this is a perfectly reasonable design, the switch moves so easily that I regularly found that I had bumped it to a spot between settings, which rendered the camera inoperable until the switch was reset. There wasn’t a day that I took the camera shooting that I didn’t miss shots because I’d accidentally bumped the switch.

The camera is also slow to power up, requiring roughly three seconds from power on until it’s ready to shoot. Wake from sleep is also sluggish, taking three seconds to wake up after the camera has dozed off. As with the power-switch problems, sluggish wake times cost me a few missed shots.

There’s really no excuse for lousy performance like this from a $5,500 camera body. Canon’s $500 PowerShot G9 has much faster boot and wake times, and it has a higher-resolution sensor to charge and must hassle with extending a lens. Why Leica would ship a camera with such shoddy performance at any price is, honestly, a complete mystery to me.

Because the M8 uses manual focus and exposure, the rest of the essential controls are on the lens. For a shooter who remembers the days of manual exposure, having shutter and aperture rings on a lens, as well as depth of field markings, feels really great. The specific mechanisms and feel will vary from lens to lens, of course, but Leica’s reputation for lens construction is well-deserved.

If the extent of your experience is a modern SLR, then you’ll have to make a big change in the way you think about lenses: there are no zoom lenses for the M series. It’s all prime, all the time. There are some lenses that offer three switchable focal lengths, but for the most part, choosing the M8 means you’re committing to working with fixed focal lengths. This is not a bad thing at all, but it can be a different way of working if you’re a shooter who learned exclusively with zoom lenses.

With Leica’s long history, buying into the M system gets you access to a broad selection of very good lenses, but with the cheapest Leica lens starting at $1,500, don’t expect to just buy up lots of lenses to make up for the lack of zoom. (There are third-party options for the M series, and they’re also extremely high-quality, but they are similarly expensive.)

The Rangefinder

The fundamental difference between a Leica M series camera and an SLR is the rangefinder. In an SLR, a complex series of prisms and mirrors is employed to let you see through the same lens that is used to focus light onto the focal plane. In a rangefinder camera, the lens is used to focus light onto the focal plane, and you look through a separate viewfinder to frame your shot.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. With an SLR, since you’re looking through the same lens that the camera uses to focus the final image, you know exactly what your final framing will be, and can see the effects of any filters or lens extensions you might be using. With a rangefinder, your viewfinder will not show you an exact framing of your final shot. Depending on how far you are from your subject, there may be significant parallax shift.

Learning to get things framed properly can take time. In the left image, the “Stop” was centered in the viewfinder. Due to parallax, I had to re-frame with the composition off-center, to get the framing that I want.

Of course, with a digital rangefinder (as opposed to a film-based rangefinder) you can review your composition right away, to determine if you’re suffering from parallax shift. But, if you were trying to capture a fleeting moment you won’t get a second chance.

As mentioned earlier, in a rangefinder system, the rear element of the lens can be placed very close to the focal plane, because there’s no need for a mirror or the other gizmos that are required to make an SLR work. This allows lenses to be made much smaller.

Many point-and-shoot cameras have an optical viewfinder that is reminiscent of a rangefinder viewfinder. However, there’s a big difference between the cheap optical viewfinders on a point-and-shoot, and a quality rangefinder system like you’ll find on an M-series Leica.

Most point-and-shoot cameras have autofocus lenses, which means the optical viewfinder serves only as a way to frame your shot. On a rangefinder camera, you use the rangefinder to frame, but you also use it to focus. Focusing through an SLR system is fairly easy since you’re looking through the camera’s lens. On a rangefinder, a complex optical system is used to provide you with a focusing aid in the middle of the viewfinder.

The focusing aid shows a small part of your scene as a double image. As you focus the lens, the two images merge together. When you only see one image, your picture is in focus.

While this system is perfectly effective, if you’re new to rangefinder cameras, you’ll have some adjustments to make. First of all, because everything in the viewfinder outside of the focusing aid is always in focus, it’s actually easy for new shooters to forget to focus. This may sound strange if you come from an SLR background, but the focus aid in a rangefinder camera is very small, which means the image in the viewfinder is predominantly in focus.

