My Leica Story #1: The M8 (English version)

[Note] This is a long-overdue, paragraph-by-paragraph English translation of the Thai version that I posted on September 24th, 2013.


This series of articles is not “review” but rather the “story” of me with Leica, from M8 onward. Originally, it was intended to be 3-parts, M8, M9 and M240, then translate to English. However, since I became so busy with other things after that, the translation was put indefinitely on hold. Recently, since my acquisition of the M10, many readers asked me to write about it. So I thought it is a great time to get back to write about cameras and photography in general. I’d start with the long-overdue translation first. So, M10, you have to wait.

So, let’s begin with the camera that started it all: The M8


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My Leica M8 — taken from what used to be the best compact camera in the world

Again, this is not a review but rather the story. So if you expect professional review or technical test, you might be disappointed. You’d been warned ;-)


About photos: All photos in this article were shot as DNG RAW and were processed in Adobe Lightroom as I normally do in real life situations. None of them was straight out of camera, unless otherwise specified. All photos (and more from M8) were posted in my Flickr album [Compilation] Leica M8/M9 . EXIF (camera, lens, exposure, date) were programmatically added as watermark in the photo for your convenience.


Prelude


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My dog, named “iPhone”, when he was a puppy. Destroying my desk.

I was a person who only pointed his camera and shot photos. Things changed in 2008, when I started picking up real interests in improving my photography. I read things on the internet, bought magazines, changing gears. Cameras and lenses, one after another, went through my hands like flow of water. Why? I will talk about this later. One day, I posted a few street photos near Tha-Prachan, Bangkok, to my Multiply account (ah, good old days), and got a comment saying “Hey. If you like street, why don’t you try a Leica”.

Up to that point, I never interested in Leica. Maybe I never even care if I ever heard the name. I didn’t even know anything about rangefinder either. Curious, I did what I usually do: google things to read on the internet.


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Hot breakfast. Some says that the M8 photos are “film-like”.
Location: Pang-Ung. Thailand.

As a person, I have interests in things that are different. Not just look or feel different, but fundamentally different. As a programmer and a computer geek, I love trying out new operating systems and programming languages/paradigms, especially ones with different core philosophy, designs, architectures. Therefore, the “rangefinder” as a concept and mechanism naturally got me interested.

However, I felt the price was ways beyond my reach (actually, I did have the money, but I was too accustomed to different pricing league). So I just couldn’t pull the trigger. It didn’t stop me reading reviews, impressions, stories (just like this one you’re reading), and look at photos in Flickr and personal websites of photographers, though.


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Escalator. A moving floor that acts like a stair. You don’t move. The floor does.
You don’t actually move up. The floor move you up.

I did look into other options for playing with a rangefinder, and found that there was a camera called Epson R-D1, a collaboration between Epson and Cosina Voigtlander, that came out even before the M8 (so it was the first digital rangefinder) with a 6MP APS-C sensor of the Nikon D100’s sensor era. It was also a bit pricey, and wasn’t readily available in Thailand (was really hard to find one).

Another option was to shoot film, getting either the Voigtlander Bessa or the M6. However, as conveniences of digital photography spoiled me and I was too lazy to buy films and having them developed. Let alone the fact that I was a bad photographer at that time. So shooting with camera that I could not immediately see result would be a bad move for me (more on this later).


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Fallen Flower

I found myself kept reading more and more about the rangefinder cameras, as especially the Leica M8. I also read about its many many flaws, limitations, and inferiorities in technical aspects to cheaper cameras. Some articles even compared it with a Canon (forgot the model) in some real-world usages, where the M8 delivered inferior results, especially the poor White Balance. Yet, despite all those, Leica aficionados and enthusiasts loved it and never stop praising it. All the negativities I read certainly didn’t lower my interest in the M8. Maybe because I was more interested in the “story” of the actual users who used it everyday, than anything else.


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Enjoying Ice-Cream

Some may say that I was under the spell of the “red dot”. Maybe. But the thing was that I wanted to understand why. Why people love it so much despite all those negativities? Things that people said were “pros” where I read them as “cons”? Why? Those were things that I’d never understand, until I actually use one.

