Leica M8 or R9?

Leica M8 or R9? This was the question raised in a camera store I visited earlier this week and the discussion that followed between the customer, store owner and myself prompted me to re-phrase the question and chat about the real issue or core of the debate, Rangefinder or Single Lens Reflex?

In the conversation at the shop, the customer who raised this question stated that his friend had mentioned that the M8 would be a better purchase than the R9 he had been considering particularly in regards to it’s ability to perform as a digital camera in comparison to the dual medium R9 – at least that is what the store owner and I understood from his statement concerning his friend and that led to me joining the discussion.

As some of you know, I am a fan of rangefinder cameras, and the debate for me should not be the ability of these two cameras to capture better digital images, but rather on the very different design factors involved and how they would affect the user. The issue is why should I choose a rangefinder over an SLR? What are the pros and cons? What is my preferred subject matter? Which system will help me more easily attain the level of expression I wish to achieve?

Here are my thoughts on the uses of these two different systems and where they have their place in the various styles of photography that I pursue.


Among photographers Henri Cartier Bresson was probably the best known rangefinder user to date and in all his work he sought to capture what he defined as the “decisive moment”. Why was the rangefinder his chosen tool? In part it was due to the fact that Leica’s rangefinders pioneered the 35mm movement and were for some time the most refined 35mm cameras on the market, but in time SLR’s became available and yet his preference did not change. My personal view is that the quiet shutter and relatively compact size of the rangefinder made this style of camera the better choice for candid photography.

Another benefit in favour of rangefinders is the lack of a reflex mirror. This allows for a minimal delay between the depressing of the shutter button to the opening of the shutter to expose the image. Yes the delay may be minimal but when your goal is to catch the decisive moment every split second counts.

Some people have stated that a rangefinder focusing system is difficult to use. Though it takes time to get use to, the one advantage I have found is that the brightness of the viewfinder is never affected by the maximum aperture of your lens, a plus in low light when you don’t have fast lenses.

Certainly the only way one can truly learn and appreciate the benefits of working with a rangefinder is to use one with an open mind and you will soon see if it works for you. I think that any person wanting to shoot candid portraits, be compact in their travels or seek the sharpest wide angle lenses for their landscapes could do well to investigate a rangefinder. There is also the nostalgia of the classic feel and knowing that this is the system that many great photo journalists used to capture their stories.

From a technical aspect, it has always been easier to produce sharper optics for a camera that has no reflex mirror or obstructions between the rear element and the film. One challenge however was how to get an accurate light meter reading through the lens – something Leica began to correct with their M5 – and the issue of parallax error has always made some users skeptical about how close they could get without risking chopping off heads.

Single Lens Reflex

Yes, rangefinders are not perfect and so for many of us; there will always be place for the versatile SLR. One of the greatest strengths for this system is the fact that straight away you are seeing what the lens sees, and it is easier to include a light meter that would read through the lens. With the number of SLR manufactures and independent lens makers, owners of SLR cameras were quickly spoilt with choice and the added benefit of longer telephotos than had ever been dared for rangefinders, moving photo journalists further from harms way.

This did have its weakness though, as camera bags have become bigger and bigger as more lenses were bought and had to be accommodated on vacations or trips for fear of missing any shot. So the modern day zooms where born to reaffirm the SLR’s dominance as the most convenient system and though at first the optical quality was questionable many zooms today give rather impressive results.

Ultimately, if you want to shoot sports, wildlife, events or just generally get into photography, there is no other option and certainly no more versatility than that of the 35mm Single Lens Reflex, or the digital equivalent of today.


I hope that I have been able to highlight some of the issues at hand regarding the choice of SLR or Rangefinder. Ultimately the decision will come down to what you prefer and the type of photography you wish to create. One thing is for certain however, that in terms of Single Lens Reflex cameras the photographers of today have no lack of choice. It is just sad to see that there are not even half the number of manufactures for rangefinders as SLR’s, yet alone the fact that there are no truly affordable rangefinder systems available – certainly not here in South Africa.