A digital version of Leica's prestigious rangefinder camera.Photographers have been using Leica's M series rangefinder cameras for more than half a century and the new M8 represents a genuine combination of traditional and modern digital technologies. Apart from the LCD and array of buttons on the rear panel and the lack of a film-advance lever, you would never recognise the M8 as a digital camera. But inside its traditional-looking body is a 27 x 18 mm CCD chip with a 1.33x crop factor and 10-megapixel resolution plus a suite of electronic controls. . . [more]
Photographers have been using Leica's M series rangefinder cameras for more than half a century and the new M8 represents a genuine combination of traditional and modern digital technologies. Apart from the LCD and array of buttons on the rear panel and the lack of a film-advance lever, you would never recognise the M8 as a digital camera. But inside its traditional-looking body is a 27 x 18 mm CCD chip with a 1.33x crop factor and 10-megapixel resolution plus a suite of electronic controls.
Available in silver and black, the M8's body is made from die-cast magnesium. The top and bottom covers are brass that has been black lacquered or silver chromium plated, depending on which version you have. A synthetic leather coating has been applied to the main body itself. It's textured to provide a secure grip, although no grip moulding is provided for user comfort. Built quality is superb and anyone who has used Leica's film rangefinder cameras will feel comfortable with the digital model.
The base plate must be removed to insert the battery and SD memory card. This is accomplished relatively easily by turning a large locking toggle. The battery compartment is latched to prevent the battery from being easily displaced. The battery itself is similar in size to most 'consumer' DSLR batteries but the charger is inexplicably big and bulky. The memory card clicks into its slot in the regular way. You must ensure that the metal lug on the camera body is inserted in the slot on the base plate before locking it in place. Unless this is done, the camera will not function.
Reviewing this camera has been challenging as the M8 is non-standard in so many ways, which means we haven't been able to use our normal testing procedures. Consequently, we are unable to provide objective ratings for this camera – the first time this has happened thus far. The reasons are as follows:
- The tripod socket on the M8 is a ¼-inch DIN type, which is smaller than the standard 3/8-inch post on all but one the tripods in our collection. The only tripod that fitted on the camera was an ultra-compact model with legs that extended to 160mm, which was much too short to support the camera for our Imatest exposures. (We were, however, able to use this tripod for long exposures and shutter lag tests – but more on the latter below.)
- The bright frame lines in the viewfinder correspond with the 35mm imaging area and do not cover the same field of view as the sensor's 1.33x crop factor. Consequently, we were unable to frame shots accurately enough for Imatest tests.
- The camera only focuses manually so we were unable to measure total capture lag and isolate the AF-lag component.
- There are no other cameras on the market with which the M8 can be compared for ratings. The only other digital rangefinder we know of is Epson's RD1, which is not sold in Australia.
Apart from these issues, we also had a few technical problems with the review camera. After unpacking the camera and charging and loading the battery, we inserted a 4GB SDHC card, on the assumption that we would like to take lots of pictures and really explore the potential of this interesting and challenging camera. We then attempted to format the card. Big mistake! The camera's recording LED started flashing and would not desist – even when we switched the power lever to off.
A call to technical support at Leica's local distributor, Adeal, revealed that the camera was not designed to use 4GB SDHC cards. It seems the internal File Allocation Table uses FAT 16, not FAT 32 as most of the more sophisticated cameras do. This means you can't use 4GB cards or SDHC cards in this camera. A firmware update to correct this problem is promised by the end of this year.
The problem was solved by removing both battery and card then replacing the battery and inserting a 1GB SD card. Having addressed these issues, we can now provide an overview of the camera's features and report on our experiences when shooting with the M8.
Body and Controls
Using the M8 is like taking digital technology back to the 1950s. This camera is designed for fully manual operation, with two controls: an aperture ring on the lens and a shutter speed dial on the top panel. The top panel on the M8 has the same controls as an analogue Leica rangefinder; so does the front panel. The lens is focused manually via a rotating ring, using a rangefinder that superimposes two rectangles on the centre of the viewing screen. When they overlap perfectly, the subject is in focus.
A ring around the shutter button is the main drive switch with detent positions for off, single frame, series exposures (burst) and self-timer. Shutter speeds are set via a dial with click-stop positions between 4 and 1/8000 second. In aperture priority mode (the A setting on the shutter speed dial), the camera will adjust the shutter speed down to 32 seconds. For longer exposures, a Bulb setting is provided and – unusually for a modern camera – the shutter button has a fitting for a cable release. If the B setting is used with the self-timer, the exposure is converted into a Time exposure, where the shutter will remain open until the shutter button is triggered a second time.
