Because this review will be read by current and previous Leica owners as well as people who have never seen one in the flesh, let alone shot with one, it will likely be impossible to satisfy the interests of both constituencies. Experienced users as well as those wondering if Leica has finally nailed the digital M (it has) will want to know specifics, and on the other hand there will be those who have heard about the Leica mystique, but simply wonder if it’s for them. The details of what’s working and what’s still problematic will likely be pretty meaningless for them though.
But, I’ll try and satisfy both, at the risk of this becoming quite a verbose piece. Since it’s proving fun to write though, hopefully it will also be fun to read.
I’m going to put my biases on the table up front – though if you’ve been reading my ramblings over the years there’ll be nothing surprising here.
Firstly – I am a huge fan of M series Leica cameras (having worked with them professionally and personally for some four decades), and secondly Paris is my favourite city in the world. So, when Leica started shipping M9s in mid-September, coincident with a vacation in theCity of Light with my wife and some friends, (or as my friend Nick calls it after this trip – The City of Leitz), the stars were in alignment. I placed my order for an M9 and had it in time for this trip.
Though I am favourably disposed to both Leica the camera and Leica the company, this is by no means a relationship without its heartaches. What love affair is? The M8, as but one example, was a flawed camera in many ways, and Leica’s response to its early teething problems were less than exemplary at first. But, I’m not a grudge holder. The M9 isn’t the M8, and today’s Leica is in many ways both a humbled and also a more forward looking company than it was three years ago.
If you haven’t already read it, my Leica M9 First Look Report, based on a press junket to Solms, Germany in August, provides my first impressions. You may also want to view this 70 minute interview with Product Manager Stephan Daniel and also this 18 minute video of a tour of the M9 assembly and testing facility.
In the weeks since the introduction of the M9 there has been a lot of rubbish discussion about it on web forums. Some people likening it to the second coming. Others, disparaging it as an overpriced plaything. It’s neither.
For someone that’s been involved in photography for more than the past 10 years an M Leica has a reputation and a cachet that is unparalleled. And, for anyone that’s worked with a film-based M Leica no description of what it is, or why it is what it is is necessary.
Combining the M Leica gestalt and digital technology has not been an easy path for the company. I believe that now, with the M9, they’ve finally gotten it right. But, for the vast numbers of photographers who’ve never held an M, who don’t have experience with using a rangefinder camera, and who only know Leica lenses by their reputation rather than through the pleasure of having shot with one, the whole thing might well appear to be a case of “Emperor’s New Clothes“. It’s not!
But what is it then? Here’s what I wrote in my initial M9 report. Maybe it can help…
An M series Leica, whether film based or digital, is a unique camera – a link to photography’s past, to be sure, but also a device for the present and even the future. Some will inevitably deride the M9 as an expensive anachronism. But, to do so is to misunderstand what rangefinder-based photography is all about, and an M series Leica is rangefinder photography defined.
The ability to see ones subject without the abstraction of a wide-open lens and the flattening effect of a ground glass; the ability to see around the subject, and judge action outside the shooting frame; the ability to use Leica’s unparalleled lenses – arguably among the best ever available for any camera system; these are all a part of what the M series ethos is all about.
In the end some may well see the M9 as an expensive retro plaything. But, there will be countless photographers both young and old around the world who will see the Leica M9 for what it is – a unique photographic device that provides a method of photography that reaches back to the beginnings of photojournalism in the early years of the 20th century. Combining this with the latest digital technology the M9 gives new expression to a style of photography that will likely never go out of style.
It also needs to be said that anyone that expects to pick up an M9 (or any M Leica for the matter) and simply point and shoot, will be in for a rude shock. To shoot with an M one needs to be an actual photographer rather than a button pusher (no insult to anyone intended). It means that one decides on what aperture one wishes to shoot at, and then set the lens accordingly (there is no auto-aperture capability). It means framing the subject with a mostly inaccurate framing window in an optical viewfinder. No depth of field preview. It means focusing using a range-finder (albeit a highly accurate one). It means being limited to lenses no longer than 135mm. On the short end 28mm is as wide as the optical viewfinder goes, and if you want to shoot with wider lenses then an accessory viewfinder in the accessory shoe is required, which means changing eye pieces for framing and viewing.
Using a digital M Leica also means not being able to shoot more than 2 FPS, having limited high ISO capability, needing to remove the camera’s bottom plate to get at the battery and even the SD card, not having dust shake removal or image stabilization….
In other words, a digital M Leica is in many ways a limited camera from the perspective of the all-singing, all-dancing polycarbonate wonders that are available for a tenth the price from any of the major Japanese camera makers.
