Coming back to the subject of equipment selection discussed a few days ago, here are some further thoughts on why I elected the Leica M8 and 35mm Lux Asph for this round the world trip.This writing can eventually also serve as a little M8 vs M9 comparison for those facing similar decisions, be it as a buyer or getting ready for a long trip. For those not too interested in equipment talks, I would recommend reading the introduction section and scan through the pictures illustrating the article. (A walk on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, click on pictures for high res)
Before actually selecting gear for a trip, one should ask himself what is the goal of the trip, be it in general terms or specifically regarding photography. What will you try to capture and bring back from this adventure? It could take the form of a comprehensive travel diary, a series of pictures covering a few themes, or a simple collection of moment in times as you experienced them. To be consistent with my writing on the five U’s of street photography (Unplanned, Unstaged, Urban, Unknown, Unseen), my objective is to collect candid shots as they appear to me. I want to follow my instincts and record instantaneously the scenes of life that can pop up at any street corners. To allow for that, I believe that the equipment should not get in the way, but simply be the tool that will record my vision. Therefore speed, simplicity and full control are essential to me. I need it fast so I don’t miss the moment (pre-focus). I need it simple because while on is fiddling with buttons and options, he will lose concentration on what is happening around him. And finally, I want full control because whatever the sophistication of the camera, it will never be able to know what is in my brain.
On the topic of the vision, it is generally agreed that our eyes cover a field of view corresponding to a 40-50mm focal when looking straight ahead. Though a bit reductive, one could say that pictures taken with that focal range are the most natural one. The use of any wider focal means that our eye will scan around to compose shots. The picture is therefore no longer a vision but also a construction, and with it goes part of the instantaneity. It therefore made sense to take only one lens along for this trip, a 46mm full format equivalent, that is a 35mm Lux Asph mounted on a Leica M8.
To conclude on this introduction, I’d also like to mention that the way to approach people in future destinations also took a part in that choice. I have a “never ask permission” policy which is usually fine in Western cities as you always can discuss and explain your goals afterwards. It might not be the same in other parts of the world due to different cultures and the language barrier. The 46mm focal length will enable me to get one or two extra steps of distance, while still allowing me to get closer when needed.
The following sections are more specific to why I chose the M8 over the M9 for this trip.
II) Image quality
The M9 is the superior camera and so it should be since it uses more recent technology. Yet how much superior is it for street photography ? Any resolution advantage (and I tend to think the M8 produces sharper files) will be offset by motion blur or slow speeds. Better color rendition will not matter to the many B&W shooter (that might actually prefer the M8’s strong IR sensitivity) and to a majority of color shooters. Indeed, it is not about the tones of a flower or a landscape, it is about action and grabbing a moment in time. As for high ISO, I personally don’t shoot much low light or go over ISO640. In this regard, the M8 is inferior in performance to the M9 though it still produces great files at ISO640. I’d add that Lightroom 3 brought in a significant improvement in noise reduction and now allows acceptable files at ISO1250. In terms of dynamic range, both cameras would benefit from a couple more stops in my opinion. I can nevertheless recover burnt highlights in most of my shots, even if the M9 files are a bit more flexible.
Advantage (relating to my specific trip): Leica M9
When you are sedentary, storage is not much of an issue. You head back home, download your files to your computer with an eventual online back-up or on an external drive. Yet when you travel the world with lousy internet connections, any gain in file size is welcome. I shoot raw and back-up my files on Flickr in JPG with no compression. The M8 files (10 mpx sensor) result about half the size of the M9’s (18 mpx), and it does make a whole lot of difference. Obviously, the 10 mpx count will reduce the ability to crop (but it should be prohibited anyways) and access to very large prints . Even though, one could argue about the number of us that will actually travel pictures larger than A3. Probably not many, and if you do really need to print large, I have read of photographers getting great 40 x 60 results with M8 files.