The only other items on the top panel are the flash hot-shoe and a tiny, circular LCD frame counter/battery status display. A 5-pin mini-USB socket lies beneath a rubber cover on the side panel. The rear panel carries the viewfinder eyepiece, which is adjusted to -0.5 diopter. If this doesn't suit your vision, optional correction lenses from -3 to +3 dpt are available.
The viewfinder, which is also a rangefinder, can be used with lenses as wide as 24mm which, taking in the sensor crop factor of 1.33x, gives an angle of view equivalent to just under 32mm in 35mm format. Superimposed on the view are pairs of bright-line frames that act as guides to image coverage for lenses of differing focal lengths – all relating to the 35mm format.
Three settings are accessed via a lever beside the lens mount. Pushing the lever in towards the lenses causes frames for 28mm and 90mm lenses to be displayed. When the lever is vertical, frames for 50mm and 75mm lenses are projected, while pushing the lever away from the lens displays frames for 24mm and 35mm lenses. For wider lenses, the optional Universal Wideangle Viewfinder M is required. Leica also produces a 1.25x viewfinder magnifier, which is recommended for use with lenses longer than 35mm.
Also on the rear panel are a 2.5-inch LCD plus all the digital controls. However, even the digital functions are hidden away and pared down to a bare minimum. (This can be counter-productive when you want to access frequently-used settings like ISO, white balance and exposure compensation settings.) Digital controls are accessed via two buttons.
The Menu button is used for saving user profiles and changing contrast, saturation and sharpness settings as well as controlling functions like file numbering, auto review, auto power off, flash synch, colour management and monitor brightness settings. Photographers can also format cards, adjust date, time and acoustic signal settings, select from seven languages and open the shutter for sensor cleaning via this menu. (No built-in dust-removal technology is provided.)
The main camera menu.
Pressing the Set button opens a 'picture parameters' menu containing ISO, exposure compensation, white balance resolution and compression settings and recall of user-specified profiles that have been saved via the main menu. The sensitivity range is another anomaly on this camera, with ISO settings of 160, 320, 640, 1250 and 2500. Although all menu items are easy to read, we found the system itself to be clumsy when compared with a modern DSLR and significantly slower to use. If you've already set up a profile, you can probably avoid most of these adjustments, although it would tend to feel as restrictive as shooting with a fully-automatic camera.
The Set menu.
Creating profiles is easy; you simply set all the camera's controls to meet your needs and then, using the main menu, select Save User Profile. A sub-menu will open, allowing you to save the profile in one of three pre-determined slots. The camera already has a fourth slot, designated Profile 0, which holds the factory pre-sets. These pre-sets can also be recalled via the reset function in the main menu. (Unfortunately, saving a profile locks in all the camera settings, which include ISO and exposure compensation, which many photographers will find inconvenient.)
Lens and Metadata
The latest Leica M-series lenses are marked with a 6-bit data code that can tell the camera the focal length, maximum aperture and other information that can be recorded in raw files to correct for vignetting when the files are converted. Exif information is also recorded via this system. Older lenses can be updated at Leica service centres.
The white and black bars on the lens mount carry the 6-bit data code.
Interestingly, when attempting to test the camera/lens system with Imatest, we found the aperture setting was not recorded in the Exif metadata. (It defaults to f/1 – which can be disconcerting when you know you have been shooting with an f/2 lens or a smaller lens aperture.) Unfortunately, we found the bright-line frame for the 50mm lens supplied with the camera was not accurate enough for our Imatest testing. Its coverage was actually about 5% wider than the Summicron-M 50mm f/2 lens supplied for our tests.
Unlike the V-Lux 1, which we reviewed recently, the native file format for the M8 is DNG, for which most photographers will be very thankful. This means you can use just about any raw file processor on the market, although the camera actually ships with Capture One LE, which has a custom profile for the M8. Both it and Adobe's Camera Raw 4.2 do a good job with raw file processing.
Interestingly, the DNG files from the M8 are 8-bit only, so if you want 16-bit TIFF files from this camera, they must be produced through raw file conversion software. The camera provides three settings for recording DNG files: DNG only, DNG plus JPEG Fine and DNG plus JPEG Basic. Typical file sizes are shown in the table below.
File Format/Compression Setting
Shots taken with the supplied camera were as sharp and detailed as you would expect from a camera-plus-lens combination costing more than $10,000. Without being able to carry out Imatest testing, however, we cannot say just how sharp our test shots were. Interestingly, we found a few anomalies with colour reproduction; most of our test shots showed a yellow bias and lacked the 'zap' we've come to expect in high-end cameras.
This issue is discussed extensively at http://kammagamma.com/news/top-story-leica-m8-colors.php so we won't devote much time to it. Suffice it to say that, while most colours in our tests shots were reproduced correctly, yellow and orange were twisted towards green and browns become more orange. Sample images at the end of this review illustrate the extent of the shifts.
