“Is the [insert older Leica camera model here] still a good camera?”

leica_m8

The M8. First sold by Leica in 2006. My favorite “obsolete” digital Leica. It’s still worth buying, ten years later.

If you spend any amount of time perusing camera enthusiast forums, you’re going to run across this question, posted at predictable intervals, asking whether a particular digital camera “is still good.” That’s always struck me as an incoherent question born of weak reasoning and ignorance. At base, what does the question mean? The key qualifying word seems to be “still,” as in “does it make sense to be using this camera now, given all the models that have come since?” Characterizing the question that way, it does make some sense. Why should I buy older model X when I can also buy newer model Y that is claimed to be “better” than model X?

Consider the Leica M8 and its present viability versus a current Leica offering, say, a Leica M262. Certainly, you might want to consider the price differential (unless you’re a person of means who isn’t constrained by financial necessities). The M262 is the successor to the Leica M-E, which itself is an M9 minus the frameline preview lever and USB port. The M262, however, is based on the M240 but shares the body shape and weight of the M9 series. It has a 24 Mxp full frame CMOS sensor. It costs about $5000. The M8 is a 10.3 Mpx CCD camera first offered by Leica in 2006. It has the same form factor as subsequent digital M’s (a slightly fatter M6), so if your main reason for wanting a Leica is to impress people, the average guy on the street wouldn’t know the difference. You can pick one up for $1200, used. So the M262 is 4X as expensive as a good, used M8.

By most socially accepted criteria, the M262 is the “better” camera. But is it really? That’s, of course, a question only you can answer. It’s got a larger, higher def sensor, no doubt, one that theoretically allows you the ability to take “better” photos depending on how you define the quality of a photo. It’s also going to set you back $5000 as opposed to the M8, which you can pick up these days for peanuts (relatively speaking from a Leica perspective).

It seems to me that, at this point in the evolution of digital technology, this is a question in search of an argument. Unless we’re talking of a camera from the early digital era, e.g. circa 2001-2005, most serious digital cameras of whatever age meet or exceed the quality produced by traditional 35mm film cameras in terms of resolution and dynamic range. In this sense, as of, let’s say, the Leica M8, they’ve become “good enough.” Does it make sense, then, to buy an M8 when I can buy an M262? More precisely, if I’m a guy who simply wants to say he owns a Leica, what reason would I have to buy the M262 for $5000 when I can purchase my Leica cred by buying a minimally used M8 that’s sat on some guy’s shelf for the last 10 years?

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The physicist Niels Bohr, apparently a wise man of few words, was fond of telling the story of a man who a bought a parrot, only to return it because the parrot wouldn’t talk. The seller of the parrot, upon being asked to take the parrot back, replied: “Oh, forgive me. You wanted a parrot that talks, and I mistakenly sold you a parrot that thinks.” The parrot seller was laboring under what logicians call the ‘false dilemma fallacy,’ where an argument presents a set of two possible categories and assumes the subject of the argument must fall into one or the other category. In Bohr’s parable, the line of reasoning suggests that someone is either silent and thoughtful or talkative and an imbecile, a specious line of reasoning that, interestingly enough, one could argue is amply supported by the denizens of most internet photography forums. [In reality, there exists a third option, that the talkative man might have something intelligent to say, or a fourth, that the quiet man might not]. You get the point.

As to the debate about the worth of a super-ceded camera model, the same realities apply. Framed one way (via the false dilemma fallacy), an M8 today is an unworkable anachronism, hopelessly outdated in the era of live view and 256,000 ISO. This, of course, is to uncritically accept the premise camera manufacturers espouse in their ceaseless efforts to keep you buying cameras – new is the standard below which anything else is “obsolete” and of no continuing value.

Which looks pretty suspect from a critical perspective. If we’re going to discuss “obsolescence” we’ll need to first distinguish between two types:

Planned obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is the designing  and producing of products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a consumer grade digicam made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: Perceived obsolescence is planned obsolescence that manipulates the “desirability” of a product.  A superceded camera model, say, will continue to be functional, just like it was when new – no better, no worse – yet it is no longer perceived to be appropriate given new “advances” in technology or style, so it is now rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function.  Perceived obsolescence is all about what is fashionable, and what is fashionable in a consumerist economy must necessarily change from year to year. If capitalism has one driving reality, it’s that new widgets must constantly be produced to replace last year’s widgets and those new widgets must now be ceaselessly proclaimed to “better than ” last year’s widgets. Unspoken, but assumed in consumerist logic is the premise not only that the new widget is “better” but also that the old widget, the one we’ve owned and happily used without complaint, is now unworthy of further use. Of course, from a rational perspective, this is complete bullshit.

