Leica M Camera What you should know

Mention the word ‘Leica’ in front of a photographer, and you’ll get either one of these two responses: that Leica is overpriced and overhyped, or that it’s the holy grail of photography. I think I fit somewhere in between.

About Leica M Camera

Before I talk about anything else, here’s a brief introduction to the Leica M system: unlike many other modern cameras, a Leica M is a what you’d call a rangefinder camera. It uses a mechanism called (surprise, surprise) rangefinder to focus. To put it simply, it utilises the parallax effect to measure the distance between the sensor and the subject of interest, thereby allowing the photographer to achieve perfect (manual) focus.

Most Leica M cameras accept M-mount lenses which have been around since 1954. What this means is that if you ever come across a beautiful, old Leica lens in your grandparents’ attic, chances are it will work on any modern Leica M body. It’s a stark difference in comparison to today’s throw-away society. 

Are Leica M cameras overpriced?

They are indeed expensive, but whether or not it’s overpriced is entirely up to you.  A Nissan GT-R is a great car with comparable performance to a Ferrari at a fraction of the cost, but you know there’s something about the prancing horse that makes it the more desirable car. Ask a Ferrari owner and I assure you that they’ll say their Ferrari is worth every penny. When it comes to cars, it’s not about setting the fastest lap time. It’s about how it makes you feel when you drive it. I’d like to think that the same philosophy applies to cameras. 

Leica M8 + 0.2

There are plenty of film rangefinder cameras, but as far as I know, there are only two manufacturers of digital rangefinders – Leica being one of them, and Epson. The uber design nerd in you probably know Epson as the company where Naoto Fukasawa began his career as a designer, but for most of us, Epson is a company that makes printers and scanners. Little did you know that they released a series of rangefinder camera called the R-D1 in 2004, and it preceded the Leica M8 as the world’s first digital rangefinder. Bear in mind that the R-D1 actually uses the Leica M mount, which is just a testament on how dominant Leica is in the world of rangefinders. 

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

The M8, released in 2006, was Leica’s first foray to the digital rangefinder market. As with most first generation products, it came riddled with problems. Unlike its analog brothers, the M8 didn’t have a full frame sensor, instead utilising a 1.33x crop sensor. While I personally don’t have any problems with this, many people felt frustrated because their legacy Leica lenses will behave differently on the M8 compared to traditional film Leicas. 

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Some people also reported problems with the camera freezing, requiring them to reinsert the battery to get it going again. Another major issue was that the sensor is overly sensitive to infrared (IR) light, which caused faulty colour renditions. Leica ended up sending each M8 owner with two free UV/IR filters to rectify the issue. If you’ve been wondering why the front of the lens on my camera is violet, there’s your answer. 

Low light is also not the M8’s strongest suit. In a world where getting a clean, noise-free shot at ISO 6400 is pretty common, you might be surprised to learn that the M8’s maximum ISO is 2500. Images at ISO 1250 is borderline usable, and personally I stick to ISO 640 or lower. 

The model I have is the M8.2, which has some marginal upgrades compared to the M8. It has a much quieter,  refined shutter (albeit sacrificing the fastest shutter speed of 1/8000), frameline upgrades, and a sapphire crystal (!) LCD cover which makes it virtually unscratchable. Leica also replaced the ubiquitous red dot with a more discreet black dot which I am a fan of. 

Another thing that made me admire this company is their attitude towards planned obsolescence. Shortly after introducing the M8.2, Leica offered M8 owners an upgrade program – at a cost, M8 users can send their cameras to Leica HQ in Solms, Germany, where their cameras will be upgraded with features found in the M8.2. Unfortunately Leica does not do these types of program anymore, but it just shows how much they care about their customers. 

If you’re wondering, yes, Leica will still repair your M8, a camera that has been out for almost 10 years. Leica promised that they will keep on supporting the M8 until they no longer have the necessary parts. When that day finally comes – if you wish, Leica will offer you a store credit for your faulty M8 which you can use towards the purchase of an M9. 

Design wise, the M8.2 hasn’t strayed very far from the traditional Leica design. It is a tad thicker compared to its film counterparts, but it’s still very much a Leica. 

Despite being a digital camera, the M8 pays a few design homages to its legacy. The top plate for example, has a  circular lcd screen which mimics the frame counter found on film cameras. It’s now used to display battery life and the amount of shots available on the memory card. I find this quite useless given the large capacity memory cards available these days – I’ve never seen it go below 999, the maximum number it can display. Leica seems to agree through, because they removed this LCD from the M8’s successor onwards. 

Notice how the black paint on the edges of my camera have worn off slightly, revealing the solid brass underneath – a so called Leica ‘battle scar’. 

In order to access the battery and memory card, the whole bottom plate needs to come off. This is how you used to load a roll of film into film Leicas. As someone who hasn’t had a lot of exposure to film cameras, it was quite novel at first, but personally I think they went a bit overboard with the retro homage. A simple, elegant battery door similar to the Leica T would have been perfect. 

