Leica R8 Review – Leica’s Most Advanced Film Camera

Leica R8 Review – Leica’s Most Advanced Film Camera

2560 1440 James Tocchio

Let’s get it out of the way – the Leica R8 is a weird looking camera. And when I say “weird looking,” I’m being diplomatic. From the day it was unveiled at Photokina in 1996, the R8 has been maligned because of its looks, with some contemporary reporters going so far as to dub it “the Hunchback of Solms.”* What’s most informative about this nickname, however, is that it all but disappeared after these same reporters spent some time shooting and reviewing the R8. This suggests that the Leica R8, while arguably ugly, might just be an excellent camera. And though it’s definitely not perfect, and it may still look weird in 2020, and though it’s not necessarily better than the best professional-grade cameras from Canon and Nikon, the EOS-1V and Nikon’s F6, it certainly deserves a mention whenever we talk about really great 35mm SLRs.

*In 1986, Leitz changed their name to Leica and moved their manufacturing from Wetzlar to Solms, Germany – they moved back to Wetzlar in 2014.

What is the Leica R8?

Design of the Leica R8 began in 1990, with public availability finally occurring in 1996. This long design cycle was chiefly led by industrial designer Manfred Meinzer, with assistance from Alfred Hengst, and a team of designers who were largely new to Leica or pulled from outside of the camera world. This massive investment of time and resources into designing an SLR camera was a wild departure for Leica, a company which hadn’t designed their own SLR for twenty years (the R3 through R7 were much more traditional SLR cameras which Leica built around chassis provided by Minolta).

The key design goal of the R8 project was to design and build a new 35mm single lens reflex camera as if it were an entirely new type of camera product. The R8 design team aimed to shed the trappings of the past fifty years of SLR design, and differentiate the new R8 from all SLR cameras that had come before. Of tremendous focus was to create a new SLR camera body shape and to rethink traditional camera controls in order to improve the ergonomics of the SLR. Leica’s designers also sought to evoke the concise and focused design language of the brand’s flagship product, the famous Leica M rangefinder camera.

The result of these design directives is a camera that does indeed look unlike any SLR that came before it. The Leica R8 has a large, rounded body with sloping shoulders, fundamentally different from the silhouette of the typical SLR. It lacks protruding dials, lacks the innumerable buttons and switches found on Japanese cameras from the same era, and even lacks the traditional pentaprism hump that was and remains so iconic of the SLR camera design. Instead, the camera is rounded, bulbous, and almost formless in its blobularity.

But this aesthetic formlessness belies the camera’s inherent functionality. Inside, the R8 is focused on one thing – capability. It is, without question, the most advanced 35mm film SLR camera that Leica had ever made to that point in time. Aside from minor updating which occurred with the Leica R9 in 2002, it remains the most advanced and complex film camera that Leica has ever made, even today.

Specs and Features of the Leica R8

The camera body is solid and weighty, a modular chassis made of two metal body castings mated to a zinc top plate with a rubberized polycarbonate bottom plate containing a molded-in metal tripod mount. The exterior is wrapped in a texturized rubber coating which provides exceptional grip and rudimentary impact absorption.

Within this body we find the shutter, a metal-bladed vertically-traveling unit from Copal that’s capable of speeds from 32 seconds to 1/8000th of a second in automatic program mode. In manual mode we’ve got access to speeds down to 16 seconds, plus Bulb mode. Flash sync occurs at 1/250th of a second. Shutter speeds are controlled via a massive shutter speed dial which sits flush on the top plate, but proud of the front of the camera body. This is a hallmark design of the R8, and one which allows the photographer to change shutter speeds with the near effortless flick of a fingertip.

