Bought a Leica M8 in 2017 and No Regrets
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by Don Rock
If you're like me and don't have thousands to blow on the latest and greatest, then you start looking at alternatives. Such is the case when I became interested in Leica cameras – particularly the Monochrom. At $7,500 new and around $4,000 used (for the older model), there was no way I could justify buying one of these things. Then I read something about the Leica M8 being the poor man's Monochrom and little did I know, I'd soon have one.
Why would someone buy an 11 year old digital camera and why would there be the potential for regret? Well, hopefully I can explain all of that here and provide one or two bits of info not covered in the dozens of other M8 articles and reviews on the Internet.
A Little about the M8
I'll try to keep this brief and stick to the important things.
The M8 is a manual focus, digital rangefinder camera first introduced in September of 2006. It was Leica's first digital M-series camera and features a Kodak 10 megapixel CCD (charged-coupled device) sensor that's 75% of the size of a 35mm equivalent (1.33 crop factor).
Unlike current production cameras, the M8's relatively short ISO range of 160 to 2500 is more suited to well-lit areas; expect ISOs past 320 to get progressively noisier. Shutter speed in aperture priority mode goes as low as 32 seconds whereas the lowest speed in manual mode is 4 seconds. Either way, the maximum shutter speed is a respectable one eight-thousandth of a second.
What sets the M8 apart from the rest is that it was hand assembled in Germany and has an all-metal body. Both the upper part and the removable base plate are painted or plated brass. Die-cast magnesium makes up the rest of the camera.
According to Leica, most M lenses can be used regardless of having 6-bit coding or not. 6-bit coding is simply a binary bar code on the rear of the lens which tells the camera what type of lens is mounted to it.
I'd been casually looking at M8s on eBay and such for about a month when I spotted one on Adorama.com for $1599 with a 90-day warranty. Up until then I'd only seen M8s that were either too beat-up looking or too expensive. At this price and with a warranty, it was too good to pass it up. I was also well aware of the potential problems that this camera might have, but figured it was worth the risk (more on that later).
I ended up with a beautiful Leica M8 with a silver finish. The camera was in very good condition and only had around 14,000 shutter actuations. I was pretty happy.
After researching various lenses that work with the M8, I decided that I wanted to get the most from it by using a Leica lens. I soon found a Leica Summarit-M 2.5/50mm on eBay with the optional hood for a great price.
My Summarit 50mm was very clean and functioned perfectly. Compared to any of my Nikon manual focus primes, the Summarit's build, sharpness, and contrast is just as good or better. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this lens to anyone who is on a budget but wants to stick with Leica.
Within a short time of using the M8 I became concerned about it slipping out of my hand. I don't like neck straps and prefer to hold my cameras; so two accessories were necessary: the wrist strap and the grip. Personally, these two items really improved the feel of the camera and made it much easier to hold with one hand.
My Take on the M8
Just by holding the M8 you can tell that it's a well made camera; it has heft and seems very solid. There's nothing cheap about it.
What's really great about the M8 is that it's a model of simplicity. It allows you to focus on taking pictures rather than fiddling with settings. There's a switch and a dial on top, and six small buttons and a dial on the back; all controlling basic functions or providing access to the menu system. I find it to be fairly intuitive and extremely minimal.
Oh, and this 11 year old camera with its CCD sensor can produce some beautiful photos! Could you get the same image quality from any other camera? Probably; I know I'm not the first to say this, but there's something about the M8 that inspires me to go out and take pictures. Unlike most cameras, this one has a lot of character – it looks cool and it's fun to use. All this seems to help me to get creative when I'm out shooting; so to me it's worth it.
One thing that people complain about with the M8 is the loud shutter. In my opinion it's no big deal. It's definitely different though and has a very distinct, electromechanical sound – like, ker-click-zzzzt.
Then there's the small battery meter and number of pictures remaining LCD display on the top of the M8. I think that this is a handy feature and yet they did away with it on subsequent models. One reason for its demise could be that it was designed when SD cards had much less capacity. As such, the number of pictures remaining readout only goes to three digits, thereby maxing out at 999. When I used an 8 gigabyte (GB) SDHC card it'll show that I have space for 734 DNG's which is about right (I think). However, if you switch to JPEG the counter maxes out at 999 because JPEGs are much smaller and it takes more than 999 to fill an 8 GB card.