Get over it! Why? Because what an M Leica offers is a way of working, a style of shooting, and a freedom that few other cameras can offer. As we’ll see further on in this report an M9 produces images that equal or exceed those from a Nikon D3x, Canon 5D MKII / 1Ds MK III, or Sony A900 in terms of resolution (because of not using an AA filter), and is a camera which can use Leica’s legendary M series lenses, arguably the best 35mm format lenses ever made.
Oh yes, and it does all of this in a size that’s not much larger than a large sensor pocket camera like the 4/3 format EP-1 and GH1. It’s an 18MP full-frame camera, and yet three extra lenses can fit in a waist pouch or a coat pocket, while the camera itself fits comfortably in hand on a wrist strap and can be carried there all day with no fatigue.
Shoot 50mm or wider, zone focus for DOF, and you can shoot the world passing by with extreme speed and discretion.
I decided to purchase the silver paint model of the M9 rather than the black paint version. Over the years I’ve owned both black and chrome versions of the M2, M3, M6, M7 and M8. My preference has always been black, except back in the film days when I would need two bodies on assignment, one for shooting colour and the other for shooting B&W. I would put Tri-X in the black body and Kodachrome in the chrome body (chrome – get it?).
Black is more “stealthy” than chrome, but when I visited the factory and saw the new silver paint model (the top plate is painted brass not chrome) I decided that it was the one for me. In any event,I’mnot as stealthy as I used to be, and the new look just captured my fancy. (Hey – it’s my money after all, so I can get the one I want, right?)
My M lens collection has been sitting forlorn for more than a year since I sold my M8, and so when they heard about Paris they all clamored to come along. In the end I chose a four lens kit for this trip; the Wide Tri-Elmar (WATE) 16-18-21mm f/4, the regular Tri-Elmar (28-35-50mm f/4, sadly discontinued a while ago as too difficult and expensive to manufacture), the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, and the 90mm f/2 APO Summicron. As Leica aficionados know, all four of these lenses can fit together in just one coat pocket – one of the joys of the M system.
The two Tri-Elmars provide the versatility for daytime street shooting, offering six focal lengths from 16mm to 50mm in two small lenses. The 50mm Summilux is for night-time use, and the 90mm, is well, the 90mm – simply one of the highest resolution lenses ever made, and not to be left at home.
Let’s Take a Walk
This is neither a travelogue nor a test report. Rather it is a dialog on my experience using the M9 in a real-world situation for the first time. Back in August in Germany, during my three day visit to Leica’s headquarters, we had been able to shoot with pre-production M9s, but the firmware was sub 1.0, and I simply didn’t have the opportunity to do enough varied shooting to be able to draw any firm conclusions – other than that the M9 seemed to address virtually every concern that I and other M8 and M8.2 users had raised over the past three years.
No, the M9 isn’t perfect – what is? But with its full-frame 18MP sensor, no need for lens-mounted IR filters, and significantly improved digital interface, I feel that we are now at the point where the M9 can be regarded as a true digital inheritor of the M series’ legacy. Indeed, without an AA filter it is fair to say that its 18MP is the equal of its full frame competitors at 21 and 24MP. We’ll have a look at this further on in this report.
The only settings on an M9 that are controlled by being physically set are the aperture, via a traditional setting ring on the lens, Single Frame or Continuous on a ring surrounding the shutter release, and the shutter speed, via a traditional setting wheel.
Everything else can be set electronically. This means that the camera can have a wide variety of shooting options set in user profiles. There are four of these, and I particularly like that they can be given user selectable names, unlike so many cameras where they are simply called User1, User2 and so on, and it’s up to you to remember three months later what you set each to.
Buttons & Wheels
There are six rear buttons, the smallest number that I think I’ve ever seen on a contemporary camera. These are labeled Menu, Play, Delete, ISO, Info and Set. The first three need no explanation. ISO provides selections from (Pull 80) through a base ISO of 160, up to ISO 2500 in third EV increments.
Info calls up a screen that shows graphs for remaining battery level as well as space remaining on the memory card. The actual number of bytes remaining as well as number of frames remaining is also shown as is the current shutter speed (either Auto or manually set) and the focal length and aperture of the lens currently mounted. I have asked Leica to add the current ISO setting to this menu, because though it’s also available just another button press away, it is part of the basic shooting information that we need, and should be displayed here as well.
The Set button is of course used to set various Menu choices when in Menu mode, but when not in that mode it calls up a shortcut screen that display choices for White balance, Compression, Resolution, Exposure Compensation, Exposure Bracketing and User Profile selection.