Advantage : M8
Leica M8 with 35mm Lux Asph at F1.4, 1/1500, ISO160
IV) The focal / lens
As I wrote a few days a go, 35mm on a M8 (1.3 crop factor) equals to 46mm on the M9. I spent hours looking at my archives and came to the conclusion that my 35mm shots were usually framed a bit wider than they should have been, while my 60mm shots were a bit too tight. In other words, it seemed taht a focal in between them would probably improve on my shots taken by these lenses. It was validated further when I looked at some of my 2009 series taken with the M8 + 35mm Lux Asph, I thought they were superior to others taken with a mix of 35mm and 60mm. Note that I could have gone the M9 + 50mm way, yet the issue of the framelines prevented it (see section below), and these extra 4mm can make a difference to avoid the typical cut feet or arms when using the 50mm focal.
As for the lens, the 35mm Lux Asph is “the lens”. No way I would go on such a trip without it. The M8 only uses its central part due to the crop factor. On the positive side, you won’t get as much of the aberrations and vignetting that can be seen in the corners when this lens is mounted on the M9. On the negative side, these “technical defects” give a special look to your pictures. This is my main regret of not taking along the M9 and 60mm Hex, that is for their special look. Still, the 35mm Lux on the M8 shines as it sharp, renders the perfect amount of contrast and produces a wonderful creamy bokeh. Some might be bothered by the extra distortion generated by the 35mm lens, yet it is as much a result of the lens focal as the way you position it when you click. Bend you knees a bit more to level it if distortion matters a lot to you.
Finally, let’s mention that be it with the M8 or M9, the 35mm Lux Asph matches perfectly to the body, providing an excellent balance of weight, stability and capability.
Advantage : M8
V) Operating the camera
The M9 is quieter but I don’t plan to shoot concerts, nor in in environments where noise will be a problem. And sincerely, if my camera’s shutter gets me spotted, the shot is most probably already taken anyways. Another point on the shutter is the soft mode that was added to the M9. I find it great, allowing a quicker response when you hit the trigger. I will definitely miss it, just like I did miss the 1/8000th speed that can be found on the M8. Leica apparently removed it when they introduced the M8.2 to allow for a more silent shutter. This basically means that wide open shooters will need to mount ND filters on the Leica M9 if shooting at F1.4 (ISO80 is not usable in my opinion). No need for a ND filter on the M8 as 1/8000th will most of the bright light situations.
On to the framelines system, which is so typical of rangefinders such as the Leica M’s. In fact, due to the magnification factor of the M9, I find the 50mm framelines to be too small and leave too much space around them. The 35mm framelines on the M8 (again which translates to 46mm on the M8) are bigger and provide the right balance between the shots’s area and the space around it. The 24mm framelines that come around are a bit bothering but at the same time, they are useful to level your shots when you are unsure about horizon or vertical lines.
As you might have read in this article on chimping, my LCD screen is basically turned off. I use my camera in all manual (ISO, speed and aperture) and make no use of the menu settings. The M9 menu system has been refined, it is easier to change ISO’s. This being said, I can be a whole day at ISO160 so the extra step to perform an ISO change on the M8 won’t be much of a problem. The M8 also holds an advantage by having a tiny LCD on the top cover that displays the shots left and battery level, which is very handy. This spec actually disappeared on the M9 and the information can be viewed only on the LCD screen.
Let’s end this section by mentioning battery autonomy, which is in my experience longer on the M8, and the color of the camera’s body. My M8 is black while the M9 is steel grey. I’d say the M9 is easier to spot than my all black camera (I have put tape of both the red dot and M8 graving) but I have no evidence of it. This is one of these things that seem to make sense, yet at the same time, I doubt it has much impact on a given picture.
Advantage : tie
VI) Cost / Security
I was concerned about traveling with the M9 and two expensive lenses. Walking in the streets of Mexico City, Quito or Manila with 15’000 dollars worth of equipment did not make sense to me. By taking along the Leica M8 with 35mm Lux, I will be much less concerned about theft or destruction. Indeed, who would leave his camera bag on the beach to go for a swim with that much money in it ? This trip is about discovering and experimenting the world, not about 101 ways to make your camera safe while your travel.
Advantage : M8
VII) Bottom line
The M8 made more sense as a travel camera. I’ll miss the M9 which is without doubt the best camera overall. Yet, the gap between them being so small, I went for simplicity and convenience, letting my eyes look at new horizons and not my camera bag.