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Say hello to the digital M

Say hello to the digital M

Remember when your grandfather gave you his Leica Rangefinder and all those lenses and you thought, "What the heck am I going to do with all this?" Well, we hope you didn't throw those lenses away, because Leica has just introduced the long-awaited digital M rangefinder. Called the Leica M8, it does its heritage proud, sporting a classic rangefinder look, complete with brass top and bottom plates in your choice of black or silver finish, a shutter speed selector dial tucked next to the shutter release, and a threaded shutter release button, which accepts standard optional cable releases. There's even a tiny display showing the remaining space on your memory card (in pictures remaining) and battery (in a three-step bar). The most noticeable differences are the 2.5-inch LCD and accompanying controls on the camera back and the lack of a film-winding lever behind the shutter button.

The M8's 10.3-megapixel CCD sensor (manufactured by Kodak) isn't full frame, so you'll have to apply a 1.3X conversion factor to whatever lenses you use with this new M. That means PopPop's old 50mm f/1 Noctilux lens will give you an angle of view that is closer to what you'd get from his 65mm f/3.5 Elmar. Unlike most digital cameras, which have a filter in front of the sensor to eliminate moire, the M8 eschews a physical moire filter, relying on the image-processing engine to remove any moire effects that may arise. According to Leica, this decision was made to preserve the extremely high resolution for which Leica lenses have become famous.

Speaking of lenses, the M8 is compatible with Leica's new 6-bit coding system, which lets the camera identify which lens is in use, so it can process your images to correct for any imperfections that the lens may be known to have. Much like DxO Optics' lens-correction software, the M8 can compensate for vignetting or other lens-specific issues immediately. Of course, you can still use older lenses, without the company's 6-bit encoding system, though Leica does offer optional retrofitting of 6-bit encoding on older lenses through any authorized Leica service center. The camera's finder can be set to include framing lines for 24mm and 35mm, 28mm and 90mm, or 50mm and 75mm lenses.

Since there's no winding lever, which also acted to cock the mechanical shutter on film-based M cameras, Leica was able to include a fully electronically controlled shutter in the M8, which offers shutter speeds up to 1/8,000 second, and all the way down to 4 seconds when selecting manually, or 32 seconds in auto mode. There's also a Bulb setting, so you can hold the shutter open for as long as the shutter button is pressed or tripped by a cable release.

Another byproduct of the electronic shutter is the camera's continuous shooting mode. According to Leica, the camera can shoot up to 10 images in a burst, at a rate of 2 frames per second. Also, the timer mode is activated by the same switch that controls power and selects the continuous or single-shot modes. The lever on the camera's front, which looks a lot like the mechanical timers on some older film cameras, actually selects the framing lines in the rangefinder. The camera's flash sync speed is a quick 1/250 second. Sensitivity ranges from the sensor's native base level of an equivalent of ISO 160, all the way up to ISO 2500.

For those of you unfamiliar with rangefinders, the cameras offer certain advantages over SLRs. Foremost is the lack of a mirror. Since they use a rangefinder instead of a mirror and prism, you never lose sight of your subject as you do when an SLR's mirror flips up to capture an image. You also don't get the internal vibrations that go along with the mirror slapping up inside the camera, which can rob your images of the extra level of sharpness capable with a rangefinder. Also, rangefinders are traditionally much quieter than SLRs, again the result of SLRs' mirror slap. This can be particularly advantageous in street photography or any other situation in which the photographer wants to remain unnoticed. Plus, since rangefinderrs are smaller than SLRs, in this case 5.46 by 3.16 by 1.45 inches (body only), it's easier to bring them with you wherever you go.

Possibly the biggest downside to rangefinders are their price tag and the cost of the associated lenses. The M8 is no exception. You'll have to dig pretty hard into that inheritance you got from Grandpa if you're going to shell out the $4,795 estimated street price (body only) for this history-making camera when it hits stores this November.