There is an Auto ISO setting which can be set for minimum shutter speed as well as maximum ISO to be used. In addition you can have the camera automatically determine the minimum shutter speed to be used based on the lens mounted. This uses the traditional 1 / focal length formula, so with a 50mm lens, for example, the shutter speed would be set no lower than 1/50 sec before the camera started increasing the ISO as needed.
For some reason Leica has only allowed 1/125 sec as the lowest shutter speed that one can set for the camera to use in Auto-ISO mode. When using a 90 or 135mm lens, in many situations I’d like to be able to limit it to /250 or even 1/500 second. Why not allow these?
One additional capability of Auto ISO on the M9 is that when you set the camera to a manual set shutter speed and a fixed aperture (there is no auto aperture, of course), the camera will use whatever ISO is needed to achieve a proper exposure using these two settings. So if, for example, you’ve set 1/250 sec to be sure to stop some action, and an aperture of f/8 to ensure appropriate depth of field, the camera will then set the ISO appropriately on its own.
Not many cameras will do this, but I don’t know why since it’s such a terrific capability.
Rosh Hasonah. Paris, September, 2009
Leica M9 with 90mm f/2 Summicron @ ISO 160
The M9, like the M8 and M8.2 before it takes a minimalist approach to digital menus. There is only one continuous scrolling menu that is four screens worth, and there’s a moving tab on the side to show you where you are. There are all of the usual items that you might expect such as formatting and firmware updates, bracketing and exposure compensation settings, review time, power off time, and the like. And, that’s about it.
Yes, if you’re a JPG shooter you can set Sharpening, Color Saturation and Contrast, but mercifully if you shoot raw these are grayed out, the way that they should be, but so few cameras do. Overall it’s hard to imagine a contemporary digital camera with less menu items and a simpler interface than this.
Exposure bracketing is also very nicely implemented. You can set the number of exposures, 3-5-7, the sequence, 0/+/- or -/0/+, and the EV increments, .5, 1, 1.5 or 2 EV. These are set on the main menu but then the actual activation is via the Set button. I was pleased to note that when a bracketing sequence is executed it does so without one having to keep ones finger on the shutter release, and also executes continuously even if the camera is in single shot mode.
Monument Skating. Paris, September, 2009
Leica M9 with Tri-Elmar @ 50mm. ISO 160
Exposure compensation is also well thought out. Via a menu selection it can be set to active via the Set menu selection. Beforehand though one can decide whether compensation can be set soley via the Set menu, with the rear setting ring alone, or with the setting ring when the shutter release is touched.
The shutter release has four settings. These are Standard, Soft, Discrete and Discrete & Soft. Standard turns the metering system on with the initial press and then there is some travel and resistance before the shutter is actuated. Soft activates the meter as soon as the button is touched and then its a very soft and short push till the shutter is released. Discrete releases the shutter but waits to cock it again until pressure is released. This makes for a quieter shutter sound, and the follow-up winding can then be masked with turning your back or coughing – may favourite technique in some situations.
Changed for The Better
Slowly but surely, from the original M8 through the M8.2 and now the M9 Leica has improved a lot of little things. The M7 or MP (pick your favourite) were the culmination of a half century of M film camera evolution. Some would even say that the M3 of 50 years ago was the pinnacle, and its all been downhill from there.
But with the transition to digital a number of changes and additions have been made to the M, and Leica most definitely did not get them right at first. Here then are some of the changes since the M8 and also the M8.2 that make the M9 a better camera.
– The power switch surrounding the shutter release now seems much less prone to being accidentally changed. The third position, Self Timer, has also now been modified with an on-off selection in the menu system so that one doesn’t lift the camera to ones eye, press the release to capture the “decisive moment” only to discover that your shot will be taken 12 seconds later.
– The Protect button is now an ISO setting button, a far more sensible and practical solution.
– The rear LCD is better than on previous models, but still not as good as the best currently available. It’s fine though, and quite visible even in direct sunlight. But, the resolution could be higher.
– The highlight warning (when activated) is now very precise. It exactly matches the clipping indication in Lightroom, and is not influenced by the JPG setting (if any) as it is on so many cameras. In fact, if you do not have JPG generation turned on the settings for colour space aren’t even available, which almost all other cameras do – the source of no end of confusion to many photographers.
– For anyone coming from an M8 or M8.2 the step up from 10MP to 18MP, and from a 1.3X crop to full frame, will be very exciting. Your lenses now provide the coverage that they were intended to, and the increase in resolution is quite appreciable. (The resolution is of course the same, since the pixel pitch is the same, but the apparent increase and the ability to print larger or crop more is not trivial).
