The M8 was Leica's first digital rangefinder. Smooth, sleek, but distinctly rough around the edges, it nevertheless laid down the basic pattern for the cameras that came after it, while remaining true to its film roots.

I share an anniversary with the Leica M8 - sort of. The M8 was announced in the same week that I started my career as a camera reviewer - September 2006. We were both very green, both a little unsteady on our feet and both decidedly unpolished.

Up to that point, Leica's experiments with digital had been unconvincing. The clunky Digital Modul R was emblematic of the company's lack of confidence when it came to digital. Designed to clip onto the back of R8 and R9 film SLR bodies and in effect convert them into digital cameras, the Digital Modul R was a good idea but a bad product. It took two years to actually ship, and when it did, it was extremely pricey, costing more than $5000 (and that's without a camera body on which to mount it).

In the mid 2000s, whether or not Leica would ever bother to risk an digital M-series rangefinder was still an open question. After the much-maligned M51, Leica's approach to upgrading the M-series in subsequent decades might charitably be described as 'conservative.'

When it finally arrived, the M8 was a mixture of new technology and traditional rangefinder operation. It featured a 10MP APS-H format CCD sensor, a decent-ish LCD screen and a modern-ish menu system, but it retained the pure rangefinder focusing system and (by and large) the same ergonomics as previous M-series film bodies. And it was not, as Leica's representatives were at pains to point out, definitely not intended to replace the M7.

Compared to Leica's long-serving flagship film rangefinder (M7, left) the M8 was slightly bigger, heavier and noticeably cleaner in terms of design, thanks to the omission of the film wind and rewind levers.

For a lot of people, rangefinder shooting is a pain, but if you love it, you love it. While the rangefindery parts of the M8 were for the most part nice and mature, Leica was new to digital, and it showed. The first M8 I used personally, in late 2006, was a buggy mess. Its frame counter was basically just a random number generator, and its battery level indicator wasn't much better. It also crashed frequently, and had a nasty habit of getting worryingly hot when it was turned off and placed inside a camera bag. These days, Sony trolls like to shout and scream about the a7-series overheating, but you could have fried an egg on that particular M8.2

And then there was the shutter. Leica's M-series film bodies have rubberized cloth shutters which operate with an almost apologetically quiet 'snick' sound. I still shoot with an even older IIIC from time to time and unless you're standing right next to the camera, its shutter is almost inaudible. By comparison, the M8's shutter fired with a loud whirring 'ker-cloink' which I could never quite get used to. Very un Leica-like.

Not a great picture, but a good illustration of the M8's ability to render detail. The lack of an AA filter meant that pixel-level output at low ISO sensitivity settings was very crisp.

Another thing I struggled to get used to was the M8's 1.33X crop. When you look through the viewfinder of a crop-sensor DSLR, the increase in magnification is effectively invisible. You don't need to mentally convert the field-of-view of an 18mm lens to 28mm equivalent in order to frame your shot accurately, because what you see through the finder is what you get.

Things aren't so simple with a rangefinder. In a rangefinder, framing is approximate to begin with, and the limits of the frame are indicated by bright lines in the finder, which change depending on the lens you have mounted. Adding a crop factor makes things even more complicated.

Since the 1980s, there have typically been three sets of framelines built in to Leica's rangefinders, which change to show indicators for pairs of focal lengths: 28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm and 50mm and 75mm, depending on the lens you have mounted. Simple, right?

A rough illustration of the scene through an M8's viewfinder with a 35mm lens attached. The inner framelines represent the approximate coverage of the 35mm lens (~50mm equivalent on the cropped-sensor M8) and the outer framelines represent 24mm (~30mm equivalent).

Almost all of Leica's film rangefinders since the 1960s have featured 0.72X magnification finders, which are well-suited to shooting at the 35mm focal length, with 28mm lines (where present) indicated at the extremes of the finder. Of course on an M8, 35mm = 46mm, so Leica had to change the framelines.

