A Hands-on Field Review
This page contains a number of photographs taken during several days of my initial testing of the Leica M8. Relevant and available shooting information is provided, and these as well as additional images from this testing period are found on a page titled Leica M8 Testing Portfolio. You may wish to read my note – Some Thoughts on Camera Testing – found on that page, before proceeding.
A Word on History
Any discussion about the Leica M8, the first digital M Leica, must of necessity start with an understanding of the place that Leica has in the history of photography. While not the first hand-held small format camera, it was the one that succeeded; since the 1930’s capturing the hearts of generations of photographers, and producing some of the most significant images of the 20th Century.
For more than half a century the M series of cameras, of which the new digital M8 is just the most recent of a steady progression of models, has been the tool of choice for many photojournalists, as well as amateurs who value simplicity of operation over the often baroque complexity of today’s polycarbonate ubercameras.
The M8’s uncorrupted DNA shows true. For anyone that has ever worked with an M series Leica, just a few minutes in hand with an M8 will show that Leica gets it; that the company has understood what makes a Leica a Leica.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Not everyone reading this review will have worked with a Leica before, and may not therefore understand what the fuss is about. So, a few words of orientation are in order. I’ll have more to say though about Leica’s place in the grand photographic scheme of things a bit further in this report.
Leica M3 and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens. Tri-X in Rodinol
I wasn’t sure whether to put this personal sidebar comment up-front in this report, or at the end. But in either place, it needs to be said.
I’ve been using M Leica’s since the mid-1960’s when I began my photographic career as a photojournalist. Needless to say, I have am favorably disposed toward them. I was distressed though in recent years at what seemed to be a decline in the company’s fortunes, which involved their marginalization as a force in the industry and their subsequent focus on producing collector’s editions for the Hermes and Japanese dilettante crowd; cameras which ended up in safety deposit boxes, shrink-wrapped on Tokyo’s camera dealer’s shelves, or worn as status jewelry by dilettantes, rather than used as instruments for creating photographs. Leica bears some of the blame for this. Did we really need the Anton Bruckner Memorial M4 with blue alligator skin covering? (I’m not kidding).
But today, Leica has a new owner, revitalized finances, and on obviously clearer vision of where it’s heading. They still make some of the world’s finest lenses, still produce products of unsurpassed construction quality and materials, and now with the M8 have, I believe, rediscovered the righteous path. That path being one which provides photographers with highly appropriate photographic tools, and hopefully therefore ongoing financial health for the company.
The Leica Gestalt
So what’s the big deal? What is it about an M Leica that makes it almost a cult object for some and the tool of choice for others?
The raison d’etre of an M series Leica concerns, at its core, the art of making the camera seem to disappear. By this what I mean is that it is about making the instrument transparent; ie – putting as little between the photographer’s eye and the subject being photographed as possible. This is achieved, in part, through the use of an optical viewfinder. An M Leica is the un-SLR. No reflex mirror. No looking through the shooting lens. No prism. No ground glass. There is a bright optical window through which one views the world, with etched lines showing the framing of the lens mounted, as well as other possible lens choices, and almost always showing more than the lens will record. One sees simultaneously outside the subject being framed, as well as what’s inside the frame itself. Most Leica photographers therefore shoot with both eyes open, developing a manner of seeing that engages them with the subject rather than reducing the world to a miniature image with shallow depth of field and reduced brightness and contrast. By comparison, the view though most current reduced-frame DSLRs is akin to viewing a small window at the end of a long corridor.
And, though not the smallest camera possible, for many it is the smallest that a camera can be and still fit the human hand, eye, and face comfortably. Ignoring the digital side for the moment, the Leica M8 (any M Leica for that matter) has essentially two controls – a shutter speed dial on the top panel, and an aperture ring on the lens. There’s also a shutter release, of course, but that’s about it. Oh yes, a focusing ring / lever on the lens, because this is not an autofocus camera.
Focusing is not only done manually, it is done using a rangefinder, which superimposes two small overlapping rectangles in the center of the viewfinder. When they overlap, which you make happen by turning a focusing lever on the lens, the lens is focused on the subject intended. Not the nearest subject. Not the highest contrast subject. Not the subject’s face (shades of face-recognition – uggh). There are no microprocessors or ultrasonic micromotors. You decide what to focus on, not the camera.
The one concession to automation is that the camera can work in Aperture Priority exposure mode. You set the aperture and the camera adjusts exposure by varying the shutter speed, measuring the light through the lens at shooting aperture. How modern! But, other than that, there is precious little in the way of automation. Look through the viewfinder, frame the subject, focus where you wish, set the exposure, and shoot.
The Leica M8 is straight from the classic M Leica mold. If you are familiar with a previous film-based M or hold one up side-by-side with the M8 you’ll immediately notice that all of the dimensions and weight are the same, except for the depth. The M8 is slightly fatter front to back. You’ll also notice that the top and front of the camera are cleaner and simpler. The battery door, self timer and wind lever are missing. The shutter speed dial is larger, and there is a three position lever around the shutter release collar, with settings for OFF, Single Frame, Continuous, and Self Timer release.
I am concerned that this lever is too easy to accidentally move to the self timer position. On more than one occasion when working quickly I went to take a shot only to find the camera counting down to 12 seconds rather than executing the shot as I had intended. I stiffer detent would be a welcome change on the next model.