– If you are an M Leica film camera user and resisted the call of the M8, then now is the time to break open the piggy bank, because with the M9 Leica has finally produced a digital M that touches all of the bases. One can quibble over small issues, but there is nothing that I can find in the M9 that is a show stopper for someone that values the M Leica ethos.
All is Not Roses
Lest anyone think that all is roses with the M9, it’s not. Here are my concerns based on a week of shooting in Paris and some additional shooting since returning home.
– After the M9 has been powered down for a while it forgets the User Profile setting. This may just be a back-up battery problem with my particular camera.
– There are times when the Auto Review function doesn’t work in Continuous mode. I can’t get the camera to do this consistently, but the problem is definitely there. There are random reports of crashes from other users in Continues mode, especially at higher ISOs, but I have not experienced this myself. These may in fact be related issues.
– Though I have not seen it a few users have commented on some minor IR issues, though they aren’t really serious. What I have found though is that Capture One’s M9 profile handles this much better than Lightroom without a profile. It’s almost a non-issue with C1, so until a Lightroom profile is available from either Adobe or Leica, C1 may be the preferable processor for some images. Nothing to fuss about though, and indeed all cameras will show a bit of IR sensitivity from time to time.
– I am occasionally seeing some blooming (red) around blown highlights. On things like specular highlights on chrome it looks like CA, but it isn’t. Around blown lights (like street lamps) its a full red halo. When a light has strong IR it also appears to take on a purple halo.
– Formatting is annoyingly slow. A 16MB Class 6 card takes just over a minute. On most other camera it takes but a few seconds. I thought that this might be because the camera was performing a low-level format, but this does not appear to be the case. There is a separate command for doing something like this called “Over Write” (for when you have to really totally wipe a card – though why one would want to do this in-camera is beyond me). This takes more than three minutes and can’t even be done if the camera has less than 50% battery power remaining. I’m not sure what’s going on here but frankly the Leica engineers need to be whipped soundly until they bring this camera’s card formatting into the 21st Century.
– Powering on (or emerging from sleep mode) isn’t as fast as I would like. It’s not so slow as to be a deal breaker, but I’ve had to learn to touch the shutter to wake the camera before taking a shot, just in case the camera has been powered down, because otherwise I lose the moment that I’ve wanted to capture. The M9 is so responsive, especially when the shutter release is set to Soft mode, that even the slightest bit of hesitation on power-up is an annoyance.
Similarly if you want to review images when the camera has been asleep. You need to touch the shutter release first (a good thing, since it prevents the camera from turning on through accidental control button pressure), but then there’s a moment when a standby message appears before the images. Faster please Leica!
– Though preview images appear quickly enough, zooming in can also be slow. This is likely because the files are 14 bit. I’m not sure if this is a microprocessor / power issue, or if it’s simply unoptimized code, but if it’s the latter I would hope that Leica will address this soon in a firmware upgrade.
– Battery life is decent, but not great. Shooting in 22 degree C weather in Paris I was getting about 275 frames on a battery charge. Given that the battery is quite small, though in keeping with the size of the camera, I suppose that one shouldn’t expect much more from it. A second battery is a must though, so be sure to order one when you get your camera, and don’t leave home without it.
One of the reasons for the battery life being half that of some DSLRs with similar sized batteries is likely to be the fact that the M9 uses a CCD sensor rather than CMOS. There is room for debate as to the merits of each, but clearly Leica decided to join Hasselblad, Phase One, Leaf and other medium format back makers in choosing a CCD rather than CMOS in part for reasons of image quality. I’ve been told by folks that understand these matters in depth that at these sizes CCD sensors are able to produce somewhat better S/N ratios and dynamic range, though the trade-off is in reduced IQ at higher ISOs.
Another important factor is that that CCD sensors lend themselves to lower production volumes and customization than CMOS, which obviously has its appeal to these specialty manufacturers, who make cameras by the thousands annually, rather than by the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Full frame 35mm sensors and larger are still quite expensive. In fact they are the single most expensive component in the camera, so even if a 35mm FF CMOS part could be made with better IQ, if it cost the company $2,000 in large volumes vs $1,000 for a CCD part, how many of us would be willing to pay for a camera that then cost an extra $3-4,000 more (with manufacturing markup)?
The good news on this front though is that the battery is the same as on the M8, and unlike that camera the M9 ships with a nice small charger rather than the monstrosity Leica used before.
– There is an bug in the clock settings. If you have the system display the time in 12 hour mode, with AM and PM indicators, the time between noon and 1pm is shown as AM rather than PM. In other words 12:15 in the afternoon is shown as 12:15am rather than 12:15pm.
