Tuesday Titans: The Leica R8 (R9)

SLRCam

I might as well call this “Tuesday Night Titans” as a tribute to the old WWF (now WWE) rasslin’ show 🙂

The Leica R8 is a 35mm film SLR introduced by Leica in 1996. The R9 was introduced in 2002 and was the last film SLR made by Leica for their R series which was discontinued in 2009.

Although the R9 was marketed at the time as a new model, it is pretty much an upgraded R8. The bulk of this review is based on my extended use of the R8. R9 differences will be pointed out later on in this article.

While the R8 appears much like an autofocus camera, it is not. It’s an electronic camera that relies on batteries for everything, and it is pure manual focus.

THE LEICA R8 BODY

The Leica R8 (and R9) look radically different from any Leica single lens reflex before it. It is huge, it is massive, it is a TITAN!!

I remember reading about the R8 in one of those cool British photography magazines in the late 90s. I remember thinking it was huge and cool and even a little crazy. I never thought about getting one until I started picking up R lenses to use on my 5D in the mid 2000s.

After seeing how great these lenses were, I found a great deal on an R8 in 2008 and although I’ve sold off a whole load of stuff since then, I still hang on to the R8.

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“Lots Of Love” 2008. Leica R8, 90mm f/2 Summicron-R, Ilford XP2.

The camera feels great in the hand. Heavy, robust, and well put together. The controls are definitely in the Leica bloodline, spartan and uncluttered.

The Mode dial is on the top left. It has all your usual modes, manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a very unusual “F” flash metering mode. I could write about this, but it would take a whole half page and I’ve never used it. In a nutshell, the mode is used in conjunction with the camera’s pc socket and your flash which can be a dedicated flash unit or a number of studio strobes. You trigger the flash (or strobes) in “F” mode and it will help you determine flash exposure values which you can see on the back LCD without actually taking a shot, saving you from wasting film. At least that’s how I understand it.

On the top right of the camera is the shutter speed dial which runs from 16s to 1/8000th of a second. A good rule to remember when buying cameras is that any camera with 1/8000 means serious business even if 99 percent of the time we never use that shutter speed!

The 93 percent coverage viewfinder is bright and clear, but appears smaller and not as easy to focus as that on the older Leicaflex SL series. You probably would’ve expected 100 percent viewfinder coverage on a camera like this, and so did I.

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“Man In Black” 2015. Leica R8, 80mm f/1.4 Summilux-R, Tri-X 400 developed in Ilford ID-11 developer. My man Mr. Louis Mendes, NYC fixture, icon, and friend. I don’t know how many times I’ve photographed Lou over the years, but I never tire of it. Awesome guy, awesome photographer!

Funny thing, when I first got the R8 I felt as if I could never be sure if I had things in critical focus or not, having been spoiled by the SL viewfinder. I was a little obsessed about it to the point that I had even contacted several highly regarded Leica “people” including repair expert Don Goldberg (DAG) and famed Leica nature shooter Doug Herr. Both gentlemen were extremely helpful. However, in the end, I never did anything to the viewfinder.

My fears dissipated when roll after roll, 80-90 percent of the images were always in sharp focus, which is actually better than a lot of other manual focus bodies I have used.

“Baby Love” 2008. Leica R8, 90mm f/2 Summicron-R, Ilford XP2. Despite my fears, I was able to manually focus well enough on the R8 to get roll after roll of mostly sharp shots. The color cast is the result of a drug store scan, which I have not bothered to correct.

Don’t let me scare you though. What happened to me was that the images looked “in focus” in the R8 viewfinder, but it didn’t have a reassuring “snap” to it the way the SL did and that concerned me. I don’t know if the screen in my R8 is original stock, but it doesn’t have a split-image focusing screen in it, which always helps if you’re unsure.

But again, my fears were unwarranted so I no longer have issues focusing on the R8. Most of the time, if it looks in focus, it probably is.

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“Lonely Still” 2008. Leica R8, 90mm f/2 Summicron-R, Ilford XP2.

The shutter is well damped and smooth in its sound. Always a sign of a high quality camera.

ISSUES

In the first few years that the R8 was out on the market, there were numerous reports on reliability issues. Leica reportedly, at that time, fixed these issues free of charge.

All I can say is in the eight years I’ve had the camera, knock on wood, I never had a problem with it.

It is likely, but not certain, that if you buy one today and it’s in working condition, it’s probably fine.

If you’re worried about this, that’s one good reason to buy an R9 which apparently fixed everything. However, the R9 on the used market is a good $500 more than a used R8.

Here’s a good page on R8 ISSUES including suspected serial number ranges.

IS THE LEICA R8/R9 THE ULTIMATE LEICA CAMERA?

If Leica had not discontinued their R system bodies, lenses, and accessories, it is my opinion that the Leica R could stand out as the ultimate Leica film body, even when compared to their beloved rangefinders.

Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a standout body. There’s nothing in their film range of cameras that looks like it. I’ve compared a lot of these monstrous cameras to the Canon EOS-1, but I can’t even compare the R8 to that behemoth in its looks. It stands alone.

