Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leica M8 Pro and Con: Con

Gman Music and Cosmic Records, Waukesha, Wisconsin

This half of my 2-part brief User Report of the Leica M8—the first part is here—is going to be an exercise in mind games. The perplex of device, psychology, history, function, status, loyalty, and tradition that is Leica is like a religion, in that it doesn't easily admit of soberly objective analysis. Some say you've either got to believe, or you don't get it; others think faith blinds the gullible and the fat old has-been Emperor is parading around in a Speedo. Some people think it's just another camera, and some people think it's magic juju, and a lot more people fall in between somewhere. Everybody vectors in on it from different directions, has different axes to grind and oxen to gore and sacred cows to bow down before. That's the reality; it is what it is. So to get a better handle on the M8—or to better communicate my take on it, perhaps I should say—allow me to set up and play with a few simple thought experiments (in a thought experiment, you simply take a situation that is not real, and imagine that it is real, and then examine the conclusions that derive therefrom).

Let us play.

What if the M8 were a Leica rangefinder, but not digital?
For a quarter-century and more, Leica's gotten hammered when it tries to think new, from the M5 flop to the tepid semi-acceptance of the R8. (Oddly, considering its signature camera has such a strong identity, it's like the company keeps struggling to find an identity.) It has learned its lesson: with the digital M, the designers clearly tried to preserve as much M as possible in the design—all the way to the removeable bottom plate, which is as much of a "technological male nipple" as any feature I've ever seen on a camera. The principle was very clearly "make it feel and behave as much like an M7 as possible."

How'd they do? Well, pretty well, as I elaborated yesterday. Then again, the gestalt of the Barnack camera was to sacrifice quality for stealth—for portability, small size, quiet operation, and unobtrusiveness. And in that regard, the world has shifted around the Leica while the Leica has stayed the same. Most any bread-and-butter digicam fits the original Leica gestalt better than the Leica does, these days—they're smaller, quieter, less obtrusive, more portable (see Mitch Alland's comment in the "Leica M8 Pro and Con: Pro" thread).

A "Barnack camera" (i.e., thread-mount Leica). Prior to roughly 1950, many serious amateurs and most professionals looked down their noses at 35mm cameras because of their low enlargement quality, often deriding them as "toys" and refusing to take them seriously.

Mind you, I'm not knocking Leica's choices. It made the M8 as much like an M as possible because that's what its faithful wanted, and giving your customers what they want can hardly be construed as a bad thing. The M8 is trying to be an M that just happens to be digital; but in terms of my thought experiment, if it were a film camera, it would feel not so much like a Leica but like a clunky, cheaper copy of a Leica. The feeling of build quality is almost there but not quite; the shutter delay doesn't have the razor-sharp responsiveness of the film M's (the Canon XTi to which I compared the M8 has a markedly better, quicker, and more responsive shutter feel); the controls, although nicely conceived, are somewhat slow and unsure; and the always-ready, always-on, tough-as-nails feel of the film cameras just doesn't translate to what is, after all, mainly a piece of electronics. Nice try—A for effort—but a miss. If it weren't a digital camera, the M8 wouldn't quite make it as a Leica.

But, of course, it is a digital camera. So if that's what you want, then there you are.

What about the opposite?
That is, what if the M8 were digital, but not a Leica?

With some of my shooting I got great files from the M8. It's clearly a DSLR-quality sensor capable of high-quality results. With more experience, no doubt I could do even better.

There's some question about the color accuracy, if the forums are any indication—one issue after another comes up and gets hashed to death. This may be a manifestation of the remorselessness of Leica-obsession, but I doubt that that's the entire cause. I can't draw any solid conclusions about colors because I didn't perform any real tests and I didn't use the M8 for very long. I had no problems with shadows. But the camera had pinkeye. I might be spoiled, as my regular camera has unusually good color accuracy. However, unbidden, my friend Nick H. reported, "Having shot about a dozen images on my little SD card with Mike L.'s loaner M8 and my 40 Rokkor, I ran them through the preliminary 'processing' routine last night. This involves laying out the images in Adobe Bridge and inspecting them in Camera Raw to see how much adjustment they need before being dumped into Photoshop for final tweaking and printing. The first thing that struck me was the color rendering. Your face was imaged in a lurid shade of deep pink not usually seen outside of Toys 'R' Us, and it was only with some heroic manipulations of the Color Temperature, Tint, and Saturation sliders that I could get you to appear mostly human although still not at all well."

(A note to skeptics: in real life I do indeed look like a well human.)

Second, the camera is slow. It writes files to the card slowly, and a "burst" is not very burst-like at all. Scrolling through images on the LCD screen, you can flick through three or four quickly before the camera has to pause to catch up. When magnifying the LCD image to look at details, if you zoom all the way in quickly, the image is at first coarsely pixelated until the buffer catches up and the "detailed detail" appears. This is like going back in time, to earlier generations of DSLRs, and it destroys the sense of undefeatable positive responsiveness that the film cameras always had. Speed performance, at any rate, is pretty marginal by current standards.

