Leica M9
2 approaches to consumerism

Roger has been using Leicas for around 40 years, and the M9 was a revelation: almost like going back to his first Leica IIIa in 1969 or 1970.

When the M8 came out, and then the M8.2, they were essential tools for anyone who wanted to earn a living from photography while using Leicas, but two things militated against them: the crop factor (which increased the effective focal length of all lenses by 33%) and the 10.1 megapixel count. There was also the IR sensitivity question, though it was possible (and indeed quite easy) to exaggerate the importance of this in many kinds of photography. Both the M8 and M8.2 were (and are) very fine cameras, and we recommend that you re-read the reviews. But they are not the M9.

Two Approaches to Consumerism (Above)

The M9 is very, very expensive - but that's not the same as consumerist. Like any Leica, it is not a disposable toy: it is a camera to be bought and used, quite probably hard and for a long time. This is a very heavily manipulated picture. The road has been darkened; the road markings lightened; the red of the stop sign intensified; and the blue of the sky cloned as a flat tone. So? Much as it may offend false purists, there are many mansions in the house of photography, and there is as much room for this sort of picture as for 'straight' pictures like most of the ones below. Pre-aspheric 35/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160.

The M9 is not only full-frame - the most compact full-frame (24x36mm) camera in the world - with the IR problem resolved: its 18 megapixel resolution also makes far more difference than you might expect. There are plenty who scoff at the need for anything more than 14, 12, 10 or even 6 megapixels, usually depending on the camera they own. But for the first time, we really felt that we were getting film-like quality from a digital camera. To be sure, for blurry, hand-held shots at long shutter speeds and high ISOs, you don't need 18 megapixels; but it's always preferable to have the option of more quality than you need, rather than insufficient quality at the times you need or want it. The dip on the left (near) end of the top plate, where the counter/ battery meter used to be is the only major styling difference between the M9 and its predecessors.

m9 general picture

All of the improvements of the M8.2 have been incorporated, though the 'snapshot' mode has been dropped, and there is also provision for manual lens coding via a menu: much slower than the 6-bit system, to be sure, but also a lot cheaper than having lots of lenses coded, and offering the opportunity of putting in a better-than-nothing code for all kinds of lenses. The 15/4.5 Voigtländer Ultra-Wide-Heliar, for example, can be coded as a wide-angle Tri-Elmar (the 4/16-18-21mm, lens type 11626), and there is a detectable increase in quality.

 

sand and shells 1

 

Sand and shells (above and below)

This is an absolutely straight shot, hand held with the 75/2 Summicron at its closest focusing distance. It may have lost a tiny bit of ultimate sharpness to camera shake but it has certainly lost depth of field to a wide aperture: a tripod would have been a good idea. You can however see that detail and resolution are truly film-like: there is none of the 'airbrushed' quality that typifies lower-megapixel images. The figure of at least 18 megapixels has long been touted as being the minimum required to equate to a good 35mm slide, and on the evidence of the M9, this seems like a realistic estimate. The picture below is cropped from the upper right of the 'all in' shot above: no sharpening, nothing. This is quite a good illustration of how little you can actually tell from the vast majority of images on the internet. They are simply not big enough, and do not have high enough resolution.

 

sand and shells crop

 

The control buttons have been altered too, in that ISO now has a dedicated button, as illustrated below left, though it is of limited use until you realize that you have to hold it down while resetting the ISO. Also, you now have the options of 1/3 stop rests instead of the whole-stop rests on the previous models, plus a 'Pull 80' speed below the 160 minimum (maximum is still 2500) for those occasions when you want a wide aperture or long shutter speed. The ISO button replaces the old PROTECT button, which prevents images being deleted: Protect is now a function of the SET button, while an image is on the rear screen. In other words, press PLAY and then SET, and you get the option. As neither of us has ever used the protect button, this is unadulterated good news for us.

m9 iso set
m9 rear info

Of course the M9 isn't perfect. Its high ISO Performance is frankly limited next to many modern DSLRs, and it is still far too easy to turn the on/off switch to 'C' for 'continuous' or even to the self timer ( a little picture of a stopwatch). It still doesn't have a flash synch socket, and an astonishing omission is the former frame counter/battery meter, though in all fairness, pressing the INFO button on the back now gives a considerably more accurate and informative picture of the state of the battery as well as information on the SD card, as illustrated above right. But these are all pretty minor niggles when compared with the things it has got.