My guess is that most of these issues can be and will be addressed with firmware updates, so I’m not too stressed about them. The blooming may be something that is simply inherent in a camera / sensor design such as this one, but it isn’t something that one will see very often, and I can live with it if I have to.
As this is being written I’ve shot something over a thousand frames with the M9 in Germany, and in France, and Canada. This has included people wearing clothes (ie: fabrics), buildings, and nature scenes. I have seen exactly one image with moire. (I have shot many tens of thousands of frames with the previous Leica M8 as well as Kodak DCS Pro Back, Phase One P25, P45 add P65 backs, all lacking AA filters, and have never seen more than a handful of other instances of moire).
The full frame image above clearly shows moire on a very finely textured metal screen, which is shown at 100% immediately above. Though it doesn’t happen often, when it does it needs to be removed. There are several strategies. One, is to use the demoire tool in Capture One, which helps, but doesn’t completely remove it. It also reduces resolution, making the image look much as if you had an AA filter on the sensor. This can be seen in the example crop immoderately below.
In this particular example I found the best strategy to be doing a Selection in Photoshop and then simply desaturating the selection. The whole process took just a couple of seconds and it works very effectively, as seen below. This might not work as well on a coloured fabric, but in the end I’ll take the enhanced resolution of a camera without an AA filter over one with, any time, since some 99% of my images show the advantage of working without a blurring filter against the off chance that the odd frame might have some moire.
On M Leicas prior to the M8 the film wind lever provided a rest for ones thumb. This greatly assisted stabilizing the camera and was a definite aid in allowing one to shoot at low shutter speeds. But beginning with the M8 these cameras no longer have, or need, film wind levers. After decades of shooting with M Leicas I found that I really missed the handling characteristics of having a thumb rest.
There is a solution though, and M8, M8.2 and M9 users should definitely consider purchasing a Thumbs-Up from match Technical Services, a device that attaches to the camera’s accessory shoe, and which provides a perfect handling grip for the camera – even better than a wind lever.
The CSEP1 is US $163 – fairly expensive for what it is, but it is beautifully made, and after the first time that you use yours won’t regret regret the purchase for a second.
In the past Leica has had a relationship with Phase One in which their digital cameras shipped with Capture One. Apparently quite late in the M9 development process Leica decided to switch to Adobe’s Lightroom, and that’s what ships with M9s and will also be provided with the forthcoming Leica S2 and X1. Of course the fact that Leica’s raw files are in DNG format means that any raw processing program can be used by the owner, for which Leica gets a big thumbs up. This is one manufacturer that appreciates that photographers do not want to be held captive to proprietary raw formats.
No one doubts that Capture One is one of the finest raw processing programs – ever. It is the mainstay of a vast number of pros who use Phase One backs, as well as tens of thousands of DSLR owners who use it with their Nikons, Canons and other brand DSLRs in preference to anything else.
But Adobe’s Lightroom has becomethemost popular raw processing program on the market, and for good reason. In terms of workflow it is unparalleled, and it provides exceptional image processing capabilities. That’s the good news.
The bad news, is that as of late September, 2009, as the M9 has just started to become available, Capture One 4.8.3 comes with a custom profile for the M9, while Lightroom doesn’t. This is ironic given that Lightroom is the “official” raw processor, but I have no doubt that an M9 profile will be available shortly from Adobe.
In the above side-by-side comparison you can see what this is about. Both images have been processed with white balance set on the man’s white shirt. There is a clear reddish warmth to the Lightroom image that can be “tweaked” out, but in some images isn’t that easy to see.
For the short term anyone wanting to extract optimum image quality from their M9 files might wish to process them in C1 (assuming you already own a copy), but as soon as a profile for Lightroom becomes available then it will come down to a matter of personal work preference, since there is, of course, much more to the subtleties of raw processing then profiles. But that’s beyond the scope of this article.
There are two approaches to writing about image quality. One is the quantitative approach with charts and graphs (been there, done that), and the other is the subjective evaluation approach. As has been discussed here recently, it’s not terribly productive to judge image quality with 800 pixel and smaller online images. You’ll therefore have to take my descriptions as written, or if you’re in Toronto drop into my gallery some time and see samples for yourself. Better yet, rent or borrow an M9, if you can, and do your own tests and comparisons.
Some 1,000 frame later what I am seeing from the M9 is what was hinted at on the couple of days in August that I had a preview of the camera in Germany. Succinctly put, the combination of the M9’s AA-less sensor and Leica’s optics produces images that have a clarity equaled only by the better medium format backs that I’m familiar with. I’m not talking just about resolution, though at 18MP without an AA the M9 has this in spades. Rather it is the sum of both the camera and the lenses that produces such compelling image quality.