The shutter has a "rubbery" feel, more than the usual delay, and it's loud. It makes a muffled "thunk" sound followed by a grinding whirr. Not that it's bad in any objective sense; it's a soft-sounding noise, and it's lower than the shutter sound of many a DSLR (although the Canon XTi, in a direct comparison, is quieter). But it's louder than a film M, and, again, the world has changed—many digicams are silent. Silent, as in no noise at all. It's in these contexts that the M8 has to be judged as being on the loud side.

And finally (saving the worst for last), the LCD screen is downright poor. You have to change its brightness settings manually, and even so, in bright sunlight you can't see the image well enough to evaluate your cropping. Indoors, where the LCD image is visible, it's a bit grainy, with an oversharpened look (maybe that can be fixed in the settings)—and highly directional. The directionality is its real Achilles' heel. If you're as little as 10 or 20 degrees off-axis, the image is degraded such that you can't evaluate color or exposure even approximately. Worse, by the time you're off-axis by about 30 degrees or more looking down from above, the image disappears altogether.

On axis, above, the LCD is fine. As little as 30 degrees off axis from above, as in the picture below, and the image is all but invisible.

This isn't poor performance for a $4,800 camera—it's on the poor side for the average pocket digicam, and I don't know of any current DSLR that's anywhere close to as bad. In fact, just to be sure of myself here, it was at this point that I hopped in the car and zoomed down to the local Circuit City to compare it directly to the Canon XTi, and what I found was what I expected—the XTi's LCD screen (like that of the D80, D40, 30D, D200, E-500, A100, etc., etc.) was much better.

The best way to use the M8, then, is to ignore the LCD screen completely—just shoot, then look at your files for the first time after downloading them. I'm sure this suits many veteran Leicaphiles, but that's no excuse. It has a curious side-effect that's also very far as the LCD screen is concerned, I felt somewhat "blinded" at times. This is directly contrary to the Leica's traditional virtue, which is that the bright, water-clear viewfinder always made it seem like you could always see everything, even when the light was bad.

Putting aside for a moment the ghosts in the air and the weight of tradition, the Canon XTi that I pressed into service as a point of comparison emerged looking surprisingly good. It's better not just generically, but even at some of the things that are considered the Leica's traditional stocks-in-trade: the XTi is just as small, light, and portable; it's just as quiet, if not more so; it's considerably more responsive, positive, and fast; and—most damning to the German camera, bordering on a sacrilege—the Canon's shutter feel and shutter lag are both decidedly better than the Leica's. It doesn't have rangefinder viewing, of course, but, offsetting that, its LCD is easily superior. It can't take Leica primes, but it can use teles and zooms, which the M8 can't. Plus, its metering is more accurate, and users report fewer problems with color (hardly surprising, since Canon has vastly more experience with digital sensors). The M8 is far, far more nicely built, in accordance at least to some degree with the disparity in cost, and the Canon hasn't got a fraction of the Leica's panache. But point-for-point, even at some of the most Leica-esque of virtues, the XTi is arguably a better camera. And not just for the money. (Pity about that crappy viewfinder, and I sure hope users can defeat that zany mind-of-its-own pop-up flash in the settings menus.)

So, vis-à-vis thought experiment #2, if the M8 weren't a Leica rangefinder, it wouldn't rank very highly as a digital camera. It's okay; it's just that the entry-level Canon I compared it to is better, never mind the more expensive models.

Of course, it is a Leica rangefinder. So if that's what you want, there you go—again.

Cost is relative
there's one final issue that I haven't covered yet (which will eventually lead me to one last thought experiment). Namely, cost.

If you persist in demanding or expecting that your expenditure be efficient, the M8 doesn't make a whole lot of dollars-and-cents sense.

However, luxury goods are defined as goods which are more desirable, and sell better, when they cost more rather than less. The M8 is a luxury product, and consequently there's quite a premium to pay for it. Presumably, buyers like that about it.

Not me, though. I'm never going to pay $4,800 for a digital camera, personally. I'm just plain not rich enough, for one thing. But even if I were rich, I'd still be a cheapskate. And even if I weren't a cheapskate, I still wouldn't be very status-conscious, because I just don't care very much about that sort of thing (my watch is a big dopey-looking Timex, for instance. I like it because the face lights up in the dark). So nothing—well, no camera—can sell me on $4k worth of prestige. Or even $2k worth. It just isn't possible. I'm not susceptible.

Not only that, but as a camera reviewer and magazine writer, I would never recommend that anyone else pay $4,800 for a digital camera, either. The march of progress and the pace of obsolescence is just too swift. The premium the M8 demands over even a Canon 5D is $2k, which is, in terms of cost-efficiency, crazy.

