In part 1 of this series, I recounted my reasons for purchasing a Leica M8, and how a series of fortuitous events enabled this to happen. At the time I made this purchase, the original M8 had been on the market for two and a half years — an eon in digital photography terms. Graduates from the school of “latest is greatest” will deem this a curious purchase decision, but it has several advantages. First, Leica has now had 30 months to work the kinks out of the system — and there were a lot of kinks. Second, the many experienced rangefinder shooters who boldly blazed the digital Leica trail have kindly left us latecomers with a wealth of maps and detours around the camera’s many quirks and curiosities. Third, it’s the only way a mortal photographer of meager means can afford entry.

So, for the M8-curious, what wisdom can I possibly impart that was not previously disclosed by the many sage rangefinder shooters before me? Perspective. The fact that I am not an experienced rangefinder shooter, but a born and bread SLR-slinger, affords me a completely different vantage point from which to assess the M8 and its role in modern photography. Since the majority of M8 reports were penned by experienced rangefinder photographers, they’re frequently skewed toward discussing the differences between the M8 and the film-based rangefinders that preceded it. It’s all good stuff — if you’re also a long-time rangefinder shooter. But what if you’re not? What if you’re one of the crazy ones that, after shooting SLR’s for 20 years, suddenly decide you want to hand over a sizable chunk of your photography technique to the rangefinder — a system with which you’ve had only limited experience? Now where’s your guidance? That’s why I’m here.

So to all the rangefinder veterans who, while reading this report, will likely snicker at the blatant obviousness of my findings, I apologize. At least you now have another supporter to help shore up your depleted numbers. And, to all the SLR shooters who are blithely unaware of rangefinder cameras or techniques, let this report be a guide in your own quest to determine whether or not a rangefinder deserves a place amongst your SLRs.

First Physical Impressions

My first impression, upon receiving my ‘beater’ M8, was to think popflash.com mailed me the wrong one. The camera looked flawless. It was ding-free and showed no obvious signs of wear, even under intense scrutiny. I’ve unsealed brand new products from factory packages that don’t look this good. I was mentally self-prepared to receive a camera that had doubled as someone’s hammer. Instead, I got something that looked barely touched.

Though my M8 doesn’t appear to have seen duty as a hammer, that’s not necessarily indicative that it hasn’t. The camera feels like a precision-forged, solid slab of industrial-grade carbon steel. I get the sense that a little medium-duty household hammering wouldn’t leave a mark. Compared to the M8, my Canon 5D mkII feels like it’s assembled from Tupperware™. There is no doubt, should I ever be called upon to photograph the armageddon, that I’ll grab the Leica — it and cockroaches will be all that endure.

Of course, such robust construction exacts more than a financial price. In this case, the cost is weight. When you reach for the M8, your natural tendency is to pinch a corner between your thumb and forefinger and exert a gentle lifting force. The camera just laughs. If you want to lift this sucker, you better wrap your whole hand around it, bend your knees, exhale firmly, and jerk upward in a forceful but fluid motion. OK, perhaps I’m exaggerating a little, but the Leica is heavier than you expect.

Curiously, the substantial weight you feel when lifting an M8 from a table becomes nearly non-existent when it’s slung over your shoulder. Though this appears to violate the laws of physics it is, in fact, an illusion of ergonomics. The M8 is a superbly balanced camera. When you lift an M8 by the strap, it hangs plumb — tilting neither up nor down, left nor right. This means, when draped across your body, the M8 simply melds to it. For me, it’s like having an extra super-strength bionic rib in my chest — it becomes a part of my body, not something hanging off of it. When you walk, the M8′s mass dampens any bouncing motion. Also, since the M8 always sits flat against your body, there’s none of the swinging and twisting motion you get from an SLR, which inevitably hangs cockeyed due to the exceedingly heavy and unbalanced lenses. Similarly, when you lift the M8 to your eye and frame a shot, the camera provides no resistance — only a well-balanced damping effect and steadiness in the hand.

The ergonomic factors that work with the M8 when you wear it on your body are the same factors that work against it when you lift it off the table. The M8 is an item of symmetry. It has no bulbous curves around which to wrap your right palm. It has no molded finger indents, no thumb rests, and no organic shaping of any kind. It’s a rectangle with a tube sticking out the front. The M8 offers the user no obvious place to grab it and lift. Unless you’re willing to put big greasy fingerprints on the LCD, viewfinder and distance meter window, the M8 encourages you (as I described previously), to grab it by “pinching a corner between your thumb and forefinger.” When lifted in this manner, the camera might as well be a 1961 Buick LeSabre.