A characteristic of Leica lenses is that they combine very high resolution and state-of-the-art freedom from various optical aberrations, while at the same time not being excessively contrasty. This has been a long time differentiator between Leica and Zeiss lenses, where the Zeiss lenses always had a bit more “bite” but the Leica glass produced “rounder” and more three dimensional images because of their smoother tonal transitions. Which one one prefers is, of course, a matter of taste, but clearly I am taken with the Leica approach.
What I found very interesting as I started to work seriously with my M9 files is that I discovered that they needed hardly any sharpening. Working in Lightroom I did my usual masking in the Detail palette and then ran the Sharpen slider up to see what effect it would have. Invariably I found that I preferred the images with just the Lightroom default setting of 25 / 1.0 / 25 / 0. This is unusual, and the only other camera for which this is the often case is the Phase One P65+.
Colour rendition is another matter, and I discussed it further under the Raw Processing section immediately above. Until there are profiles from Adobe it’ll be hard to draw any definitive conclusions about colour rendition, but be it enough written at the moment that what I’m seeing is really pleasing me.
The final topic that I’ll touch on in this section is a comparison with some other cameras, specifically the Canon 1Ds MKIII (21 MP) and the Sony A900 (24MP). I was very curious to see how these would compare to the 18MP M9 in terms of resolution.
I spent the better part of a day doing comparisons, and discovered all over again that they are fraught with difficulty. I ran a number of comparisons, to be sure that what I was seeing would not be influenced by any one set of circumstances, light conditions or anything else. Of course MLU was used on the DSLRs along with either self timer or cable release, and also a sturdy tripod.
For the sample shown here I decided on the use of a 50mm lens. Since I don’t have any one lens that can fit on all three cameras I decided that a high quality prime was the way to go. All three lenses are f/1.4 and all are very well regarded. I used single center point AF on the Sony and Canon and I did three manually focused shots on the Leica, though all three turned out to be perfectly focused. An aperture of f/5.6 was used since it’s the sweet spot on a lens of this focal length and maximum aperture, and also provided enough DOF to cover any slight focusing errors.
The results speak for themselves and are completely in line with a number of other comparisons which I performed. One can see the slight size advantage of the A900 (24MP, then the 21MP Canon, and finally on the right the 18MP Leica. I see little to choose between the Sony and Canon, though maybe the Sony has a tiny edge. Very tiny. The Leica clearly shows higher resolving power than the other two, though not by a huge margin. Certainly enough though to compensate for the difference between 18 and 21 and 24MP.
As for the Canon 5D MKII one can assume that it is similar to the 1Ds MKIII, and that leaves the Nikon D3x at 24MP. I don’t currently have access to one, but I am fairly confident that the results will be quite similar to those from the Sony A900, which has in the past tested closely with the Nikon, at least in terms of resolution at low ISOs. But Leica expert rwin Puts, author of the Leica Lens Compendium, has done a comparison with the D3x and he has found that the D3x has a slight edge. Who am I to argue with Erwin? In any event. the results are quite close, and someone buying an M9 should feel comfortable that there isn’t currently another 35mm camera that can best the M9 in terms of resolution or overall image quality at low to moderate ISOs.
The M9 is many things, most of them positive, but a high ISO king it is not. My seat-of-the-pants estimate is that it is a stop or maybe a bit more better than its predecessor the M8. After dozens of shots at ISOs from 640 to 2500 (anything 400 or under is as noise free as one could wish) it’s my feeling that up to ISO 1200 no supplimentary noise reduction is necessary. What little noise there is is all luminance, and therefore grain-like and easily dealt with if desired, though as always at a slight loss of very fine detail.
At 1SO 1600 noise starts to become visible and its definitely there at 2500. Given how extraordinary the M9 is at low ISOs this is a trade-off that I’ll gladly make. But given the amazing high speed lenses available for the M Leica, from the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux, to the 21mm, 24mm, 35mm and 50mm f/1.4 Summiluxes, very low light photography is more than a treat.
If you want ultimate high ISO / low noise capability then a Nikon D3 or D700 is the way to go. But since low light work often means shooting discretely, an M9 with a Summilux lens has a lot to offer as well, and may indeed be preferable in many situations.
A Word About Esthetics
One rarely hears photographers discussing the esthetics of their cameras. Image quality, yes. Ergonomics, yes. Build quality, yes. But how excited can one get about a polycarbonate lump with 37 buttons, levers and knobs? In the case of an M Leica though we’re dealing with an object that can inspire esthetic admiration.
