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Leica M8 and Summarit-M Lenses Review

A working photographer's review by Kirk Tuck, September 2008 (updated February 2011)


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.

Where to Buy

If you’re anxious to get your own Leica set for hands-on experiments while you read this review, Photo.net’s partners have the Leica M8 and Summarit-M lenses available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

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, (compare prices) (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, (compare prices) (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, (compare prices), 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:

  1. The camera doesn’t vibrate like cameras with moving mirrors, which gives about two stops more hand holding ability.
  2. 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 my D700 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

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.

No Flare

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, (compare prices) with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S, (compare prices). 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.

Series 1: example images showing the different focal lengths on the same scene.

Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160

Series 2: example images showing the different focal lengths on the same scene.

Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160
Leica 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160

My favorite two new lenses.

If I bought an M8, I would probably restrict myself to just three lenses: Leica 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M, $3,995, Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, (compare prices), and the Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M, (compare prices). The way the camera is set up the images experience a 1.33X crop factor. This means that each lens acts like a lens 1.33 times longer. The 35mm with the crop factor would be a 46.55mm lens. That’s close enough to my favorite focal length, which is the traditional 50mm, to make me very happy. I would like a wider lens as well and would choose the 21mm, which acts like a 28mm. I would be very happy to make the 75mm my longest focal length, an equivalent of approximately 100 mm. Anything wider than the 21mm would require a separate viewfinder. On the other end of the scale, I would have problems composing in the tiny frame provided for the 90mm lens. As usual, the M8 viewfinder has the marvelous quality of showing the area outside of the chosen frame. It’s an attribute of bright line rangefinder cameras that is a good aid to both composition and to being able to anticipate objects moving into the prescribed frame.

While I would have to step outside the Summarit family to put together a totally useful kit I would have the satisfaction of saving over $2,000 on two of the lenses!

Hands-on experience.

A month is barely enough time to say “hello” to a camera, much less become proficient in its use. Fortunately my decades of experience with other M series cameras helped me quickly flatten out the learning curve.

My first adventure with the camera came while photographing a cancer clinic in Austin, Texas. I was making photographs of doctors interacting with their patients and with nurses interacting with chemotherapy patients. The marketing people were looking for a very unobstrusive approach defined by using only natural light. They also insisted on not posing people. As I moved through the main room where chemotherapy was delivered I realized that some patients were in pain, others quite nauseous, so I tried to be as quiet and discrete as I could be. I alternated between two cameras for my work, using them interchangeably over a period of about nine hours. I used the Leica M8 with the 35mm, 50mm and the 75mm Summarits and I used the Nikon D700 with several primes including the 28/2.0, the eight element 35/2.0, the 50/1.2 and the 85/1.4.

I was able to shoot the D700 at 3200 ISO with files that were similar in quality to Leica M8 files shot at 1200 ISO. That wasn’t really a big deal. As I mentioned earlier in the article, I felt like I was able to pick up two stops of “vibration reduction” because the M camera had less vibration during its operation.

When I sat down to edit the images in Photoshop CS3, I noticed that the Nikon files were a bit cleaner where noise was concerned but that the color was more neutral with the Leica camera. The detail in the Leica files was marginally better. One thing I should make clear right off the bat is that the Nikon auto white balance runs rings around the auto white balance in the M8. They are easily two generations apart. Thankfully, I was shooting raw with both cameras. And when I did my post processing it was easier to make a neutral and pleasing image from the Leica!

If I were restricted to shooting jpegs with the Leica I would never take it out of the bag. The color can be all over the map! The M8 is hopelessly outclassed by the Nikon D700. When we switch over to the RAW arena things even out nicely.

The bottom line is, which camera helps you shoot with better composition and better timing? Which camera creates a better photo? By better photo I mean a photo that is seen and captured with less space between intention and reality. The M8 is a really mature shooter’s camera, especially at the wide end. If I owned one I would probably spot weld the 35mm to the mount. Seeing beyond the edges of the frames spurs much more compositional experimentation than the tunnel effect of the SLR. The photographs that result have a much more sophisticated edginess about them that translates into more visual excitement. On a more prosaic note, the low profile and low noise attributes of the Leica helped the doctors and patients ignore my presence to a much greater extent than the noise and profile of a D700 with its loud, clacking mirror.