On the left top panel is a small LCD window which shows the number of shots remaining, given the current settings. A three level battery warning bar is also displayed. This display is not live unless the camera is turned on, and is not backlit. There is a USB 2 plug on the left side of the body, and it is very securely covered.
The bottom plate of the camera removes in the classic manner (more on this below) and inside there is a slot for an SD card (new high capacity SDHC cards over 2GB are supported), and a Lithium Ion battery. The viewfinder is classic M Leica, big, bright and to my mind at least, a joy to use.
A couple of design decision and execution details concern me. The first is the use of SD cards instead of Compact Flash. The body certainly appears large enough to accommodate CF cards. I know that it’s likely a personal thing, by I find SD cards simply too small. They are easy to drop and misplace. I’ve written before – if you drop one in the grass a couple of ants would be strong enough to carry it away, if you can even find it. I know I’m bucking a trend here, but I do wish the M8 had used CF cards rather than SD.
The rechargeable battery is small and of unique design. Carrying a spare in your shirt pocket will take up little more room than a couple of sticks of gum. I have not had a chance to yet determine battery life, and I’ve been shooting and charging as I go since I didn’t have a spare during my testing. My guess is that it should be good for 300-500 frames with a normal amount of chimping.
Update: On one day I shot some 200 frames outdoors at a temperature of +2C over a period of about 3 hours, chimping about half the time. The battery still showed a 50-75% charge at the end of the shoot.
The camera comes with a charger for a single battery . It’s a bit chunky, but plugs directly into the wall outlet without a cord, and is provided fitted with three interchangeable international plugs. Interestingly, and much to Leica’s credit, it also comes with a cable which plugs into the adaptor’s body, and which has a car accessory outlet plug on the other. So when shooting on the move you can always charge the battery. Nice.
Leica M8 with 50mm f/2 Summicron. 1/350 sec . ISO 320
Operationally, the big difference is a built in shutter cocking motor instead of thumb power. This noticeably changes the sound and feel of the shutter release. The shutter mechanism on the M8 is electronic and metal, rather than mechanical and cloth. This together with the cocking motor gives the shutter a completely different sound; about the same loudness but a bit harsher pitched. Not something that stresses me, though I know some will object.
The shutter feel is regretably not as silky smooth as that on an M6. There is a part of the button travel needed to activate the meter, and than some resistance, and then the shutter fires. On an M6 there’s a smooth, short travel and then activation. Again, not something to become bent about, but I surely do miss the old mechanical shutter. The new one offers speeds up to an 1/8000 sec and flash sync to 1/250 sec, so things aren’t all for the worse.
As far as shooting speed goes, the M8 isn’t going to win any contests against most current DSLRs in terms of frame rate, but it’s no slouch. In continuous mode it can shoot raw plus JPG at 2 FPS for up to 10 frames. Using a 2GB Lexar 133X SD card it took about 23 seconds to shoot 10 frames and have them completely saved to the card. A Canon 1Ds MKII took 22 seconds to similarly take 10 shots and save them. Naturally, the Canon shots at a higher frame rate, but overall wasn’t any faster in executing the entire shoot – save to card routine.
Since this isn’t a sports camera it will likely be fast enough for most situations. Certainly compared with a manually cocked Leica it’s faster, and faster as well than an M7 with M Winder. The buffering in the cameras is intelligent, which means that as soon as shots start to clear a full buffer you can keep shooting, and also access control and review functions. Nicely done, though one can always wish for more speed. Those interested in maximum performance should consider getting the fastest cards. They do make a difference.
The LCD screen is as good if not better than most on current cameras. Large, bright, and with well designed fonts. Hard to fault in any way. Also hard to fault is the provided neck strap, a step above that provided with most other cameras. It has a non-slip shoulder pad that really does its job. Only the Upstrap is better.
The M8 does not have any sound effects. No beeps or clicks or digital music nonsense that so many camera makers love to include. Except for one. If you take a shot without a card installed, which the camera will do, it makes a subtle beep, and flashes a warning on the rear LCD. Elegant.
Finally, the M8 comes with a two year factory warranty, honoured worldwide as long as the camera was purchased from an authorized dealer.
The Digital Side
The M8 is, of course, a digital camera. This naturally means a rear panel LCD screen, menus, and setting buttons. But to Leica’s credit all of this has been reduced to the minimum necessary so that the photographer can control what needs to be adjusted and is not overwhelmed with choices, nested menus, and modalities.
Indeed, after personalization, the only reason to turn on the LCD for many shooters will be to set the ISO or format a new card. (And of course for image review). I do wish that Leica had somehow made setting ISO separate from the rear LCD, and therefore more directly accessible. Sensitivity is the third exposure variable in digital. and relegating it to a rear LCD will really slow a lot of photographers down. Quite annoying. Exposure compensation is also accessed via the LCD, another annoying limitation.
For the purist (if there is such a thing as a digital purist), other than setting ISO more frequently than one would with an M6 or M7, the M8 works just like a film-based Leica. Leave the instant review function turned off to minimize chimping, and just shoot. In a quiet moment, sit down and review images on screen, by all means. But otherwise forget that you’re shooting digital and leave the screen turned off. It’s liberating, and the M8 makes it easy to adopt this style of working.
