Wednesday 21 November 2012

Leica R8

Sloane Square
Leica R8 / 50mm f/1.4 Summilux / Kodak TMAX 400

Fate has decided that I should own a Leica R8. And so I must please her in return, by writing about the things she brings.

Leica is most often associated with its famous, long-running line of rangefinder cameras, which are popular with fat rich Swiss people, rich Chinese people, rich Russians. In the grim future of Frank Herbert's Dune, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen will own a Leica. With his fat fingers sliding over the controls he will use it to photograph the bodies of all the boys he strangled, so that he can look at the pictures and imagine what it must be like to be dead.

But Leica also made a range of 35mm SLR cameras, from the Leicaflex of 1964 right up until the Leica R9, which was discontinued in 2009. The R8 was the second-to-last in the line. It was launched in 1996, which is awkward from a research point of view - the internet as we know it today existed, but whatever coverage it had of the R8 is long gone. 1996 was a time when people generally learned about cameras from magazines - which were physical publications printed on paper and sold in shops... which were buildings where people went to buy things, because mail-order was awkward... the mail was how people had things delivered to their houses in 1996.

Which is where we lived, when we had bodies.

"She gave me water"

Leica's very first SLR actually predated the Leicaflex. It was the Visoflex, an adapter with a built-in prism and mirror that allowed through-the-lens focus with Leica rangefinder bodies. The original Visoflex was launched in the late 1930s. Leica released three more versions, which petered out in the 1980s. They turned the cute little Leica into a behemoth.

Leica's subsequent adventure in the SLR world mirrors that of Carl Zeiss and its Contax brand. The two companies started off selling their own designs; Zeiss had the Contax S and the Contaflex, which were launched in 1949 and 1953 respectively. The Contax S was the first modern 35mm SLR - not the very first SLR, but the first with an eye-level pentaprism rather than a waist-level ground glass focus screen.

In contrast the 1964 Leicaflex was one of the last SLR systems from a major camera manufacturer, post-dating the Nikon F and Canon Canonflex by five years. Although the Leicaflex was a sturdy camera it was less advanced than the competition. By 1964 the modular Nikon F had cornered the professional 35mm SLR market, and the locus of initiative had shifted from Germany to Japan.

Kodak Tri-X

Leica and Zeiss refined their designs over the years, but the cameras attracted few takers and in general they couldn't compete with the Japanese. Rather than throw in the towel, the two companies basically outsourced their camera hardware to Japanese manufacturers, keeping a watchful eye on quality control. Leica teamed up with Minolta, Zeiss with Yashica, and their subsequent designs combined German-designed, often German-made lenses with modern Japanese-built bodies.

The Contax RTS and Leica R3 were launched within a year of each other, 1975 and 1976 respectively. The two ranges managed to forge a third way throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. They were essentially high-end manual focus SLRs for people who wanted something more expensive than a Pentax or Olympus, but less hardcore photo-nerdy than a Nikon F3. And yet there was a sense that the new Leicas were just rebadged Minoltas, and the R system never had the same glamour as the rangefinders. As Petteri Sulonen points out, Leica's path during the 1970s was a rocky one, and the company eventually came through by appealing more and more to the collector's market. But the company came through, while the rest of the German camera industry collapsed.

The R and RTS were aimed at different ends of the same market. In 1985 a Contax RTS II with a Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 Planar - by all accounts a superb lens - would have set you back $485; in contrast an equivalent Leica R4 with a 50mm f/1.4 Summilux sold for $1,417. I'm sceptical that the R4 was three times better than the RTS II, or indeed any times better. The Zeiss Contax lenses were none too shabby.

By the late 1990s the two companies were selling high-end manual focus SLRs in an autofocus age, and they both felt it was time for a change. The Contax name was by now wholly owned by Yashica, with Zeiss only supplying the lenses. Leica and Yashica came up with different solutions that involved making a fresh start with new camera bodies.

The Zeiss-Contax-Yashica combine came up with the Contax N system, which was launched in 2000. There were three bodies - two film, one digital - plus a small range of autofocus Zeiss lenses. The system used a new lens mount that was incompatible with the earlier Contax system. One of the bodies was the N Digital, which the first full-frame digital SLR. Unfortunately the Contax N system appears to have been a massive flop. It was discontinued without ceremony a couple of years later, when Yashica's parent company Kyocera pulled the plug on its photo division. This spelled doom for the Contax name, but no doubt it will be revived at some point.

