In March of 2010, I finally received my Leica M9. I had been thinking about this camera since its introduction. My sustained interest in the M9 taught me this: if you can’t get it out of your head, you have to get it into your hands. So, in January 2010 I placed orders at several stores, hoping to get this camera before an upcoming trip to Argentina. Quickly I realized that this was not going to happen; so many people had placed orders that my name landed at the very bottom of every last list. At the time, I was using a Canon 5Dmk2 with various lenses. I liked that system, but it felt too large for my kind of photography. I grew up using viewfinder cameras, like the Rollei 35Te and the Mamiya 7II. I had owned a Leica M6 for several years and it had been one of my favorite cameras ever. I sold my M6 when I moved to digital with the M8. That camera lasted all of three months. To put it plain: we did not bond. I just didn’t like it. It was close to my M6, but the overall feel and the fact that it failed me in several crucial situations soured the relationship. We parted company. Next came a Canon 5D. After that, I went out with a Nikon D700. The D700 was replaced by the Canon 5Dmk2. What can I say? It’s important to find the right fit in such an important relationship. I became a frequent E-bay seller while awaiting my M9.
My trip to Argentina came, along with the strong belief that the M9 would have been the perfect tool for the adventure. It did not materialize. I convinced myself to give the M8 another try. I bought a used M8.2. I still owned a 35mm Summicron from my M6 days. I kept it because I loved that lens so much and I believed that it would shine again. A 28mm lens got added to that set and I left for the three week trip. It was perfect. Along came my Canon SLR, though I rarely used it. I felt comfortable again carrying around the Leica and enjoyed taking stealth photos in the streets of Buenos Aires. I am not entirely sure what made the difference compared to the M8. I think the shutter sound and the feel of that button were huge for me. Anyone who wants to get into the M8 shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the shutter noise. With the M8.2 and the M9, you can hold down the shutter button and it winds the shutter up when you release it. Take a shot, keep holding down the button, walk around a corner and release to wind up the shutter. It makes the camera even more discreet. The M8 shutter is soft and loud. Using the M8.2 convinced me that the M9 would be the right fit for me. I wanted the same type of camera with higher resolution. And I wanted to use my 35mm Summicron as a 35mm lens again. I continued to nurse my anticipation of the M9 and how it would enhance my life.
Soon after my return from the trip, the M9 arrived, and it did not disappoint. For those interested in its intricacies and how it compares to some of the other cameras I know, read on!
First, as someone who has bought and sold a lot of cameras, I know that value matters a lot. Buying an M9 system is a huge stretch for most people and can feel hard to justify. Dealing with your credit limit is one thing. Having the camera around your neck is another experience entirely— like holding an infant. In the beginning it was constantly on my mind that I had a $10.000 block of metal and glass around my neck. One serious faux pas and the relationship ends. I have to admit that I dropped my M6 once. I was rushing to a ferry on the Island of Culebra/ Puerto Rico. It was dark and I was running with my luggage when suddenly the strap opened up and the camera dropped onto the street. I have to say that I didn’t work up the courage to look at the damage until I was on the ferry and I could slowly move my head down to investigate the result of the impact. The M9 reminds me of that moment. In the beginning, I carefully placed it on the table and wrapped the strap several times around my wrist when I walked around. I consciously planned every move. I went through stages of justification. Is this worth carrying around? Is this too much money? Is my photography good enough to justify owning this camera? After a few weeks everything settled down. My bank account moved from intensive care to rehab, and I got more relaxed. I treat it like a tool, leave it at work, and loan it to friends who want to try it out for a day. Once I left it hanging on a chair at a restaurant at the Boston International Airport. I remembered it as I was walking towards my car. My nonchalance was disrupted for a moment; my run inside the terminal would have challenged Carl Lewis. It was still hanging there.
The resale price of this camera will drop. It already has. I am calculating that it will drop by around $1000 a year for the first few years, and then the curve will flatten a bit. That is more or less the amount of money that I previously spent on film each year. Yes, I would save money with a cheaper camera. When I sold my Canon after a year I lost $500. In the end, I stopped looking at it. It is like paying the fees for a gym. It is a hobby, a creative outlet, a tool to tune my visual skills. That alone is worth every cent. Value matters, at least to me, but you have to ride out the phases of justification and disbelieve until you reach inner peace. That’s when you start handling the camera in the way it was intended. That describes any camera purchase. Don’t buy the M9 if it is a strain on your budget. You may not enjoy it. Some people may think that even a $400 camera would be a huge investment and they are right. Find out what is within your realistic comfort zone and buy accordingly. Good photography happens at any price level. If you are fortunate enough to even consider an M9 purchase, then go for it.
