Leica M8: a small step for mankind, but a big step for Leica
On the surface the M8 offers the design elements and the operative characteristics of the current M-line. A 10Mp CCD-chip inside the body captures and transforms the images projected by the lens onto the sensor area in image files that can be manipulated by a suite of software programs. The development team has been quite successful in the transmutation of the film-loading M7 into the CCD-based M8.
Staying as close as possible to the M-concept sets limits and brings opportunities.
You cannot pack a host of features into a compact body and it would violate the underlying design principles that have been the guideline for every M-model since 1954. The Leica M3 was designed as a camera with full manual control of the main photographic parameters (focus of the lens and exposure setting by selecting a combination of shutter speed and aperture). These controls had to be laid-out as intuitively as possible. The photographic style that has become possible with the M-camera is rooted in the seamless integration of the camera with the mind-hand-eye coordination necessary for creative and spontaneous imagery. The Leica designers assumed with reason that photography is primarily a mental process with the camera an unobtrusive part of that process.
The Leica camera has always been designed as a precision tool. This designation is usually interpreted as referring to the technical and manufacturing aspects of the camera. But is also applicable to the photographic process, where precision implies a sharply focussed, well-exposed and well-framed photograph.
The technical development of the camera took a different direction when the industry introduced more and more electronic components into the camera that automated the basic photographic controls.
From M3 to M7 Leica has carefully balanced on that dividing line between manual operation and automatic operation. Sometimes one would assume that Leica stayed too close to the manual directive. The R8 is a clear example of a camera that was designed form scratch to incorporate a motor-driven transport, but here Leica hesitated to cross the line.
The Konica Hexar RF implemented a vertically running shutter with integrated motor drive in the body shape of the M-camera and showed that a sprinkle of automation was feasible and attractive for M-photographers.
The ultimate level of automation has been reached with the shift to digital recording of the image, where the image file can be manipulated on the level of individual pixels
Much has been written about the reasons for Leica to keep away from these developments.
The Epson exercise to incorporate a CCD sensor into a Cosina Bessa has not been very convincing and may be living proof for the decision by Leica to invest in a longer development cycle.
The main problem for the Leica designers to incorporate the sensor into the M body has its roots in the past. M lenses have always been designed with the twin goal of compactness and superior optical capabilities. The M camera owes its fine haptical qualities to the slim body contours. The depth of the body has been kept quite narrow. These two aspects, the narrow body with the famous 27.8mm flange-to-film gate distance and the compact size of the lenses forced the designers to locate the exit pupil as close to the film surface as possible. What was a brilliant move to optimize performance when capturing on a non-opaque film layer, became a liability when designing for a solid-state opaque sensor surface.
The solution took a long period and involved the use of dedicated shapes for the micro-lenslets over the individual pixels, the absence of the low-pass filter and the coating of the surfaces of the filters before the sensor surface. Once these problems were solved, the camera could be developed.
The M8 body
The body of the M8 is a Solms design, made in Portugal. It follows as closely as possible the classical M shape and I have to say that on a first glance the resemblance is striking. The build quality is outstandingly good and the body feels solid as a rock. A very small gripe would be the easy feel of the shutter speed dial when selecting shutter speeds. The camera now has the R8/9 shutter assembly with speeds till 1/8000, a first for a rangefinder camera. The sound of the shutter is extremely subdued; it produces less noise than the M7 shutter: the noise when the heavy curtains must be stopped by the braking device is clearly absent. On the other hand I have to say that the sound of the motor-driven shutter cocking is less pleasing, but that is a matter of adjustment.
The high top speed is fine, but more important is the fact that we now have really accurate speeds around 1/500 and 1/2000.
The dimensions are not identical to the M7 shape. See the table below
|Dimensions in mm||M8||M7|
|Width of top cover||37||34|
|Width of top cover with eye-piece extension||40||36|
|Width of bottom cover||32.5||32.5|
|Width of body with display/speed dial and flange||42.5||37|
At last we find in the bottom cover a centrally located tripod attachment. On the other hand we may deplore the disappearance of the X-contact for external flash connection.
The M8 has borrowed heavily from the M7: it has the same level of automation: AE with aperture priority and manual speed dial. The shutter is the same as we find in the R8/9. The speeds are 8 sec to 1/8000 in manual with half steps and in AE the range is from 32 sec to 1/8000 in quite fine steps. Flash synch is now 1/250 sec. You will miss an exposure override in automatic mode, unless you set in one of the menu options, which is quite cumbersome. When operating in manual mode, you can compensate by the red triangles in the finder as is the norm for every M since 1984.
The battery is lithium ion, and can fire about 300 shots (depending of course on the level of studying the pictures in the display). As a comparison the Canon 5D can hold 600 to 800 pictures. The CCD is a currency guzzler!
The monitor has a diameter of 2.5 inch (the industry standard) with 230000 pixels. The display is quite clear and shows fine detail, but is hardly visible in sunlit conditions (all displays are lousy in this respect). You can enlarge the picture to 100% (1:1 view) to study sharpness details.
The camera has two positions S and C for Single and Continuous Mode. In C mode the camera can take ten shots (RAW) in a row (about 2 per second) and then has to wait for transferring the buffer content. This takes about a minute and is quite slow. Canon 5D figures (17 RAW in 5 seconds, buffer empty in 20 seconds) are better, but hardly an industry standard
ISO speeds are a bit queer form ISO 160 to 2500 in full steps. Leica gives the basic sensor sensitivity as ISO160, a move that can be applauded. Why Leica has not opted for the more traditional 200, 400 etc range is a bit of a mystery.
