Dates: 1996 (R8) - 2009 (R9)
Variants: R8, R9
Camera Type: 35mm SLR
Lens mount: Leica R bayonet
Shutter: electronic vertical travel metal blade focal plane
Exposure meter: TTL selective / centre weighted / multi pattern
Exposure modes: manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, program
ASA/ISO range: 6 to 12,800
Finder screen: ground glass, interchangeable
Flash shoe: hotshoe + additional contacts
Flash speed: 1/250
TTL Flash: yes, plus flash pre-exposure measurement
Motor drive: winder or motor drive
Around 1990, Leica management decided to break away from the cameras developed with Minolta and to design a completely new replacement in house.
A new team of developers was put on the project and some of their design briefs were:
- A completely new design with no links to previous models
- Best possible ease of use especially in manual control
- Maximise benefits of electronic control
An industrial designer was employed and given the brief to make the camera look less like a conventional SLR and more like the flat-topped M cameras.
When the camera was released in 1996 it met a very mixed reception, attracting criticism for its size. The styling was also not universally appreciated, some derisively calling it "The Hunchback of Solms".
The highly sophisticated metering system allows free choice of metering mode and exposure mode. (By contrast, the earlier R4–R7 series lack multi-pattern metering and offer only pre-set combinations of metering and exposure.)
Three metering modes are offered:
- Integrated centre-weighted
- Multi-pattern (matrix)
and five exposure modes:
- Aperture-priority semi-automatic
- Shutter-priority semi-automatic
- Program fully automatic
- Flash pre-exposure measurement
Mounted on the secondary mirror itself is a single cell for selective measurement. In the camera base is a five-segment cell for integrated and multi-pattern measurement, together giving six measurement areas. Switching of both metering mode and exposure mode is electronic. Exposure compensation is available in all exposure modes, exposure lock in all modes except P (R9: all modes).
Program mode can be biased towards longer or shorter shutter speeds by using the shutter speed dial. Also in program mode automatic flash exposure is fully controlled by the camera: off in strong daylight conditions, fill-in flash with normal light, full flash when dark. Normal flash synchronisation speed is 1/250s with suitable flash units (when using many older professional flash units a slower synchronisation speed must be selected).
Flash metering and synchronisation
Flash pre-exposure measurement allows the camera's meter to measure manually controlled flash such as studio flash. Flash must be connected to the hotshoe or PC contact and measurement is triggered by the depth-of-field preview lever. Pre-exposure flash measurement is always selective and in addition to automatic TTL flash exposure.
TTL flash exposure control with suitable automatic flash units is always full-field, using two small light cells either side of the main multi-pattern cell. With appropriate SCA connectors or flash units, fill-in flash compensation may be applied.
Flash synchronisation may be either first shutter curtain (normal) or second curtain. The difference is that second curtain synchronisation allows some subject movement to be recorded before the flash fires. This is especially effective for exposures of 1/2 second or longer. A small switch beside the lens mount (marked "I II") effects the change.
Viewfinder data display is entirely electronic LCD visible in any lighting. Settings are grouped together below the image view in a single display showing:
- Metering mode
- Exposure mode
- Exposure compensation set
- Shutter speed
- (Manual mode) Exposure segment display from +3 to −3 EV of metered value
- Frame count
- Flash ready
A viewfinder shutter is built-in as is dioptric correction. The optics are adjusted to allow use while wearing glasses; however, this results in a reduced size of view.
A small LCD on the camera back displays frame count and ISO setting.
Mirror lock up
For the first time since the original Leicaflex, mirror lock up is provided. A small switch beside the lens mount is used to select mirror lock and then shutter release is two stage: first shutter press to lock up the mirror and (later) second press triggers exposure. Automatic exposure will be locked at the value when the shutter was first pressed. After exposure the mirror returns to viewing position. Mirror lock up can be used with the self timer, winder / motor drive, and remote release.
Digital module R
The camera was designed to accept a digital back and for this purpose there is a row of additional contacts inside the camera back. The digital module comes with its own battery and motor to cock the shutter and is about the same size and weight as the motor drive.
The sensor has 10Mb resolution and a 1.37x multiplication factor, for example turning a 50mm lens into effectively almost 70mm.
Lens ROM data are used, when available, to record lens focal length with other exposure data.
Winder and motor drive
Fitting a winder or motor involves removing the moulded grip / battery chamber resulting in both camera and drive being powered from the same supply. Both automatically advance the film to frame one when the camera back is closed with film loaded, both provide power rewind as well as advance and a microswitch in the camera stops rewind with the film leader still out of the cassette.
The 2fps winder is quiet and compact, an R8 fitted with winder is almost exactly the same overall size and weight as an R7 fitted with winder and grip. Power is supplied by two lithium cells.
The 2/4.5fps motor drive is bulkier and heavier. It was supplied with its own rechargeable battery pack and dedicated charger and provides two additional shutter releases, one on the camera front and one on the base. In addition it provides automatic exposure bracketing: exposing three frames varying either shutter speed or aperture.
Lens mount changes
The same bayonet and stepped cam of earlier R cameras is used, but additional electrical contacts called "ROM contacts" are added to convey lens focal length setting. Any lens fitted with the R stepped cam may be used, but very early lenses fitted only with sloped cams (one- or two-cam lenses) may damage the ROM contacts and should first be fitted with the stepped cam.
image by Uwe Kulick (Image rights)
Lens/camera combinations are as follows:
|full metering + ROM data
|stop-down metering, possible damage to camera contacts
|will not fit
Leica one-cam, two-cam, three-cam, and R stepped cam lenses may be fitted with ROM contacts, but as this entails removal of the original sloped cams they would then be incompatible with the original Leicaflex cameras. This was the first major exception to compatibility of Leica reflex lenses. The SL2 had revised mirror pivots and some later lenses, such as the 24mm Elmarit-R, cannot be used on the original Leicaflex or SL models and are only compatible with the SL2 and later R cameras.
After initial excellent reliability, the R8 began suffering regular failures when the winder was finally released. This was eventually traced to substandard contacts and Leica had to recall all cameras for modification.
Another problem is related to the flash speed of 1/250s. This was faster than any previous camera and many existing flash units, especially large professional units, could not be used as, at high power, the flash duration was longer than 1/250s. The instructions were quite clear about the limitation but this did not prevent some photographers from blaming the camera for their own mistake. Leica's own SF20 and SF24 of course are suitable, as are more recent Metz units.
image by Nicodemus Roger (Image rights)
The R9 was an update of the R8 and perhaps would have been better named "R8.2". Changes to electronic control, reduced weight, and improved flash control were the main revisions.
End of the R series
In 2009 Leica announced that production of R series cameras, lenses, and accessories had ended. By that time the replacement S system was already in production.
Leica M "R"
Following an earlier promise to provide a full frame camera capable of using R lenses, in 2012 the Leica M was announced. Its new CMOS light sensor allows image preview, meaning that lenses can be focussed using electronic preview. An R lens adapter is offered as well as a supplementary electronic viewfinder so that most R lenses can be used. The supplementary viewfinder turns the rangefinder camera into an SLR, albeit with electronic display.
- Eastland, Jonathan. Leica R8. Hove Press, 1998. ISBN 1-8978802-09-9