dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

I see you have constructed your own M-mount digital camera.
Good.  Your training is complete.

 
Leica M8 digital rangefinder camera
 

At the end of the day, photography is about life more than anything else.  It's about capturing things that cannot be later reproduced.  A good camera is one that you never think about.  It is in your pocket when you need it to be.  And good photograph is one that you enjoy twenty years from now. 

Fifty years from now, no one will care whether your photo was shot with a Canon or a Nikon.  Extra-low dispersion glass and mechanical shutters will seem like stone age technology.  Today's high megapixel count will impress no one.  After all, in the 1980s, a Ferrari had 200 horsepower.  The only thing anyone will care about is the image.  If you're lucky, they will care about the image.

If there is any genius to the Leica M8, it is not in the specifications.  It is not the highest resolution camera.  It is not the fastest.  It does not have the longest-life batteries.  It does not have autofocus.   It barely has automatic exposure.  But it is supremely good at taking pictures without complications or distractions.  That's all you really need to know.  But if you want to keep reading, I will do my best to entertain you with some information on the M8. 

Rangefinders and Counter-Revolution

If you went through school and wondered how invading armies owned Spain in the tenth century, or how digital SLR owners became a hegemon in the late twentieth, the recent history of rangefinders might provide some insight. 

It seemed for the first half of this decade that Leica would sink under the weight of its own opulence - and obsolescence.  Do you like our white tigers?  Excellent.  Their blood is the lightproofing compound we use on our Swiss cloth shutters.  How would you like a Barnack Leica finder in your M7?  Baby seal skin leatherette?  But of course.  We can accommodate anything for a price.  It got pretty disgusting - so much so that when I was in Thailand and saw billboards of Rama IX, he was carrying a Canon EOS!  And this was around the time Leica had a King of Thailand edition.  Talk about hitting bottom.  What did not hit bottom was the price of secondhand Leica and compatible lenses.  You could buy a 35 Summilux ASPH in perfect condition for $1,300.  A 50/1.2 Canon screwmount lens was $150.  It was like heaven – assuming you believed that film would survive or that someone would make a digital body compatible with those lenses.

At the same time Leica was sinking, Cosina was dispensing the photographic equivalent of crack cocaine.  First some very wide-angle screwmount lenses.  Then a screwmount body.  Then more lenses.  Then more bodies.  Dribble out a couple of products every few months.  They'll come back for more as long as it's cheap.   But all of it smacked of the fetishism of an old man bent on the fantasies of youth.  Why?  Start with rehashing the names of ancient lenses no one remembers.  Wrap them in an M39 mount that was best left behind in 1953.  Of course, when a large proportion of Cosina's users own only Cosina lenses and only Cosina bodies, what was the point of using Leica's screw mounting system?  And the sometimes useful, often absurd range of accessories recalls boy racers and their tricked out Honda Civics.

Konica seemed posed, for about a year, to outdo Leica.  Here's an M7 with the motor inside and some lenses who fit, finish and materials were Leica class.  By the way, here are some gorgeous screwmount lenses modeled after some very expensive collectible Hexanons.  But right when it was ready to take over, Konica became distracted in a merger with Minolta.  And so the Hexar RF and Konica lenses ended up being footnotes.  Ricoh, Pentax and Kobalux actually were footnotes, each having one or two hit lenses.

But outside the Leicasphere, technology inevitably marched forward.  All serious SLR production turned digital.  Newer, faster, more highly corrected lenses with ultrasonic motors emerged.  Focusing became faster and more accurate.  Exposure went to 1,000-segment meters.  It became possible to configure digital cameras in such a way that you could shoot 11 million pictures without repeating the same setting.  Minilabs became more incompetent with film.  Color film lost 75% of its merchandising space on shelves.  Ilford went out of business - again.  Kodak stopped making black and white paper.  Even Epson made a digital M-mount camera.  In the midst of all of this, Leica enthusiasts continued to decry digital, claiming it was a fad.  I imagine that's what people at the Smith-Corona typewriter company said about word processing on computers.

Leica's reconquista came in June 2006, with an announcement that new Leica lenses would be coded with a 6-digit binary code for automatic identification by a "planned digital Leica M camera."  This announcement was largely dismissed - until the Leica M8 emerged a few months later.  The reactions were fascination and hatred: par for the Leica course.