Directly below this shutter speed dial is a collar dial which controls the camera’s metering modes. These include center-weighted average metering, semi spot-metering, and a first for Leica cameras, a six-segment multi-pattern (matrix) metering. Metering sensitivity is impressive; EV-4 to EV 20 in spot metering mode, and down to EV-2 in both center-weighted average mode and multi-pattern mode. The metering system uses a parabolic-pattern Fresnel submirror behind the semi-silvered main mirror to direct the light beam to the photocell in the mirror box – you don’t need to know what this means, but you should know that it makes the mirror box of the Leica R8 (and its predecessors which use the same system) the most beautiful mirror box in all of photography. Yes, this is a ridiculous statement – but see my Leica R5 review for proof.

The full suite of exposure modes are available; aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, pre-flash exposure metering mode, and a variable automatic program mode. These are selected via a small dial on the left side of the camera, and like the shutter speed dial opposite, this dial sits with its edge slightly proud of the front of the camera.

The viewfinder is massive and bright, showing 93% of the image area. The standard focusing screen is central split-image rangefinder dot with a microprism collar and full-focusing outer field. This screen is necessary, since the Leica R8 is a manual focus only camera. Below the image area is an informative LCD display which shows enough data that we never need to remove our eye from the viewfinder to set our settings and make a shot. These data points include the selected f-stop and shutter speed, exposure mode, meter pattern, manual-metering index, flash ready information, exposure compensation amount, frame counter, and even a bracketing display.

Film advance is manual as standard, actuated with a thumb lever which advances the film and cocks the shutter. There’s a multiple-exposure mode, which is fantastic and implemented very well via a sliding tab to the right of the film advance lever. Film rewind is also manual – press the rewind button and then crank that rewind lever same as any other pre-automatic wind SLR. There’s an attachable motor drive which allows the R8 to shoot 2 or 4.5 frames per second, and enables automatic film rewind.

The back of the camera has a small LCD screen on the film door to display pertinent information, such as the frame counter, battery life, flash information, ISO selection, exposure compensation details, and more. There’s also a small door which flips open to reveal manual ISO control and self-timer functions. There’s an exposure compensation switch on the top left of the back of the camera, a diopter adjustment attached to the viewfinder, and a viewfinder blind.

The front of the camera has a depth-of-field preview switch, a flash connection socket with two modes, and a mirror pre-release selector. Next to the lens is the lens release button.

The Leica R mount, which has been in use and iterated upon since the very first Leica SLR, the Leicaflex of 1964, has once again been updated with 1996’s Leica R8. The so-called ROM contacts, eight gold-plated electrical contacts, sit just inside the R8’s lens mount and link the lens to the camera’s micro-processor-controlled circuitry. Focal length and exposure information are relayed to the camera. It’s important that only the so-called “3-cam” lenses, “R-only” lenses, or “ROM” lenses be used on the R8. Using earlier single-cam and 2-cam lenses on the R8 can damage the camera.

Shooting the Leica R8 Today

The Leica R8 was born from Leica’s pressing desire to prove that, contrary to what the photographic press had been saying for twenty years, they were a company that could innovate and create, rather than just rely on their storied past to reproduce classic designs. They really went for it too. I submit for proof – Leica developed an incredible digital module back for the R9 (which also fit the R8) which converted the camera from a film camera to a 10 megapixel digital camera – the only 35mm film camera that ever did such a thing. It’s a shame the Digital-Modul-R cost $5,950.

But getting back to the R8, Leica was certainly seeking to revolutionize the look and feel of the SLR. Whether or not they succeeded in meeting these lofty ambitions is a mixed result, and will rely greatly on the end user’s preferences. Let’s get into that.

The clumsy-looking R8 feels assured in the hands. Its strangely bulbous design fits well, and even though the camera is rather heavy, it never feels cumbersome to use or too heavy to hold. In fact, it feels incredibly solid and finely made. There’s a density to it that inspires absolute confidence. Like Nikon’s F6, which is just about the sturdiest and most tool-like SLR I’ve used, the Leica R8 feels purpose built to withstand any stresses to which the most extreme tasks of the professional photographer might subject it. It is as well-made a camera as I’ve ever experienced.