All this talk about mass and heft and apparent weight might seem aimlessly trite, but there’s a point — particularly if, like me, you’re an SLR shooter that’s contemplating an M8. The first few times I felt tempted enough to fondle the M8 in camera shops, the experience left me cold. That’s because one of my major goals was to eliminate the bulkiness of the SLR. But when lifted, fingered, and examined in a camera store, the M8′s utilitarian body shape makes the camera seem exceedingly heavy and clumsy to hold. It’s only when strapped to one’s body and lifted, from there to the eye, that the M8 transforms into a featherweight. For over a year, my camera-store experiences actually had a negative impact on my decision to purchase an M8. It was only after I took the trouble to attach a strap and feel how the camera sat against my body, that I “got” it.

Because the M8 was never designed to be a one-handed camera, Leica and numerous third-party developers have created all manner of add-on ergonomic doo-dads. You can purchase cases with built-in ‘bumps’ with which you can better grab the camera. Leica offers a replaceable bottom plate with a built-in ‘tube’ that extends vertically up the right-face of the camera, giving the fingers of your right-hand something to grab onto. Both of these items are unnecessary if you plan to wear the M8 but, if you choose to slip on a wrist strap and carry it with one hand, they’ll prove invaluable. Personally, I’d be fine resting my four fingers on the camera’s flat front edge if there was something, instead, for my thumb to grip on the camera’s back. Fortunately, Tim Isaac makes just such a product and, eventually, this may be the first ergonomic add-on to adorn my M8. But I plan to shoot judiciously with the camera as-is before deciding to accessorize it in any way.

KaTHUNK Zawip

When graphic designers create page layouts, they use strings of nonsensical characters to help them visualize how the actual text will look. This is called greeking and, contrary to appearances, it is not mistakenly responsible for the title of this section. No, kaTHUNK zawip is really a German term, which comes from the Solms region and means, literally, “the sound of an M8 shutter release.”

To those of us who heard the legendary tales of whisper-like Leica shutters, the M8′s kaTHUNK zawip comes as quite a shock. This thing is loud. Not only is it louder than the DMC-G1, which I thought was too loud, but it’s even louder than my 5D mkII. Nowhere, in all my preliminary research, had I unearthed this particular fact. Now, I’m fully aware that Leica traditionalists were bemoaning the M8′s shutter volume, but I thought, “So what. It’s still gotta be quieter than my SLR.” Nope. It’s not. All you SLR-shooters who think the legendary Leica ‘discreetness’ extends into the audible realm are, like me, mistaken. If capturing the shot requires maximum auditory discretion, use one of the many point-and-shoot cameras that allows for totally silent operation.

Leica, to their credit, heard the customer complaints and designed a completely different shutter for the M8.2. As with all the M8.2 improvements, Leica (also to their credit) offers M8 owners the option to upgrade their old M8 shutter to the new, quieter version. To Leica’s ultimate discredit, however, this shutter upgrade costs as much as my entire ‘beater’ M8. Obviously, I won’t be replacing the shutter.

Short of wrapping the camera in a blanket, there’s little that can be done. In March of 2009, Leica released firmware version 2.004, which adds the M8.2′s so-called “discreet” shutter function to the M8. This function, essentially, allows you to separate the zawip from the kaTHUNK. The kaTHUNK sound comes from the opening and closing of the shutter. The zawip sound comes from its re-cocking. In the film days, you would re-cock the shutter manually, meaning you could choose to make that sound at a more appropriate time. With version 2.004′s discreet shutter option enabled, pressing the shutter button still takes a picture with a resounding kaTHUNK, but the shutter re-cocking and corresponding zawip sound will not occur until you release the shutter button. In theory, this lets you snap a shot, hold the shutter button in, walk away, and then release the shutter button — separating the zawip from the kaTHUNK.

Given the fact that, on my Canon 5D, the re-cocking sound is louder than the shutter release, I thought the new Leica ‘discreet’ mode would be more useful than it is. Unfortunately, unlike the 5D, the M8′s kaTHUNK shutter release is acutely louder than the re-cocking sound. That said, I’ve still chosen to use the new discreet shutter mode for two very subtle reasons: First, the zawip sound is much higher pitched than the kaTHUNK. As such, even though it’s quieter, it tends to cut through the din of a noisy environment a bit more that its volume would indicate. Second, since we’ve all grown up in the presence of cameras, we’ve come to expect them to emit the two-part sound. So, when the kaTHUNK catches someone’s attention, they subconsciously think “did I just hear a camera click?” When the ear doesn’t receive the corresponding zawip sound, the brain thinks, “No, I must have been mistaken.” Like I said, it’s subtle… but its better than nothing, and it’s much more practical than a blanket.

As I gain more hands-on experience with the M8, I’ll be able to determine whether or not the excessive shutter volume is as detrimental as I fear. In my first few preliminary forays onto the street, I’m finding that the kaTHUNK’s lower pitch is a bit more masked by environmental sounds than the higher-pitched 5D. At least I know, should the volume of the M8′s shutter ever get me into hot water, the camera itself will be a most effective weapon of self-defence.

