Home Features Leica M8 in Japan: A very different culture, a groundbreaking digital camera

Leica M8 in Japan: A very different culture, a groundbreaking digital camera

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Meiji Jingu shrine, Votive Cards, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9

Following a a couple of business trips to Japan, I just knew I had to take my family there so they could experience a truly different culture. We have all heard how difficult it is to break into Japan as a business person and I had much the same experience myself. But as a tourist, the situation is very different. I will expand on that later. First, though, I should talk about the camera used on the trip.

The M8 Decision

In 2008 I became frustrated with the Canon 30d I had been using for a number of years. While it never failed me, it was cumbersome. This was especially so with the two zoom and two prime lenses in the bag. And I wasn’t satisfied with the image quality. I knew we would be doing a lot of walking in Japan, so I had to find a more compact, if not lighter alternative. I didn’t want to carry loads of film around though, so it had to be a digital camera.

By this time the Leica M8 had been available for a year and used versions had dropped significantly in price, probably due to the poor reception it had received following the “infra-red problem” Problem which meant that you had to use IR filters on all your lenses.

The difference between the Canon 8MP and the Leica’s 10.5MP should not have made much difference, but the M8 was head and shoulders above the Canon in its ability to capture detail. I suspect this was mostly down to the very thin filter stack in front of the sensor.

I had been using Leica M cameras for over 30 years and so the M8 just felt right. Surprisingly, the sensitivity of the M8 was not much worse than that of the Canon, despite the 30d having a CMOS sensor.

A couple of IR filters thrown in for free and I was sold. I bought the camera second hand about five months ahead of the trip so I had time to get used to it, but I needn’t have worried. In less than a day, I was happily taking pictures.

Over the past ten years I have fallen victim to the desire for ever higher sensitivity levels in cameras. I am still amazed at the ability of the X-Pro2 to be able to take hand-held shots at night on a dark street, but in 2009 I had been using digital cameras for around three years and was still used to film speeds. The M8 ISO range was not a limitation for me. Being able to take pictures at ISO 400 in colour, without horrendous grain, seemed like a huge step forward at the time.

Regarding Leica the company, or at least the Leica of 2009: Shortly after arriving in Tokyo I noticed that the M8 rangefinder had gone out of alignment. I took the camera to the Leica shop in Ginza to see if there was anything they could do and was asked to leave the camera for an hour.

I came back in an hour and the rangefinder was perfectly adjusted. Leica had a staff technician on hand in the store and he had fixed the camera. The rangefinder never went out of alignment again, so whatever he did was a very permanent fix. Better still, even though the camera was purchased secondhand, not from any store in Japan, and more than a year old, they insisted that the service was free. I wish the same level of service was available in Toronto, but we don’t even have a Leica store, let alone a technician on site.

The Photography

We started our visit in Tokyo, partly because I knew a bit of the city from my business trips and also because it’s the most western place in Japan, giving us a chance to ease into the very different cultural experience.

Asakusa temple Tokyo – from my first business trip, Casio QV-R40
Asakusa temple Tokyo – from my first business trip, Casio QV-R40

The time difference between Toronto and Japan is 14 hours and. after a 15-hour direct flight and many additional hours of road travel, queuing and waiting at each end of the journey, we were about as jet lagged as it possible to be. It wasn’t difficult to sleep though. We got to the hotel around 5pm and after a brief dinner we all collapsed for the night. The next day was not very productive, consisting of some half-hearted shopping, a two-hour walk, mostly trying to stay awake, again finishing with an early dinner and off to bed. There was a plan in mind though.

Ginza district Tokyo, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Ginza district Tokyo, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Ginza district Tokyo, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Ginza district Tokyo, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron

The next morning at 4.30 we got up to go to the Tsukiji fish market. Almost all the fish for Tokyo and quite a bit for the rest of the country went through this market. I say went because, sadly, the market is no more, although the surrounding shops known as the outer market remain.

Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Tsukiji tuna auction, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron

The new and much less photographically interesting Toyosu market has replaced Tsukiji.

There are still opportunities for the photographer in the shops that used to surround Tsukiji. This picture captures the level of frenetic activity that was typical of Tsukiji as well as showing the tendency of the Japanese to work like Trojans.

Tsukiji outer market, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
Tsukiji outer market, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender

Of course, once we had seen the auction, we had to try the product, so it was sushi for breakfast.

Tsukiji fish market breakfast bar, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
Tsukiji fish market breakfast bar, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender

Culture proud

The Japanese are extremely proud of their culture, as they should be, and even complete strangers will go to great lengths to explain the meaning of various festivals, shrines and other aspects of life, even for complete strangers. We frequently had the experience of being approached on the street by people who wanted to give us directions, even though it was obvious we were not lost, suggesting the best item to buy in a shop, or just curious about us and wanting to talk. Later, we learned that many Japanese love to practice their English and stopping foreigners to speak with them is a perfect opportunity to do so.

