Several people in the last week have told me that they've found M8's (not the M8.2's) for really cheap prices and they want to know what I think about buying them. I sent them to this article with the caveat that much had changed since I wrote this and I know find several cameras that have much better image quality and more resolution for less outlay. Even though some of the M8's are at fire sale prices. I don't intend for this to be an endorsement of Leicas. Just bringing up what was on my mind two and a half years ago when I got a box of Leica stuff to play with for a month. Bottom line, in retrospect? The camera could be better but the lenses are just fine. So, for fun...........
Leica M8 and Summarit-M Lenses Review
A working photographer's review by Kirk Tuck
You’ve probably heard all kinds of opinions about the Leica M8 digital camera but most of them were likely based on conjecture, and on the widely circulated stories about the tendency of the camera’s sensor to turn certain polyester products purple when photographed in bright light. I wanted to do a hands-on evaluation because I’ve used Leica products since 1980 and I’ve found their optics second to none. I love the feel and the ergonomics of the bodies and I’m very comfortable with rangefinder focusing. I find the rangefinder focusing to be the second biggest selling point of these cameras, right after my regard for their astonishingly good lenses. I also wanted to try out the Summarit-M series of lenses, as they are a more reasonably-priced series of quality lenses from Leica.
So, what’s the Leica M8 all about? In a bare bones summary it is a digital version of the Leica M7 rangefinder camera with a few added attractions. That makes it a hand built, high precision rangefinder camera that takes a range of very well designed and produced lenses. It’s not an SLR. There is no moving mirror in front of the sensor plane, and rather than focusing through the lenses all composition and focusing is done through a viewfinder frame that shows the boundaries of attached lenses with bright frame lines projected into the viewfinder. It is the extension of the Leica “M” franchise that has continued its relevance in the world of photography for over five decades.
Since digital routed film, I’ve been photographing with a constantly evolving assortment of Nikon and Kodak SLR cameras. The current Nikon D700 is a wonderful camera which produces remarkably good files. The Nikon lenses are also very good. During this transitional period in photography I found myself constantly pining for a Leica “version” of digital. About a month ago a box arrived at my house and I found myself with a loaner Leica M8 and four of their new Summarit-M lenses. It happened on the same week that I took possession of my first Nikon D700. The coincidental appearance of the two cameras together led me to test them against each other in “real world” shooting situations. The results have been interesting, frustrating, fascinating and amazing. The Nikon D700 does everything well. The M8 does a small handful of things really well.
(For background information about the Leica Rangefinder M series cameras, please see my 2001 article on the Leica M6.)
It is amazing to consider how far digital photography has come in such a short time and how nice the files look. The Leica M8 has maintained its (admittedly niche) relevance in spite of its less than cutting edge technology. It’s frustrating to note just how much better the Leica could be. We’ll cover these issues in the course of this review. We’ll also take a good, hard look at four new lenses that Leica recently introduced that nicely rebute the idea that all Leica glass is only affordable by investment bankers, surgeons and oil sheiks.
If you’re anxious to get your own Leica set for hands-on experiments while you read this review, Amazon.com has the Leica M8 and Summarit-M lenses available.
- Leica M8 (review)
- Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, $1695
- Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, $1395
- Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, $1695
- Leica 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, $1695
Let’s start with a little background
The Leica company was “the” camera company in the world right up until the 1960’s. In the days before SLRs with “instant return” mirrors, Leica made the finest rangefinders available. They also made incredible lenses to go with their camera bodies. Rangefinder cameras were the gold standard because they offered very bright viewfinders and very accurate focusing for wide angle to moderate telephoto lenses. The typical photographer in the 1950’s got along very well with lenses in the 28mm to 90mm range. In 1954, at Photokina, Leica introduced a new style of rangefinder camera based on a new lens mount that has lived on relatively unchanged for over 58 years. The first model was called the M3 and that camera is still much sought after today because of its high magnification viewfinder, its relatively silent shutter and its bullet proof mechanical construction.
While current competitors talk about shutters constructed to go up to 150,000 or 250,000 exposures before failure, stories are legions of Leica M shutters going strong at a million or more actuations! The M introduced a new lens mount that allowed photographers to change out lenses very quickly, with less than a quarter rotation of the lens. The new mount also gave lens designers more room to work their magic with new generations of optics that, to professional photographers in that era, were amazingly good. I still use a dual range 50mm Summicron from the late 1950’s on my Leica M6 film cameras to this day with results that rival the best current lenses from Japanese companies.
