So I finally have the time that I have not had the past 6 months (it’s been crazy!) to sit down and do a more ‘word heavy’ review of my experience with the Leica M9. Let me just say right of that this is in no way the review of a Leica expert. But rather just a brief write up of my experience as a photographer with the Leica M9. It is limited and it is very much subjective. If a much more technical review is what you’re looking for then I would recommend the following resources: TAO of LEICA , STEVE HUFF PHOTO , DIGLLOYD or the DAVID FARKAS BLOG.
I’ll start off by saying that I have absolutely loved the Leica M9! The whole experience of shooting with a rangefinder again, the unobtrusiveness, the superb Leica lenses, the incredible detail and sharpness of the sensor…it really has been an overwhelmingly positive and refreshing experience for me as an artist. The M9 really has reignited my passion for ‘seeing’ and the fascination with people which is so much at the core of my own work. Because of the M9 I am out and about again, walking the streets, looking for that “decisive moment”. And aside from my personal street and documentary work this has had a profound impact on my wedding work. This style of shooting is ME…and I am loving it! I think Michael Reichmann summed up the M9 for me best so I’ll quote:
“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.”
So now onto a more technical review of my experience after two months of shooting weddings with the Leica M9. Let me start of by saying that there is certain crispness and quality about the M9 files that I absolutely love. I’ve been a Nikon shooter all my life and since the first day I shot with the D3X I was blown away. It really is an absolutely incredible image making tool and in many ways superior to the M9. However, the M9 files have something very unique about them which honestly I prefer over any other digital camera I have ever worked with. Including the Nikon D3X. And it’s been especially notable to me now as I’ve been finishing edits for a whole bunch of weddings shot with my Nikons. There is a purity and crispness about how these Leica lenses draw and on that count alone I’m sold. So let me break down the camera in sections here now. There won’t be many as it’s a gloriously simple camera (another huge plus for me!). So here we go:
The M9 is Leica’s first full frame M. The previous M8 was a cropped sensor and possibly the biggest reason why I never even considered buying it. So a full frame M9 has my attention. And the 18 megapixel sensor definitely has sufficient resolution. The lack of an AA-filter (something which all the big medium format digitals also lack, and which I absolutely love about them!) really makes the sensor shine. I’m a big fan of sharpness. And that is something which the AA-filter always ruins for me with 35mm DSLR’s. There’s mushiness about the images that I detest. Of course the main reason for including the AA-filter would of course be dealing with moiré. However, in shooting extensively with the M9 over two months I only had that problem with one image! Certainly not worth including an AA-filter and the resulting loss of sharpness etc. In fact I am seriously considering having the AA-filter removed on the D3X. LDP offers this service for a few hundred dollars and the results are impressive. Check it out HERE.
I found the color produced by the M9 to be pleasing and accurate. Especially below ISO400. In daylight the color and on contrast is very good. However, in low light and mixed lighting the M9 color is nowhere near as good or consistent as the Nikon or Canon DSLR’s. Color noise, especially at higher ISO’s is notable and honestly something which I would like to see improved in the M10.
But the M9 is such a unique and image making tool that even this is not a deterrent to me. Convert those same images to B&W and all is forgiven. We’re still miles ahead of the capabilities of high iso film.
Like I said before the M9 really is a gloriously simple camera! And I absolutely love it for this. No “bells&whistles” here. Just a mighty fine sensor attached to some of the best lenses money can buy and of we go. Something that might actually confuse a host of modern digital photographers is the fact that aperture is still set on the lens, and not the camera. I actually had more than one professional photographer get very confused looks on their faces as I handed them the camera and they couldn’t figure it out. Very funny. But look, this makes no difference either way. I found the menu of the M9 to be well layed out and again nice and simple.