frances, blanket

Frances

Since 2005, Frances has suffered from pseudopolyarthrite rhizomelique or PPR, which as its name suggests mimics arthritis. It's worse in cold weather, and this was a very cold day, and it's really bad when she forgets to take her Prednisone, which she had done the previous night. This is, therefore, a real 'in sickness and in health' picture - which somehow seems to be one of the many things the Leica is ideal for: a notebook of one's life. Taken with the 75/2 Summilux Aspheric at ISO 500, this is derived from the colour DNG via desaturation and manipulation of curves. But once again it gives film-like detail, as seen in the crop below.

crop - eye

There's still the same little USB trapdoor behind the left strap lug; the shutter is still 8 seconds to 1/4000 second + B; but as well as the 'discreet' option (the shutter does not re-cock until you release the shutter button) there is also a 'soft' option so that the shutter fires on the second pressure instead of locking the shutter reading.

This last was especially interesting, because Roger found that he relies far less on 'A' (auto) with the M9 than is his wont with the M8.2 and M8. It's hard to say why, but it goes back to what we said at the beginning of this review: it's like discovering Leica all over again, and being knocked out by the ease of use and the quality of the images. What is really strange is that 40 years' practice mean that he can often set shutter speed and aperture without consciously looking at either and get the right exposure.

Also on the topic of manual settings, although the auto white balance of the M9 is probably now at least as good as anyone else's, we still prefer to work the same way we did with the M8 and M8.2, as it ensures greater consistency when there is a large area of a particular colour in the picture. This means setting either a Kelvin temperature or doing a manual white balance with a sheet of white paper. The former is normally ideal for tungsten light (3200K), sunlight (5600K) and overcast days (6500K) while the latter is ideal for nasty light sources such as sodium vapour, or for mixed light.

christ in winter
mobile phones

Christ in Winter (left) and Mobile Phones on the Beach (right)

The M9 is very much Roger's camera, rather than Frances's: she much prefers film, and black and white film at that, in either a Leica MP or a Zeiss Ikon SW. What amazes Roger, though, is the sheer variety of pictures that he takes with the M9: again, back to the days of his very first Leica IIIa about four decades before. Some are dead straight, like the sea shells; some are quite heavily cropped, like the picture on the right above (and 18 megapixels gives more scope for cropping); some are strongly manipulated, like the Super U picture or the picture on the left above. The strange thing is that it all seems of a piece to him. Lenses and ISO were 75/2 at 400, left, and 35/1.4 at 160, right.

The viewfinder magnification is still 0.68x, though of course the larger frame area of the 24x36 mm sensor (all right, 23.9x35.8 mm if you're being pedantic) means that the 24mm frame can no longer be accommodated. Instead, it's the canonical three pairs of frame-lines, 35+135, 50+75, 28+90, all auto-selected as usual, with the M3-style preview lever under your left index finger on the front.

 

Crochet

As noted below, the viewfinder is accurate at 1 metre. Some lenses focus closer than this: the 75/2 Summicron used here is an example: it focuses to 70cm, about 28 inches, the limit of the viewfinder. At less than one metre you will get slightly less in the picture than is shown in the viewfinder. ISO 400.

The parallax-compensated viewfinder has reverted to being accurate - well, as accurate as a non-reflex finder can be - at 1 metre. This means that at greater distances, there will always be more recorded by the sensor than is outlined by the viewfinder frames: at infinity, between 7.3% (28mm frame) and 18% (135mm frame). This is inevitable with a viewfinder where the frame lines do not change size with distance, as they do (for example) with a Linhof Technika 70. Unfortunately the rangefinder/viewfinder unit of a Tech 70 is about the size of an M9, though it does incorporate an exposure meter and is rather lighter than an M9 (just the viewfinder unit, that is - the whole Tech 70 weighs a lot more). If this sort of viewfinder accuracy, or lack of it, really worries you, don't buy an M9. Alternatively, you may be astonished at how you learn to compensate for different distances, or (in many cases) how little it matters.

 

confessional line

Confessional Line - Do Not Cross

The warning tape was so reminiscent of a police line that the title to this picture automatically suggested itself. Roger had only had the camera for a day or two at this point, and when he started using it, he said, "It's wonderful to have my 35mm back!" He had been using the (vastly more expensive, vastly better, vastly bigger) 24/1.4 Summilux in place of his old pre-aspheric 35/1.4 Summilux on the M8.2, where it is equivalent to a 32mm lens, but his reaction confirmed to him that although lens quality is very important indeed, it's even more important to use a lens that you're happy with. ISO 320, as far as we recall.