The two main religions in Japan are Shinto and Buddhist and the number of temples in the country is roughly evenly split between the two, although that seems to vary by region. Both religions arose in Japan between the 6th and 9th centuries. The popularity of each religion has waxed and waned over the centuries and, ultimately, Shinto was formalized as the state religion in the 19th century. However, attempts to stamp Buddhism out in the 19th century were unsuccessful and it seems to be gaining in popularity again. Most of the Japanese that I met were flexible about their religious leanings, participating in both Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies and festivals.

The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is one of the most important Shinto shrines in the city, and is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and his wife.

Entrance to the Meiji Jingu shrine, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9
Entrance to the Meiji Jingu shrine, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9
Meiji Jingu shrine, An offering of barrels of sake, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender
Meiji Jingu shrine, An offering of barrels of sake, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender
The Meiji Jingu shrine, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
The Meiji Jingu shrine, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
Meiji Jingu shrine, Votive Cards, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9
Meiji Jingu shrine, Votive Cards, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender 1.9

Service with a smile

With an economy that resembles the American model more than anything in Europe, the Japanese service sector gives real meaning to the term service. Too often in Western countries I either wonder if I’ll ever be served or, perhaps worse, feel that the server is pushy or overly familiar. In Japan I never felt that way. Restaurant and shop staff seemed to appear just when you wanted something, but not a moment before.

If it sounds a bit like I am idealising the Japanese people, then I have given the wrong impression. I have encountered many negative impressions from people who have never personally visited Japan and I feel the need to perhaps compensate in dispelling those impressions. Like people everywhere, there are kind Japanese people and some that are not. But they are people nevertheless and will be open and friendly if you are willing to give them the opportunity. They are proud of their ancient culture and country and are eager to share their ideas if you are willing to listen.

Asakusa Temple, Baked goods shop, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender
Asakusa Temple, Baked goods shop, Leica M8 28mm Voigtlaender

I’m sure their drive to excel at work is a large part of their success as a nation and contributes to their desire to please.

Kamakura

After three days of getting acclimatised to the time difference, we were ready to take our experience on the road. A good day trip from a Tokyo base is the seaside town of Kamakura.

Renowned for the large number of temples, Kamakura is a weekend resort town for the Japanese and also a very popular site for wedding photographers. The desire for wedding photographs has been adopted from the West, and has become an industry much like it is with us. The upshot is that Kamakura is sometimes overrun with wedding parties at the weekend, so we chose to go there mid-week. So did the other passengers on the local train we took, although they seemed less fascinated with the trip than us.

Train to Kamakura, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
Train to Kamakura, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender

Kamakura turned out to be everything we were told it would be. The temple complexes were both beautiful and fascinating, and emphasised how different the culture was in Japan. I know a little bit about the Buddhist religion, but just how little was brought home by our complete lack of understanding of much of what we saw in the temples.

Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura, Leica M8 90mm Elmarit-M
Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura, Leica M8 90mm Elmarit-M

Prayer wheels

I have heard of the idea of prayer wheels and saw some very large ones there, but I cannot profess to understand the concept. Similarly, there is a practice of purchasing statues of Buddha and placing them in the garden of the temple as a way of easing the path of a deceased person, often a child.

Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron
Hasedera Buddhist Temple, Kamakura, Leica M8 50mm early rigid Summicron

The rows of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of statues of Buddha make it look a bit like purchasing indulgences, but I was told that it is nothing of the sort and then was given an explanation that I could not follow at all.

Great Buddah of Kamakura, Kotoku-in Temple, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender
Great Buddah of Kamakura, Kotoku-in Temple, Leica M8 15mm Voigtlaender

Baffled but pleased with the photographic opportunities presented, I happily shot my way through Kamakura, temple by temple, eventually arriving at the beach. By then the weather had turned nasty and combined with much of the beach taken up with a rather desultory event launching the Fiat 500cc, I stopped taking pictures.

Great Buddah of Kamakura, Kotoku-in Temple, Leica M8 90mm Elmarit-M
Great Buddah of Kamakura, Kotoku-in Temple, Leica M8 90mm Elmarit-M

Weather forecast

A word of advice, if you should decide to visit Japan please do research the seasonal weather variations before going. Due to restrictions around work and vacation schedule, we were there in July. I knew that July was a rainy month, but I didn’t anticipate just how much rain we would get. It was always warm, but the downpours put the M8 with its lack of weather sealing at risk.

In all, we found Japan to be a charming and fascinating country with people who are welcoming and always ready to help a confused foreigner. If the chance ever comes up I would return for another visit in a heartbeat.