ISO&LOW LIGHT PERFORMANCE
I was very satisfied with the high iso performance of the M9. No, by no means is it in anywhere near the magic of the Nikon D3s, D700, D3, or even the D3X. Although the M9′s low light performance in my opinion is very close indeed to that of the D3X. But as someone that grew up shooting film let me just say that it beats the pants of high ISO film. I’m comfortable shooting the M9 up to ISO 1600. Beyond that things can get a bit shaky but it’s still more than usable. Especially with good b&w post production. The max ISO of the M9 is only 2500. But let me just say again that with Leica lenses I shoot wide open all day long. So ISO 1600 is more than sufficient for almost any situation. The other things to bear in mind with the M9 is just how slow you can go with your shutter hand held and still produce sharp images. With autofocus, especially wide open, accuracy is always a huge guessing game. With the M9, even in fast paced environments, I was more than comfortable in getting the shot. And again remember, this is shooting wide open at f1.4.
I do have two major negative remarks with the M9. And these are more specific with regards to the experience of a working wedding photographer. Especially coming from Nikon. The horrible LCD screen and poor battery life of the M9. In order to shoot an entire wedding with the M9 you need at least two batteries. Preferably three. At one wedding I had shot the D3X alongside the M9 and by the time my first M9 battery was done the Nikon still had more than 75% battery life left! So the M9 battery is very poor. And especially when you consider how simple the camera is. So Leica definitely needs to improve the battery. The LCD screen was also very disappointing. Especially when compared to the superb screens that you find on almost all the Nikon and Canon cameras these days. Why Leica couldn’t produce a better screen is a mystery to me. It pixelates when you zoom in and the images on the camera screen and the glorious file you’ll see in Photoshop is nowhere near the same. High iso images especially on the camera screen just look completely unusable. Until of course you open them in Photoshop and see a much better file. Both these definitely needs to be improved by Leica. But as annoying as both these are they do not affect image quality so I’m not deterred.
The M9 is a very unique image making tool. I have always been appreciative of ‘craft’. Developing a specific skill set and using that to produce something superb. The M9 does exactly that for me. A tool in hand, which requires time and effort to operate properly, and when used correct produces something unlike any other. This of course is my opinion and I am glad to acknowledge it as such. The whole price debate around the M9 has never been an issue for me. To me if the camera delivers then I couldn’t care less about the price. No it is not the perfect camera. And yes, it can be quirky at times. But when this camera and those little Leica lenses get it right the results to me are spectacular. In fact, when the M9 gets it right it is without a doubt my favorite digital tool. The experience of shooting with a rangefinder is one that I highly recommend. It really forces you to think…to look…to consider. I love the pace of rangefinder shooting. It’s a much more contemplative approach. Rather than bursting into a scene and firing away you find yourself almost asking for permission to enter the scene….and once you do, you wait…you look…and then you respond. Like Henri Cartier Bresson said: “you see; you feel; and the surprised eye responds…”. This is the Leica philosophy to me.
“We are not supposed to get emotionally attached to a piece of equipment. “Cameras are tools” we are told. Personally, I think that’s nonsense. To a craftsman, a tool is a very personal thing. Each one is selected for very precise reasons. If you are just making money with cameras, yes, they are just tools. If you are a craftsman, there is a joy in what you are doing and making money is secondary. The reward for what you do isn’t money, it’s the personal satisfaction of doing something that brings you personal joy.” -Ken Norton
But with all of that said, the M9 is not for everyone. And I think you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it! Me, I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT and would highly recommend it. If you’ve been thinking about it go ahead and get one. Alternatively I would highly recommend renting the M9 for a week or so and giving it a go. Within a week you’ll know whether this is your type of photography or not. LENS RENTALS have the M9 and a range of M-lenses available for rental so be sure to check them out. And then once you’ve fallen in love with the M9 be sure to head on over to our partners at B&H PHOTO to purchase all the LEICA GEAR your heart desires.
Aside from browsing my blog you can find a dedicated Leica gallery of images taken with the M9 on my website HERE. Also be sure to check out the two part interview series Leica recently did with me. You can read those interviews in their entirety here: