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| We just bought a Leica M8 yesterday. The idea was to get a camera that is well suited for "available light" photography without the need of a tripod. The winter in Finland is long and dark which creates some challenges in taking photos, especially indoors.|
Leica M8 is basically a "Rolls Royce of cameras". It's not full of features but every detail of it is extremely well built and the Leica lenses are known to be some of the best in the world. I had also heard that one of the reasons for using Leica over DSLR cameras (Leica M8 is not an SLR, it's a "Rangefinder" camera which is something completely different) is the small size which makes it easier to carry everywhere.
Now, very first impression of M8 was "it's surprisingly big and heavy". In fact, M8 is heavier than Canon 400D and not really smaller either. It's thinner, yes, but at the same time it is also quite a bit wider. The biggest difference will probably be the lenses as the rangefinder lenses can quite small compared to SLR lenses. Still - M8 is not a compact camera. It's every bit as big and heavy as 400D, but obviously still way smaller than 40D or other higher level DSLR's.
The battery needs to be charged before using the camera so I wasn't able to try it out immediatelly. After a few hours of charging I placed the battery in and moved a 4GB SD Card from another camera to it... "SD Card Full" it said. Hmm, interesting... perhaps that's a fancy way to say that the card should be formatted for M8 before using... clicked "Format" and... waited. After one hour of formatting I started to feel something's not quite right so I decided to Google about it.
Sure enough, it turns out M8 is extremely picky about what SD Cards it can use. Officially it supports "4GB SD Cards" but since "SD Card" standard ends up at 2GB and the bigger cards are actually SDHC standard it seems that mostly you are limited to 2GB, from certain manufacturers only. I didn't have other cards handy so I had to wait the next day to be able to buy a new one. Unfortunately the formatting process cannot be stopped and the power off doesn't work during formatting either so my only option was taking the battery out. Nice.
The M8 has a USB connector. I connected the USD cable to my Mac... "Camera was not found" pops up. This is a little odd message, first of all. I mean why would the Mac say anything at all if it supposedly didn't find the camera. Well, anyway... no can do. I tried a few times... no luck. Then I installed the "Leica digital capture" software from a CD that came with the camera. No change. Rebooted... still no luck.
I'm guessing the M8 doesn't work with OSX Leopard so I will need to go out and buy an SD Card reader. Which is something I would need to buy anyway as the firmware in the camera seems quite outdated and the card reader is needed for a firmware update.
I'm about to go out and do some more shopping. So far the impression with M8 is quite negative but I am willing to accept some technical problems as long as the photo quality is superior. It's a camera, after all.
One and one more thing before I go... there was another CD included with the camera with "Capture One LE" program for RAW format handling. Somehow I wasn't even surprised when the installer crashed immediatelly. I guess it doesn't work with Leopard, either. Later when I have time I will check out if they have a new version online, otherwise I guess I will see if Adobe RAW will do the job.
I have learned so far that the JPEG engine in M8 is quite bad so the RAW format is the only usable image format. It's unfortunately only 8 bits per pixel (no HDR then...) but otherwise the image should be of high quality. Well, we shall see when I finally get the images loaded to the computer...
The images used in this article are from Digital Photography Review... large versions plus their Leica M8 review can be found here: www.dpreview.com/reviews/leicam8/
|Slowly but steadily I am making progress. I now have even the camera firmware updated to 1.1110. Updating provided one extra trouble as I didn't have enough battery left to complete the update. I am slightly worried about the batter performance of the camera, as I have so far taken about 20 photos and there isn't even flash in the thing so the battery usage should be quite minimal.|
It may be that the failed attempts to format the SD card yesterday drained the battery, and it may also be that the firmware update has a very conservative estimate on the remaining battery power to prevent any surprises.
I took a few photos so far but nothing worth publishing. The image quality is good, however I didn't initially figure out how to change the file save mode to DNG from JPG so the photos are a little blurry. I shall run a lot more tests tomorrow.