There is a mechanical simplicity of design and form that is seen almost nowhere else in the photographic world. Leica has long recognized this aspect of their products and plays up on it. Over the years Leica cameras have been available in a variety of finishes, including metal types, paint types and cover types. Today, with the M9, there are two choices – black paint finish and a gray silver paint finish (anthracite). The black finish model also comes with a more highly textured vulcanite gripping surface.
It’s easy enough for anyone who wants to scorn the M Leica ethos to simply see this as a form of high-end consumerism having nothing to do with photography. But then these people also likely wear a $15 Timex, because to them a watch is simply a utilitarian device. For some owners though an appreciation of the extremely high materials and build quality of an M Leica is similar to the appreciation of a fine watch, car, tool. It’s function isn’t compromised by being esthetically pleasing, if anything its user’s enjoyment is enhanced, and what’s wrong with that?
Leica dances to the beat of a different drummer. Always has, and hopefully always will. I’ve appreciated this for many decades as a Leica owner and user, but I got a very good sense of where this comes from when I visited the factory in August.
The product engineers, designers and managers at Leica are all enthusiasts. They care about photography, do it themselves, and have a passion for their products. Yes, they are driven by cost accounting and the bottom line (otherwise they won’t survive) but within the constraints of the real world of business they appear to personally care about the products that they make.
This extends to a respect for the company’s historical approach to the cameras and lenses that they make, which includes striving for the highest mechanical and materials quality and also optical excellence. This is not at “any price“, because they have to be able to sell their cameras and lenses in the real world and make a profit to stay in business. But unlike many manufacturers they don’t built “to a price“, targeting a segment of the market just on the basis of what the product can be made to sell for.
On a functional level what I have always appreciated about M Leica cameras is their operational minimalism. During a half century, from the M3/M2 though the M7/MP, a Leica had a shutter speed dial, an aperture ring on the lens, a film wind lever, and a shutter release. That’s all one really needed.
This simplicity of design continues to a large extent in the M8 and now M9, even though moving from film to digital demands some additional controls. When using an M9 after almost any other digital camera one is taken by how direct the interface between the camera and the photographer still is. Controls are there for adjusting those things that need to be adjusted, but that’s it. Automation in the form of autoexposure is available, if you want it, but little else.
This is a personal perspective, but I have come to activity dislike all of the electronic frippery that the major camera makers have added to their cameras over the past few years. Since it’s mainly software driven it costs almost nothing to add, and therefore why not add it? That’s why we end up with cameras that have 350 page manuals – and need them! 90% of the nonsense that they add is totally useless for most photographers though. It’s marketing one-upmanship at its worst.
Leica has thus far resisted the siren call ofcreeping featuritis. They continue to focus their attention on trying to design and make cameras and lenses that are capable of producing the highest image quality with the greatest simplicity of approach and use.
It has taken the company about three years to gain the digital expertise needed to equal the optical and mechanical excellence for which they are renown. Partners such as Jenoptic and Kodak are needed, but Leica is now at the stage where they can also design their own image processing engine, theMaestro, as used in the new S2 medium format system. I’m sure that this technology will filter into the next generation of M cameras as well.
In the end what we have with the M9 is a camera that wants to be a camera, and not a computer with a lens attached. I have a computer already, thank you, in fact more than one. I enjoy using it. I also love my iPhone. But I want my camera to be – well, simply a camera, not an automated electronic picture taking machine.
And with that off my chest, here are some thoughts onZen and the Art of M Leica Photography.
Zen and The Art of Leica M Photography
Choosing a Canon over a Nikon, an Olympus over a Pentax, or any other combination, comes down to matters of brand preference, feature comparisons, and personal whim. They all pretty much do the same thing, but of course with some differences in user interface, control placement and specific features, which may or may not appeal to any one individual. In addition there are a wide range of models (with new ones introduced every few months) to satisfy just about any budget. That’s fine. That’s the nature of the mass market and it means that we have some amazing cameras available to us at ever decreasing prices.
But for some the camera that they use is about more than being a tool for getting a certain task done – whether its a feature magazine assignment or simply recording a family vacation. For these photographers the camera becomes an extension of their ability to see and record, a tool for actualizing that process. The tool and the process become inseparable. It is for photographers that approach their work in this manner, and who have developed an appreciation for a minimalist esthetic that the M Leica appeals.
This isn’t a form of snobbery. For many photographers this desire for simplicity can be expressed by using a Holga or similar device. A camera phone can suffice, because it’s about the process just as much as it is the result.