 

Mention of the ISO speed in the caption above prompts comment on the ISO 2500 maximum available on the M9, a source of a good deal of whingeing and whining on the internet: after all, Nikon introduced ISO 100,000 shortly after the M9 came out, more than 5 stops extra sensitivity. Well, yes, we'd all like more sensitivity, and less noise at higher sensitivities, and presumably these will appear in due course in an M10 or whatever; but equally, the number of people who need these phenomenally high speeds, whether for creative or technical purposes, is not great; and the number who can use them successfully is even smaller.

We would be the last to decry any ISO speed, or any lens, as 'too fast', because we have spent a good deal of our photographic lives battling with 'available darkness' photography; but precisely because of that, although we would like (say) ISO 10,000 (2 stops extra), we can't help wondering how many of the people who denigrate the Leica would actually use such speeds, and how many are indulging in theoretical 'specmanship'.

zenia gesturing
optimist

Mme. Melnyk (left) and Optimist (right)

Oskar Barnack's original idea of the Leica was a combination notebook and 'real' camera: one that could be used to document and record every part of one's life, and still produce prints that were big enough to hang on a wall. The M9 lives up to these ambitions. On the left, Mme. Melnyk at Frances's sewing circle (75/2 Summicron, ISO 400); on the right, a sign at Port Louis in Brittany. It was a raw November's day: 'Optimist' as the bottom line seemed quite appropriate (35/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160).

 

There's still a small buffer that fills up quickly, and life is not long enough to shoot Raw and JPEG at the same time, but a curious option is a choice between plain Raw and compressed Raw. The latter gives files about half the size, and therefore twice as many pictures on a card. The instruction book says that the quality loss with compressed RAW is negligible, and so (on limited acquaintance) it seems to be, though equally, we don't find 35-megapixel Raw images especially inconvenient.

 

marina

Marina, L'Orient

One of many useful features in Adobe Lightroom (see below) is the possibility of applying a neutral density graduated filter at the time of processing. This was applied here (35/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160). Of course, ND grads are next to impossible to use on rangefinder cameras anyway. Some purists have a problem with this: an ND grad is legitimate at the taking stage, they feel, on large format or SLR cameras, but not at processing. This is of course nonsense. Dodging and burning were (and are) legitimate tools in the wet darkroom; ND filters are legitimate tools; and to object to them as part of a software image processing package is as meaningless as the grammarians' objection to splitting infinitives in English, by analogy with the fact that it is literally impossible to do so in Latin.

While 35-megabyte files may not worry us too much, processing software is another matter. The M9 is delivered without any image processing software, and the old M8.2 Phase One Capture One needs to be updated before you can read it, so you have to download Adobe Lightroom. This probably isn't too inconvenient for many people, despite having to jump through a number of hoops on the Leica website in order to get into the User Area, or whatever it's called, but in the interests of a real barrier against viruses and malware we don't work on-line. We therefore had to download the program to a jump drive (our e-mail computer doesn't have a CD burner) then bring the drive upstairs and burn a CD (you can't usually install from a jump drive...). A Lightroom CD would be a welcome addition to the M9 box.

On the bright side, despite the usual complete failure of certain aspects of the software to conform to common sense or the English language, it's probably quicker and easier to understand than Phase One Capture One.

Flats and balconies, L'Orient

Is it a picture at all? It's a banal scene, to be found in a thousand or maybe ten thousand cities. But in another way, its very universality is its strength. The shapes, the colours, the shadows: they are in their own way beautiful. And, it has to be said, the 18 megapixel resolution helps: this is a picture that 'wants' to be as big as one can afford to print it. Part of the photographer's job is to make us notice things. Part of the camera's job is to help the photographer notice things. Summilux 35/1.4, ISO 160.

blue chairs
frances, embroidering

Blue chairs (left) and Frances embroidering (right)

Some photographers - no, let's be honest, most - cannot resist photographing doors or windows. Roger has a hard time resisting chairs: there is a whole gallery of them here. These have a curiously metallic sheen to them (35/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160). On the right, Frances at her sewing circle (50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar, ISO 400). The cropped head and body are a compositional style it has taken him a long time to appreciate. For many years he adhered to the 'get it all in' school of composition, where anything that was cut by the border of the image was anathema - an attitude learned from overly opinionated writers of the middle third of the 20th century. But look at Manet's compositions sometime.