The Leica M9 immediately communicates its craftsmanship. It is a beautiful camera. At the same time it is an inconspicuous camera, not for those who want to walk around and get attention. Most people would mistake the M9 for a $50 camera from E-bay. A few people have asked me how old it is and then expressed surprise when I told them that it is a new camera. Only a few have noticed that this is something special, and I use that to my advantage. I feel more comfortable walking around with this camera under my arm than I do with any DSLR. Muggers most likely get attracted to larger cameras. Another advantage: a lot of people that I photograph are more relaxed when I point the camera at them. A big lens often intimidates. In many instances, people didn’t even realize that I took a photo of them with the M9.
On the other hand, the M9 has some minor cosmetic flaws. Some may know the moment when you discover the first scratch or dent on a new car—and the embarrassment of realizing you caused the scratch. The same happened with my M9 early on. During the first week we were together, I taped off the M9 label to make the camera look more discreet. I used some electrical tape for this task. After another week, I decided to take it off again. In addition to removing the tape, I removed 1/3 of the M as well. I was surprised since I had done this for years on my M6 without any problems. I read on the Internet that several M9 owners had similar experiences. Somehow, the paint seems to be less sticky. Maybe it is a more environmentally friendly solution. Thinking positively, I can see that it is good for those who like to remove that logo completely . Just take some tape, press it into the recessed area and rip it off. Think of it as waxing the M9. Another area that will show signs of use easily is the aperture dial. The 15 and the 2 are half gone after a year’s use.
My solution is a bottle of Testors Enamel paint. Take a fine brush and fill the cavities. Use a straight piece of rubber to remove all excess paint and let it dry. I bet Leica does the same. At least that’s how it looks in their M9 assembly video. After three months, the camera started getting brassy along the corners and edges. Again, I am not sure if Leica has changed anything in the coating, but it seems to wear more easily than my M6. A good way to protect it is the Leica neoprene case. I use it often.
The overall handling of the camera is great, although it is heavy for such a small object. It feels extremely dense. Many people who pick it up express surprise over its weight. It is not comparable in weight to a pro DSLR, but it is heavy for such a small box. Nonetheless, it is light enough to carry around on a daily basis—and that is exactly what I do. I take this camera with me every day. Before the M9, I took my Canon DSLR along when I was in a shooting mood. Otherwise, I grabbed a G10, just in case. I take the Leica every day, unless it is raining. What about weather sealing? As far as I know, the lenses are not sealed. A weather-sealed body will prevent any accidental damage to this pricey tool but to really use it in bad weather, the optics need to be redesigned as well. I am just imagining the new price. So, for me, it is a fair-weather friend, albeit a great one.
Rangefinders like the one on the M9 usually work for me, but I want to encourage anybody to try them out before buying this type of system. Too many people underestimate the difference between rangefinder and SLR systems, and they get frustrated when they have to envision and compose a shot. The rangefinder doesn’t let the photographer see the final image through the viewfinder. Instead, the person looks through a window with some framing lines. The user doesn’t see what is blurred and what is not because she or he is not looking through the lens. A 28mm lens matches the size of the entire viewfinder. If you put on a 50mm lens your view won’t zoom in. You will just get narrower frame lines in your finder. With the 90mm lens the frame is already very small and most of the viewfinder is being unused. SLRs always utilize the entire finder area. Viewfinder cameras don’t. Some people like that; some don’t. Over time, each person gets to know a lens and learn what kind of depth-of-field it will create at certain settings. M cameras force me to think a lot about what I am doing, and I like that. Looking through the window doesn’t give me great control over the image, but it gives me great control over the object. No mirror blocks my view. Usually I can tell instantaneously if someone closed her eyes during the exposure because I can see the person while I trigger the shutter. SLRs darken the image for a short period of time while they move the mirror on the inside.
I am a fan of manual focusing as well. I loved the split screens of older SLR cameras and miss them a lot in modern cameras. While autofocus is great, it jumps directly to one area. With manual focus, I can dial in and out. It takes longer to find the focus point but I can more easily fine-tune the exact position. A Leica M camera focuses with a rangefinder. Basically it overlaps two images; the photographer has to align them perfectly in the area on which he or she wants to focus. Have a look at the small, rectangular window near the M9 sign. That’s the second rangefinder opening. If you don’t see an overlapping image in your finder, most likely you are covering this tiny window with your finger. When it happens, you wonder why you can’t focus.
