Was the Leica M8 ever worth it? This camera was Leica’s first digital M. There was major controversy when it came out several years ago due to the IR cut filter solution for infrared contamination. There were green blobs in the shots. There were sensor problems requiring replacement. There were uncoded lenses, coded lenses, and all kinds of self-coded lenses in between. The sensor wasn’t full frame. The viewfinder wasn’t high enough magnification. The list goes on and on. If something could be faulted, it was. On top of all that, Leica’s digital M was being compared directly to the “King of Cameras” at the time…the Canon 5D. Leica is a company known for excellence in their products. Few camera and lens manufacturers have a reputation such as Leica’s. Some would argue the digital M8 was nowhere near this legacy and an utter failure. Others felt it was a fantastic camera and the first step in the right direction. In a time where camera bodies are recycled every one to two years, the M8 is an old timer now…or is it?
I am not going to go over tech specs, charts, scientific tests, DXO results, etc… I have seen them all. We all have. The Leica forums have exhausted these to no end. One browse through a forum and you might just think it’s the end of the M world coming with all the complaints! (Then again, some people have big expectations when they pay big prices!)
So before we begin, I want to make a few statements so you understand where I am coming from.
1. I am a photographer professionally. I shoot for fun, but I also make this my career. No photoshoots = no income. I not only have reliability needs, but I have a budget to ensure my business survives. I limit what excess equipment I have that can’t pay for itself.
2. I am a photographic artist. I strive to better my craft and make the best images possible. I want to enjoy the tools I use while getting the results I expect.
3. I have used a Canon 5D since the day it was released. I have used a Canon 5DmkII since the day it was released. These are my tools of choice along with a variety of Canon L lenses. I have logged over 50,000+ images on these cameras. I have handled them daily for work and for fun. I am familiar with their good and bad and how to work around any issues they have. These cameras will partially serve as a basis for comparison since that is what I know and use.
4. I currently use Lightroom 3 to process my raw images. I only shoot in raw.
5. All my cameras are running the most up-to-date firmware.
I have been an SLR user for over 11 years. This review will be from my point of view as an SLR user making the jump into the rangefinder world. Maybe others of you in that same boat will find this review useful.
That being said, I have been following the Leica M8 since it’s introduction. I love the feel of manual cameras. I had used an M6 briefly and loved it immediately. I have a few old film cameras still lying around. Digital SLR cameras have not only gotten huge, but the lenses have grown massive too. The M8 stood out immediately as something refreshing. Pro quality in a small package…sign me up!
Ok, so the price was utterly outrageous when factoring in I would need lenses. Leica glass doesn’t come cheap…but they need no introduction for their quality. You get what you pay for as they say. I was looking to make the jump immediately until “something” hit the fan and the internet was ablaze with customers with pitchforks and torches marching to Leica’s castle with angst! Obviously something had to be wrong…could this have honestly been one huge group of SLR people with too much money and no time to RTFM? I can’t sell my Canon equipment and jump ship when I have client work lined up. I need to add the new system first. I hesitated. I hesitated for several years. I watched from the sidelines as problem after problem and mixed review after mixed review emerged. The whole time I had the camera in my B&H wishlist with my finger hovering over “add to cart.” I had the Leica bug BAD…but there is one thing I need in my equipment…reliability. Based on all the issues popping up I was able to come up with every excuse not to buy the Leica. No good ISO, its a 1.33 crop, its manual focus, adjustments are buried in the menu, the lenses need filters, the lenses need sharpie marks added to them, its battery sucks, I will have to send it to Germany every other week for repair, and on and on and on!
Well, I finally got tired of making excuses and bought one. My artist side said DO IT!!!! Order the M9! It’s the perfect M!!!!! My business side said “Hold your horses partner!” I ended up purchasing a like new M8. I figured if this was going to be the biggest mistake I ever make, I can stomach the cost of an M8 more than the cost of the M9 when I toss it out the window. Plus I can always upgrade later if I actually liked it.
