The Leica M9
By Craig (CR Guy)
The Leica M9 sparks a lot of conversation. I’m starting to get questions about why I shoot with one. This review is more of a user experience review than about the camera itself. There’s lots of great tech reviews of this camera out there.
Never fear, I still use my Canon gear a lot for specific things. I just wanted a camera that was smaller, less intrusive and still delivered high end image quality.
This camera has just changed the way I make photographs in a positive way. There are lots of cliche opinions about the M9 and Leica in general, I’ll try to respond to the usual ones I hear.
“It’s a snob camera”
There is a community of Leica owners that care more about collecting, discussing and caressing a Leica M Body than shooting with it. This article is not for them.
There is also a whole host of amazing photographers that choose the Leica M9, Not because it’s a Leica, but because it is the best photographic tool for them on the market. If you’ve met photographers, I wouldn’t say the majority of us are financially free. For most Leica photographers, dropping $7000 on a camera body requires sacrificing in other areas of their life.
“It gets outspecced by cameras that cost 1/5 as much”
It does, but this camera isn’t about specs This camera is about a preference in how an image is captured. It is a unique tool for the moment in digital photography.
“It costs too much”
I don’t have access to Leica’s books, but I’ll make some assumptions as to why it costs what it does.
- When you’re the only one that makes something, the cost of making it is higher. I will admit you also have the luxury of charging almost whatever you want when you’re alone in a specific segment. It still has to be reasonable, the market will ultimately decide if the product is priced properly.
- The sensor for this camera is specialized and costs a lot to produce.
- The camera is assembled and tested by decently paid (some might debate that) people in Solms, Germany.
- Supply and demand, Rangefinders are going to be outsold by DSLR’s. Leica has to make the necessary margin to be profitable, which they’ve finally returned to.
- Go take a look at what Epson charged for the RD-1 ($3000) which used an available APS-C sensor from Nikon/Sony.
Are you qualified to talk about a Leica M?
I hope so! I have owned the M9 for 6 weeks and I think it’s the best photographic tool I have ever owned. I flirted with a Canadian made M4-P and an M7. I loved the size of these cameras. However, as much as I enjoy film sometimes, I do not enjoy it all the time. I wanted a digital camera that was small, had no bells and whistles and just made top quality image files.
I am a new rangefinder user, my grandfather didn’t use an M2 while I was growing up. My father didn’t force me to use a single stroke M3. I have no Leica lineage. If Canon made a digital version of their Canon 7, I’d own it. There is no bias for this camera in me.
I wanted a small camera to make photographs with. That’s all.
Should the review be on a Canon enthusiast site?
It’s inevitable some will say “no”. I cannot do much about that.
I will say, with all the bells and whistles being added to DSLR’s. I think it’s important to keep the concept of a still photograph only camera alive. Canon continues to evolve the DSLR which is great. It’s very exciting to see new markets open up.
Even if it’s a niche market, there’s always going to be people that just don’t care about ISO 104,800 performance and video.
The Leica M9 User Experience Review
The Handling & Feel
The camera is small compared to any Canon DSLR, which is very welcomed in my life. I became tired of lugging around a 1D sized body and big fast primes, I felt it restricted mobility when shooting most of what I shot. It was also a contant headache when getting on planes with strict carry-on regulations (I’m talking to you Ryanair). A camera with a large sensor and great image quality seemed like an easy thing to get into.
Holding the camera was initially a little bit uncomfortable for me. I am 6’4 and have large hands. I do not like neckstraps, I use a wrist strap and always have the camera in my hand. I had a difficult time holding it for long periods of time. Rather quickly, I purchased the addon grip for it. This added a huge level of comfort to my shooting experience. The odd time I don’t control my fingers properly and I cover up the rangefinder window. If you find the camera uncomfortable, give the grip a try.
You look at the camera and it has a welcoming appearance. There isn’t 20 dials, switches, and buttons everywhere. On the top of the camera there is a shutter speed dial, the shooting mode switch and a shutter button. I never accidentally hit anything. Nothing on the back of the camera is required for making images. I’m RARELY ever pressing anything back there.
