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.
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.
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