There are other differences between the two cameras that I need to mention. The LCD on the back of the Nikon D700, D300 and D3 cameras is 3 inches of glorious technology. The screens are bright and detailed with over 900,000 pixels to play with. By contrast, the Leica is a 2.5-inch screen with fewer than 300,000 pixels of resolution. You will see a difference. Does it translate at all in the finished images? No. But the nicer screens are much better for evaluating results in the field. Is it a deal killer? Not at all. Most Leica users are documenters; they use their cameras to record, tending to capture more and chimp less. Many people use DSLRs like mini view cameras, checking every change of exposure, composition or menu parameter between every shot. It’s all a matter or working styles.

My final assessment?

When I first played with the camera and lenses I was not impressed. With each passing week, I found my camera skills sharpening up and my reflexes improving. I grab the M8 almost exclusively when I head out the door now and find it much more fun than any of my other cameras to shoot. I can also wear it all day long with the 35mm lens without noticing the weight.

I’ve begun to understand the way its RAW files work and when I take advantage of its monstrously large dynamic range by “over-exposing” and then drawing back the highlights in the RAW conversion software I’ve been able to make gorgeous files with open, noiseless shadows at ISOs up to 640.

No doubt that doing business exclusively with the Leica M8 would be very difficult. I would miss my access to lenses with focal lengths up to 400mm. I would also miss the close focusing of my macro lenses and the tight flash control of the Nikon iTTL system. As an adjunct to my existing system I can certainly see many applications, such as shooting in board room situations, where this camera would excel.

Last January, I photographed a corporate meeting, at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach, with 80 top executives from a very large company. I was using several D300s and I was trying to be as discrete as possible. During one break, the CEO of the company came up to me and said, “Your camera is too loud!” I looked for a smile and one was not forthcoming. He was absolutely serious. I quickly fashioned a makeshift blimp out of some Zing neoprene pouches and gaffers tape but I was mortified by his critique. Had I been shooting with the M8 I doubt the CEO’s bat-like ears would have even registered the sound!

I must also say that no matter how good engineers are at softening the momentum of the mirror mechanisms in SLRs, the rangefinder cameras will always have less vibration, which translates into better images in the shutter range from 1/4 to 1/125s. Of course, the whole paradigm of hand-holdability would change in favor of the Nikons if they were to implement their VR2 in their prime lenses.

The good points about the Leica M8 and the Summarit Lenses

  1. More fun to compose through a bright line finder with moderate focal length lenses.
  2. Ultra fast shutter reaction time. No perceptible lag!
  3. Very neutral and believable images from RAW files.
  4. Four lenses and one body in the space usually take up by one body and one normal zoom lens.
  5. A camera body honed to ergonomic perfection
  6. Lenses that set a standard for sharpness and contrast.
  7. Lenses that can be used wide open without a care (and focused with greater accuracy.)
  8. Beautiful depth of field scales on each of the lenses.
  9. The .dng file represents an open standard and enhances the archival capabilities of the files.
  10. Very low noise shutter with no mirror noise.

And to be fair, my list of gripes about the camera (no gripes about the lenses!!)

  1. When you hit the limits of the image buffer some of the frames get corrupted and are unreadable (very bad).
  2. The camera has its own proprietary battery, which is small and would be incredibly hard to find in any secondary market.
  3. The camera is slow to start up when turned on.
  4. You give up the use of lenses longer than 90mm (framing a 135mm would be very dicey.)
  5. The frame lines are very approximate and I found, routinely, that the subject on screen contained more area than was shown in the finder. This makes tight composition much harder.
  6. The bottom of the camera must be removed in order to change the battery or swap out the SD memory card. You’ll have both hands full when you attempt either operation.
  7. The battery charger has a nice dual light indicator showing that a battery is charged or is in process but the charger takes three hours to charge one battery, which is less than optimal for a $5500 camera.
  8. The jpeg files are not as good as their competitors files. (The M8 begs to shoot in RAW only.)
  9. The auto white balance is not in the same league as the current top of the line Canon and Nikon cameras. (You’ll either be shooting RAW or you can set a custom white balance with relative ease, so this one is not a deal breaker.)
  10. The sheer cost. For a limited range of capabilities it is a frightfully expensive system. What do you expect from a limited edition, hand-built, German camera?

