Learning to See Again With the Leica M8 by Craig Litten

Learning to See Again With the Leica M8

by Craig Litten

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I started shooting with a pseudo-rangefinder camera, the Fuji X-Pro1, in 2013, and shed the weight and bulk of my DSLR’s forever. I love and still use the X-Pro1, but I’ve wanted a Leica M6 rangefinder for over 20 years. The problem is, the M6 uses film. Film is wonderful, but it’s no longer convenient, nor is it cheap. True, you can buy a lot of film for the price of a digital Leica M, but don’t forget about the inconvenience of film. Pro photo labs have disappeared for the most part, prints are no longer done in the darkroom–and if they are, you must pay an extraordinary premium. I say “extraordinary” because it used to be fairly cheap to get a high-quality, fiber based B&W wet print (made in a real darkroom), but not any longer. There is also no lab to process the film. For years I processed my own B&W film, but I no longer own the tanks and reels, nor do I really have the time.

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So a few months ago, I purchased a used Leica M8 (M8.2 to be exact) from a friend who has since upgraded to the Leica M (Type 240)–Leica’s latest. Now I have a true rangefinder, and I’m enjoying the total rangefinder experience: manual focusing, manual exposure, a real shutter speed dial, a real, mechanical aperture ring, and a real rangefinder window. And believe it or not, once you learn how to use it, you can do things like exposure and focus faster and more accurately than with all-electronic cameras. I’m not quite there yet, but it gets easier every time I use the M8. With the Leica, I can always see what shutter speed and aperture I have set (even when it’s off), and the camera is always ready. It’s small, built like a M4 Sherman tank, and it’s incredibly discrete for street photography. So far, the only people who have noticed me while out shooting are people who know what a Leica is, and then they strike up a conversation. Otherwise, I’ve never been so ignored in all my years of street photography. Being ignored while doing street photography is a good thing.

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This brings me around to the main point of this article: learning to see again. As you can clearly see, not one photo above has people in it. Ninety-five percent of what I normally shoot, whether for work or personal use, has people in it. I’m a people shooter; yes, I shoot people. But since I got the M8, it has changed the way I feel when photographing, and the way I am seeing the world around me. Everything around me has become art. Rangefinder cameras by nature force you to slow down and think. You cannot focus as close as with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, and you no longer look through the lens, so there is a thing called parallax error at certain distances (in other words, your subject doesn’t always line up exactly where you framed it). I call this serendipity and I love it. I feel like I have too much control over my frame anyway, which comes from years of photojournalism training and thousands of assignments, so less accurate framing of my subject is fine with me. The camera is also much slower to write images to the card, which is also perfectly acceptable because I shoot far fewer shots with it. Sometimes I only shoot one frame of a given scene, whereas before, I usually shoot several.

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Surprisingly, for a camera as old as the M8, the image quality is astonishing. Leica lenses, which are second to none, might have something to do with that of course. Color can be a bit tricky, but when you nail it, it’s stunning and very Kodak Kodachrome looking–the best color film ever made. And the black & white produced from the M8’s sensor is very film-like. Grain starts to show up at ISO 320, which is great because I love grain. High ISO is basically non-existent, but so what, some of the world’s best photographers survived their entire careers shooting Tri-X, which is ISO 400 film.

Give one a try! The Leica Store Miami has a test drive program that is very reasonable. Ask for Peter; he’ll be glad to help you. If you’ve never shot with a rangefinder such as a Leica M, be prepared for a learning curve, but it gets easier, and it’s a lot of fun. Finally, when out shooting on the streets, don’t forget to “see” what else is around you. Don’t be so focused on looking like Winogrand and miss the Sam Abell moments all around you.

Please come join me for a street photography workshop this year. Go to http://www.street-photography-workshops.com for more info.

46 Comments

  1. I’m thinking of getting the M8 even though it is very old now. I have a Nikon FM2 but do not like the inconvenience of developing and scanning rolls of film. I recently got a Nikon D2X (and use it with an old AI lens) which is very low tech now but I like it even though it’s old but it is big and heavy. I like the idea of a small fully manual digital camera with “real” dials for everything.

