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Product Review/Lab Test: Leica M8
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Product Review/Lab Test: Leica M8

Leica M joins the digital world...at last!

It's the first digital Leica rangefinder camera, but does the M8 REALLY give you that "M" experience?




Executive Summary

Leica's first digital rangefinder, the Leica M8, carries on in the Leica tradition of solid cameras with minimal controls (on the assumption that the user has enough exposure expertise to be able to work without the bells and whistles found on today's digital wondercams). The M8 looks like a Leica, and while it's a bit thicker and heavier than Leica's film rangefinders, the camera does indeed feel like an honest-to-goodness Leica M.

Although it has been on the market for two years as of this writing--and a successor, the M8.2, has addressed many of the initial criticisms, the M8 is still available. Leica is offering a special deal on a factory upgrade on a newly-purchased M8 that puts it almost on par with the M8.2. The cost savings is approximately $1,000 if you buy the camera in May 2009 from an authorized Leica dealer (ahem, Adorama). You can upgrade the camera at any time, as long as you bought it in May 2009 and have the receipt to prove it.

With or without the upgrade, the M8 is an expensive camera (and the M8.2 costs about $2,000 more) but Leica designs its cameras to last, so consider it a long-term investment. Almost all M-series Leicas made since the '50s are still operational and in circulation. If you burn through film, it will more than pay for itself, compared to the 35mm M7, long before either camera becomes obsolete.


First Impressions: Leica M8

In designing the M8, Leica tried mightily to maintain the time-tested look, solid feel, and tight quality of its legendary line of film M-series rangefinder cameras. Many of these cameras have been in constant use for over 60 years and are still going strong! In some ways Leica succeeded in replicated the film M experience, but fell short in other areas. The bright-view viewfinder shows a bright image with clear, parallax-compensating borderlines indicating the edges of the frame for the specific lens in use, and the match-image focusing system will be instantly familiar to any veteran Leica user.

The shutter release looks and feels like a Leica, although the clack of the copal blade shutter is distinctly different and possibly slightly louder--although it seems quieter than any DSLR's shutter.  The upgrade program offered by Leica replaces this shutter with a quieter one, however.

The lenses are of course the same lenses that you use on film cameras, so no change in their superior operation (we’ll get to the issue of angles of coverage soon).

The back of the camera is distinctly digital, with a typical array of control buttons and a 2.5-inch LCD monitor. In the above-mentioned upgrade, the LCD Monitor surface is replaced with a scratch-resistant sapphire surface.


How it’s different from a film M


The first difference you'll notice upon picking up the camera is that it's thicker and a bit heavier than a film M camera. When I use my M3, my thumb rests against the film advance lever, and on the M8 it is somewhat harder to grasp the camera because this is missing. How much of this is force of habit from using the M3 since 1978 and how much is actual ergonomic issues, I can’t say, but felt some kind of thumb rest in back would help. I didn't have the chance to use the add-on grip, but it looks like it would help to make up for the size and lack of film advance lever.

Is something missing? Without a film winder (M3, above left) to lean against between shots, my thumb lacked a place to rest when using the M8 (above right).

There’s obviously no rewind and the unique drop-in film load system is not necessary. In a nod to traditionalists, however, the bottom plate comes off…to reveal the battery and memory card compartments.

How the M8 is different from the M8.2

Very few differences, actually: The M8.2 ($5,995) has a sapphire LCD cover, a newer shutter release, and (oddly) a slower top shutter speed and flash sync speed. Both cameras have an 18x27mm,10.3MP sensor with a 1.33x equivalent focal length factor. Otherwise, they’re pretty much the same camera. If you buy an M8 ($3,995) and get the upgrade at the current promotional price, the package will cost you about a grand less than an M8.2. Do the math.

The digital stuff


 

The menu controls, which of course are all new, range from straightforward to baffling, and some quality time with the manual is a very good idea. (Fortunately, the more baffling modes don’t seem to interfere with the basic task of taking great pictures.)

