In part 1 of this series, I discussed why an M8 was necessary for my photographic techniques, and how I came to secure one. In part 2, I discussed the camera’s ergonomic factors, shutter volume, and sociological impact on today’s streets. In other words, I’ve discussed everything except what matters most — image quality. So let’s get down to it.

The Sound of a Photograph

It’s a little known fact that photographs make sound. A print reflects visible light, which has a frequency that ranges from 384 to 769 terahertz. Audible sound, by contrast, has a much lower frequency — ranging from 20 hertz to 20 kilohertz. Because a photograph is physically unable to vibrate with a force capable of propagating audible waves, it can’t be heard directly. Instead, its sound is modulated by the visible light’s high-frequency carrier signal. Note that this is exactly the same principle on which radio broadcasts work. You can’t hear your favorite FM station by listening directly to the high frequency carrier waves that float through the air  — you need a radio to demodulate the content and extract it from the carrier band. The same is true with photographs. You can’t hear the photograph by listening to the images — you need a human being to demodulate the audible content from the carrier wave. In this case, the image comes into the eye, where the brain demodulates the signal, and the mouth then articulates the sound of the photograph.

Look, for example, at one of your worst photographs and a “pfft” sound escapes from your mouth. This is the sound of that photo. Glance at a mediocre image and listen carefully as a quiet “meh” falls from your lips. Intriguing images tend to make “hmmmm!” sounds of varying intensity.

Why is this important? Because I have discovered that RAW image files from the Leica M8 make a specific sound — and that sound is “whoah!” This sound, though not unique to M8 photographs, is unique to unprocessed digital negatives. Generally, when a photograph possesses the “whoah!” sound, it’s been carefully honed via a skillful application of Photoshop post-processing techniques. To hear an unprocessed image make this sound is remarkable.

Prior to getting the M8, I could easily find all my post-processed images in an Adobe Lightroom gallery — they simply leapt from the screen — a handful of “whoahs” in a symphony of lesser sounds. There was no need to look at file names or metadata. The post-processed images had a vibrance and energy about them that is simply missing from unprocessed RAW captures. Once the M8 arrived, I could no longer quickly distinguish the processed images from the unprocessed M8 RAW files — they both said “whoah!

Cartier-Bresson on Nonlinear Differential Equations

The M8 delivers stellar “negatives.” I didn’t expect this. Charts and graphs and mathematics all indicate that, ultimately, the RAW output from a Leica M8 is commensurate with an old Canon 20D. Measurements and calculations of a camera’s color sensitivity, tonal range, signal-to-noise ratio, and ISO sensitivity are all readily found on the internet. All are earnest attempts to scientifically quantify theoretical performance levels for different cameras. Fortunately, I once owned a Canon 20D, and still have hundreds of its better photos in my Lightroom library. In spite of their identical scientific measurements, there is not the slightest similarity between the 20D’s RAW files and those from the Leica. The differences between images from the 20D and those from the M8 are every bit as apparent as those between a point-and-shoot and my Canon 5DmkII. Prior to owning an M8, I had a modicum of faith in such camera specifications. I now believe them to be pure, unadulterated crap. If specs had any significant meaning, Henri Cartier-Bresson would have carried an HP Scientific Calculator rather than a Leica rangefinder.

While the sensor in a 20D and the sensor in an M8 might both be capable of recording images of equal fidelity, the specs don’t address the fact that the M8 delivers a higher quality image to that sensor. Imagine, if you will, two identically specified audio recorders. One is placed inside a concert hall, and the other out on the street. The recording mechanisms may be identical, but the quality of the music recorded inside the concert hall will far exceed the quality of the recording made outside. There are, I believe, several reasons why shooting with an M8 is like being inside that concert hall.

First, the M8 lacks an anti-aliasing filter. Leica was initially ridiculed for this decision because everyone assumed you had to put an anti-aliasing filter on a digital camera. The main reason cameras have these filters is to prevent moire patterns from appearing in photographs. And how does the anti-aliasing filter reduce these moire patterns? By softening and blurring the image so the patterns are no longer visible. The problem, obviously, is that the typical digital camera softens every image you capture, on the off-chance you might inadvertently capture a moire pattern. It’s like drinking Ipecac Syrup every day, just in case you ingest some harmful poison. When used with high quality lenses, the increased image sharpness and clarity from the M8 is remarkable — like the difference between a nearsighted person seeing the world with and without glasses. The potential trade-off, of course, is the possibility that moire patterns will creep into your photos. But after looking at over 500 M8 captures in Lightroom, I have yet to see a single moire pattern in a rendered image — the mathematical anti-aliasing routines included in Lightroom are obviously doing their job effectively, and without obfuscating image detail.