Sticker shock

The Leica M8 is expensive in absolute terms.  And with an ever-declining dollar and Leica prices that ratchet up at 10% a year compounded, it is not getting any cheaper. 

For perspective, an M8 costs as much as 250 rolls of film with really good processing, three used M6s, the most expensive Macintosh computer made, five sets of Pzero Rosso tires (that's 225 x 45R17 H93), or a pretty nice weekend in Monaco. 

In my personal experience, it is the sum of five AF Nikkors: 18-70, 35-105, 28/1.4, 105/2, and 180/2.8; a Fuji GA645zi; plus 73 miscellaneous items.  That's okay, I guess, because it extends the life of thousands of dollars in Leica lenses I already own.  I also tell myself that my photo equipment now takes up a lot less space.  Right. 

Against the historic backdrop of Leica cameras, it's not that expensive.  In 2006 money, the original M3 cost $2,900.  Leica sells the Ralph Gibson MP (basically, an M6) for $4,999.  And the sky is the limit on Leica's highly customized "shelf queens."  Although you might think that Leica prices are absurd (they largely are), consider that the top-line Nikon and Canon DSLRs have always cost about the same as an M8.  And the Epson RD-1 did not actually cost that much less.

Is it an investment?  No.  Is any camera an investment?  No.  My rough and ready calculation of what it costs to own a high-end camera per year (regardless of make) is about $1,000, or twenty dollars a week, assuming that you keep it three years and sell it for 40% of its purchase price.  Not so bad.  Many people spend more than that on their cellular telephones.

Nickeling and diming

If your reason for purchasing an M8 is protecting an investment in lenses, it is a good idea to examine what lenses you have and what it will cost you to keep them.  If you want to use UV/IR filters and 6-bit coding, you can expect expenses like the following (sample lenses shown):

Lens 486 Filter Coding
21mm f/2.8 screwmount $105 $75 adapter; $25 coding
35mm f/1.4 ASPH $100 $125
50mm f/1.4 screwmount $67 $150 Milich LT-M8 adapter
75mm f/1.4 $130 $125
90mm f/2 $105 $125

 One of the things that makes adpters an expense is that to code them, you first need the adapter with the correct framelines (for an extant Leica lens of the same aperture, focal length and basic optical design); you then need to mark the 6-bit code yourself or have John Milich mill them.  50mm lenses are particularly expensive because there is no adapter (Leica or otherwise) that has metal where the coding goes (there is a cutout).  You can buy Leica 28/90 or 35/135 adapters that lack the cutout, but these are not cheap.  Very nearly all Asian adapters are incapable of being coded because, regardless of the focal length, they too have cutouts.  That may or may not be worth it when you consider the worth and the optical quality of the lenses you own.

The hue (saturation, brightness) and the cry

Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the internet world is bricked w up with spurious complaints about the M8.  These complaints are almost universally based on theory and not praxis.  Those who actually use M8s would have a completely different set of complaints (which I will discuss below).  But for now, let's talk about the internet gripes.

"It's not full frame."

Close enough.  Although people are much more often wrong by saying "never," I would not hold my breath waiting for a 24x36mm sensor in anything smaller than a full-size SLR - and even then, not for very much longer.  First, there is the angle of incidence. Many historic Leica wide-angle lenses have rear elements that sit close to the film plane.  On film, it is not much of a problem, because film emulsions have depth.  You might get chromatic aberration at the edges.  But a digital sensor - which has no depth - accentuates the problems most vintage lenses have.  SLRs can be full frame (within certain limitations) because the angle of incidence is much more head-on.  Even then, you have problems with color shift and very apparent chromatic aberration.

Second, there is no economic incentive for Leica to do it.   Within the Leica line, going from a 24x36mm frame to an 18x27mm one only requires going from 90mm to 75mm at the long end, 50mm to 35mm at normal, 35mm to 28mm at the wide, and 28mm to 21mm at the wider end.  All of this can be done without manufacturing any new lenses.  IBut going to a set of wideangles capable of handling a 24x36mm frame on digital would require a massive R&D investment.  Leica did introduce a 28mm f/2.8 aspherical, but probably only because it had no compact wideangle lens - and Leica had priced itself out of the market for starter wideangle lenses

Third, there is a question of space.  A 24x36mm sensor requires a mounting much larger than 24x36mm.  The M8 is already a bit larger than its predecessors and is packed with circuits and machinery.  It is questionable whether a 24x36mm sensor could go into something its size.