Mind you, when I say I would never recommend a $4,800 camera to other people, that's not the same thing as saying other people shouldn't buy one. They should if they want to. And maybe they just can. If there's one thing I've learned in dealing with photography enthusiasts over the years, it's that price is relative.

A little story comes to mind. I had a girlfriend once who asked me to help her buy a nice stereo. I planned a whole afternoon of store-hopping, fully expecting to expose her to a lot of different equipment and educate her enough about the options so that she could make an intelligent choice. Almost as an afterthought, as we walked into the first store (it was a Myer-Emco in Washington, D.C.), I thought I'd have her "calibrate her ears" by first listening to the store's reference system. She listened to half of a song, and said, "Okay. I'll take it."

"No, no," I said, shocked. "I didn't mean you should actually buy this one. I just wanted you to hear it before we go upstairs to listen to some other speakers—"

"What do you mean? Are there better ones upstairs?"

"No, but—"

"Isn't this a good one?"

"Yes, it's a very good one, but—"

"So what's the problem? I like it," she chirped. "I'll take it."

The salesman had this bright, happy, dazed look.

So anyway, after loading $12k worth of stereo gear into her big black BMW (that was a lot of dough for a stereo back in the mid-'80s), we were on our way back to her place to set it up when we happened to pass an certain antiques store. "Ooh, I saw the most gorgeous little Renaissance madonna in there a few weeks ago," she exclaimed. "I'm going to stop and get it." Then, half to herself, she added, "No, on second thought, it's $6,000, and I've got to try to be good. I've already spent enough money for one day!"

Ahem. Anyway, like I say, this stuff is relative. A price that's out of sight for some is trivial to others. Same as it ever was. And it's not for a reviewer to judge what's worth what to whom.

The bottom line
But on to my last thought experiment. In this review, I can't fall back on the standard reviewer's parting "would I buy it" shot. I know I'm not going to buy it for what it costs. To get down to my own bottom-line verdict, I had to imagine that the M8 doesn't cost what it does. What if there were no premium to pay? What if the M8 cost, say, $1,500, roughly double the price of a Canon XTi?

To sum up from above, the M8 doesn't quite make it for me as an M camera. It's physically similar to the film versions but misses the gestalt, perhaps unavoidably. To me it ends up feeling more like a weird replica of an M than a real one. And it's a decent but not great digital camera, bettered by average DSLRs in both operability and, to a lesser extent, image quality. But if for some reason your digital camera must be a Leica or your Leica must be digital, then it's the only game in town. And I can see that. As ennumerated yesterday, there are some good reasons to want one.

I didn't hate the M8. I actually kinda liked it, for exactly the reason I'm supposed to, namely, that it reminded me of the film versions. I can see how others might like it, too. If it were my camera, I could get used to it. So would I buy one if it cost $1,500? Surprisingly, I actually didn't have to think very long or hard about this. The honest answer, I'm afraid, is no. I know some people are crazy about the lenses, but my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result. And I can't get excited enough about the lens quality to be willing to put up with such a compromised body, and a shooting experience that, while pleasant, is not spot-on.

This is just one guy's opinion, a single data input, nothing more. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.


ERRATUM*: The quote that originally appeared at the top of this page was not an actual quote. My apologies for screwing up.

UPDATE: Read Colin Jago's response to this review.

Featured [partial] Comment by Carsten Bockermann: "...To continue the Leica tradition of small, fast cameras with truly excellent lenses, I think we need a new system designed from scratch." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

Feature [partial] Comment by William: "...This camera suffers from distorted color performance due to its IR sensitivity. IR light is minimally at removed before the sensor by a very thin, relatively inefficient optical filter in order to achieve the highest possible optical performance (all filtering—analog or digital—degrades information content to some degree). So, Leica traded color fidelity for optical fidelity. This means that color photography must be done with an IR filter in front of the lens.

"I have looked at hundreds of on-line M8 photos since December because I love the rangefinder/M esthetic and the idea of a digital M mount rangefinder really appeals to me. Pixel-peeping clearly reveals the M8's excellent image quality. This camera takes full advantage of Leica lenses as well as glass from Voightlander, Zeiss, Rokkor and others. Leica's strategy to eliminate the pre-sensor anti-aliasing filter and use a thin IR filter is a success. But viewing even low-resolution, on-line M8 color images shows IR contamination is problematic on most images recorded without on-lens IR filters. No amount of post-processing manipulation can eliminate the color distortion (post-processing can produce some amount of improvement). While IR contamination is most evident in the blacks and greens, all colors are affected to some degree. The color on the majority of M8 images I've seen just isn't right." (See the full comment in the Comments section.)

*That's Latin for "egg on face."

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