Kirk’s Final Analysis

If you have the extra cash and you are the kind of photographer who loves street photography and documentary styles of photography, this is a must have camera system. If you are willing to put up with film you can save a bundle by choosing a good, used M6 Leica instead. If you try to make do with any of the compact point-and-shoots on the market, you will inevitably be disappointed. Take it from someone who buys every “remarkably new compact camera guaranteed to compete with SLRs”, this system is in an entirely different universe when compared with cameras like the Sigma DP-1, etc.

If you are a high-end wedding photographer who needs great focusing in low light and dramatically good lenses, this is the camera for you. Using this camera will change your approach to wedding photography, which will make your work look different from your competitors, which will give you effective market differentiation and may increase your bookings.

If you like to work with mid-range prime lenses and are about to take a trip around the world with very limited luggage, this system is ideal for you. It’s smaller and lighter than it’s SLR competitors and will turn in just as good (or better) a performance.

Like all new cameras, Leica is still working some kinks out of this one. When they finish getting all the little “gotchas” right it will be a formidable image maker. I don’t want to send my evaluation equipment back. I keep hoping someone will call from Leica and say, “The shipping is way too expensive, why don’t you just keep the system and enjoy it!” Final word? I love photographing with this camera.

Where to Buy

If you’re anxious to get your own Leica set for hands-on experiments while you read this review, Photo.net’s partners have the Leica M8 and Summarit-M lenses available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

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About the Author

Kirk Tuck started his photography career after teaching as a Specialist Lecturer in the University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts. His clients have included: Dell, Motorola, IBM, Time Warner, Texas Monthly Magazine, Elle Magazine and many others. Two years ago he started writing books about photography for Amherst Media. His first book, kirk-tuck_minimalist-lighting, was published in May 2008 and rose to #19 on the Amazon Bestseller’s List within a week of publication. He has two more books in production and has recently turned his attention to writing about medium format digital cameras. He is also a master swimmer in Austin, Texas.

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Example Leica M8 & Summarit-M Images

Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). Noellia Hernandez at Starbucks. This is a good example of the Leica’s color and rendering performance in open shade. In this instance, the AWB was pretty accurate. This also demonstrates the qualities of the 50mm Summarit-M’s nice bokeh. Capturing at f/4, which is near the close focusing limits on this lens, puts the background out of focus. Note the graceful transition from sharp to blur.
Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). This image demonstrates the very high sharpness achieved by the 75mm. The lighting is open shade. Note the sharpness of her hair and eyes, in addition to the pleasant bokeh of the background.
Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). Noellia’s eye close up. This is a 100% crop of her eye from the previous photo. The 75mm is able to deliver high sharpness without artifacting.
Leica 75mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). Noellia at Medici Coffee House in Austin, Texas. Great color and noise characteristics at ISO 640.
Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). No flare, no artifacts, no UV filters, no purple fringing.
Leica 90mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), at f/5.6. The Frost Tower, Austin, Texas. This lens handles bright sunlight well.
Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), at f/5.6. AWB and autoexposure. The impression of high sharpness is remarkable.

Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), at f/5.6. AWB and autoexposure. The match-up of color, contrast, and sharpness between this lens and the previous example image from the 50mm is incredible.

Leica 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review). I love this lens. Sharp and intimate as a portrait lens on the M8. Note that with a crop factor of 1.33x the equivalent focal length of the lens is 66mm.
Leica 35mm f/2.5 Summarit-M (review), ISO 160. This image was added to show how well the M8 deals with camera vibration. It was shot hand-held at 1/45s after many cups of coffee.

Text ©2008 Kirk Tuck. Photos ©2008 Kirk Tuck.

Article revised February 2011.

Readers' Comments


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Matt Sutton , October 21, 2008; 07:09 P.M.

brilliant article. well done. easy read. very imformative. thank you very much !! you have a cool job. where do I sign up ? Matt from Sydney

Wesley Swan , October 21, 2008; 07:35 P.M.

The parts of the article I read were great. I don't have a clue what other photographers will think, but me personally I'd read any article with such a pretty model :)

John Lambert , October 22, 2008; 12:15 A.M.

Had difficulty reading the article about the Leica with such a luscious little hottie in sight.

Christopher Moss , October 22, 2008; 08:40 A.M.

On turning the M8 on the red light flashes for a second, but you can take photographs before it finishes flashing. It will be ready as soon as you are. Otherwise a nice and practical review. Thanks!