Finally, there is the question of the referent. 35mm film is slowly fading into the sunset, and it will not be long before its dimensions are as obscure as that of 127 rollfilm.

Give it up.  With an infinite amount of time, anything is possible.  But every day you worry about something like this and wait for what might come about, you are missing photographic opportunities.

"The infrared issue is inexcusable and the filters are a clumsy solution."

I thought this at first and then thought again.  The camera admits enough IR light to take amazing IR pictures.  Even if you don't take Leica's claims about thin cover glass (and low IR protection) at face value, this gives you a whole new capability.  I mounted a 760nm IR-only filter and was amazed that despite the opaque glass, you still got pictures.  Is IR really a problem?  The big problem is black synthetic fabrics.  It's not as much of a problem as you think, unless you are shooting a lot of women's clothes.  Are the IR filters a kludge?  Not really.  At $70-150 per, the filters are not that cheap - but they are a cost of doing business and a trivial expense compared to the cost of an M8 (which includes two).  You'll need to get many of your lenses recalibrated anyway, so what the hell?

"It's too loud."

It's not loud; the noise impulse is longer.  Subjects don't notice.

"The red reflection from the IR filters make the shooter more visible."

I'm not kidding.  Someone actually wrote this.  I've hauled the M8 around quite a bit.  The only attention it has ever drawn has been from two Leica enthusiasts.  One thought it was an M6.  The other thought it was a Digilux 2.  The red of the filters is no different from the green, blue and violet reflections one occasionally sees on a coated or multicoated lens or filter.

Now that we've dispensed with the pleasantries, let's get down to business.

Imaging performance

Nothing to complain about.  The 10.3 Mp Kodak KAF-10500 sensor does an admirable job with many different lenses, even more so with lenses that have small clearance betweem rear element and sensor (such as the 21mm Kobalux).  Using a 1.33 factor sensor cuts down on vignetting. 

The M8 sensor lacks an antialiasing filter.  This can lead to results very different from what you might have experienced with a Canon or a Nikon digital SLR.  In those systems, the sensor has a low-pass filter that limits the lens resolution so that where lens resolution exceeds the sensor resolution, no false patterns are generated due to interference between detail and sensor sites.  This means slightly degraded detail and more sharpening after the shot.  By contrast, many Kodak sensors (including the ones in the Kodak DCS Pro 14n, SLR/n, SLR/c and the Leica M8) lack this filtration.  This means more detailed pictures but the possibility of an interference pattern now and then.  The Leica firmware does a good job of suppressing this. 

The on-sensor image is very, very sharp compared to a Canon or Nikon digital SLR.  It's not quite as amazingly sharp as a Kodak DCS Pro 14n sensor.  I am not sure why this is, but I suspect that it has something to do with the microlenses that the Kodak lacks.  The microlenses pipe light into the pixels at the periphery, increasing effective ISO and correcting to some degree from problems with the angle of incidence.  Could you eliminate the microlenses?  Maybe.  But if you did, you would lose sensitivity and likely be forced to resort to the massive lens-specific processing required by the Kodak cameras.

Metering is very, very basic.  It works most of the time.  If you have subjects with a small number of white highlights, you should dial down the exposure compensation.

Dynamic range is high, but the in-camera JPG function is not very helpful in bringing it out (contrast the system used in the Kodak 14n, which can automatically bend the curves to get 11.5 stops - a comparable range to the Leica's - into one file).  You need Capture One or Lightroom to squeeze every last bit of range out of the M8's DNG (RAW) files.  The M8 is not yet supported by Aperture (probably because Apple does not want to support Adobe's DNG format).

The gestalt of M8 pictures taken at the default tone curve setting is interesting; the camera shows a preference for underexposure but captures a fair amount of detail in the shadows.  It is unclear whether this is a product of DNG or the Leica's programming - but it is a very distinctive look.