Here’s a curious thought. When the Epson RD1 appeared many scoffed that it had a wind lever. The M8, either to its credit or its determent (depending on your point of view) does not have a wind lever, instead using a motor to cock the shutter, since obviously there’s no film to be wound. I must admit though that from the first time that I first picked up the M8 my thumb wanted to wind the advance lever even though it wasn’t there. Maybe it’s simply decades of conditioning, (like the phantom feel of a missing limb) but I do miss it. I applaud Leica though for not having given in to what must have been a strong temptation to pander to traditionalists. They have trod a very delicate line between maintaining the essence of what it means to be an M series Leica, and the potential trap of maudlin traditionalism. As will be seen, I believe that they have straddled these conflicting demands as well as could be done – maintaining appeal for their core constituency while not pretending that the M8 isn’t a digital camera.
Like many digital cameras the M8 provides dark frame subtraction automatically when shutter speeds longer than 1/30 second are used. The length of time of the second "exposure" is the same as the main one. For shutter speeds longer than 2 seconds a display appears on the LCD indicating how long the remaining wait will be. This feature can not be turned off.
A few initial long exposure experiments at up to 30 seconds showed images to be completely clean, equivalent to short exposures at similar ISO settings. Tests of longer exposure times will have to await my digging up one of my old mechanical cable releases 🙂
Interestingly, I found that if you set the camera to B with the self timer on self timer you end up with the equivalent of a T setting, where the shutter remains open until you touch the shutter release again. Very clever and very handy. When I discovered this I stopped looking for my old cable release and did a 90 second exposure at ISO 640. There was a bit of additional chroma noise above the small amount there at this ISO, but not as severe as I’ve seen with some earlier DSLRs and certainly most digicams at that this exposure length. You won’t be using an M8 for astrophotography, but for the odd night shot of a cityscape and such it’ll be just fine. Just remember that while digital doesn’t suffer from reciprocity effects the way film does, the automatic dark frame subtraction will effectively double the length of your exposures. A practical consideration.
A couple of negative notes: Start-up time at 2 seconds is on the slow side for a contemporary camera. I would urge Leica to find a way to make this nearly instantaneous, as it is with current Nikons and Canons. I also was frustrated by the fact that while with the camera set for instant review (chimping), and the review image comes up almost instantaniously, if you have instant review turned on but them press PLay to see the image while it is still being written to the card, instead you see the shot previously taken.
In what is bound to be possibly their most controversial M8 design decision, at least among those that like to debate such things, Leica has given the M8 a traditional removable base plate. Beneath it lies a compartment for the Lithium Ion battery (a very svelte design), and the SD memory card slot. Some will argue that this is simply a design conceit – a carry over from previous generations, where it was always argued by the company that having the film plane fixed to the rigid body assembly, rather than part of a swing-away back, lead to greater structural rigidity and a more precise positioning of the film plane.
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/60 sec @ f/8. ISO 320
Be that as it may, the M8 makes no such demands, and therefore the removable base plate can only be seen as an esthetic design decision. Some will claim that it makes these two points of entry for water and dust more effectively sealed. But since the camera makes no claims to being particularly well weather sealed, I somehow doubt it. Leicas have always been among the most robust of cameras in trying weather conditions, but the extent to which this is true for the much more electronics dependant M8 remains to be seen.
As a long-time Leica user I must admit that I like the traditional baseplate approach. Newcomers may find it somewhat awkward, but to me this particular conceit is part of the signature Leica design approach, and therefore any small inconvenience (where the hell do you put the cover while changing cards or batteries) is compensated for. By the way, real men hold the cover in their mouths, even when it’s cold. Just be sure to place it open side down so that saliva doesn’t build up in it. (Humour alert).
Owners of previous M Leicas need to understand how the issue of the sensor cropping factor (as against traditional 135 format, and lens coverage) affects the viewfinder and lens selection. The M8’s sensor is not full frame 35mm. It has a reduction factor of 1.33X, and therefore any lens’ focal length needs to be multiplied by that factor to arrive at its effective focal length. So a 28mm lens mounted on an M8 covers the same field of view as roughly a 35mm lens would on an M7. Note though that the viewfinder frame lines available on the M8 are the same as the M7, from 24mm to 75mm. Put a 50mm lens on the M8 and the 50mm frame pops up. But, it isn’t showing you the same field of view as that same 50mm lens would on an M7. The area shown is tighter, more like that of a 65-70mm lens’ field of view.
This is actually less confusing than one might think. Just bear in mind the need to select lenses that are one focal length increment wider than you would on a film based Leica, and you’ll be fine. So if your standard arsenal with an M7 has been a 28 and a 50mm lens, then 24mm and 35mm lenses would be your preferred focal lengths on an M8, at least in terms of field of coverage. Got it?
Build Quality and Price
What can one say about the build quality of a Leica? It’s simply about as good as it gets. It would take a NASA-sized budget to produce anything with higher quality materials or precision of manufacture. This is part of the fascination that collectors have with Leicas of all vintages. With the exception of a few items such as hand-made watches, there are no longer many mechanical devices that one can buy that are as well made.
Does this mean that they are foolproof and indestructible? No, of course not. But there is a tactile and visual pleasure in simply handling one of these cameras that one just doesn’t get from any other brand, at least not any that I know of that are still in production. (The Swiss-made Alpa medium format cameras may be the single current exception).