Gadge A , October 22, 2008; 09:28 A.M.

10/10 - First article I have read that fully explains the positioning and design philosophy of this camera. Now I finally understand its benefits and associated issues.

I still can't afford one though :-)

Kirk Tuck , October 22, 2008; 11:39 A.M.

Gadge, if you want more information about what makes all M cameras a more compelling choice you might want to take a moment and read my review on the Leica M6 that is also located somewhere on Photo.net.

The differences between traditional SLR's and the Leica M cameras is fleshed out in a little more detail.

Thanks to all for the positive feedback I've received on the article so far.

Kirk

Jorge Diaz , October 22, 2008; 12:39 P.M.

Excellent review.I sometimes use a Summar (circa 1932) on my M8 for definitely different photographic qualities. One thing about Leica M lenses is the relaxed life they have relative to SLR's opening and closing diaphragms on each shot.A lot of wear and tear is avoided.No springs to fatigue.Leica lenses are usually more expensive but they have superior longevity built in too. Cool model.Considering all that java. I got a jolt just by looking.

Robin Smith , October 22, 2008; 01:55 P.M.

Kirk,

I like the review, but you say nothing about the dreaded IR issue. Was this because it is a non-issue for you? Did you use the IR filters?

Kirk Tuck , October 22, 2008; 02:40 P.M.

Robin, I did not use UV filters and I never encounter the dreaded IR effect. I shot in all kinds of light and with different kinds of fabrics but nothing happened. I would guess that the newest lenses have coatings with stronger UV resistance than previous ones which might serve to obviate the use of the filters. Absolutely no magenta or fringing. Problem resolved?

Torben Daltoft , October 23, 2008; 12:39 A.M.

This "review" is neglecting that the competitors have image stabilisation, plus a handful of other essential features (think of sensor cleaning)....and thus shows its value

Kirk Tuck , October 23, 2008; 11:35 A.M.

Wrong. I covered the benefits of no moving mirror mass and how it relates, shutter speed setting-wise, to the more conventional cameras. It is a camera meant to fill a niche, not to compete with DSLR's already in the market. The lack of mirror movement somewhat makes up for the lack of VR in the body. Not all cameras need to have every feature available. In fact, famous Leica enthusiast sees the "no frills" M cameras as a simplification back to basics and makes the case that the streamlined approach benefits seeing.

John Fleshin , October 23, 2008; 01:34 P.M.

Good review, glad I caught it, just had mine serviced and upgraded. Are you shooting the auto spot on or adjusting a mite? Was your sample with the new firmware and/or frame lines? Do you see any reason to shoot raw + jpeg? Am afraid I have quite a mixture of vintage glass, so your conclusions about the blue shift might well be a problem solved with new lenses?

Were you able to use the Dual Range 50mm with it?

Regards, John

Kirk Tuck , October 23, 2008; 01:42 P.M.

John. The camera had the latest firmware and frame lines. I used my Dual Range Summicron on it without any issues. I've never been a fan of shooting Raw+jpeg as I end up just using the raws in most cases.

Kirk Author: Minimalist Lighting

Arne H. Heeringa , October 25, 2008; 07:51 P.M.

Great article, though I might prefer the R-D1s because of its price. I've tried a Sigma SD10 which is kind of a no-nonsense camera with some good features like seeing more in the viewfinder than the actual frame only, like Leica. I gave it up in favour to my Nikon F2 and Nikkormat FTN because of it's bad AF, terrible battery life, bad AWB and bad lens. Great sensor though. Fact that the camera was changed for a new one by Sigma didn't change a thing. My Konica Revio KD420Z P&S digital was way better before it was wrecked, but I want to do some creative photograhy myself too and don't leave everything to the camera. So I turned back to film with my Nikons, Olympus 35LC rangefinder, Rolleiflex, Agfa Isolette L and so on. I would like to stay with manual because AF don't seem to work for me and then Leica & Epson are the only options. I've tried the manual Nikon lenses on a D200, but the sharpness couldn't be optimally focussed. About the point of the hand held photography I think though that 1/45 isn't that much of a big deal as 1/30 is no problem with the Nikons at all (it helps that they are very, very heavy) and you can do 1/15 most of the time. For the FTN I can use the Abrahamson softrelease for Leicas too, and then 1/8 works well too if you're carefull.

