Why I Still Love My Leica M8

Leica M8. Pentax K5, Pentax SMC K 100mm f/4 Macro.

I’ve used this space to write about film cameras before, including my Leica M3, but not about a digital one. I got interested in photography after college, when things were already decidedly digital. I moved from a digital point and shoot to a DSLR and then to a nicer DSLR. My Dad was a pro shooter back in the 80s and he gave me a lot of his old gear, including a set of Pentax K-mount lenses. So when I got my first DSLR, I went Pentax.

But for a few different reasons, I grew a bit disillusioned with that system. For one, even though I had added a few nice autofocus lenses, a lot of my lenses were fully manual–and I found it difficult to focus them accurately using a digital camera–the focusing screen in my K10D was built for autofocus lenses, and was smaller than that of a film SLR. It was tough for me to make sure that details were sharply in focus, especially when shooting at  wider apertures. As I’m not a zoom lens person, I found myself carrying a rather heavy camera and multiple lenses around with me when shooting.

Foodtow. Leica M8, Leica Summicron DR 50mm f/2.

The other issue was the lack of a full frame option–to this day Pentax only offers digital cameras with APS-C sensors which are roughly 75% the diagonal size of a 35mm frame. The end result is that a wide-angle lens like a 35mm turns into a normal lens–one that offers the equivalent of a 50mm lens on film or a full frame sensor. You can use a 35mm lens as your normal, but it makes it less useful for something like an across-the-table portrait, as the wider lens exaggerates facial features more than a standard 50mm would.

Leica M8 with 35mm Summilux ASPH. Pentax K5, Pentax SMC K 50mm f/1.4.

One day at work a coworker brought in his Leica M6. He was showing it to me a bit, and I immediately loved its compact size and big, bright viewfinder. “Focusing it is kind of like being really drunk,” he explained, “You’re out of focus when seeing double, but when you only see one image everything is good.” I immediately knew that this was the type of camera I wanted.

At that point in my life, I wasn’t comfortable shooting with film. So I decided that digital was the way to go. That left me with two options: the Epson RD-1, which is an APS-C sensor rangefinder built around a Voigtlander Bessa body, and the Leica M8–a camera that had a slightly-smaller-than-full-frame APS-H sensor that was built to the same standards as the M6 that I had handled. The sensor’s “crop-factor” was 1.3x, so a 21mm lens acts like a 28mm, a 28mm like a 35mm, a 35mm is like a 45mm, and so on.

Brothers. Leica M8, Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH.

So I decided to do it. I bought an M8 along with a 35mm Summilux ASPH f/1.4 lens, which gave me the normal field of view in which I like to work. It wasn’t a full frame camera, but it was compact, had a great viewfinder, and was quick as hell to focus. The quality of the lens I paired with the camera was also tip-top–even better than my favorite 31mm f/1.8 Pentax lens.

The M8 is not without its flaws. Aside from the cropped sensor, it is overly sensitive to infrared light. If you want to avoid yellowish foliage and plant life, and black synthetic fabrics that look magenta, you’ll need to use a special 486 UV/IR blocking filter on every lens. It doesn’t have an antialias filter, so its CCD sensor is extremely sharp–but it’s also just-ok in lower light. I usually limit myself to ISO 1250, and try to keep it at 640 in most situations.

Through the M8’s Viewfinder. Sony Alpha NEX-5N, Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH.

Even though I’m shooting more film than digital now, my M8 is still used quite a bit when I grab a digital camera. In good light the quality of the files haven’t been beat by any other digital that I’ve used, and I love the fast-and-loose rangefinder focusing and framing. The camera has a hot shoe and I’ve got a radio transmitter for wireless flash capability when I need to shoot with strobes. Sure, the newer M9–which will set you back around $6000 for a new body and $5000 for a used one–is full frame, delivers 8 more megapixels of resolution, and doesn’t require the lens filters to block infrared light. If I had my druthers, I’d upgrade to one–but it’s not easy to pull five thousand disposable druthers together.

Kyle and Sam. Leica M8, Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH.

I work faster with the M8 than I do with any other camera. I can focus quickly and accurately, and the camera’s built-in meter makes it possible to either shoot with an automatic shutter speed or to set a shutter speed and let the camera decide an ISO while controlling the lens aperture manually. The latter emulates the TAv (Shutter & Aperture Priority) mode on Pentax SLRs that I thought was perfect for digital shooting–you think about how freezing motion and depth of field, let the camera worry about the ISO sensitivity.