I mention this because sometimes I'm curious as to how many photos I've taken and getting the proper readout helps me determine that . Then again, I could simply hit the Play button to get the photo count, or get an SD card under 2 GB, or not worry about it.
You might be saying to yourself or have heard others saying, "but it's a slow, 10 megapixel, crop-sensored, piece of..." Here's my response to that:
- This is a manual focus camera! The M8 is slow as far as being able to shoot continuously, but other than that it's fine.
- With 10.3 megapixels you get plenty of resolution for a 13"x8.78" print at 300dpi; or a 26"x17.56" print at 150dpi.
- Crop-sensor, shmop-sensor. Having a crop-sensor (1.33 crop factor) means little or nothing to me. I use whatever lens that gets me a desired result and I don't worry about some indiscernible stuff that full-frame sensors might have over cropped ones.
- The M8 is a very capable camera even 11+ years after its release. Unfortunately, getting it repaired should it break is an uncertainty.
Realistically, the M8 is more for people who are interested the mystique surrounding the Leica Ms and who may or may not be able to afford a more current model.
Would I recommend the Leica M8 to just anyone? Nope; you can buy a brand new mirrorless camera body from the likes of Fujifilm, Sony, or Canon, with double the resolution, better low light capability, and for less money. All you'd need is a good lens to get awesome image quality.
Overall, I'm pretty happy with the camera and most of the photos that have come out of it. Even if cranked all the way up to an insane ISO 320 (just kidding), the sharpness, dynamic range, and color is all good. Mostly, I shoot outdoors in daylight and leave the M8 at its native ISO which is 160. As long as my lighting and exposures are ok, I really like the photo quality; many think that the CCD sensor adds some unique qualities and that may be true.
Not only can the M8 produce some lovely imagery, but this camera works without any nonsense to slow you down. There are no mystery buttons or sub-menus within sub-menus; and most menu items are self-explanatory which makes setting changes quick and effortless.
What I noticed right away was the large, bright viewfinder. The framing marks are clear and it's really easy to acquire your subject and get things into focus.
Another plus is that there's plenty of old and new lenses around that will work with this camera. Even Zeiss and Voigtlander make some great M-mount glass that would be fun to try.
Lastly, the raw files in the M8 are 10.3 megabyte, 3916x2634 DNGs so there's no problem working with them in post processing. It doesn't take a super computer or terabytes of hard-drive space to deal with these files! Just load them in your favorite photo software and do your thing.
The Bad and The Ugly
I really wish I could say that I absolutely love this camera, but that wouldn't be entirely true. However much I enjoy the M8, it does have some blaring limitations and a few potential issues. Aside from all of this though, I still think that the good outweighs the bad and I don't regret having made this purchase.
My intention here is not to deter anyone from picking-up an M8. I merely want to cover some of the stranger things that I've experienced with the camera; so if you run into the same things, you know what's going on. What might seem like deal killing negatives are all fairly minor and rarely keep you from getting the most from this camera. I hope that the photos I've presented above speak much louder than words – positive or negative.
BATTERY ISSUE. My M8 came with one battery and wouldn't you know it, it was defective. Apparently, Leica had some problems with batteries having certain serial numbers. The battery would seemly hold a charge but the LCD on the top of the camera only showed the photo count – not the battery level. I contacted Leica and they actually replaced it, so I can't complain too much.
LOW LIGHT CAPABILITY. This camera is not great in low light situations. Anything over ISO 320 is going to be noisy. I leave it at ISO 160 and have fun when there's plenty of light. Of course, you could use the higher ISO noise for artistic effect or mount a flash when needed, but that's up to you.
KNOWN SENSOR ISSUES. There are three known sensor issues – all of which I've encountered. One has to do with infrared light; the second with bright light being close to the edge of the frame; and the third with high ISO and underexposure.
Truthfully, these weird sensor anomalies are a disappointment. I have a 16 year old Canon EOS-1DS (their first full-frame DSLR) that has no sensor problems aside from being a dust magnet. At a cost of around $4,700 when new, you'd think that the M8 would've been perfect; yet it did and still does have some odd issues.