If you’re new to a rangefinder, you might also be struck by how bright and clear the viewfinder is – much more than even the brightest SLR viewfinder.

To help you with your framing, the M8 displays frame lines within the viewfinder to indicate approximate framing. Using a lever next to the lens, you can change the frame lines to show framing for other focal lengths. The idea is that gives you a preview of what the framing would be like with a different lens, without having to actually change lenses. The frame lines are fairly accurate, though they still represent a frame that’s 90 to 95% of the final image, meaning the actual picture taken will go beyond the frame lines indicated in the viewfinder. If you’re very particular about framing the edges of your shot, this probably means you’ll need to crop your images later, but most Leica lovers will tell you that framing becomes second nature if you’re shooting all the time with a specific lens.

By design, the Leica viewfinder shows a fair amount of space outside the framing lines. This is to allow you to see a large view of the scene you’re shooting, so that you can anticipate movement that’s happening beyond the frame. This is a hallmark feature of Leica cameras, and a big part of the Leica shooting “strategy”.

If you’re used to an SLR viewfinder that plainly shows focus, that is accurate in its crop, and that only shows you what will be captured, then it can take quite a while to get used to a rangefinder system.

The M8 has two exposure modes, aperture priority and full manual. In aperture priority, you set the aperture you want by using the aperture ring on the lens. The camera then chooses an appropriate shutter speed, which is displayed as a number inside the viewfinder. You can then decide if that shutter speed is fast or slow enough for your intent.

For manual shooting, you change the mode dial from A to any shutter speed from from 4 seconds to 1/8000th, or B (bulb).

When shooting in full manual mode, the camera’s viewfinder provides “greater than or less than” light metering, much like the match-needle systems in old SLR film cameras. If your current settings yield an underexposure, an up arrow is displayed. Conversely, if you’ve dialed in an overexposure, a down arrow is displayed. By adjusting the aperture or the shutter speed, you can then zero in on a “proper” exposure, as defined by the meter, upon which a circle is displayed in the viewfinder.

Unfortunately, even though the camera has the ability to display shutter speed, when shooting manually, no shutter speed display is provided in the viewfinder. So, while you can turn the shutter speed knob while looking through the viewfinder, you’ll have no idea what you’ve ended up choosing unless you’ve been keeping track in your head, or unless you take your eye away from the viewfinder to look at the shutter speed dial. This means it’s possible to move to a shutter speed that’s inappropriate for handheld shooting, and not know it.

For a camera line that’s legendary for its ability to “become an extension of your nervous system” I find this lack of in-viewfinder exposure information to be quite annoying.

The camera offers only one metering mode, a matrix meter that seems to be weighted slightly to the center. An exposure lock is also provided.

The camera also offers an exposure compensation control that provides a plus or minus 3 stop exposure range in third-stop increments. You have to go into one of the camera’s menus to make this adjustment, and there’s no external indication that you’ve dialed in an exposure compensation, so it’s entirely up to you to remember that it’s there, and deactivate it or change it as needed.

The camera also doesn’t display aperture information, but this is because the lens and the camera body have no electronic communication. While this can be annoying when reviewing your images later – there’s no aperture information embedded in the EXIF data of the M8’s images – it’s a small price to pay to be able to use the huge legacy of Leica lenses.

Rangefinder shooting

So, the camera has no zoom lenses, the viewfinder doesn’t show an accurate framing, there’s no autofocus, and you have to set exposure settings manually by using the aperture ring on the lens and the shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. So what’s the advantage of shooting with a camera like the M8?

For many types of shooting, there’s not an advantage. In fact, for many types of shooting, especially event photography, the M8 is completely impractical because you can’t work quickly enough with it to get the job done.

For street shooting, though, the M8 facilitates a very particular way of working that allows you to be unobtrusive and sneaky.

If you’re coming from a point-and-shoot or SLR background, one of the first things you’ll recognize with the M8 is how manual focus can make you speedier. It will take you much longer to initially focus on your scene, but once you have the camera focused, you can work very quickly, firing off shot after shot, without ever having to wait for the camera to focus. This feels very luxurious and as long as your subject-to-camera distance doesn’t change, you can work very quickly.

