Leica M8 Review

Here's my review for the Leica M8

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The introduction of the Leica M8 in September of 2006 was a watershed moment for fans of Leica cameras. What many said would never happen was really just a forgone conclusion and the only question was when. The Leica M series camera went digital and there was no turning back. It was not without some controversy. This being that the M8 was not a full frame camera. The CCD that was selected by Leica produced an increase in magnification with the current line-up of lenses of a factor of 1.3X magnification. At the time the CEO of Leica stated that we were not to worry, even though technology was not available to make a full frame Leica M, when the technology caught up and a full frame chip would fit in a Leica M body the M8 could be upgraded to take advantage of the newer chip. But when that CCD was developed it went into a new model, The M9, and plans to make an upgrade for the M8 were canceled. 

The Leica M8 on the outside looks like a standard Leica M body but a little thicker. The choice to forgo an IR filter over the sensor so that the images would be sharper was a choice that came back to haunt the company. But more on that later. With the current Leica M selling for over $6,500 there are people looking to get into the Leica experience but with a much cheaper camera. Since it has been 9 years since the M8 has been introduced it seemed like a good time to do my review of the camera that startedthe journey that has culminated in the fantastic Leica M (240).

 Leica M8 Front

Leica M8 Front

Leica did a very good job making their first digital M series camera as it retains the feeling of the film series cameras. The M8 is a little thicker and a bit heavier than MP that was in production at the time. Weighing in at 591g with battery, it is close to the 585g that the MP weighs. The M8 is 139 x 80 x 37 mm as compared to 137 x 77 x 38 for the MP. The best part of a rangefinder camera is still present. The rangefinder that is built into the M8 is every bit as good as the film counterparts. The magnification factor of the rangefinder is 0.68x. This magnification slightly favors wide-angle lenses which makes sense since it has a cropped sensor. The MP sports magnifications of 0.58x, 0.72x, 0.85x, to accommodate different types of shooters. If you were transitioning from a film Leica to a digital one it is a very similar feeling in your hands,

I wrote the following for my Leica M (240) review and it bears repeating here.

The most distinctive feature of a M series camera of course is the rangefinder. When the M3 was introduced in 1954 the one piece body withbuilt-in rangefinder was the marquee feature. The original Leica didn’t have a rangefinder or even an optical viewfinder. The following models first incorporated an optical viewfinder and then later a rangefinder. The first rangefinders were a separate window so when a photo was taken first you composed through one viewfinder than focused using an adjacent window. Only with the introduction of the last screwmount camera, the IIIG, and the introduction of the bayonet mount M3 did users get an integrated viewfinder and rangefinder. The rangefinder of the M (240) is the same design as the original. Over the years the viewfinder magnification and rangefinder base have changed but we are basically using a 60 year old focusing system that can create some of the sharpest images in photography. Using a rangefinder uses a different mindset and approach to photography. It’s not just the absence of autofocus. Looking through a viewfinder that doesn’t change magnification and only shows focus in a small patch in the center of the viewfinder takes some getting used to. But when adapted to this new way of seeing many feel it is a superior way to compose because the focus is more on the subject than on the camera. Some never adjust to the difference and label the Leica experience a failure. 

The top of the camera is similar to film cameras with the addition of an LCD on the left side that is a digital frame counter. There is a rotating color around the shutter button to turn the camera on and of and to set the drive mode of single or continuous advance and to engage the self timer. The shutter release button is threaded to accept a standard mechanical cable release. Some people complained when the M8 was introduced that to change the battery and SD card the bottom had to be removed like with the film cameras. Some asked why not put them behind a door on the side like other cameras. By having to change the “film” so to speak, like a film camera increases the durability of the camera by making it a very solid block of metal. The front of the camera is basically unchanged. On the left side is a small rubber cover that once removed exposes a mini USB connector for transferring images to a computer. On the back is the LCD for setting the controls for the camera and for chimping.

 

 Leica M8 Top

Leica M8 Top

Even though the Leica M8 is a digital camera it is best to approach the camera as if you are shooting film. There are few controls to change on the camera not counting the LCD back. The top of the camera has only three controls. The on - off selector, the shutter speed dial, and the mechanical shutter button. A hot shoe is in the center of the camera. If any camera could go with out a hot shoe it would be a Leica. Leica owners are notorious for their distaste of flash photography. The small LCD on the far left has a battery indicator and frame counter. Now for a little personal story. On my M8 a small bug somehow got inside my camera and made it’s way through the whole camera and made it’s way to this LCD to die there and remain wedged between the LCD and the glass. No harm to the camera but it was annoying to look at. That was one expensive bug to remove.

The back of the camera has a 2.5” 230,000 pixel TFT LCD screen. It really is low quality, Leica really cut corners here. The buttons are as follows, Menu, Play, Delete, Protect, Info, and Set. Standard types of controls are found on all digital cameras these days. The control wheel next to the display has 4 direction arrows for navigating the menus and for scrolling around the image preview. The outer wheel on this controller zooms the preview in and out. 

The front is dominated by the rangefinder running across the top of the camera. This is the most distinctive part of the camera. Only the lens release button and the manual lens preview lever are the only other objects on the front. One note about using a rangefinder. Try to shoot with both eyes open. Yes there is a small area around the viewfinder frames when looking through the camera but it is so much easier to anticipate action with both eyes open. It takes some practice to use the right eye as the dominate eye and still use your left eye to follow the scene but when mastered it opens up a whole new world to your shooting. It feels like you are in the scene not just viewing it through a little tunnel.

The bottom plate is completely removed to change the memory card and the battery. This is a hold over from the days of film and has been criticized in the days of digital as unnecessary and cumbersome. This may be true but it insures that the camera is rugged. The tripod socket is attached to the baseplate. The tripod socket does not go directly into the camera and in my opinion compromises the stability of the camera when attached to a tripod.

 Leica M8 Back

Leica M8 Back

Well here goes. As much as I enjoy shooting with this camera here is the area where the camera looses points. It’s not just because it is a cropped sensor. There are some very fine cameras out there with a cropped sensor. The 10.3 million Kodak KAF-10500 sensor that Leica sourced for the M8 is not very good. It is grainy and has very weak color fidelity. The firmware was updated many times and in my opinion they never got it right. I would get about 1 in 40 images that the color and exposure were horrible. And even though I always shoot RAW files the images were not useable. Above ISO 800 the images were unusable for any serious work. Since the camera has no IR filtering when shooting color you have to use hot mirror filters or the blacks are purple. Leica provided 2 of these filters when you purchased the camera but this was unacceptable for a camera produced in 2006. I suffered through this problem with some high end Kodak digitals in the early 90’s and this problem should not have existed in this camera. Not so much an image quality issue but I also had problems with batteries. They would suddenly go from full charge to dead in one shot. I would carry three spares and often that was not enough. The camera was sent to Leica and was found to be in spec.

 Leica M8 Bottom

Leica M8 Bottom

To sum up this review I would say that I cannot recommend the Leica M8. I just had too many problems with the camera and I finally gave up on using Leica's until the next generation. If you can find a model that is in good shape and cheap and you already own some lenses it might be worth a try. Many of the cameras foibles go away if you plan on using the camera for black and white work. Then you don’t have to mess with the special filters. Many people shot with these cameras and loved them. This is just one man’s experience. I love my Leica M (240). I have been using Leica rangefinders for 30 years and they are part of me and I wish to use no other camera for street shooting. One bad apple doesn’t turn me off on all apples.