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Perceived obsolescence is now the number one “product” of the advertising that supports the camera industry. While what Nikon and Canon and Sony and Leica currently offer is technologically more advanced than what they were offering in 2006,  its arguable whether new cameras are “better” in any practical sense from what’s been available to us in the past. To automatically infer they are is to confuse the allegedly useful with the necessary, the necessary being the pivot point on which Leica has historically derived its almost cult-like following. Up until the Last decade or so, Leicas had never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity. They’ve been about making the photographic act as streamlined and efficient and simple as possible and the instrument well-built to last, characteristics modern digital camera makers have ignored in their headlong sprint to see who can jam the most features into a camera you’ll use till the next iteration comes along. If you’ve ever stared at the menu options your digital camera offers while the scene you wanted to photograph disappears, or your camera won’t function because of an error code, you’ll understand the difference.

josef-koudelka

Josef Koudelka took this with an obsolete old film Leica and some Tri-X. He may not be able to print it much bigger than 11×14, but it’s still better than anything you’ll ever do with your M262.

Framed another way (a third option outside of the either/or dichotomy posited by the false dilemma), the M8 is still the great (but flawed) camera its always been.  Being firmly rooted in the film era, I neither need (nor want) 12800 iso on demand. Long ago I learned how to shoot in low light pushing HP5 to 1600 iso using a fast lens. Ironically, the open-aperture bokeh look so prized by happy-snappers today has its genesis in the constraints of such traditional low light shooting. As for dynamic range, well, that went out the window under such conditions as well. It’s called “the film look”, and it’s an aesthetic now prized by shooters trying to avoid the clinical “perfection” of  digital capture, and the M8, at least in b&w, does it to perfection. Run its files through Silver Efex and you”ve got something approaching scanned film with a fraction of the hassle. And when I’ve got ample light, the M8 delivers remarkable files easily printable to 20×30, not that I’d want to, mind you, as the modern fetish for large prints usually bears out the old adage “if you can’t make em good, make em big.”

in my mind, the argument should be about whether the camera you use gives you the results you want. As for what I want, it’s not sterile perfection, which, as best I can tell from a half-century of looking critically at great photography, is irrelevant to what makes a compelling photograph. What I do want, after a certain level of base technological competence, is that the camera I use get out of my way and allow me to get the picture. In that respect, just like my iiif, M4 or M5, my M8 succeeds briliantly, and I get the added Leica caché, all for the price of a middling consumer grade digicam.

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on ““Is the [insert older Leica camera model here] still a good camera?”

  1. Wayne

    You’ve made me think about it:

    It is kind of odd how the one thing, obsolescence, that Leica rf cameras- from the earliest Barnack models to current digital models- defy better than other makes/models is also a thing that must be engendered in order to keep the company afloat.

    I do, stupidly, participate. I suppose, as far as afflictions go, it could be worse. But the fact is, in use, about the same level of joy exists in the Leica II and the M-D.

    Status and fashion considerations notwithstanding.

  2. Rob Campbell

    In effect, you’re confirming my old theory of the problems that face camera manufacturers today: too much innovation has led to an unreliable appetite for innovation per se.

    In film days, I ran the gamut of Nikons from F to F4s. I only bought a new body when I’d worn out the old ones, or, in the case of the FM/FM2 range, simply in order to provide a higher flash synch. for those rare times that the job required it. That way, a case with two top bodies plus a cheapo one for flash, and I was set to go. The cameras themselves had very minor changes, model to model, until the advent of the electrically powered shutter of the F3. The F4 was a mini-computer, and I actually bought mine becaue I thought the F3 had been abandoned. A brief tenure of that F4, coupled with the late realisation that I could still buy a new F3 took me that step backwards to comfort, a camera that actually loaded the first time, each time, unlike the F4 that caused me no end of embarrassment with each new film I tried to feed into it. Folks really shouldn’t try to fix what ain’t broke!

    Come digital, and being retired, I find that my old D200 and D700 give me all I can see myself needing. I feel absolutely no wish to ‘upgrade’ – what on Earth for? So, with so many versions of cameras on all the manufacturer’s lists, no wonder they find themselves overstocked (generally) and not selling enough volume.

    They have to rationalise; they need to get realistic and decide their segment of the market. Leica did that when it stuck with the M range, and the venture into the R bodies – at least until the R6, at which point I stopped looking – failed to meet my expectations because those bodies, unlike the Nikon F upwards, didn’t offer 100% viewfinder coverage, which when doing commercial work on 135 format, was an essential.