One thing that strikes as a huge disappointment to me in the technical specs is the fact that the RAW (DNG) files are saved in 8-bits per component per pixel. This effectively kills all the dynamic range and prevents any real HDR work. As a comparison, Canon 400D stores 12 bits and Canon 40D does 14 bits. This 8-bits per pixel thing is something the old digital cameras used to do and I wouldn't have expected it from M8.
Even more shockingly, it appears they do have more precision internally but for some mind-blowingly amazing reason decided to not even give the option of storing it. Here's what they say:
"The LEICA M8 is equipped with a nearly loss-free compression of the image data in the case of files
in DNG format. This doubles storage speed while requiring only half of the storage capacity. During
the prototype phase, tests were performed with a 16 bit version, but they did not reveal any image
quality advantages. As a result, Leica opted for the 8 bit technology. "
A statement like this shows that someone at Leica was not thinking of the possibilities of digital images. Simply put - this is not a film camera. You shouldn't only think of the way film works when making decisions. Surely, nearly loss-free compression is great... that gives you the necessary detail. But it gives you none of the high dynamic range that is also necessary if the image is to be processed further. 8-bit color has just enough information for today's monitors and file formats (like JPG), but as soon as you edit the colors you end up losing color information.
The statement gives a tiny bit of hope that the storage system could be changed in a future firmware update, but I am not too hopeful about it. First, nothing indicates that it would be possible and second, Leica's website has a long list of bug fixes and improvements they are working on for the future firmware versions so it seems they are in any case fully booked for long time to come.
Having said so many negative things I must say I am quite excited to get shooting tomorrow. I bought cute little gorilla pod while at the camera shop. Should add some stability and provide even crispier shots. The initial impression from my first photos was that the colors are pretty good and the photos definitely have a different "feeling" than anything I've shot before. Stay tuned...
| Now I finally have some real first impression of actual real world use of M8. The manual focus takes time to get used to but it is nice in many ways. Rather than having to rely on (sometimes mistaken) estimate by an automatic focus, I must choose the focus manually for every single photo.|
Sounds tedious, and in a way it is, but it makes you think a lot more about the composition. You can't just point and shoot.
One thing that is immediatelly obvious is that the M8 is amazingly capable at one thing: taking photos. The photo on the right was shot in a fairly dark room using semi-free hand (ie. using gorilla-pod on bed to help stabilize a little) without flash or other light than a regular soft yellow light. The lens is 28mm / 1:2 so it's pretty good but not the fastest... ISO 160. The photo is surprisingly sharp and the color reproduction is quite ok. No retouching obviously as the RAW format is just 8 bits, which doesn't leave much room for color manipulation.
I have been using automatic white balance in M8 but just like all reviews say it really sucks. Fortunately the white balance can be chanced later on when using the RAW format so this is not a real problem. Just load the photo to Lightroom and click "Auto white balance". It sucks having to do that for every single photo, but at least there is something that can be done with it.
A more serious problem which cannot be fixed at post processing is the purple tint that occurs on black synthetic fabrics. Prior to trying out the camera I was aware of the problem but the Leica's official description is quite an understatement: "In most cases, this will not have any effect whatsoever on the resulting images. In
certain situations however, e.g. when black (synthetic) fabrics are illuminated by incandescent
light, these are rendered purple or dark red."
The thing is - so far nearly every single photo I have taken has something that turned noticeably purple. For example, Wen took a photo of me today wearing a black t-shirt... however in the photo my shirt is purple. I was somewhat surprised as I only use cotton shirts these days but then it turned out the shirt is "only" 95% cotton. So it seems even 5% of synthetic material in fabric will make cause the purple tint. Also. this effect has happened both indoors and outdoors.
Leica supposedly gives all M8 owners free infrared filters which would fix the problem, but I have yet to find out how we can get these filters. Oh well. Anyway, click on the photo to see my first Leica M8 tests...