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/45 sec @ f/11. ISO 640
Interestingly, by comparison with usual Leica prices the M8 is quite reasonable. At approximately US $4,500 street price it is just $1,000 more than an M7. How much film and processing will $1,000 buy? If you figure 40 cents for each transparency, that’s about 2,500 frames, or 65 rolls with processing. Since that’s just a week’s shooting for many pros, and only a few months shooting for many serious amateurs, the $1,000 price differential between a film-based M7 and a digital M8 rapidly shrinks, especially moving forward when shooting costs essentially become free.
As for price comparisons with DSLRs, I think I’ll avoid that rat’s nest of a discussion. It’s an apples and oranges type comparison in any event. Note though that while the M8 is a lot more expensive than almost any DSLR except the Canon 1Ds MKII, it is priced about the same as a Nikon’s top-of-the-line D2Xs. Unlike in the days of film, a digital Leica is no longer 2X or 3X the price of a top line SLR.
Raw and JPG
The M8’s native raw file format is DNG. I know that I won’t be the first to say this, but – hallelujah! This means that one can load raw files into just about any and every raw file processing program, now and in the future. Today, even before the camera ships, that includes Capture One, Camera Raw, Adobe Lightroom, and a number of others. This is unlike new cameras from almost all of the major Asian manufacturers which continue to use an endless proliferation of proprietary formats, most of which can take months following introduction until the major processing programs support them.
Needless to say, I am a big fan of the universal DNG raw format and commend Leica for adopting it.
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/5800 sec . ISO 640
The M8 also shoots JPGs, and allows one to shoot both raw and JPGs combined. I have restricted myself in this report to only shooting with and testing raw files, because that’s the way I normally work. Obviously some people need JPG from time to time, such as photojournalists on a tight deadline who have to transmit breaking news images in real time. Or snapshooters taking pics of their cats. But frankly, the idea of throwing away all the data that the camera records other than a very narrow 8 bit segment, with white balance applied and sharpening and tonal corrections locked in forever is to me contrary to everything that creative photography is about. Thanks, but when I shot film I never burned my negatives after making a print, and I have no desire to do so with digital.
Disagree? Fine. But don’t come crying to me when you need to work on a once-in-a-lifetime shot and all you have is a fully baked JPG.
I am very pleased to see that Leica has migrated its traditional minimalism into the current era with their design of the M8’s digital user interface. Given how convoluted and baroque this can be on most cameras (I’ve seen do-it-yourself brain surgery manuals that are easier to figure out) the interface of the M8 is a paragon of simplicity. Indeed, for anyone that’s been doing photography for more than a few weeks the instruction manual (well done) is almost superfluous.
There is, of course, a Menu button with the usual array of choices, but mercifully these are all on just three scrolling screens, without multiple subheadings. In addition the Set button provides a shortcut to a seperate screen’s worth of settings, the ones that you change the most often, such as ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation.
There are also four User profiles. Profile 0 is the camera’s factory default and can’t be changed. Profiles one through four can be saved with every non-mechanical camera setting, unfortunately also including ISO. The problem with this is that while you can set the camera’s custom profile with all settings just the way you like them for a particular kind of shooting, ISO is always included. That’s dumb. ISO is like the shutter speed or F stop. It’s a variable on a digital camera, not something that tags along with white balance and file formats.
Please Leica, fix this on the next firmware revision.
Capture One LE vs. Camera Raw 3.6
The M8 ships with a version of Capture One LE. Each DNG file contains a custom profile created for Leica by Phase One. But, coincident with the arrival of my review M8 I received a pre-release of Adobe’s Camera Raw, V3.6, which contains a custom profile for the M8 created by CR’s primary author Thomas Knoll. I was therefore very keen to see how these two programs would compare when processing M8 files.
The main difference lies in colour reproduction. Capture One LE has its own custom profile which does a really excellent job of colour reproduction. The new Camera Raw profile for the M8 does a much better job than previous versions or CR or Lightroom, but to my eye doesn’t handle reds very well, with skin tones and especially reds too saturated.
I’m sure that as time passes we will see a see-saw, as new versions of raw processors come to market and each tries to do a better job of handling various maker’s raw files.
Leica Digital Capture
Initial shipments of the Leica M8 come with Leica Digital Capture, 1.0.5. This is a program designed to allow shooting tethered from ones computer. I found its features to be rather limited, and when tested on an 17" Intel Macbook Pro to be somewhat flaky, locking up the camera after just a couple of frames.
I didn’t spend much time with the program, simply because I can’t figure out who it is for and what one would do with it. Shooting tethered is commonplace for studio photographers, but with an M Leica?
In any event, it allows for triggering the camera from the computer, and setting values such as ISO, white balance and fine type. Connection is via the USB port. Image transfer was speedy when it worked.
I’m not sure if it’s actually meaningful to discuss a camera’s colour gamut. But, at the risk of wandering into a minefield, here are some observations which were made when comparing the gamuts of several current cameras. The program used was ColorThink a very useful utility for working with profiles.