CPeter Jørgensen , October 26, 2008; 12:54 A.M.

First, the model certainly captured my attention and got me into reading the review. Nice model and nice treatment, especially using low ISO to force wider apertures and bring out the lens qualities.

Second, I've been shooting with an M8 since a month or so after they first came out, and plan to upgrade to an M8-2 when they are available. (I've owned every M-model over the last 45 years, so I guess I just have to keep up my record. And I still have an M-7 and, of course, all the modern versions of standard Leica lenses from 21 through 135 (except the Summarits which attracted me to this article.)

That said, I've never encountered the color shift problems that upset so many people. I am using the filters Leica sent on two lenses, but I don't notice any differences. Most of my lenses are not 6-bit encoded but again, I can't detect any perceptible deficiencies in the wide angle lenses under common shooting conditions. Leica makes the finest lenses for 35 mm and you pay a hefty premium for them. I also have an 18 mm Zeiss Distagon F4 that produces superb results without encoding or filters.

The M8, like all the Ms except the horrible M-5, immediately find "home" in your hand and are a joy to use.

Jon Butterwick , October 28, 2008; 06:05 P.M.

i can't second the comments about the d700 3200 and the m8 1250. i own both and the m8 at 1250 is nowhere near the d700 at 3200. the only way the m8 can shoot 1250 clean like the d700 (at 3200) is during daylight or failing light.

the achilles heel of the m8 (in my humble opinion) is the high iso performance. beyond that it is an excellent camera capable of stunning prints with loads of detail.

Image Attachment: fileghz9u5.jpg

Kirk Tuck , October 29, 2008; 11:36 A.M.

John, I'm always a bit divided when I talk about noise and cameras. I see the differences between the two when I look at the files on my monitor but the disconnection for me is how close many cameras with disparate noise signatures look when I print them. For me, on a 13x19 inch print the noise from the cameras seems to be how I described it. Like most Kodak sensors the M8 sensor has different levels of performance based on how much of the scene is shadow and how much is mid tone and highlight. Some of what I see as noise in the M8 is a result of a less deep black than that produced by the Nikon D700 and D3. When I use curves to equalize the black levels between the cameras the apparent noise drops in the M8 and makes the files look much closer to the D700. People have written about this before in regards to the Kodak SLR/n camera.

There are trade offs everywhere. I will say that it's great to get discussion from a photographer like yourself who actually shoots both.

L DaSousa , October 29, 2008; 05:33 P.M.

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.

The opinions that I have heard have come from people who own(ed) the camera, not based on conjecture. The IR magenta was a small point of their disappointment. Mostly it was different failures of the camera, especially the shutter, which caused a trip to service, and a long (2 or more monthes) stay. This is what has kept me away from purchasing it.

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.

But the M8 was revealed just two years ago. At which time the 5D had already been around for quite a while.

Kirk Tuck , October 29, 2008; 06:00 P.M.


writer with perplexing thoughts of camera design issues.....

I can understand that lots of early failures took the shine off owning the M8. My point, and really the only point a reviewer can offer, is that the above review is based on the camera in my hand. I think that over the span of two years the team at Leica have been hellbent on fixing as many of the design flaws as possible in each successive run of cameras. If I had a product this important I would certainly not sit on my hands when it came to improvements. Is it too much to believe that a product can be "fixed" during its production cycle? If you find that hard to believe how could we ever rely on products such as Microsoft Vista.

I understand that the Canon 5D is three years old. My statement was that the implementation of the sensor would have been state of the art five years ago. Really.

I wish there were a site we could all go to and find the real failure rate for cameras. It would make the process of buying cameras so much easier. Bottom line? I used the camera for six weeks and it did not fail or need life support.

Jon Butterwick , October 29, 2008; 09:40 P.M.

might i also add that in a year of professional, daily use my m8 never failed.

Jordan G. , October 30, 2008; 02:36 A.M.

Version 2 firmware for the leica M8 greatly improves the white balance. Compared to my Nikon D700, I would say the auto white balance of the M8 is better, particularly in incandescent lighting. Also, I have to say that the shutter sound of the D700 and the M8 are different in tone and quality, but hardly different in volume to warrant using one over the other. (I just took 10 pictures with each comparing them in my deserted kitchen and they're hardly different).

