The classic rangefinder hits the digital autobahn at 10.3MP. We take a test
According to Leica, the M8 uses automatic noise-reduction technology that employs a second "black" exposure to subtract noise from a captured image. NR kicks in at exposures of 1/30 sec or longer, depending on the ISO and menu settings. The result is a longer delay after exposure as the system takes time to process and write the image to a memory card, but the long-exposure NR does a pretty good job, especially at ISO 1250 and below.
The M8 uses a strongly centerweighted metering pattern (TTL) to determine normal exposure and a centerweighted pattern when used with compatible SCA-3000/2 standard flash units. There are two exposure modes: aperture-priority and full manual, with LED indicators to assist exposure selection.
The M8 is compatible with all M bayonet-type lenses from 16mm to 135mm, including those from other manufacturers. However, only the newest Leica lenses have a special type of coding -- Leica calls it 6-bit coding -- for optimized performance with the M8. Leica recommends upgrading older 16mm to 28mm lenses with the coding (this costs about $100 per lens) to reduce possible color shifts. The 6-bit coding allows the lens focal length to be identified by the camera processor and included in the standard EXIF information in each image file, whether JPEG or RAW DNG. The camera stores the selected (or automatically chosen) shutter speed in that EXIF data, but strangely, aperture information is not recorded even when using the latest lenses.
The M8's 2.5-inch TFT LCD has a sharp 230,000-pixel resolution. Menus and fonts are easy to read, even at extreme angles. But the LCD gets harder to read in bright sunlight, particularly after your face gets it a little greasy -- which happens often when you hold the camera close to your cheek in order to see clearly through the viewfinder. Zooming in image playback (up to 4X, or one-to-one pixel ratio) is accomplished by rotating a wheel and navigating with cursor buttons. Histogram information can also be displayed for any zoomed-in portion of an image, a useful tool. In the other direction, you can view up to nine clear thumbnail images at a time.
Compared to most digital SLRs, the M8 has relatively few menu controls, due to its limited metering choices and manual focus. However, it offers many choices for setting image-quality parameters, including ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, pixel dimensions, sharpness, color saturation, contrast, and color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB, or ECI RGB).
Black is black, or is it?
At the heart of the M8's digital prowess is a Kodak-designed 10.3MP CCD that features advanced Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) technology for low noise, high sensitivity, wide dynamic range, and 16 bits per color in RAW DNG files. Specially offset microlenses on each pixel minimize light and resolution falloff towards the edge of the frame. According to Leica, this microlens arrangement is particularly important for the broad incident-light angles associated with M-series lenses, whose rear elements are far closer to the imager than in DSLRs.
As a result of the tight space, and to maximize image resolution, Leica chose to forego the use of an optical low-pass filter (OLPF) typically used in digital cameras to reduce moiré patterns in highly detailed areas. As a result, the only thing in between the lens and sensor is a thin 0.5mm IR cutoff filter also chosen to maximize corner-to corner-resolution and reduce color fringing that might be caused by a thicker IR filter.
The impact on image quality is both positive and negative. At an average 2250 lines per picture height (in RAW DNG), the M8 has the highest resolution in the 10MP class, beating out JPEGs from the Nikon D80 (2215 lines). The 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M lens used in our test also produced the lowest distortion we've seen at that focal length. (See Lens Test, next page). However, resolution falls to 2000 lines in fine-quality JPEG mode and drops a bit at higher ISOs, due to strong blurring from noise reduction. But it never drops below 1700 lines, our Excellent rating cutoff.
However, the color accuracy of JPEG images, as tested in our lab using daylight-balanced HMI lights, barely made it into the Extremely High rating, with an average Delta E of 9.98. That's not bad in itself, but noticeably lower than the excellent color accuracy (Delta E of 8 or lower) of many DSLRs in its resolution category. In RAW DNG mode, the M8 gets an Excellent Color Accuracy rating, earning it an Excellent image quality rating.
We can safely bet that most Leica owners will choose to shoot in Adobe RAW DNG mode to maximize image quality and to personalize the look of their images using the provided Capture One LE RAW conversion software. The M8's DNG files can be readily converted to 16 bit/color TIFF files in Photoshop as well, with very good results. In addition, RAW conversion software adds controls that help reduce moiré patterns that are obvious in finely detailed areas of JPEG images, and it allows for precise control of color, contrast, and sharpness. Leica's Digital Capture software also allows you to control image-quality parameters (but not shutter or aperture directly), fire the camera remotely, and store the images directly to a USB-attached computer.
Regardless of whether you shoot DNG or JPEGs, color accuracy is occasionally compromised by the M8's high IR sensitivity (a direct trade-off caused by using that thin IR cutoff filter). As a result, certain black fabrics and some deep black hair may take on a purple or maroon color cast. The problem can't be fixed by camera settings or its image processor, and it's not easy to do in image-editing software. (For more on the cause of this problem, see our Special Report.) Leica's solution is to supply a free pair of screw-type IR/UV filters to current and future M8 owners specifically designed for popular Leica lenses. Free firmware upgrades are also needed to correct this and other issues (such as banding and ghosting) that were apparent in some early production models.