Tag Archives: Leica M8

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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Is The Leica M8 Still Worth It? It Depends.

leica_m8I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted it. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon (full disclosure: I own and use a Nikon D3s for much if my low-light work, and yes, it produces stunning files). But the traditional M’s restrained simplicity seems to have crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.

The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8  it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end.

However, although the respective experiences themselves are dissimilar, the view from the viewfinder is similar, the simplicity of aperture and shutter operation is identical, the rounded form in my hand feels familiar from a lifetime of film M usage. The economy of means possessed by the film cameras is still there in the M8. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?

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So, I own, and happily use, an M8. It’s not an M4, but its close enough that it feels familiar. Which then leads to the question: is it digital M’s I dislike, or it it digital photography?

Frankly, I’m not interested in a camera’s DXO score. It either produces decent digital files, or it doesn’t, and that’s not the function of some number cooked up via an arcane technical formula but rather what your prints look like. The M8 produces really nice prints, period. Even in 2015. Does it produce the stunning low light files my Nikon D3s does? No, but I don’t expect it to, just like in the film era I never expected my M5 to do the same things as my Hasselblad. Different tools for different needs. When I need a digital equivalent of my Film M, the M8 still fits the bill nicely – discreet and unobtrusive – and insofar as a digital device can replicate the Leica film experience, the M8 does it.

A classic film M is a masterpiece of mechanical engineering. Admittedly, the digital M is a mechanical-electronic mongrel, subject to issues that traditional M film cameras are not. That being said, like film M’s, the M8 is stripped of all pretense and electronic hoopla inasmuch as a digital camera can be. It’s an all-manual camera except that it allows aperture priority exposure if you desire. It takes your M-mount lenses and gives you all the controls – aperture, shutter speed – in exactly the same way as your 50 year old M4 does. It’s basically a digital M7. The camera is unobtrusive (no loud motordrive or mirror housing, although the “thwaack” of the shutter is loud and sounds like the breach of a long gun), and the rangefinder focusing is the same as the traditional M’s, making it maybe the best digital option for precise focusing, especially in low light.

As for its capabilities, for people like me who shoot b&w exclusively, it still produces outstanding digital files capable of a tonality the equal of any other digital camera I know, including the Monochrom. It’s a function of the M8’s extra sensitivity to the IR spectrum, something that’s a handicap to folks wanting to use the M8 for color photography but, stripped of its color, produces really nice B&W files that appeal to me as a film shooter. Its 10 megapixels resolution is, to my mind, a good compromise between files large enough for practical needs and the bloated overkill of current high resolution models. Frankly, who cares if you can read the tattoo on the arm of some dude three streets over. If that’s your idea of the technology you need to advance your creative pursuits, then we don’t have much further to discuss.

Yes, it’s a 9 year old camera now, but, as the kids say, it is what it is. interestingly enough, however, it’s still as good a camera as it was the day it was introduced, in spite of the fact that technology has moved on. Much of current digital technology – impressive as it is – seems to me to be in the category of ‘solutions in search of a problem’, capabilities and features you never knew you needed until camera companies told you you did. If you’re a Leicaphile – If you want a digital camera with the charms of a traditional film M – technological issues are low on your scale of priorities. You’re looking for 50’s era simplicity – rangefinder focusing, manual focus optics, manual exposure – in a digital platform. In that respect, the M8 still delivers. It allows you to use your M-mount optics, and the CCD sensor, while ancient by today’s standards, still delivers unique black and white files that give printed results as good as anything you’ll produce with a film M. And the tactile experience is about as similar to the classic mechanical film camera experience as you’ll find in a digital platform, including a generous portion of the frustrating little anomalies us Leica users have always accepted as a necessary price of admission to the Leica Experience.

 

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Magical Thinking and the Illusion of Continuity

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“With the introduction of a perpetual upgrade program, every LEICA M8 will forever be a state-of-the-art digital camera. Today’s and tomorrow’s users will always be able to incorporate the latest refinements and developments in handling ease and technology. It is our aim to secure your investment in the LEICA M8 for the future. While other digital cameras quickly become outdated and are replaced by newer models, our new concept extends the value retention and resistance to obsolescence embodied in the Leica ethos. Over time, we will gradually offer new product features and developments as upgrade options, declares Steven K. Lee, CEO of Leica Camera AG. Our customers can therefore still invest in the photographic tools they need without worrying that they will miss out on improvements and technological developments along the way.”

 

The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.

As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value  because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.

The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers,  at a pace in the rear of the digital pack.  This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.

Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.

The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.

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So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.

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Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I  he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.

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Goodbye Leica

By Adrian Boot. Originally published by Urbanimage.tv.  All photos by Adrian Boot

It was 1974 when I first began using a Leica, a second hand M3 with a 35mm f1.4 lens. It was a dream come true, a classic stealth camera that was fast, almost silent, small and brilliant in low light. You could take pictures without a tripod at shutter speeds as low as 1/15 of a second, and as long as the subject didn’t move even 1/8 of a second. Unlike its bulky SLR relatives Canon, Pentax, Nikon etc. all of which are disadvantaged with mirror vibration, poor focus systems and bulkiness, the Leica was fast, precise and small. Try holding a large Nikon SLR in one hand while shooting at slow shutter speeds, the results will be often be a blur. These days this is not entirely true given that most modern digital SLR cameras have some sort of image stabilization.