Leica's fresh start was the R8, which brings us to the subject of this post. It was launched in 1996, the twilight of the film era, although it was not apparent at the time how quickly night would fall. Kodak and Canon and others were just launching a new film format, APS, and the few digital cameras on the market were either sub-VGA consumer models or staggeringly expensive pro SLRs. The R8's generation of film SLRs is profiled neatly by Popular Photography in December 1999. By and large, the 35mm SLR cameras of 1999 were the final evolution of the breed; they remained on sale for a few years and were then displaced by digital SLRs.

In 2002 Leica replaced the R8 with the R9, which was essentially the same camera but with a small top-plate LCD, a backlit display, and some tweaks to the metering. It was one of the last professional-level 35mm SLRs, followed only by the Nikon F6 in 2004. Leica spent a lot of money developing the R8, but sales were disappointing, and so the company decided to concentrate on the solidly profitable rangefinders instead. There were rumours of a full-frame digital R10, but it never came to be. Leica developed the medium format digital S-system instead


Let's talk about the R8. It's a manual focus 35mm SLR with styling that owes nothing to previous Leicas, although it retains compatibility with earlier R lenses. 1996 was late in the day for a manual focus SLR, but the R8 was not alone; apart from the Contax RTS, Nikon still sold the FM2, Olympus had the OM4, and you could even pick up a Minolta X-700 or a Pentax K1000, which were nearing the end of production. Of that lot only the R8 and RTS were aimed at the professional market, which had embraced autofocus a few years earlier.

The R8's bold, hulking looks divided opinion at the time. The earlier R SLRs were tidy but anonymous; the R8 is very distinctive. Leica's adverts emphasised its "unique, elegant shape", which to my eyes looks like a cross between the old Exakta SLR and an inflated mutant Leica rangefinder. It has the body shape of the former and an approximation of the flat top plate of the latter, which disguises the pentaprism hump. The first time I saw the R8 I assumed that the viewfinder used mirrors or some kind of optical tunnel rather than a pentaprism but no, it's really a conventional SLR wearing a disguise. I assume the flat top houses the electronics, in which case they must have lots of space. With the R8 Leica set out to revolutionise the manual focus SLR; my impression is that they generally got it right, but they concentrated on the wrong things.

The R8 is actually smaller and cuter in real life than it appears in product photographs, although the full-height design of the handgrip still suits large, manly hands such as my own. It feels like a nicely-shaped stone, cold, easy to carry around. In retrospect the design comes across as a boldly postmodernist statement, a very 1990s thing that hasn't dated well. The Leica S2 is conceptually similar - it has the same tent-like spread, like a big billowing cloack - but in my opinion the design looks much natural.

On a technical level the R8 was very advanced for a Leica, which is to say that it was a few years behind everyone else. There's nothing wrong with conservatism if it has a purpose, and at least on a mechanical level the R8 is apparently very well made. But the electronics will always be suspect, and if one little capacitor goes PAF! the camera is dead. It doesn't work at all without batteries and by now it's an uneconomic repair. On the positive side the metering system can measure studio strobes, and the shutter is still state-of-the-art today, with a top speed of 1/8000 and flash sync at 1/250. This puts it on a par with the 1988 Nikon F4 - but the F4 also had autofocus and automatic film transport. At least the R8's winder is slick. In my experience the frame spacing is tight and accurate, and I consistently get 37 shots out of a 36-shot roll.

The viewfinder's electronic display has a clearly-visible three-stop digital match-needle bar, which makes metered manual exposure a doddle. The lens mount has a system of electrical contacts that can tailor exposure settings for individual lenses, and the camera can even be converted into a digital SLR, with the expensive Digital Modul R, which has a ten-megapixel, Kodak-designed sensor with a 1.37x crop factor.

Leica sold two motor winders for the R8. One of them allowed for shooting at 4.5fps but required an expensive, proprietary rechargeable battery that is no longer available, the other simply advanced the film, but used relatively common CR123As. The winders made the camera even bulkier and added to the cost, which was already substantial. In August 1999 listed the stock R8 body at $2,395, versus $1,399 for a Canon EOS-1N or $1,299 for the new Nikon F-100 - and $2,295 for a Leica M6 TTL, which would have been a better investment, judging by completed eBay listings.