A Nikon D3x or a Canon 1Ds MKIII can be used as a point and shoot. For all of their sophistication and complexity, with these and similar cameras one can completely remove oneself from the process and just press the shutter. With an M9 that is not the case. Because it is resolutely manual focus the camera demands that you become involved in the photographic process. This is another aspect of the Zen of Leica M Photography. There’s no slacking off. There’s no fully auto-everything mode. Youmustat least manually choose an aperture and youmustalways focus by eye.
The photographer is further involved in the process of creating an image because of the use of an optical viewfinder rather than a groundglass or LCD screen. The technical pros and cons of one or the other are beside the point discussed here. I like a large ground glass image for landscape and nature work. They are an aid to composition in three dimensions because they abstract the image to its eventual two dimensional form.
But for other types of photography, and yes, even for landscape work, an optical viewfinder then becomes simply a window through which one completes the framing before pressing the shutter. With an M Leica I almost always compose the image mentally even before lifting the camera to my eye. I judge the light, choose an appropriate aperture for the depth of field required, prejudge the distance and set it on the lens’ scale so that if needs be I can shoot without even final focusing, decide on the focal length needed and change the lens accordingly, and only then does the camera come up to my eye for fine tuning the composition or waiting for the “decisive moment” to press the shutter.
It’s a different style of working. It may not appeal to some people, and indeed unless one has grown up with it, either personally or professionally, it may not be a comfortable or productive may of working at all. I’ve known many photographers over the years that try an M Leica and then walk away in annoyance or frustration. Again – it’s like driving a stick shift car.Why bother, is the comment from many.
Why bother, indeed. Because, its possible that by making the effort you’ll be brought in closer touch with the instrument, be it an automobile on a race track or a camera with which you make your art or pursue your profession.
The Bottom Line
A week’s shooting (about 1,000 frames) is nowhere near enough to get the full measure of a new camera. I’m sure that I’ll return to the subject of the M9 again in a few months once the “new” has worn off and I can bring greater experience and likely a greater level of objectivity to the exercise.
But, since the M9 is my sixth M Leica in four decades I bring a bit of competence to the evaluation, and so my impressions at this point are enough, I feel, to take the measure of this new camera.
There are two ways of looking at any camera. One is to simply consider the quality of the images that it produces. In the days of film this had mainly to do with lenses, but in the digital world the camera itself (the sensor) is fundamental in image quality production.
In the case of the M9 I have no doubt that the combination of the sensor and Leica M lenses is producing image quality that is easily equal to the best that I’ve ever seen for any camera with the exception of 39MP and 60MP medium format backs, which are also CCD based devices without AA filters. And yes, this includes the Canon 1Ds MKIII and Nikon D3x.
How much is attributable to being CCD based, how much to not having an AA filter, and how much to Leica lenses, is a debate that I won’t enter, and I’m sure will rage on on online forums for some time. It will never be resolved, except to the satisfaction of those that care to do the comparison’s themselves, for themselves.
But no one can dispute that the Leica M9 is the smallest and highest resolution full-frame camera on the market, and that because it is a rangefinder camera, without a mirror box and prism, it is likely to remain wearing this crown for some time to come. Therefore, if light weight and small size, along with superb image quality and the ability to use some of the world’s finest lenses is important to the type of photography that you do, then the M9 may be the tool that you need.
Then, there are the flaws. No – the M9 is not perfect. But, its remaining issues are on the whole small enough that they won’t fuss most people. They certainly are things that I can live with, if I have to. But I likely won’t, because most of the ones that I’ve identified are capable of being addressed in firmware, and that means that an update or two will likely be able to address the majority of them.
Of course the inherent nature of a rangefinder camera will not be to everyone’s liking. The best analogy that I can come up with is a standard transmission stick shift vs. an automatic transmission. Some people have never learned to drive a stick, and can’t even get out of the driveway when confronted with having to drive one. Some people can, but prefer not to. Then, there are those that love to drive a stick, buy their cars that way, and rather hate being stuck behind the wheel of an automatic even if these are easier to drive.
That then is the Leica M9. The last of the photographic stick shifts. To some it will be seen an expensive anachronism while to others it’s the culmination of a product history little changed in more than half a century, yet capable in this latest incarnation of producing images of equal or greater quality to the best from other makers.
At the risk of sounding sexist, owning and working with an M Leica is like being involved with a very beautiful and intelligent woman that sometimes makes you a bit crazy with her demands. Frustrating yes, but overall more than worth the effort involved.
As of late September 2009, with the M9 shipping for a few weeks, there are now a number of reviews for you to read, which will together give you a more complete impression of what the M9 is all about. Clearly from the above and my other writing on this site and in magazines over the years I am a big fan of M Leicas, and make no bones about it. You should therefore read other critics who will provide different perspectives so that you can draw your own conclusions. Here are some…