Jeff Hughes , November 01, 2008; 09:00 A.M.

Hello Kirk. A very nice review. You might like to know that it was your very compelling review of the M6 back in 2001 which prompted me to buy my first Leica. I picked up the M6ttl that year, the M7 a couple years after that, and the M8 two years ago. And a handful of their sterling lenses along the way, of course. For a non-pro and a not-rich-guy, it's been an expensive journey, but ultimately a transforming one. The Leica M remains far and away my favorite camera system. My M8 goes with me everywhere.

I also own a Nikon D3 and so can appreciate the comparisons you draw. IMHO, notwithstanding the Nikon's much newer sensor, the two cameras produce comparable image quality. Very large quality prints are routine with both.

As you mention, the one area the Nikon is head and shoulders above the Leica is high iso performance. I generally try to limit my M8 to iso 640 - an upper boundary in which it produces very clean images. The D3, conversely, I feel comfortable taking all the way up to 6400. The Nikon sensor is remarkable in its low light performance.

Looking at the images you included in your review, it appears your demo unit is the original, classic M8. The just-released M8.2 reportedly has a much quieter shutter, albeit one with a top speed of 1/4000. The newer model also has revised frame lines which supposedly address the minor framing accuracy issue you describe. Leica does have an upgrade program where one can send in their original M8 and have those items replaced with the newer components.

Thanks again for the very nice review. I've wondered a few times the last couple years if you made the switch to the M8. It's the best camera I've ever owned.

And, yes, a very lovely model!

Kirk Tuck , November 01, 2008; 12:56 P.M.

One of the features I like best about the M8.2 is that the shutter charge can be delayed (and is less noisy) than the original M8.

Nuno Borges , November 19, 2008; 03:53 P.M.

Very well and honestly written. This is exactly why I find a full frame SLR and prime lenses a sounder proposition. A 5D even takes and values Leica glass for whoever feels the urge.

Laurent Vuillard , November 25, 2008; 03:14 P.M.

A subjective but out of experience comment/ I bought a summarit 75 nt willing to pay2400euros for the summicron. As a long time user of Leica lenses I am really positive that with an M6 this 75 is NOT of the same league as the 35, 50, summicrons or 28 90 Elmarits that I used a lot, sharpness was not as good, full stop!

Paul Wolossow , November 28, 2008; 03:45 P.M.

Kirk, A first rate hands-on review. I will be buying an M8 over the next week or so to take advantage of the new $1500 rebate from Leica. If you get your hands on a M8.2 or M8 with the upgrade, please write a short review of them as well. My only dilemma now is which summarit-M lens to get first, the 35mm (46mm) or the 50mm (66mm). The pictures you took with the 50mm look to me to have a more creamy bokeh.

Thanks, Paul

Kirk Tuck , November 28, 2008; 11:56 P.M.

I played with an 8.2 and fell in love with it. If you read my M6 review you'd know the first lens I would recommend to anyone would be the 50mm. I have used most of the 50's for Nikon and Leica. That focal length just resonates with me.

nate johnson , December 16, 2008; 09:52 P.M.


Cold War talks

Hello Kirk: good review,straight forward. Nice to read an article from a shooters point of view. I prefer or (understand) film, but must use the Digital World to keep a living. I use Nikons for some client work and editorial work but prefer the ease of the M system. I might have missed this in your article, but can one use the older M lenses that are not CPU or 6 bit coded? Will these pre 6 bit lenses work on the M8? I am mostly going to be shooting ASA 400 and in RAW if I get a M8. I shoot now with M6's, film Tri X not pushed and lenses are 35,50,21,(1990's lenses) you can see some of the work here on photonet or on flicker@ photo league thanks please let me know about the older lenses (1990's). Image is from Velvet Revolution Prague 1989 © N Johnson

Robert Gordon , December 17, 2008; 05:11 A.M.

The older Leica lenses (including screw mounts) work fine on the M8 and M8.2. They just don't embed EXIF data in the image files.

Mark Bohrer , January 07, 2009; 04:58 P.M.

Kirk:
Thanks for the useful comparison of focal lengths on the M8.

In a recent trip to Chaco Canyon and Santa Fe using the M8, I found myself shooting ruins and urban scenes with 50mm f/1.4 (non-ASPH) and 35mm f/2 ASPH much more than 21mm ASPH. Part of that was lack of IR-cut filter for the 21mm, but the rest was the need for the shoe-mount Leica 28-24-21 finder. The finder is optically superb, but it's tough to frame tightly with it.