Could it be a smaller camera, and if it were, would it be a better camera? I can’t answer the first question, as I’m not an industrial designer. But truth be told, yes, I’d like the R8 better if it was a smaller camera. I don’t love large cameras, and the R8 is bigger than most. Another millimeter in any direction and I’d be writing that it’s too big. It’s that close to being outside acceptability.

Ergonomics are great. The controls fit where they should and the camera truly does offer intuitive control without having to remove the user’s eye from the viewfinder, which is big and bright and a pure joy to focus through, even with wide angle lenses which can often be a manual-focusing challenge. Do I wish it was an autofocus camera? Sometimes, when my kids won’t stop moving to take a photo or I’m using very shallow depth-of-field. And those who hate manual focusing won’t come around because of this camera. If that’s you, give up on Leica SLRs.

In any exposure mode, the camera does what it’s supposed to do. In aperture priority semi-auto, my preferred shooting mode, it’s a matter of focus-and-shoot. The metering system does the work of exposure, and it does it perfectly. I’ve never made a photo that’s under- or over-exposed with my Leica R8 in any of the camera’s semi-automatic or fully automatic shooting modes. Like the most famously successful products of all time – it just works.

The lack of motorized film transport hampers the otherwise high-end feeling which the R8 exudes. Holding and firing the camera puts one in the mindset of using something like the previously-mentioned Nikon F6, a truly pro-spec SLR. But it’s jarring to have that feeling of capability and quality interrupted by a need to manually crank an advance lever. It doesn’t kill the experience for me, and the film advance action is mechanically smooth and delightful, but it does remind me that even when Leica takes a leap into the future they seem to keep one foot in the past. Sure, we can add the motor drive, but it turns an already big camera into a truly massive one, and that’s just too much weight for me.

Because there are so many other cameras that do everything the R8 does, the greatest reason to use an R8 is to use its native Leica lenses. R mount optics are simply superb. Incredibly well-made and dripping with character, there’s an R mount lens to fit every need, though they can be pricey. My time with the Super Angulon R 21mm and the standard Summicron 50mm have turned me into a devoted R mount acolyte. I love them.

[Shots in the samples gallery above were made around my home and at the local beach with Ilford HP5 and Ilford Delta 100 film.]

Final Thoughts on the Leica R8

The Leica R8 is, in short, a world class SLR. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best SLR ever made. And when something sets out to revolutionize, being merely evolutionary isn’t quite enough. The Leica R8 is an amazing 35mm SLR camera, but it didn’t change the world and it’s probably not going to change the world of any photographer who buys one today.

It’s easy to find fault with it, especially when we compare it to the best of Japanese SLRs. It’s not inexpensive – a good copy will cost around $500. Its exposure compensation switch is a bit annoying to use. It’s a large and heavy camera. Its lack of autofocus and automatic film advance can make it feel slow and primitive at times. And though it fits in the hands better than its visual signature would lead one to believe, it doesn’t fit significantly better than a Canon EOS SLR or a Nikon F series, or better than even a more consumer-level camera like the Minolta a7.

The Leica R8 is a beautiful and exceptionally well-equipped camera. I love shooting it. I love the images it makes and how easily it makes them. That’s enough for me to own one, but it may not be enough for everyone. The decision is up to you.

Get your own Leica R8 on eBay

Get a Leica R8 from our camera shop, F Stop Cameras

Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
23 comments
  • I always liked the R8. Funky design, but letting people know there are other designs that will work. I used one for a weekend back when they first came out. It was hard to classify; pro, yes. Working press, no. I could see this camera in the hands of architects, designers, or specialized photographers (motor sports, scientific applications, etc.)

    • Yeah, I think the lack of AF in 1996 and a built-in motor drive made it a hard sell for real working photo pros compared to what Canon and Nikon could offer at the time. Best camera in the world? No. Best camera Leica had yet made? Probably.

