Looking at Leica

Some years back, I decided that if Leica ever made a digital camera for its M lenses, I would buy one or two for my professional work. A compact digital rangefinder with great lenses is a very attractive concept.  However, when Leica finally introduced it’s digital M8 late in 2006, I put that decision on hold due to various issues:

  • modest high ISO performance (compared with Canon and now Nikon) from a Kodak sensor
  • menu-based exposure compensation and ISO settings (slow)
  • modest battery life (about 250-500 shots)
  • inaccurate frame lines (10-20% off depending on lens and shooting distance)
  • louder than other M-series cameras
  • memory card and battery accessed by removing camera bottom (yes, this is an issue)
  • each lens requires an IR-cut filter for color work
  • occasional light streaking from point sources of light
  • occasional problem with moire (ripples) in images
  • no f/1.4 wide angle lenses (35/1.4 is effectively a 46mm normal lens)
  • just one f/2.0 wide angle lens (the very pricey 28/2.0, currently $3600) (Zeiss offers nothing comparable, and the inexpensive Cosina Voigtlander 28/1.9 screw mount is now discontinued)
  • modest speed of memory buffer
  • slippery body covering and non-grippy shape (the classic M shape is delightfully suited to the transport of film, but the M8’s lack of a wind lever makes it slightly awkward to hold)
  • power switch is too easily switched off by accident
  • inaccurate auto white balance (apparently fixed with the last firmware update)

Some of the initial batch of cameras also suffered from a serious “sudden death syndrome” (SDS) which required a one or two month trip for repair in Germany.

I know there are photographers (amateur and pro) happily using their M8s despite these issues, sometimes along with DSLRs. At least a few are producing beautiful work. For me, the list of issues was consistent with a first generation product still in need of many refinements. I was reminded of the Canon D30 and 1D, remarkable products at one time, but not nearly as good as subsequent generations of those cameras.

While I haven’t completely ruled out the M8, I’m optimistic that the next version of this camera (and perhaps a new lens or two) will address most of these issues. Leica has already announced the availability of a quieter shutter. A recent interview with the owner and CEO indicates that the company is in good hands.

Update, June 30, 2008: After an M8 “test drive” I can say that few of these issues would be significant if I were committed to using a rangefinder.  None of them is a dealbreaker by itself, and some of them are truly minor. The frame lines, for example, are inaccurate but predictably so; you quickly learn to compensate. The power switch was pretty firm on my test camera.  White balance was good.  The IR-cut filters are hardly noticeable. I didn’t see any moire or light streaks. The loudness was perfectly acceptable. I still wish there were a quicker way to adjust exposure compensation, preferably without having to remove the camera from the eye.

Selling your Leica (link)