These colour imbalances were easily corrected when raw files were converted to JPEG or TIFF format. Increasing saturation and contrast at this stage largely overcame the lack of sparkle in our test shots and delivered the quality and accuracy you would expect from Leica images. JPEG shots were less detailed and had a more limited dynamic range than raw images. Colour imbalances in these files were equally easy to eliminate but the end result was not as good. Consequently, we feel this camera is best used with DNG format.
We're not sure to what degree the inherent colour shifts influenced the performance of the white balance system but our test shots were similar to many of the digicams we've tested. The auto setting failed to correct the orange cast of incandescent lighting and didn't quite remove the green cast of fluorescent lights. Using the relevant pre-set with incandescent lighting improved colour rendition but resulted in a slight blue cast. And while the pre-set for fluorescent lighting shifted the overall colour to cyan, the manual measurement system produced neutral colours with both types of lighting.
Despite an apparent increase in the orange/green colour shift with long exposures, low light shots taken with the test camera were quite impressive. Little noise was evident right up to ISO 1250 and only a slight increase in visible noise was observed at ISO 2500. The M8 uses dark frame subtraction processing to achieve such good results. It doubles the image processing time but, in this camera, delivered better end results than we've seen in most cameras we've tested.
We found noticeable flare when the test camera was used for contre-jour shots and the exposure metering system had some problems with strong backlighting. Illustrations of both situations are provided below.
The supplied 50mm lens limited the scope of the shots we could take with the review camera because its closest focus was 70 cm, which is nowhere near close enough for 'macro' photography. Nor were we able to explore different angles of view. Being restricted to a very dinky, ultra-compact tripod for long exposures also limited the range of exposures we could take, although we did manage to take some 30-second exposures by taking an ironing board outside and sitting the camera and tripod on it, triggering the shutter with an ancient cable release.
The review camera's response times were variable. Starting-up took just under two seconds, which is slow for a modern camera. Image capture was instantaneous but it took, on average, 3.5 seconds to process a JPEG image and almost six seconds to process a DNG+JPEG shot. The continuous shooting mode recorded shots at intervals of just under two frames/second. It took almost a minute and a half to process a burst of 10 DNG+JPEG shots.
Auto white balance with incandescent lighting.
Auto white balance with fluorescent lighting.
A close-up shot showing the orange bias we found in most outdoor shots.
A close-up shot taken in DNG format and processed to produce natural colour reproduction.
Lens flare produced with moderate backlighting.
Strong backlighting also caused some exposure problems.
The same subject as above, photographed from a different angle.
A 30-second exposure at ISO 160.
A 30-second exposure at ISO 2500.
Image sensor: 18 x 27mm low-noise CCD with 10.5 million photosites (10.3-megapixels effective)
Lens mount: Leica M bayonet
Focal length crop factor: 1.33x
Image formats: DNG (Raw), JPEG
Image Sizes: DNG: 3916 x 2634; JPEG: 3936 x 2630, 2952 x 1972, 1968 x 1315, 1312 x 876
Image Stabilisation: n.a.
Dust removal: n.a.
Shutter speed range: 32 to 1/8000 sec plus Bulb; flash synch at 1/250 sec.
Exposure Compensation: +/-3 EV in 1/3 EV steps
Self-timer: 2 or 12 sec. delay
Focus system: Manual with split or superimposed image rangefinder shown as a bright field in the centre of the viewfinder image
Focus modes: n.a.
Exposure metering: TTL metering heavily center-weighted with preset working aperture
Shooting modes: Manual and aperture-priority
Picture Style/Control settings:
Colour space options: Adobe RGB, sRGB, ECI RGB
Custom functions: 3 user profiles can be saved.
ISO range: ISO 160, 320, 640, 1250, 2500 (set manually)
White balance: Auto, 6 pre-sets, manual, colour temperature input from 2,000 K to 13,100 K
Flash: Hot shoe for external flash
Flash exposure adjustment: +/-3 1/3 EV in 1/3 EV steps adjustable at SCA-3501/3502 adapter.
Sequence shooting: Approx. 2 fps for up to 10 frames
Storage Media: SD cards up to 4GB (larger SD cards with firmware update)
Viewfinder: Large light bright line frame viewfinder/rangefinder with automatic parallax compensation; magnification – 0.68x; automatic parallax compensation; -0.5 dptr adjustment ( correction lenses available)
LCD monitor: 2.5-inch bright LCD with 230,000 pixels
Data LCD: Monochrome LCD for frame counter (number of pictures remaining) and battery status (5-step)
Interface terminals: 5-pin USB 2.0
Power supply: Lithium-ion rechargeable battery with 3.7 V and 1900 mAh
Dimensions (wxhxd): 139 x 80 x 37 mm
Weight: approx. 545 g (body only)
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