Social Experimentation

Though I felt compelled to warn fellow SLR-slingers that the M8′s shutter release affords no more furtiveness than a Canon 5D mkII, audible stealthiness takes a back-seat to physical stealthiness. After all, as long as you can run fast enough, it’s far better to give yourself away after you’ve taken a photo than before. If people notice your camera before you get your shot, then you’re not getting it. And this is where the M8 really excels.

I think, in order to pursue street photography, you need to have an interest in people, and in their interactions with each other and with the world around them. Effectively, this makes all us street guys amateur sociologists and, as such, I’m not beyond conducting a few social experiments of my own.

One of my more important experiments involves watching how people in crowds respond to different types of cameras.

SLRs always attract attention. Be it a furtive glance or an open-mouthed gawk, the SLR gets noticed. It’ll attract the watchful eye of a protective mother, the calculating eye of an opportunistic thief, and the competitive eye of every gadget geek. The bigger the lens, the more you’re noticed. And don’t even get me started on white lenses. They have an uncanny knack, not just of getting noticed, but of eliciting such enlightened comments as “betcha that thing takes really good pictures!”

Surprisingly, my little LX3 point-and-shoot also attracts some scrutiny. I would have thought, since everyone seems to carry a portable camera, that it would go unnoticed. My suspicion is that the general public all subscribe to the erroneous theory that cameras take pictures, not people. As such, they all believe their pictures would be so much better if they just had a better camera. The LX3 definitely looks like a more sophisticated point-and-shoot, and I frequently see people straining to make out its branding. This is not unique to me or my LX3. I’ve sat and observed crowds of camera-toters all casting curious glances at each other’s gear. Maybe the point-and-shoot is the new status symbol? Maybe people live in constant fear that the model they’re carrying will be perceived as ‘lame,’ causing them to perpetually look at other people’s cameras for validation? These are all theories, but they don’t obscure the fact: point-and-shoots get noticed.

The DMC-G1 also gets noticed. Like the LX3, the attention it receives is benign but still palpable. There’s a sort of hokiness to the G1 that, I feel, makes it attractive to gadget freaks. The camera’s compact package is loaded up with all manner of knobs, dials, buttons and gizmos that are like catnip to technology geeks. Fortunately, I’ve been able to use this to my advantage. I simply stand on the street — camera at waist level and the LCD flung open — and just sort of look down curiously at it. It’s a goofy looking camera, so I play the role of an equally goofy nerd who can’t figure out all those knobs and buttons. In reality, I’m zone focusing and shooting free and unscathed.

My experiences with the M8, though preliminary, are encouraging. I draped the M8 over my shoulder and took a couple walks along the busy downtown sidewalks — carefully watching the eyes of everyone who passed me. Several glanced, ever-so-briefly, at my camera. No stares, but enough of a peek to indicate that, on some sub-conscious level, people were noticing the M8. And really, why wouldn’t they? The thing is beautiful. So I took some black gaffer’s tape and covered both the white model number and the iconic red dot. The camera practically disappeared on the table. With a body shape that screams “mid-20th century,” and no shiny logos or writing to belie that fact, the M8 is transformed. It more resembles a Soviet-era knock-off that your grandfather might have picked up after World War II, than it does a modern image-capturing instrument.

So I took a few more walks with the taped-up M8. No one noticed the camera. No one even glanced at it. Even when I would lift it to my eye, no one displayed a hint of recognition that I was a guy about to take a photo. With every camera I’d ever used, whether point-and-shoot or SLR, the very act of lifting it to eye level would send people scurrying in all directions — courteously attempting to remove themselves from whatever they assumed was my intended subject. With the M8? Nothing. Apparently, the M8 makes you invisible. Nothing is more desirable for a street photographer.

Like a real sociologist, I’ve invented a theory to support my findings. And my theory is based on the fact that the M8 looks nothing like any camera sold in your neighborhood Best Buy store. Sure, it looks like a camera. But it looks like the one your great-uncle used to take that shoebox full of faded, badly focused vacation photos currently sitting in a puddle in your basement. In other words, it looks completely irrelevant to the modern world. And anyone still using such a thing must be equally irrelevant. This, I surmise, is why people don’t even try to move out of my way when I lift the M8 to my eye. “Why bother?” I hear them think. “The guy doesn’t even have a real camera, so how can he be taking a picture of anything useful?” KaTHUNK zawip. Gotcha!

In Part 3, I’ll discuss M8 image quality and how I’m coming to terms with those crazy rangefinder conventions.

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©2009 grEGORy simpson
NOTE: All images in this post were captured using the Leica M8 and a 28mm Summicron lens.
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