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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.