To return to the choice of lenses, there are very few which cannot be used on the M9, which (as with the M8 and M8.2) makes it especially attractive to long-term Leica users who may already have built up a significant arsenal of lenses. Somewhat to our surprise, we found that we use nine focal lengths more or less frequently, 15-18-21-28-35-50-75-90-135, and that we have more than one lens at some of these focal lengths, such as 90/2 Leica Summicron (fast, Roger's original), 90/2.2 Leitz Thambar (soft focus portrait lens, the most recent acquisition at this focal length), 90/3.5 Voigtländer Apo Lanthar (small, light, sharp, Frances's 90).

The lenses that cannot be used at all - they won't fit - are the 15/8 Hologon, the 50/2 dual range Summicron, the original 90/4 collapsible Elmar (the current Makro-Elmar-M isn't a problem) and some (not all) examples of the 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux, 1961-1995, though the last can be modified by Leica Customer Service.

Collapsible 50mm lenses should never be collapsed, though apparently some people have found that some lenses are not a problem. In the days of the M5, when collapsible lenses could foul the meter cell, the recommended solution was a strip of Dymo tape stuck to the barrel so that the lens wouldn't collapse.

Finally, although you can use the lenses, you can't meter with 21 mm Super Angulons (f/4 and f/3.4) or 28/2.8 Elmarit-M lenses with serial numbers below 2 314 921.

The instruction book also cautions against the use of 135 mm lenses at full aperture, recommending that they be stopped down 'at least 2 stops'. This is because of the relatively short effective base length of the 0.68x finder, though many users report no problems and we cheerfully use our 135/2.8 Elmarit-M at full aperture. We suspect that using 135 mm lenses at full aperture is perfectly feasible, but that you have to be very careful with focusing and that the coupling has to be spot on.

 

blessed virgin and pews

Church, Port St. Louis

This is the same church as the 'Confessional Line' picture above. Decades of using the 35/1.4 as his standard lens mean that Roger can tell almost instinctively how much will be covered at a given distance, or alternatively, how far away he has to stand in order to get a certain degree of coverage. His 'dream outfit' is the MP and M9, with a 35/1.4 Summilux on one and a 75/2 Summicron on the other: the lenses can be swapped between the two in seconds, and just as in the days when he shot only film, he has one colour body and one black and white (usually loaded with Ilford HP5). 'Your legs are your best zoom' is an old saying, but two lenses, one with a quarter of the field of view of the other, make life even easier.

There is however a point well worth making about Leicas, that they attract false purists of all kinds. Some refuse to believe that a Leica can ever be digital, and that 'real' photographers use only film Leicas. The most extreme of these maintain that only the small, light, pocketable screw-mount Leicas are 'real' Leicas. Others say that it is heresy to use anything other than a single lens, preferably 50 mm, 'because that is what Henri Cartier-Bresson used'.

This last argument neglects two important points. First, they are not HCB. Only HCB was HCB, and he's dead. Second, it's not true. There even exist pictures of him with a 90 mm lens on one of his Leicas.

As a general rule, we prefer to change lenses very little: Roger's preference for 35/75 has already been noted, while for Frances, it's 18/50. The reason for this is simple. Time thinking about which lens to use, and time spent swapping lenses, is time that cannot be spent on watching the subject or taking pictures. There are however times when we use all sort of other focal lengths, from 15 mm (especially for interiors) to 135 mm (especially for mountain landscapes).

big sun
crocheted hat

Big Sun (left) and Crocheted Hat

One of the things we've tried to convey in this review is that the M9 (and indeed any Leica) is far more versatile than most people think. All too often, Leicas are dismissed (even by those who own them) as 'cameras for street photography'. Well, it's true that quite a lot of the pictures in this review - the one below, for example - were taken in the street, but equally, quite a lot weren't. The strange light over the Breton coast (35/1.4 Summilux, ISO 160) is a species of landscape, and the picture on the right (75/2 Summicron, ISO 400) can be taken as a kind of portrait or a low-light shot or an illustration for a piece on handicrafts. The M9 (again, like any Leica) is far more limited by most people's imagination than it is by its own design.

