The legendary Leica M8 was released just over 8 years ago, and was Leica's first attempt at making a rangefinder M camera with a digital sensor. The release was fraught with issues, some minor and some more severe. Many even felt that the M8 was an outdated camera as soon as it was released. On paper, things didn't seem to be working out for the M8.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel though, and photographers found that if you could fix or adapt to the cameras quirks and idiosyncrasies, it was capable of absolutely stunning image quality that was unlike any other digital camera at the time, and is still particularly unique to this day.
Now in 2014, used M8s can be found for under $2,000, which is nearly half what a used M9 would cost you. That has a lot of people wondering if it's a good option for those wanting to enter the world of digital rangefinder cameras, but can't quite get past the exorbitant cost. On paper it doesn't seem to make any sense to buy a camera that many considered was outdated when it was new, but perhaps it isn't as crazy as you might think.
I've been using an M8.2 for almost a year now, and thought I would take a moment to go over some of the original M8's problems, whether or not they're still an issue today, and make it clear how well this camera stands up in 2014. Used or not, it's a lot of money to spend on a camera, so it's best that you're sure it's the right one for you.
Mechanics and Handling
The M8, in true Leica M form, is absolutely stunning to hold. Built of magnesium alloy with brass top and bottom plates, it has a heft and high quality feel that is unmatched by any other camera that I've felt. There is something about the feeling of a Leica M that is a quality and build that only a company like NASA or maybe BMW could rival. It's truly an incredible camera to hold, especially when paired with high quality lenses from Leica or Zeiss.
There are a few issues though, and while I haven't run into them or found them to be detrimental to my shooting, they are indeed problems that one should be aware of before plunking down the cash.
First of which is the shutter. The original M8 had a metal-blade shutter with a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 sec. It was loud, clunky, and unfortunately they experienced quite a few failures on these shutters. Leica did upgrade the shutter (more on this later) but if you're looking to purchase an M8 with the original shutter, you're best off sticking with one with low use. Leica will still repair the shutter on the M8, but from what I've read, they're running low on parts and may soon not be able to replace them any longer. Your best bet is to buy an M8 or M8.2 with the upgraded shutter, if you want to avoid future problems.
The second issue is the LCD display. It was crappy when it was new, and it's extra crappy now. It's low resolution, dark, slow to navigate, and just plain terrible. In addition, many of the displays developed an issue dubbed the "coffee stain" which was a brown spot in the middle of the screen. Leica replaced the displays under warranty until they ran out of parts, so it can no longer be repaired. Instead, they offer a trade-in credit towards a replacement M9. Not a bad deal, actually.
Outside of those two problems, things with the M8 are generally mechanically sound. My M8.2 did develop the coffee stain issue on the LCD, but it is so minor that I haven't even bothered to have it looked at by Leica. I rarely look at the display, and when I do, the coffee stain is only visible about 25% of the time. I don't find it to be distracting, and I wouldn't let that problem deter me from purchasing an M8.
Image Quality, Resolution, and Noise
The sensor in the M8 is a Kodak CCD with 10.1 megapixels. Whether or not 10.1 megapixels is enough for you is up to you, but I have never found it to be a limitation. If you're certain that you need more resolution than that, then you probably know exactly what you need and the M8 isn't for you. If you're not sure, let me make it easy for you: 10.1 megapixels is plenty of resolution for 95% of photographers. Don't get caught up in the megapixel war--it's a losing battle.
The Kodak sensor is a CCD, instead of the modern and more commonly used CMOS technology. Many attribute the Leica's incredible tonality and unique looking files to the fact that they chose a CCD sensor for this camera. Unfortunately it has tradeoffs, most significant of which is that it's a relatively noisy sensor at high ISOs.
The M8 has a native ISO range from 160-2500, and there's a lot of debate online about how much of that range is actually usable. I can say from my experience that I've gotten usable images from ISO 1250 with Lightroom's excellent noise reduction, especially if you're planning to convert to black & white. The noise is fine grain in form, and almost film-like, so it lends itself to B&W conversions quite well. ISO 640 is mostly fine, and ISO 320 and below, images are noise-free and absolutely stunning.
There were some early sensor issues with green blobs or vertical lines appearing in images at higher ISOs in low light. Leica fixed these issues with either a full sensor replacement or a software remap, and will still perform those repairs today.
Arguably the biggest and most notable issue with the Leica M8 was the sensor's almost nonexistent IR filter. Leica removed the IR and anti-aliasing filters from the sensor to increase sharpness, but unfortunately it was at the cost of increased IR sensitivity that caused black colors in some lighting to come out purple. To remedy this, Leica offered two free IR cut filters to everyone that purchased an M8, and included them with all future M8 sales. With an IR cut filter on your lens, there are no problems, but it is important to be aware that you will absolutely need one on every lens you plan to use with this camera.
The flip side of this, however, is that images from the Kodak sensor are shockingly sharp. Paired with high quality glass from Leica or Zeiss, you'll end up with files that are as sharp as anything on the market today. The sharpness is mind blowing, and it's fantastic to see a sensor do these incredible lenses justice.
One other note about the sensor: it's a rather unusual APS-H size, which means it's a 1.33x crop factor. Not a big deal, and still larger than the APS-C sensors in most consumer-level DSLRs today, but just remember when you're purchasing lenses that you need to multiply your focal length by 1.33 to get an idea of the effective field of view.
Fast forward to today, and I'm sitting here at my desk, my M8.2 in front of me begging to be picked up, as I'm writing this article about a camera I've been using for about a year and shot several thousand pictures with. So if you're wanting a digital rangefinder today, is the M8 or M8.2 still a viable choice?
I say yes, but with an asterisk. You have to know what you're getting yourself into. If you're wanting a digital rangefinder, I'm certain you understand that this is a camera for people wanting to slow down their photography and focus on the craft. There are no clever microprocessors or ultrasonic motors or movie modes or anything of the sort inside this camera. If you manage to create a beautiful image with this camera, it's because you did it. You framed it, you set the exposure, and you focused it. Being so connected to the process is charming and invigorating, but you have to be certain that it's something you want to dive into and learn. This is not at all an easy camera to shoot, but when you get it just right, it will reward you. It's addicting.
In addition, there are technical issues with this camera that shouldn't be ignored. If I were buying an M8 today, I would do what I could to find either an upgraded M8 (M8u) or an M8.2. This will go a long way to help prevent any shutter issues, and also adds niceties like a sapphire glass LCD cover.
With diligent research and careful purchasing, you can certainly get a camera that will serve you for many years problem-free. Be smart about it, take good care of it, and it will treat you well.
I wrote this on The Drewbot a couple weeks ago, and I think it's important to remind yourself of this when you're considering purchasing new gear:
Cameras have an inherent longevity in ways that a lot of other digital equipment doesn't. Unless you are a professional photographer with specific technical requirements, there's simply no reason to dwell on what is ground-breaking today. I would love if the autofocus on my X100 were faster, or my Leica handled high ISO a little bit better. But I often still find myself picking my jaw up off the floor when I look at the files from either camera. They were brilliant when they were new, and they're just as brilliant today.
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