Black and white pictures come out well, particularly when converted with Capture One.  It takes some work, but things can be given very interesting looks.  I would strongly counsel slight underexposure when the intended output is monochromatic.  Do not try to use traditional contrast-control filters with the M8 (or any other digital camera) - they do not work.  A polarizer is still helpful to darken skies.

Infrared capture is considerable.  As I noted before, the camera is capable of picking up a large amount of IR light.  Black synthetic fabrics under incandescent light are almost 100% guaranteed to exhibit a magenta color shift on the fabric.  Sensor bloom (whitish-blue flare on really bright highlights) is normal on digital camera; sometimes on the M8 it is brought on by IR (presumably contributing to sensor overload).  I would recommend a UV/IR at all times except where you use an IR-pass filter to take infrared pictures.

Software

I was frankly surprised that the M8, whose native image format is Adobe's DNG, did not ship with Lightroom or some cut-down version of Photoshop.

The M8 ships with PhaseOne's CaptureOne LE, a program that is virtually free anyway.  The program, like Silverfast, produces phenomenal results.  In black and white, CaptureOne is unbeatable.

If you had to ballpark it, CaptureOne in general is capable of coming up with results that are 5% better than Adobe's RAW converters.  But, like Silverfast, CaptureOne is also guilty of "reinventing the wheel" in coming up with a user interface.  So that quality improvement comes at a 25% time penalty while you try to decipher things that either (a) are non-intuitive pictures or (b) look like they are in English but for some reason don't have the same meaning they do in Photoshop.

To give you an idea of just how differently CaptureOne and Lightroom render files, particularly ones with moire-prone parts, I have prepared a (boring) sample image with some thumbnails.  If anyone cares, the lens is a 1955 Nikkor-S.C. 50/1.4 shot at f/5.6.  Both sets of examples are processed to what appears to be the equivalent level of sharpening between the two programs (50% - and a caveat is that Lightroom does not have a threshold setting).  I did not attempt to completely reconcile the color balance.

Left: CaptureOne

Right: Lightroom 1.1

Note that the grain of the plywood gets wiped out by CaptureOne's anti-moire setting.

Left: CaptureOne

Right: Lightroom 1.1

Both programs allow moire on the grille.   CaptureOne has aliasing on the top edge of the white tiles.

Left: CaptureOne

Right: Lightroom 1.1

Lightroom exhibits less aliasing.

What I take away from this is that in a quick, unscientific test largely using defaults and viewed with an electron microscope, CaptureOne applies a much harsher anti-moire algorithm - to the point of degrading some fine detail - and still ends up with some slight color issues.  My assessment of this may change across a much larger selection of files.  Monkeys, typewriters and all of eternity, they say.

Ergonomics/Design/Construction

The M8 is built from brass top and bottom covers and a two-piece magnesium casting (front and back).  Viewfinder and rangefinder appear to be variants of the M7 vf/rf system, the major difference being that the framline pairs are 24/35mm, 28/90mm and 50/75mm.  It is about 1mm deeper than a typical M body.  It is a bit taller than a Hexar RF.

The best thing about the M8's basic design is that it stays out of the way.  It looks like an M7, it operates more or less like one, and the controls are in roughly the same places.  Most people who see it on the street believe it's a vintage camera.  I like that - it means my friends don't come sniffing around for prints or emailed pictures quite so quickly.  It fits in a medium-sized coat pocket.

The M8 does not, as other digital camera have, a profusion of menus and user-selectable features.  Everything you need to know about running the camera can be uncovered in about 30 minutes of trial-and-error experimentation.  It is simple and easy to use.  Both menus (menu and set) are flat.  This is a big improvements over systems such as the D2x, where you have to get through multiple levels of menus to change some functions.

The thumbwheel and directional buttons are right under your thumb.  They are easy to operate.  Buttons in general are easy to reach without shifting grip position.

Having now told you that the system is essentially sound, I will ask questions that this camera's design and operation suggests. 

