29.05.09

Leica M8.2 Rangefinder Review

Leica M8.2 Rangefinder

Leica has a unique camera on its hands with the M8.2. Those working in reportage, press documentary and travel could use a tool like the M8.2 successfully alongside their existing DSLR set-up to good effect, capturing scenes they might otherwise miss. The blend of old and new is just right. It feels like you are ‘making’ pictures with the M8.2, not just ‘taking’, or ‘capturing’ them. I really hope to see a Leica M8.3 in the future and that the huge improvements in image noise control that we’ve seen in DSLRs recently can be incorporated here too.

With its blend of old and new, Leica’s M8.2 digital rangefinder is pretty unique on the market today. But at £3880 is it a professional tool? Or photographic jewellery?

The first thing that strikes you about the M8.2 is its build quality. This is easily the best made camera on the market today. The all-metal body is wonderful in the hand and the controls move with a precision that is truly rare to find these days. 

Leica rangefinders are traditionally sparse in terms of features and controls, although to a rangefinder purist the M8.2 will look hugely fussy compared to a film Leica. To a DSLR user, however, it will appear positively minimalist. There is no doubling up on the use of buttons and the rear of the camera is simple and clear to look at. The large viewscreen is coated with sapphire crystal glass to protect it from scratches and the buttons that line one side are easy to use even with gloves on in cold winter weather.

If you’ve never used a rangefinder before then looking through the M8.2’s viewfinder will be a revelation to you. It’s bigger and brighter than even a full-frame DSLR and going back to a DSLR – even something like a like a Nikon D3x or Canon EOS-1Ds MkIII – feels pokey. Focusing is via a large rangefinder spot in the middle of the frame that displays a double ghosted image when a scene is not in focus. Turn the focus ring until these images coincide and you have the correct focus.

If you’re used to AF DSLRs you will find this slow and cumbersome to begin with, but persevere: after a while it becomes a pleasure and the whole process speeds up. I also rediscovered the lost art of zone focusing: each Leica lens has an excellent depth-of-field scale meaning you can pick an aperture and set a zone within which the scene will be sharp. 

There is no delay while the AF does its thing, and as long as you can judge what 1-5m looks like you’ll be fine.
The viewfinder also displays arrows when metering manually and a shutter speed when using aperture-priority exposure mode. New to the M8.2 is a Snapshot mode, which also varies ISO sensitivity automatically to keep the shutter speed at a level where camera shake won’t be a problem. Leica enthusiasts will throw their hands up in horror at this level of automation, but let them – you don’t have to use this mode, and it actually proved useful
on occasion.

Rangefinder pros and cons

In pre-digital days, rangefinder cameras were at an advantage over SLRs when it came to picture quality. It was possible to get the lens closer to the film, thanks to the absence of a reflex mirror, which gave better images. Nowadays that design creates problems.

Putting the lens closer to the back of the camera means that light directed towards the edges of the sensor will be coming from a more incident angle than on a DSLR – even a full-frame DSLR. This is never good for digitally captured photographs and can result in fringing and a loss of edge sharpness. To solve this quandary, Leica has made sure the tiny microlenses that cover each pixel site are slightly offset to direct light in a direction more parallel to that in which the camera is pointing. The amount these lenses are offset by increases towards the outside of the sensor.

Talking of sensors, the M8.2’s is a 10.3-megapixel unit measuring 27x18mm in size. That’s bigger than APS-C, but not as large as full frame, meaning a lens crop factor of 1.33x comes into play. Thankfully this isn't too much to make wide-angle lenses a problem, which is good news to the street photographers that Leica is aiming the M8.2 at. We tested the camera with Leica's new 24mm f/3.5, which gives an angle of view roughly equivalent to a 30mm optic on the M8.2.

Something that Leica rangefinders in particular have always been famous for is their silence. Leica models of old, such as the M4-P or M6, make very little noise when their shutters are fired, which makes them discreet and perfect for the photojournalist. The original digital M8 also employed a fairly quiet shutter, although being metal-bladed it emitted a slightly louder ‘click’ than its cloth-shutter predecessors.

The only problem is the noise afterwards as the shutter re-cocks itself, which sounds distinctly motorised. Other than go back to a traditional manual ‘film’ advance (which could be a nice option) there is no way around this, although the M8.2 now features a ‘discreet’ mode where the noisy re-cocking process is delayed until you release the shutter button, giving you time to walk away or cough to disguise the noise.

The combination of old and new technology in the M8.2 sits a little awkwardly in the hand at first, but only because there is really nothing else like it (or the original M8) out there. After a period of familiarization, I found myself not just enjoying shooting with the M8.2, but absolutely loving it! As cameras go I can’t think of a better handling machine, which is odd seeing as how there is far less automation on the M8.2 than your average DSLR. 

Results and performance

With such high marks for its handling I desperately wanted the M8.2 to blow away the opposition when it came to image quality. It doesn’t quite do this, however. That’s not to say that pictures aren’t good, because they are. It’s just that it needs the right conditions in which to perform.

At ISO 160 to ISO 400, images from the M8.2 are exquisite; the sensor gives the excellent lenses a real chance to deliver. Images are sharp, packed with detail and contrast, and colours really sing. JPEGs are nowhere near as good as Raw files (which are recorded in the non-proprietary DNG format), but they are still very, very good.

Push the camera’s sensitivity up towards ISO 800 and noise starts to creep in to a large extent, which is a shame given the reportage and documentary photography audience this camera is aimed at. 

We all know that, when it comes to making cameras that perform at high ISO sensitivities, nobody can live up to Canon and Nikon at the moment. Even Sony (who make sensors for Nikon) can’t deliver class-leading performance in this department. It seems it takes experience of developing both sensors and image processing chips for a camera company to get this right. While Leica is phenomenally experienced at producing bomb-proof, well-engineered cameras that handle like a dream, they are relative newcomers to the world of chips and processors.

The M8.2 costs £3990 body only, with a standard 35mm f/2 lens coming in at £1800. The diminutive 24mm f/3.8 optic we used in this test costs £1436. That’s a lot of money. For the same cash you could buy a Nikon D3 and 24-70mm f/2.8, or Canon EOS 5D and 24-70mm f/2.8, and still have change for an SD card.

Let’s be clear on this: the Leica M8.2 isn’t photographic jewellery, it’s a beautifully crafted tool that a talented pro could use to, literally, revolutionize their photography. I know it’s not perfect, but I love it, I really do. If it were ever possible to form a fundamental emotional connection with a digital camera then this is it. 

Price: £3990 body only
Sensor: 10.3-megapixel CCD type measuring 18x27mm. Focal length magnification factor of 1.33x relative to a full-frame sensor
Lens mount: Leica M bayonet with sensing for 6-bit encoded lenses
Focusing: Rangefinder focusing with effective measuring base of 47.1mm. Parallax compensation in viewfinder
Exposure modes: Manual, aperture-priority, ‘snapshot’ mode
Metering: Heavily center-weighted TTL exposure metering
ISO sensitivity: 160-2500
Shutter: Metal-bladed vertical traveling focal plane type. Stepless from 1/8000sec to 32sec, plus B
Viewfinder: Direct view type with bright-line frame guides and a rangefinder focusing patch. Exposure information displayed as red numerals
View screen: 2.5in LCD display with a resolution of around 230,000 pixels
Continuous shooting: Yes, 2fps for 10 frames
Dimensions (wxhxd): 139x80x37mm
Weight: 545g without battery

Contact
www.leica-camera.com

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