Second, in order to further maximize sharpness and contrast, Leica built the M8 with an unusually thin glass cover over the sensor. The tradeoff here is an increased sensitivity to infrared light. When shooting for black & white, the increased IR responsiveness is not a problem and, in some instances, may be beneficial. But if your final image is destined for color, it does necessitate you use an IR-cut filter on your lens. When used on wide angle lenses, IR-cut filters also cause red vignetting (manifesting as cyan-colored corners), which requires software correction. If you’re using coded Leica lenses, these corrections are applied automatically in-camera. If you’re not using coded Leica lenses, a program called “Cornerfix” yields excellent results. The M8′s infrared controversy, workarounds, and workflow contortions are well-documented, so I won’t discuss them further. Suffice to say, whether you think it’s for better or worse, Leica’s decision to fit the M8 with such a thin sensor covering has helped squeeze even more magic out of those magnificent M-mount lenses.

Third, and speaking of magnificent M-mount lenses, I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron. A camera can only be as good as the lens you mount on it, and the Summicron is exceptional. With the M8′s crop-factor, this lens operates like a 35mm lens on a full-frame 35mm SLR. To date, the best 35mm lens I’ve used is the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L. It’s a highly-respected industry standard that I, myself, rated 9 out of a possible 10. All I can say is, if that Canon is a 9, then the Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron is a 14. It’s extraordinary. Of all the 35mm format camera/lens combinations I’ve used, only my Canon 135mm f/2L on a full-frame SLR has delivered RAW images of such quality.

Fourth, charts and graphs and mathematics are completely inept at quantifying aesthetic pleasure. Stereo manufacturers, for example, try to build amplifiers with the lowest harmonic distortion readings possible. Yet many audiophiles prefer tube amplifiers — precisely because their analog harmonic distortion is actually more pleasing to the ear. What good is a spec if it’s irrelevant? Look no further than the silliness of the megapixel specification. We all know it’s possible to place so many megapixels on a sensor that image quality begins to degrade. Yet many people (consumers, mostly) use megapixel comparisons to determine which camera is ‘better.’ No doubt, if one camera contained 20 megapixels and another contained 15, the average consumer would conclude the 20 megapixel model would produce a better image. But what if the 15 megapixel camera sported a full-frame 35mm sensor, while the 20 megapixel model was a pocket camera with a typical 6mm sensor? Assuming both cameras were competently engineered, the 15 megapixel camera, with a sensor 30x larger than the pocket camera, would utterly annihilate the 20 megapixel model. Even Mr. Magoo would see the difference.

Assessing the M8 by its specifications is like evaluating Yosemite by its travel brochures. In both cases you’ll miss the point — entirely. The Leica appealed to me because its handling and ergonomics were more conducive to the sort of quick, candid shooting I wanted to perform. That was the bait. But what set the hook and reeled me in was the image quality. Make some room in the creel — Leica’s bagged another convert.

8-Bit RAW?!

Leica usage, amongst non-Leica users, is considered a ‘cult.’ But, I assure you, I own no hooded black robes. I don’t chant incantations when choosing an aperture setting, and the camera doesn’t require a secret password before it releases the shutter. My mind, my eye, and my techniques are mine — not the camera’s. I am not a slave to the Leica zeitgeist — the Leica is a slave to mine. The images I choose to capture are not determined by Leica, they’re determined by me. And the M8 is the tool that best-enables me to capture these images.

Besides, would cultists dare question their supreme ruler? M-series aficionados have, for nearly 60 years, vociferously challenged many of Leica’s conservative and downright quirky design decisions. As part of a new generation of Leica shooters, I have my own laundry list of complaints, and none is more irksome than their decision to use 8-bit RAW files.

Choosing to output 8-bit RAW files is, without a doubt, the single dumbest decision Leica made in regards to the M8. Much dumber than their decision to outfit the M8 with the traditional and hopelessly anachronistic baseplate. More foolish, too, than the controversial decision to use a thin IR-shield over the sensor, which necessitates the use of IR-cut filters and software vignetting correction. Those decisions are annoying but surmountable. 8-bit RAW files, in contrast, have no work-around. They simply limit what a photographer can accomplish with an image.

Most digital cameras give you RAW files with 12-bits of data recorded in each color channel. The M8 gives you RAW files with 8-bits of data. Since I’m already on-record as stating that M8 RAW files are more visually appealing than those from other cameras, why does this matter? Because it affects what you can do with an image in post-processing. Leica lenses and the M8 body capture images of superb quality. The M8 records these images at a higher bit-rate, then downsamples them to 8-bits in the final RAW file. Leica’s rationalization is that there is no discernible difference between the captured image quality and the 8-bit output and, thus, decided that photographers would prefer to have smaller file sizes.

