Monday, September 25, 2006

Leica M8 - Real World Shooting

Incognito - black gaffers tape covering the M8 and Leica dot

Sitting cramped in coach at 39,000 feet, on my way to Frankfurt, I’m reflecting back to last month, when for a few precious days, I had the pleasure of testing a prototype Leica M8. With little sleep and much gusto, I shot almost 1,000 pictures. Trying to cover a full gamut, I shot everything from a location fashion shoot with lighting to nighttime street scenes in South Beach to architectural shots in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I can’t show those pictures or talk about image quality specifics because of the prototype firmware on the camera, but I will give you my honest thoughts on how it performed as a photographic tool.

Testing out TTL fill flash in SoBe

If you’d like the short, short version and really don’t want to wait for the conclusion, here it is. I loved shooting the M8. I can’t stand not having one on my trip to Germany. Sure, I’ve got my R9/DMR with some choice primes just a few feet above my head in the overhead bin, but that M8 would have made the ideal travel companion.

For those who may not know, the M8 is Leica’s first digital M camera, the culmination of over 50 years of the Leica M camera system. Purists might argue that the MP or M7 is that pinnacle of photographic achievement, and I’d be hard pressed to argue. However, the M8 is certainly the most advanced M to date, yet it retains the clean simplicity and solid build of the M line.

The M8, like all M-series cameras is a rangefinder, not an SLR. There is no mirror or prism and you can’t actually see through the lens. You do your composition and focusing using a very bright viewfinder that fills your entire field of view. Focusing is done using a small focusing square in the center of the frame by aligning a ghost image to the real image. When both images come together, you have a precise focus.

Now, this is beneficial for two reasons. The first, you don’t rely on your individual perception of sharpness like using a ground glass focusing screen in an SLR. Focus is pure physics, with no margin of error. The split image rangefinder in the center of some SLR focusing screens works on a similar principle, but the rangefinder base is so much shorter, that in practice this method doesn’t work 100% of the time, especially at very wide apertures on longer lenses, like an 80mm f/1.4 wide open. Basically, the longer the rangefinder base, the more precise the focusing becomes. Secondly, the rangefinder has the other distinct advantage that you can literally focus and compose by the light of a single candle in a room. I’ve done this and it does in fact work.

Other rangefinder advantages include that there is no mirror, and hence, no mirror slap or mirror vibration. You can easily shoot the M8 or any M for that matter at 1/8 sec handheld, no problem. While shooting at Vizcaya in Miami, I shot a fountain and decided that the picture might look better with the cotton-candy look for the water. I cranked the aperture down to f/11 and shot handheld at 1/8sec. Result: water was blurred to convey sense of motion, and the rest of the scene was crisply sharp.

Okay, now the really huge rangefinder coup. The M8 is extremely compact. The M lenses, besides being arguably the best all-around lenses for any camera system, are the smallest as well. When shooting M, you can actually carry an extra lens in your pants pocket. Comfortably, at that! For my test, I carried: The M8 (of course), SF24D flash, 21mm f/2.8 ASPH, 28mm f/2 ASPH, 35mm f/1.4 ASPH, 50mm f/1.4 ASPH, 75mm f/2 APO ASPH, and 90mm f/2 APO ASPH. Not in my pocket, but in a small shoulder bag (Crumpler 7 Million Dollar Home). Even with a full complement of lenses, I never once noticed any weight and working out of the bag was a piece of cake. Admittedly, the biggest problem I had was deciding which glorious lens would grace the camera next. I felt like I was carrying around a bag of precious jewels (and for the price, I should have).

Traveling light - M8, six lenses, and a flash!

Carry an M and no one notices you. You don’t feel like you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “I’M A PHOTOGRAPHER.” Perhaps people aren’t intimidated because of the compact size, or maybe because the camera looks classic, or possibly because they don’t really know what a Leica M is. Whatever the reason, the result is that street photography and honest candids seem to come naturally when shooting with an M. Being under NDA, carrying a top-secret camera around my neck on South Beach and shooting off hundreds of pictures, I was a little nervous that somebody would approach me. Nope. Not a one. Nobody even gave me a passing glance. Mission: stealth – accomplished.

Enough about M and rangefinders, what about the M8? Words can not fully describe the synergy I felt between photographer and camera, but I’ll sure try. The camera felt right. Yes, it’s a bit thicker than the M7, but you get used to that. Everything is simple, as it should be. Metering, frame counter, menu system, shutter, focus, exposure – the whole ball of wax. Want the change the ISO? Press the SET button, which is in easy reach of your left thumb, select the setting with your right thumb and you’re done. No fiddling or moving your hands from their natural position on the camera. When you see the camera from every angle, expect the back, you see a film camera. On the back, the 2.5” LCD is a bit of a give away, but there are so few buttons and knobs, you may not notice. It’s clear that Lecia engineers gave ergonomics on the M8 top billing, next to image quality, of course.

