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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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Spiral. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

10X10: 100 ways to improve your photography: Rangefinder tips

Over the next 10 days, I’ll be posting 10 sets of 10 tips on how to improve your photography: these little tricks represent the way I shoot that’s probably not so conventional, but works for me and ensures that a) I get the shot and b) the equipment is an enabler rather than something that gets in the way.

Disclaimer: I’m assuming you know the basics already, but want to get serious.

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Today we kick off with rangefinders: right now, that’s pretty much only the Leica M (and maybe Epson R-D1) if you shoot digital. Here goes:

10: Timing, timing, timing: shoot lots and get to know the lag rhythm of your camera. It might feel instant, but it isn’t. That split second can make or break the difference in a critical shot, especially during a fast-paced situation – that fleeting expression, or arrangement of people.

9: Get to know your lenses: There is no such thing as the perfect lens. All of them have idiosyncrasies, be it focus breathing, focus shift, curved focus planes, flare under certain conditions, or maybe the ability to produce brilliant 14-pointed stars from point light sources at f16. (Don’t laugh, the Leica 21 Summilux ASPH does this.) The better you know your lenses and the way they draw, the more you can exploit their properties to help your pictorial rendition of a given situation. It’s also why I’ve got eight ways to get to 28mm – there’s a huge difference between the Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 ‘Hollywood’ Distagon and the Ricoh GR-Digital III, for instance.

8: Use a soft release and thumb grip (and maybe front grip). Anything that can make your grip more secure or comfortable, and your shutter release action more gentle, is your friend. I like the Thumbs Up, personally.

7: Don’t limit your subjects to the center focus point. You can focus and then recompose. But remember that most lenses aren’t flat field (especially rangefinder designs, which are usually non-retrofocus and spherical) so a little tweak to the focus ring is required for edge subjects – usually to make the focus point slightly closer, as the focal plane will be curved slightly around you. Experience is required to determine exactly how much and when to shift – this is why I also highly recommend using fewer lenses but knowing them well.

6: Use the DoF scales to prefocus. Especially useful with wide lenses, whose large DoF means that you might even be able to shoot hyper focal and not have to focus at all: especially great for being fast and reducing time between seeing the shot and capturing it. Very important skill for street photography and photojournalism. You can practice this by estimating distances and setting your lens with the camera at waist level, then checking in the finder.

5: Pay attention to the edges. The frame lines are a suggestion: there will be more included. With experience, you can push the composition a bit and still get everything in.

4: Shoot with both eyes open. The nice, bright, high-magnification finders are great for letting you a) see what’s outside your frame and might make composition better or worse if included or excluded; and b) you can keep both eyes open to enhance your peripheral vision. It’ll also stop you from getting run over.

3: Know the limitations of the system. By their nature, your finder will probably only cover 28-135, and not be very accurate for 90 and 135. So really, the strengths of the system lie in the 28-75mm range; don’t try and do birding with one of these things and wonder why your results aren’t up to par. (Note: I do use my M9-P for macro work, but that’s a different story entirely.)

2: Less is more. Rangefinders are small and light: why burden yourself and turn photography into endurance sherpa-ing? Try reducing your regular kit to two, or better yet, one lens. Either something which provides to distinctly different perspectives, or perhaps something in-between. I choose 28/50 or 35.

1: Check your rangefinder calibration. There’s nothing worse than shooting an entire series at f1.4 and thinking you nailed focus – or at least remembered doing so in the finder while shooting – then being horrified as you open up the set only to find your subjects’ noses in focus and their eyes a distant plane away. If you know how to calibrate your rangefinder, great; if not, it might be the subject of a future post here (but I take no responsibility if you damage something or void your warranty). If you don’t dare, send it in to your dealer. The best thing you can do is have your body calibrated to match all of your lenses – so send them all in at the same time. The next best thing is to have it calibrated for the lens with the shallowest DoF; the one exception is if the lens suffers from focus shift. Then you’ve got no choice but to calibrate for your most frequently used lens and remember which direction to adjust for later. Check calibration often and if you get a new, shallower DoF lens. One last related point: make sure all of your viewfinder windows (VF, RF patch, frame lines, front VF) are clean – you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to focus!

Bonus for Leica M8/9 users: The meter is center weighted and very heavily biased towards protecting highlights. So, for backlit subjects there are a few ways of compensating. a) Lock exposure with the camera aimed at something of roughly equal luminance but not backlit; this works on the shutter half-press position (with a little dot displayed at the top between the leftmost digits in the finder) if you’ve got the release mode set to standard. b) For M9 users, use the rear dial to activate exposure compensation. I personally don’t like this, because I have no idea if I have it set or not, and if so, how much. c) If you’re shooting with fixed and not auto-ISO, then note the shutter reading in the finder, and move the shutter dial to something appropriate. I use a slightly more complicated method, with auto-ISO: if the shutter speed displayed is over the minimum you set, then you know the camera is in base ISO. I just manually set it to something lower; the camera can’t lower the ISO any more, so it overexposes as desired. If the situation is dark and you’re above base ISO, this doesn’t work. In very dark situations, I usually just leave the camera at ISO 1250 and go manual with the exposure. MT

See more of my work with the Leica M9-P here on Flickr: click here And for earlier work with the M8, click here