Cameras don’t come with profiles. They operate in an undefined colour space. But Phase One has created extremely high quality profiles for the cameras that their Capture One software supports, and when the program is installed, so are the profiles. Now, one can quibble over whether these are the "best" profiles possible, or even the most accurate. But the point is they are made by the same people, on the same equipment, with the same baseline intention, which is optimized image quality. So, with that as caveat, here is what a couple of current DSLRs, a top-of-the-line medium format back, and the Leica M8’s gamut profiles look like.
Phase One P45
If you’re not used to looking at gamut charts, here’s a primer. The one at top left is of the CIE LAB colour space. This horseshoe shaped area is the range of colours that the human eye encompasses. Outside of this area and you’re into ultraviolet, infrared and other non-visible electromagnetic radiation. These are therefore imaginary colours that don’t exist in the real world.
The chart at top right shows the Adobe RGB colour space overlaid on top of CIE LAB. As you can see it encompasses most of the visible spectrum. It is shown again in Fig. 2 below. If you pass your mouse cursor over the illustration in Fig. 2 though what you’ll see is the ProPhoto RGB colour space. If you have not read my tutorial titled Understanding ProPhoto RGB you might want to digress to there for a moment.
Adobe RGB with ProPhoto RGB Overlay
Now look at the Canon 5D, Nikon D200 and Phase One P45 back’s gamut profiles. What you’ll see is that in some parts of the spectrum each of them exceeds Adobe RGB and even exceed CIE LAB, the range of human vision. This is why I am showing you the ProPhoto RGB space here, to make the point that camera sensors actually can capture light outside of what we can see. And as you’ll read in the tutorial, this is the reason that you want to work in as large a colour space as possible. But we digress.
Now look at the gamut profile in the lower right hand corner of Fig. 1 above. As you can see the Leica M8 appears to have a gamut that is larger than any of the cameras or backs used for comparison (and any others that I can find profiles for). It is in fact so big that I am providing below a larger 3D plot so we can see it better.
The wireframe in this 3D representation is the very large ProPhoto RGB colour space. It exceeds CIE LAB in all except a few areas (primarily the bluey / greens). The solid plot is that of the Leica M8. It clearly is almost as large as ProPhoto RGB (and is far larger than Adobe RGB) but what has caught my eye are the three spikes, one in the greens and the other two in the mauves and reds.
The extreme spike in the very deep reds indicates to me that the M8 has a very weak to nonexistent infra-red blocking filter. Does this mean that the M8 could be an ideal camera for doing infra-red photography, by just adding a visible light blocking filter? I’ll leave that to someone who wishes to explore it, but when you do, please let me know and I’ll pass the information along.
The bottom line on this discussion is that the Leica M8 appears to have the widest colour gamut, by a wide margin, of any camera of which I am aware. Does this translate into any image quality advantage? According to Dr. Know, a friend who writes raw software, and who is extremely knowledgeable in this area, the answer is likely no. Gamut plots of camera profiles are not particularly meaningful and don’t correlate with actual sensor or camera performance. But, nevertheless I have to think that we are seeing something at work here, if not just an indication of what electronic filtering is taking place inside the camera. If anyone really does understand the implications of what we’re seeing here I would enjoy hearing from you. Please though – not what you guess, not what you imagine, but what you actually know to be at work here.
NB: This all applies only to raw images though. Once you work with in-camera JPGs you’ve thrown away all that gamut and reduced it down to sRGB or Adobe RGB, whichever you’ve set the camera to. Now do you see why one doesn’t want to shoot JPGs except when absolutely necessary?
Leica has published that the M8 is a sixteen bit device. As soon as the first raw files became available though there were postings online that the files were only 8 bit. To get to the bottom of this I once again turned to Dr. Know. ("It’s OK Michael, this won’t hurt a bit"). What he told me is that the M8’s DNG files are definitely 8 bit, not 16 bit. They may be 16 bit somewhere upstream of the DNG file, but the output file is in 8 bit format. I asked if there were any true 16 bit files from any camera. he said that he had never seen one (and he’s seen them all). He said that files from Phase One backs are 14 bit (they too claim to be 16 bit), Canon raw files are 12 bit, and that various other cameras range from 8 to 12 bits.
What the implications of this are isn’t clear. If I get a clarification on what Leica means when they write in their brochures that the M8 has "16 bit color resolution" I’ll let you know.
Photographers are obsessed with noise. Everyone wants ISO 6000 files that are as smooth as a baby’s bum. Ain’t gunna happen – at least not yet.
Most photographers of my acquaintance are agreed that the DSLRs with the lowest noise right now are the current models from Canon, with the 5D arguably being the best of that breed, at least when it comes to high ISO performance.
Union Station Toronto / Full Frame
Having shot many thousands of frames with the Canon 5D since it came out a bit over a year ago I am comfortable stating that there is essentially no visible difference, especially on prints, even large prints, at ISO 100, 200 or 400. Even at 400 the camera is practically noise free. To its credit the Leica M8 similarly has no significant difference in visible noise at either its base ISO of 160 or at ISO 320.
At ISO 640 where the 5D shows just a smidge of noise, the M8 does show a bit more. Again, nothing to concern oneself with, and really only visible on screen at 100% and hardly in prints. I regard ISO 640 on the M8 as perfectly usable even for critical applications. Indeed, when I convert to B&W, the grain reminds me of a 200 ASA film developed in a high accutance developer like Rodinol. Just visible, but doing more to add texture than be an issue.