As a side story, I even bought the Panasonic LX3 just to cure my feeling of wanting a Leica. Well, at least it got a lens that says “Leica” on it. And I know that it’s more or less the same camera as Leica D-Lux 4 (a Leica-branded Panasonic camera). I even blogged about it here: “ในที่สุดก็มี Leica กับเค้า” (meaning “After all, I got a Leica”. Sorry, Thai language only).


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Simple Landscape
Location: Middle of Nowhere. Northern Thailand.

One day early in 2009, someone put his Leica M8 with a 35/2.5 Summarit lens for sale (and since the M8 has 1.33 crop factor, this becomes 46.5mm, almost 50mm). A Leica rarely appeared on that website at that time. So I decided to contact him to see it in person. After 10 minutes, my wallet lighten up quite a bit, and I got home with a camera that I didn’t know how to take good photos with.

And that was the beginning of me and the Leica M8, my most beloved camera of all time, a camera that was with me the longest up to that point (I sold it in 2014 due to financial reason. I needed cash badly at that time) and a camera that made me what I am today.


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Close-Range Sniper
Location: Mon Bridge, Sangkhlaburi, Kanchanaburi

Handling & Using the M8

My first feeling of holding the M8 was “heavy”. Ways heavier than I expected. I read a lot about it being light and small, so I thought “is this it?”. Maybe it was when comparing film rangefinder to film SLR. But in the age of mirrorless and compact where we started having a lot of smaller cameras (despite all of them at that time got smaller sensors), what used to be true may no longer be. I know it’s a bit of apple-orange comparison, but given the context and what I was familiar with, I was expecting it to be lighter. Small? No. Smaller than SLR? Definitely yes. Light? Even with the 35/2.5 Summarit, which was really a small lens, it wasn’t as light as I expected.

Then came the feeling of “built like a tank”. It was very very well-built and everything felt substantial. Ancient. Dead serious. Simplistic. Low-profile. The external controls were absurdly simple compared to the DSLRs. Buttons, and even the menu were kept at minimal. I couldn’t think of anything that I’d want to get rid off. Maybe the most luxurious of the feeling is to only have what necessary.


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Silhouette on the Mon Bridge. Location: Same as above photo.

It was the simplicity that one hardly find in modern cameras that hide everything in the menu of various depth, and/or complex controls of buttons and dials. Never before that I could easily control 2 shooting parameters, aperture and shutter speed, so visibly and so easily. And the M8 even has the aperture-priority mode (the shutter dial got the ‘A’ for ‘Auto’). No shutter-priority or programmed auto since there’s no way for a camera to control/set the aperture value for the lens. So, A-mode or M-mode only. That’s more than enough since I’d been an A-mode shooter most of the time.


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Karen lady weaving cloths.

How hard it is to expose correctly? Not so hard. There’s a small and simple exposure metering indicator in the viewfinder. Very simple with left and right triangle telling whether the camera thinks you’re underexposing or overexposing, and a small circle indicating ‘just right’. Nothing else. So, being a rather novice at manual exposure, what I did was to keep dialing the dials or the aperture ring until the small circle comes up. Why bother? Couldn’t we just take a photo, look at the back of the screen, then do the guesswork from there? Well, you could … but, … the M8’s LCD was very bad, and you cannot use it for anything other than checking composition. It was so bad that you could not even zoom in and check the focus.

The light metering was very primitive compared to all DSLRs at the time (I almost say ‘all cameras’). With only center-weight, implemented by direct measurement of light intensity on the metering screen on the shutter. That’s all, and that’s it.


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Empty classroom.

What about 1.33 crop factor? I can understand how frustrated existing Leica shooters who were already familiar with their favorite focal lengths and could already see what the lens see were. 35 became 46.5 and 50 became 66.5mm. So, it’s either they need to invest in a new set of lens or adapt to the new cropped focal length. Me? I was a Leica newbie at that time. I had no existing experiences. I had no favorite focal length. Things like these didn’t matter to me. I was too accustomed to the zoom. So, I had no problem. (2018 note: I would be now).