The Lens

As for the lens, I went with the Leica 35mm Summicron-M f/2 ASPH. It’s arguably one of the most versatile lenses in the M lens lineup due to its focal length, and it’s said to have the best balance between optical quality and price. If money was no object though, I would have gone for the Leica 35mm Summilux-M , which has a maximum aperture of f/1.4. That extra stop would have been perfect to compensate for the M8.2’s poor low light performance.

On the M8.2 body with a 1.33x crop factor, the 35mm Summicron-M translates to a 46mm focal length, which is very close to the 50mm focal length many photographers swear by. I’m personally more of a 50mm shooter than a 35mm, so to quote J.K. Rowling – all is well. 

Leica lenses are by no means cheap. I’ve heard so many people rave about them and I finally understand when I finally got my hands on one. The moment I unboxed and picked the lens up for the first time, I was really, really pleasantly surprised at how dense and well built it was, and at that point I began to understand why Leica charges this much for something that fits within the palm of my hand.

In case you’re wondering – yes, the lens is fully mechanical. As far as I know, there are no electronic parts inside the lens. The aperture ring rotates with satisfying clicks, and the focus ring has the perfect resistance – neither too loose nor too tight. Modern lenses tend to have fly-by-wire focusing, which means the motion you apply to the focusing ring is translated to a signal which is then used to shift the focus of the lens electronically. Functionality-wise, it’s perfectly fine, but having a mechanical focusing ring is just a completely different level in terms of tactility. Also, since there are no electronic parts that can go haywire, and knowing Leica’s history, you can rest assured that your beautiful piece of glass will remain usable for the next 50 years. Consider it an investment. 

As I mentioned before, the 35mm Summicron-M line is one of, if not the most popular line of Leica M lenses. The first generation 35mm Summicron-M was introduced in 1958, and my fifth generation lens has been in production since 1997, which is a testament to Leica’s longevity and timeless design. 

On paper, the Leica M8.2 seems to be a terrible camera. The sensor is problematic, it has a laughably slow 2 fps burst mode, and the high ISO performance is terrible. If you nitpick I’m sure you can find a million other flaws, but regardless of that, I adore this camera. 

The camera is not intimidating. You’re not presented with 23 different buttons, dials, and switches. There’s a dial to change aperture on the lens, another dial to change shutter speed, and a round button which tells the camera to take the shot. Sure, there are buttons on the back of the camera, but none of those are required to take a picture. 

When you compare the photos from the Leica in terms of technical quality alone, it’ll probably lose to current modern digital cameras. However, one thing that still amazes me is how the camera handles colour. I had a Panasonic GF1 before I bought the Leica, and I was so used to loading every RAW file into Lightroom, tweaking the picture until I got to the picture I wanted. With the Leica, things are a little bit different. I remember when I first got the camera, I loaded the files onto Lightroom, expecting to do quite a bit of post-processing, but I was baffled – the photos already looked so perfect straight out of the camera. Perhaps some minor adjustments here and there, and I’m already at the photo I that want. Hats off to Leica on this one.

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

I feel like people are relying too much on technology these days. A friend of mine recently got his hands on a fairly recent Sony mirrorless camera, and being a modern camera, it was able to shoot 11 fps burst mode. He wanted to take a picture of his daughter – but instead of capturing the so called decisive moment, he just captured every moment since his camera enabled him to do so. He simply needed to point the camera at his daughter and press the shutter button – the camera’s autofocus, auto exposure, and burst took care of everything. 

My advice? Slow down a little and appreciate the process. 

I think there’s a certain romance when shooting with a manual camera. It doesn’t have a 51-point AF mode, or a fancy metering mode. You learn to compose, you set the appropriate exposure, and you focus it yourself. If you managed to create a beautiful photo, congratulations! You did it, not the camera. On the other hand, if you ever stumble across that mis-focused image, you can no longer blame the camera, because the camera didn’t miss – you did. Master the tool, don’t let the tool master you. 

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Leica M8.2 + Summicron-M f/2.0 ASPH

Ready for another car analogy? The LaFerrari with its fancy new electronic differentials and active aerodynamics will run rings around the F40, but you know deep inside, some part of you long for the more tactile, connected driving experience of the F40. If you managed to tackle that difficult hairpin turn in an F40, give yourself a pat on the back because you did it, without the help of any fancy electronics. 

I admit, there is quite a steep learning curve when it comes to rangefinders. It’s not a camera for everybody, and there are times when all those modern features will come in handy. But if you ever decide to pursue this path and work around its quirks, I promise you the camera will reward you big time. At the end, a camera’s main purpose is to take great pictures – and if you judge it by that criteria and that criteria only, then the Leica M8.2 is one hell of a camera.

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