Leica M8.2

Almost exactly two years after we got the M8, we received an Leica M8.2. They were announced at photokina 2006 and 2008 respectively, where we first saw them, and we got our hands on them for long-term tests a couple of months after we first saw them. Before you read the rest of this review, you might find it useful to re-read the Leica M8 review -- or you might not, if you are already familiar with the M8. Both are extremely desirable cameras, as they should be, given the price, but the M8.2 has two separate kinds of improvements and new features.

silver body

On the one hand, there are those that make it still more desirable to what might be called the 'serious' photographer, professional or amateur, for whom the Leica offers an unequalled array of features for certain kinds of photography. On the other, there are those designed to restore its appeal to the well-to-do amateur: the sort of person who is accustomed to buying the best, but does not necessarily want to get involved in the sort of technical details that are second nature to the enthusiast. We shall devote quite some space to these, later in the review.

 

 

QUIETER SHUTTER

The biggest single advantage, in the eyes of most serious Leica devotees, is likely to be that the shutter of the M8.2 is significantly quieter even in standard mode, and quieter still when the new 'discreet' mode is in use. The latter is a new menu option that separates shutter release and shutter cocking. As long as the shutter release is held down (in 'S'-for-single mode only), the shutter is not re-cocked. In conjunction with the revised shutter, where the top speed is reduced from 1/8000 second to 1/4000, this makes quite an astonishing difference both to the noise level of the camera and to its obtrusiveness. The M8 shutter is hardly noisy, though it is both slightly noisier and slightly more obtrusive than the shutter of a film Leica. The M8.2 shutter is roughly comparable with the shutter of a film Leica: in other words, very quiet indeed.

m8-2 black top

The 1/8000 top speed is gone, and in its place is an 'S' for 'Snapshot' mode (see below). If you have a high-resolution monitor you may also be able to see the serial number: 1234567

The quiet slurring sound of the recocking is if anything even quieter than the shutter's firing. In this mode, shutter cocking is somewhat slower, so it is probably worth selecting only for single shots to be taken a second or more apart, and when maximum quietness is essential.

As noted in the M8 review, Leica considered the option of manual wind-on, but dismissed it on the grounds of cost and bulk: a manually-wound M8 would be even more expensive, and possibly even a little bulkier. If a quieter shutter sounds like a pretty minor advantage, all we can say is that everyone we have seen who has tried it has immediately broken into the same soppy grin, possibly preceded by by a look of surprise at how quiet it is.

THE MISSING 1/8000

The relationship between reducing the shutter noise and lowering the top shutter speed is not entirely clear. Some of the 'explanations' peddled on the internet are patently nonsensical, but it does look as if the curtain travel speed has been reduced, because synch speed has been reduced from 1/250 to 1/160 second. This implies less noise and (probably) greater durability. Of course it might be a nuisance, in very rare circumstances, to be limited to 1/4000 instead of 1/8000, but we suspect that the main users of this speed are people who like using fast lenses wide open in good light, for very shallow depth of field. While this is sometimes very effective, it is also turning into something of a cliché.

plastic bowls

Plastic ware

Because any Leica is a low-light camera par excellence, we really don't miss the 1/8000 top shutter speed. Roger shot this with a Zeiss C-Sonnar 50/1.5. Framing is made easier by the revised frame-lines, too (see below).

REVISED FRAME-LINES

The second important change for the serious Leica user is the revision of the frame lines. As any camera is focused closer, the angle of view of the lens changes slightly, narrowing more and more as it approaches its nearest focusing distance. At 55mm extension, for example, a 50mm lens covers about 2 degrees less (diagonally) on the 18x27mm format than it does at infinity (50mm extension) and is delivering about 1/10 life size on the sensor.

spiral staircase

In the nature of a rangefinder camera, unless the spacing of the frame-lines is varied automatically by the focusing action, the frame can only be accurate at one fixed distance. The M8 frames were 'tight', so that they were accurate at 1 metre (40 inches) or so. As a result, you almost always got more in the picture than was indicated by the frame-lines in the finder. Most M8 users learned to allow for this, but it was still a bit of a nuisance. With the M8.2, the frames are set to be accurate at around 2 metres, six foot seven inches, so that at less than 2 metres you get a bit less than is indicated by the frames, and at more than 2 metres, you get more, but nothing like as much more as you did with the M8.

For a 35mm 'standard' lens at 2 metres, the difference, in very rough and round terms, is about the thickness of a frame-line, so if you formerly composed to the outside of the frame lines, now you can come back inside them.