Last, but not least, is the shutter. I read from almost everywhere that Leica has a “very quite” shutter. I just have to disagree for the M8. Its metal-blade focal-plane shutter was ‘loud’. I dare say that it’s DSLR-loud, but sounds very different. The shutter sounds very ‘mechanical’ and ‘classic’. The sound clearly tells the story how the shutter works. Metal-blade shutting a short “CHAB”, followed by recocking a longggg “FRUUUUUUUUD”. (I know it’s silly trying to put it in words here, but couldn’t help).


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Karen kid

I heard people say “Leica is quite. People won’t hear you photographing”. I could hardly believe it to be true with the M8. In the loud place maybe, but not in general. Later, Leica did release a firmware update with a ‘Discreet Mode’ that allows you to separate the two parts by holding the shutter. So you can press the shutter for the “CHAB”, holding it, put it down, then release the shutter for the “FRUUUUUUUUD”. It made things a lot better and really more discreet.

If you want complete quiet, there were many mirrorless and compact cameras with electronic shutter.


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I didn’t photograph this lady. I photographed the mirror.

More Weak Technicals

Most, if not all, of the technical negativities I read about were, unfortunately, true. However, there’s one that stood out from the rest and I want to talk about it here: The IR filter (or lack thereof).

Unlike all other cameras that I’m aware of, the M8 sensor lacks this filter, allowing more IR ray to the sensor than it should. The result? Black cloth can be your new purple. Especially in places with a lot of IR ray (like daytime, outdoor).

This surely did affect color photos, like the next one. I was photographing at a funeral, everyone wore black & white, obviously. But the photo turned out to be a fashion show of multi-purple colors. The worst thing is, since this depends heavily on how each kind of fabric reflects the IR ray, we cannot be certain how it would turn out. Cloths that look the same shade of blackness to our eyes may turn out very different. Therefore this is very hard problem to fix in post processing.


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Black is the new Purple, for the M8

Leica did troubleshoot this by releasing IR-cut filters, and offered to M8 owners two of them for free (if you need more, you need to purchase them). The previous owner of my M8 already got the 2 filters. The 35 Summarit has one mounted on, another one was 46mm and I didn’t have the lens for that.

Some considered this as a blessing in disguise, however. As the M8 sees “black” clothing as “purple”, it can see details in black cloths better than anything else at that time. There would practically be no black clipping. In other words, there will be details in the area where many other cameras would have cut-to-black. As a result, many black & white photographers love this. And actually, this, in a sense, forced me to learned to shoot black & white.


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Previous photo. Simply desaturated.

We can see the tonality and details in the black cloths are very good, without doing anything apart from simply desaturate the photo all the way down. Therefore, many people opted to use M8 solely as black & white camera, the M Monochrom before the actual M Monochrom in other words. Otherwise, one may have fun learning to process photos with some strange tone curve that he would not be doing normally, like the following photo. I learned a lot of things processing the M8 photos.


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The Sole Eye-Contact

Being the CCD sensor of 2006, the ISO performance was in line with the others in the same era, with the range of 160-2500 in spec sheet. In practice, though, ISO 640 is already at the limit of what I call “usable”, and I normally used not more than 320. Maybe I was too accustomed to the ‘cleaner’ file of Nikon D300 camera.

ISO 1250 is strictly black & white or heavily desaturated photos (like the following one), because at that ISO the color information and contrast are pretty bad. Having a lens with maximum aperture of f/2.5, I really miss shooting at f/1.4 at times. The Leica f/1.4 Summilux lenses were hopelessly out of my budget then, though. Even if they didn’t, I just didn’t want to buy more lenses for the M8.


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Night Street Shopping

Last, and again but not least, is not really a technical problem but rather “when you have technical problems” (in other words, when your camera need a service). Servicing a Leica camera in Thailand at that time meant either knowing the technicians familiar with it and can troubleshoot the problems for you, or sending it to Singapore or Germany. Since M8 is digital, there will be many problems that local technicians couldn’t fix, and sending it abroad was the only choice.