Ergonomic two-thumb operation

A few words about image quality: I know this topic of discussion has come up quite a bit since the official announcement and some previews have been published online. As I understand it, the pixel peepers want to hear about IQ, and don’t understand why every reviewer is droning on endlessly about camera handling, myself included. Are we just looking to fill some pages in lieu of being able to review the results? The answer to that question is resoundingly, “No.”

This camera wants to be held. It wants to be used. I never tired of the way it felt in my hand and sound the shutter made every time I shot a picture. My guess is every other reviewer had the same experience I did with the M8. While I can’t really comment on specifics, I’ll say that image-wise, I was not disappointed at all. I’m used to the kind of outstanding files that come from the DMR, mind you, so read that as you may. My hope is that I’ll have a chance to shoot a production M8 with final firmware either at Photokina, or in the week following on the LHSA (Leica Historical Society of America) trip, and I can post some shots from it.

Shooting Oona at Vizcaya

The battery life was amazing. Maybe not D2Xs amazing (3500 shots), but a definite step up from the DMR and Epson RD-1. So in my endless photo assault on South Florida, I never had to change the battery on a given day. Leica rates the battery at about 550 shots. So, because I generally only shot a couple hundred pictures per day, I never ran out, even with a considerable amount of chimping. The battery is very small and light and an extra one could easily just be thrown in your pocket.

Memory cards seem to go a lot further as well. Leica has managed to put the DNG RAW files on a diet and trim them down from 20MB to 10.2MB each. Twice the number of shots I’m used to was a nice surprise. With 4GB SD support, we’re talking just shy of 400 pictures. So, one battery, one card should suit well for an average day of shooting for me, or maybe a long weekend for some of you, with no changing of anything. This brings me to another hot topic, Leica’s decision to keep the brass bottom plate. In order to change the battery or SD card, you must first remove the bottom plate on the camera.

Like it or not, it’s classic. An homage to the M heritage. There was more than one time while shooting that I went to remove the plate to change the SD card and I stopped, asking myself, “did I remember to rewind the film?” So, yeah, I kind of like the plate. It reminded me that I was shooting a real M, not to mention it provides excellent protection for the camera internals.

I can’t mention the bottom plate without addressing the other debate. In short, I didn’t miss the advance lever. It was like using an M with a motor, just quieter. So, Leica kept the plate and ditched the lever. A classic ready for the future. I also liked the circular, monochrome LCD frame counter/battery life indicator on the top of the camera. Another throwback that was really convenient in practice. I do wish it had the option of illuminating, since the counter was a little hard to see at night.

Shooting Brittany at Vizcaya

The camera was quick. Image capture, review, zooming in, etc. were all much, much speedier than the DMR. The camera felt much more responsive overall. Options like B&W mode and the ability to capture DNG+JPG are welcome additions sorely lacking on the DMR. Complaints? You won’t hear many from me. Congratulations to Leica? Definitely in order.

So, are rangefinders the perfect camera design? Will the M8 lead to world peace in our time? Sadly, the answer is no. I haven’t found a perfect camera yet, but the M8 comes really close, for me at least. SLRs still hold many advantages over rangefinders, such as being able to use longer lenses or seeing the effect of focus selection in the viewfinder. I will still shoot the DMR for fashion and portraiture, but the next time I travel or shoot for the love of shooting, the M8 will be my first choice.


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At 11:51 AM, Blogger niagaragirl said...

I love the M8. I had the good fortune to borrow one for a few weeks.

On the curiosity factor - I took the M8 up to Niag Falls during a heavy tourist week. The whole day, one curious guy came up to me, and he was about 70 yrs old. An old Leica film shooter. No one else cared.

The only other time anybody really had genuine curiosity about a camera of mine (except for lens envy, of course) was when I first got the Panasonic LX2 in black. I got it when the model was very new, and black P&S cams were uncommon. He was curious about what was in such a slim black package.

I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER - pretty funny - yes the guys with the blazing Nikon straps are pretty funny. All of my branded colored neckstraps are still in their packages. They're not very good for doing real work anyway.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous Mini Cooper said...

hey friend very interesting information about Leica M8 - Real World Shooting, thanks for sharing

At 4:10 AM, Anonymous dsi r4 said...

This digital Leica is more like a traditional film camera than a digital camera. You must be totally in control of focus and exposure, change lenses rather than zoom, and THINK when you shoot.


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