So here I am holding the “most problematic camera in existence” thinking…WOW this thing is awesome! Yes, it feels awesome. After several weeks of using the Leica M8 and integrating it into my pro work flow, I feel I can express my experience with this camera.
The body is small. The body feels solid. Like a chunk of metal. Leica puts very few buttons on their camera when compared to other companies. I prefer the least buttons possible. The buttons are also very firm. No accidental presses or turning of the wheel. A lot of people complained about the power switch being accidentally moved in their bags or when they turn the camera on. I don’t know…but my Leica is not like that at all. The switch is incredibly firm. The only time I accidentally move it further than single-shot mode is when I put too much pressure trying to move it. It’s not going anywhere on it’s own. Did Leica fix these later in the life cycle? Same with the shutter speed dial…firm and solid. Nice.
Here are some shots comparing body size with my Canon 5D. I have a 35L f/1.4 lens on it. I felt just in this comparison since I have a 35 f/2.5 lens on the Leica. The Voigtlander 35 1.4 is about the same size. So it’s close enough for me to compare. Also, don’t send me nasty emails. I know these two lenses are different…but I am comparing the tool I had versus the potential for this new tool with a similar ability. Bottom line. I won’t compare to the summilux if I won’t be spending on a summilux.
So here are the cameras together. The Leica looks like a big point-n-shoot.
The bodies are almost the same width. (Ignore the lens plate on the 5D) Notice the difference in lens size! The Leica is much smaller depth wise, and about an inch shorter in height.
Yeah, there is definitely a difference when the Leica hangs on your side compared to the SLR.
The 35L looks like it could swallow the Leica whole in this shot!
Rangefinder focusing came very quickly to me. It makes sense. SLR autofocus is great. It is not critically precise however. I have no way to tell if my little focus box really nailed my target. Focusing the rangefinder was the most refreshing part of this camera. It is critically precise. I have never felt better about focus in my life. Where I choose to place focus, that is where it is. If focus is off, or not consistent, it’s my fault. In terms of focusing speed, the rangefinder is not really any slower. You develop muscle memory for focus. The focus tab on the lens allows me to know where my lens is focused is before I even look through the window. With some common sense I can adjust focus extremely close to my anticipated subject distance as I lift the camera to my eye. All I then need to do is slightly adjust when viewing my subject. This takes me no longer than pressing my autofocus button on the SLR.
Tracking moving subjects is obviously not as easy as pointing a 1DIV and telling it to track like a blood hound. It can be done though. Finger moves left to follow approaching objects and finger moves right to following objects moving away. I should have just had a friend walk around so I could practice my rangefinder focusing skills. Nope, I am way too silly to think of that. I chose a fish in a dark aquarium. (smart move Tony!…er…) No, I didn’t take 100 shots and pick the best focus. I took like 3 or 4 well timed shots. Since there is no viewfinder blackout I can keep focusing while I take my shot. The following image is taken at 1/90 of a second, f/2.5, at ISO 1250. Just practice and think about your subject and its movement. It’s not hard nor impossible.
Unfortunately this is one of my main issues with rangefinders in general. 2.5 feet is not close enough for my taste. I can live with it. My 35L focuses to 8″ or so. I love a 35mm lens up close. For my work however, this won’t even be an issue. Also, since the M8 is so light, I definitely love to have it with me as a walk-around camera when I am out. Well what happens if you want to do a self portrait??? 2.5′ is JUST close enough to do a self portrait if you have long arms!! 1/60, f/2.5, ISO 1250.
Yeah, this bothers me a bit. I knew this coming in. (The M9 will solve this though!) Great, so I have my 35mm lens…but I only get to see the center portion of it! The subjects still retain a 35mm relationship…but I don’t get as much “environment” from the shot. Booooooo! 1.33 crop is better than 1.6 though. And certainly way better than 2x of M4/3. (I tried the GF1 numerous times…I just couldn’t love the massive depth of field from a 20mm lens…sorry!) I prefer full frame or larger when I work. Crop factor annoys me on a 35mm lens…but I can live with it at 75mm+. The majority of my work is either between 15 & 24mm or 100mm+. I use 35mm primarily for events and personal work. So again my excuses were just that and no problems actually materialized from the crop factor in my professional use.
