The Digital Journalist
Camera Corner

The Leica M8
on Assignment
September 2007

by Bruno Stevens

During a recent six-week trip to Iran, I shot exclusively with a Leica M8. This camera was lent to me by Leica for assessment, but I want to stress that there is no financial deal involved either way.

I couldn't be happier with the camera; it performed (almost) faultlessly. There was a minor, temporary quirk with the light meter for a couple of hours when I (and the camera) was drenched during a Caspian Sea gale. Apart from the meter, the camera worked fine. Humidity was 100%; gale force winds and torrential rain poured on the camera for hours. At one point, the light meter stopped working under a certain EV value for a couple of hours and then went back to normal. I talked with Leica about it. They told me they had been aware of a similar case with the M7 (same light meter technology) and that they would look into improving this issue. Apart from these two very wet hours, the camera performed flawlessly throughout the six-week assignment.

Teheran, Iran, April 6, 2007 – As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is attending the Friday prayer at the University of Teheran, common Iranian worshippers come to him to congratulate him or ask him requests.
The first and foremost thing to mention is the absolutely outstanding quality of the files: extremely sharp, outstanding micro contrast. I did a couple of strict A-B tests with a Canon 5D before leaving to Iran and, in my view, the Leica wins hands down in terms of sharpness, micro details, contrast, highlights and lowlights tolerance, as well as color transition smoothness. The auto white balance of the M8 is adequate in most cases, but sometimes (not too often) quite a bit off; this is not as bad as it seems as I shoot raw. However, the raw files are usually almost perfect once opened with Camera Raw or C1, with very little need of Photoshopping; certainly NO need for unsharp mask. The Canon 5D raw files, in comparison, need unsharp mask and quite a bit of contrast (or gamma) doctoring before losing that plasticky feel. The final result of the two camera files after Photoshopping is obviously very, very good, but much less PS work is needed to get to that point with the M8. On difficult lighting situations, the 'manual' white balance setting of the M8 works extremely well – just point the camera to a piece of white paper or cloth in your hand, take a frame, and voila, perfect colors.

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The noise at high ISO is more present on the M8 than on the 5D, but at the nominal 160 or 320 ASA sensitivities, there is actually LESS noise on the M8 files!!! The M8 noise, say at 640 ISO or higher, has a very 'film' feel, the resulting images not displaying the typical plasticky feel of many digital cameras. An anecdote: When my first pictures from Iran were sent to Stern magazine in Germany, the head of the technical lab would not believe they were shot with a digital camera and placed a bet with Harald Menk the foreign picture editor (who knew better, as I had told him these were M8 images, hahaha).… When shooting with the M8 at 160 or 320 ISO (by the way, I always underexpose 2/3 of a stop in digital over the nominal sensitivity to avoid blown-up highlights), the files were outstandingly capable of revealing details in the highlights (sky, clouds, skin…) as well as in the lowlights without any visible side effects.

I shot for six weeks with just one lens for 90% of my images, the new 28mm, f2.8 ASPH. Extremely compact, this must be one of if not THE sharpest and smoothest lens I ever used, an absolute marvel, 12/10 note! (It becomes a 35mm lens equivalent on the M8).

Teheran, Iran, March 19, 2007 – A chaotic crowd swarms the popular Tajrish market to buy presents and food for Norouz, the upcoming Iranian new year celebration on March 21st. Plastic surgery is becoming very much a popular social status statement.
The only other lens I used during this trip was the new wide-angle Tri-Elmar (16-18-21, f4) which on the M8 translates into a 21-24-28mm equivalent. I used it with a standard Leica wide-angle zoom viewfinder on top of the camera, very compact, bright and precise. This lens is amazingly sharp, with very little or no vignetting (certainly nothing that needs correction) and produces absolutely outstanding results, I have never seen a wide-angle lens so sharp in the corners (except maybe my old Leica 24mm Elmarit…). This lens also allows you to focus down to 45cm, the only Leica M lens focusing at less than 0.7m! A heartily recommended piece of kit.