I’ve even stopped the act of “chimping”. Someone said to me once, “why do you look at the LCD? you just saw the image in the viewfinder”. I know the immediate response is “exposure”, but not checking exposure really helps you become better at exposing properly. For a lot of shots, they’re not there again to retake a photograph anyway.
If anyone can call the layout of this camera confusing or daunting, I’m not sure there’s much out there for you.
Another area some people may have to get used to is the viewfinder. The viewfinder is big and bright which is a bonus, but there are some issues that arose for me. I had to really get used to seeing the lens in the viewfinder. The 35 Summilux really protrudes into the viewfinder, even though the lens hood is cut away so you can see through it. Never fear, this negative issue became a non issue after about a week. I’d leave my left eye open and that would help me compose the shot.
Paying attention to the framelines didn’t take long to get used to. I borrowed a 50mm lens and was shooting it like it was the 35mm, so I had all sorts of stuff cut out of the image. I might be the only dummy to do that.
Yes, it’s manual.
Yes, it takes lots of practice to do it quickly.
No, I’m not focusing as well as I want to be.
It adds a skill a lot of people will have to learn for the first time. The older generation will mock the digital generation and our fancy autofocus cameras, they were shooting wars and sports manually! You got us, but I completely agree now that autofocus really isn’t required for a lot of photography. You never have to worry about AF working in lowlight for one. There’s no cumbersome moving autofocus points around, there’s no blaming the camera because it “missed”, nope… you missed.
There is an art of “shooting from the hip” that rangefinders are perfect for. You judge the distance to your subject, set the focus distance and start shooting. I’ve been able to successfully do this with one hand because of the focus tab on the 35mm lenses I use. You know by the position of the tab as to the distance you’re focused. It’s really quite cool the first few times you do it successfully. I will admit I mostly shoot this way at f/4 and f/5.6. I haven’t yet mastered it at f/2.8 and faster.
I’ve gotten some shots I really like shooting from the hip.
Do I prefer it to autofocus?
No, I don’t prefer it, but I also don’t think it’s a detriment. I’m completely happy with focusing manually. I’ve missed some shots because I wasn’t fast enough, I know that will come with practicing. I may prefer it in time.
What lenses to use?
Part of the reason I went Leica is for simplicity. That means not having a camera bag with 4 or 5 lenses. I had trimmed down a lot in my DSLR kit, usually just a 24mm & 85mm on a 1.3 crop. I also spent a lot of time shooting just a 50 f/1.2L on a 5D Mark II. Moving to Leica wasn’t going to change that philosophy.
My current kit contains 3 focal lengths.
- Voigtlander Heliar 15mm (Screw Mount)
- Leica Summicron 35 f/2 (I rented a 35 Summilux f/1.4 as well)
- Leica Summicron 90 f/2
Most of the street and everyday stuff I shoot at 35mm, I love the compactness of the lenses and I can use the focal length comfortably for everything. You also get most of the viewfinder to compose with. I do shoot landscape and enjoy it, so an ultra wide was needed. Leica’s offerings are A LOT of money, so I went to Voigtlander and found a screw mount Heliar 15mm with an external viewfinder for $400. The lens is very good and weighs next to nothing.
The other lens I’ve been using is a Summicron 90 f/2, I don’t see myself using it all that often and it may leave my kit. It’s too long for street I find and too long physically to be comfortable all day. It is a marvelous lens for portrait work, I just don’t do enough of it.
I have ordered a rental Voigtlander 50 f/1.1 to replace the Summicron 90. It’s an inexpensive ultra fast 50mm that is well built and feels nice on the camera and costs about $1000. We’ll see how the rental goes, I may move to the Summilux 50 one day because of its smaller size.
So even if you buy a Leica body, don’t feel like you have to buy Leica lenses. While the Leica version of your desired focal length will probably be the best of the bunch, Voigtlander and Zeiss both make outstanding optics for the M mount.
If you shoot primes currently with your Canon setup, a switch to Leica will be pretty easy. I think it’s important that you do before making the decision to purchase a rangefinder. Even if it’s getting yourself a Canon 50 f/1.8 and using it until you’re making shots you like with it. I evolved from zooms to primes over the years. I find zooms to be cumbersome and inconvenient, which is the opposite opinion of what most people I meet think.
I have set a 3 lens limit on myself. The camera is about simplicity and that’s what I need to maintain.
