Debuting in 2006, the Leica M8 is now a teenager. But since digital technology ages faster than dog years it’s probably more accurate to call it a senior citizen. Thankfully, as with all Leica M’s, the Leica M8 is a solid, classically styled, well-engineered camera that is built to last (or at least well enough to warrant repairing).
Despite being Leica’s first digital M, the M8 is eclipsed by its successor, the M9 – the world’s first full-frame digital rangefinder. The M9 may have a bigger sensor, but it’s also got a sensor that’s prone to corrosion. Years after its release, Leica officially acknowledged the problem and offered a free repair or optional camera trade-in program for all affected cameras. This design failure was not without precedent. Just as it set the mold for the M9 as a camera, the M8 also provided a trial run for a design debacle.
The Infrared Issue
Cameras predictably depreciate with time, but in the case of the M8, its decline is mainly attributable to one design decision. Developers erred on the side of sharpness by putting less filtering in front of the sensor, and while this contributed to the M8 being able to punch way above its weight in terms of resolution, it also left images vulnerable to infrared light pollution. The effect is most pronounced in dark fabrics and green foliage, which show up with a light purple and unnatural yellow-brown cast, respectively.
Leica Camera AG did not issue a recall. Instead they offered a band-aid solution of providing all M8 owners with two free IR/UV screw-on lens filters and rushed the release of the M8.2 (in lieu of an M8-P, presumably).
Ten years on, I was actually able to take advantage of the offer despite being a secondary owner who paid $0 to a Leica dealer. I received two Leica branded filters in the mail by providing little more than my contact information and the camera’s serial number.
The photography community still views the Leica M8 with infrared-tinted glasses. Ultimately, your decision to purchase or not depends on whether or not you think the inconvenience of affixing a free, top quality lens filter is worth paying thousands of dollars less for a Leica rangefinder. In all honesty, I’ve been very happy with mine despite the occasional filter-induced lens flare.
Cost & Value
Leica M bodies tend to bottom out in price a few years after their release and hold their value thereafter. That makes a second-hand purchase a pretty safe place to park your money for a while. This, of course, assumes you are liquid enough in the first place. And that is what makes the M8 so enticing – it is the “affordable” digital Leica M. At the time of this writing, a decent example of this beautiful block of German engineering can be easily found on eBay for under $2,000 USD. And it’s not rare to find a few under $1,600.
Understandably, some will balk at a four figure price tag attached to a fourteen year old, manual focus, 10 megapixel, 2500 maximum ISO camera with a CCD sensor, no live view, and a faulty design. Those people have a point, but they’re also missing another; the user experience and final product are what truly matters, and in both cases the M8 delivers.
DNG files from the M8’s 10MP APS-H (2/3rds full-frame, 1.33x crop factor) CCD sensor are sharp and detailed. There is a unique digital ‘grain’ to this sensor that is pleasantly reminiscent of film.
Apparently the output from the M8 was modeled on Kodachrome slide film. Thorsten Overgaard has written about this and claims to have heard it directly from Stefan Daniel, Leica Camera’s division head of product management, during a briefing at the annual meeting of the LHSA in 2010. Whether this applies to the raw or jpeg output is unclear, but I find the comparison compelling. I tend to use the M8 as if it is loaded with a roll of 160 ISO slide film, and that, I believe, is the key to understanding this camera.
Imagine that the Leica M8 is a less expensive Leica M7 with an unending roll of Kodachrome with a built-in digital scanner. The removable bottom plate will help with this illusion. This may not be as much of a stretch as you think, as the M8 is a bridge between film and digital imaging. Being both modern and antiquated makes the M8 somewhat timeless, and in a market where obsolescence is the rule, any relevance this 14 year old camera enjoys today has to have something to do with quality.
Even the sensor’s dynamic range is just a few stops more than a typical slide film, providing a precedent for how to expose for best results (i.e. expose for highlights).
As with film, you can push exposure in-camera (change ISO setting), or in post-processing (Lightroom). I recommend leaving the camera at base ISO in all but the lowest light. If you prefer a more mid-tone exposure, there is plenty of detail in the shadows waiting to be revealed, and an image exposed this way will still have contrast and dynamic range when pushed. Conversely, there is nothing waiting for you in the blown highlights of an overexposed raw file but a white abyss. Beware.
The Leica M8 lacks a dedicated ISO button, which is unfortunate for someone like me, who dislikes menus. Thankfully I find accessing and changing ISO mercifully simple. ISO is at the top of the ‘set’ menu, so it takes only two depressions of the ‘set’ button, a turn of the dial, and another ‘set’, and done.
The highest ISO setting on the M8 is 2500, which produces an insurmountable amount of noise, especially so in color. The only purpose I can see for this high ISO setting is if you are invoking noise for aesthetic purposes. Auto ISO is available, and we can set the Max ISO allowable (this should always be set to 640).
As a final note on ISO and low light performance, it’s important to keep in mind that for decades Leica has designed cameras to compensate for low light with faster lenses, and that film stocks had top ISOs of 3200, maybe 6400. This is why there are f/1.4 Summiluxes, and f/1.0 or f/0.95 Noctiluxes. These days there are also (much) more affordable Voigtlander or 7Artisans equivalents to mount on your M. These fast lenses do the same job on this first digital M – they bring in enough light to save us from the camera’s poor high ISO performance.