The menu items are very simple and you can set sensor sensitivity, exposure correction, white balance, picture size and picture resolution. In fact there is no need for more options: the load of options found in other cameras do not improve the quality of the photograph.
The shutter release
The fully mechanical release for the horizontally running cloth curtain shutter has a very precise pressure point. It is part of the essence of the M camera.
You can fire the shutter at exactly the moment you want and you can depress the shutter release with hair-trigger accuracy. The M8 has an electro magnetic-shutter release that is less responsive. After pressing the release, there is a slight moment of hesitation and indecision before the shutter actually is released. This might be a minor issue, but the lack of this precision feel gives the camera its own profile, which may or may not be important. When we add the absence of the transport/shutter wind lever, we must conclude that the camera has its own personality.
The finder has three sets of frame-lines: 24/35, 28/90 and 50/75 and a magnification of 0.68, slightly less than the classical 0.72, but required to add the 24 frame line. The 24/90 frame-lines correspond to angles of view for the 32 and 120mm lenses in 35mm photography. This reduction was required to accommodate the frame lines of the wide angle lenses, that were a bit cramped at the edges of the finder in the classical M finder. The accuracy of the rangefinding is not impaired by this reduction. The 135mm lens can be used with confidence as far as RF accuracy is concerned.
But there is another caveat: the 1.33 reduction in viewing angle implies an additional 33% enlargement factor and that implies a 33% enlargement of the diameter of the Circle of Confusion. Any rangefinder inaccuracy will be translated in a 33% additional inaccuracy. The reduction in viewing angle to the equivalent of an 180mm would imply an extremely small frame that makes it impossible to frame and compose the scene.
The 1.33 factor for the reduction in angle of view (also referred to as crop factor) is of course reflected in the frame-lines being used. When putting the 24mm on the body, it is a bit of a surprise to see a 30mm frame being selected. Normally one would not bother, but when you are used to the M7 body, and select the 24mm lens you know that the finder cannot show the full view of the lens. On the M8 the finder gives frame-lines that you would expect to cover the 35mm lens.
The frame-lines themselves are a bit less accurate than what you can expect form the M6/7/P etc finders. You get more on the sensor than is framed in the finder. At distances less than 1.5 meters the finder is quite honest. There is also some flare in the rangefinder patch when strong light sources are present in the scene.
Sensor is CCD with 18x27mm area and 3916 x 2634 pixels in DNG format. Pixel size is 6.8 micron. In addition you have 4 different JPEG sizes and you can take pictures in RAW + JPEG sizes together. In my view all these JPEG options can be thrown away: the computer software can handle this more efficiently. The choice for DNG looks sensible, but there is no guarantee that this DNG format will survive and in fact many programs cannot read this program. Leica supplies a new version of Capture One LE (3.7.5) that is not yet available on internet. At least not at this moment of writing.
The sensor is made by Kodak and has as one of its ancestors the Olympus E1 sensor architecture. The software is written by a German company (Jenoptik), based on specifications by Leica.
The M8 fits in seamlessly in the evolution of the M camera. It is however not an M7 with a chip implanted. It is a camera with its own personality that leans much more than any previous M model in the direction of automated functionality. The M8 enables the continuation of the classical M-style of photography in the digital domain. The main argument for investing in the M8 (buying an M8 would be a too simple action), is the continued use of the Leica M lenses and anyone who owns a suite of Leica lenses would be happy to put them on an M8 and enjoy the fine optical characteristics.
The design of the M8 is focussed on this enabling aspect: the use of the M lenses. Given the technological infrastructure inside the camera, we have to admit that the superior optical imagery of the Leica lenses cannot (yet) be exploited in all dimensions. The overall performance of the M8 (optics, sensor technique and post processing) will be most certainly a match for the best players in the market (the advanced and professional DSLR-models), but it will be difficult to surpass them.
But the Leica package is much smaller than the bulky DSLR's and the ease of use is very convincing. Of course a comparison with the new smaller DSLRs would shift the balance a bit in the size issue, but the Leica is the more compact camera.
The M8 then is a camera model for existing M users. Given the features that are quite important in today's market environment (battery power, speed of use, an overload of selectable options), the M8 has little to offer. Professional photographers (with a handful of exceptions) have long ago abandoned the M-system and it is unlikely that they will return to this system. The enthusiast photographer (as it is known now) wants the long list of features now commonly provided by the major manufacturers and here the M8 has its weaknesses. The short list of features is on the other hand precisely what the M photographer wants, and it is this watershed line where Leica now seems to feel a bit insecure. It is clear from the design of the M8 that Leica is firmly committed to continuity and small incremental changes. Where the rest of the photographic world is preparing for the deep changes that follow in the wake of the technological possibilities, Leica has an eye on values from the past.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, but Leica now knows very well that a broader product line with more modern products is required to survive. The Leica M in whatever livery is a niche product.
Fifty years ago, Leitz had only one product for the photographic community, the M3 and M2 models, and they stayed very long in this monoculture, partly by conviction, partly by economic necessity.
The monoculture of the M has been abandoned and replaced by a full product line.
One would even say that the range is too wide: there is hardly any mention nowadays of the film-based line of products, but we still have the M7 and MP, the R9 and the C/CM-range. With the new D-Lux3, the Digilux3, the V-Lux1 (all Panasonic derivatives) Leica offers a range of cameras with 10 MP sensor sizes, excepting the Digilux with 7.5 Mp. The internal competition for the M is of course the Digilux3 4/3 system. The Digilux is a descendant of the Olympus E1 lineage and that is most interesting as the E-1 was designed to become the Leica camera for the digital arena.
A fuller discussion of these issues will be presented in the next part.