I don’t know about some reviewers only getting 150 shots or so from a battery. (i’ve read several reviews about this) I get at least one full 4gb card with a battery. That is around 366 raw images. That’s not too different than my 5D. It is about half of the 5DmkII in terms of battery life. (I can only get 150 shots to a 4gb card with the 5DmkII) I can honestly live with that. 700+ images on 2 batteries is WAY more than plenty for the work I do. Especially since I shoot with multiple cameras generally, I have never run into an issue of battery life on a shoot.
Lighting Compatibility & Pocket Wizards TT5
I use a mix of studio strobes and Canon speedlights. I have a set of TT5 Pocket wizards for these lights. I set the pocket wizards to channel 1 programmed for my Canon cameras and Channel 2 programmed as a manual trigger only for the Leica. Works perfectly when I switch between the two camera systems on set with my lights. I use the speedlights in manual mode when working most of the time anyways so this integrates with no real adjustments necessary most of the time. The Leica M8 works perfectly in a studio lighting environment and the sync is 1/250. This is even better than my Canons! Examples of mixed lighting and strobes with the M8 will come in a follow up to this post. In the mean time here are some photos of the M8 with a Pocket Wizard TT5 attached. As you can see…the trigger is quite a bit large on the M8! Pretty funny actually. I also can’t wait for Match Technical to release a hot-shoe version of it’s thumbs up grip. That will be ideal so I don’t have to remove the grip every time I want to use the hot-shoe.
The Leica M8 does not disappoint here. Already I have seen this at two different events I have shot. At one event I had a 5DmkII with a 300mm prime on one shoulder and the M8 with 35mm lens on the other. Several people actually came up to me afterward to ask what I was doing. I got comments like, “Why on Earth would I shoot with that toy camera when I have a professional camera hanging on my side!” “Is that film? Are you really shooting film?” “You have such awesome equipment here with you..why bother using that old thing?” It was very entertaining. When I would be holding my Canons with their “Canon sized lenses” people would move out of my way. They would stop and not walk through my shots. “Let him do his work! Be careful!” I could walk right up to someone with the Leica to my eye and the Canon “hidden” behind me and would never get noticed. I could take shots of people in the event from over their shoulder, next to them, all around, and I would just blend in. Nobody would think twice with the Leica pointed at them. It would get treated no different than a cell phone camera when I had a small 35mm prime on it. Nice.
Everyone complains about inconsistent white balance from the M8. I just do not feel this is the case. In fact it is not worse than any Canon ive spent time with in my opinion. In fact, the best performing Canon i’ve experienced for auto white balance indoors was a G11!!!! It has nailed white balance that pro bodies completely fell apart with in the same situation. That being said, digital cameras fail big time in the white balance department. There is no camera I have that is good enough here. I use an Expodisc or a Whibal card depending where I am. I then also use an Xrite ColorChecker Passport to calibrate my colors. This gives me nice consistent colors between several bodies and white balance that actually looks like the cameras were all in the same room. Overall though, white balance in most lighting has been actually pretty decent and consistent in its output from the M8.
