It is already beginning to brass around the edges of the top plate.
I'm not sure if that is a good thing or not only four months into my fourth look at the latest digital Leica M camera. I'm referring to this year's new Leica M8.2.
My first look at the original M8 came some two and half years ago at the semi-annual camera and imaging orgy in Cologne, Germany, known as Photokina. 2006 was the year that Leica was going to finally introduce a digital version of its venerable M rangefinder camera -- something that Leica had long professed a technological impossibility until upstaged by Epson (yes, the Japanese company that makes printers) with the introduction in 2004 of a splendid digital M-mount camera born of a film camera body (made by Cosina) -- the Epson R-D1.
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The R-D1 was far from perfect but it worked, built a reputation of producing wonderful images, and had the digital rangefinder market completely to itself for something like two years.
M8 + Summicron 35mm [front]
Certainly deeply embarrassed, Leica had some face to save.
Thus began many months of excitement and speculation among Leica devotees -- particularly in online forums -- about what form the R-D1 killer would take and when it would finally appear.
Leica was very tight-lipped about it, not actually confirming for quite some time that a new camera was in the works. Leica was in financial trouble, having ignored the digital wave for too long, so the speculation even extended to whether or not Leica could afford the R&D costs of a digital M, and if the company could even survive. Those doubts still hover around Leica to this day.
The marginal success or failure (depending on one's point of view) of the Digital-Modul-R (DMR), an interchangeable digital back for the Leica R-series of SLR cameras, did little to inspire confidence that Leica engineers could successfully pull off a digital M.
Photokina in September 2006 emerged as the most likely point of introduction for the digital M. But no one outside of Solms, Germany, knew for sure until weeks before the big dance up the railroad tracks in Cologne.
Hot rumors of the sighting of someone in Paris or Barcelona with a strange unlabeled M-like camera came and went that year. Keeping the mystery alive, these cameras would quickly disappear into camera bags if the photographer was approached.
No one even knew what the model name of the new digital M was going to be -- although most people agreed that M8 made the most sense. Leica has always named the succession of M camera models sequentially (except for the naming of an arguably improved M3 as the M2, and the MP which enjoys something of elevated status). The M7 was the current model.
Then some leaked photos of the M8 appeared. Actually it was a game created by someone to reveal photos of pieces of the camera over time to fuel the anticipation that had been building for more than a year. A peek at the front of the camera, at the top, at the back. To steal an expression that pops up in camera forums, this was "camera porn" taken to the extreme.
Finally there were real pictures of the M8 -- not Photoshop creations of what someone thought it was going to be -- and an official date of its unveiling: Photokina 2006.
It looked like a "Leica." For those of us who think the handing of a Leica M rangefinder and its ability to take impossibly discreet photographs is heaven-sent, the M8 looked to be the perfect transition from film to digital.
It's hard to imagine a more eagerly awaited piece of camera gear. Leica had done it -- or had they?
Sadly, months of anticipation and excitement about a new era of rangefinder photography were about to be snuffed out in an instant.
The instant came shortly after I was handed an M8 at the Leica booth at Photokina. It was noticeably thicker than my M7 and the covering was way too slick but I kept the faith. The view through the rangefinder was comfortably familiar. Then I pressed the shutter release.
M8 + Leica Rep Displaying Chrome M8s - Photokina 2006
My comments on what happened next in various Internet forums in the months following Photokina made me a very, very unpopular person.
The M8 shutter noise was indescribably horrible. I likened it to the clattering sound some broken wind-up toy might make. To someone unfamiliar with that heaven-sent sound of a film M's shutter, this is probably very difficult to appreciate. But the soft "plop" of a Leica at the moment of exposure is at the very heart of the love affair many people have with the Leica M rangefinder.
Suddenly this thing that looked like a Leica was a fraud.
And I said so on the forums. I received the virtual equivalents of death threats because I dared to so completely defile something made by the gods in Solms.
Other problems with the M8 beyond the noisy, clackity-clack shutter and too slick cover emerged. There were problems with white-balance and banding (the first batch of cameras were recalled to the factory for a circuit board replacement). Heightened IR (infrared) sensitivity proved to be impossible to fix in camera so all M8 users are required to place expensive UV/IR cut filters on all of their lenses to suppress image color balance problems. The on/off switch too easily slipped into the self-timer position. The battery charger abomination (no other word for it) was larger than the camera itself and took a quarter of a day to fully charge a battery. The viewfinder frame lines failed to represent an accurate field of view of subjects at medium-to-far distances from the camera and when lenses of longer focal lengths were used.
I'm not nearly so importunate as to think I was the only one to notice and bitch about these things. But given the vitriol that came my way and the apparent lack of support I found among my fellow forum contributors, it was hard to know.
I tried to overlook these things. I really wanted to love the M8.