However, getting that initial focus will take time – a fair amount of time. Fortunately, there’s another way you can work.

For any given aperture on any lens, there is a point of focus called the hyperfocal distance. When the lens is focused at this distance, you will capture the greatest possible depth of field. The hyperfocal distance varies from aperture to aperture, but if you’re using a small aperture like f/11 or f/16, and you’re focused at the hyperfocal distance, then the bulk of your scene will be in focus.

Setting the hyperfocal distance on a Leica lens is very easy because the lenses provide depth of field scales, just like all manual lenses of old. To set focus at the hyperfocal distance, you first choose an aperture – say f/11. Then you set the focus ring’s infinity mark to correspond to f/11 on the depth of field ring. Your camera is now focused at the hyperfocal distance, and the depth of field scale indicates that everything from within approximately 3.5 feet to infinity will be in focus. The lens markings also tell you that your actual point of focus is at roughly 7 feet.

On manual lenses with depth of field scales, it’s easy to calculate the hyperfocal distance, and so gain maximum depth of field.

However, because of the M8 has a sensor that’s smaller than a piece of 35mm film, it’s best to set focus as if you were shooting one stop wider. So, if you’re choosing to shoot at f/11, set focus as if you were shooting at f/8.

Once you’re set at the hyperfocal distance, you can, in theory, start shooting away, as long as your subject is somewhere between 3.5 feet and infinity. However, only objects at the distance that you’re focused at – in our example, 7 feet – will be perfectly in focus. The rest of your depth of field range will be “acceptably” focused. What does “acceptably” mean and who decides what’s acceptable? There’s a lot of physics and math behind the definition of acceptable, but in practice what it means is that things won’t appear blurry. But, neither will they appear razor sharp.

If you’re familiar with the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson or any of the other great Leica street shooters, then you’ll have some idea of what “acceptable” focus is – slightly soft, but still reasonably focused.

This crop shows an example of “acceptable” focus. Nothing in this shot was at the actual point of focus, but everything was within the DOF range. When shooting with the technique described here – with any type of camera – this is the type of acceptable sharpness you can expect.

The advantage of working this way is speed and sneakiness. Because you’re not engaging in either a manual or autofocus process, you’ll feel like you’re shooting with a fixed focus lens, or a cell phone camera. You can quickly rattle off shot after shot with no lag of any kind. What’s more, you don’t even necessarily need to look through the viewfinder, which means you can shoot extremely candid shots. Even if you do look through the viewfinder, it’s easy to grab shots extremely quickly.

Working this way takes practice. You must learn to judge distance so that you can try to keep your subject at the optimal distance; you must pay attention to changes in lighting and keep abreast of your shutter speed setting. Since you’re usually shooting at a smaller aperture, it’s easy for the shutter speed to fall below a suitable handheld speed. You need to develop an eye for how an unfolding scene will be perceived by your lens at your current camera position. All of these things require a fair amount of practice. However, as you develop these skills, you’ll find that, because you’ve “hard-wired” your camera to shoot in a particular way, you can shoot faster than you can with any automatic camera. Just be prepared for slightly soft images and lots of failed attempts.

If you’re an SLR shooter who usually uses a burst or drive mode to fire to capture a particular moment, you might be tempted to use the M8’s Continuous mode. This can sometimes work, but with a burst speed of approximately 3 frames per second, it’s not especially speedy. You’ll be better served to try to learn to recognize and capture “the decisive moment” with a single shot.

Image quality

No matter how well a digital camera is made, or what amazing features it packs, the ultimate, final arbiter of value is always image quality. Because it’s not possible to change the imaging technology in a digital camera, as it is in a film camera, you’re stuck with whatever imager is built in to the camera. And image quality, more than any other characteristic, is where the M8 fails.

Before I go into specifics, note that the M8 doesn’t yield bad images, but it yields images with lots of problems. At $5500, the M8 should produce images at least as good as other cameras in its price range. There are no other cropped sensor cameras in the M8’s price range, so we can only compare to cameras such as the Nikon D300 or the Canon EOS 40D – cameras that cost around a third of the M8’s price – and when making that comparison, there’s no contest. The Nikon and Canon SLRs consistently yield far better images than the M8.

