Revisiting the Leica M8: a cheap entry into digital rangefinders?

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Latte Ninja. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

In the last few years, rangefinders (effectively only the Leica M system) have experienced something of a renaissance; I think partially due to the market being over saturated with DSLRs to fill every niche, and partially due to the full frame M9 which so many Leica shooters had been clamoring for. A frequently asked question is ‘why is DRF technology lagging so far behind its DSLR counterparts?’ After all, the innards are pretty much the same – sensor development and fabrication is so horribly expensive and complex that it can only be undertaken by a handful of either very large or very specialized companies; the electronics are largely FGPA-based (i.e. with reconfigurable chips) and there are plenty of good software coders out there – just look at the proliferation of Apple apps. Micro 4/3 has arguably pushed miniaturization of the electronic components even further – so it can’t be the body size that’s holding back DRF development.

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Yin Yang. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

Aside from the M9 and its derivatives (full review of the Leica M9-P here, and the M-Monochrom here), the only other digital true range finders that have made their way to market in the past were the Epson RD1 and RD1s (both using the same 6MP Sony APS-C sensor) and of course the Leica M8. All of these cameras have been M-mount, a sensible choice because it’s the most versatile and open of the RF systems – and of course has the greatest selection of lenses, from second hand $200 Voigtlanders to $12,000 Noctiluxes.

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A Parisian cliche. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

No, I suspect the reality is that what’s preventing us from seeing a DRF with competitive specifications isn’t technology, but the economics of market sizing: Leica sold about 30,000 M9s in the two-and-a-half years after launch; by comparison, Nikon makes about that many D800s every month. To invest such levels of R&D spending into a very niche product doesn’t make economic sense – even if you are charging three or four times what a comparable spec DSLR goes for.

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Having said all that, you’re probably wondering about the title of the article: Leica M8? Is that a typo? No. Even with the technological, sensor and usability limitations (manual focus and built in frame lines for 28-90mm only, for instance) there are still good reasons why you might want a rangefinder. And even more reasons why you might consider technology that’s now realistically nearly seven years old – which is an entire geological epoch in the digital era.

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Contemplating the journey. Leica M8, Zeiss 21/2.8

For a start, rangefinders are far less intimidating to your subject than DSLRs. They’re also smaller. Yes, there’s Micro 4/3 and all of its different flavors: but which one of them gives you a proper optical finder? None*. If you want an optical finder, and a responsive focusing system, a rangefinder is the only way to go. The lenses are also smaller, because they don’t have to house AF components or retrofocus/ telecentric designs to clear an SLR’s mirror mechanism.

*I’m deliberately leaving out the Fuji X100 and X-Pro1 cameras here; I don’t consider them to be rangefinders, and they have their own entire set of issues – slower AF than manual focusing a rangefinder being the biggest of them.

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Cloister. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Let’s assume for now that your priorities are to be inconspicuous, travel light, have an optical finder, and do documentary work in the 28-90mm range – let’s not bother with flash for now. That basically puts an M as your only option. You could buy a new M9 and lenses, but that’ll be painfully expensive; with three fast lenses (28/2, 35/1.4, 50/1.4 or 75/2) you’re already looking in the vicinity of US$30,000. And that might not even be your primary system, because if you want macro, precise framing for your ultra wide, or telephoto, you’re out of luck.

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Compact. Leica M8, Zeiss 21/2.8

This is where a second hand M8 starts to make some sense: you can find clean, low-mileage examples in the US$2,000-2,500 range; pair that with some Zeiss ZM or Voigtlander glass, and you’re in business. Some of the Zeiss lenses like the 21/2.8 and 50/2 are outstanding in the own right, and the Voigtlanders offer unique options that aren’t available natively to Leica M (12mm and 15mm pancakes, or an affordable 50/1.1 anybody?). Let’s say we do the same system with equivalent fields of view (i.e. 28mm, 35mm, and 50 or 75mm) – I’d pick the Zeiss ZM 21/2.8 Biogon, the Zeiss ZM 35/2 Biogon and Zeiss 50/2 Planar or Voigtlander 50/1.1 Super Nokton. You could easily do that around the US$8,000 range, even if you buy all the lenses new. And if you decide for whatever reason that you don’t like the rangefinder experience, selling it on isn’t going to cost you very much, or be very difficult. Think of it as a rental.

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One of those moments. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1

But what about the sensor and electronics? It is, after all, seven year old technology. The reality is that the M8 was a bit on the noisy side even when it was new; that hasn’t changed. However, it was also capable of excellent images at that time – that also hasn’t changed. (All of the images in this article were shot with a Leica M8 and a variety of lenses.) So long as you understand the inherent limitations of rangefinders, and those of the camera itself, you’ll be fine. Even if you have to shoot in low light. The sensors of the M8 and M9 are CCDs. CCD technology delivers a rich tonal response in the shadows and highlights that is very difficult to achieve with a CMOS; the tradeoff is noise and color accuracy.