But after a week of owning one of the first cameras shipped to the U.S., I returned it for a refund. Two subsequent times in the subsequent two years, through the goodwill of Precision Camera in Austin, Texas, I gave the M8 another look. Maybe my initial reaction(s) were too emotional; maybe I can accept the M8 as a digital replacement for my M7.
The allure of digital photography is powerful. No more developing. No more scanning.
But the M8 remained what I initially considered it to be -- a failure as an acceptable digital successor to the Leica M film camera. And an enormous disappointment for me.
The Second Coming
Fast forward to 2009 and the Leica M8.2 -- as the name implies, the second generation M8.
M8.2 + Nokron 35mm + MD-GRIP + Thumbs Up [front]
I'll get into the specifics below but despite the brass showing through the black paint, I love the M8.2. With few exceptions, it is the camera that I had hoped for in 2006.
Credit goes to Leica, which clearly had tuned into the Internet bitch sessions about the flaws of the M8. Clearly I was far from a lone voice in the wilderness because the M8.2 addresses -- and fixes -- everything that made the M8 such an unsatisfactory digital successor to the long line of very special cameras.
To be frank, after a few faulty circuit boards in the first run of cameras were replaced, a couple of firmware upgrades, and the UV/IR cut filter solution was in place, the problem with the M8 was never really about its ability to capture stunning images.
One of the few digital cameras without an anti-aliasing filter over its sensor, the sharpness and detail of images produced by the 10MP Kodak CCD has never been disputed. (The absence of this filter was the root cause of the increased IR sensitivity issue.) No doubt, Leica chose to omit this filter to maximize the camera's ability to take advantage of unmatched optical performance of more than 50 years of Leica lenses.
No, the gripes about the M8 were almost entirely cosmetic.
This brings us back to why most people buy a Leica rangefinder. It's about the picture-taking experience, stupid.
Any camera can take pictures. But certain types of pictures are best taken with a Leica. More importantly, though, the people who take such pictures simply love the experience of using a Leica M. No other camera will do. No other camera feeds the decidedly deep obsession of the rangefinder photographer.
Yes, the M8.2 is mostly a cosmetic upgrade. But in this case, cosmetic changes made lemonade out of a lemon.
Summary of Changes: M8.2 vs. M8
The M8.2 incorporates a different shutter; the top speed of 1/8000 is gone but it is significantly quieter -- much truer to the experience of the film cameras.
The M8.2 returns to the traditional "Vulcanite"-style body covering; the slick body covering is gone -- this significantly improves handling and sureness of grip.
The M8.2 incorporates more precise viewfinder frame lines; the new frame lines more accurately represent the field of view of lenses captured on the 1.33x crop factor digital sensor.
The M8.2 comes with a realistically sized battery charger. Gone is the brick that was impossible to fit into any reasonable camera bag -- hopefully whoever made the original design decision has returned to his/her masonry job.
The M8.2 stiffens the on/off switch; it is much more difficult to unknowingly slip into an unexpected operating mode -- only once in four months of use have I found the camera in self-timer mode when I tried to take a picture.
The M8.2 incorporates a sapphire cover over the LCD; it is virtually scratch-proof compared to LCD panels on any other camera -- nice but unnecessary, and I have to wonder how much this piece adds to the cost of an already very expensive camera.
The black M8.2 is black paint; the M8 is black chrome -- black paint is prettier to some and it brasses over time (meaning that the paint wears off, revealing the underlying brass metal), which has become a visible badge of honor for well-used Leica M cameras.
The M8.2 features something called "snapshot mode." This replaces the 1/8000 setting on the M8's shutter speed dial -- pardon me but this attempt to create something of an automatic mode for dummies on one of the world's most expensive cameras (and one of the least capable of automation except for aperture priority auto-exposure) is just silly.
The Picture-Taking Experience
M8 + The Moment of Truth - Photokina 2006
I consider myself to be, first and foremost, a black-&-white street photographer. The heritage of Leica rangefinder cameras is deeply intertwined with street photography. Recall a famous street photograph and the odds are high that it was taken with a Leica.
After carrying many different M film cameras, mostly the auto-exposure M7, daily for years, I now don't leave the house without the M8.2 over my shoulder. It goes with me everywhere.
The M8.2 immerses me in the same picture-taking nirvana as its film predecessors -- a nirvana that all of the cosmetic flaws of the M8 irreconcilably separated me from.
With all of the advantages of digital and the stunning image quality of the M8.2, I may never return to film.
Over the years, I've amassed a pretty serious collection of M-mount lenses. Of course, the digital M uses the same great lenses as the film cameras.
By far the favorite lens that I used with my M7s was the Leica Tri-Elmar, which is a unique lens capable of three focal lengths -- 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm. It's the closest thing to a zoom lens possible on a rangefinder.
On the M8.2 and its 1.33x crop factor, the effective focal lengths of the Tri-Elmar increase to roughly 37mm, 47mm, and 63mm. At f/4 the Tri-Elmar is really a daylight lens. Factor these into the M8.2's poor high ISO performance, and I no longer find the Tri-Elmar so ideal as my main walk-around lens.