    Whether Leica is now producing too many different cameras today, too, is anyone’s guess, but as they appear to have appeal to a rather different market, perhaps it will help rather than hider them. I wish ’em well.

    Rob

  3. Brian

    I bought my M8 almost 7 years ago, followed by the M9 a year later and the M Monochrom when it first came out. Leica should have used uncompressed DNG for the M8, rather than the 8-bit images that it stores. The compression scheme introduces the color banding that plagued the images at High-ISO. Using the “Button Dance” and M8RAW2DNG gives ~1.5stops of improvement, makes the M8 images very close to the M9 at higher ISO. Having manual lens selection as with the M9 and M Monochrom would also be nice, but is not as critical with the crop sensor.

    The CCD used in the M8 has 3dB higher dynamic range then that used in the M9, my speculation being that the M9 CCD required more “thinning” to achieve full-frame.

    The M8 is my favorite camera to use with hacked lenses and with Infrared. Use an Orange filter, Blue channel gets IR only. Boost the Blue channel to that of green and red, leaves you with an image similar to Infrared Ektachrome. Use M8RAW2DNG to allow boosting the Blue channel.

  4. Andrew

    Agree completely.

    Looking back at film gear, manufacturers added features to entice us to upgrade, but at least we knew that the image quality was only affected by the lens, the film and the processing and printing, with the camera only affecting the equation through malfunction or poor design such as light leaks or a less-than-flat film plane.

    Today with sensors and computer processing (in and out of camera), we can replace film with sensor and processing and printing with in camera processing and printing with post processing (and printing). Your M8 or my M-E compared to a newer M240 is like choosing Tri-X over Delta 400, which is technically “better”, but not necessarily what you want.

    I still shoot film, and of course my film bodies are old. For digital its the same calculation. Sure the M240 has better specifications than the M9, and maybe some will prefer the end results, but I see no need to upgrade. I also shoot a Canon 5D3 that is now four-years-old and was just replaced with a newer model that I have no interest in buying.

  5. Ross

    I bought a used M8 four years ago, coming from a Nikon DSLR, and never looked back.
    The M8 and its CCD sensor, coupled to a Zeiss 21/4.5, processing via Aperture and finally Silver Efex Pro 2 produce stunning B&W images that impress with an almost cinematographic presence and depth.
    The M8 is good up to 640 ISO, which may seem silly by today’s standards, but it’s more than enough.
    In available light conditions and with the ‘slow’ 21/4.5 I regularly end up with shutter speeds in 1/30th, 1/15th and, yes, 1/8th of a second territory. No sweat, the M8 can take it, as long as you’ve got a steady enough hand.
    The M8 is the ultimate reportage/candid/stealth photographic tool and at current prices it clearly is a best buy for anyone looking to get into Leica-M digital photography.

  6. Tim Leonard

    Hi,

    Great post concerning the philosophy behind marketing and perceived value.
    One of the best Leica articles I’ve read concerning personal choice and vision.
    I appreciated your professional insights into the technical specifics.
    I love your astute comments on the Josef image.
    Thanks.

  7. John Robison

    “Up until the Last decade or so Leicas have never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity.”

    They have somewhat redeemed themselves by producing the MA. Can you imagine the discussion that when on in the Leica corporate boardroom when that was proposed.

  8. Ross

    “Up until the Last decade or so Leicas have never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity.”

    Well, in the old days Leitz was most certainly a company about technological superiority; mechanically as well as optically – and as a result they produced camera’s that were functional and aesthetically simple.
    Leitz, after all, started out as manufacturers of optical equipment (microscopes) and as such were the main rivals of Zeiss. They knew a thing or two about manufacturing to mechanical tolerances right down to micrometer level. Tolerances that in certain respects equaled those of the Swiss watch-making industry.
    The Leitz design team, Oskar Barnack / Max Berek, stands out as arguably THE best one-two punch in all of (mechanical) camera/optics history.
    It was the introduction of camera electronics in the 1970’s that posed a major problem for Leitz. The people at Wetzlar simply lacked the engineering expertise in this field, as everything up until that point had been of a mechanical nature. And Leitz wasn’t particularly quick to innovate – considering the conservative design philosophy they had always embraced. Enter Minolta’s collaboration with Leitz to try and play catch-up with the Japanese.
    Fast-forward to 2006 – same problem. This time it’s the lack of expertise in digital electronics and software that almost did the Traditionsmarke from Solms in. With, lucky for us, the emphasis on “almost”.

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