Leica M8 at The Cementario de la Recoleta
Horses for Courses
In my article titled Antarctica 2007 – What Worked? What Didn't I mentioned that I had brought along my relatively new Leica M8 system. But then in my ongoing Antarctic Portfolio: 2007 I didn't show any images taken with the M8. This, combined with the poor M8 reliability report from this trip lead to quite a few e-mails from readers asking if I had used the M8 at all, was I still using it, enjoying it, and why the hell hadn't I shot with it in Antarctica?!
The answer lies in large part with the same thoughts and considerations that Nick Devlin has expressed is his essay The Leica M8 in Antarctica. The M8 simply wasn't the right camera for the type of shooting which we did there. Some photographers get very fixated on cameras as techy toys and fetish objects, and derive ego satisfaction from brand loyalty and the reassurance of having made the right buying decision. Even the slightest disparaging remark against their favourite brand is taken as a personal insult.
Leica M8 with 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar @ 28mm. ISO 320
In truth though a camera is simply a tool for turning what appears in front of the lens and transforming it into an image that conveys what was in the photographer's mind and heart. Beyond that the camera system simply has to be the appropriate tool for the task.
As Nick rightly points out, Antarctica is a shooting environment that requires the use of autofocus, ground glass viewing, fast frame rates, stabilized lenses, and long focal lengths. A rangefinder is also not the ideal or even desirable means of viewing and focusing in that environment.
What a rangefinder camera does excel at is providing the photographer with a small and light weight tool which is highly appropriate for travel and discrete shooting. In the case of the Leica M8 image quality is also superb, and the lenses (those from Leica, Cosina Voigtlander, and now Carl Zeiss) are for the most part physically small and of extremely high quality.
I brought the M8 on my Antarctic trip this year, not to shoot wildlife and landscape but for what is does best, documentary style shooting, in Argentina before sailing, and also for recording images of shipboard life. This it excelled at.
Leica M8 with 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar @ 21mm. ISO 320
Cemetario de la Recoleta
On this page are four photographs taken at the Cementario de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires taken with the M8. Best known as the final resting place of Eva Peron, this mid-city cemetery has some of the largest, most ornate and varied above-ground mausoleums of any cemetery in the world. It covers a vast area, and has become a popular tourist attraction. On this, my second visit to Buenos Aires in as many years on my way to Antarctica, I specifically planned to return to Recoleta to do a half day's shooting.
It was a very rewarding visit, and the M8 helped make it so.
Leica M8 with 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar @ 28mm. ISO 320
This isn't to say that the Canon 1Ds MKII or even the Hasselblad H2 and P45 wouldn't have also done the job. But the weight and bulk of those systems, not to mentioned their "obviousness" while walking through some of the more unsavory parts of town on our way the Recoleta, would have made them simply the wrong tools for the job.
To the extent that there's a "lesson" to be learned from this (everything in life is a lesson, isn't it?) we need to understand that one size does not fit all. No one cameras can do everything most appropriately, or even well enough. For the amateur, or anyone on a budget, it may well be that one cameras with a lens or two is what's possible and available, in which case fine – that's what get's used. But for the working professional or someone with a passion for photography and the means to indulge their needs, buying a variety of tools is what it takes to achieve ones ends, or at least not having to blame the equipment when things don't work out.
Leica – Parting Thoughts
Recoleta Hand and Flowers. The Cementario de la Recoleta. Buenos Aires, Argentina. February, 2007
Leica M8 with 28-35-50mm Tri-Elmar @ 50mm. ISO 160
The Leica M8 is the culmination of some 75 years of development by the company that did more to "invent" 35mm photography than any other. It is the first digital incarnation of a lineage that has been the mainstay of documentary photographers around the world for more than half a century. It is also a flawed product, having been introduced (in my opinion) too quickly and with insufficient testing. For example, both Leica and its early customers were blindsided by the M8's IR sensitivity issues and the subsequent need for the use of IR cut filters in the front of lenses. There really is no excuse for this not having been known beforehand.
But, that's water under the bridge, as are most of the camera's other initial teaching pains. Bringing forth a digital M camera was a huge undertaking for such a small company, and under the circumstances they did pretty well. There are still some lingering issue to be resolved, and these likely will be attended with firmware updates in the weeks and months ahead. Such problems are not unknown with new product introductions, even those by much larger companies.
As for me, I still find the M8 a joy to use. Image quality is superb, usability is excellent, it has the M Leica gestalt, and Leica M lenses are small, light weight and among the best in the world optically. No, it's not the right tool for every job, but for what it does well, it does very well.
Horses for Courses – as the British say.