I once had a problem with the rangefinder. The shop the previous owner bought the M8 from wouldn’t fix it and they didn’t give any advice on finding local technicians. They offered to send it to Germany to fix it. (I later learned one local place where they could fix similar problem).

It took 4 months before I got it back. So, with Leica, be patient you must.


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Glass house.

JPEG & RAW from the M8

One thing that the M8 did well, and still surprise me even today, is its RAW files. The RAW files from the M8 generally processed well, robust, and flexible enough for heavy processing. Even by today (2018)’s standard, despite being only 8-bit implementation (compared to today’s 12-bit or 14-bit RAWs). When properly exposed, you can pull up quite a bit of details from shadow areas, and even bits in highlight. The following photo was heavily underexposed and looked closer to silhouette than a normal scene. By pushing exposure and pulling shadow in Lightroom, and a few other sliders, I got a surprisingly good result of the scene I thought I missed through a severe exposure mistake.


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Phra-Phutthabat Temple, Phra-Phutthabat, Saraburi

The JPEG, on the very other hand, was the worst I’ve ever seen. Full of artifacts, jugged lines, bad compressions among other things. Coupling with sub-par White Balance performance and primitive metering, the M8 became my first “RAW-only” camera. Up to that point, I was primarily JPEG shooter. I shot almost everything in JPEG on my D70, 80, 300 and only shot RAW in some situations. With the M8, I just couldn’t do that. I also had to learn how to properly process the RAW files.

That’s all for the “review” and the “more technical” part of this article. Now, back to main story.

Photographing with the M8 … or “How The M8 Changed Me”

My photos from the early days of using the M8 were craps. Utterly craps. Absurdly craps. Stupidly craps. Is there any other word? Well put it here and follow by “craps”. They were so bad that for a while I believed every negative things I read about the M8. I just couldn’t make good photo with it, regardless of how I tried. Especially compared to when I shot with my Nikon, and especially especially when I switched to the D700. The D700 was the camera that I could constantly get good results without much effort. Just shoot, and it will comes out fine.

However, the more I used the M8, the more I realized one cold, hard truth. It wasn’t the gear. It was me who didn’t know how to photograph.


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Red Lantern

Even though I started taking photos since film era, I didn’t know anything and didn’t care about photography. All I had were compact point-and-shoot cameras that I didn’t need to know anything. Just point and shoot. Some times I got good photos by luck. But since films were expensive, both in price and penalty of bad exposure, at least I still put some thought into each shot before pointing and shooting.

With digital, my carelessness became worse. When I got the D70 from my friend, put it on P-auto (programmed auto) then just did the same thing, pointing and shooting. And since digital is ways cheaper, I became even more careless. The ratio between good shots and bad shoots, my own signal-to-noise, became worse. I also didn’t care about post processing at all. I thought that if a camera is good enough, it should give me great result right out of it.


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Grandma and Grandchildren at temple

One day, a colleague of mine (who loves photography) took beautiful photos right in front of my eyes with his compact camera. I was inspired. So I start reading and learning things about photographing, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Most magazine articles I read, however, focused on the technical aspects and gears. (There were some composition techniques, of course).

The turning point was when I upgraded from the D70 to D80 and instantly got ways better result, due to the technical superiority of the D80 to the D70, especially in the JPEG processing engine. Since I only shot JPEG back then, I was hooked. And that triggered my believe that ‘gears’ is the answer to my photography needs, and that started me down the road of G.A.S (Gear Acquisition Syndrome).


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Ancient Temple

To worsen the matter, one day I walked pass a camera shop, and saw a 50/1.8D lens on sale. Having read that a faster aperture would give thinner depth of field, so I wanted to try it. I photographed some people and I always wanted to throw away more background like what I saw other people did. It’s something I couldn’t do with the 18-70 kit lens. I started learning aperture-priority and played with “thin depth of field”. After that, down the bokeh rabbit hole I went. All I wanted was unrecognizably blurred background.