  • Lovely photographs, they are precise and sharp, but they look humane; maybe is an exaggeration but I feel the digital corrected lenses of today give photographs closer to the technical precision of computers (which of course is a legitimate preference) than our natural way to see. And in this case I have to add that I would prefer this Leica SLR than to a rangefinder, I have had not rangefinders in my experience but I know they are not the ideal tool for macros or tele lenses, and besides I notice they mostly have their compositions in the center of the frame.
    I have a compact film camera, the Samsung ECX-1, fortunately Leica didn’t hire the same design team as them xD (Samsung got Porsche) For a compact camera is quite big, but somehow I feel they wanted to design something similar, a shape so unfamiliar that you would think in it as a novelty, but there is not many things to change in essence.

  • Avatar
    leicalibrararian March 23, 2020 at 4:21 am

    I will be taking my R9 with a 28-70 Vario Elmar out for a walk today (maintaining social distancing of course), with my last roll of Precisia CT100 reversal in it. I may take my Leicaflex SL2 as well with a 21/4 Super Angulon and FP4 as well. Using the R9 (or R8) is a bit like driving a high quality vintage car. There is always the frisson of fear, that some vital and irreplaceable part will break and turn a wonderful mechanical triumph into a large useless lump of metal. Leica sold off all the R8/9 spare parts to Arsenal Photo, who don’t even respond to emails or messaging asking for spares. There is no repair service other than what a competent camera repairer might be able to achieve without spares (light seals etc).

    Due to an uncooperative right thumb, I use the R8/9 motor-winder. Its batteries also power the camera, as it replaces the battery containing hand grip. The smaller motor winder uses regular non-rechargeable CR123A lithium manganese batteries rather than the NiCad/NiMH batteries of the battery pack, for the much larger and faster motor drive.

    NB -Important – do not use rechargeable RCR123A lithium ion batteries (Nitecore etc) with the R8/9 motor winder. Their freshly charged voltage is considerably higher than lithium manganese batteries and their internal resistance is lower. They will overdrive the motor to the point it will either burn out the motor or shear the quite slim drive spindle in the camera body = dead camera.

    I have just bought a Leica 100mm/f2.8 APO Macro-Elmarit with the ELPRO 1:1 close-up attachment from New Zealand, to use with my R cameras and later Leica digitals. It is the final ROM version, so sadly not usable with my Leicaflex SL2. These are wonderful lenses and much in demand from videographers, which pushes their price up, like the R mount Summilux lenses. Paepke in Germany can convert them to PL mount and de-click the aperture ring but for an eye-watering fee.

  • I bought my R8, body only, at an old school auction last week. Have added a couple of lenses, but didn’t realise that 2 cam can’t be used, so thanks for the heads up. Bought a 28-70 ROM Vario-Elmar yesterday at a knock down price from Park Cameras. Have several rolls of black and white film on their way in the post from Analogue Wonderland. Home developing all set and ready to go. We’ve got bright sunny days in the southern England for the next few days, so no excuses. Looking forward to trying this beast out….

  • Most of the lecia R camera are made by Minolta, and most digital camera are made by panasonic

    • Avatar
      leicalibrararian March 23, 2020 at 9:02 am

      The earlier R cameras use a chassis from Minolta but the actual cameras were made in Leica’s Portugal factory with final assembly work and testing in Wetzlar. The R8 and 9 do not use any Minolta components and used the metalwork and components from Portugal with assembly and testing in Solms. It is only the point and shoot digital Leica cameras that are made by Panasonic. The M, SL, CL, T, X, S and Q cameras are all made in Germany but using metal components made in Portugal. The CL and T lenses are made in Japan by an undisclosed maker. Leica buy in their sensors from various sources.

      Wilson

      • All right, as usual Wilson! And I should add that some R cameras prior to the R8 were also made in Solms, like the late-80s R5. This seems to correlate to the name change and factory shift to Solms.

  • The R8 kinda reminds me of the original Leicaflex, an ungainly looking beast that was, nevertheless, of the highest build quality and surprisingly fun to use, despite its retro metering and focusing mechanisms. It had just about the best shutter release I have ever experienced, before or since. And, it was, I think, made entirely in Germany. If it was a car, it would have been the old Volvo I was driving at the time.