ISOs, for instance, are non-standard: 160, 320, 640, 1250 and 2500. But based on DxOMark's sensor tests, we know these ISOs are dead-on accurate, whereas many digital cameras' actual sensitivities vary slightly from the manufacturer's indicated speed. You can shoot in JPEG, RAW, or both and all the typical controls (color saturation, contrast, color space, etc.) are available. See tomorrow’s guided tour for more on navigating and using the camera’s purely digital features.

Field report: My street photography stress test

With all that in mind, how did the Leica M8 perform in the field? I took the M8, along with a 28mm f/2 Summicron-M lens, first for a photo walk around nearby New Brunswick, NJ, and then spent some time with it doing street photography on the streets of New York City. Here are some sample shots (you can see more street photos in this M8 Street Shoot Portfolio):




I appreciate the ability to shoot with split-second timing, which is why the M8’s lack of shutter lag helped me get shots like this.



Sharp at ISO 160 with the 28mm f/2 lens, the Leica turned in typically high Leica quality images.



At ISO 640, grain becomes apparent in shadow areas.

On the street, the Leica M8 was fast and responsive, with virtually no lag time. There was a lag of a second or two in writing images to the memory card. I could shoot up to 10 frames in RAW mode before the camera shut down for a good half-minute or so clear its buffer--the only performance speed bump. Oddly enough, I felt write speed actually improved when shooting in RAW, rather than when shooting JPEG. Speaking of RAW, kudos to Leica for choosing the universal DNG RAW format over a proprietary one.

Battery life is advertised at around 300 shots, but I found my battery crapped out after about 150 if I did a lot of chimping (looking at preview images). When I minimized preview time and shot as if I was working with a film camera, the M8's battery lasted longer than advertised: After 450 shots, the battery was on its lowest reading, but still going.

As for the camera's ergonomics, I occasionally accidentally turned the on-off ring to self-timer when my finger brushed past it, and my right thumb occasionally rested on the Menu button, turning it on.  In future models, this button should be relocated. These are minor complaints. Placement of the shutter speed dial and aperture ring was fine, and of course the 28mm lens's focus tab is one of my favorite parts of a Leica lens as it lets me anticipate focus during fast-changing situations on the street.


About the crop factor: Yes, my 28mm lens becomes effectively a 35mm. And if I want to shoot at 28mm, I need to invest in a 24mm lens such as the Leica Elmar-M 28mm f/3.5, or the budget-priced 25mm f/4 Voigtlander Color-Skopar. Fortunately, the 1.33 multiplication factor means the lenses bump up in standard focal length increments.

After setting the a few preferences and saving them in a user profile, I didn't touch the menu items at all--I simply used the focus tab, aperture ring, and shutter speed dial and once I started shooting, the experience felt like the real deal--a bona-fide, digital Leica!

Images were sharp, contrasty, and well-exposed with good latitude. There was some graininess in the shadows once ISO was set at 640, but grain was well controlled at ISO 320 and 160. This jibes with DxOMark data.


DxO Test Results

In addition to taking the M8 out into the field, I studied the M8’s DxOMark sensor test results, provided by DxO Labs. The sensor’s overall performance is slightly above average for an APS-sized sensor, with better than average color depth and dynamic range of over 11 stops, which is an above-average performance.

 

The best acceptable signal-to-noise ratio (see chart, below) was found to be ISO 842, which is an acceptable, but not overwhelming, performance.


 

Conclusion

If you were to base your buying decision on sensor test results alone, the M8 might not be your first choice, as many DSLRs with similar-sized sensors outperformed it in DxO’s lab results. However, there’s more to a Leica than just the image quality—its quiet shutter (while slightly louder than a film M, it’s still noticeably quieter than DSLRs), its quick handling and control layout, and its ability to bring the Leica shooting experience to the digital world are all important factors when considering investing in a Leica.

If you’re a photojournalist, street photographer, documentary photographer, or need a quiet, unobtrusive camera that will deliver sharp results, the Leica M8 is worth serious consideration.

 

(Lab test results courtesy DxOMark)

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