For now, I've mated the M8.2 more or less permanently with a Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 lens. It's a monster insofar as rangefinder lenses go, focuses like a dream and is faster than greased lightening. It comes off occasionally for the Tri-Elmar, a Zeiss Distagon 18mm f/4, a Zeiss Biogon 25mm f/2.8, or a Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f/2.
But it's the Nokton that takes most of my pictures these days. There is something magical about a Leica and a (nearly) 50mm lens ...
Some Technical Observations
With the exception of approximately 1/4" or so of added depth and the lack of film advance lever, the essential picture-taking controls of the M8.2 are identical to previous M film cameras -- which is precisely the point of this camera. In an obvious nod to the retro-historical design of the M8.2, the bottom plate is removed to insert the battery and SD card just like it was on the previous models to change film.
The LCD panel and controls on the back are a necessary concession to the digital age. In general, the controls and firmware menus work well. Fortunately, the breath and depth of the menus are not nearly as intimidating as those found on even some point-&-shoot cameras, not to mention the ubiquitous DSLR.
The SET button is a nice touch. One touch allows virtually instantaneous changes to the most frequently changed setting like ISO, EV, and white balance.
As with any camera, though, it still takes awhile to learn the menu system. For example, one of the first things I wanted to do was set the camera into black-and-white mode. It took awhile to discover that this setting was under Color Saturation -- not exactly intuitive at the time.
In daily use, I have the LCD panel turned off and pretty much forget about all the digital widgets on the back of the camera. At this point, it is a Leica M to me just as my M7 is.
There are some other considerations of the M8.2 and M8 worth mentioning here.
Battery: The camera battery is very compact; in only one day of picture taking did I have to switch to a spare (this day was a head shot photo shoot of over 500 exposures). I judge the battery life to be more than adequate for this type of camera although having a spare or two for more active days is just common sense.
SD Card: The camera supports the SDHC standard; despite this the write times are agonizingly slow for me. Because I have the camera set for black-&-white mode, I also have to select RAW+JPEG mode in order to get a B&W preview (for the rare time I need to peek) and to see a B&W image file on my computer during post-processing. I tested many different SD cards (the fastest being the Sandisk Extreme III) but no test broke the 10-second mark (!) to save an exposure. For the record, the RAW-only write times were faster, with the fastest being around four seconds. An internal buffer does allow for five continuous RAW+JPEG exposures before filling and virtually continuous RAW-only exposures -- frankly, this is rarely more than an annoyance considering my deliberate style of photographing but it is definitely a big issue to many users.
Flash Sync: The camera has a hot shoe for flash photography and supports TTL exposure with Leica flash units like the SF-24D and the new SF-58 pro model. More often than with other types of cameras, though, the hot shoe is used to hold an accessory viewfinder (necessary for framing exposures with some wider angle lenses) or to attach other accessories, which makes using a flash impossible. Obviously it's too late for M8.2 and M8 users but if there is ever an M9, I encourage Leica to bring back the X-sync flash terminal found in all previous M cameras.
This overview of the M8.2 (and M8) is admittedly as much a work of opinion as fact. I recently had the pleasure of watching Paul Fusco working over a crowd of music lovers with a taped up M8. I think I might even have caught him chimping a time or two.
None of the misgivings above apparently keeps Fusco from taking pictures with an M8. And one would assume he could use any camera on the planet.
As for this lover of Leica rangefinders, it's the M8.2 that finally delivers what I have been longing for in a digital camera.
The M8.2 delivers for me in reproducing the "Leica experience." It mimics so closely my film M7s as to rapidly be indistinguishable during the taking of pictures. The image quality (at lower ISOs) is so good when I work in Photoshop that I really don't care about mega-pixels, sensor size, or any of the other digital whatchamacallits.
M8.2 + Nokron 35mm + MD-GRIP + Thumbs Up [top]
At one level it saddens me when I think of my unused M3 and two M7s sitting on the shelf at home. There is deep joy and devotion associated with using a Leica M camera that users of other cameras cannot appreciate -- and probably even find a little bit creepy.
That time is passing by the film M camera cannot be denied.
But finally, in the M8.2, we have a worthy successor. New digital cameras come on the heels of previous models very quickly. Perhaps there will be an M9. No doubt it will be better in some ways than the M8.2 -- just as the newer M6, M7, and MP models with their fancy built-in light meters and automatic exposure usurped the M2, M3, and M4 models in the decades ending the 20th century.
But I am convinced the M8.2 will stand its ground against the advance of time and technology. As long as Leica commits to servicing it as it has for half a century of previous models, I think the M8.2 will have a very long lifespan indeed.
Soon, sooner than expected perhaps, I may have my own heavily brassed (albeit digital) badge of honor.