Like the film model that preceded it, the M8 offers manual and aperture priority exposure modes. In Aperture priority mode, the viewfinder displays the shutter speed with two stacked red dots. The upper dot indicates exposure lock, and the lower one I functionally ignore, but I believe indicates exposure compensation.
Conveniently, you can set the lowest allowable shutter speed in settings. There is also a ‘lens dependent’ setting option, should your lenses have 6 bit coding, but most do not. I find I can get away with as low as 1/15th handheld with my 35mm by wrapping the camera strap around my elbow.
The Leica M8’s center-weighted metering fares quite well, but tends toward overexposure in bright, high contrast settings. When using Aperture Priority you will want to dial in some compensation. I prefer to just shoot in manual, because it’s easier to turn the shutter speed dial than go into the menu. The way exposure comp is hidden away makes it an obvious afterthought, and remembering to reset it takes a level of discipline that I lack.
Manual exposure is adjusted the same way as on every Leica M; with an external shutter speed dial and an aperture ring on the lens. In this mode the viewfinder displays an LED dot indicating accurate exposure, bookended by a left arrow to indicate underexposure and a right arrow for overexposure. Coming from the viewfinders of modern cameras that display more information than a cable news feed, this is positively minimalist. Anyone familiar with a Leica M6 will feel right at home.
It is not possible to display the lens aperture in the viewfinder, as there is no CPU on M-mount lenses to transmit this information to the camera. You are given an estimated aperture setting in the photo metadata that is calculated by cross-referencing data from a light sensor on the center-front of the camera with the recorded shutter speed. This system is reliably inaccurate.
The Rangefinder Experience
Having used a full-featured Fuji XT-2 side by side with the M8, the ‘hit-rate’ in terms of focus and usable images from either camera really depends on the day, not the device. Even image resolution is comparable, despite the disparity in megapixel count. The difference in user experience, however, is striking.
Someone wiser than me said that computers may be smarter than people, but they have yet to make one that can read my mind. AUTO doesn’t always do what I want, when I want it, and those two things are central to the act of photography. I would gladly trade 100% of the sharp moments that I didn’t want for even one of the blurry ones that I did want. That is why I tend to prefer manual control , and a camera that is designed to be controlled manually. Enter the Leica M8.
I have young children, so I do sometimes wish that I had autofocus when one of my hands is occupied by a stroller or child. Incidentally, I am working on a circus act of one-handed, waist level shooting with the M8 using zone focusing while moving the focus tab on the 35 Summicron with the tip of my index finger and using my thumb to depress the shutter. This may sound awkward, but in this position the throw of the focus tab on the 35 allows all but the closest focal distance. Notably, while operating the camera this way, I am still aware of shutter speed, aperture and focal distance while looking at the top of the camera.
Random, But Not Insignificant Thoughts
Each M8 DNG file is 10.6 MB, or approximately 1% of a gigabyte. This gives you about 100 raw files per gigabyte of storage! JPEGs exported from your editing software will be even more compact. With the sheer volume of digital files involved in practical digital photography, there is a lot to be said for efficiency, and the M8 has a very respectable quality to MB ratio, which is a non-scientific term that I just invented.
The back screen has not aged well. It is effective for checking exposure and sharpness, and little else. Save your photo viewing for your laptop or tablet.
This camera is not made for continuous shooting. The buffer can get easily overwhelmed to the point of a full camera lockup requiring not just a restart, but also a battery pull. This involves removing the bottom plate. My M8 and I have come to an understanding; I have learned to respect its limits, and it hasn’t shut down on me in years.
The Leica M8’s shutter sound is pleasant enough, but also aggressive. Discreet mode attempts to compensate for this by relegating the clunk of the shutter to the depress of the button, and the whir of the wind to the release. Both stages are loud. The tension on the shutter seems ratcheted so high that I can almost feel the camera jerk when depressing. I can’t remember ever feeling this way about the mirror slap on an SLR.
Occasionally the M8 will produce banding on the image in low light. This is subtle, unlike the dreaded translucent green stripe that sometimes appears across the image. This occurs randomly about once or twice a year, in my experience. I can’t say that I’ve ever had it ruin an important image, but it’s not possible to guarantee it won’t.
The Leica M8 is the only M to have an external shot countdown window. It only has three digits, so is now functionally useless in the era of massive SD cards. More than anything, it offers an ever-present allegory for the evolution of technology. When you combine the M8’s scant 10MB files with modern SD card capacities, you can safely assume that the only number you will ever see in this hot countdown LCD is “999.”
Far too often, the back buttons and dial (not the shutter) do not respond upon first depress. This type of feedback response is not what one expects from a luxury camera brand.
I consider an external grip of some sort essential to the ergonomics of this camera. I use a “Thumbs Up” and find that it makes the camera feel right in my hand.
I recently spent a great afternoon with the kids on the back deck on a beautiful, sunny day. The three of them playing with bubbles in high contrast lighting was a dynamic scene too good to pass up, so I grabbed the M8, set it to hyperfocal distance, exposed for the highlights using manual exposure, and played for an hour.
That got me thinking back to my first week with my Leica M8; I was so excited, but also having serious doubts as I adjusted to a new way of shooting and ‘seeing’. Now it just feels like an old friend.
Even though the M8 is considered ancient by digital standards, it has a classic look and feel. It’s mostly well designed and entirely well built, and intended to last a lifetime. It is rooted in a long and storied tradition, proudly wearing its limitations as its merits. If you want to get into the digital M system, the Leica M8 provides the best option at a very attractive price point.
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