What’s wrong with the M8’s images?

For starters, there’s the camera’s metering. In shutter priority, the camera has a marked tendency toward overexposure, resulting in noticeable detail loss. Even in bright daylight situations – situations that are easy even for cheap point-and-shoot cameras – the M8 can overexpose, blowing out highlights and rendering bright areas as solid masses of white or color.

The M8 has a tendency to overexpose when shooting in normal, bright daylight situations.

You can compensate for this by using all manual exposures or exposure compensation, but it’s a little ridiculous that the one automatic exposure function on this very expensive camera is not dependable.

White balance is another problematic area. First, it’s important to note that, by design, the camera is not capable of accurately reproducing all colors. Most digital cameras have an infrared filter in front of the sensor. This filter is used to eliminate certain light frequencies, so as to improve color reproduction. The M8 lacks such a filter, which means that, very often, the camera will reproduce dark browns and blacks as purple.

However, Leica has a very clever fix for this, all you have to do is spend more money. By placing an infrared filter on your lens, you can correct this white balance problem. Leica provides you with two IR filters of your choice with the camera body, but if you buy more lenses, you’ll have to invest in more filters. And, since you’re investing in very expensive lenses, it’s stilly to hobble them with cheap filters, so you’ll want to spring for expensive, multi-coated filters.

Once you’ve placed the filter on your lens, that particular white balance issue will disappear, but there are plenty of others that won’t.

In my tests, the M8 performed extremely poorly when auto white balancing – worse than any camera I’ve seen in years. Even in bright daylight, what should be the easiest white balance situation of all for an automatic white balance mechanism, the M8 would occasionally get it wrong, yielding images that were too warm.

While the M8 didn’t consistently fail in bright light, in mixed lighting or low light situations, its performance was uniformly bad. There’s no excuse for white balance this bad on any camera, but especially not on one with this high a price tag.

This is typical of the M8’s auto white balance when shooting indoors, or in mixed-lighting situations.

Obviously, due to the camera’s unreliable white balance you’ll probably want to shoot exclusively in Raw (which can also be a hedge against the camera’s tendency to overexpose) or learn to rely on manual white balance. The camera shoots directly into DNG format, which will be a handy convenience for users of Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom, which both have excellent DNG support.

Sharpness and detail is, of course, a function of lens as much as anything else. However, the M8 lacks the antialiasing filter that most SLRs employ, which means that most raw images that come out of the M8 will be slightly sharper than what you’ll typically get out of an SLR (assuming you were focused properly). While the lack of antialiasing filter means you’ll run a greater risk of seeing moiré patterns in your images, I never encountered any.

Note that this extra sharpness is not a huge difference over a quality SLR lens. You can certainly sharpen an image from a competing SLR up to the same point as the M8. Of course, the advantage of the M8 is that you don’t have to hassle with that sharpness step. So, assuming it didn’t over expose or get the white balance wrong, you’ll have a speedy workflow.

The noise equation

One of the great advantages of digital shooting over film photography is the ability to change ISO sensitivity on a frame-by-frame basis. This effectively gives you a third exposure parameter that can buy you more latitude with shutter speed or aperture when you need it. In addition, because a quality digital sensor is so light sensitive, you can shoot usable images in much lower light than you can with film.

Unfortunately, you won’t find this advantage with the M8.

With a low ISO of 160, and proceeding to 320, 640, 1250, and 2500, the M8 unfortunately yields excessively noisy images at anything beyond 320. While the high-ISO settings don’t produce the noisiest images that I’ve ever seen, they are nowhere near as clean as what you can get out of a $700 Canon SLR.

A crop from a shot taken with the M8 in moderate lighting, at ISO 640.

So, while the idea of candid, rangefinder-style shooting in dimmer light – cafés, shadowing alleys, evening events – is very compelling, if you try it with the M8, you’ll find images with a surprising amount of both luminance and chrominance grain.

When analyzing noise in a digital image, it’s important to remember that individual grainy pixels on a computer monitor are not necessarily relevant. What counts is how the image looks in your final output media of choice, which in my case is prints. By this measure, the M8 produces barely passable noise at ISO 640, and unacceptable noise at ISO 1250 and 2500.