The Leica was designed around a roll of 35mm film. Designed by photographers for photographers. With near perfect ergonomics it was a camera that rested in the hand like a glove, allowing the photographer to remain unobtrusive, a true fly on the wall.  Leica became the gold standard of camera technology and although it had lots of imitators nothing else came close.

The Pretenders Chrissie Hynde live

BY the early 1980’s I could afford to upgrade to the latest Leica M4 with an enviable selection of lenses including that king of lenses, the Summilux 35mm f1.4. This was quickly followed by a second / spare body the M4-P. The P meaning professional. These sleek matt black bodies became my much loved workhorse cameras, over time becoming battered, scratched and dented, carrying the scars of many a great photo opportunity. Although well worn they never failed. These mechanical masterpieces were built like tanks, tough as old boots, like Volkswagen cars, a symbol of German engineering with accuracy of a fine Swiss watch.

Grace Jones New York Roof Session

Of course nothing is that perfect, and the Leica M cameras had limitations. They we’re useless with telephoto lenses. Anything over a 90mm lens was impossible especially in low light conditions. For concert and action work, I , like most of my colleagues, used Nikon SLR cameras with 200 and 300mm telephoto lenses and later huge telephoto zoom lenses. The downside was the weight and size of these cameras. Hang a couple of Nikon motorized bodies together with big telephoto lenses around your neck and not only do you stick out like a photographic sore thumb, but you would often end the days shoot with serious neck ache.

Why two cameras? Well one was for colour film and one was for black and white film. Sometimes one camera would contain fast film ASA 400+ and the other a slower but finer ASA 100 film. Making matters worse,  if I was on a trip that required live concert work along side candid back stage, fly on the wall photography, I had to carry 3 if not 4 camera bodies, all clanking around my aching neck. I would use the unobtrusive Leica M cameras for the backstage work. Hiding in corners or behind doors, popping off pics of Rock stars tuning guitars, arguing amongst them selves, chatting up groupies, or falling out with wives. It was all possible on a Leica, less possible on the bulky Nikons.

Tune up backstage at the Apollo

As we came through into the 90′s the technology gave us hard pressed photographers things like autofocus, image stabilization and more sophisticated through the lens light metering. Highly automatic cameras from Nikon and Canon became the choice of most professionals. Even thought the Leica had the best manual focus via its rangefinder focusing, it was unable to compete with these new technological breakthroughs. Autofocus was a relief for my ageing eyesight. But still the Leica remained a treasured part of my photographic life, although no longer as vital. My attachment to Leica was fast becoming more emotional than a practical solution.

Then as we came into the new millennium DIGITAL photography really began to overtake film. I resisted for a while, not entirely convinced that a digital image could be as good as a film image. So .. dipping my toe in the water with a Nikon D300 body I converted, and the results were astonishing. Combined with fast autofocus and multiple point through the lens metering and an array of other features, the images were pin sharp and perfectly exposed. The camera came into its own with low light, fast action live concert photography. Digital photography was at least as good as film photography, certainly here to stay. No more darkroom, no more poisonous chemicals, no more dust specks or scratch marks to retouch.

Sex Pistols

So when Leica announced the M8, a digital version of the classic Leica body compatible with my collection of battered M series lenses, I rushed out to buy one and although it cost thousands of pounds, It retained the solid metal build of previous Leica cameras, the same control layout and the same classic look and feel. My transition from film to digital was going to be smooth and painless, or so I thought. I had hardly removed the thing from its box when I started to notice problems. The battery and SD card both fitted under the removable base plate, a feature retained to preserve  classic Leica functionality. This feature on the Leica M4 was a fast and efficient way of loading a roll of film, but on the M8 it made changing the SD card as slow as replacing a roll of film.

Trying to use my new M8 to shoot some colour pics, I discovered that the resulting images showed a serious magenta caste that required special correction filters to be added to each and every Leica lens I owned. To be fair Leica did supply 2 of these expensive items for free, but the rest I had to buy, what a hassle. Then I discovered that the viewfinder frame did not match the lens being used, making framing a guess rather than anything accurate. The glass covering the LCD screen was soft and susceptible to scratches so I was forced to use a plastic film of the type used to protect mobile phones. Adding insult to injury Leica announced a camera hardware upgrade fixing these problems, but at a cost of over £1000. I was rapidly becoming disenchanted with Leica cameras.

I also bought a Nikon D3X, a top of the line Nikon digital body and the experience was very different. By contrast this was a dream to use, and has produced some amazing images. Frankly it pissed all over the Leica. Even so the Nikon was still a beast of a camera, heavy and bulky, but it worked. No cures yet for neck ache though.

Led Zeppelin

Now recently companies such as Sony, Epson and Ricoh have all started to make compact cameras that can take traditional Leica M lenses. A Sony NEX 5R or 7 costs under a grand and the innovative Ricoh GXR costs only a few hundred pounds and both have better sensors than the measly 10 megapixel sensor on the M8. Leica, bless them, have recently launched the M9 with a full frame sensor and price tag of around £5000, and I’m sure people will buy it. You don’t even need a good eye for photography, Just hang an M9 around your neck and you will impress people.

My days with a classic Leica camera are over, although the lenses will continue to be used and I am sure will produce impressive results. I have now bought a Ricoh GXR with a Leica mount. It fits in my pocket and with the low price tag I might buy two.

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