I got what I asked for. By simply buying new gears. A D80 and a 50/1.8D were only the gateway down the G.A.S road. I always wanted a newer, better lens, I always wanted a newer, better camera, I always wanted a better processing engine, I always wanted bigger sensor. I always wanted creamier bokeh. The list went on. In short term, getting new gears seemed to be the right answer.

The only thing I didn’t want, or didn’t even care to want, was “me, a better photographer”.


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Little monks

I was a “gear-user”, not a photographer. Anything that got good reviews, anything that someone raved about, I got to have my hands on it. I gradually got better result through gears, and I was satisfied. Then, I would read about a new gear, and then go on hunting for it. Then I would be satisfied with the new results I got for another while. I thought I was doing right, and I even rejected whoever said otherwise. A Dunning-Kruger effect at its best.

Lenses after lenses, and cameras after cameras, I got “technically better and better photos”. Better noise at higher ISOs, thinner depth of field (I know, I know, it’s not always a good thing. But, hey, it was me at that time who craved that, ok?), better JPEG colors, better contrasts, better edge-to-edge sharpness, and, yes, better and more-eyes-pleasing bokeh.

I thought I was improving. I was satisfied. (Well, to be fair to myself, I may have improved a little bit, but it was very little and insignificant bit).


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My little dog (“iPhone”), grown up, and me.

Now, I have an honest confession to make here. Why I was interested in the M8 so much? Partly because of the reasons I told you, that I want to understand things and I like things that are different. But a big part of it was because of what I wrote in previous paragraphs. I read people raved about the M8, I saw a lot of beautiful photos taken with it in various reviews and in Flickr. I believed the M8 will magically give me those results. Just like when I upgraded from D300 to D700 and 50/1.8D to 85/1.4D.

In a sense, I got what I wished for, just not the way I thought.

Slowing Down. Back to Basic. Let It Go.

As I said, my early photos from M8 were any-and-all-the-craps. Poor framing, bad compositions, poor depth of field (partly due to the 35/2.5 that doesn’t let me throw away the background at will). Being the rangefinder made it worst for me. All my photos were boringly center-focused and center-composed. Subject always in the center. Metering was poor.

Compared to the D300/700. All I had to do with that camera was choosing aperture value (and I always dial all the way to widest open), zooming to the subject I wanted, frame it, then tell the camera to do the rest by half-pressing the shutter. Done. Check the result. Go on and hunt for another shot.


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Lotuses on altar

I was a person who “rushed to the result” in photography, via the mean of “tools” rather than practices, principles, and disciplines. I wanted better result faster and faster, and when it didn’t come fast enough, I upgraded my gears. I skipped so much basics along the way. I didn’t care about the details. And, man, gods and devils are both in details. I didn’t care about everything else as well. The composition, the moment, the story, the contrasts, the colors, the patterns, everything. I also didn’t care what I could control and what I couldn’t. What I could hold on and what I have to let go. I didn’t know my place when I was taking the shot. (Not a ‘place’ in sense of where to stand, but rather what ‘role’ should I play in the moment of the shot).

Those days, I mistook “getting photos” for “photographing”. I thought getting photos means photography. I mistook the result for the process. I mistook destination for the journey.

I got better results because gears got better. Gears got me to higher place. Like the photo at the beginning of the article. Gears were my escalator, taking me to another floor without me moving any leg. I didn’t move. The floor did.


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Siam Discovery ground area. From the 3rd (or 2nd, I forgot) floor corridor.

M8 made me see things differently. Instead of seeing the same world with the lens, or rather adjusting the lens and the frame to see exactly what I wanted to see, I’d have to learn to imagine it their ways. Since M’s viewfinders are separated from the lens, they naturally don’t see the same thing, and the frame line is approximated at best, and, due to parallax effect, the closer it is to the subject/scene/focus, the less precise it becomes. So, I had to imagine how they would see it. Thinking less about myself, how I see it and how I wanted it, and started seeing things from someone else (in this case: the lens)’s perspective.

After imagining what the lens sees in my mind, we would focus on the same thing. It’s ok if we see things differently. You see it from your perspective, I see it from mine. But to work together, we’d have to focus on the same thing first. Then compose, put what we focused into bigger picture.