Spiral staircase

Just as he found with the original M8, Roger finds the M8.2 the perfect 'notebook' camera for recording the beauty of everyday objects. The low running cost (no film expense) and immediate feedback make it ideal for snapshots and aides-mémoire, but the image quality means that the right picture can also be made into an exhibition print.

AUTO ISO SETTING

The third significant change, from the enthusiast's point of view, is the provision of an auto ISO setting. This automatically increases the ISO setting when light levels fall, trading extra noise (from increased amplification of the raw signal) for shorter shutter speeds and a consequent reduction in the risk of camera shake. The auto ISO setting is itself a menu option, and via further menu options you can also set both a ceiling for ISO speed (not above 1250, for example -- the maximum is still 2500) and a floor for shutter speeds (ISO speed is not re-set until you go below 1/15 second, for example).

Although we had never felt the lack of such a feature, we soon found that we use it as often as not, especially in rapidly varying lighting.

SNAPSHOT MODE

This is where we switch over from the 'enthusiast' improvements to the 'wealthy amateur' improvements -- though there are other improvements, to which we shall return, which affect both more or less equally.

The shutter speed dial still starts at 4 seconds but now runs only to 1/4000 second, as already noted, instead of 1/8000. As well as the marked speeds, there are both 'B' ('Bulb' or 'Brief', shutter open as long as the button is depressed) and 'A' ('Automatic', aperture-priority). But on the M8.2, immediately below the 'A', where 1/8000 formerly resided, there is now an 'S' ('Snapshot') setting.

This turns the M8 into a super-de-luxe, ultra-high-quality, manual-focus point-and-shoot -- and 'manual focus' is greatly ameliorated by intelligent use of depth of field. Basically, you put a 6-bit coded lens on the front (it will not work with uncoded lenses); press the 'INFO' button on the back of the camera; and then set the distance and aperture according to the recommendations displayed on the LCD screen, which are lens-specific.

Thereafter, auto exposure and auto ISO adjustment take care of (almost) everything: 'almost' because if there is a risk of overexposure, the right-hand arrow in the meter flashes, warning you to select a smaller aperture, and if there is a risk of camera shake, the left one flashes, warning you to select a bigger one -- though it will not stop the camera taking the picture, if you decide to risk it. The instruction book also tells you how to compensate for unusually bright or unusually dark subjects.

Obviously, they recommend wide-angles, and it is hard not to see the new 24/3.8 Elmarit-M as the 'snapshot Elmar' de nos jours. Equivalent to a 35mm lens on 35mm, it gives generous depth of field even at full aperture, and at f/5.6 it can safely be left set to the hyperfocal distance for all but critical close-ups, making it effectively focus-free. They do warn you in the instruction book that with lenses longer than 50mm, you may have to focus. The camera shoots only JPEG Fine mode, and only with auto white balance; the 'discreet' film advance is not available.

Our suspicion is that most who use the M8.2 in Snapshot mode will actually prefer to focus for themselves; anyone who can afford such a camera is unlikely to be too worried that their brains will overheat when faced with such a demanding task.

aditi on moped

Aditi learning to ride Bluebell

No, Roger didn't use 'Snapshot' because he was using a non-coded lens (Zeiss 50/1.5 C-Sonnar). But he did use auto-everything-else.

Actually, Snapshot is not really much different from a much more knowledgeable enthusiast setting both 'Auto' on the shutter speed dial and 'auto ISO' on the menu, though we have to confess that we habitually shoot Raw with white balance set either manually (by shooting a white surface) or as a Kelvin figure. The advantage of shooting Raw is that the resulting DNG (Digital NeG) file can then be manipulated quite extensively for exposure, contrast and colour balance.

Why?

It is legitimate question why anyone would spend this much on a point-and-shoot camera, especially one that is slightly harder to use than auto-everything. We believe, however, that there are several answers.

First, as already noted, there are those who simply want The Best. Leicas are, after all, in the same league as Rolls Royce cars, Lobb shoes, Mont Blanc pens and the like. Historically, they were a common choice even among those who did not know a great deal about photography, but as automation became ever more common, they were somewhat left behind because people wanted something easier to use. Although the M8.2 is not quite as easy as an auto-everything camera, it is still pretty easy in Snapshot mode, and may well regain a good share of this market.

cellist

Second, there are those who can easily afford an M8.2; who are enormously attracted by the image quality available (and by the name); and who may fancy starting to take photography a bit more seriously; but who are deterred by the fact that they have not used a manual camera in years, or have never used one.