  • I own this camera and bought it about 20 years ago when I moved to NY. Working as a documentary photographer then I just wanted to keep the images in the same family of glass (having been used to my Leica M set up) but increasingly I wanted to the perceived precision of an sir for my framing. I saw so many peers jump from Leica M’s to Nikon F3’s (or some other equivalent) especially the conflict photography folks I was milling around with, but the results disappointed me. I owned a 50 mm summilux and a 35mm R lens. I wanted desperately to love them, as like you, I loved the handling and promise of the R8, but wide open and in low light the results were largely unusable. Very soft focus or back focused entirely, and stopped down, well, who cares? I could use some thing else cheaper and sharper. But I certainly couldn’t mix it with the Leica M images I had, as I hoped. Perhaps my fault. What I wanted was and SLR with Leica M results. A longwinded way of saying I really appreciate your write up because I never got rid of the camera, as I still want to love it, and so appreciated someone else revisiting this camera years later so thoughtfully. In any event, I have a question or two: given that the fault of the camera wide open may be something I could get fixed, do you recommend anyone who can do it today cheaply and rigorously? Also, these cameras famously went wrong with the LCD screen kicks out as the camera ages – any experience with that or again solutions related to the first question. My feeling that I may have been doing some thing wrong was prompted by your lovely images with the 21mm lens – really terrific stuff. But your 50mm bordered on the kind of softness I remember in my own shots. Thank you again for this site and these welcome conversations. Going to dust the R8 off now…

  • Great piece. I take issue with the statement that the R8/R9 looked like nothing else. My glorious Zenit 212K looks uncannily like my Leica R8 and R9, and yet came out 2 years before the R8! Did Leica get inspiration from Zenit?
    You be the judge, here are mine together:

    https://flic.kr/p/RXXzjk

    https://flic.kr/p/TBzQPY

    I think my R8/9 are better cameras than my F6 if valued as manual focus cameras. They are so intuitive to use with minimal dials/knobs/buttons to push. Leica’s decision to have the meter pattern switch around the shutter speed dial (something they have done since the R4? It has it on my R-E and R7) is perfect. No need to move the camera from eye while changing meter modes. On the F6 you need to flip a switch on the prism.
    One issue I have with the R8/9 is that it should have a separate on/off switch. As is, you need to turn the mode dial all the way from what your setting was to OFF. Which means every time you turn it back on, you need to then keep turning the dial to where you had last set it. The R9 introduced a lock on that dial, but all that does is prevent you from inadvertently changing the setting. I actually prefer it w/o the lock.

    The R8/9 does have the absolute best flash metering system I have ever used. Better than that on the F6. With a ROM lens and dedicated flash like an SF24, it is insane how it balances fill in light perfectly. Here is an example – back lit model where she is exposed correctly and the camera keeps the outside scene exposed correctly too. SF 24 flashes can be had pretty cheap on the used market too..

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/39133227@N08/7iu15j

    Take care and stay healthy!

    Kind regards
    Huss

    • The Zenit is an ugly ass Russian hag that looks nothing like the R8.
      They both use film. There’s where the similarities end.

  • I had one and sold it because it was too beefy (and not beefy like an eos1 or a f5) – kept the 50 summicron and hope to get an r6 to replace it.
    The dubious long term reliability of the electronics (r8s have a reputation, r9s are better but $$$) also scared me. For such a large camera, the film door felt a tad flimsy and it wasn’t even 100% viewfinder coverage

  • Great review.
    The Leica R8 is very beautiful camera. Certainly the most beautiful design ever made for a camera !
    By the way, I prefer the M system and M lenses.
    For me, to have the top lens it is better to have Zeiss Contax lens with a Contax S2, because Contax was not very good for electronics to keep very long time like Leica. Nikon has made far better cameras still could be serviced and the Nikon lens are not far the quality of both Leica and Zeiss and can have special modern Zeiss lens ZE !!! So, Nikon is a very better choice. To own a very beautiful camera the R8 is the winner but not to keep very long time without any problems !!! Considering the very marginal add value of Leica R lens rendering, the difficulty to service a Contax (Only the S2), I prefer Nikon : of course the F6 as equivalent of R8 or a FM3a. Nikon lens as His lens such 28/2’8, 50 mm, Micro 55/2’8, 85/1’4, 105/2’5, … are nearly as good as Zeiss and better than a Leica R in my point of view.
    Like the way you write and agree with you, but just own for beauty !