Part two of this article will talk about the rest of the trip and particularly the lenses used.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. .
    Thanks for this trip through Japan, Richard – and a reminder of what was (..for me!..) a dreadful camera ..the M8. My Beloved had bought me one as a birthday present in 2009, but I felt that it was a disgrace, and should be returned to the shop quoting the (UK) Trades Descriptions Act ..alas, it was bought from Meister Camera in Berlin, so the TDA didn’t apply. Indoors, under tungsten light – wedding receptions, say – anything black might turn out black ..or could turn out purple! The company offered two free IR filters, but that, to me, is like offering two free circular wheels to customers who’d bought a Rolls-Royce with four square wheels. I sold the M8.2 on eBay to swap it for an M9 ..and that was, and is – just about – a reasonable ..but noisy!.. camera.

    I took the M9 (and a few other cameras) to Japan in November 2013 – Tokyo, Okoyama, Osaka, Nagasaki, Kyoto, Tokyo.

    My ..well, our!.. standout moment came in a Kyoto restaurant one evening and, finding it rather bright, lit by striplights, I said (quoting ‘Blade Runner’, of course) “it’s too bright in here”, and asked our hostess/waitress, politely, if she could dim the lights a little. She came back a few minutes later saying that the manager said that it wasn’t possible to dim them. A little later, though, there was a squeaking and scraping noise, and I turned and saw she was dragging a table across the floor, and then, in her kimono, she jumped up onto the table, beneath one of the light fittings. She produced a screwdriver from somewhere, and started dismantling the lamps – I didn’t know what on earth she was doing ..and after taking off the diffuser/cover, she began pulling out fluorescent tubes one after the other!

    After the third one I said “Thank you! ..that’s perfect!” and she hopped down again. I could hardly believe my eyes ..none of us could! I’m sure no waitress in any restaurant in the UK ..nor anywhere else in the Western world.. would begin dismantling restaurant lights – or would know how to! – just to oblige a visiting diner. She got a HUGE tip, of course!

    Japan was delightful ..and I made time on the last day to look around a few Tokyo secondhand camera shops, just to bask in all those old camera memorabilia ..I read somewhere that there are, supposedly, more Leicas in Japan than absolutely anywhere else, and there were certainly hundreds (thousands?) – and in beautiful condition – in the secondhand basement of Map Camera and in the teeny Camera Box than I’ve seen in any Leica Store anywhere.

    Your Ginza night shot brings back many memories, and now you’ve got me scrolling through my photos of Japan and reliving very happy times, meeting many delightful people! (Especially people having their wedding photos taken!) Very many thanks!

    • Hi David,
      I’m so pleased I was able to conjure up some pleasant, except for the M8, memories for you. As you probably gathered from the article, I also found the Japanese people by and large to be courteous, kind and delightful, even when I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I also was amazed at the number of Leicas, often in pristine condition, in the Tokyo camera shops. Especially for a film photographer, those stores could be a treasure trove.

      As far as the M8 was concerned, I found the IR sensitivity problem to be a small price to pay after the wholly disappointing experience with the 30d. That’s not to say that Canon doesn’t make good cameras, but the M8 was a huge improvement for me, and the used price couldn’t be beat.

      I’m sure we’d all love to hear about see your experience in Japan with some accompanying pictures.

  2. Hello Richard,
    a wonderful article. The colour images of the temples are truly amazing. The sensor of the M8 is (was) stunning despite its 10 MP sensor. I love the B&W images of the fishmarket, no colour distraction whatsoever, that allows you to concentrate just on the image. You’ve nailed them perfectly. I’d be curious to see the following 2 colour ones in Black and white. As for the small Buddha statues if Japanese buddhism is similar to the one in Laos ,Cambodia or Myanmar you acquire merits when you offer a Buddha to a temple and it increases your karma. Thanks for sharing
    Jean

  3. Jean,
    Thank you for your kind comments. Although it was not the best for colour and required a fair amount of tweaking in post to get the colours right, the M8 was a magnificent B&W camera. You can see how I struggled with the colour in the breakfast bar but the B&W tones were so good they rarely needed fixing in post. My experience with the M9 was that it reversed that equation, but I suppose every camera has it’s compromises.

    You may be right about the acquiring Karma merit for donating statues, I related the explanation I was given, at least to the best of my ability, but I’m sure I didn’t get some of it right. It still sounds like purchasing indulgences to me, but that’s probably not fair of me.

  4. I think for first gen M8 got bum wrap, I just never had the courage to buy a viewfinder. Your family respect and sensitivity toward their culture is an example of how we all should act. I would love to visit and. Be like Robert Frank, ride a bus and take photos of society from that height. When ever I see photos of their big fish markets it is because a record price has been set for a fish. I often wondered if these auctions are reserved in tone, or all out shouting matches. I feel the lower mp of my x’s and Leica look, is still what I love about them and quickly gaining my appreciation is the 10 mp in my Ricoh GRD4 and I am sure I will be just as thrilled with my GR11. Thank you for sharing your trip and can I ask if it came down to M8 or XPRO 2 which would you go with most of the time!