Third, in many photographic households, one partner is a 'serious' photographer and the other complains (often justly) that there are never enough family pictures or happy snaps. Having the option of switching the camera straight to happy snap mode, without going through menus and the like, may help the photographer to persuade the non-photographer that the M8.2 is a wise investment.

Fourth -- it is hard not to sound sexist here -- there are those who have always quite fancied a Leica, but are worried that it may be too complicated for their wives to use. The option of a full-blown snapshot mode may tip the balance in the Leica's favour. Of course it is ridiculous to assume that a camera is too complex for a woman to use, but regrettably many men and surprisingly many women take precisely that viewpoint.

Cellist

 

With the option of fast lenses, up to f/0.95, the M8.2 can take happy-snaps under conditions that would require flash with other cameras: all the user has to do is focus. This is an old f/1.2 Canon.

A BIGGER MARKET

Many will say that the adoption of the Snapshot setting confirms that Leica has abandoned the serious enthusiast market for the 'rich twit' market, but we think this is completely untrue. What Leica has done with the M8.2 is the mirror image of the way that most digital SLRs work.

With a digital SLR, there are countless buttons, levers, dials, switches and modes, and if you ignore the majority of them you can usually (albeit sometimes with difficulty) use the camera completely manually, setting shutter speed, aperture and focus yourself. Boosters for such cameras often say to those who decry this complexity, "I don't see what you're complaining about. You can use it manually if you want to."

What Leica has done is started out with a basically manual camera, with the minimum possible number of controls, and added a remarkably comprehensive snapshot mode which does not detract in the slightest from the overall handling. In other words, if you don't want it, it doesn't get in the way -- unlike most of the controls on most DSLRs. And they have done it with one setting on the shutter-speed dial.

It is hard to see how this could reduce the market for Leicas, and quite easy to see how it might encourage people to buy a Leica who might otherwise hesitate. If this leads to economies of scale, or indeed, if it just keeps Leica in business, surely no true Leica enthusiast could complain for an instant. Of course there will be those who complain, but then, there are always those who are plus royalist que le roi, more royalist than the king himself, and there is also a curious posse that simply loves to snipe at Leicas, usually on the grounds of expense.

olive tree and bench

Olive, bench, shadow

Roger, who took this shot, is still not sure about it. He wanted to show the way in which real, natural trees and greenery are used to try to lend credibility or value to cheap, nasty, plasticky buildings, and how people are in many way forgotten (as symbolized by the shadow). As far as he recalls, he used his 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux. Does it work for you?

OTHER CHANGES

There are surprisingly many other changes incorporated in the M8.2, too, but few will be as important to as many people as the changes above. They are:

Exposure compensation via rear dial

For manual metering, you can now dial in exposure compensation with the rotary/rocker switch on the right hand side of the back of the camera. With the shutter release half-depressed (as for metering) you rotate the switch to dial in up to 3 stops of over- or under-exposure, which is shown in the viewfinder. We have to say that this takes practice: it feels like rather an odd and precarious grip at first, but you get used to it soon enough. The instruction book suggests that this may be useful if you are tracking the subject in the viewfinder.

This is in addition to the normal menu-driven approach, as found on the M8, and the compensation may be re-set (or cancelled) using either route.

Sapphire glass screen cover

The LCD screen on the back of the M8.2 is made of an ultra-hard sapphire glass, far more scratch resistant than the screen on the back of the original. Maybe we have been lucky -- we have certainly not been especially careful -- but the screen on the original camera is still unscratched after two years and maybe 10,000 pictures. Even so, it is cheering to know that the new screen is tougher.

Revised charger

The new charger is much smaller than the original version, and does not plug directly into the wall. Instead, it uses a variety of cables, just like most computers: US plug, European plug, UK plug, as well as a 12v car charger lead (which was also supplied with the original). We find it significantly handier.

Black paint

The M8/2 is available in both silver chrome and black paint, but no longer in the black chrome of the M8. It is however a different formulation from the traditional black paint of the MP, slightly less glossy and (reputedly) somewhat tougher. How it will wear as compared with the older black finish is something that will only be seen with time. On black paint models the 'Red Dot' is replaced with a 'black dot', though the 'M8' engraving still remains on the top left of the front of the camera.

