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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2007-06-28

Photographer's Toy Box: Hands On With The New Leica M8
By Todd Korol

Photo by

Leica M8
(Editors Note: One in an series of occasional articles on new, cool and interesting equipment.)

It's been awhile since Internet chat rooms have been buzzing with news of a new digital camera but the new Leica M8 has certainly created a stir when it was released. I had the opportunity of using the new Leica M8 for two weeks courtesy of "The Camera Store" in Calgary, Alberta. I was able to put the camera through its paces with everything from portraits to see how skin tones would look, high ISO settings, to some aerial work I was shooting for a book project and of course where the Leica is most home, some street shooting.

This review will focus on my impressions of working with Leica's new $5,000 digital camera. Yikes, $5,000 for a 10 megapixel rangefinder camera. I have always been a huge fan of Leica and their rangefinder system. I have two M6's in my stable, along with a 21mm, 28mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses. After years of use, the lenses work just like when they were new, maybe a little smoother. And my M6's work as flawlessly as the day I bought them. So I was excited to see how the M8 would measure up.

The first time I saw and felt the Leica M8 was at Photo Expo in New York. I didn't know weather to like it or not, as I only had about two minutes with it, but it continued to intrigue me. The first thing Leica users will notice is there is to thumb winding lever. Most Leica users I know automatically use this lever, not only for winding the film of course, but for steadying the camera in your hand while you are shooting. This really enables you to use the camera at slower shutter speeds, think 1/15, 1/8 and you still get razor sharp photos. Leica has compensated this with making the body of the M8 wider, so there is more to grip. After using the new camera for just a short time, I liked the wide body, and it felt just as comfortable in my hands as my M6.

The top of the Leica, like all Leica rangefinders, is very clean. The shutter speed dial is on the right, super easy to use and tops 1/8000 of a second. There is a small round digital display of how many frames you have left on your card on the top left. And last, a small lever switch that controls turning the camera on and off, setting the motor drive to single or continuous, or setting it to self timer. This is one of the minor shortfalls of the camera.

Photo by Todd Korol

Photo by Todd Korol

Photo taken with the new Leica M8.
I feel, as well as other photographers who have posted their thoughts on the camera, that there should only be an on/off switch. I feel setting the motor drive should be controlled through the menu, as most operations of the Leica are, and certainly the self timer should not be on the top. One time the lever moved to the self timer and I went to take a photo, and of course was looking down at the camera trying to figure out why it didn't fire when it finally went off. Other than that, I love the top of the camera, no unnecessary dials or levers on the top, it has a pure Leica feel and look.

Using the back menu is very easy and intuitive to navigate through. On the right is a dial where you can toggle through photos you have shot, or magnify an image that has been taken. That is done very easily with a dial. When you turn it, it goes though various degrees of magnification, and then you can use the 4 buttons in the dial to move the image around very fast and easy.

On the left of the screen are buttons for various menus that are very easy to use, I would have however, have preferred two changes here. I would have liked the buttons to have been flush with the body of the camera, where they would make a slight indent for the buttons to be in the body. Instead, the buttons stick out of the body, and a few times I looked down to see some menu item on the screen because they have been set off rubbing against my body.

The other thing I would have changed is moving the button to view the image from the top of the menu to the bottom. Maybe because I am used to it on my Canon's, but it still seems to me more intuitive to view the image by pressing the bottom button. It certainly has screwed me up more than once, and especially when I was shooting with both my Canon's and the Leica M8.

The 2.5" screen on the back of the camera is simply fantastic. I found the screen very bright, and images look great on it. You can also easily tell if the photo is in focus or not. The screen basically ROCKS in all kinds of situations I have been in.

Photo by

Leica M8
As Leica users know, focusing the camera is done through a rangefinder system. It is fast easy and precise. I love focusing with a rangefinder and Leica simply has the best rangefinder focusing system in the world. It is bright and the same as all the recent Leica rangefinder bodies.

All my lenses, except my 21mm for some reason, worked perfectly with the camera. Although, I have a friend who has an M8 and his 21mm worked flawlessly, something that needs a bit more exploring on my end. The camera has a magnification factor of x1.3, so basically any lens moves up, a 35 is a 50, a 50 is a 75mm.