Leica sold millions of M3’s and later variants of the body style but they made a few missteps during the early years of the 1960’s that left them in a precarious situation from which they have never fully recovered. They totally missed the idea that consumers would throng to SLR’s to gain features like, a much wider range of available focal lengths, the ability to compose and focus through the taking lens and, of course, the lower price of the new generation of cameras. Nikon started the ball rolling in 1959 with the well received Nikon F. Pentax added a system that allowed metering through the lens for greater exposure accuracy. By the 1970’s, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Minolta had pushed the entire market for cameras away from the rangefinder paradigm and drove consumers steadfastly into the arena of the SLR. Leica tried to gain back market share with several SLR product introductions but by the time they hit the market their offerings were perceived to be very expensive and a few years behind their competitors when it came to features.
However, in one part of the market, the Leica continued to be popular with street photographers and artists who needed a highly capable imaging machine that was both stealthy and quiet. It was always easier to focus fast, wide angle lenses with the M cameras and few machines beat them when it comes to quiet and unobtrusive operation. They were the cameras of choice for top photographers like: Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, William Klein, Lee Freidlander, Sebastio Salgado and many others.
These artists looked to the Leica M series rangefinder for three attributes:
- the bright, easy to use, always in focus, viewfinder
- the high level of mechanical reliability
- the low aural and visual profile of the cameras, which helped the photographer work in a very candid manner
The next biggest reason to own a Leica rangefinder has always been the glass. Leica is one of the acknowledged leaders in the world when it comes to designing and building lenses for cameras (and microscopes). Leica earned this reputation by taking a lead in all areas of lens creation back in the 1950’s and never relinquishing that lead over the decades. When I wrote an article about the Leica M6, $1350 (review), for this site back in 2001, many readers posted opinions about the relative value of the brand but few refuted the technical sophistication and superiority of their lenses. Granted, most photographers don’t work with the highest level of technique that would make the differences between brands of lenses immediately apparent (tripod mounting, exact exposures, critical focusing, etc.) but many people did write to say that the effects of the Leica glass were “special”, “had a three dimensional quality”, “added a special feel”, etc.
If I were to distill what it is about Leica lenses that make them superior I would have to start with the design philosophy they’ve espoused for decades. The lens should be sharp and usable at its widest aperture! If you build an f/1.4 lens it should be usable at f/1.4. Most of their competitors build lenses with high apertures that could only be used in the direst of photographic emergencies and then with mediocre results. Leica’s designers also design for the way people look at photographs. Their emphasis is on high apparent sharpness and great rendering of micro fine detail. If they have to sacrifice things like extreme corner resolution or ultimate resolution, they will do so. They are lenses that are meant to be used rather than tested on optical test benches (although the high level of implementation also enables them to perform well in those arenas as well).
For example: A fast aperture, wide angle lens like the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron-M, $3995 (review), is highly usable at f/2 with the center two-thirds of the frame being critically sharp. Stopping down one or two stops only serves to sharpen up the extreme corners of the lens. The Leica 75mm f/2 Summicron-M, $3395, is highly corrected across the frame at f/2 giving up only in the area of close focusing.
While Leica’s lenses are traditionally three, four or five times as expensive as lenses from their competitors, generations of working photographers (and very discerning amateurs) have not hesitated to buy them, knowing that the unique characteristics of these optics can be powerful differentiators in what is otherwise a very homogeneous marketplace. Here’s what Leica has done for us lately.
The Leica M8
They took the time-proven M series camera body and redesigned the guts to bring us a unique digital photographic tool. They worked with Kodak to include a very good sensor that yields some interesting trade-offs. The first thing you’ll notice about the Kodak 10.3MP sensor is how much dynamic range it has. It’s hard to blow out highlight detail with this piece of silicon. I captured samples of Noellia Hernandez drinking coffee and deliberately overexposed by one full stop. All of the highlight detail was easily captured when converting the industry standard .dng files in Adobe Camera Raw. This capturing technique, similar to the way we used to handle color negative film, also yields much cleaner shadow detail because it is captured much further up the curve where there are many more steps of shadow information.
The second attribute of the sensor is the very neutral, very film like rendering of color and tonal relationships. The more experienced photographer is not satisfied with high color saturation at the expense of fine gradations of tone and color. In fact, after spending several weeks with the M8 I couldn’t stand to look at files shot at “standard” settings on the Nikon D700. I wasn’t happy again with the D700 until I reduced the saturation settings and started using profiles that were custom produced for that camera.