What can you shoot with it?
This is probably a valid question for a lot of people. You can shoot anything with it, but it’s not going to be the ideal solution for some shoots. The longest Leica lens is 135mm, so there won’t be shooting birds with it, outside of your budgie in a cage. I can’t see shooting too many indoor sports with it. Leica has some lovely fast lenses, but focusing would probably be difficult most of the time.
I want to touch on Landscape first.
This may be a perfect solution for landscape photography. The way the sensor is built on the Leica M9 really makes it one of the best solutions for landscape work. There’s no anti-aliasing filter, so images are sharper from the get go. The other thing that makes it a better solution than Canon is you can actually get full frame ultra wide and wide angle lenses that are sharp across the entire image. We Canon users know the wide angle offerings are lacking the perfect solution.
There are a couple of issues to consider first with landscape. The polarizing of an M lens requires a cool contraption that takes a bit of getting used to, but works well. The 2nd issue is if you use graduated neutral density filters. You’re going to be able to use them with a lot of practice, but you cannot line things up through the viewfinder since you’re not looking through the lens.
I’ve only shot a little bit of landscape with the camera, but it’s been so great to use. The camera is small and light, I can get away with a Gitzo Traveller tripod which is small and light and my camera bag is tiny that I’m not weighed down at all. I found it a lot easier to navigate tough terrain.
I have ordered a Really Right Stuff L bracket for the M9, I’ll be using it in a week or two. This will allow me to continue to use my Markins ballhead which has an Arca style plate on top.
Shooting landscape with it was extremely easy, I preferred the aperture ring and the manual focus. There’s no liveview, which I do use on Canon DSLR’s, but that didn’t bother me all that much.
The landscape images here were the first time I went out and shot landscape with the M9. I was very happy with the results and will be doing a lot more when I get back to Canada
Travel & Street
The first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think of a Leica rangefinder is street photography. The camera has been used by a lot of the great street photographers. If you check out todays breed of street photographer, Leica still seems to be the go to camera.
I am new to street, I have fallen in love with it. It’s hard, it’s very hard. I think that’s part of the draw to it for me. I can’t stand things that are easy. I have been shooting it a lot recently and it has proven to be the perfect camera body for such shooting. I get it now. I will note that I am NOT anywhere near where I want to be as a street photographer. Maybe in a few years.
Travel photography is also very important for a lot people. Like some of you, I travel a lot. I’ve been in Europe for the last 6 weeks and I’ll be off to Kenya in December and rest assured alongside my Canon gear will be this camera. I can’t see shooting too many lions with it, do you think shooting with a 90mm would be a safe distance?
The biggest issues I hear about travel photography is size, ease of use and the ability to shoot in low light. The Leica M9 has the first 2 solved.
The lowlight performance of the camera might turn some people off if they just go by specs. Yes, the camera only does ISO 2500 which I don’t find all that useful. I have found ISO 1600 and lower to be very useable to great. If you want more lowlight performance from the camera, both Leica and Voigtlander offer lots of f/0.95 – f/1.4 lenses. Leica’s Summilux 21 f/1.4 is a unique, albiet expensive lowlight wide angle solution. I have not found the “limited” ISO 2500 to be all that limiting at all.
My son is 2, he doesn’t sit still for very long. I don’t have much interest in shooting portraits anyway.
“Wow!” is all I can say. I was shocked and surprised at the quality of images I first downloaded. The first thing you notice is the sharpness, these are the sharpest images I have ever had the pleasure of owning. It’s not just the great lenses, it’s also the lack of an anti-aliasing filter on the sensor.
I have a friend that says “sharpness doesn’t matter, clients don’t care”. I disagree a lot with that statement, Some clients don’t know they care. Sharpness can add a level of drama to an image, it can add a level of “I can’t stop staring at that portrait” to an image. The Leica S2 large print images at Photokina prove my point, if any of you saw them. I think you’ll agree. Naturally captured sharpness is a beautiful addition to a good photo
The colours are natural and beautiful. The dynamic range seems to be fantastic, even in tough scenes, there was lots of detail in the shadows and highlights.