Canon 5D / 100% crop / ISO 1250
Canon 5D / 100% crop / ISO 3200
Leica M8 / 100% crop / ISO 1250
Leica M8 / 100% crop / ISO 2500
These crops don’t tell as much as I expected them to, because both cameras at high ISO just aren’t terribly noisy. The M8 is definitely noisier at both speeds, and at ISO 2500 one will want to use either in-raw processor or in-Photoshop noise reduction of some sort. None of the above shots had any noise reduction applied, or exposure compensation, only white balance.
Canon 5D / 100% crop / ISO 3200
Leica M8 / 100% crop / ISO 2500
These crops from the same files show both cameras at their highest ISO settings (only a half EV apart), and clearly the Leica falls behind the 5D in the noise department. (Size difference is due to the Leica being a 10MP camera and the 5D almost 13MP.
Leica M8 with noise reduction
But, a bit of noise reduction cleans things up easily using Noiseware Pro (or a similar program) and the file is as clean as if it had been shot at an ISO at least two stops lower. There’s still some chroma noise, but remember – this is a 100% crop. On any reasonably sized print this is essentially invisible.
The bottom line on noise with the Leica M8, to my eye at least, is as follows. ISO 160 and 320 – no noise whatsoever. ISO 640 – a very small amount of noise which isn’t even worth removing. It gives the file character. ISO 1250 – some noise. You can remove it or not. Not a problem, especially in B&W. ISO 2500 – visible noise, but easily cleaned up. End of pixel peeping.
6 Bit Lens Encoding
Since earlier this year Leica has been encoding new M lenses with a 6 bit data bar on the inside of the lens mount that can be read by the M8 and subsequent cameras. This tells the camera the focal length, maximum aperture and other information about the lens. This information is used by the camera to pre-condition the raw file so the raw converters can accomodate vignetting correction and provide EXIF information. Older M series lenses can be updated at a modest cost by Leica service centers.
Of Apertures and EXIF
The M8 has a manually operated aperture, solely controlled by the photographer via the aperture ring on the lens. There is no electronic communication between the lens and the camera body the way there is on a typical DSLR. Therefore, there is no way for there to be shooting aperture information in the EXIF data.
But, there is the 6 bit data code that is found on new Leica lenses, and which can be added to older lenses. As discussed above, this information tells the camera what lens is attached, and then this information is used to apply some compensation to the files for vignetting, etc.
But, when you look at an M8’s EXIF information the len’s maximum aperture field is blank. Since the 6 bit data code is designed to tell the camera this very fact, why can’t it be displayed in the meta data? I for one would find it useful, because it would indicate which lens was used for a particular shot. For example, one might be shooting with a 28mm Elmarit or the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar set to 28mm, and without knowing the lens’ maximum aperture there’s no way to tell which lens was used for any particular shot. This is something that we’ve become quite used to with DSLRs, and I hope that Leica addresses this oversight in a future firmware upgrade. (As seen in the sample EXIF data above, maximum aperture is shown as a default f/1 for all lenses.
Image Quality Evaluation
To my way of thinking, trying to provide an evaluation of image quality by using test charts and numerical analysis is like trying to describe the taste of a fine wine by providing a chemical assay. You’ll find out how much sugar and tanins there are in the wine, but it will tell you nothing about its body, its finish, or its nose. Instead, when writing about a gourmet meal or an excellent wine we are reduced to words, and therefore their inherent lack of precision. At least though with a web review of cameras and lenses we can display files, so the reader has more than just words to go by. But, frankly, on-screen JPGs are no substitute for actually seeing and holding a fine print. Unfortunately the words will therefore have to do.
So with that as preamble, here is what I see after evaluating several hundred files, and more than two dozen prints taken with 4 different Leica lenses.
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/45sec . ISO 160
As has been my experience after several decades as a photographer, having worked professionally with almost every major camera system on the market since the mid-1960’s, there is something about Leica lenses that makes well produced prints shot with them stand out from those shot with almost any other glass. No, not always, and usually not in-your-face, but much of the time, and I am certainly not alone in this perception.
But, this is not a report on Leica lenses (though I extensively used the new 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph for the first time while testing the M8, and was very impressed with it). There are indeed enough praises and analyses of Leica lenses in print and online to satisfy the curious. (In addition to the new 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph I also used the 28-35-50mm Tri Elmar f/4, the 35mm f/2 Summicron, and the 50mm f/2 Summicron).
The point that I wish to make though is that the new M8 is as adept as any film-based Leica in capturing that hard-to-pin-down Leica lens goodness. This had been my major anticipated concern with the M8 in between seeing it at Photokina and when the production test sample arrived at my door. Would it do justice to the best of Leica’s lens family? It didn’t take more than a handful of prints to see that my apprehension was unfounded. And, when a photographer friend who has an extremely critical eye, and who is a long-time M series user came over and viewed my initial batch of prints, the first words out of his mouth were – "These are simply Leica photographs. You can see right through to the lens quality. There’s nothing at all digital about the look. ".