Leica also took a good, hard look at the prevailing practice of putting “anti-aliasing” filters in front of camera sensors to reduce or illuminate moire patterns in the final files. Kodak has a history of producing cameras (like the Kodak SLR/n) that use no anti-aliasing filters in front of their sensors. While moire patterns do show up from time to time, these cameras have the appearance of producing image files with much greater amounts of fine and micro fine detail which, in turn, allows for greater enlarge-ability and a greater overall perception of quality. Leica chose to go only with an infra-red blocking filter in front of their M sensor and the results can be wonderful. The feeling of sharpness and detail is wonderful. The results from my Nikon D700 are also very good, but they are, to a certain extent, interpolated data. This means that the camera is making up information to give me the impression of sharpness. In some cases this works well. In other cases, not so well.
When Kodak designed this sensor chip for Leica they had to take into consideration just how close the back of a Leica wide angle lens could sit in relationship to the sensor. Since Leica lenses don’t have to be designed to compensate for the space required for a moving mirror they could optimize their designs and have the back of the lenses close to the film plane. When digital came along one of the obvious design issues was the difference between the way film and digital respond to the light coming through lenses.
Film doesn’t care about the angle that like strikes. It will engage at most any angle or direction. Digital sensors are a bit more finicky and require light to come into their pixel wells at a much less severe angle than can be handled by film. In order to keep the information of the sides and in the corners of the frames from falling off too quickly Leica and Kodak needed to come up with a way to compensate for the severe angles with which light strikes the edges of the frame. This is especially critical with wide angle lenses which already have a tendency to vignette as a result of their designs.
Their solution was to add micro lenses over the pixel wells to focus and deliver light energy in a more direct fashion. In a further enhancement the micro lenses over the outer areas of the sensor are increasingly offset to cope with the increasing angles of light. The result is a sensor that, in conjunction with software enhancements, yields files that are very even across the frame.
So, what are the inevitable trade offs in this sensor design?
Well, five years ago we would have pronounced this camera and it’s sensors performance as “state of the art”. But now we have cameras like the Nikon D3 and D700 and the Canon 5D to compare it to. The Leica/Kodak sensor is not a low noise champion. At ISO’s up to 1200 it is very well behaved and few would have issue with it’s noise performance. At ISO’s over 1200 it starts to become noisier and the old Kodak “blue channel”noise starts to intrude. The Kodak CCD’s pixels measure 6.8 microns and are not in the same league for low noise as the latest generation CMOS chips used in the Nikons and Canons. In my mind this is not a deal breaker for two important reasons:
- The camera doesn’t vibrate like cameras with moving mirrors, which gives about two stops more hand holding ability.
- The prime lenses have much better performance at wider apertures than most of the more commonly used high quality “pro” zoom lenses from Canon and Nikon, adding another two stops to the mix.
What did Leica get just right?
If you haven’t shot with an M series camera you certainly should seek out a dealer and play with one of these bodies. This is a design that they got “just right” over fifty years ago. It feels perfect in the hand and once you get the hang of the rangefinder and the clear, clean viewfinder you’ll be spoiled for using SLRs. It is also much smaller and lighter than other professional camera and lens combinations. Big thumbs up for design and the integration of new digital components into a trusted body style.
The shutter release on Leicas has always been exemplary. The M8 is no exception. A soft touch turns on the meter while a bit more pressure triggers the shutter. But it is important to understand that the point at which the shutter releases has a distinct feel that gives the photographer perfect feedback. The shutter fires exactly when you are ready to fire and not a microsecond before or after. And since the camera is manually focused there is never a time lag while the camera tries to figure stuff out. In fact, since there is no mirror to release the triggering of the shutter is almost instantaneous. From tap to snap the time elapsed is no more than 25 milliseconds. Nearly twice as fast as the Nikon D700! Less time lag means more direct control, more pure reaction. This is the Leica’s true high performance characteristic.
I think they got the shutter itself just right. All previous generations of Leica M cameras used a very simple and very robustly built, cloth focal plane shutter. It lasted forever and was very quiet in operation. The trade off was a very slow 1/50th of a second electronic flash sync speed and a top shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. Forget about using one of those shutters for fill flash in just about any situation! In the new M8 Leica switched to a metal and carbon fiber composite focal plane shutter offering the same high reliability but giving users a top shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second (the previous shutter topped out at 1/1000th of a second) and a flash synchronization speed of 1/250th of a second, which is very competitive. The trade off is a bit more mechanical noise from the shutter. But it is still quite low when compared to the obtrusively dynamic shutter noises that thunder out of myD700 body—and there is no mirror slap to add to the sound.