I didn't notice any optical distortion, certainly not with the 28mm, f2.8 ASPH. Of course, the Tri-Elmar is very wide and very much an ultra-wide angle. I used it on the 18mm position which is equal to a 24mm in 35 format, and I didn't really see a quality difference between the Tri-Elmar and my beloved Elmarit 24mm on film. That says a lot as the Elmarit is an outstanding lens. However, you can't expect NOT to see a difference between a cropped 18mm and a Summicron 35 on film. But I repeat, the Tri-Elmar is a gorgeous lens, very sharp and capable of producing true wide-angle images on a digital.

There are precision issues with the viewfinder frame lines with some focal lengths. The 28mm is by far the most accurate, and since the 35mm focal length (with film) is what I mostly shoot with, this worked great for me. The second lens I used during this trip is the new wide-angle Tri-Elmar, but it needs a separate VF. I used the small Leica zoom VF, apparently very accurate with that lens.

During a visit to the Leica factory in Solms, Germany, I suggested that Leica remove some of the lines in the M8 VF, as I feel there are too many lines in some configurations, the most apparent of which is the 24mm/35mm configuration. The 24mm frame is very near the edge of the VF and in fact too small…the visible limit of the VF being almost exactly the frame recorded with the 24mm Elmarit (I hope this explanation is clear).

The much-publicized infrared issue has now become a non-issue with the release of the latest firmware update 1.10.2. When using the provided IR filters and lens recognition option, the colors are accurate with no side effect whatsoever. In fact I am now believing that Leica's choice of not putting a filter in front of the sensor but, instead, in front of the lens provides a MUCH better resulting image: sharper, more detailed without the need of resorting to unsharp masking.

The ergonomy of the camera, including its menu, is virtually faultless, certainly the best menu system I have used. There are a couple of minor points that could still be improved – for instance, the delay shutter switch. I have suggested to Leica that there should be a "0 sec" position in the delay menu to alleviate the possibility of the camera not shooting immediately if the switch got accidentally set to the delay position.

Teheran, Iran, March 25, 2007 – A car dealer on Valy Asr Avenue.
The battery life is perfectly adequate in my view, typically about 400-500 images. One thing in my opinion could be improved: the size of the RAW buffer. In some occasions, when I had to shoot repeatedly for a while, (demonstrations, press conferences) I had to wait a few seconds for the data transfer to be complete. Considering the type of work done with that camera, it is probably not critical for most users, but it could be improved.

I feel that Leica made a very good decision in getting rid of the filter in front of the sensor. The current external IR filter strategy has no negative sides whatsoever; most people use a UV filter in front of their glass anyway, but even for the so-called purists who don't, these IR filters are manufactured by Schneider and are of the same quality as the Leica glass: immaculate.

The latest firmware revision (1.10.2), together with the IR filters and the lens recognition option, give outstanding results right from the camera. Opening an M8 file in Camera Raw or C1 is a strange experience as it looks like a finished picture – sharp, contrast spot on and rich colors, nothing like the somewhat milky characteristics of the other cameras' raw files…they really did their homework!

My concern when I embarked on this M8 field test in Iran was exactly this: Can this camera deliver high-quality files, on a par with say, a Canon 5D, while retaining the traditional Leica M ease of operation? The answer is a resounding "yes," except perhaps in very low-light conditions, whereas at high ISO settings (above 640 ISO), the Canon 5D is still clearly superior; but then again the 5D is superior to most if not all other digital cameras on the market in that respect. But the ease of operation, the sheer quality of its file and the true Leica M 'feel' of the M8 in the field makes it one of the most interesting and desirable digital cameras on the market today.