  • I am so tempted to get myself the R8. I have the R4s MOD-P, I bought your R5 after reading your review. I have the R6 and R7. This article temps me more! You are dangerous to my bank account!

    • Avatar
      Stefan Staudenmaier March 24, 2020 at 8:38 am

      It is a trap to read anything here – so take care !

      Back to topic I think that in my opinion the Leica R8/9 are the best pick
      if you need a durable pro multiautomatic camera.
      They kick ass with any Leica R camera build before except the fully mechanical
      Leicaflex SL 2 which is for me a class of its own !

  • Avatar
    Stefan Staudenmaier March 24, 2020 at 8:44 am

    I forgot to mention something about the size (does matter just ask your girlfriend)
    of the Leica R8.
    If you love to use lenses above 135mm for portraits the Leica R8 is beautiful balanced.
    The Elmarit R 4,0/80-200 was released at the same time and is maybe the best zoom
    Lens I ever tested and highly recommend to get if you have the money !

  • Avatar
    Per Kristoffersson March 24, 2020 at 12:29 pm

    It’s an interesting and fairly unique design. Is it just me or does it seem like the Sony designers took inspiration from this when designing the A77/A99?
    Either way, as much as I really couldn’t understand why anyone would buy one back when they were new (that expensive and MF only, come on) these days I could see myself owning one some day. Not having AF and tons of features in a film camera makes a lot more sense now that I have digital cameras for all the stuff for which such functions are needed.

  • I have thought about buying a leica r8 on and off for 3 or 4 years. One thing that intrigues me is the fact that it is a more modern camera with a manual crank. the biggest reason I never use my f4, f5, and sold my Eos 1v, and 1 is that they are sooooooo incredibly loud! I am not a fan of motored film advance. I like taking a lot of candid people in the moment photos and the loud film advance on automatic film advance cameras really errrks me. I also have never been a autofocus guy, its just not for me. I think the R8 could be a good fit. I have been using a meter less nikon f2 and leica m4 exclusively for about 2 years now (brief stent with a leica m9). Now I am feeling the want of some automation. Who knows this might be the ticket. Certainly cheeper than a leica m7!

    • Avatar
      Stefan Staudenmaier April 1, 2020 at 2:25 am

      Believe me – the Leica M series is much much overrated.
      I own, used and worked with models from Leica M3 DS up to Leica M6
      and had more problems and issues than with any other brand.
      So they are not „build forever“or „indestructible“ or „in the hands of the best“
      unfortunately to many amateurs own them and collectors spoil the prices.

      Don’t get me wrong they are beautiful made cameras with a variety of awesome lenses,
      but you have to use them with great discipline to get the results you would call outstanding.
      I know a lot of idiots running around with very expensive gear and complain about lens flare
      ignoring my advice to use a lens shade or use a hand to cover the glas in some situations.

      What sense does it make to buy a fast lens on a accurate rangefinder and use zone focusing
      and f16 at pushed Film ?

      Sorry for getting off topic…..

  • The Pentax MZ-S is another camera that set out to break the mould – and ended up with a shape a little reminiscent of the R8/9. The biggest design differences are that the top slants back towards the user, so it can be seen equally well from above or from behind, that there’s a more conventional ‘grip’ for the right hand, and that the battery grip – unlike the R8/9’s winder or motordrive – provides a really good vertical grip. In fact the battery grip is probably the best I’ve ever encountered.

    Of course, the MZ-S is also an AF camera with a built in winder… 😉

  • Isn’t the lens picture here one of the older (1-cam) ones that can supposedly damage an R8?

Leave a Reply

James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio