As a camera company, Leica built its reputation on the back of its rangefinder cameras. From the Leica II, introduced in 1932, through the M7 still available today, Leica rangefinders have endured, in no small part thanks to a reputation for top-notch craftsmanship. On September 14 of this year, Leica officially announced the company's first digital rangefinder, called the M8. It packs a Kodak-made 10.3-megapixel CCD sensor and a 2.5-inch LCD screen into a classic rangefinder body design that's just a touch larger than the M7.
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 an extra--though admittedly very minor--level of sharpness capable with a rangefinder. Plus, since rangefinders are smaller than SLRs, in this case 5.46x3.16x1.45 inches (body only), it's easier to bring them with you wherever you go.
Also, rangefinders--especially Leicas--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. However, the M8's shutter is electronically controlled, which means that rather than the winding lever found on the company's film rangefinders, an electronic motor cocks the shutter. While still a lot quieter than an SLR, the M8 isn't as whisper-soft as some Leicas.
However, it is just as well constructed, and Leica fanatics should feel at home when handling the M8. For example, just as film loads into the bottom of the M7, the M8's bottom plate removes to reveal the SD card slot and the battery. Plus, just like most rangefinders, the M8 has old-school controls. Aperture is changed by turning a ring on the lens, while shutter speed has a control dial on top with marks from 4 seconds to 1/8,000 second, as well as a bulb setting, which holds the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter-release button down. The shutter-speed dial also includes an automatic setting, which is how you can engage aperture-priority mode. Other than that, you'll have to stick to full manual exposures. The on/off switch, which surrounds the shutter button, also lets you choose the drive mode: single, continuous, or self-timer. A small round LCD display on the left of the camera top displays the number of images (that is, the amount of space) left on your SD card and the remaining battery life, while mimicking the look of a classic rangefinder's film counter.
Focusing with the M8's rangefinder is great, but be warned: there's no autofocus option, though that's how Leica fans like it. The finder is bright and surprisingly effective even in low light. The M8 is the first Leica M-camera to use the company's new 6-bit encoding system for lenses. All new Leica lenses come with the 6-bit code, and older lenses can be sent back to Leica--for about $100--to have a code installed. According to Leica, the code allows the M8 to write lens data to your images' EXIF data, and lets the camera customize its image processing based on the lens being used. But, in images we shot with a new 28mm, f/2.8, 6-bit encoded lens, the EXIF data didn't include actual aperture information for the shot and identified the lens as having a maximum aperture of f/1.0, though this problem might be solved when Leica issues new firmware for the M8. On the plus side, the camera does automatically change the framing lines in the finder to match the lens that's mounted on the camera. The camera includes frames for 24mm or 35mm, 50mm or 75mm, and 28mm or 90mm.
The menu system is fairly intuitive, though not overly fancy. There are no explanations of the various functions built into the menus, but that shouldn't be a problem, since this camera is geared toward more-advanced users. Leica places certain functions, such as ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, compression, and resolution, in a separate menu, accessed by pressing the Set button. Sensitivity choices include ISO 160, ISO, 320, ISO 640, ISO 1,250, and ISO 2,500. Exposure compensation ranges from plus 3 to minus 3EV in one-third EV increments, and white balance includes a Kelvin temperature setting, in addition to auto, manual, and the usual array of presets. The camera can shoot images in two levels of JPEG compression and/or Adobe's DNG raw format. That means that Photoshop users who use Adobe Camera Raw won't have to download an update to start converting raw files from the M8.
Late last year, Leica acknowledged a couple of problems with the M8. The most noticeable problem in our field tests was what Leica has termed the camera's "above-average sensitivity to infrared light." The problem arises from the M8's unusually thin IR filter in front of its CCD. As a result, certain fabrics end up with too much magenta when captured by the M8, giving them a purplish look. Leica offers screw-on IR/UV filters for its lenses to compensate for the problem, and in our tests, they solved the issue. Leica has said it will offer two free filters to anyone who purchases the M8. As part of the online registration process, new M8 owners will get to choose the filter sizes they want (to match the lenses they own). The free filters will not be available at the time of purchase, since it would be unwieldy for retailers to try to stock so many sizes of this obscure filter.
Though we didn't experience any banding or ghosting in our sample shots, Leica says that some M8 units did experience these issues as well. Leica has issued a firmware upgrade to solve this issue, and noted that all new M8s will have this firmware preinstalled.
Since the M8 doesn't include autofocus, its performance numbers can't really be compared to most other cameras, but we still feel it's useful to share them. The camera took 0.8 second from switching it on to capturing its first image. The time between subsequent shots measured about 0.68 second whether shooting RAW or JPG files. Continuous shooting yielded about two frames per second regardless of image size.
As you'd expect from Leica, we were impressed with the image quality of the M8. For the record, we conducted our tests with a 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens with the Leica-issued corrective filter in place and the most recent firmware factory-installed. Images showed tons of sharpness, accurate colors, and a wide dynamic range, with plenty of detail at both dark and light extremes. We saw no evidence of JPG compression. Noise was practically nonexistent at the base sensitivity of ISO 160, remains extremely low at ISO 320, and just barely creeps in at ISO 640. At ISO 1250, the noise becomes noticeable and robs a minor amount of sharpness, but images are still very usable. By ISO 2500 noise becomes excessive. While there's still an impressive amount of detail for such a high ISO, the noise present changed to include more off-color specs and crossed our threshold for use at full size. While you'll probably be able to get away with using ISO 2500 images from the M8 at smaller sizes--for 4x6-inch prints or downsized for e-mail--we'd suggest you opt for lower ISOs when shooting more cherished photos.
The sad part about the problems faced by the Leica M8 is that the company could have avoided them. The decision to go with a thinner-than-normal IR filter was a conscious one, which the company made in an effort to eke all the sharpness they could out of their famously sharp lenses. Now, those same lenses will have to be capped with potentially sharpness-stealing filters anyway, and Leica has had to deal with cleaning the egg off its face. To its credit, even with the filter in place our test images were plenty sharp, so the company did step up to the plate and offer a decent solution for their customers. Now we'll just have to wait and see what Leica's customers think of their fix.