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“Past Imperfect” 2010. Leica R8, 80mm f/1.4 Summilux, Tri-X.

I know people who think this camera is butt ugly, and I can’t remember if I was one of them, but what I can tell you is that most people who love the R8 end up loving it after they have held and used one.

To me now, it feels and looks awesome and it produces great results, roll after roll.

THE UNIQUE LEICA DIGITAL MODULE R (DMR)

The Leica R8 and R9 have the distinction of being the only 35mm film camera that could be converted to a digital body by replacing the film back with a digital back that Leica made called the “Digital Module R” otherwise known as the “DMR.”

The DMR used a 10mp Kodak CCD sensor and was highly praised by those lucky enough to use it. I was not one of them. They were and are always pricey and scarce on the used market.

At the dawn of the digital era, around 1996 or so, there were dreams of turning film cameras into digital. You may have remembered reading about this. If you forgot the main company pushing this idea at the time, they were called “Silicon Film.” Do a Google search if you’re interested.

Anyway, although it held great promise, the “digital film” concept never materialized in production.

To this date, only the only 35mm cameras that could be turned into digital are the R8 and R9 bodies, again, assuming you can find, or really want to buy a 10mp digital back for over $2000 used.

LENS COMPATABILITY

To further complicate things, the Leica R8/R9 are recommended to be used only with Leica 3-Cam or ROM lenses. The 1-CAM or 2-CAM lenses can damage the ROM contacts on the R8/R9 bodies. You can get these lenses converted to 3-CAM or ROM by a specialist. As a disclaimer, me being foolhardy and cheap, I’ve used 2-CAM lenses on the R8 with no issues, but I don’t recommend it and don’t blame me if you try this and it ruins your camera 🙂

LEICA R9 DIFFERENCES

The R9 is 100g lighter than the R8. The R9 has a special edition “Anthracite” model, in addition to the black model. The R9 has an LCD frame counter on the top plate, the R8 has the frame counter on the back LCD.

There were also some changes in the electronics, mainly to better support Metz’s flash units. Reliability is supposedly better with the R9. Do a little research on this if this interests or concerns you.

Overall though, they are pretty much the same camera.

BOTTOM LINE

The Leica R8/R9 were the climatic highlight of the Leica R System, a system which was never as popular as Leica’s own M System and a system which is now dead.

The R lenses were, in most cases, every bit as good as their M counterparts, but the R bodies were not. The R8 and R9 were said to be the only electronic R bodies which had nothing to do with Leica’s partnership with Minolta. But sadly, it’s too little, too late for the R system.

Ironically, digital photography and the popularity of adapted lenses have resurrected the R system lenses from the dead, at least on the used market and prices are dramatically higher than they were only a few years ago. I’m so glad I got my R lenses when the tide was low.

The R8 and R9 are eye-catchers in terms of looks, but more importantly, they are superb shooters which can produce fantastic results. Although they now belong to a technically dead system, the Leica R8 and R9 represented the pinnacle of Leica’s foray into the 35mm single lens reflex arena and they are true Camera Legends which serves to remind us of Leica’s past and gave us a glimpse into Leica’s future.

NOTE FOR POTENTIAL BUYERS

While I love the R8 and the R System lenses, I would not recommend you start with an R8 or R9 if its your first foray into this system. I certainly would not recommend the DMR unless you have money to burn.

The reasons are many…

It’s a dead system. I’m not sure if Leica will still repair the R8/R9. I’m pretty sure they don’t repair the DMR any longer.

The ability to adapt the R lenses to many, many systems including many full-frame systems negate the purpose of the DMR, which remains pricey on the used market.

If wanting to get your feet wet in the Leica R System, spending as little as you can, the all manual Leicaflex SL is a much better choice. No batteries necessary, better viewfinder, and cheaper. Body should be $100 or less. A good lens to start with is the 50mm f/2 Summicron-R and for the SL, you could probably find a 1-CAM version for around $300 or under. That’s the cheapest way to get into the Leica R System.

WHERE TO BUY?

If you really have your heart set on an R8 or R9, I can’t blame you after all the stuff I just wrote about it 🙂

Prices are trending at $350-500 for the R8 and $650-1000 or more for the R9. And for delicate electronic cameras you really should buy from a place with a good return warranty.

For a safe purchase try HERE and HERE in the USED section.

Happy hunting and if you do get one, please be sure to drop me a note, would sure love to hear about it!

***DEAL ALERT***

For those of you into more modern stuff, there are some great savings on Panasonic Gear.

Also if you’re an Olympus user, take advantage of the current Olympus Lens Rebates. There’s no better time to buy lenses for your OM-D or Pen series cameras.

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7 thoughts on “Tuesday Titans: The Leica R8 (R9)

  1. Great write up Sam. A friend of mine had one (R9) and it was a joy to hold. Also loved the shutter feel. And the super smooth film crank. I had been thinking about acquiring one over the years…but I’m afraid the boat sailed. So I’ll stick to my M3 and M2.

    Liked by 1 person

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