ISO. The big deal breaker here for most cameras these days it seems. Who can hit 102,000,000,000 ISO clean. Even as a concert and event photographer, I rarely need anything beyond 1600 unless I am in a dungeon of a club. Sports photographers “might” need that so they can freeze fast action with ambient light on a moonless midnight in a cornfield with an f/5.6 lens… I think most people over-exaggerate their need for a camera’s outer most limits. With that being said the Leica M8 is interesting. It is not nearly as clean as a 5DmkII at 2500 ISO or ISO 1250. It is also not as totally smooth as a 5D at those settings. Ok fine. Does that mean it is noisy? Not necessarily. The M8 noise is not gross and blotchy and smeared like the 5D and other camera models. (thought 5Ds are not nearly as bad as others…) The better your exposure, the less the noise is apparent. The more dark shadows you have, the more it will fall apart. The 5DmkII is no better at this either. I can get severe red noise in shadows from a 5DmkII at ISO 400 in the right conditions. I have shot perfectly clean files at 1250 from the M8. I have also shot extremely acceptable shots at 2500 from the M8. Some are a little noisy, and randomly I get a a little banding through the photo on the ISO 2500 shots. Not on every shot, but maybe 2 or 3 shots out of 20 taken at ISO 2500. The big catch here is that the M8 stands up better than the 5D files in terms of appearance. The sharpness and definition in the file remains stronger than the SLR files. The fish photo and self portrait posted above were ISO 1250. With good lighting and careful exposure, the M8 is usable to its top ISO. Just as with the 5D where 3200 becomes an “only as needed with no other alternative” option…same goes for 2500 on the M8.
I personally like the look of the high ISO files from the M8 better than the Canons. I am not saying the files are necessarily cleaner…but they have more character to them and are more pleasing to me overall. I am quite impressed. These next examples are all available light snaps I shot with the M8. I was using two Canons to ensure I got the work I needed done, but I used the opportunity to test out the Leica’s capability in these environments. My shutter speed at 1/30 on some of these was a bit too low to use when juggling two Canon bodies, but the results spoke for themselves. The M8 will definitely see it’s own events from me. These next images only have a little bit of Lightroom’s noise reduction for color noise. I did not export into any third party noise plug-ins or photoshop, etc… This is real world use. What noise these have certainly doesn’t bother me. If I did NEED to use a file of this output, I could certainly run a specialty noise remover and do a little sharpening work and be fine. Prints would show even less noise.
1/45, F/2.8, ISO 1250.
1/90, F/2.5, ISO 1250
1/30, F/2.5, ISO 2500
1/30, F/2.8, ISO 2500
1/30, F/2.8, 2500
Now let’s be honest. If I hadn’t told you those were ISO 2500 from an M8…would you think they were? “Whoa dude…those shots are too noisy! What were you thinking!!!!…Epic Failure!!!!” I don’t know about you, but I find the noise and look from the M8’s 2500 perfectly acceptable when there is no other choice.
The Leica files are stunning. Not having an AA filter like the 5D or the even stronger AA filtered 5DmkII makes a huge difference. The files from the M8 require a lot less sharpening. They also have quality to them that is hard to express. The “Leica look.” It is a bit 3D, more life and character in the photo, a different kind of transition between sharp and out of focus. All these little things add up in a way that makes the files look different. It is enough that untrained eyes of friends have been able to point out that one shot has more..”something” about it. They can actually point out the Leica shot. Canon’s 35L, 85L, and 135L can all produce the “3D look” at a certain distance and wide open aperture. The Leica gear just seems to take this quality a step further in it’s drawing. I personally like the colors coming from the M8 as well. With an IR-cut filter, color reproduction is great. It is not as contrasty and saturated as Canon. It seems a bit more natural though. I have a preset for vibrance and saturation that I use in Lightroom to give me the “Canon Colors” when I need them. Highlights on the M8 are not as flexable as the 5DmkII with Highlight tone priority. That cannot be expected however. Headroom is not as high, but it is not really that far off from a 5D in most situations. It has not been a problem yet with careful exposure for highlights. Learn the camera, and learn to shoot for it’s maximum flexibility. I have printed extremely large from a Canon 5D. I have no doubts that a properly prepared file from the Leica will hold up to large printing. It will look good. If you take a magnifying glass and search for ants in grass on a landscape expecting the same result as a P65+ back…look elsewhere.
