I might just be attuned to the theme, but I hear and read a lot about storytelling in photography. This, of course, is what photo essays are about - the narrative form perfected by Life magazine among...
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.
M8 with Summarit-M lenses: 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm
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.
Series 3: 35mm Summarit-M (Fair Bean Coffee House)
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
75mm Summarit-M. ISO 640 (Medici Coffee House, Austin)
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).
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.
75mm Summarit-M. (Starbucks)
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?
M8-three important features
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.
finger grip on the Summarit-M 35mm
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:
50mm Summarit-M. (Downtown in Austin)
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.
Flare Test. 50mm Summarit-M
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.
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!
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.
Benjamin Tuck @ Asti Trattoria, 35mm Summarit-M
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
depth of field scale on the 50mm Summarit-M
More fun to compose through a bright line finder with moderate focal length lenses.
Ultra fast shutter reaction time. No perceptible lag!
Very neutral and believable images from RAW files.
Four lenses and one body in the space usually take up by one body and one normal zoom lens.
A camera body honed to ergonomic perfection
Lenses that set a standard for sharpness and contrast.
Lenses that can be used wide open without a care (and focused with greater accuracy.)
Beautiful depth of field scales on each of the lenses.
The .dng file represents an open standard and enhances the archival capabilities of the files.
Very low noise shutter with no mirror noise.
And to be fair, my list of gripes about the camera (no gripes about the lenses!!)
battery location on the M8
When you hit the limits of the image buffer some of the frames get corrupted and are unreadable (very bad).
The camera has its own proprietary battery, which is small and would be incredibly hard to find in any secondary market.
The camera is slow to start up when turned on.
You give up the use of lenses longer than 90mm (framing a 135mm would be very dicey.)
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.
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.
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.
The jpeg files are not as good as their competitors files. (The M8 begs to shoot in RAW only.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.