How does it work? Think of a triangle spanning these two windows and the object. You turn the focus ring on the lens, which changes the relation of the angles in the triangle, which gets translated into the position of the overlapping images in the viewfinder. It amazes me to see how well that works. It sounds antiquated, but my 50mm Summilux is similarly spot on. It is the most mechanically complex element of that camera. I find that my Leica lenses are well aligned with this mechanism. I experimented with two Zeiss lenses and both were off. The focus did not translate exactly into the viewfinder. I wonder if non-Leica lenses have lower tolerances, which could lead to a misaligned focus mechanism. Here’s a tip: try a lens at a shop before you buy. Each lens has slight differences.
What’s it like to use the camera in a physical sense? I often wrap the strap around my wrist and hold the camera in my right hand. I like that I can turn on the camera while I am holding it like this. When I see an interesting situation coming up I turn the camera on as I move it up to my eye. With Nikon DSLRs that works nicely as well. The power switch is part of the shutter release button, which puts it into the ideal place. I don’t like Canon’s approach to the power switch. It is not in a consistent place throughout their camera portfolio, and for most cameras you need a second hand to turn them on.
Don’t expect me to talk about the menu options of the M9. There are not many and the few that are there are well-organized. I don’t get lost in endless layers of features. That is good, and it keeps me focused—no pun intended. Honestly, the only features that I use on a regular basis are the play and delete buttons and the ISO setting. The layout is simple and intuitive. I don’t miss the battery LCD from the M8. I have developed a feel for the battery life and when to check its status. For me, it lasts for a day, maybe two. The 5Dmk2 often ran for a week before I had to do anything. The M9 is not great in that regard, but is ok enough. I have a second battery and I don’t mind charging one while I am using the other.
Other people have noted the slow buffer speed of the M9. Personally, I have never encountered that problem. It may exist when you shoot a lot of images in a row. News photographers may run into that problem, and it may be true for wedding photographers as well. The M9 is not a camera for sports photography. My personal style is on the slower side of taking photos. I take one shot, maybe two. I feel weird when I take three or four shots of the same object. I got that from using film and I am preserving this behavior. It makes me value each ‘frame’ a bit more and it makes me think about the composition between each click. Leica M’s work well for a very specific kind of photography. They are not all-around tools; but for street photography, they are almost perfect.
I use a SanDisk 32Gb card, which gives me enough storage for a day of shooting. Seeing the number of images that are remaining on a LCD is not important to me. I think the M9 is the only digital camera that I have ever owned that I fully understand and where I have seen all of the software features. And that’s not because I am particularly interested in them but because the Leica provides just the number of settings that match my attention span. Personally I am not a live-view user. I could see myself using it if I used wide-angle lenses. It would help me with framing. Sensor cleaning would be more important to me. My 5Dmk2 stayed dust free without me cleaning the sensor at all. So far, I have been using Photographic Solutions sensor swaps on the M9 without encountering any problems to the sensor. They work for me and I do this every few weeks. I still don’t understand why they are so expensive. They must be from the same guys who bottle tap water and sell it as Smart Water.
Another nice accessory is the Giottos screen protector. I used this one on my Canon cameras as well, and I can recommend it highly. It is well-made and you will forget that it is on the screen. The only difficulty is in applying it. The glue works really well and it is bubble free, but its frame is tight and you don’t want to cut off any part of your screen. One trick that makes it easier is to take a photo of something white and have it on the screen while you are applying the protector. The white photo creates a better background for positioning the black frame.
The bottom plate is one of these references to older Leicas. For those, who have not seen it yet: you have to remove the bottom plate to get access to the battery and the SD card.
Is that annoying? Yes, it is. Especially when you have to remove the battery and you start stuffing the plate into your mouth because you have no hand left to deal with camera, batteries, and plate.
That being said, I don’t want another door on that camera. I like the clean layout. I looked at some of the after-market bottom plates that have battery doors and SD card slots and they look terrible. Does that matter? To me it does. I like clean-looking objects, so I have to deal with the annoying bottom plate. Let’s call it “Function follows Form.” That’s interesting to me because decades ago Leica started with a “Form follows Function” concept. Everything was laid out to function perfectly. Over time, Leica created the signature look of the M models — and now they have to compromise the functionality to preserve the look of that camera model. The M9 is still a highly functional camera, but I can guarantee you that the size of the LCD screen was not selected because it was the best functional screen size available. It just nicely fits between the lines of the camera. It is like Porsche’s 911. You just see slight modifications. At the same time, you hear voices that are asking for a camera that focuses on functionality again. What would a full frame Leica with M lenses look like that would be designed without compromises?