Raw files take about 3 seconds to write to a card. You can keep shooting. It’s no big deal. JPGs take around 8 seconds. If you chimp, 8 seconds is an eternity. The RAW writing time is slower than most SLRs but it is not anything to worry about in real world shooting. I would skip on the JPGs. Especially RAW+JPG. Waste of time and battery power to process.
The viewfinder doesn’t tell you anything. SLR users be warned. You have been spoiled rotten. In manual mode there is no information of any kind. The meter tells you if you are metered 0, half up or down, 1 stop up or down… or “more than that!” How much more you ask? Who knows! This was weird to get used to. What is your current shutter speed? Who knows! What is your ISO…who knows! What is your Aperature…who knows! Get in the habit of knowing what you have selected and where you are relative to that when you adjust. Learn the your basic exposure principles. This camera forces you to know. If I am at f/2.5 and I turn the ring 3 clicks to the left where am I? F/4 in half stops. Being strong here will make you that much stronger with any camera. Think and know your settings and this will never be an issue. I would have liked 2 stops over and under visible but its ok. I know to go to +1 and then two more clicks for +2. It is not an issue in practice. The center focus patch seems to work almost like a spot meter. I use it to meter a tone that I expect to be at +1 for example. This works great. Just know what you want from a tone and set the camera accordingly. The lack of information present actually helps me focus on only what I see. Can’t complain about that!
So am I switching to rangefinders? For my personal work, pretty much. However, on a professional level I use whatever tool works best for my goals. I will be adding the M system to my equipment list that I own however. There are some situations I prefer the Canons, and some I prefer the Leicas. The Leica gives me options I do not have with the Canon because of size and weight. The Leica glass also gives me a look I don’t get from my Canon glass. The Leica doesn’t weigh much more with lens attached than a Canon 5D body alone. When I am out shooting for me, enjoying travel, or taking time for personal work, the Leica is a gem. The Leica has a feel to it that the Canon’s don’t.
The nodal point on the Leica glass is a lot closer to the center of the camera since the lenses are so short. The camera is less offset from center on a nodal slide and weighs less. This means I can take a much lighter panoramic setup than I need for the Canon when traveling. I will have a lot more coming about Leica Panoramics soon.
I don’t always want to be “the photographer” when I am out shooting for me. Nobody notices the Leica. The Leica has allowed me to shoot for fun again in a way that I don’t get from larger equipment. With the Leica I make excuses to go out and photograph for me again. With the SLR gear I make excuses to leave it at home. That is very powerful in my mind. I can fit the Leica, a wide lens, and a portrait lens in my jacket and not feel weighed down at all. A 5DmkII with a wide prime and telephoto prime or just a standard zoom is huge and weighs a lot. It also takes up space. Sometimes I don’t want all that with me. I don’t want to compromise the quality by taking a point and shoot or even a M43 camera. The Leica is the perfect travel camera.
In terms of professional use, the Leica is not a do-all camera. What it does do well, it does exceptionally and with more character than an SLR. The M8 has opened up options for me that I really enjoy. The M9 is my ideal camera at the moment, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the M8. Hopefully I will add an M9 to the mix soon as well. Not only have I found my excuses for not purchasing a digital Leica were mostly unmerited, but the M8 exceeded my expectations. I should have made the jump a long time ago. Oh yeah, and Steve Huff’s website really made things worse! Thanks Steve! you helped me throw not only caution to the wind, but my wallet too! Check Steve’s sight out for some great reviews on everything Leica!
Not only is the Leica M8 still valid today, but it is a refreshing camera to use. The lack of bells and whistles, displays, auto-controls, etc… make this feel like a real camera. The images hold up well against anything out there, especially at its lower ISOs. With the latest firmware, it seems everything works as it should. The frame lines allow me to see what my image could be, not just my subject as the lens sees.
The Leica feels like sculpted metal used for creating images. Not a computer with a lens attached. The Leica, despite any shortcomings and differences from an SLR, has one quality that makes it worth every penny to me:
With the Leica I make excuses to go out and photograph for me again. Priceless.