    • I LOVE it! If you get a well-worn M8 (I recommend the M8.2), and a used 35mm lens (I like the Summarit because of it’s size, rendering and price), they are pretty reasonably priced and you won’t feel like you have to baby it, you’ll just go out and create images 😉

  2. Hey Craig – it is fun to go to “older” technology. For the same reason you have gone to a M8, I have pounced back on my Canonet QL17 GIII, and for my F-mount Nikon lenses, an FM2n. Both are film. I never liked film, but now that I am more confident about my photo-taking abilities, I want to try some film – just because. And, because of you, I bought the V1, and have not looked back. I have the 10, the 18.5, 6.7-13, and the 32.5 – all great lenses for different reasons. IMHO, the 32.5 is the finest as it allows for manual focus. At 1.2 I have gotten some really beautifully sharp and dreamy pictures. Go get the 32.5, and the 6.7-13 – I don’t think you will regret the purchases.

    • Thanks! I do plan on purchasing the 32mm at some point, but I rarely shoot with super wides even though I bet the 6.7-13 can be fun. Thanks for commenting and I’m pleased you are happy with your V1. A friend in the UK just purchased a white V1 (a.k.a. the Stormtrooper version) after using the J2 for quite some time. He’s hoping for the 32mm next also 😉

  3. Well, Michiel’s initial comment has been removed (now his comment 12 makes absolutely no sense at all), mine in strong support of Michiel has been removed, and the guy who said something about how this machine could teach us to see again, well, he’s gone too.
    This is getting like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.

    “Don’t just sit there! Join in and leave a comment!”
    We did.

    But the styrofoam cups have survived. Phew. Ars longa, vita brevis.

    And yet the snide comment about Michiel’s images is still there.

      • James, the comment section has been turned into an intelligence test! Anyway, I don’t mind “snide” remarks at all; If someone needs a way to “get back”, that’s fine with me. That particular poster was the first in a long line of commenters that said “Oh, are you such a great photographer then, show us your stuff!!!” that actually took the trouble to look at them and comment on them, albeit in a snide way. A few remarks on my Flickr: it needs weeding, the repetitiveness in the portraits is intended consistency, and there are other sections to look at and criticize.

    • Comments were removed for one simple reason. Since this site has started I have not and do not allow rude comments and personal attacks. No mean tones area allowed. Michiel’s comments were mean, nasty and rude. Nothing at all useful. No critique. He also was attacking just because he did not like the word “Leica” it seemed. What he failed to do is READ what Craig was saying. Craig is an amazing photographer, anyone who has seen his past articles or attended his workshops will know this. So to come here and attack and be rude will get you nowhere fast as this is not dreview. READ THE RULES, they have been there for years. Nothing new.

      • Tbh; I don’t think “Boring”, which was my initial post (IIRC) was mean, nasty and rude, at all, nor were my subsequent entries, in which I explained what I meant. Some people even seemed to agree with me.

        But it’s your site.

        • Again, read the rules. “Boring” is very rude. You did not critique anything. You just said “Boring” which is a rude hateful comment when not joined with other words telling why you think that is the case. Be constructive, not rude. Simple to do but some people just love to be negative, which I do not allow here and never have. You are correct, it is indeed my site and I make the rules and rudeness, nastiness, attacks and mean spirited comments are not tolerated.

          • Well, we have different opinions there, that much is clear. And as I said, I elaborated on that succinct statement later, and was even supported.

            So, “boring” is rude and hateful, but “bland” is acceptable? It’s a fine line…

  4. The M8 is a very capable camera, and a great entry-level Digital Rangefinder- seems to be around the $1500 range for a good one these days. I’ve had mine for 4.5 years now, have been using 16-Bit raw mode with it since November. You pick up a lot of shadow detail, and improve on High-ISO shots with some work in LR and PS. Monochrome conversions using the 16-bit DNG’s hold much more shadow detail than the 8-bit files.

  5. Glad to see somebody else speaking of the Leica M8 … I still have one amd use it for street photography and people ignore me thinking I’m some amateur with an old film camera. I use it mostly set up to show black and white on the screen -but to record a raw colour as well which I can convert in Lightroom.
    It’s a wonderful camera to use -a film classic in digital form.
    We all know a Nikon D4 Canon 5D etc etc are pro cameras -but I know a very well established pro who uses his M9 for personal projects -as I do with my M8.

  6. Nice and constructive comment. I think the images are really rather good. Having had a quick look at the umpteen uninspired same-same head shots on your Flickr feed Michiel953, I would say you are very qualified to comment on boring material however.

    • At last some feedback. And yes, there is some repetition there, which you might qualify in any way you want. There are some other categories there as well, maybe you want to have a crack at those as well?

  7. Ironically when the Nikon 1 is seeing for you, you take much more engaging photos. On the positive side, doesn’t the M8 look lovely in chrome!