Most of you know I don’t care much about ISO performance, I’ll take the grain. This camera does not produce clean ISO 1600 shots, they’re good enough for me though. You sacrifice ISO performance for sharpness I’m told. I’ll take that.
I’ve used every Canon camera there is, the M9 image quality is as good or better than all of them, even the 1Ds Mark III (an opinion, not a fact).
So to close, you are buying a high-end image sensor, there’s no denying a lot of the cost of the camera is there.
Negatives about the camera or using the camera?
There are a few things I should talk about that were negatives for me. they may not be for you.
- The battery life is terrible, I couldn’t buy a 2nd battery from anywhere before I left for Europe. Make sure you have 2 or 3 of them, I chewed through a battery in half a day of shooting. The charger is also very slow.
- Read & write speeds are slow. They’ve been improved with firmware, but they should still be quicker.
- The red dot on the front of the camera does draw some people in. I’d love to be able to get an unbranded top plate for the camera.
- The camera start-up time is slow. I have to not let it go to “sleep” or I’ll miss some shots. This is what kills the battery.
- Everything for the camera is expensive. The grip, a viewfinder magnifier, the battery, a half case, it doesn’t matter. You know it going in, but it still causes a bit of unrest.
I left out a few things people do complain about. The low resolution LCD bothers some people. I don’t care at all, the LCD does what it needs to do. I much prefer viewing images at home.
The paint also chips easily on the camera. I have 2 brassed spots already. I happen to love them, they’re my marks from shooting. The camera is now mine. :)
There are no negatives using the camera. The effectiveness of the camera is limited by your skill. You WILL get better with practice, I’ve noticed I’ve improved by leaps and bounds in the last 6 weeks. I didn’t bring a Canon DSLR to Europe forcing me to get better fast. It was a great decision.
Should Canon care about this camera?
This is a Canon site afterall, so I think it’s important to discuss the marketplace from time to time.
Canon has lead the way in a lot of technologies and most recently adding useable video technology to their DSLR lineup. It’s fabulous, it’s great and lots of you are having a great time using the products. I know a lot of you are salivating at the prospect about what’s coming next.
I love it to, even if I’m the worst videographer on earth.
What about photographs though? Is there a place for a mass production company like Canon to bring an easy to use, top quality digital still only camera to the market? I think there is, and I think that market is underestimated.
The problem with Canon doing so is it will require a new lens mount. Yes, Canon could release an M mount camera again or they could split their mirrorless solution into 2 segments. The consumer grade APS-C style camera with all the bells and whistles and a full frame camera focused on making still images. They could probably charge $3500 for such a camera and sell them.
It could be a dream, but I think it’s worthwhile and realistic.
Images in this review
They were all taken by me with various lenses. I tried to show a bit of variance. I have taken so many images, how do you choose the best ones? I hope you enjoy them. A few of these I like, a few of them my wife likes. I love how differently we look at a photograph.
It has been a great 6 weeks with the Leica M9, I’m looking forward to the next few years of shooting with it. I will never go back to using a digital SLR for day to day image making.
I would say the M9 has refocused and will refine my photography. If you love using the tool, the tool is no longer there. It’s corny, but it just becomes an extension of you.
What I can say about this camera, and it’s really the first time I have with any camera. There is not a single thing I would change about its photograph making abilities. Maybe Leica will come up with stuff that I will want in the future, but I can honestly say the camera is perfect the way it is. Yes, the battery and write speeds could be better, but the camera itself is great.
Some of you may pick it up and wonder what all the fuss is about, that’s ok too. I think people need to stop slamming it for what it isn’t and respect it for what it is, even if it’s not for you. I know there are people out there right now that are looking for this camera and just don’t know it. Or they do know it and the financial commitment is just unreasonable. That’s why more companies need to pay attention to this camera and maybe even make one. Competition is always great for favorable pricing.
If you want a cheaper rangefinder, I’ve seen Leica M8’s under $2000 USD. The sensor is APS-H and it has an issue when making color images that requires filters to fix. Or just shoot black and white and don’t worry about it. I’ve never used an Epson digital rangefinder, so I can’t comment on it.
My experience is only 6 weeks old, so I will update this experience from time to time. I may find more great things or some not so great things as I become more comfortable with the camera. This is definitely a process.
Thanks for reading.