You either get it or you don’t!
“You’re so lucky”. This was the greeting I got from a wedding photographer; someone I had never met. Alas she didn’t seem to be talking about me, my dress sense, my personality or my photography. She was talking about the fact that I had a Leica M9 around my neck. There are occasions when cameras spark off conversations between complete strangers in the field, but I have to say that none have induced more talking and question asking than the Leica M9. It seems to be a magnet for chatty photographers from all spectrums of the profession.
Going back to me being so “lucky”. Actually, it was true. I was taking some photographs at a friend’s wedding, and all my kit which comprised of the M9, 24mm Elmar and finder, 35mm Summicron and 75mm Summicron lenses, fitted into a tiny Domke F5 shoulder bag with room to spare. The young lady making the “lucky” comment was weighed down by a back pack, two DSLRs with their big and weighty zooms and flashguns.
Whilst a DSLR is much more versatile in being able to help you photograph most situations, given the right lenses (which can range from fish-eye to macros and zooms to super telephotos) a small, light, precision made rangefinder is something else. If any camera can come close to being Marmite, it’s the Leica rangefinder. You either get it, or you don’t as much as you either love or hate Marmite.
The size of the M9 and the tiny lenses certainly has appeal, but it’s the way a rangefinder works and looks so non threatening that really appeals to me. Its been such a joy to use a Leica rangefinder for work again. In the days of film I used to use the Leica M4-2 and M6 for around 80% of my work. The rest would require long lenses and an SLR would be called into service. The number of times the people I’ve photographed have taken pity on me and told me that one day I’ll be able to afford a real camera. The first time seemed comical as they obviously had no idea about the cost or quality of Leica kit, but I soon realised that the advantage was that people were always relaxed in my presence as they didn’t take me as a serious professional photographer.
The Leica M9 in use. Photo: Antje Bormann
It’s All About The Lenses
I’ve been very fortunate in my career and have used and owned some fantastic lenses. Stunning lenses like Canon’s 35mm f1.4L or 85mm f1.2L II and the 50mm or 85mm f1.4 lenses from Zeiss have all been superb. These have been partially eclipsed by a superb 180mm f2.3 APO lens I had which was made by nowadays little known firm called Angenieux. However, by far my favourite optics have been Leica’s. The 21mm Elmarit, 35mm and 50mm Summicrons from days gone by have helped me make some of my favourite images on my Leica M cameras. The 90mm Elmarit on my Leica R6.2 also worked wonders.
Well, after the absolute disappointment of the M8 and the M8.2, the M9 is an absolute breath of fresh air. It’s not only full frame, but the sensor is great. It now opens up the digital photographer to the wonderful and amazing world of Leica optics; used how they should be used – full frame and without any multiplication factors. Thankfully, you can use the majority of the lenses ever made by Leica, dating all the way back to the 50s, with only a handful of exceptions (these are helpfully listed in the manual). To help out with older non-coded lenses, you can even manually set the lens in use on the camera using the menu system. Naturally there’s also the option of sending any old lenses to Leica for them to code it for you; at a cost.
The main thing with Leica lenses is that they just give a certain look to your photographs. I’d even say that some of the old Summilux lenses aren’t even that sharp, compared to the best modern lenses. However, they all have this magical ability of rendering light sources within the image beautifully and give you a beautifully contrasty image regardless of the light sources visible. In black and white you’d get an amazing tonal range and in colour the true rendition of colours as well as the tonal subtleties captured is wonderful. To finish off perfectly, you get beautiful bokeh. When shooting wide angle you also get such little distortion, as the design of the camera allows the rear elements of the lens to go deeper into the lens mount of the body.
I’ve used many camera systems during my career, starting with the Canon FD system, then the Nikon AF system, Nikon digital and for the past five or so years the Canon digital system. The one thing that remained constant through most of this time was the Leica M system and some R equipment too. What is also amazing is that Leica somehow has the ability to awaken a passion within photographers who generally only look at the equipment as a tool. Not only is it a passion for the cameras and lenses, but when the company gets it wrong, it’s almost taken personally. I have to admit to almost feeling heart broken when I tried the M8. The image quality didn’t live up to expectation, although in ideal conditions it would produce nice enough images, it just wasn’t consistent through its ISO range. To top it was the horrid problems with having to get IR filters for all one’s lenses. The cherry on top was the crop factor. I tried it when it first came out and then re-visited it around six months ago, and still, it was a disappointment. For a camera where zooms aren’t available and the majority of photographers don’t use the tri-focal lenses but stick to primes, it’s important to have full-frame; a 35mm lens should give a 35mm view. Well, thankfully the M9 and its full frame sensor have answered my criticisms of its predecessor. To top this, it’s actually a wonderful sensor and works rather well all the way up to 1250 ASA.