The M8 uses the SD cards and has a small battery that at first I thought, ran down rather fast, perhaps getting only 200-250 photos off of it. But then you shoot much differently with a Lecia. Generally you shoot photos and get one or two frames of something and move on. Not 8 a second like my Canons. So you end up having a much wide selection of images from a shoot. However, if I had one, I would definitely have 2 or 3 batteries on hand. Both the card and the battery are accessed through the bottom of the camera by removing the bottom plate on the camera, just like loading film on all their rangefinder cameras.

Again, since Leica is going digital, this is where they could have made another change. I think it should have been a hinged door at the bottom of the camera. I have always worried about losing a bottom plate on assignment, a hinged door would have just been easier.

The whole time I shot with the camera I used Leica's DNG RAW files. I processed them in Adobe's new Photoshop CS3, and the files turned out really beautiful. Leica's ISO runs, 160, 320, 640, 1280 and 2500. The files at 160 are really stunning, and I personally think they rez up to 50 megs much better than Canon's 5D files, which I am a big fan of. I shot the cameras side by side and made 50 meg files from both cameras, and always, I thought the Leica files looked better, both on the computer screen and the prints I made from my Epson 4800 printer. Why make 50 meg files? Well that's what my photo agency Aurora Photos request for the archive, so I wanted to see how they would stand up going that big.

As digital camera users know, a lot of times the files have to be sharpened in Photoshop. But with Leica, the images are super sharp right out of the camera, and I was really amazed at how great the sharpness of the files are from corner to corner. I am sure that the great fixed focal length glass that Leica makes helps a bunch. But having said that, the Leica files slowly loses their luster at higher ISOs. I found the images much noisier at 1280 ISO. I don't know if I would really want to use any from high ISO settings. I think that 640 is about as high as you can really go.

Photo by Todd Korol

Photo by Todd Korol
As many have probably heard on the internet rumor mill, the new Leica M8's have a magenta color cast problem in dark colors. I rarely noticed this since Leica has fixed the problem in their new cameras. (There was a problem with the very first production cameras and there was a firmware upgrade. Note: These are second hand facts, and do not come from Leica.) You also now get corrective filters for 2 of your lenses when you buy a camera. But in the 20 gigs of images I shot in 2 weeks, I didn't have any issues with this.

Metering, like all Leicas, is center weighted (check). I have always loved the meters on my M6's. I have always felt if you knew where to meter, the Leica meters were right on the money, and the new M8 is no different. Whether shooting in manual mode or automatic, which I shot a lot of, my exposures were always great. Now the color balance was a different story. While most times color was always what I expected, sometimes shooting the same scene, the color would just change. Shooting in RAW I could always go to where I thought the color was, but sometimes I did have to make a change, especially when you shoot in the Auto color mode.

Traveling home from an assignment recently I had time to sit and think about my time using Leica's new digital rangefinder. Leica shooters know that using a rangefinder is much different from regular SLRs. Your shooting style is looser, freer, more spontaneous, not to mention the added bonus of carrying a small non obtrusive LIGHT camera. The history of photojournalism shows us the huge impact that Leica cameras have made.

Will the new M8 stand up? I think so. Do I like the camera? No; love and lust more come to mind. I think the camera is great. I thought about the image noise at higher ISOs, but then thought back to shooting film. I just pushed Provia a stop to 200, then kept opening up the lens and slowing down the shutter speed until I ran out of light. That was one of the things I loved about the M6, shooting right on the edge, so many great photos from a big stable of photographers who shot like that; Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, Bill Allard.

One of the things I have really missed these past couple of years since the new digital revolution is shooting assignments with my M6's. The turn around time for film is just too slow. This camera continues in Leicas tradition of making wonderful elegant tools for communicating with photography. No bells and whistles, the camera doesn't need them. You can strap on any lens since the 50's and go to work. History shows us you just need a couple of lenses and a body, it's not the camera, it's the eye. The camera is only a tool…but man, what a tool Leica has created.


(Todd Korol is a freelance photographer in Calgary, Alberta. He is a member of Aurora Photos and freelances for Time, Sports Illustrated and Reuters. You can view his work at his personal website: http://www.toddkorol.com/. He has the cover photograph of the current issue of Sports Illustrated: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/si_online/covers/issues/2007/0702.html.)

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