Meet the Leica R8. A blast from the past, the 90s to be specific, a rather over looked and over priced bit of kit that Leica brought out at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. So, now that we got the bad bits out of the way, let’s see what it is!
I came upon the R8 in 2014 in a round about way. I actually started with the lens, a 50mm Summicron-R (which in Leica-speak is an f/2 lens and I’ll abbreviate to 50R from now on). At the time I had a Canon EOS 3 and was looking for a slightly more interesting 50 than the usual Canon options. Someone suggested a 50R. One was found, a Leitax adapter bought and off we went.
I spent a few months using the 50R and I have to say I grew really fond of the look and rendering of the lens — sharp but gentle, very nice contrast and a a bit of an old school look, if that makes sense.
Eventually though, I got tired of having to use the lens in stop down mode (with the adapter you have to open the aperture, focus, then close the aperture to whatever setting you want prior to shooting). It effectively made me shoot everything at f/2 or f/2.8 as I just could not be bothered. So I started thinking if I should just get the right camera for the lens.
Most people know Leica because of their rangefinders (the M models). Sometime in the past they used to do SLRs too and after a few iterations the R8 arrived in the mid 90s. It does 1/8000! It has a brilliant viewfinder, one of the brightest I have ever seen. It has a fantastic meter and autoexposure. It feels amazingly solid and well crafted. And it has no autofocus or motor drive, which meant it was about 10 years behind everyone else.
Still, the shutter is one of the smoothest ever, just like the the film advance. The sound it makes is superb. The camera, though big, fit the hand like a glove, extremely comfortable to hold, impressively solid. More importantly, using it was a joy (well, mostly, see further down for some niggles).
Manual focus did make sense too. Leica would never be able to make autofocus lenses that can compete with the likes of Canon and Nikon. Their strength was high quality lenses that are small and light, which is what they they did with the R too.
Now, I know people knock the way it looks, it is a bit take it or leave it. However, in person it is so much nicer than in photos. I suppose that is a function of the finish of the camera and how it fits in the hand. I liked it so much that after a while I bought a chrome one to go with the black one just in time for our trip to New York, New York!
My kit grew from a black R8 and a 50/2 to include the chrome R8, a 35/2 and a 90/2 as well. These were all excellent lenses. Small, fast to use and excellent from wide open, which compared to other lenses is quite liberating; you just use it, not thinking whether you should have stopped down a bit “just in case”.
I got rid of the 90/2 shortly after getting it though, not so much because it was a bad lens but because two bodies-two lenses was just a joy to have and not have to think about anything else. But…there is always a but.
The not so good bits
As much as I enjoyed using the cameras there are a couple of things that were always annoying. First of all, if you get an R8, you only get exposure lock in spot metering. Every other autoexposure camera on the planet will lock exposure with a half press of the shutter button, or have a dedicated button. Not the R8! If you want to meter and recompose you either have to use spot metering (which I don’t want to) or you just manually set the shutter speed. Who at Leica thought this was good? Why? Thankfully they fixed this with the R9 (which is about the only notable change) but that will cost you another £200–400 for the R9 (the R8 is already a good £300–400). No thanks.
Additionally, if you need to change the ISO (when shooting colour film I like setting the ISO a stop lower) there is some fiddling with a little flap on the back of the camera to do it. No biggie you say but my plastic fantastic Canon EOS 300 can do that with the twist of a dial. Anyway, moving on.
The advance crank is very smooth. But not ratcheted. Fine you say, many aren’t. However, the travel on the R8 combined with the shape of the back is such that I regularly found myself winding just a tiny bit less than needed. Maybe my hands are the wrong size, maybe something else, however I found myself frequently re-winding that lst bit to be able to shoot.
And finally, while I don’t have a problem with electronic cameras, there is always that niggle that you are holding a £300–800 camera (seems to be the price range for the R8 and R9) that nobody will fix.
Then, like all Leicas and Hasselblads, there is the price of extras. Anything and everything you want to buy costs a lot of money. The latest version of the lenses are ridiculously overpriced. I currently own a Nikon FM2n, 50/1.2 and 85/1.4D. If we compare them price wise here is what you get:
- FM2n vs R8 £250 vs £350
- 50/1.2 vs 50/1.4 £350 vs anything from £500 to £2000 for the latest version, plus there is no f/1.2 option in R lenses
- 85/1.4D vs 80/1.4 £450 vs £1500 (if you can find one)
The only reasonably priced accessory is the winder. The winder is an interesting thing, it is tiny compared to, say, the MD12 for the FM2n. It integrates very nice with the body. Makes you wonder why it wasn’t part of it to begin with. The only catch is not having one of those early bodies that does not work with it.
I suppose every system has its issues. Some are more expensive, some are more ergonomic or have better lens options. For me, the advantage of the R system was how the R8 felt in the hand and that little glimpse of what Leica lenses are about, without spending even more money for the M system.
Time to say goodbye
Eventually, after a couple of years I decided to move on and sold all the bits in 2016. The reason was to go back to autofocus, get a Canon 1N and a 50/1.2. Which was a short lived experiment in the end.
Overall, I really enjoyed the R8, little niggles aside. I have contemplated getting one again, it would be nice to have the R9 next to my M4, side by side. However, as discussed earlier, the price is a bit much and I really cannot fault my Nikkor 50/1.2. So life goes on and the R9 remains somewhere further down that never ending wish list…
I hope you enjoyed this little story but before you go just a final point: I would strongly encourage anyone to try a R8/R9 body for a while if you can, they make shooting a truly pleasurable experience! Maybe you’ll like them enough to keep them. :-)