Such cosmetic matters matter to different degrees to different Leica users: personally we prefer an unadorned front plate (though the black dot is a good deal less obtrusive than the red) and the classic Leica script engraved on the top; the top of the M8 and M8.2 look curiously blank to us, though this may well be no more than the result of long habituation. If you really want the top-plate of your M8 or M8-2 engraved, Leica will do it for you, at a price.

Coarser-grained body covering

Believe it or not, some people get really excited about this sort of thing. But then, some people think that Leicas are hard to hold. Again, maybe it's habituation but we can't see the attraction of add-on grips or half cases that add to the bulk of the camera.

spectator

 

Spectator

Again, from the last shoot with the 50/1.2 Canon before Roger gave it to an old friend as a 60th birthday present. The 'discreet' mode is especially welcome during concerts.

 

Model identification

Apart from the finish on black models, the shutter speed dial immediately reveals the M8.2 to the cognoscenti but the right-hand side of the accessory shoe (blank on the original M8) is engraved and paint-filled 'Leica M8.2'. The serial number on the left-hand side is engraved but not paint-filled.

Firmware version 2.0

The firmware of the M8.2 has been steadily updated and can now take care of some of the original shortcomings of the M8: the white balance, in particular, is vastly superior to the original. Other problems still remain, most particularly the excessive infra-red sensitivity which is a consequence of the very short flange-to-sensor distance of the Leica, little more than one-half the corresponding distance in many SLR designs. UV/IR filters (quite expensive) are highly desirable but can introduce their own problems with colour fringing at the corners. The 6-bit lens coding takes care of a lot of this; otherwise there's CornerFix dedicated M8 software (we've never tried it). On the bright side, the thin built-in IR filter in front of the sensor has far less effect on the sharpness of the image than most anti-aliasing filters.

no smoking

No Smoking

Partly it's the graphic shapes; partly the typography; partly (as with the olive tree shot) the shameless hijacking of a plant to try to soften the unsoftenable. And it's another illustration of the 'notebook' nature of the M8 and M8.2.

WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED

The sensor size is still 18x27mm, so all focal lengths are increased by an effective 1.33x. The viewfinder shows frames in pairs: 24/35mm, 50/75mm, 28/90mm. In 35mm terms these equate to 32/47mm, 67/100mm and 37/120mm. There is no 135mm frame (180mm equivalent) but the 135/2.8 'spectacles' Elmarit-M can be used because it calls up (and magnifies) the 90mm frame. Leica is reasonably confident that a full-frame M9 will sooner or later be feasible, but not in the near future.

The ISO speeds are still 160 to 2500. The maximum speed looks increasingly modest by current standards, but equally, it has to be remembered that Leica prime lenses are for the most part a good deal faster than the zooms that most people use on DSLRs, and that most people can hold a Leica steady for one shutter-speed step longer than a reflex.

The infra-red sensitivity has already been mentioned -- it is at its most troublesome when photographing synthetic fabrics under artificial light, when blacks go red or purple -- and although stripes striking outwards from light sources are much reduced, they can still occur in unfavourable circumstances. All of these drawbacks are made much of on the internet, but in truth, a great deal depends on what you photograph, and on whether you are more concerned with actual pictures or with shortcomings that are likely to be noticeable in only the tiniest proportion of pictures.

black and white steps

Steps and Roof

The black and white JPEG fine capture is pretty good -- usually at least as good as desaturating, even if you desaturate the three channels differentially -- but you generally need to play around with 'levels' or 'curves' or both in Adobe Photoshop in order to get a pleasing tonality.

We find that with many subjects we like to 'tone' the picture by adding +6 red (-6 cyan) and +4 yellow (-4 blue) for a 'sepia' look.

Roger took this with the 24/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160.

 

There is still no PC flash contact -- still no room -- and still no extra detent to stop you switching beyond single-shot to continuous or (worse still) to delayed action, though some people apparently have more trouble with this than others: it has seldom troubled us very much.

The camera is still supplied with Phase One Capture One DNG conversion software and the best we can say of this is that it works very well but is some way from intuitive.

HOW WE HAVE CHANGED

The M8.2 is very much Roger's camera: Frances hardly uses it at all. The main changes in the way we use it are that we now shoot DNG only and that unless the lighting is really nasty we leave it on either 5600K (daylight) or 3200K (tungsten) and white-balance in Capture One. By 'really nasty' we mean mixed lights, or street lighting with heavily biased colour, e.g. mercury vapour, sodium vapour. We still don't like Capture One very much but at least we are used to it.