Park Bench. Toronto, October, 2006
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/125sec . ISO 320
I agree. In terms of being transparent to what the lenses used can deliver, I found it hard to find any performance aspect wanting. The smooth large-field tonalities, coupled with the bitingly sharp microcontrasts that are both hallmarks of Leica images, are all there. As for colour rendering, that’s harder to report on because a raw file is capable of so many interpretation. Certainly the wide gamut reported on elsewhere in this review shows a very rich palette to be available. I did find on more than one occasion that colour saturation was higher than I expected, or am used to. This may well be a profile issue rather than anything else, and I expect it to become sorted out before long. My friend Nick Devlin, a long-time Leica photographer, called it Leicachrome. An apt name. Nothing that a bit of tweaking with the saturation control can’t deal with though.
I found as well that the camera’s auto white balance was less able to deal with extremes than the Canon cameras which I use regularly. For example, in the very warm light of a room lit only by a few low wattage bulbs (about 1EV) auto white balance came out very strangely.
Nick. Toronto, October, 2006
Leica M8 with 50mm f/2.0 Summicron. 1/30 sec @ f/2. ISO 2500
Noise reduction applied with Noiseware Pro.
Fig. 11 above shows such a shot, with the original uncorrected file to the right. The light level was about EV 2, and the colour temperature was set by the camera to 5600K / -4, while the corrected temperature, set by gray balancing on the white coffee mug, was seen in Capture One to be 2050K and -56. Very strange.
Dynamic range appears to be on a par if not slightly superior to my other cameras, though I did no direct comparisons (yet). I found metering to be dead-on, and rarely had need to vary exposure from that recommended by the camera or when working in aperture priority mode, which I did most of the time.
When using lenses both with and without 6 bit coding I saw no vignetting worth mentioning. For this reason I would say that anyone owning an array of pre-coded M lenses doesn’t particularly need to worry about getting them upgraded in a hurry. The use of the sweet-spot of the lens’ image circle due to the 1.33X sensor cropping factor ensures that even those lenses with some inherent corner fall-off will rarely show it.
Black or Silver
If you’re hankering for an M8, be aware that they are available in both a chrome and black finish. Of course which one you choose will be a matter of personal taste. Back when I was working as a photojournalist I would shoot with one of each, putting colour film in the chrome body and black and white film in the black body. (Chrome / chromes – get it?). This allowed me to work with two identical cameras but easily differentiate between them.
I must say though that my experience is that black bodies are much more suitable for discrete shooting than are chrome bodies. The chrome finish is beautiful, and unlike anything that we see these days from our polycarbonate wonder cameras. But it is eye candy, and draws often unwanted attention to you and your camera.
With a black M8 the only thing that catches ones eye is the white M8 lettering on the front. This is easily made invisible with a small square of black electrical tape, doing no permanent harm. Hard core photojournalists of the old school will want to paint inside the white M8 lettering with a fine brush and some black enamel paint, but there goes resale value should you ever wish to sell the camera.
Which Lens to Buy?
If one doesn’t already own any Leica glass, which lenses make the most sense with an M8? This is of course a personal decision, based very much on ones own style of shooting. Since I rarely shoot very wide, and don’t like the use of auxiliary viewfinders, a 28mm, 35mm and 50mm would be my choice. These would give coverage on the M8 equivalent to 35mm, 45mm, and 65mm. The Tri-Elmar-M is an excellent choice if you can live happily with a maximum aperture of f/4. Otherwise for a first or only lens the new 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit ASPH is the ideal starter, with the 28mm f/2 Summicron an alternative if an additional stop of aperture is required.
I won’t wax rhapsodic about Leica lenses (well, not too much). As I’ve written on this site before, they are about as good as lenses get. Contrast, resolution, colour rendition – every technical aspect is about as good as the lens maker’s art allows. Compared to SLR lenses they are also quite a bit smaller and lighter. Regrettably though, as with all things Leica, they are expensive. No apologies needed though, since the best always costs more.
Here’s my preliminary summary. I write preliminary, because as familiar as I am with M series Leica’s after decades of use, I still have a lot to learn about the M8, and if you haven’t guessed it by now, plan to buy one myself. (Memo to Leica Corp – Do I really need to send this one back?) It will only be after some months of use, in different venues and with different subject matter, that I’ll really be able to come to a comprehensive conclusion about the M8. But in the meantime, here’s my preliminary summary.
Handling is straight from the traditional M Leica mold. If you’ve been a photographer for more than 10 years, then the Leica mystique will not be new to you. If you’ve always wanted to own a Leica, but no longer will consider shooting film, then the M8 is the solution you’ve been waiting for, even if you didn’t know it. Everything that an M represents is present in the M8.
If the Leica "thing" isn’t something that you’re familiar with, and what you’ve read here intrigues you, then you may wish to see what the fuss is about by visiting a local dealer. Even if he doesn’t have an M8 for you to try, any earlier M camera model will give you a feel for what the breed is all about.
But, having said that, the M8 isn’t for everyone, money notwithstanding. I know a number of very experienced photographers who simply don’t enjoy the rangefinder experience, or whose work and style requires the use of long lenses, TTL viewing, the use of a groundglass, image stabilization, tilt / shift, etc, etc. No, the Leica M8 isn’t for everyone, even if they cost no more than a Canon Digital Rebel XTi or Nikon D80. Indeed they may well be the wrong tool for a great many photographers. But, for those that want, need and understand its strengths, the M8 offers the M gestalt in a digital form.