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Looking for information. Leica M8, Zeiss 21/2.8

Let’s talk a bit about the limitations of rangefinders in general, and the M8 specifically:
- Built-in frame lines for 24-90mm only, with a 1.3x crop factor – 32-120mm equivalent. Use an external finder if you need wider.
- 10MP CCD, ISO range of 160-2500, but I’d stick to 640 and lower for optimal image quality, and 1250 in a pinch. Either use fast lenses, or meter for the highlights.
- Realistically, it’s a single frame advance camera. The continuous modes are not worth talking about. Anticipate your shots!
- 6 DNG frames when the barrel is hot. Overshoot this and you’re going to run into card corruption and buffer dumping issues – which will require pulling the battery to unlock the camera.
- Inaccurate frame lines. They’re calibrated for 1m, instead of something that makes more sense like say 2m. The M8.2 had its frame lines updated to correspond to the view at 1.5m instead, which is an improvement, but no idea. Just frame with the outside of the frame lines. A little practice will help you to visualize what will be in-frame and what won’t.

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A very friendly Parisian. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

- Poor battery life. Carry a spare.
- Crappy LCD. No point chimping on this camera, because the LCD is so poor it’s impossible to tell what’s in focus and what isn’t – just save it for the PC. You’ll save a bit of battery life, too.
- Metering issues with strong point light sources. The M8’s center weighted meter gets easily confused by strong point light sources in the frame; it’s very important to keep an eye on the meter reading. If it looks too high to make sense, then you probably want to override manually by using the shutter speed dial directly.
- No easy exposure compensation. Move the camera a bit until you find the exposure you want, then half press until the little dot between the left numbers appears – this locks exposure.

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Turbine. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

- Manual focus. I’ve left the biggest issue for last. It isn’t manual focus per se that’s the issue, but focus calibration: if it’s out, it’s out, and you can kiss goodbye to sharp images. The rangefinder interacts with the lens through a series of very sensitive and precisely calibrated cams, and in my experience with several digital M bodies, they do drift – more so with frequent mounting and dismounting of lenses. It’s highly recommended that you get the body calibrated to the lenses you intend to use on the camera, and this goes for any digital M body.

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Children. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

The M cameras tend to be extremely polarizing cameras. They’re either intensely refreshing, and offer a very different shooting experience, or they’re extremely frustrating due to their lack of flexibility. Rangefinders are cameras that force you to adapt to their way of working, not the other way around. If the way you see happens to fit this, then you’re in for a great experience. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is if you have a particularly generous friend who’ll loan you theirs, or by going down the used M8 route.

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Canterbury Cathedral. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I highly recommend sticking to one lens and getting to know it well; it will help in both keeping costs down as well as improving the quality of your images because it trains your eye to pre visualize. And there’s no harm in buying second hand Leica glass either; thanks to the recent trend of continual price increases, the lenses have been holding their value better than most blue chip equities. In fact, it’s probably the only class of photographic equipment that might even be considered an investment – certainly not the bodies, however. MT

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Spiral. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Travel minimalism: one lens to go

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Canterbury in autumn. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Every time I travel for personal purposes, I’m always torn between experiencing the place, and photographing the place. Photography is such a part of me that sometimes I feel that I experience and understand things more through trying to capture the essence of them. Or perhaps it’s because doing so forces you into conscientious observer mode, and this in turn makes one’s mind more receptive to things, and more willing to question what you see and find juxtapositions or contrasts.

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Canterbury Cathedral crypt. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

That aside one of the things which inevitably keeps me up the night before departure is trying to figure out what to bring equipment-wise. If it’s on assignment, then I bring everything I might possibly need, plus spares – to hell with overweight baggage, if you don’t have it, it could mean a lost job – on the other hand, if I’m traveling for myself, I’d rather carry as little gear as possible. Well, little enough that I don’t notice it after walking around for hours on end, but with sufficient coverage that I don’t get frustrated and feel like I missed a rare photographic opportunity because I didn’t bring along a wide angle. Or something along those lines.

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A Parisian in her natural habitat. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

My last personal vacation saw me bringing an Olympus Pen Mini, the 14-42 kit lens and a Panasonic 20/1.7 pancake. We went to the beach. Frankly this made the choice easy as I didn’t really want to expose any of the more expensive gear to moisture, salt and sand; the M9-P definitely would not have been suitable, and the D800 might have produced great landscapes, but it would also have worked fine as a boat anchor.

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Three conversations, Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

I’ve been trying to fine-tune this over the years. I’ve been on trips where I did carry coverage from 14-450mm and a spare body; whilst I got some great images, I also had a sore back, and landed up leaving everything but one body and the 24-70 zoom in the hotel room for the last week. More crucially, I felt the images produced from that trip lacked focus; I brought everything, so subconsciously I was actually trying to capture everything. The upshot is a set of images that isn’t as strong as it could have been, and worse still, experiencing that slightly chaotic panicky feeling that you just might have missed a shot opportunity somewhere.