I stopped hunting for shots, stopped following the actions. Instead, I was just there, being in the world and let things happen. Let the world move. Actions happen, moment came, things happened where we anticipated. Shot taken.


Happy kid

Happy Kid

In other words, the M8 took me back to the root, the core, of photography. Not only the technical workflow of frame-focus-compose-expose, but also the philosophical side of it. I became a better photographer, and I became a better man.

We are parts of the ever changing world. Everything around us changes. It is too big for any of us to see them all. We can only see it from our narrower perspectives, and yours will be different from mine. It’s ok if we see things differently, and I’m willing to learn to see it from your perspective. We focus on the same thing, then we position it in bigger perspective. Don’t attach ourselves to things we sew, to things that already happened. Don’t dwell in the past. We let the world change, let it move, let it go. Live in present. Anticipate future. When future becomes present, and we’re there as a part of it. We can only immortalize the moment in a photograph. It’s not from what I want the world to be, it’s immortalizing the beauty of the already beautiful world.


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Smile

After letting it go, less attachment, trying to control less, hunt less, wanting less, I got more. More good photos, and doing more photography.

This is what I learned from shooting with the M8 for years. It changed how I photograph, how I work, how I talk to people. It changed me not only as a photographer, but as a citizen of the world. To realize that I’m a part of it. After that, regardless of what camera I use, be it D3s, D800, X-Pro1, or whatever I have, that’s how I work, that’s how I see things, that’s how I getting a photo.


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Away
Location: Pang-Ung, Northern Thailand.

I slowed down. I stopped hunting through the camera. I photographed first in my mind before asking the camera to do. I stopped looking for things and shots that the lens won’t see. Instead, I ask the question “how would my lens see this?”. And when the “wow, what you see is beautiful” comes, I raise the camera, shot. I became less forceful for others to see things my way and get things I want. In a sense, it’s like really shooting film.

I let myself go.

I started photographed more and faster. But that’s not because I wanted photos nor I rushed myself. It’s just that I started seeing more beauty in things around me, the way me and my camera mutually and naturally see them. It’s like having a life partner, a marriage.

This doesn’t mean I can only be with the world passively. I can be active, I can interact, but as a citizen of the world not as a photographer. If my actions and interactions result in beautiful moments, I immortalize them.

In a sense, it’s like moving up the stair myself with my own legs. As oppose to escalator, going up the stair requires me to, literally, move up. It’s the journey going to another floor, not the result of being on another floor.


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Stairs. You don’t move up unless you move up, with your own legs.

This is why I love the M8 the most. Even today, at the time of writing (2018), when I don’t have it with me anymore, I love it still. Regardless of how many cameras come and gone through my hands. The M8 was more than a camera to me. It was a partner, a companion that changed me. I brought me to the world of photography, not only a camera user. One day I may even buy it again.

The M8 simplified things, simplified my life, simplified the way I photographed and use cameras. I started appreciating simplicity around me. I often compare photographing with a Leica rangefinder with mediation. We meditate to letting go of attachments, letting go of ourselves.

Letting it go. That’s everything.

I don’t want beautiful photos. I don’t even want a more beautiful world. I want to see the beauty of the world around me, and I was just lucky enough to be there, for me to immortalize it in my photographs.


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Pathway to Enlightenment

I don’t have any other feeling than being thankful, and no other words than “thank you”.

Thank you, the M8, for taught me all these. Without you, what would I be today? Would I find happiness in photography? Would I have an oasis of life in photography? Would I find a solitude in busy world, observing it, love it, immortalize it? Maybe I’d still hunting for a shot. (2018 note: A little side story here. Since I was shooting with the 35mm Summarit on the M8 so much, the 50mm became my favorite focal length, and I have the M8 to thank to).

And thank you, the readers, to bare with me until this very word and very line. Some of you may want to continue reading about my other Leica stories. But it will take another while for me to translate the M9, M240, and write about the M10. I would do this as time allows me to. I will surely post a link here when they’re done.

Now, life goes on.

Update: the next chapter: My Leica Story #2: The M9 (English version) is up.

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