And I’ve added a bunch of lenses to my Leica kit, starting as wide as 15mm and going up to 90mm. Rangefinders aren’t good for telephoto work–as the mechanical mechanism just isn’t precise enough for focusing with long lenses, or for macro–parallax is the major issue there. I’m still not a telephoto shooter, but I have become more interest in macro and close focus photography as of late. I searched long and hard for a digital body that would allow me to focus accurately with manual focus macro lenses, finally settling on one…. but that’s another post.

Washington Irving’s Final Resting Place. Leica M8, Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH.

Grand Central Terminal. Leica M8, Leica Summicron 75mm f/2.

Rolls Royce. Leica M8, Leica Elmar 90mm f/4.

Sky Flyer. Leica M8, Leica Summicron DR 50mm f/2.

Flowers. Leica M8, Leica Summicron DR 50mm f/2.

Ammonite Shell. Leica M8, Leica Summicron 90mm f/2 APO.

Lizard Man. Leica M8, Leica Summitar 50mm f/2.

9 thoughts on “Why I Still Love My Leica M8

    • daniel binlag – Thanks, nice to hear about your Leica M8 experience.I lugged 15kg of Nikon camera, lens, tripods, etc to Phuket for a holiday. In Singapore, I found a demo M8 and paid US$2600 for it. Back in Australia, I bought the Elmarit 28mm and Summicron 50mm used. Now I carry a lite shoulder bag instead. I’m enjoying and learning the creativity of the manual set up. Colour, texture and DOF of Leica images blow my Nikon D300 ones away. The Leica is very sharp got to see to believe.See the Leica M manufacturing (You-Tube). The rigorous QA-testing and hand assembly is amazing. Precision & surgical.Your description of the Nikon/Cannon SLR products is so accurate. They are marketing toys & hype not creativity, precision equipment, or even photography! Sorry, I’m now a Leica M convert after several years with NikonSLR. Pls note the rangefinder system limitations. Not ideal for: sports, telephoto, and low light.

  1. Khiem,

    You can mount the DR Summicron on the M8, but it works in close focus mode only–when you try to use it in the normal range the rangefinder cam hits up against the inside of the M8’s body.

    DAG (www.dagcamera.com) can modify the lens by grinding down the rangefinder coupling, but you will lose close focus rangefinder coupling if you try to use it on a film M. I had one copy of the lens that I had modified, but ended up buying another unmodified version and selling the modified–I use a Summitar as my 50mm on the M8 now, and use the Dual Range Summicron on my M3.

    My recommendation would be to track down a similar vintage rigid Summicron for use on the M8–optically they are the same. If you have a DR, you can always swap it on to the digital M when you want to focus close.

    Hope this helps!

    Jim

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  3. Hi Jim

    Thanks for your thoughts, I am thinking about a M8. I am a designer who also works in the photographic space. I have 2 cameras. A canon 5d mark 2 (with a 50mm f1.4 and a 24-70mm L series lens both canon) and a lumix DMC L1 (with LEICA D VARIO-ELMARIT 14-50mm/F2.8-3.5 lens,)

    I use my Canon for work and it is amazing but it is not something I would take on a holiday its to big and bulky. I love my lumix but its got a big chunky lens and anything over 400ISO is no good.

    In my film/student days I had a Pentax K1000. with a standard 50mm lens. I loved that camera. In 2000 I took it to europe with me and the photos I got out of that camera were amazing, I loved the simplicity of one lens and the viewfinder, no bulky equipment, the only extra bit was the flash. so my question is is the M8 worth the investment and can I bolt on my beloved old pentax 50mm lens. I would greatly appreciate your feedback.

    cheers, Vito

    • Vito,

      I’d wait a few weeks before looking into buying a used M8. Should be a new Leica camera coming at Photokina and it might bring the prices down a bit.

      You can probably find an adapter to mount your Pentax 50mm, but you wouldn’t have the ability to see the focus change. You can scale focus using the distance scale on the lens.

      There are plenty of of 50mm lenses out there that are rangefinder coupled to mount on an M8, many of them inexpensive. My favorite bargain optic is the Leica Summitar, but you can look at Russian lenses like the Jupiter 8, or consider a newer optic from Cosina Voigtlander or Zeiss.

      If you aren’t married to the idea of a rangefinder and are willing to go with a slightly smaller APS-C sensor, the Sony NEX series is a great way to go–you can mount practically any lens via an adapter, and the EVF that is built into the NEX-6 and NEX-7 models is excellent for manual focus.

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