I have no doubt that Leica’s downsampling algorithms create an image perceptually indistinguishable from the one captured. My problem is that, in modern photography, the digital negative is only a starting point — it’s not the final destination. By giving us files with only 8-bits per channel, the M8′s digital negatives are less forgiving of post-processing. 12-bit files have 4096 variations between the lightest and darkest tone in each of the three color channels. 8-bit files have only 256 variations. Although good conversion algorithms can create a reduced tonal map that makes a downsampled image visually indistinguishable from the original, those images become “set in stone.” When you start to push pixels around—changing their tonal relationships—the images begin to deteriorate. Because of the coarseness in 8-bit tonal values, the creaminess of the Leica image becomes ragged and mottled when subjected to anything more than subtle post-processing. This is madness. Leica has designed lenses and a camera that can capture images of impeccable quality. They then, essentially, throw away all the perceptually ‘unneeded’ bits, and give us a downsampled version that cannot be processed without visible degradation. Why? SD cards are ridiculously inexpensive. The M8 even supports SDHC cards, whose higher capacity would easily store hundreds of full-size, 12-bit RAW files on a single, thumbnail-sized card. From my perspective, there is absolutely no need to downsample the image. The camera is capturing images at a higher bit-depth, but the internal software reduces that depth before it’s recorded to the card. Why can’t Leica recognize that, in 2009, there is no longer a need for these smaller RAW files? Why don’t they recognize that photographers will post-process digital images the same way they manipulated prints in a darkroom? Why has Leica continued to update the camera’s firmware without ever issuing an update that gives photographers access to the 12-bit captures? It’s infuriating. Setting aside my modesty temporarily, I’ll cop to the fact that my post-processing skills are exemplary. The M8′s image quality is astonishing. Together, we could create some stunning photographs. But Leica’s decision to create 8-bit RAW files prevents this synergy from forming and means, for serious work, I must still turn to the 5DmkII — a camera that allows its raw files to be manipulated in any manner I see fit.

Come on, Leica. If you only do one other thing with the M8 series, give us 12-bit RAW files!

Misplacing my Discombobulation

When I decided to purchase the M8, I expected to dedicate an entire blog entry to my problems and frustrations with adapting to the rangefinder. For the last 20 years, I’ve been staring through the barrel of my lenses — able to frame images precisely, preview depth-of-field effects, and accurately visualize the unique spatial perspective of each lens. Surely, the loss of these features would be problematic, right? Wrong.

I took to the rangefinder like bacon to eggs. It turns out that I don’t need to preview an image’s depth of field — my years of experience have taught me exactly what to expect from each focal length and each aperture. I can see depth-of-field in my mind — I don’t require the camera to show me, and I don’t miss looking through a lens. I know, instinctively, how various focal lengths will affect perspective, and I can frame and shoot accordingly. Honestly, if you really understand photography, then the things a rangefinder doesn’t tell you are the things you already know. You will miss nothing. If, however, your photographic education is somewhat spotty, an SLR is a more forgiving and helpful teacher.

My rangefinder experiences have been nothing short of pure joy. I had but one bad habit to correct — a persistent desire to focus perfectly. When you peer through a rangefinder, you’ll see a center spot with a split image — half the image comes through the viewfinder on the left. The other half comes from a different viewfinder on the opposite side of the lens. When you turn the focus ring on the lens, the two images converge or diverge accordingly. When an object is in perfect focus, the two images align. My problem was that, instinctively, I wanted the two images to be in precise alignment before shooting. Intellectually, I knew that wider focal lengths and narrower apertures created an extensive depth-of-field that made it pointless to obsess over accurate focus. But, because the M8 is designed for instinctual photography, the instinctual half of my brain was initially in control of the camera’s functions — causing me to be overly slow and conservative when focusing.  Eventually, my intellectual brain successfully trained my instinctual brain to ease-up on its precise focus fixation, and accept a variable amount of slop as dictated by the current focal length and aperture.

Conclusion

We live in an era where a preponderance of popular music is assembled from prefabricated audio loops rather than from the blood, sweat and creativity of instrumentalists. So it should come as no surprise that rangefinder cameras have fallen from favor. Their usage — like violins, trumpets or pianos — requires a commitment to study and practice. But “study” and “practice” are antonyms for “instant gratification,” which is what pumps the pulses of today’s society. Modern, auto-everything cameras have as much in common with the Leica M-series as the Guitar Hero™ game has with a Fender Telecaster™. For many, these blunt instruments of passionless photography rise to near-perfection when bundled with a cellphone.

But for those to whom photography is a lifelong craft, there is no such thing as a ‘perfect camera,” and no single camera can do everything a photographer needs it to do. Wildlife and sports photographers, in particular, would find the Leica M8 utterly useless. But if you’re a photographer who documents everyday life, the M8 is as close to perfect as you can currently get. Supplementing the M8 with a Panasonic G1 brings you that much closer — each camera compliments the other’s weaknesses. Yet the two sit, side-by-side, in a bag much smaller than the one that carries your big, bulky dSLR.

For the first time since being infected by the dreaded “street shooting bug,” I am thoroughly happy with my gear. I feel liberated and I feel free.

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©2009 grEGORy simpson
All images were captured using the Leica M8 and a 28mm Summicron lens.
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