  • Who came up with an on/off switch with a light detent and no lock? The lightest touch on the selector leads to shots where the camera is not turned on or is in self-timer mode when the critical moment presents itself.  Fortunately, this is not a problem with the shutter speed dial, which also lacks any kind of locking mechanism.
  • Why are the top and bottom are made of brass? Brass is a material that is both heavy (the top and bottom covers are 25% of the camera's weight) and easy to damage.  For this type of weight (an M8 with a 75mm Summilux is compact but as heavy as a brick), I would like to see the Nikon-style finish: lighweight magnesium with a crinkle finish.  Not the prettiest, but definitely the toughest.
  • Why a detachable bottom plate?  This is a throwback to the older M-series cameras, and it is not one that has any discernible purpose.  In the old days, a removeable bottom plate allowed for a huge pressure plate to keep film really, really flat.  Back then, it was an inconvenience worth living with.  The M8's removeable baseplate is an atavism.  I've heard the argument that the detachable bottom plate protects the SD card and battery chamber from dust.  I don't see how that could be possible, considering that there don't seem to be any seals.  Nikon has individual battery and SD doors on the D2 series (with rubber seals where appropriate), and there is no reason a Leica can't have them too.  On the other hand, the removable baseplate is removed only when you finish off a battery (200+ shots) or an SD card (90-180 in raw).  That means it may only come off only once you've returned home - not such a big problem.

The good news is that you'll probably live. 

If you currently use a Hexar RF, the only problem you likely will have is that the off-single-continuous-timer switch (operated by your index finger) turns in the opposite direction.  This will have you switching the camera off sometimes when you mean to turn it on.

Compatibility

What an ugly word.  I think it is time for a fundamental reassessment of the claim that rangefinder focusing is inherently more accurate than SLRs up to 90mm. 

Modern digital SLRs use high-sensitivity CCD focusing systems that are (mainly) coaxial with the lens.  These systems are focused by comparing the image to a reference waveform.  They are calibrated by computers - meaning that if anything, they are supremely consistent.  They do not in any way require human eyesight to operate (other than, say, to aim the camera).  And modern digital SLR lenses generally lack hard infinity focusing stops - meaning that they can make up for where a particular example of a lens, coupled with a particular example of a body, would normally be a tiny but out of tolerance for infinity focus.  Modern digital SLRs generally lose their focusing accuracy when they are hit hard enough to knock the main mirror out of alignment or if they develop a firmware bug.

Rangefinders, by contrast, have multiple factors that can degrade focusing.  The rangefinder system uses two windows other than the lens, relying on parallax to focus.  The viewfinder window itself is offset from the lens.  Misalignment's of the user's eye can influence whether the double image looks aligned or not.  Get to the lenses, and everything is a hard mechanical linkage: the focusing link is a brass threaded helicoid whose precise dimensions and slope can have a huge impact on focusing accuracy.  That interfaces in the camera body to a focusing arm, whose zero calibration and adjusted length can also degrade focusing accuracy if misadjusted.  That's to say nothing of all the prisms and lenses inside the top of the camera  But for 40 years, rangefinders had the upper hand - because despite the Rube Goldberg nature of this mechanical system, most manual-focus SLRs were far, far worse.

The M8, with a fine-pitch digital sensor, stretches the rangefinder concept to near the breaking point.  It is a mixed bag in terms of "compatibility."

  • Wide-angle lenses work admirably.  The 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH moires wide-open on extremely finely detailed subjects.  This means that it is maxing out the sensor's capabilities.  The 21mm Kobalux works well at all apertures and does not exhibit any vignetting that I can detect.
  • Fast 50mm lenses, like the 50/1.4 Nikkor S.C. work very well.  Just think - you spent years pining after a 75mm Summilux - for your M6.  Now the 1.33 factor sensor gives you one in the form of a smaller, lighter, cheaper, vintage lens that takes the cheapest 486 filters anyone makes.
  • Fast telephoto lenses are difficult.  Depending on how the rangefinder on your camera is aligned, two lenses - each of which is "within spec" - can have disparate infinity alignment.  So get ready to spend some money updating lenses and addressing thorny issues with keeping your lenses synchronized with the rangefinder and each other.
  • Collapsible lenses are out (according to Leica).  Collapsible lenses should be out.  Most Leitz collapsible lenses are either (a) uncoated, haze-prone, and virtually impossible to clean (c.f. Summars and  older Elmars) or (b) prone to whale-oil haze (Elmars, Summicrons and Summarits from the 1950s) or (c) prone to optical corrosion (any of the above).  The most modern 90 Macro Elmarit and 50 Elmar would be the modern, reliable, high-resolution exceptions - but the 90mm is not really that collapsible.  At the end of the day, the optical performance exhibited by most collapsible lenses is relatively poor, and there is little point in harnessing a $5,000 camera to get a soft look – what you can do with Photoshop, vaseline on a filter, a fishnet stocking, or a film camera.  That's why Stalin invented the Holga. 
  • Lenses with massively protruding rear elements are also out - again as they should be.  It was high time that something euthanize the Jupiter-12.  The Hologon is a different story, but most people don't buy exquisite multi-thousand-dollar, slow (f/8), fixed-aperture lenses that require graduated neutral-density filters.  Most people are less fixated on image quality and instead buy 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer lenses.
  • Leica thread mount lenses (LTM) are very difficult to code for recongition by the camera (discussed above).

