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It has now been almost a year since the release of the landmark Leica M8 digital rangefinder camera, a year fraught with setbacks and triumphs. From camera failures with no warning, files with cyan drift and magenta shifts, to firmware updates – then improvements on perhaps the most film-like and (yes, I dare say it) delicious and stunning digital image files available from any camera on the market.
This review of the Leica M8 is written from the perspective of someone who has extensively used with much enjoyment the Leica M rangefinder system for over 20 years. It is not a technical overview, with lots of engineering and in-depth analysis of the camera. I see no value in rehashing what has already been done by others. Sean Reid at the excellent Web site Reid Reviews http://reidreviews.com has done perhaps the most comprehensive review and follow-through on the M8.
My colleague Bruno Stevens and I write this for those of you who want to know whether a year after its release this new incarnation of the Leica M can be used to make the kinds of images for which your Leica has traditionally been employed.
From the UR Into the 21st Century
I first put my hands on a Leica in the very early 1980s. It belonged to a commercial photographer, whose spiritual antidote to making images for billboard advertising was to load up his M3 with Tri-X and become Henri Cartier-Bresson or Garry Winogrand. When I held his camera it was heavier than it looked, and exuded a feel like no other. I decided then that I would one day own one.
It took a couple of years but I purchased an M3 with a 50mm Summicron, followed by a new M4-P with a 35mm Summacron, an amazing little lens that I still wish I had kept. I used these two cameras in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, both embroiled in vicious civil wars. The low profile of my Leicas helped keep me working in situations where my Nikon SLRs would have stood out.
I ended up selling my first Leicas, but deeply regretted it. In the mid-1990s I replaced them with a pair of M3s with 50mm and 21mm lenses. I added an M6 and a couple of years ago, a black-paint MP.
As the digital SLR came into the ascendancy in photojournalism I began using them more. But my Leica would still be used for those special times when their unique characteristics of stealth and quality are needed. I have used or owned every top digital SLR but they never satisfied me as much as when I was using my Leica rangefinders. Compared to the SLR, they allow a way of seeing that connects directly and with precision with what you are trying to capture.
My friend PF Bentley, another hard-core Leica user, and I often spoke of our dream that Leica would come out with a digital M camera. I no longer work on photo projects under deadline, but on subjects more long-term. Film has always been my preferred medium. I like the "workflow," and the contemplative style of the process. In 2003 the archival limitations of digital came through to me after Hurricane Isabel knocked out power to my home for a couple of weeks. Yet I was still able to access my entire image archive. Film archive, that is. The computers were silent.
But the possibility of a digital Leica M floated in my head.
In November 2006 I handled a Leica M8 for the first time at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York. I marveled at the feel of the camera, which is almost exactly like a film M, just a bit thicker. Looking through the viewfinder, and the focusing were identical. The 10-megapixel file size was about right. One of the drawbacks, though, is that with the 1.3x crop factor your lenses on the M8 become another focal length. For example, the 21mm becomes a 28mm, the 24mm =32mm, 28mm = 35mm, 35mm = 50mm, and your 50mm = 65mm. The upside is that the M8 uses the central 'sweet spot' of your lens, where it is most sharp, and not the edges.
The camera also used the DNG (digital negative, .dng) format for RAW images, something that I have been a great fan of. All my digital files, Canon and Nikon, have been archived both as manufacturer spec and as converted .dng files.
I was impressed. The M8 was on my list as a must-have.
But shortly after that reports of color drift began surfacing, with the M8 displaying some dark artificial fabrics as heavily magenta or reddish. It was later realized that the infrared spectrum sensitivity of the M8's sensor was the culprit. Leica began providing free special filters to correct this. For black-and-white shooters it was not a problem, as the enhanced infrared sensitivity allowed the M8 to see into the shadows better than any other camera out there. Some people liked this, some did not.
But then another problem developed. Wide-angle lenses with the corrective filters exhibited cyan fringing at the edges. Firmware updates were devised.
Next shoe to drop were reports of M8 cameras dying without any warning. Static electricity discharge frying delicate electronic components was one theory. To add to the woes, it seemed that nobody at Leica's factory in Solms, Germany, could figure out why. I decided to stay on the sidelines and not buy an M8 until Leica could figure things out.
This summer Christian Erhardt and Mitch Polikoff at Leica kindly sent me a silver chrome M8 with a 50mm Summilux ASPH lens. The other lens I was most interested in trying, the new 16-18-21mm, f4 Wide-Angle Tri-Elmar (on the M8, equivalent to 21-24-28mm) – or as it is most referred to, the WATE – was not immediately available but would be shipped to me as soon as possible.
As it turns out, my colleague Bruno Stevens used this lens extensively during his Iran assignment and so was going to be able to provide a more thorough evaluation of the WATE (read on for Bruno's comments on the WATE). My time with the M8 became limited as the post-production process of a documentary video project I was working on began to occupy my days.
I configured the M8 to shoot in DNG+JPEG, setting the .jpg file as a black and white to approximate a B&W workflow. The .jpg would allow quick reference to what the file would look like, and then the RAW .dng file would be converted. It worked like a charm. The large 2.5-inch screen on the back of the M8 allowed for quick and easy verification of the image and sharpness.
The files, when converted, were beautiful, and unlike any other digital file I had seen. I used both Capture One LE, supplied with the M8, and my usual converter, Adobe Camera Raw. The color is more like that from a Kodachrome slide, and very film-like. The micro contrast and 'snap' looked just like a higher resolution version of my scanned Leica M film. Because of the decision to not use an AA filter the files are much sharper right out of the camera than others I have seen, and require very little (if any) sharpening during post-processing.
But that is where it ends. The M8, in terms of resolution, absolutely blew away my 35mm film scans. At ISO 200 the images look close to medium-format files that I produce on my Imacon scanner. Combined with the amazing image quality produced by the 50mm ASPH, the black-and-white files drew a series of "Wow!" comments from colleagues at The Virginian-Pilot, all of whom use Canon EOS 5D SLRs.
Now, the negatives. I found the white balance feature on the M8 to produce very inconsistent files. That was not a big deal for me, as I shoot primarily in RAW. But it was a bit annoying. The viewfinder accuracy was a bit off with the 50mm and also when I tried a couple of my non-coded Leica lenses, such as my 35mm Summicron (pre-ASPH, the 'bokeh king').
At high ISOs, the M8 is not as clean as its competitors, such as the Canon 5D and 1Ds Mark II. Still, I felt comfortable using it up to about ISO 1250, where the 'noise' looked a lot like film grain. Shooting higher than this the files became really noisy, but in my opinion it is still usable in a pinch.
The bottom line is, am I going to buy an M8? Not yet, until the problems are solved. For my current work a camera like the M8 is not a necessity.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely.
With all its imperfections, this is a unique piece of gear. For a photojournalist wishing to work in the classic rangefinder style, there is really no other game in town. The images from this camera are absolutely beautiful. I am confident that Leica will fix the bugs in their next iteration of the digital M series.
© Roger Richards
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