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A Spin around the Block with Leica's new 'Digital M'

Leica's new M8 makes the leap to digital with grace & style

By Allan Weitz

The first thing you notice when you pick up the new Leica M8 is that it's missing a film advance lever. When you shoot with a traditional 'M' your right thumb instinctively tucks in between the wind lever and the top edge of the camera. On the digital M8, your right thumb feels as out of place as a plaid sport jacket at a black tie dinner. The good news is that it doesn't take long for your thumb to relax, kick back, and enjoy the free ride.

Shortly before we went to press I had an opportunity to spend the afternoon noodling around with the new digital 'M'. After years of 'digital M' rumors all I can say is the folks at the Leica factory in Solms, Germany managed to turn a 50-year old icon into a serious digital imaging tool without sacrificing the unique qualities, describable and otherwise, held sacred to 'M' enthusiasts. They did the deed and they did it right.

Despite radical changes under the hood, the M8 is nearly indistinguishable from its film-based counterparts. Physically, the M8 is only 3mm thicker, and at 19 ¼ ounces, about 2-ounces lighter than the M7. On the top deck there's the familiar shutter-speed dial, only this one tops-out at 1/8000th and has the flash-sync lightning-bolt at 1/250th instead of the dreadfully slow 1/50th found on traditional 'M's. The shutter button is similarly 'M'-ish, complete with a standard cable release thread (bravo!). Surrounding the shutter button is the power switch, shooting mode selector, and the self-timer.

A hot-shoe and a small round window containing the frame-counter and battery gauge are the only other features found on the pleasingly-stark top-deck. Construction-wise, the M8 consists of a magnesium-alloy chassis with solid brass cover and base-plates, and is available in silver or black. In another nod to Leica tradition, the bottom plate comes off to access the SD card and battery. (Note- The tripod socket is now located in the center of the camera's bottom plate. It only took them 54 years to figure this one out! Mazel Tov!)

The heart of the M8 is a 10.3MP (18x27mm) Kodak-designed CCD that, as with Leica's Digital Modul-R, is about 20% physically larger (1.33x magnification factor) than the imaging sensors found in the current crop of (1.5x and 1.6x) 10MP DSLRs. The M8's rangefinder/viewfinder is quintessentially Leica, complete with three sets of bright-lines for lenses ranging from 24mm to 90mm (24 & 35, 28 & 90, and 50 & 75mm respectively).

Focusing is accomplished via Leica's trademark split image / superimposed imaging system. As for accuracy, once you get a feel for it, you're hooked. For low-light, wide-aperture shooting nothing touches an 'M'.

In order to maintain edge sharpness as well as eliminate vignetting and color-fringing issues, the Leica M8 incorporates a combination of imaging technologies. On the sensor-side of the story, the pixels located towards the edges of the sensor are pitched progressively towards the light path to eliminate image blooming and vignetting issues common to digital images taken with non retro-focus (rangefinder) optics. To further reduce image refraction, the cover glass placed in front of the sensor is a slender 0.5mm. Leica engineers nixed the use of an anti-moiré filter, choosing instead to eliminate any moiré problems via the camera's internal signal processing software.

Optically, the M8 can be fitted with most every 'M' lens (with the exception of a few Angulons) dating back to 1954. All currently sold Leica lenses have 6-bit coding that enables the new camera to recognize the focal length of the lens in order to further tweak image performance, as well as to enable TTL flash and record lens and exposure metadata. If you have an 'M' lens manufactured after 1963 it can be retro-fitted with 6-bit encoding, direct from Leica, for about $125 per lens (*see special lens update promo below).

The M8 offers the option of shooting in Aperture Priority or Manual. As with earlier 'M's, there are red LED indicator lights visible in the viewfinder to guide you along. The center-weighted metering system differs from previous 'M's in that rather than taking a reading from light reflecting off a large, centrally located grey dot stenciled onto the camera's cloth shutter curtain, the M8's meter reads the light reflecting off the central, middle grey, metal shutter blade. To better nail the exposure you can also view RGB histograms on the camera's LCD, which can also be programmed to flash over and/or under exposure warnings.

In Aperture Priority the electronic shutter goes steplessly from 32-seconds to 1/8000th, while in Manual mode you go from 4-seconds to 1/8000th in half-stop increments, plus Bulb. In either mode you can shoot in Single or Continuous mode with a burst-rate of about 2-frames-per-second. Flat out you can capture about 10 frames before the camera momentarily chokes up. After a few short moments you can continue on your way. Images can be saved onto SD or HDSD cards. Power is supplied by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

The set-up menus and images are quite easy to see and read on the M8's bright 2.5", 230,000-pixel LCD. For editing purposes and focus checking, images can be eyeballed at up to 4x magnification. If you choose to download images directly from the camera, there is a USB connector tucked into the side of the camera body. Imaging parameters include color space (Adobe RGB, sRGB, ECI RGB, or black & white), white balance (6 presets, manual, and color balance input from 2000 to 13,100 Kelvin), imager resolution (Adobe DNG, 4 levels of JPEG compression, or DNG w/ JPEG), and ISO settings (160 to 2500).

Image files from the M8 open up to about 29.5Mb and at 300dpi have a print size of about 13" x 8.7". Based on the sharpness levels of my test files, scaling them up shouldn't be an issue if you have a hankering to crank up your wide-format printer.

Though my test camera was a final production model it was still operating on pre-production firmware. For that reason it was requested I not publish any images taken with the test camera. Fair enough. However, they didn't say anything about writing about the pictures, so firmware issues aside, here goes. In a nutshell, I'm awfully impressed. My test images were as clean as they come. A few minor tonal tweaks and sharpening adjustments (I bypassed in-camera sharpening) was all that was needed before saving my images.

At the base 160 ISO the images are crisp and quite neutral in tone. Early morning, heavily backlit scenes displayed wonderful highlight and shadow details. At ISO 320 and 640 there was little evidence of noise or color shift. At ISO 1250 the images became somewhat cooler in tone and noise levels became more noticeable. However they were still far better than images produced by most digicams set at ISO 400. At ISO 2500, despite a noticeable increase of noise levels in the shadow areas, the image quality was still far better than the image qualities of the fastest color negative films.

Grab shots taken indoors at wide apertures with the ISO set to 640 and the white balance set to AWB produced wonderful, natural-looking shots. While TTL flash is a viable option for indoor activities, the M8 enables you to shoot natural-looking pictures under the lowest of lighting conditions without need of a strobe thanks in part to a minimal number of moving parts and the absence of a bouncing reflex mirror.

Included with the camera is an unlimited use copy of Phase Capture One LE software, (one of the better RAW file converters on the market today), a charger (with US, UK, & Euro plug adapters), a lithium-ion battery, a strap, caps, and USB cable.

In summary, the Leica M8 has created a new niche in the digital imaging field as the world's only advanced, non-SLR digital camera. For a company that not all that long ago seemed to be on the brink of extinction, Leica has pulled off a technological coupe that should satisfy the needs of Leica-loyalists who have steadfastly refused to wave the white flag and surrender their 'M's. As Theodore Roosevelt would say… Bully for you!!!

Check out the silver and black versions of the Leica M8 on the B&H wesbite.

Leica Lens Coding Promo
From now through December 31st, 2006, if you purchase a new Leica 'M' lens from an authorized Leica dealer, you will receive 2 vouchers to upgrade your existing Leica M lenses (1963 vintage or newer) with 6-bit coding free of charge — a $250 value. Speak to your B&H salesperson for details.

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