Friday, May 4, 2007

The M8: Coda

A final wrap-up regarding my comments on the Leica M8.

It, um, drew a lot of responses, from all over the internet. Overall, responses seemed to be about evenly divided between people who thought my reports were reasonable and fair, and people who had complaints. (The former included some M8 owners, and the latter included some people who obviously didn't even read the articles, but never mind about that.) The complaints, in turn, were divided between those who thought I was overly critical and/or needlessly provocative, and those who felt I was not critical enough.

For the most part, the complaints can be explained by the fact that it was only a brief user report based on brief experience, not a full review. Many years ago it was my personal policy that I would use a camera exclusively for a minimum of three months—for "real" work, not just tests and trials—before I'd write a review of it. That was a good policy, but it's not always practical.

Complaints part A: Cons were too con
1. Shutter lag. Writing a brief review based on a week's experience is problematic, though, that I can't deny. One of the stickiest problems arose because of one friend who felt that something I'd said wasn't factually accurate. He thinks that the shutter lag of the M8 is actually very good, when I reported it as being not very good. He's right that this is a measurable property (shutter lag is defined as the time between the press of the shutter release and the beginning of the exposure) and shouldn't be misrepresented. Others who've tried the camera—even including some M8 owners—didn't disagree with my conclusion that shutter lag was only so-so, however. But it's quite possible that I was fooled by the poorish shutter feel and/or by the various noises happening after the shutter press; perhaps image capture happens earlier in that sequence of noises that it seems to.

If I'd been able to look into this, I would have. My problem is that by the time I heard this from him, the camera was long gone. It's not a happy state of affairs to realize a conclusion you've put into "print" might be wrong, but maybe this one was. On the other hand, I reported my impression accurately, as far as it went, and I think I have to leave it at that for now.

2. Comparisons to the XTi. Another common objection to my reports was that people felt it was needlessly provocative to compare the M8 to the Canon XTi. While I can see their point, I don't agree at all. If you look at it the other way around, you can imagine that Canon might be offended if anyone said that a tiny little company building only its second digital product (rebadgings aside) could better the expertise of the world's leader in the category.

If it were possible to look at the two cameras totally objectively as tools, putting aside their relative positions in their makers' lines and their relative status, the contrast/compare on the XTi vs. M8 could be fascinating. On the one hand you have the biggest, richest camera company in the world, that makes its own sensors, and enjoys the best economies of scale of any DSLR manufacturer, creating its most affordable (and hence most important!) DSLR, the #1 selling DSLR in the world. The engineering, materials science, and manufacturing expertise that goes into such a camera is staggering. On the other hand you have an impecunious, struggling old-World manufacturer of hand-built mechanical cameras, one that has essentially no firsthand expertise in digital sensors and actually fairly little in electronics, making a low-volume, partly hand-built, one-off, large-sensor rangefinder for the carriage trade and its loyal existing customer base. The prices don't begin to tell the story, because if Leica had to develop the XTi, it would have to sell for $10k (or more), and if Canon made the M8 it would sell for $2k (if not less). In various ways, one camera runs rings around the other, and in other ways, vice versa. I don't think it's necessarily an insult to either company to compare the two. It's legitimately interesting. Of course I was aware that it would make some of the snobs see red, but then again, if I ran my life based on what they think, I would have had to kill myself long ago.

3. Off-axis LCD viewing. Some readers felt I made way too much of this. Who needs to look at the LCD off axis? One M8 owner wrote to say that he never looks at his LCD off axis. Well, duh—but what comes first, the chicken or the horse? (Sorry—old yolk.) If you can't see the image off axis, naturally you'd better learn to look at it on axis. Maybe I made too much of the whole issue. Maybe a $4,800 camera should just have a better LCD. You decide.

4. The importance of lenses to digital. The single thing I said in either review that drew the most violently negative reactions was the statement "my experience so far is that digital de-emphasizes the importance of optics to the final result." It's ironic that Leica aficionados would object to this so strenuously, since it's one of the few things that Erwin Puts and I apparently agree on. But in any event, this requires a more extensive article to explain, so I'll write about this topic in the future.

Complaints part B: Cons weren't con enough
1. IR/color issues. A number of people felt I let Leica off too easily, and that there are serious issues with the camera that I hardly touched on. It appears that a number of people feel that the color and IR sensitivity issues are inexcusable, and that an expensive camera that requires IR filters as a band-aid, after-the-fact fix to a problem that never should have existed in the first place is outrageous. Well, I don't know. I guess it seems to me that if the company says you need to use IR filters, then you just use IR filters. I didn't, and it's doubtless what caused the uncorrectable pinkish cast of some of my interior shots. So I didn't make a big deal about that. Again, a full review that didn't treat this issue thoroughly would be remiss, but I wasn't writing a full review.

2. The distorting of the purpose and applications of the legacy focal lengths. Several people took me to task for not addressing this issue, and perhaps I should have. One of the main purposes of the M8, these complainants felt, was to be able to use the lenses you already had; but your old 35mm lens is no longer a 35mm, and your old 50mm standard lens is suddenly a decidedly non-standard, and much less useful, 65mm. The most-used lens on 35mm Leicas is the 35mm Summicron. To get the same thing on the M8, you need to spend $3,200 for a lens that's bigger and heavier (the 28mm Summicron) and feels different. (Leica introduced a slower 28mm with the M8 to ease these folks' pain.) Moreover, you may already have a 35mm Summicron and not a 28mm Summicron, which means you either have to change the way you see or buy a new lens. Well, okay; I see the complaint. Maybe it is indeed more of an issue with a camera that accepts mainly primes, and is less of an issue with DSLRs, which take zooms. But I guess my feeling is that we're all used to dealing with "magnification factors" with digital sensors by now, so you just figure this stuff out as part of your purchase decision, and then deal with it.

3. High failure rate and "recalls." I gather that a fairly significant fraction of M8 buyers have had to return their M8s to Leica, or have had their cameras stop working, necessitating a trip back to Leica. Again, while a legitimate issue for a full review, this just isn't something that I think ought to be reported in a user report. Simply stated, I was giving my impressions of my own personal experience during the short time I had the camera, and that just wasn't part of my experience. If the camera I was using had stopped working while I had it (alarming thought!), you can bet I would have written about it. But it didn't—it worked fine.

The worst thing about writing about Leicas is that once you say anything negative, some people completely ignore anything and everything positive that you also said. So it was with my M8 posts. The M8 is a cool camera. People are doing good work with them. Some people really like them, and I understand why. If you're accustomed to rangefinder viewing or just really like rangefinder viewing, it's close to the only game in town.

It's also a deeply flawed product that probably hadn't reached a true v.1.0 at the time of its release, and that provides such spectacularly bad value that you'd best be rich enough to be able to shrug off the cost if you intend to buy one. And it's going to be outdated in no time, hopefully when Leica itself brings out a v.2 that fixes all the problems it learned about from its own early adopters a.k.a. beta testers. I'm glad the M8 exists, and I hope it's successful so Leica can build the M9 and M10 and M11, and so other makers are encouraged to bring competitors to market—I'd love to see a Zeiss Ikon digital and an Epson R-D2, for example, just as I'd love to see digicam-sized cameras with large sensors and real optical viewfinders that are large and usable. We'll see.


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