Leica M8 with 35mm f/2.5 Summarit lens (probably at 2.8), 1/500 second, ISO 320
In theory, the Leica M8 should suit my style well: a discrete, high quality camera with rangefinder viewing to see the exact moment of exposure and to see outside of the frame. So I’ve kept track of developments in the digital rangefinder world. (My previous experience with rangefinders is limited to a large Fuji 670 medium format camera which I used occasionally for a number of years.)
I eagerly borrowed an M8 with 35mm and 75mm Summarit lenses under Leica’s “test drive” program. I played with it over the course of two days and have summarized my notes about the camera and what I might look for in a future digital rangefinder:
1. Image quality: generally excellent. The 35mm and 75mm Summarit lenses (included in the test drive) offer superb sharpness and bokeh. My quick and subjective pixel-peeping suggests that, at lower ISO’s, the M8 offers resolution comparable to the excellent Canon 5D (with Canon’s best prime lenses).
2. High ISO: adequate but not thrilling.
3. Ergonomics: the smallness of the camera and lenses is delightful. This is a big selling point, in my opinion. The body is attractive, but could be more ergonomic. Its shape seems to be firmly rooted in the film era — it almost says “there’s a roll of film in here!” Removing the baseplate is a nuisance. It’s fine for leisure photography, but would be annoying in a fast-moving work environment. The power switch was firm enough that it never accidentally switched off.
4. Exposure and metering: exposure compensation via the menu is quick but not quick enough. Canon does this right. Exposure lock works well with a half press of the shutter button and has a helpful lock indicator in the viewfinder. Light metering is basic but good.
5. Viewfinder: I wish it provided more information. I grew up using manual focus cameras with basic viewfinders. But modern cameras provide much more info, such as aperture, ISO and exposure compensation. It’s difficult to go back to having less. When metering manually, I would like to know how many stops away I am from the recommended exposure. Also, the viewfinder is not very friendly for eyeglasses. I can comfortably see the 35mm framelines (~50mm field of view), and I can just barely see the 28mm (~35mm field of view) framelines. Based on a brief comparison, the Zeiss Ikon viewfinder looks a little better.
6. Focusing: manual focus takes some getting used to, and is a serious challenge with moving subjects. The Zeiss Ikon, with its longer rangefinder baseline, is a little easier to focus. Being limited to center-point focusing can result in focusing errors when recomposing. When I consider how many photographs I make at a wedding, and how often I photograph moving subjects or off-center subjects using wider apertures, I truly appreciate good, fast autofocus on DSLRs.
7. Color and automatic white balance: usually very good (using the supplied UV/IR filters).
8. Raw files: nicely sharp. Photo Mechanic preferences have to be set to “Render RAW for preview if possible”; otherwise full-screen previews appear jaggy.
9. Shutter: I’m used to DSLR sounds, so the M8’s shutter release and winding noises seemed quite acceptable. I didn’t do any fast shooting, so I’m not sure whether the frame rate or memory buffer would be a problem.
After a bit of practice, I made some very good photos with the little M8. The test drive helped me appreciate why some people love this camera and why there was a large, eager first wave of buyers. High quality in a small package is a big deal. I didn’t encounter any glitches. The main limitations are those already well-known to rangefinder users (no convenient way to shoot very close-up subjects or with longer telephotos).
I liked it a lot, but not enough to make the large investment right now. I’ll eagerly watch for future developments. I do hope that Leica will update some aspects of its design and perhaps introduce a lower cost model as an entry to its great lenses. A digital Zeiss Ikon would be intriguing as well.
I arranged the test drive from the friendly and knowledgeable folks at Bergen County Camera in Westwood, NJ. They’ve been serving expert and novice Leicaphiles since 1980.
2010 Addendum: Please see my review of the Leica M9 at this link.