The M8's Infrared Issue
One of the most talked about issues with the M8 is that it could, under the right conditions, render certain types of black fabrics as purple or dark red. Leica has stated that this can happen because the sensor employs an extra thin infrared filter to help achieve "very high image quality."
The thing is that black colored textiles are not really black but a very dark blue, purple, or red. It's the M8's special sensitivity to infrared light that enables it to see what the eye can't – the true color of certain fabrics.
I only just noticed what seems to be the IR issue when I was preparing some photos for this article. As seen in the photo, the couch appears to my eye as dark brown; yet the M8 renders it more on the red side. As a comparison, I took a shot with my trusty Nikon D3200 and it renders the image closer to what my eye sees.
The shots taken with both cameras were with standard saturation settings and low ISOs.
To address this concern, Leica recommends using one of their special screw-on UV/IR filters. I don't use an IR filter and have had no problems with the color in my images up until the couch photo.
I've read that some people believe the M8's IR sensitivity makes it better for black and white photography. Interestingly though, Leica says, "if you intend to do B/W photography with your Leica M8, the camera's increased infrared sensitivity does not come into effect. Only synthetic black fabrics are rendered slightly brighter than they appear to the eye."
My black and white photos are nice but I honestly can't tell if the M8's sensor is really giving it an edge over any other camera.
The M8's Green Stripe Issue
(I've noticed this one!)
On one instance I was shooting indoors and had to crank up the ISO a bit. When I pushed the shutter release I noticed an error message on the LCD but couldn't read it fast enough. Later, when looking at my photos I noticed a thick, green stripe on the upper left side of two shots. The stripe extended horizontally about half way into the image.
I found out later that Leica is aware of the green stripe thing and says that it can be caused by bright light sources near the edge of the picture frame. The solution is to keep bright light sources away from the very edge of the picture frame.
The image above was taken using auto-ISO which happened to be at ISO 640. The green stripe was caused by the light at the edge of the left side of the frame.
The M8's Vertical Line Issue
(I've noticed this one too!)
The thin vertical line glitch has me a tiny bit concerned. It surfaced in one or two of my photos when using ISO 640 and with the subject being very dark or underexposed. I don't know if my sensor is slowly taking a crap or it's just another weird anomaly that occurs under certain conditions. At this point though it doesn't matter much because my photos that show a vertical line are terrible anyway!
I've only come across one person who seemed to know what they were talking about and had mentioned the thin vertical line. Still, even this guy was a bit vague and only said that it could be a sensor problem; yet my camera works fine 98% of the time.
Stuff about Lens Compatibility
Like I said earlier, most M lenses will work perfectly with the M8 regardless of the 6-bit coding. Below are some things to be aware of before putting any old lens on the camera.
Leica states that the following lenses cannot be used with the M8:
- Hologon 15mm f/8;
- Summicron 50mm f/2 with close focusing;
- Elmar 90mm f/4 with collapsible tube from 1954-1968.
Lenses that work but with certain limitations are the following:
Long focal lengths such as 135mm will be difficult or impossible to focus. This is due to the fact that focusing is not done through the lens but via a separate viewfinder which has an enlargement factor of 0.68x.
Lenses with retractable tubes that enter the camera body should be used with caution and with the tubes fully extended.
According to Leica, the following lenses can be used but metering is not possible:
- Super-Angulon-M 21mm f/4;
- Super-Angulon-M 21mm f/3.4;
- Elmarit-M 28mm f/2.8; serial numbers earlier that 2 314 921.
I recommend the older Summarit-M line of lenses: 35mm f/2.5, 50mm f/2.5, 75mm f/2.5, and 90mm f/2.5. They're very good quality, sharp, and can be bought used for around $1,000 or less. Any of these will work perfectly on the M8 and all you're giving up over the more expensive Summicrons and Summiluxes is some aperture size.
Good Sources of Info for the M8 and Compatible Lenses
Before buying my M8 I did some research and found a few great sources of info. Check-out the following links for quality material on the M8 and other Leica stuff.