=> You do need a 28mm finder to see what you're getting with any 21mm lens on the M8. The M8 lacks a frame showing the 21mm's field of view, and it's more than the M8's entire viewfinder shows.

In fact, with an unmodified M8 you get more than the frame-lines show with any focal length.

The M8 makes pictures from my fiancee's Canon G10 look like cheap snapshots (no surprise, really). I'm also starting to prefer M8 and Leica primes to the 24-70mm f/2.8L on my EOS 1D mk II. Still need the 1D mk II and 20D for 400mm and 500mm shots of wildlife.

I shot personal pics of the Christmas Revels stage production with the M8 and 35 f/2 ASPH, 50mm f/1.4, and 90mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit. The 90mm was tough to frame and use wide-open for stage shots in Oakland, California's Scottish Rite Temple. Also, auto WB is pretty bad, as you point out. But the pictures have that Leica look, and the M8 and lenses are much easier on my back.

Mark Bohrer
www.mountain-and-desert.com

Mark Bohrer , January 07, 2009; 05:13 P.M.

IR filter use -

Shoot outdoor Christmas lights with an M8 without an IR filter on the lens. Using auto WB, you'll get magenta-white lights instead of colored ones: http://tinyurl.com/9rdkml

That's one of the effects of not using IR filters. I've also experienced flesh tones and fabric colors that were slightly off.

Mark Bohrer
Mountain and Desert Photography
www.mountain-and-desert.com

Kirk Tuck , January 15, 2009; 10:29 A.M.

I'm always a bit curious about color balance. I understand the flexibility of raw and the ability to "assign" a color balance but I often wonder if the "old fashioned" way of actually filtering or partiallly filtering the lens would actually improve the image by adding back some of the missing color from the scene. I used to shoot a lot with Kodak's SLR/n and found that I could subdue the blue channel noise to a great degree by actually using color filters (80a, b, c) to pull the color temperature into a range that would not cause the camera's electronics to boost the blue channel. I know it's not as convenient but I wonder if the performance of all digital cameras wouldn't be improved with this method under incandescent light? Thoughts? Violent disagreement? Psuedo-Science?

Mark Bohrer , January 22, 2009; 11:02 P.M.

Kirk:
You're probably right. My EE background tells me you don't want to get anywhere close to overloading the amplifier for any RGB channel. Your filter reduces the input signal enough to keep that from happening.

An initial attenuation is much better than trying to reduce the signal at the output. A filter is less convenient up-front, but you'd spend less time in Photoshop later - if you have a single type of light to worry about. With multiple light-temperatured sources, you're going to play with it in Photoshop later anyway, though filtering for the one you want to dominate might help.

Mark Bohrer
Mountain and Desert Photography
www.mountain-and-desert.com

Michael C , March 29, 2009; 03:13 P.M.

Kirk,

Just ran across your article in scrolling though Leica info. and prices. Very well written and informative. You answered a lot of questions that had been floating around in the back of my mind. I had the pleasure of working with an M6 several years ago, and have wanted an 'M' ever since.

Then, with the advent of the M8, it's been about more than I can stand to not place an order. Only problem is that my wife doesn't share the same dilemma! lol

Michael

Kirk Tuck , October 05, 2009; 02:41 P.M.

So happy to have kept some great M glass on hand. The Leica M9 (I've only played with one, I didn't get on a list early enough!!!) is superb and the Leica we've mostly been looking for since digital took over. What a wonderful tool.

Gautam Biswas , December 02, 2009; 03:28 A.M.

Great review. You have almost made me a convert. I now need to find the cash. Since your review the model M8.2 has been released and the M9 announced. I look forward to your comments on these two models.

David W. Griffin , July 27, 2011; 01:19 P.M.

Nowadays, the M8 has a slightly different role. First as the cheaper way into the Leica digital world at about $2500 give or take (rather than $7000 for the M9). Second as a dedicated IR camera. No mods needed, just replace your Leica IR cut filter with an actual IR filter (like the Leica IR or a very deep red or opaque filter). Normally you will need a tripod for this, but some shots can be taken handheld. The results can be quite satisfying. 


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