    • Michiel,

      Boring as a container qualification, can mean that there was nothing to inspire you!

      If you mean that, you can write that or just leave it. But than again if everybody not writing 1 word critics, you miss sometimes the essence and like the Emperor without clothing’s, you actually gonna believe that you need a Leica M8 to learn to see again…

      For me none of the words written nor the images included could bring me any evidence that the headline/title: “Learning to See Again With the Leica M8” was true or even close to some truth.

      But maybe my observation is ‘Crap’ or ‘Boring

        • True, of course. We’re talking subjectivity and intersubjectivity here. We all (well some of us) know that objective truth (it’s the TRUTH, it’s FACT) does not exist. It’s perceptions (and opinions), shared by language as much as possible (that must be Wittgenstein creeping in here) that make up our world.

          A story and the accompanying images might be “boring” (I looked up the various meanings of the word, and that didn’t encourage me to list them here) to some, and a revelation to others.

          The differences keep us alive, censorship smothers that.

        • Uli…. Yes there is more than people can see between Heaven and Earth

          I cannot see Atoms…or Bacteries…but I know they are there…even on the Picture !
          And The Beatles put many times tones over 20Khz on their LP’s…nobody hear them, unless you are a dog of course.

  8. “And believe it or not, once you learn how to use it, you can do things like exposure and focus faster and more accurately than with all-electronic cameras.”

    I love the Leica M but that’s just not true…

  9. I used the Fujifilm Pro X1 in Haiti recently with a Leica Summicrom 28 mm wide angle lens. The Pro X1 is my first digital camera. Prior to that I was shooting film with a Leica M6. I’ve always used manual focus and after a few failed attempts with the auto focus feature it doesn’t appeal to me at all. M8 is the camera that I’m saving for but in the meantime the Fujifilm Pro X1 with the Leica film lenses is a satisfactory substitute. My sister was shooting images out the window of the car with her Canon EOS which made me appreciate the intimacy of the small, discreet rangefinder style body of the Fujifilm Pro X1. In a side by side comparison I think the Fujifilm Pro X1 is lighter than the Leica M6.

  10. Looks to me from the photos here that you can see pretty well with your M8 and also it sound like you are using it more like a film than a digital camera.

      • Good to hear…! Your fine reviews and photos were instrumental in getting me into the V1 system and I have never regretted it. So what type of work are you using your V1s for these days?

        • Mr.B! I suddenly realized we had an exchange almost exactly a year ago before you got the V1 (Nadine Curdes – Love your camera). Glad to hear you ended up getting it in the end, I sort of had a feeling that you would.

          And, Craig: you totally got me hooked on the 18.5mm lens. I use it every single day.

          Jan

          • Hi Jan,

            We did indeed converse last year about the V1 and, yes, I did get the credit card out soon afterwards! No regrets at all so thank you.

            What swung it for me was that people who shoot with the V1 seem to be more interested in what their photographs actually look like than internet chatter about tech specs. I’ve bonded with the V1 in a way that I have never done with some other cameras, which explains why I’m about to sell some micro 4/3 gear (GH2 and some lenses) to fund the purchase of the 6.7-13mm and 32mm. I’m sure someone could explain to me in tedious detail why the V1 is inferior to micro 4/3 in ‘technical’ terms and they’d probably be ‘technically’ correct, but I don’t care. It’s the photographs that matter. On a B&H You Tube video the other day I heard a photographer say that he’s never heard visitors at photo exhibitions say “Ooh…I really like that picture. Look at how clean the files are there’s not a hint of chromatic aberration!”. Can I get an ‘amen’…?

            Colin

          • Brilliant! I sometimes feel like where I really belong, is in a “brotherhood” of V1 shooters. And all those people on the forums… well, they just bore me.

            Do you have a Flickr page or some other place where I could sneak a peek? Would love to have a look. Here is one of mine from yesterdays walk (yes, I can walk again! long story, though): https://www.flickr.com/photos/janmaaso/13946800416/in/photostream/

            Stay in touch if you would like! (Flickr mail)
            Jan

          • I am currently putting a Flickr page together (in my non-existent spare time!!) and will let you know when it’s up. Yes – definitely keep in touch.

          • Well I was going to go the FT1 plus 35mm DX route to save money but decided that I should stop being a total wimp and just commit. From what I’ve seen – on this website and others – the 32 is something special so I’m going to take the plunge. I already love the 18.5 for portraits but often feel the need for a slightly longer reach. The 32 fits the bill there.

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