Leica got their new series of Summarit-M lenses just right.
Here’s the deal. Leica has always made the finest high speed lenses in the 35mm market but the trade-off has always been the ruinously high cost of those lenses. This limits the number of people who can afford to use the Leica as a system. For years, Leica enthusiasts have hammered away at Leica trying to convince them to make a line of more modestly specified lenses at a much lower cost.
While high speed glass with sharp maximum apertures provides a look and feel to images that can rarely be equaled by competitors, there are many situations in which high performance at large apertures is not necessary. Typically, the depth of field at full aperture is razor thin, limiting the usefulness when more than one subject needs to be sharply focused. The interesting aspect of lens design is that it is much easier and much less expensive to design and produce lenses with less ambitious apertures. In fact, the complexity of a lens design generally is thought to increase by a factor of four for a one stop speed increase.
Part of the increase in complexity and cost in lens design is the need for extremely high manufacturing tolerances as the diameter of lens elements increases. The short version is that it’s possible to make very high performance lenses with more modest apertures, at a fraction of the cost of more esoteric lenses! That is just what Leica has done. Over the last year they have introduced four new lenses for the M cameras. The lenses are all called Summarits. That’s the name Leica uses for lenses that have maximum apertures of f/2.5. The new lenses include: 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 90mm. The barrel designs of the 75 and the 90 are very similar to the Leica R lenses and include rubber focusing rings. The 35 and the 50 are both very reminiscent of Leica lenses in the same range, designed in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They each have a protrusion, or a “finger grip” that provides a good purchase on the focusing ring to facilitate easy focusing in-spite of a fairly narrow, metal focusing ring. Compared to SLR lenses all four of the Summarits are tiny; the 35mm and 50mm especially so.
The construction is flawless and each lens has a heft that belies its size. Even so, the entire quartet of lenses and an M8 body together will tip the scales at only around 2.5 kilograms!
How the Summarit-M Lenses Stack Up
All four of the Summarit lenses share the same neutral color and contrast characteristics. Except for the angle of coverage you would be hard pressed to believe that you were seeing images from four different lenses! Here are the family characteristics:
High sharpness across the full frame at full aperture, even higher sharpness when stopped down! The 35mm needs f/5.6 to achieve highest sharpness, the 50mm is eyeball slicing sharp at f/4 and the two longer lenses are just right by f/3.5. When I say they are sharp I mean that even my best and latest Nikkors can’t compare.
I shot one test of a model using the Leica 50mm at f/5.6 and the new, Nikon 60mm AFS Micro at f/5.6 and they were very close. The Leica had a certain impression of sharpness that, to quote many Leicaphiles over the years, actually looked, “three dimensional”. There was nothing wrong with the rendition of the Nikon lens but its interpretation seemed clinical and lackluster in direct comparison with the Leica 5o.
Of course, we weren’t comparing apples to apples as the Leica had the advantage of drawing on a sensor that didn’t have an anti-aliasing filter dumbing down the detail. It would have been interesting, but outside the scope of my capabilities, to adapt the lenses so that they worked on each company’s camera bodies for the sake of comparison. However, when reviewing digital cameras and lenses it is important to change one’s mindset and evaluate the body and lenses together as a unified system. That is the way they will be used.
I shot with the lenses for a month in the bright Texas sun and never saw even the slightest hint of flare. That stood out to me. In my Nikon system there is an inertia toward using zoom lenses. They offer so much flexibility. If we never compare the zoom lenses to anything else we generally find the performance convincing (or like so many aspects of digital images, we find it to be “good enough”). The reality is that the large number of elements in a modern zoom makes them flare “magnets”. If there is flare a complex zoom lens will find it. One of the advantages of prime lenses is their much simpler construction. With fewer elements and fewer glass surfaces these lenses are much more flare resistant. This is not just seen in the absence of classic diaphragm reflections in the images it also makes a lens much clearer and more “contrasty” by eliminating the “veiling” effects of less dramatic flare. Any amount of flare degrades sharpness, contrast and color saturation. I can see these effects when I compare a lens like the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor, $125 with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S, $1740. In many instances you can see a noticeable increase in lens performance with just the addition of an efficient lens hood.
The best compliment I can give to this family of lenses is that in most cases, they are as good as their much more expensive Summicron and Summilux brothers and sisters. In my opinion, the 35mm Summarit is slightly superior to the 35mm Summicron, but it does give up nearly 2/3rds of a stop. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to use any one of these lenses instead of the high-priced spread.