M8 part 4: silver (M7) versus silicon (M8)
The Leica brand name has a strong iconic value: Leica was the first practical 35mm camera, and was quickly developed into the best precision miniature rangefinder camera of the photographic world. Leica has always been dedicated to the rangefinder concept and the typical style of photography that is possible with this instrument. The Leica rangefinder camera has its band of loyal followers who strongly advocate its virtues and possibilities. Any high profile product will also be criticized and there are at least as many Leica bashers as there are Leica devotees. The discussion between these groups sometimes looks like the culture wars we are experiencing in this first decade of the 21 century.
The current digital transformation of the photographic image and the method of recording pictures has profound implications for the future of photography. Photography has strong instrumental roots and for many camera users this aspect is the main focus of interest. This was the case in 1950 when the 35mm camera entered its first golden age. It was the heyday of magazines like Modern Photography, that explained the technicalities of photography to an eager public. Users of rollfilm cameras were not taken seriously and every self-respecting photo amateur wanted a 35mm reflex camera. This was the period of the great debates about the superiority of German lenses and engineering and of SLR versus RF and of Japan versus Germany as the best camera manufacturers. We have a rehearsal of that period now with the digitalization of photography, boosted by the ubiquitous and cheap use of the computer.
In the debate about finding the best Raw converter, you can see the shadows of the classical debate about the best film developer. In the war of the words about all technicalities of the digital way of image recording and manipulation there seems to be one victim: the simple joy of using a fine instrument to get the images you want. Use the M8 and experience the ease of handling and the advantages of the immediate feedback you get from digital capture. With film you do not have that large array of software to manipulate your images. The method of recording an image in layers of silver halide grain is pure and honest and lets you focus on the act of capturing the image.
The main advantage of the M8 is its integration in the world of M-photography and its easy migration path from film to digital while keeping the basic spirit of the Leica M camera line.
Then it is natural to inquire about the co-existence of both recording methods within the M world. And it is also of some interest to analyze the performance of current film technology versus the capabilities of the M8. All negatives have been set to TIFF in Photoshop with smart sharpening at 25% and radius 2.1.
Kodak Portra 160.
For the first test I used the newest version of Kodak's Portra film in NC and VC versions. The speed of ISO 160 happens to be the same as what you find in the M8 as basic sensitivity. The negatives were scanned with the Nikon Coolscan V ED at 4000 ppi. The files (in TIFF format) have a size of 70 Mb, compared with the 30 Mb we get from the M8 files also in TIFF. The area of the M8 sensor is 0.56 the size of the negative area of the M7. The same lens (2/75) has been used and the same model too.
Below: Kodak Portra: Bootom M8 at ISO 160
The Coolscan cannot record every detail that the emulsion is capable of capturing, but that is not that important as I intend to show the main differences. In addition the sizes of the pictures differ by the 0.56 factor, but I did compensate for this difference in scale, but not fully.
The Kodak film has excellent color reproduction and a very large total scale. The grain is amazingly fine for a speed that once was considered high. Comparison with the digital image show clearly two main differences: the grain pattern which gives a more natural look to the picture and the lower level of detail definition. The M8 image is sharper, shows more detail in the eye, but some would say that the skin is too plastic, because of the smoothness.
Spur Orthopan UR
This is a modern BW film, made in a country close to the Netherlands. It has a monodisperse emulsion with outstandingly fine grain and high contrast. The Spur developer adds some acutance as can be seen easily form the example. This film cannot hide its heritage as a microfilm, but the tonality is very good, if not as smooth as the Kodak.
Definition of detail is excellent and captures more detail that does the M8. The additional detail in the iris of the eye.
A second example (a very small section of the full image showing some cloth texture) indicates that a suitable film can capture more detail with the same lens that is possible with the sensor of the M8. The film has a limited appeal (ISO20 and relatively steep contrast), but it is extremely easy to work with. A full development cycle (pour developer in tank to final rinse with water) is about 10 minutes. The digital image heas been exposed to extreme posytprocessing and then the difference with the picture captured on film is less visible. But remember: here I have extracted every detail form the file: the overall picture would not be acceptable.
The high performance of the M8 is amazing, if one considers the relatively small sensor area of 18 x 27mm compared to the classical 35mm format of 24 x 36mm. It is questionable if one needs more image quality when the goal is an eye catching A3 picture on the wall.
If have reported very often that the quest for the ultimate image quality is like searching for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: it is tantalizingly close, but it will escape you forever. Most Leica M users operate their camera handheld: that is the best recipe for image degradation. Even at shutter speeds above 1/1000, that the M8 allows, there is the real problem of exact focusing.
Best imagery you can get when you photograph on tripod, with flash and a stationary subject in order to focus accurately and make a focus range. In all other situations, the basic M8 image quality will be higher than what is possible based on the imperfections of the human operator.
Let us have no false illusions. The M camera has always been an instrument that operates perfectly within quite narrow borders. The popularity of the (D)SLR is based on its broad use in all situations. The M8 follows the M-tradition of being perfect with a small footprint. With the M8 you can exploit the characteristics of the Leica lenses without the usual compromises. The sensor has a resolution limit and then the M7/MP take over and give you when loaded with suitable film the best imagery that is possible with 35mm photography.
My view is this: the image quality that the M8 delivers and the sheer joy of using the M camera, is the best argument to select the M8 as the main camera. (I sold my 5D). And the M7/MP stay in my bag loaded with Spur Orthopan and slide film (Velvia 50) when I need or want the ultimate performance of the Leica lenses.In the next installment I will analyze the performance of the M8 with a range of Leica and Zeiss lenses. The results will be surprising!