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Tate Modern yard, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

My preferred travel kit is a moderate wide, and a moderate telephoto – both fast – and one body. I might carry a spare compact or something similar as a backup, just in case. I’ve gone with the D700, 24/1.4 and 85/1.4 – this is an absolutely fantastic and hugely flexible combination – plus a spare compact, either the Fuji X100, Leica D-Lux 5, or my favorite, the Ricoh GR-Digital III. Most recently, I spent two weeks in Europe with an M9-P, 28 and 50mm lenses, plus the Pen Mini and 45/1.8 (giving me 90mm in a pocket). This was also an excellent combination, and in some ways better than the Nikon based setup due to weight and instant availability of the telephoto. However, it lagged hugely in low light performance. I think the next trip I take will probably be Micro 4/3 based; an OM-D and Pen Mini with 12, 20 and 45mm lenses will cover the vast majority of situations handily. And not weigh very much, either.

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Piccadilly Circus, London. Ricoh GR Digital III

So what’s all of this talk about a single lens?** Or single camera? There are advantages to this approach: firstly, you’re unencumbered and free to enjoy the atmosphere, people and culture without feeling like a packhorse; a small camera around your neck is probably much easier to manage than an entire backpack full of lenses. Also, you don’t have to worry as much about security – frankly, carrying several Leica f1.4 Summiluxes and a Noctilux around even safe Singapore made me pretty nervous.

**Let me clarify: I don’t mean going with a 28-300, though I suppose this might be a viable option for some situations. That lens has more compromises than strengths, and if you don’t know how to manage your perspectives properly, then you’ll land up with weak images too, because you’ll always be trying to ‘zoom in’.

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The Shard, under construction. Ricoh GR Digital III

The main advantage, however, is that it frees up your mind from having to think about what perspective to take for a scene. Do you find the essence in the details, or do you go for something wider and more encompassing, with context? Trouble is, there is often no right answer – and from experience, I know that inevitably you’ll land up trying to make both work and being satisfied with neither. On the other hand, if you’ve got just one focal length, then you can pre visualize what your frame will look like; with sufficient experience, your eye naturally looks for compositions that fit within the perspective and angle of view of the lens you’ve got. Thus: instead of wondering what perspective to use, you’re free to spent that mental capacity on fine-tuning the elements inside the frame of the only perspective you have. It can be liberating – providing you’re thinking about the photograph, and not about the equipment you left at home. There’s also the side benefit of not having to change lenses, and thus always being ready.

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The doorway, Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

I actually did this on several occasions. At the end of 2009, I made short trips to Oxford, Canterbury and Paris; for these I brought two lenses (21 and 50mm for the M8) but only used the 21. I did it again in 2010; the first trip saw me bringing a D700 and several lenses, plus the Ricoh GR-Digital III; I only used the Ricoh and its fixed 28mm because it was both much more convenient, as well as matching the way my eye was tuned at the time after my first Leica-M experience. I got wiser on the second trip and left everything behind except the GR-Digital III. Hanoi later that year saw me using only the D700 and 85/1.4 G.

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A Vietnamese stereotype. Hanoi. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

If you are going to try this exercise, I’d recommend going for a wide normal rather than an ultra wide or a tele; for the simple reason that these are the most flexible focal lengths to use. 35-50mm can appear wide or moderately telephoto depending on how you choose to use the foreground elements in your scene. And at some point, chances are you’ll probably want to take a photo of yourself or your traveling companion (or both of you, or your family…you get the point) – and it’s generally much easier with something wide or normal than say a 300mm.

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Prague castle and stars. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Some people may find a telephoto easier to use in these kinds of situations because they can snipe from a distance; I’d personally advise against it because it’s very difficult to make images with context; and that’s one of the cornerstones of travel photography. The bokeh may be great, but if the background gives you no clue as to where the subject is, then the image could well have been shot anywhere – and that somewhat defeats the point of travel photography.

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A Viennese moment. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Personally, if I had to pick, I’d go with either a 28mm, or a 35mm – depending on whether my images would likely be more people-biased (longer), or more location-biased (wider). And it’d have to be fast, too; I’d be using the lens at night, and anything slower than 2.8 wouldn’t cut it. Frankly, in some situations, even f2.8 may be a little borderline. Finally, it’d have to go on something small, light and unobtrusive; responsiveness is important because your ability to anticipate things will be a little bit diminished thanks to the foreign environment. Right now, my choice is probably between the Olympus OM-D and Panasonic 20/1.7, the Ricoh GR-Digital III/ IV, or the Leica M9-P and a 35/1.4 ASPH FLE.

Give it a try. On your next trip, just use a 35 or 50 prime for at least a day or two; if it makes you feel better, bring along your zooms too, but don’t use them until you absolutely feel that you’re missing shots. MT

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Wat Arun and Boat, Bangkok. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

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An ethical dilemma

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The scavenger, Canacona Beach, Goa, India
M8 and 50 Summilux ASPH

Suppose you are a photojournalist assigned to cover a humanitarian crisis. Do you help out, or do you keep shooting? I recently had this discussion with a fellow pro shooter and photojournalist. We both agreed that being behind the camera desensitizes you; it acts like a mask for you to hide your humanity. But that’s not right, either. We are all human beings. And we musn’t forget that the ultimate goal of photojournalism is to tell a story; the better we tell that story, the better we can raise awareness about the events that are transpiring, and in turn do our part to help.

So the right answer is yes, we help out – but we do what we do best, and help out by shooting.

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