Of course, while one person’s unacceptable is another person’s beautiful, stylized image, the point is that given the price of this camera, it should be able to shoot clean images. I like noise as much as the next person, but I also like the option to shoot low-noise images in low light, which is something the M8 simply cannot do.

What’s in the box

The M8 ships with the camera body, a strap that’s easy to connect, Leica’s raw conversion software, a battery, an AC adapter that’s almost as large as the camera itself, a car cigarette lighter charger, and a manual that is one of the worst English translations that I’ve seen in a long time. While everything is nicely packaged, they would do well to redesign the charger so that it’s easier to travel with, and to write a better English-language manual.

Conclusion

As much as I wish it were to the contrary, the M8 is not worth the money. For starters, there are the design flaws, chief among them the loose mode switch, the lack of status information in the viewfinder, the unnecessary hassle of changing the card and battery, and the poor boot and wake-from sleep time. All of those will lead to missed shots.

And then there’s the image quality. Simply put, a $5,000 camera should consistently meter properly, have accurate auto white balance, not require me to buy additional filters for my lenses, and should deliver state-of-the art ISO performance.

Can you take good pictures with the M8? Of course. Just as you can with an SLR, cell phone, point-and-shoot, twin lens reflex, large format, pinhole or Polaroid camera. Most of the time, it’s the photographer that makes the shot, not the camera. At this price, the camera should do a better job of holding up its end, and the M8 fails.

For decades, people have talked about that “special something” that Leica cameras have. There’s no doubt about it, this is a beautiful camera that’s solid and attention grabbing, and if you think that what your shooting experience has been missing is fashion, then this is the camera for you.

But one of the great appeals about a classic Leica film camera is the palpable sense of engineering quality. You can feel it in every mechanism of the camera. Of course, with a digital camera, there really are no mechanisms, just controls. Sure, there’s a shutter, but on the M8 you don’t manually cock the shutter, so you don’t really feel any of the particulars of that mechanism, which means that a big part of the Leica mystique is missing in the M8.

That said, shooting for a while with a rangefinder camera has definitely made me think about shooting in some different ways, just as switching to any other kind of camera will do. I have developed an appreciation for the speed that can come from manual focus, and I’ve been reminded that, for many subjects, being forced to slow down and think through exposure and focus can bring you a new perspective on your subject.

If you’re serious about photography, it’s definitely worth experimenting with a traditional rangefinder approach to photography. However, there are many ways to do this for much less money than you’d spend on the M8.

For starters, you can buy an old rangerfinder film camera off of eBay. Cameras made by Zorky, Voigtlander and Canon can be found for anywhere from $75 to $1,000. These are good cameras and many of them will work with a range of lenses from inexpensive so-so lenses, to pricey, high quality Leica glass. You’ll have to pay for film and processing, and buy a scanner, but you can go through a lot of film and processing before you’ll ever approach the price of the M8, and you’ll most likely get better image quality.

If you have an SLR, you can even dabble in some rangefinder practices. For starters, switch your lens to manual mode and spend more time practicing manual focus techniques. You’ll probably find that, in many circumstances, you can shoot much faster.

For candid street shooting, you can use the exact same hyperfocal focusing technique that rangefinder shooters use. The only possible hitch is that your camera’s lens probably doesn’t have a depth of field gauge on it, and may not have distance markings. If you have a depth of field preview, and your scene isn’t too dark, then you may be able to tell depth of field that way. You can also easily look up the proper hyperfocal distances ahead of time, and simply write these down on a piece of paper.

Here’s a great on-line depth of field calculator. If you have a Palm Pilot or a Palm Treo, you can install DOFMaster, a PalmOS depth of field calculator (there are other Palm OS depth of field calculators, easily found through a Google search).

If you’ve got a Nikon D40, or a Rebel XTI, you’ve already got a camera that’s smaller than the M8, and even a little quieter. Put a 35mm or 50mm prime lens on it, look up the appropriate hyperfocal distance for a few apertures, and you’ll be ready to try street shooting, rangefinder style.