The M8 files are much "cleaner" than any 35mm film scans. They are at least equivalent to good 6×9 scans. Leica M scans are typically very good though, because film grain notwithstanding, the smoothness and precision of the Leica M lenses provide for very, very good images, gorgeous color transition and gorgeous bokeh. Of course it is down to the scanner (I use an Imacon 646), the film and its processing as well. It depends how big you need to print these scans, but I don't mind seeing a bit of grain if the picture is otherwise sharp and smooth.

I don't claim the M8 files are "equal" to 6×9 scans. The quality of both is at a similar level, but the character of the images is different. It also depends on the type of film used in the 6×9 and the type of photography. I used this comparison to give an indication of the subjective quality of the M8 files, which is very high indeed.

What remains true and surprising is that the M8 files exhibit more of a film feeling than the other digital cameras I am used to, as well as a true Leica M pedigree, which is a lot.

We are venturing into the subjective here:

- I feel the M8 raw files processed right through PS Camera Raw with minimum adjustments require much LESS adjustments than say Canon EOS 5D files before getting to the final image.

- In my opinion, but again, this could be subjective: the M8 is not only exceptional at recovering shadows, but also at recovering highlights…now, when I process the Raw, this is the ONE step I am very careful about. I make sure on the histogram that NO burned highlight is present. This can be done two ways, first by "under developing," and as the underexposure recovery ability of the M8 files in PS is outstanding, this makes 80% of the trick. But for some images, I go to the curve page on ACR and take the top right point of the curve (highlights) just down from the corner…and I find that somehow, I manage to extract more details in PS that way without burning the highlight. Not very "kosher" but damn effective!

Oh, and the in-camera auto white balance seems to have improved with the current firmware as well…but in "stable" light conditions, the "manual" option (shooting one frame at a white paper or cloth) produces pretty impressive results.

I have suggested a 'quick fix' to Leica regarding the on/off switch. It is a very simple one, that will/should be available in a future firmware release: to have a "0 sec" delay position in the menu. That way, if you hit the self-timer switch accidentally, (and you will!), the camera would still shoot immediately. Obviously, Leica should change the on/off switch in future cameras models, so that the 'self-timer' does not interfere with normal camera operation.

The photographic community should try to help Leica, a very small company indeed compared to corporate giants such as Canon, Nikon, etc., to maintain a presence in the professional camera field. Leica M cameras offer an alternative way to discover and document the world we are living in. By helping Leica to succeed in producing a great product, we are in fact helping our profession to maintain its diversity and richness in front of the ever-threatening uniformity brought by globalization.

Leica has been tremendously responsive to the photographer's community during its entire history, and especially over the last two years or so, in relation to the M8 development and field tests. Over the years, I met many of the Leica people in Solms – engineers, managers, factory workers. There is a passion there which is part of our passion, a passion that has nothing to do with making profit or being a big company – quite simply, a passion for photography.

Not withstanding all its technical qualities, the best point of the M8 is that it is a true M Leica. The ability to shoot discreetly in a crowd, to be inconspicuous on a street, and finally to point a small innocent-looking camera in the face of the people you photograph instead of a big black brick, the ability to see 'over' the frames of your pictures in the clear viewfinder, the incredibly small size and weight of a system such as described above (just ONE spare lens for four focal lengths) makes the M8 an absolute winner in my view.

When I was in Iran, one of President Ahmedinejad's bodyguards thought I was a writer, even though I had the M8 around my neck. Net result? I got permission (repeatedly) to shoot the prez from two feet while the rest of the press corps was tucked 10 meters away behind a fence. Sometimes I just LOVE looking like an amateur…

© Bruno Stevens

About Bruno Stevens: After working for more than 20 years as a music engineer, Bruno Stevens (born 1959) decided in 1998 to become a photojournalist. He has worked in Mexico, Haiti, ex-Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, India, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Darfur, Libya, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan, Kenya, Somalia, Angola, Lebanon and Cambodia. Bruno Stevens is focusing on the fate of civilian populations in tension or war zones; his work is regularly published in Stern, Liberation, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Paris-Match as well as many others.

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