But but this is where it gets confusing, because the magnification of the M8's viewfinder was actually reduced compared to film (i.e., full-frame) cameras, to compensate for the increase in effective focal lengths resulting from the cropped sensor.3 When you attach a 35mm lens, you see framelines covering ~50mm and ~30mm equivalent fields of view. That's all well and good, but of course rather than the 35mm lens field-of-view being represented by the outer set of lines, as would be the case on a non-cropped film body, they're the inner set of framelines because of the crop. The outer set of lines is actually for 24mm and the two sets are pretty close together in the finder (see illustration above).

The end result is that with a 24mm or 35mm lens attached, the view through the M8's finder looks a bit like a deconstructed zebra crossing. Faced with unfamiliar framelines, some experienced M-series users also found themselves second-guessing their effective focal lengths quite a lot when first using the camera. The M8's framelines were optimized for accuracy at 0.7m, becoming increasingly inaccurate beyond that, which didn't help matters either.

One of the weirder features of the M8 (and subsequent digital rangefinders) is the design of its memory card / battery compartment. Like the older film models, the entire baseplate must be removed if you want to swap either the battery or memory card. Sure - why not?

Let's assume though that you've familiarized yourself with the unique framelines, you've grown used to the grey-on-black-on-grey menu system, you don't mind removing the entire base of the camera to swap batteries and your M8 isn't one of the ones that self-immolates. What kind of pictures can it produce? Really nice ones, actually - on the whole.

Although there were definitely better sensors on the market in 2006, the M8 was reasonably competitive in terms of detail and noise levels at low / medium ISO sensitivities, and the lack of an anti-aliasing filter means that images are really, really sharp. Auto white balance has never been a Leica strength, and JPEGs from the M8 tended to look a bit murky, but it was easy enough to get acceptable results from converted Raw files.

Leica M8 Review Samples

36 images • Posted on Jul 31, 2007 • View album
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As far as image quality was concerned, there was one major gotcha though, which inexplicably made it past Leica's experten: infra-red sensitivity. Too much of it, to be specific. The M8 was very sensitive to IR light, which isn't major issue most of the time, but when it's a problem, it can be a real show-stopper. As reviewers found out, you'll mostly see it when shooting green foliage (which sometimes comes out looking too yellow) and black manmade fabrics (which often come out looking distinctly magenta).

Leica's solution - shipping two screw-in IR filters to all M8 owners for free - was really more of a goodwill gesture, and wasn't until the introduction of the M9, several years later, that the problem was actually solved.

The M8 was superseded pretty quickly, by the M8.2 in 2008. The M8.2 introduced a quieter shutter, a more discreet black dot, a nicer body covering (the fluffy plastic finish of the M8 was cheap-feeling and icky), more accurate framelines and a badly-needed scratch-resistant coating on the rear LCD.

Partly because it was so quickly superseded, second-hand M8s can be picked up relatively cheaply these days, at least by the admittedly insane standards of previously-owned Leica digital rangefinders. But if you're really curious about trying one, my advice would be to save a little extra and grab yourself an M8.2 instead.

Read about Leica's current flagship digital rangefinder, the M10


1. The M5 was a highly advanced and eminently practical camera when it was released in 1971, but an utter commercial failure, and is widely (and probably unfairly) talked about as The Camera That Almost Ruined Leica.

At any rate, the M5 served as an early lesson (it would not be the last) to Leica's product planners that while a lot of photographers might balk at weird film loading, external light metering, limited close focus capability and eye-wateringly high pricing, just about the only thing that Leicaphiles won't put up with is change.

2. Author is a professional exaggerator. Do not attempt.

3. This might sound odd, but makes complete sense. Effective focal lengths are increased by the sensor's crop, so Leica reduced the magnification of the M8's finder because inevitably, M8 users would be mounting wider lenses to achieve similar fields of view to the 'classic' 28/35/50 primes. Hence the addition of 24mm framelines which actually show a 30mm field-of-view (etc.).