 

blue door, white wall

 

Blue door, white wall

Earlier in the review we said that many photographers have a weakness for doors and windows, and here, indeed, is an example. The 75/2 Summicron and ISO 160 made for a sharp, saturated image, and manipulation of colour, contrast, etc. is far easier in Adobe Photoshop than in a wet darkroom - just as, in our view, the creation of a good black and white print is far easier with black and white film and a wet darkroom.

One of the perennial criticisms of rangefinder cameras, of course, is that they are no good for long lenses. This is certainly true, and if your tastes run to 200 mm and beyond, then you will do better to use a reflex instead; or, more practically in our view, as well. We have however already indicated that we cheerfully use a 135 mm lens on our Leicas - more often, indeed, than we use 135 mm on reflexes, despite owning a 135/2.3 Vivitar Series 1 in Nikon fit and a 135/1.8 Porst in Pentax screw fit, and frankly, we do not understand those who say that for anything longer than 50 mm, they prefer an SLR. As you can see from this module, we use 75 mm all the time, though 90 mm usage (except of the Thambar) has declined since we got the 75.

Although we have a couple of close-up/macro lenses in Nikon fit (Vivitar Series 1 90/2.5 and 90-180/4.5) we increasingly use the 65/3.5 Elmar in a Visoflex housing on the M9 - more megapixels, and no need to use a second system with different storage media, batteries and chargers - and we are seriously considering looking for a 200/4 Telyt to replace the 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 that we normally carry on a Nikon F as our long lens. That way, we could use it for both colour (M9) and black and white (MP), whereas the F is normally loaded only with black and white. There is more about using a Visoflex on the M9 in a separate module, The Worst DSLR in the World. It's all but useless for rapid action, it's true, but as we don't shoot rapid action with tele lenses, this doesn't worry us.

table setting
candle

Table setting (left) and Christmas candle (right)

The 65/3.5 Elmar on the Visoflex has many disadvantages, but two major advantages. One is very precise framing with a 100% viewfinder (apart from the inexplicably and Teutonically rounded corners of the viewing screen) and the other is continuous focusing from infinity to 1:1 (life size on the sensor, true macro) using either the 16464 focusing mount or the focusing bellows II, 16556.

THE BOTTOM LINE

To a very large extent, any review of any M-series Leica is going to be preaching to the converted, or at least, to those who are more or less willing to be converted. Either you understand why people use Leicas, or you don't.

Whenever anyone is praising or denigrating Leicas, therefore, it may be worth trying to ascertain how 'purist' they are (or think they are) and whether or not they can afford a Leica. Sure, there are plenty of people who see no reason for rangefinder cameras, and would not want one at any price (except perhaps to sell or trade for something else). But it's also easy to persuade yourself that they aren't worth the money, especially if you haven't got the money.

 

headlight

 

Headlight

Despite the praises of the Visoflex, both here and in the module about 'the worst DSLR in the world', close-ups are entirely possible with the M9, at least with the right lenses. The 90/4 Makro-Elmar-M obviously goes closest, especially with the 'spectacles' attachment, but the 75/2 Summicron at 70 cm (as in the sea-shells shot above) gives an image about 1/7 life size, an object field of 169x254 mm (about 6.6 x 10 inches), which is actually a smaller area than the celebrated 50/2 Summicron with the dual range attachment in place. More modest close-ups like the one above are no problem.

 

Is the M9 worth the very considerable premium over a new M8.2, and the still greater premium over a used M8? In our view, absolutely, and without question.

On the other hand, if you can't afford an M9, does it make sense to go for second best and buy an M8 or M8.2, even used? Once again, in our view, absolutely and without question, though we would very strongly counsel choosing the M8.2 for the quieter shutter and added features - though if 1/8000 second is important to you, the M8 may be more suitable.

But if you can afford it - buy an M9.

 

music shop window

Music shop

Finally, console yourself with the thought that an M9 only looks expensive because it is so small. Think of what you would pay for a classic car, or a decent piano; and ask yourself (assuming you have the money for any of them) which would give you the most pleasure. This is a hand-held shot, with the old 35/1.4 Summilux wide open, ISO 2500, and Roger's forearms braced against the roof of a car parked on the other side of the street. Exposure was about 1/5 second. As we say, yes, we'd like the option of ISO 10,000, but it would still only be 1/20 second, and besides, how many other cameras can you hand-hold for 1/5 second?

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks