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Quick Leica M8 review

We had an interesting morning yesterday with Tom and his Leica M8. We often use motoring metaphors to describe the difference between cameras (for example, it’s a lot easier to drive a fiesta than a ferrari to the shops). If there was a motoring metaphot for this camera, it would be one of these stripped-down-not-even-a-radio-but-still-eyewateringly-expensive little road cars. A Caterham, say. None of your namby-pamby anti-lock traction control. Simple, pure, dangerous.

The Leica M8 is a rangefinder camera rather than an SLR. Most people think that SLRs are cameras where you can swap lenses over and generally this is true. Strictly speaking, a Single Lens Reflex camera has one lens, so that looking through the viewfinder looks through the real lens. If you leave the lens cap on, you can’t see anything through the viewfinder! Many compact cameras have a separate viewfinder and you actually look through a separate lens. If you leave the lens cap on, you can still see through the viewfinder because you’re not looking through the main lens.

The M8, although you can change lenses, has this separate viewfinder system. As a result, it has no mirror inside, and is therefore flatter and smaller than an SLR. The shutter is also quieter, because a big mirror doesn’t have to be moved out of the way. Afficionados say the benefit of this separate viewfinder gives you not just the frame you’re taking, but also some area around it, which helps with composition. It is also brighter than most SLR viewfinders.

You have very few gizmos to help you. No autofocus, just a smooth focus ring on the lens, which you turn to align green squares in the viewfinder. Aperture is set the same way – a smooth ring marked in f stops. There is an auto mode, which is basically aperture priority picking a shutter speed for you based on the aperture you set on the lens, but that’s about it. There’s no pop-up flash (like top SLRs, which makes sense since they cost about the same).

Having not handled a Leica for some years, we did a bit of research before I met Tom, and there are some good resources – by far the best is Michael Kamber’s harrowing review from the front line in Iraq. A very experienced photographer, Kamber has lots of concerns about the camera – you can’t get the SD card out quickly when being chased by Iraqi police, the switches change settings when they bang against your flak jacket. Not the sort of thing that is a problem in non-war-torn England, but he points out that the M8 is really noisy at higher ISOs than 320 (this is a problem in England in November, it’s as black as your hat around here) – this is a bit rubbish when you can get almost noiseless cameras for not much money. (We’re thinking here about the Nikon D90, D700 or D3, depending on the size of wallet). Also, Kamber points out that the auto white balance seems to be weirdly sensitive, so that pictures at the same shoot in the same room swing wildly in colour depending on whether you’re pointing slightly towards the window, or slightly towards the indoor lights. We found this to be a problem too, and it’s pretty annoying even if you’re shooting RAW and can change it all afterwards. This is never a problem even on really cheap cameras. However, other reviews are available – see the luminous landscape review, which is so positive it might as well have been written by Leica.

Phil taken in a cafe with a Tom's M8, real unflattering reportage!

There are a couple of real advantages to the Leica:

Firstly, the lenses are great! Tom’s one and only lens, a 35mm (acting as a 46mm with the camera’s 1.33 crop factor) is an f1.4, which is great for low light. However, for all it’s claim as a good unobtrusive camera, you need to be really close to get a nice portrait at this focal length. Like, really close. Like, totally in someone’s personal space. So it’s great for beautifully and accurately capturing slightly annoyed looking people. There are virtually no telephotos, and the rangefinder viewfinder is not all that accurate at showing what you are actually photographing (which is the point of viewfinders last time I looked).

Secondly, the focus distance is written on the lens. This allows you to focus (at say six feet), then walk up (to say Britney Spears) to six feet from the subject, and take the pic without re-focusing before you get thrown out by the bouncers. This is old-school journo shooting, but not that useful because normally in these situations the light is poor and the M8′s noise means you can’t get a decent shot. Also, at low f numbers the depth of field is so shallow you have to be very close. So it’s not that great in practice unless you’re in good light and really know your stuff. (That’ll be Michael Kamber again).

Thirdly, and we’re not underestimating this, the camera looks and feels GREAT! You can pretend to be Cartier-Bresson or Capa while taking your holiday snaps. Not many of your friends will have one, even if your friends are all fabulously wealthy. You really feel like a photographer, and the camera is so unforgiving that you have to learn quickly. In the same way that some fabulously wealthy people like to risk their necks by driving cars with spoked wheels, frames made of wood and water in their genuinely hydraulic brakes. But, rest assured, they’ll have a proper car for days when they actually need to arrive somewhere.

Overall, we came away from using the camera unimpressed. We’re not into auto stuff on cameras, but this is ridiculous. We’d like one, sure, in the way that we’d like an Austin Healey. We used to have a Hassleblad that we never used, but used to click the shutter to hear the skill and engineering in the build. But we sold it eventually because we never used it and it had become an expensive piece of ornamental art.

We’re just not sure that most people will be able get good pictures from the M8. And that, surely is the whole point of a camera. If you really really want one and you want to try it out, buy yourself a35mm film Olympus Trip on ebay. It’s just as retro as the M8 and people won’t know what it is either. You can pick them up for five quid on ebay rather than a thousand for body-only. Not only that, for most people in most circumstances it will take better pictures.


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