Image quality is of course at the heart of whether or not the M8 is worthy of being the next generation M Leica. We no longer have a choice of film type to meet our technical and esthetic needs. We become the chemists and engineers determining the "look" of our recording medium when we "process" our files in the raw converter and then in Photoshop. But we are always at the mercy of the core capabilities that the sensor and camera makers build into their chips and support circuits.
Leica M8 with 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit Asph. 1/180sec . ISO 320
In the case of the Leica M8 I am pleased to report that overall image quality is second to none. Only the Canon 5D and 1Ds MKII are better at high ISO, and at ISO 400 and lower the M8 is their equal. Then again, right now there are no other cameras producing as clean high ISO images as these two Canons. But when combined with the superior quality of Leica lenses, and the fact that the M8 does not have a resolution reducing AA filter, I would argue that there are no current 35mm format cameras which offer superior image quality to the Leica M8 at ISO 400 and lower.
Of course file size needs to be considered. At 10.3 MP the M8 offers enough resolution for most personal and professional applications. It’s at the current sweet spot for digital camera resolution. There are a few cameras that offer more, but few to none that can beat the M8 in terms of overall image quality, regardless of file size. And since the camera lacks an AA filter I have found it possible to res-up files for very large prints to a greater extent than ones from cameras that do have an anti-aliasing filter installed. I have also found that M8 files need considerably less sharpening than those from Canon DSLRs.
Build quality is, in a word, outstanding. One would be hard pressed to find a more beautifully made or finished camera. And if history is any guide, the M8 will be as rugged as it is beautiful.
Ergonomics are out of the classic Leica mold. You either love them, or you don’t. But since they are so simple and basic, and with photographers having found that the simple M Leica body shape fits most people’s hands so comfortably, I think it’s safe to say that only a few will find fault with the camera’s basic handling.
After re-reading this report one final time before publishing it I am almost embarrassed by how "gushing" it appears to be. I don’ t think that in all my years of writing camera reviews I’ve ever been as generous in my comments about a new camera as I have been here with regard to the Leica M8. But, try as I might I find little to fault in any regard. The conversion of the M series from film-based to digital has been accomplished about as well as one could wish, and almost all of the hallmark Leica qualities, refined over more than a half century of making essentially the same model, have been retained.
The bottom line is this. If you know and appreciate what an M Leica is about, you’ll find that the M8 fulfills its promise. If you can afford one, then run don’t walk to your local dealer. If the M8 and rangefinder cameras in general aren’t your cup of tea, that’s fine. It just means that M8’s will be easier to find by those that do want them, the less people that are waiting in line.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go argue with Leica USA about returning their test sample. As the saying goes – only from my cold dead hands.
Ps: Inevitably someone is going to write on one of the online forums that I must be biased toward Leica to write such a favorable review. Ok. I admit it. I’m biased. Now, get over it!
Copyright 2006 – Michael Reichmann
The Luminous Landscape Inc.
All Rights Reserved
November, 11, 2006
There was an image quality problem discovered by early Leica M8 owners which is now being extensively discussed on net forums. On a personal level this has reflected badly on me because, though I did mention in my review that the camera suffered from poor low light auto white balance, and had excessive infrared sensitivity, my review did not mention the green blob / banding and purple response issues.
Well – it did. I discovered these during my initial testing and put them in my review. I then sent my draft review to Leica, as I always do with manufacturers, for their comments. The company subsequently requested that I hold off mentioning these latter items because they were looking into them and hoped to have a response in short order. I acquiesced to this request, not wanting to delay my review, and expecting that I would be able to publish a follow-up quickly that not only mentioned these problems but also their potential solution.
This did not happen. Instead, after the problems because obvious to new users and were being discussed openly on net forums, Leica eventually published a statement, which was issued to some other web sites, but not to this one. At least one such site thus was able to claim credit for waiting to publish their review "while Leica worked closely" with them to resolve it. How nice for them.
And me? Well, in some circles my name is mud because I apparently failed to mention these obvious problems in my review. Now you know why.
Should I have held off with my review until this issue was resolved? Should I have gone ahead and published it as originally written, even though the company had requested that I hold off on these topics? 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, as is Monday morning quarterbacking. But, in the end I would do what I did again, simply because I felt that potential owners needed to know what I had learned in my testing, without delay. And, I would have held back again on the issues that I was requested to because that’s the proper way to deal with manufacturers, who one assumes will take their responsibilities to journalists seriously. Enough said.
Why did I agree to Leica’s request not to publish some of the problems that I saw during my testing?
Of the 500 odd photographs I took during about a week of testing I only saw the magenta cast issue in 2 images and the green blob issue in 1 image. That’s well under 1% of the shots take.
I was therefore loath to mention the problems because I felt that they might have been anomalies that others might not encounter, and I didn’t have the benefit then of the hindsight in now knowing the nature of the problem. I did identify the low light level white balance issue and also the excessive IR sensitivity and discussed them in the review.
Asking a manufacturer for feedback on a review, particularly with regard to potential factual errors is the norm. Most reputable reviewers do this as a matter of course.
Leica appropriately asked me to hold off on some of the problems that I saw, because, I believed, they wanted to identify whether these were anomalies or systemic. A fair request. I gave them the benefit of the doubt.
In any event, my enthusiasm for the M8 is undiminished and I did end up purchasing one for myself, even knowing what I did. So anyone that feels I deceived them has to accept that I did so without mal intent, since I put my own money where my pen is.