Image quality, of course, is the photographer’s Holy Grail. I am not sure what I can add to this. I came from fairly high ground with my 5Dmk2. All I wanted was something that comes close to it. The step from the 10Mp M8.2 to the M9 was great. I love it when I press the 1/1 button in Lightroom and it jumps deep into the image and shows me incredible detail. I had that with the Canon and I am getting this with the M9. In the beginning, I took some shots to see how these two systems would deal in certain situations.
I will stay away from many comparison shots. There are enough on the Internet. All I can say is that the 5Dmk2 has better performance at higher ISO. If I need detailed images I don’t go higher than 640ISO on the M9. 1000ISO works ok for images of people in dark environments. If you go much higher, the image will be very soft and grainy. It is better when you have enough contrasting light somewhere in the photo but without it, the image gets dull. That’s where the Canon 5dmk2 has the edge. In addition, the Canon shows better white balance at night shots. The M9 tends to compensate with too many yellow tones. Have a look at this image of a house on my street. The first one is from the Canon.
I am not so concerned about white balance. I shoot in Raw only and correct color in Lightroom. My M9 has a slight green shift in daylight photos as well. I prefer warmer tones, which I adjust during import into Lightroom. White balance is not anything that the sensor captures. It is the camera’s interpretation of what the sensor has captured. By shooting Raw files you basically use the original sensor data, bypass the camera’s algorithm, and you make your own interpretation of that data. Shooting in Jpeg means that the camera will do the interpretation for you and will bake it into an image file. Potential buyers should not be concerned about camera white balance, unless they prefer to shoot in Jpeg. All I can say is, that using software like Lightroom, etc eliminates any impact of Raw files on your workflow. I would always shoot Raw because it allows me to make adjustments that I can not do in a Jpeg file. I don’t really see storage size as being a reason to switch from Raw to Jpeg. Prices for 1TB hard drives are low and large SD cards are not expensive anymore. Don’t spend that much money on such an expensive camera system and then cut short by shooting Jpeg. It just doesn’t make sense.
This camera captures details in shadow areas really well, at least at low ISO. I am often amazed how much detail the camera captures in areas that just look dark when you open them up. Once you adjust the exposure, you can get a lot out of the photo. It doesn’t work that well with highlights. Blown out areas can be pulled back a bit, but not much. At higher ISO the image gets sensitive to adjustments. Pushing details would result in heavy grain and in, some situations, streaks.
What I can recommend is a good lens that creates sharp images wide open. It lets you lower the ISO. Good lenses are expensive, but in extreme lighting situations they let the M9 shine. If you spend that much money on the camera, don’t cut short on the glass. Get the best lens that you can afford. Don’t get many cheap lenses, get one good one. I am not saying that cheap lenses are not fun. They are, but if you want to get the most out of this camera, pair it with good optics. Does that mean you should buy Leica glass only? No, it does not. Lenses are a very personal choice and you can find good performers from Zeiss and Voigtlaender. They offer some weak performers as well; do some research before you buy. Lenses have a GIGANTIC impact on the camera’s performance and we should not underestimate this. I never understand why some Nikon and Canon users spend weeks with spec sheets to pick a great camera and then buy it with a kit lens. A good lens is an accelerator to any camera.
The Leica M9 can easily capture beautiful images at lower ISO. The output is simply incredible. The nice thing is that files can easily be printed in large scale. Once I did a five feet print from one file. The image got softer at close inspection but it didn’t look digital. That’s what is so nice about this tool. It can capture high resolution images in this small package. I may sound like someone who is trying to justify an expensive purchase. This camera is super pricy and I would be the first to buy a full-frame Canon or Nikon rangefinder if it were available. Currently there is no alternative to the M9 on the market. No other camera can be that discreet while outputting these beautiful files. It doesn’t do this automatically. It needs active engagement, commitment, and some photographic skills.
So, it has been a year. I am pleased with this tool. It feels like a good relationship. We go together everywhere, every day. Wrapping it around my neck has become a daily routine. There is rarely a moment that I just turn it on and shoot away. Usually I think about the light, I preset ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. I walk along, knowing that it is there when I need it. The Leica M9 is beautiful, intuitive, and trustworthy. We are a good team. And, yes, it was worth the wait.
A collection of images that I took with the M9. They demonstrate a variety of lighting situations. All taken with a 35 Summicron or 50mm Summilux ASPH.