    • Hi John,
      I agree that the M8 deserved a better reception that it got. Considering the size and the level of technology at the time, it was a pretty impressive little camera. Of course today it is completely outclassed by modern digital cameras. Not long after it came out I recall a photojournalist bashed the M8 because it couldn’t provide the same low light performance as his massive Canon EOS-1. I’d never want to carry a monster like the EOS-1.

      Today, I have to admit the X-Pro2 provides all I’m every likely to need and for sheer versatility and performance it does beat the M8, so I suppose the X-Pro2 would get the nod from me. In early 2009 though the M8 impressed me mightily and until the M9 came along there was no other camera I considered using.

  5. Thanks Richard for this fascinating article. Lovely photos, that of the woman passing the market stalls stands out for me. Any thoughts on the Voigtlander lenses versus the M?

    • Hi Kevin,
      Thank you. That particular shot is also my favorite. It doesn’t meet the usual criteria of sharpness and the 15mm did add a good amount of distortion, but the sense of energy was what I was looking for.

      I’ll include more information on the specific Voigtlander lenses in the next article, but the short story is that they might give up a bit in micro-contrast and in the corners to the the Leica lenses and you would sometimes have to give up one stop to get close to the same results, but used carefully, they can be every bit as good as a Leica lens. Within the limitations I just mentioned.

  6. Thank you Richard for showing these images. The M8 certainly performed well.
    But the surprise to me is your first image. The little 4mp Casio gave you a great shot – light, rendering, tonality, perspective, shadows from white sky, layers of people. Good to look into it.

    • Those small – or even the large – Casios were (..or are, if there are any left knocking about..) great cameras: the 2008 6-megapixel small-SLR-sized 12x zoom EX-F1 which could shoot at 60 frames per second (!) was boiled down to the teeny 2012 pocket-sized 16 mpxl ZR-1000 (..also with a 12x zoom..) which gave – and gives, for a pocket-sized camera – great pictures in low light, ‘cos it shoots 12 images in about half a second, blends them together, subtracts low-light ‘noise’, and gives results equivalent to about 25,000 ISO ..it’s one of the most capable tiny-sensor cameras I’ve ever come across.

    • Thank you Wayne. Yes, the M8 was the ideal camera (at that time) for the job and used carefully it could produce outstanding results. The little Casio was very good. Worse than the M8 in low light and cropping was out of the question, but they certainly got the colour and software right. Like the M8 and M9, the CCD sensor didn’t hurt either.

  7. You need to differentiate between a shrine and a temple. Buddhists have temples and folks can be buried there. Shinto has shrines and folks cannot be buried there. These are not interchangeable word as you seem to infer in the text. Great camera, and you seemed to have fun on a VERY tourist route through Japan. Thanks for the short read.

    • David, Thank you for the correction. My knowledge of Japanese religions is very limited, but I did appreciate the little bit of their culture that was explained to me and I am always grateful to learn more.

  8. Most interesting article, Richard.Thank you for the fascinating observations on Japanese culture, habits and social customs.
    Great images too. I particularly admire the ones of the tuna auction. I’ve never been to Japan or a tuna auction myself but am always drawn to fish markets for photo opportunities. Your results are much better than I have ever achieved and I admire the angles and geometry of these three shots. In two of them you have enlivened the somewhat static tuna (!) with great people shots.

    • Thank you David. Your feedback is very kind. It’s a shame the old market is now closed and I believe the tuna auction is no longer open to the public. I was very lucky to get to see this event. There is still much else to see in Japan though and I hope to return while I can still travel.

  9. A very fascinating visit to very different world. A pity your pictures can’t be clicked to full screen to enjoy them better. (You don’t have another website by ny chance?)

  10. What a wonderful travelog Richard, I have never been, or considered going to Japan. Even though we can see its cultural influences in our everyday life here in the Western world. Its just one of those places, but in your images, I am intrigued, although I have a long list of other places to do first.

    The Leica M8 did you proud in the images here, and I can see now why there are still people using them today over a decade later.

    • Thank you Dave. Like you, I have a long list of places I have yet to visit but I will always count Japan as one of the most memorable places I’ve every been.

  11. This is a such a lovely reminder of a trip my wife and I took four years ago when we flew into Tokyo! We met up with an old boarding school friend of mine who is Japanese, and who I had not seen in 40 some odd years. We spent time with Koji in Tokyo and the next day took the train to Kamakura and looked at the temples you photographed. We also sampled the delights of conveyor-belt sushi: it’s addictive! Our next trip to Japan has to include Kyoto but also other less touristy destinations. Maybe I’m crazy but I quite like the idea of going to Japan in winter, before heading south to Australia and New Zealand.

    Many thanks again!

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