HOW LEICAS EVOLVE

The M8.2 is heir to the way in which improvements and modifications to Leicas are usually made: viz., they are generally modest and incremental. For example, the IIIa (1936) is simply a III (1933) with a top speed of 1/1000 second instead of 1/500, and the only obvious external difference between the IIIa and IIIb (1938) is that the eyepieces are closer together, though in fact the IIIb is slightly taller and significantly strengthened internally to accommodate the heavier, faster lenses that were introduced in the 1930s.

Big changes to Leica design have been much rarer. After the original Leica was introduced in 1924, Leitz offered a rangefinder in 1932 (Leica II); a die-cast chassis in 1939 (IIIc); a four-claw bayonet mount, automatic frame counter and completely revised combined rangefinder-viewfinder system in 1954 (M3); through-lens metering in 1971 (M5); and a digital sensor in 2006 (M8).

sacred heart

Sacred Heart

Roger has forgotten which lens he used for this but is reasonably sure it was the 35/1.4 Summilux, which uses the same Series VII filters as the 24/1.4 Summilux. Placing the sacred heart in what appears to be in inverted horseshoe is a curious mixture of symbols, or perhaps we are just misreading it. Besides, there are plenty who seem to regard Leicas as akin to religious symbols, though perhaps they should go for (Zeiss) Ikons.....

Other changes may have been important, but were mostly quite simple to incorporate: interchangeable lenses (1930/31, though unofficial interchangeable lenses were available by the late 1920s); slow speeds below 1/30 second (III, 1933, unless you count the leaf-shuttered Compur Leica, 1926); delayed action (IIId, also known as IIIc DA, 1939), flash synchronization (IIIf, 1950); different viewfinder frames (M2, M4/M4-2/M4-P); and so forth. There were even what the motor trade calls 'delete options', simplifications allowing a lower price: the most important were the manually reset frame counter (M2, 1957) and the omitted rangefinder (M1, 1959). Mechanical self-timers have come and gone almost at random.

By Leica standards, the M8.2 is a larger-than-average package of changes for an intermediate model, but a long way from a completely new model. We suspect -- and it is pure speculation -- that they will reserve the M9 name for a full-frame (24x36mm) version.

NEW, FASTER LENSES

In the M8 review we bemoaned the lack of any real equivalent to Roger's beloved 35/1.4. At the same photokina where the M8.2 was introduced, Leica also introduced a 21/1.4 (28mm equivalent) and 24/1.4 (32mm equivalent). Of course these overcome the complaint -- if you can afford them. But then, that's true of the camera itself.

shadows, uncastillo

Frances, Aditi and Roger

Taken with a 35/1.4 Summilux which Roger bought new in the early 1980s. Continuity has always been a strong point with Leicas: the oldest lens we regularly use with the M8 and M8.2 is a 1938 90mm f/2.2 Thambar (soft focus), which was introduced in 1936. Frances is somewhat laden with camera bags.

THE BOTTOM LINE

For around half the price of a new M8.2 body, you can buy a used M8 body, but this is hardly a realistic comparison. Even if the cameras were identical, there is an enormous difference between a new camera, with a manufacturer's guarantee, and a second-hand one with an uncertain history. And as we hope we have shown, the M8.2 has a number of very attractive enhancements. To be sure, it is not perfect, but the alternatives, if you want a digital rangefinder camera, are limited to second-hand M8s or even more second-hand 6-megapixel Epson RD-1s. Our view is that if you can afford it, a new M8.2 is well worth the extra, and if you can't afford it, well, you can't afford it.

If on the other hand you already own an M8, the choice is a little more difficult. Is it worth another couple of thousand quid, 2500€, or $3000 to chop in your old camera against a new one?

Kerb and crossing

Look left; look right; and if you can afford one... (Roger; 24/1.4 Summilux)

For us, the answer comes down almost entirely to the new shutter and 'discreet' mode, with the auto-ISO as a very welcome bonus. You have probably got used to the frame-lines on your existing camera, and the rest of it falls into the realm of 'nice to have', rather than stuff we'd prefer not to live without. Besides, you can have quite a few of the features of the M8.2 added to an existing M8 as a free software upgrade, though the most important of them all, the discreet wind-on, will also require a (very expensive) new shutter if you are to get the full benefit. Even then, you can't have snapshot mode. If you haven't found the M8 shutter too noisy so far, and haven't scratched the LCD screen, and aren't that addicted to black paint, maybe you don't need to replace your M8 with an M8.2.

Unless you want to. Be warned that if you handle one, you almost certainly will want to...

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