The Leica M8 is 8 years-old. A lifetime in digital technology. And yet, the M8 is as popular as ever. There are dozens of new reviews online, all written within the last 2 years. That is astonishing considering the fact that it has since been replaced by the M9 and the M240.
So why is the M8 still a highly desired camera in 2014? Simple. It’s a Leica. To non-photographers, that means nothing. To those that study the art and have a passion for cameras, Leica is arguably the best. We can thank Oskar Barnack, working with Leitz, back in 1913 for essentially creating 35mm photography as we know it today.
In 1954, the first Leica M camera was invented and from that point forward, not much has changed. The M8 was Leica’s first digital rangefinder camera. That alone means something to a lot of people in the world of photography.
So, back to the M8. It is slow, noisy, and old-tech with a tiny LCD screen. It also has a maximum usable ISO of about 1250. ISO 2500 is dismal. Oh, and I should mention that it is 100% manual with no auto-focus. All this for more money than buying a good quality brand new Nikon DSLR with lens. Am I nuts? Maybe. But all of those negatives I just listed are EXACTLY what many see as positives. It is what most seasoned photographers seem to gravitate to after years of shooting with fast SLRs. Pure photography with a precision-made piece of carved brass and magnesium alloy that was hand-built by the finest craftsmen in Germany. Each Leica M is put together by individuals using screwdrivers and bare hands. The result is a camera that feels like nothing else. My Nikon D3 feels like a plastic toy in comparison. That does not mean I don’t love my Nikons. They’re just different.
When you shoot with a Leica M, you somehow just become more involved in the whole process of making a picture. That’s because you are. You are so involved in the act of making the image. You have to set everything and focus manually. This takes a little more time and the result is that you seem to choose your subjects more carefully, and with reason. It slows you down and sort of makes you stop and look around. After all, that is the point of photography is it not? The M8 reminds me of shooting film.
The lenses? Oh yes. Well, Leitz (Leica) have been making optical lenses since the 1800s. Leica glass is considered by many (dare I say most) to be the finest in the world. They should be. You won’t find a Nikon or Canon 50mm prime lens that sells for $4,000.
You have to factor that into the mix when buying a Leica M8, M9, or M240. Lenses aint cheap. However, you can get these lenses used for not much more than a new pro Nikon or Canon lens. What you do get with Leica lenses are basically optics with almost no imperfections. Sharpness at the edges with minimal distortion. An almost 3D image that some describe as the “Leica look.” Below is a quick snapshot of my little gal Abigail. Nothing fancy, but the contrast and overall feel of the image is very different than what I get out of my Nikons. Almost cinematic. Sharp, but yet soft in the delivery of tones with excellent dynamic range. The M8’s CCD sensor, combined with Leica glass, is just amazing. Photography has never been this rewarding.
What about the ISO? So limiting. Is it? Well, up until 10 years ago, all we had was film. 90% of the time we purchased 200 ASA or 400 ASA speed film rolls. That equates to 200-400 digital ISO. We did just fine. In fact, I barely shoot above 1600 ISO at most weddings. Just because we can, does not mean we should. Leica’s CCD sensor, and next to no filters, rewards you immensely at ISO 160-640. After that, the image gets noisy, but not in a bad way. It retains a film-like grain. Lightroom can clean up a noisy image with little detail loss and so far I am very pleased with the results. I won’t bother with ISO 2500 because the camera was simply designed to be a low ISO camera…like film. Also like $20,000 Hasselblads that look terrible past ISO 640. These super sharp CCD sensors have their tradeoffs. If you want to shoot in the dark, you always have your DSLR.
Above is another shot of Haley at her violin lesson. The range and contrast is intoxicating for such a simple snapshot. It has such an analog feel. That was at ISO 640.
So, is the Leica M8 a good choice in 2014? You bet! Why not? It made stunning images 8 years ago. It makes them today. Leica cameras will never excel at high ISO. They will never be fast. They will be a bit quirky. They will always be extremely expensive. Collectors will buy them to put in a safe. Rich folks will buy them because they can. Photographers will buy them because they are handcrafted tools that enable one to create stunning images.
I have wanted a Leica for years. I was worried that it would not live up to the hype. It does.