Sad to say, none of this will get any easier if Leica ever goes to a higher resolution sensor.  The body of pre-M8 Leica M lenses was built over a 53-year period to the tolerances of the day, which were calibrated to film.  The only way to deal with this is either to (a) buy only new, 6-bit coded lenses that are toleranced to M8 standards or (b) limit your lens assortment to a very small number that can be cross-calibrated practically.

Seldom-discussed quirks

There are several quirky things about this camera you will want to know before buying it.  First, it takes four steps to set exposure compensation (set - compensation - turn dial - set -shoot)?  The exposure system is excellent, but where it is failing, you are stuck either setting the compensation using baby steps or trying to get a manual exposure confirmation and then compensating from that.

Second, the ISO sensitivity is whole-steps only, starting from 160.  This is an issue with compact automatic flashes that show only apertures for ISO sensitivities that are multiples of 100.  It's easy, on the rare occasion that you would use flash with this camera, to incorrectly adjust the shooting aperture in your mind and then over- or under-expose.

Third, the camera has a sleep mode - and on waking, the meter is sometimes slow to react to changing light levels.  This can mean over- or under-exposed pictures.  It's better just to switch the camera off if you do not anticipate using it for a while.

Fourth, battery life is decent.  You should be able to get at least 200 shots with the factory battery, even with heavy image review.  The charger is bulky (comparable in size to the camera) but has a useful automobile plug attachment.  Plan on getting a couple of extra batteries.

Fifth, shutter recycling is slow.  This was probably intentional to suppress the pitch of the winding sound.  It is doubtful that this camera gets anywhere near its rated frames per second.   It is, in essence, as fast as an M7 with a Motor M.

Finally, image review is slow, even with accelerated cards.  Image review should be less critical with this camera, since you can see the subjects blink (or not blink) by continuing to look through the viewfinder.

Flash

Many Leica users deny that electronic flash exists or that it has any value in rangefinder photography.  I assume that they have other cameras that they use to solve difficult light issues.  Or only shoot in black and white on overcast days.  For everyone else, flash serves many useful purposes: lighting up the dark, filling in harsh shadows in bright sunlight, and creating uniform light where multiple light temperatures are competing to light the scene.  Here is what you need to know on these points:

  • The M8 will work with most automatic flashes that have low-voltage synch.  A Nikon or Konica-dedicated flash will trigger the synch speed if the camera's shutter dial is set to A.
  • You may need to close the aperture down half a stop with flash.  The M8's sensor seems to be a little more sensitive than the ISO rating suggests.
  • The 1/250 sec top flash synch speed works well for outdoor fill flashes.  How far you can be from the subject will depend on how powerful your flash is relative to the ISO setting on the camera.
  • Don't use the slow-synch speed in any circumstance where you are mixing light sources (such as using a flash and tungsten ambient light together).  If you use slow-synch, you will get an orange cast and uneven color.  On the other hand, when mixing flash and daylight, slow-synch is ok.

I am not sure whether the SF-24D adds any more to an M8 than a TTL flash does to any camera.  The SF-24D has a guide number of 20m/68ft at ISO 100, uses snap-on diffusers (rather than an internal zoom mechanism) and requires expensive CR-123A lithium batteries.

Conclusion / Assesment

The M8 is... well, different.  It is a nearly-perfect digital execution of a fairly straightforward 35mm camera.  If you typically devote more than a few seconds to each picture, you will really like it.  It has everything you need and little that you do not.  If you're worried that it "only" does three frames a second, you should look elsewhere.

DAST