On a personal level I'm ambivalent about the R8. It feels fantastic in the hand. The viewfinder is bright and clear, and despite the weight I could hold it all day. At $2,395 it was absurd, but used prices have gone right down, and it actually makes a lot more sense now that it's no longer stratospherically overpriced. A used R8 with a 50mm f/2.0 Summicron is a cheap way of dreaming the Leica dream, plus you get a very good camera and a superb lens. It's an orphaned system, though, and if the body breaks you're looking at a very expensive doorstop.

The R8 doesn't offer much more as a photographic tool than a used Nikon F-801 (for example), and the body is a lot larger and heavier and more conspicuous than an OM. It feels like a single block of metal, but that's meaningless if the electronics break, which is the thing that worries me. Leica is famous for its mechanical ingenuity, not its electronic expertise.

And there are annoyances. The exposure compensation control is needlessly complicated and impossible to operate with your right hand. The frame counter only displays when you tap down the shutter button, and there's no top-plate LCD, although to be fair Leica recognised these two problems and had a go at fixing them with the R9. The combined off/FTPAM dial is awkward and feels surprisingly loose; I want to turn the camera on by going click, not by going cli-iii-ick, (peer) click-click-click. I prefer to have the on-off switch as a separate control.

Bear in mind that Leica set out to make an up-to-date 35mm SLR, not a retro homage. There's nothing emotionally inspiring about rewinding film manually. When I pop out the rewind crank and go whirr-whirr-whirr I don't feel a spiritual connection with Henri Cartier-Bresson, I feel irritated - and I worry that I'll wind the film back into the cartridge, and then have to hook it out later when I come to develop it.

Come, fly the teeth of the wind; share my wings

Ultimately the R8 suffers from the same problem as the original Leicaflex; what it does, it does well, but its specification lags behind Nikon's previous-generation professional SLR, which was cheaper at the time and remains cheaper on the used market. On a rational level, a well-kept used Nikon F4 is the superior camera.

Of course, Leicas exist on an emotional level too, not just a rational level. But the R8 isn't a romantic camera. Leica's SLR range never had much in the way of romantic appeal. If the R8 was a car, it would be an Aston Martin Virage. The 1988 model. Remember the Virage? It came; it went, and really quickly; but the waters closed over it and there was nothing.

And there's The Emma Watson Test. When I judge a camera, I wonder how Imgur favourite Emma Watson would react to it. Would she smile? If I had a Leica rangefinder, she might. Not so the R8, though, she'd ignore it.

What about the lens? I only have one. A 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, a late-80s model with a built-in hood. In Leicaspeak it's called an E55, because it has a 55mm filter thread. Word on the street has it that the lens is soft wide open, and it is. Dramatically steps up at f/2.8. Leica launched the R8 alongside the E55's replacement, the apparently superb E60. You've seen how the E55 performs on film throughout this post. Lovely smooth bokeh, characteristic moon-shaped bokeh circles, slightly swirly as per the first photograph but not nauseatingly so. The f/2.0 Summicron is apparently just as good if not better at the equivalent apertures, but of course you don't get f/1.4. Surprisingly there doesn't appear to have been a 50mm f/1.2 for the R system. I will write more extensively about the Summilux one and a half years from now, after having it serviced, which improved the image quality at f/1.4 a great deal.

"I think we dream so we don't have to be apart so long"

The R lens range went from 15mm to 800mm, with a 16mm fisheye, a 500mm mirror lens, two shift lenses; there were some zooms as well. The 50mm and 80mm f/1.4 were the fastest, the 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and 35-70mm f/3.5 zooms seem to be the cheapest (they were built by Sigma and Minolta respectively, and the 35-70mm was also sold as a Minolta). I believe Vivitar and Angenieux sold some third-party R lenses, but no-one else.

Nowadays they can be mounted on Canon bodies with an adapter, and Leitax sells a kit that will convert them for Pentax and Nikon. You have to unscrew the original Leica mount and replace it with Leitax's custom adapter, which looks simple enough although hairy.

And that's the Leica R8.