Portrait taken using the legendary 50mm f0.95 Noctilux at 400 ASA
Is It All Good?
You can probably have a suspicion that I’m rather fond of the M9; well, I am. As I mentioned earlier, it’s opened up the opportunity for us photojournalist types to use Leica for deadline work again, and this time, unlike with the M8, its with very little compromise. Its very nicely built and works extremely well.
The issues I came up with, apart from the sadness of only having it for a week and then returning it, was the buffer is easy to fill. I was originally shooting jpeg and RAW combined. I realised that shooting RAW (DNG) compressed made things much quicker and relatively snappy. It’s no Canon 1D MkIII when it comes to buffer speed, but compressed DNG works wonders. If there’s any visible quality difference between compressed and not compressed, I really can’t see it.
Another issue I came up with was the feel of the shutter button. Coming from the old mechanical rangefinders, it felt different. I could feel the stages in travel it has to have to accommodate the exposure lock for aperture priority use. However, the great news is that this can be changed in the custom functions. Another very useful function is to delay the wind on. I had these two custom functions (Soft and Discreet) constantly set and loved the way the shutter release now felt and worked. It’s still not the same silky smooth gentle release of the old mechanical Leicas, but then again having a yearning for it is unrealistic. After all, it’s a totally different camera.
Lastly, although thankfully there is now a dedicated ISO button, I’d welcome either a mechanical dial that showed the speed setting, or perhaps an LCD on the top plate showing the set ISO. For me it’s essential to be able to check this setting at a quick glance without having to go into the menu system.
I found the auto white balance to work amazingly well. It worked fabulously outdoors, like most modern cameras. However, it was under tungsten light where it excelled. The results are amazingly good. When shooting a series of images, you do occasionally get one in the set where for some reason the white balance jumps, but it’s generally completely constant. This in itself isn’t an issue if you shoot DNG as it’s very easily fixed.
Photograph taken using the 75mm Summicron
Although Leica offer the camera with a full download of Adobe’s Lightroom, my software of choice is Apple’s Aperture. I do applaud Leica for not bringing out yet another RAW format and the files from the M9 processed beautifully in Aperture. Editing through the 18 megapixel images has been a joy and the image quality began to remind me of looking at Kodak Ektachromes on a lightbox. Maybe the Kodak engineers who made the M9’s sensor were looking at the look of Ektachrome? Main thing is that the files look fabulous.
With the M8, anything over 400 ASA started to look terrible, especially early on when the IR filtering issue was not yet publicly known. The M9 shoots beautifully at up to 1250 ASA and nicely at 1600 ASA. Its maximum of 2500 ASA can be used in emergencies, but I’d personally steer clear.
Whilst the menu system works well, it does take a little getting used to as it’s not as intuitive as some of the modern Japanese camera systems around. I’d for example love to see the SET button placed inside the direction buttons. I have a small gripe with the delete mechanism too. I have a dislike with any delete function which gives the option of delete all. If in the middle of a fast moving news job, it seems a little to easy to delete all images by accident, even if there is a confirmation needed.
On a positive note, the bright-line frame markers work perfectly. The M8 had serious issues with the frame markers not corresponding to image view photographed. This was partly addressed in the 8.2, but the M9 seems to work even better and I didn’t have a single issue.
Does It Make Sense?
If logic were to dictate, then no, not really. At £4950 body only, the M9 is a very expensive camera. Leica have always been expensive, but this is expensive, even by Leica standards. Leica are not a mass manufacturer and there’s a fair amount of hand assembly and finishing that goes on. To top this off the quality control is extremely high and has always been so. However, I just feel that the price tag is too high. It pushes it outside the grasp of most professional photographers and possibly makes it only accessible to the enthusiast photographer who has a well paid day job. Its a shame really.
The image quality, especially at high ASAs, doesn’t come close to my favourite DSLR, the Canon 5D MkII; the Canon produces smoother files at 2000 ASA than the M9 does at 1250 ASA. It also is more versatile and being a DSLR can take lenses from 15mm to 800mm, making it much more useful. However, the Leica M9, and these wonderful Leica lenses just produce images with life; there is a quality and look to the images which no other camera system can produce. Logic dictates that a large and cheaper DSLR makes more sense; the heart though, wants what the heart wants; after all, photography is a passion. Also the form factor is fabulous; this tiny camera takes up so little room and the lenses even less. It affords a very subtle and gentle way of working which is wonderful. I applaud and congratulate Leica on the M9; it’s an amazing camera and as soon as this recession lifts, I’ll be making a visit to the Leica Store in Bruton Place.
This article first appeared in the BJP on December 16, 2009.