Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


Leica M8 Field Report

Field notes for Digital Outback Photo by

Magnum Photographer Thomas Hoepker

All images copyright Thomas Hoepker




I am not a camera tester, I'm a photographer, a photo-journalist, to be precise. So the following is certainly not a profound test of the new Leica M8, just a bunch of observations from a recent trip to the southern end of the world, Tierra del Fuego (which is a collection of remote islands belonging to Chile and to Argentina). Leica was good enough to lend me an M8 for this trip and I'm very grateful for the experience.

Since the mid 1950ies I have used Leicas (M and M-P) as my bread-and-butter cameras. I shot thousands of rolls of Tri-X and later Kodachrome with them, until - in the mid 70ies - I gradually used more and more SLRs (first Nikons, than Canons). For a long time I carried both systems in parallel, shooting with Leicas and wide angle lenses, and using SLRs mainly for the longer optics. I bought my first digital SLR in 2002 and ever since I have been fascinated by the possibilities of the digital universe. Consequently my Leicas were gathering dust in the rear of a dark closet. My bread-and-butter now is earned with a Canon EOS 5D and two zoom lenses - I try to be frugal and hate schlepping a lot of equipment. I love my 5D and the wide range of possibilities coming from being digital.

But I kept in touch with Leica (formerly Leitz) and followed the announcements of a digital "M" with fascination and expectations. So when I unpacked the M8 it was kind of a time-travel backwards to my younger days. The good "feel" of handling a precision instrument came back immediately. This is a compact but heavy metal body - hardly any plastic in there. This thing must be rugged and reliable, you can feel it. I dusted off my old lenses, they snapped right in snugly and I felt "at home". The first thing you learn is that your thumb is superfluously now. No rewind-lever there! Then you press the shutter and you are surprised, if not shocked, by the noise it makes. Not flop like the old rubber shutter but a kind of click-tschrrrr. A bit loud for my taste and not so great for unobtrusive reportage work. My Canon 5D is quieter, I think, even though there is a mirror going up and down.

Chile, 2006, Abandoned farm house. Iron beds stacked in a bedroom.

Next I examined the display and the menu functions. Congratulations, Leica, this is well thought out, rather frugal and limited to the things one needs to know and needs to set without an overload of bells and whistles. There are other small amateur digital machines out there where the manual is bigger and weighs more than the camera and you need days and weeks to learn the ropes. With the M8 I din't even bother to download the user manual for the first two weeks - everything was clear from the beginning. I especially like the short menu which comes up when you press the SET button on the back - the most important information, brief and clear.

Then, of course, comes the most important test - take some snaps, download them, see them on a large monitor - and get excited! There it is again, the famous Leica definition, which is so hard to describe in words. The pictures are tack-sharp but they are not harsh, there is this certain modulation, a very even gradation, a pleasant feel - in short: a Leica image. I'd bet that these digital shots are as sharp or better than anything that was shot with Leicas on film, even on 25 ISO Kodachrome. So the marriage of good old Leica lenses and the Kodak sensor is really working!

ARGENTINA, 2006, Tierra del Fuego, country fair near Rio Grande.

There is no visible noise at 160 or 320 ISO. It starts to appear at 640 and gets pretty rough at 1250, more so than on the 5D, I feel. When I discussed this at a recent Magnum meeting with my friend Costa Manos who had also tried the M8, he said that in large prints, the noise looks like fine film grain, not sensor noise - a good point because, as traditional photographers, we are not so much bothered by a grainy image as we would be by digital artifacts.

Now the not so good news. I had shot in parallel with the Leica and the Canon on my trip. When I compared some pictures of a native Indian whom I had visited on a reservation in the woods of Fireland, I was stunned to see that in one shot he had a gray windbreaker and blue trousers and in another shot his jacket and pants were heavy purple.

Canon 5D

Leica M8

Needless to say, the neutral colors came from the Canon, the purple clothing originated from the Leica. After some internet browsing I learned that this was indeed a flaw of the Leica sensor which is overly sensitive to UV and IR light, which is often reflected by synthetic fabrics. One solution here would be to avoid people who wear synthetic clothing - the thought, I must say, seems attractive! But, well, as a reporter you cannot always choose your company and the things you take pictures of. So, Leica has a technical and a PR problem to solve. I understand that from now on every M8 comes with two special UV filters which you are supposed to screw onto the lenses. Sounds a bit like a band-aid to me, not like an elegant high tech solution. But Leica seems to be facing a quandary here - fiddling with the sensor, like putting a UV filter over it might compromise sharpness and the space is very tight in this body anyway. So, what the heck, we have lived and shot with protective UV filters on our lenses for a long time already. So if this simple fix works, I'd be satisfied.

Then I came across one other strange phenomenon. When viewing my images I saw occasionally that one shot was correctly color-balanced while the next frame of the same subject was totally blue. I suspected this might have to do with auto color balance and switched the camera to "daylight" or "tungsten" depending on the situation. This seemed to help. And indeed I learned later from the web that there is a problem with auto-color in the M8. Since I shoot RAW the blue was easily corrected at the "development" stage, just by setting the slider from 3300 to 6000K or thereabouts. But it's still a bit annoying to see such a glitch in a $5000 camera. I have never bothered to use any other setting than Auto White Balance on my Canon. I hope this other Leica flaw will go away with the next firmware update. I did not notice any banding or ghost images, as described on the Leica website.


Tierra del Fuego, A man who rents a toy horse to children leaves a country fair.

Other irritations have nothing to do with digital, but with the fact that the Leica is a rangefinder camera. I confess that I am simply spoiled by the precise full frame view of a good SLR and by Autofocus. Coming back to the Leica finder after some years seems like a step back in time, this can be pleasantly nostalgic, but also frustrating. Why are there so many bright lines in the M's finder? It's just confusing and you have to remember which lens you have on and to which lines it corresponds. It also bothers me that the lower right corner of the finder (when shooting horizontals) is blocked by the(wide-angle) lens and lens shade. Something may be going on in this area in front of me and I have no control over it. The art of focusing was still in my fingers and poses no problems, but still - the Leica is just a tad slower than my Canon where I just press a button and the image is in precise focus. Also changing fixed lenses rather than simply adjusting a zoom ring, takes time and occasionally one looses a shot in the process.

10 Megapixels are at the lower end of what I would call professional resolution. 3935 pixels on the long image side seem a bit low when you consider making really large prints which may require 7000 or even 10000 pixels. But it is stunning how much interpolation these Leica files can take. I have yet to try a 44x60" output but the first 24x36 inch Leica print from my HP Designjet looks just great!

Chile, 2006, Tierra del Fuego, Porvenir, street with manicured trees at dusk.

So will there be a happy end to my short relationship with the M8? I certainly think so. Next year I will take a long hard look at my bank account ....


More images by Thomas Hoepker can be found on this Magnum page.



For Comments post in our News Group

2000-2007 Digital Outback Photo