ROB ZEIGLER PHOTOGRAPHY

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The Leica M9 is Good, But Not Great

I think it was probably New York City that changed it all for me.  I’ve known of Leica and I’ve known of the rangefinder style of camera in general, but it never had the allure to me that it did for other photographers that I knew. Then I went to New York City for a weekend last September to attend NYCWLK. Amongst the Pentax, Hasselblad and myriad other cameras were a few Leicas, both film and digital. Free from the confines of having to spend $3,000+ to hold one, I tested some out. I adjusted the focus, and the moment the rangefinder patch came together was the same moment it clicked for me as well. To hold a Leica and to shoot one is to instantly tap into understanding what makes rangefinders attractive. It was tough to give it back, and before I knew it, a beautiful Leica M6 was in my camera collection.

To be clear, it was both the physical lightness of the camera and also the simplicity of quickly focusing that attracted me the most to the Leica cameras I tested out. Autofocus can be a double edged sword, and to be able to confidently focus at a distance and judge your depth of field via lens markings is a powerful tool for anyone interested in street photography.

The Leica M6 that I own is beautiful. I bought it from one of the great people that I met on the NYCWLK; he himself was adding a Hasselblad to his own collection and needed the funds - no doubt he had been bitten by the same bug that I had encountered during NYCWLK.  I’ve put a few test rolls through it and although I’ve been encouraged by the results, it quickly dawned on me that for the volume of shooting that I do, developing and scanning this film is going to quickly add up. This is one reason why I finally decided to take time off from 35mm film, and instead focus on what my digital cameras can’t provide me - the shooting experience of shooting medium format 120mm film on my Mamiya 645 Pro TL.

But I wasn’t completely satisfied with leaving 35mm behind and not being able to experience shooting a Leica. I was attracted to the rangefinder shooting experience and appreciated the “always live view” of the viewfinder and bright frame lines. I also really enjoyed the size of the compact M mount lenses and their buttery smooth manual focus capabilities. I decided to rent a Leica M9 so that I could get my photos back without the added cost of developing and scanning, all the while knowing that the digital version of the camera costs exponentially more in the first place. My close contacts on Twitter all said the same thing: “You’re going to rent it, and then buy it.” Such is the pull of the Leica experience. And they were right. At least about the first part.

 

Shooting the Leica M9

For a digital camera that was introduced in 2009, this camera is remarkably still popular. It’s heavier in the hand than the film Leicas that I’ve shot, but the shooting experience is exactly the same. The viewfinder, frame line system and rangefinder focusing patch are all there. Aside from the added physical bulk and the screen and buttons on the back, it’s a film Leica. And I like that. 

Perhaps the biggest reason why this digital camera hasn’t suffered from the same digital rot as most modern cameras (besides having multiple successors) is the unique CCD sensor that it uses. Originally developed by Kodak, this CCD sensor is said to mimic Kodachrome in its rendering. In my own shooting and post processing experience, I was surprised at how little work needed to be done to the DNGs (RAW files) to get them to look the way I wanted. The Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses that I used also provided a very pleasing look when paired with the full frame sensor in the M9.

The menu system was also remarkably sparse but I really thought that was perfect. The layout was simple and key info like battery life, white balance settings and ISO settings were very easy to access. It was a refreshing change from the pages of menus that I’ve flipped through on my Fuji and Sony cameras. Less is more, in this case. But despite the overall pleasing shooting experience, there were many facets of the Leica M9 that gave me pause.

 

Leica M9 - Dallas, TX. Virtually no post was needed on this image.

 

The Downsides of the Leica M9

Despite the feel of the camera and the shooting experience being reminiscent of Leica film cameras, there are a few glaring things about the M9 that remind you that you’re shooting a digital camera…and an old one at that. For starters, the M9 has the customary screen on the back of the camera. It’s true that the menu system for the camera is laid out well and the contrast of the text on the screen is clear and easy to read. What’s also true, however, is that the screen is pretty horrible for judging critical focus. The resolution of the screen itself just isn’t capable of providing you with a decent preview of what you’ve shot. At best you know you’ve successfully taken the picture because it appears on the screen, but at worst you’ve just narrowly missed focus at that wide open aperture because you couldn’t really tell until you got back to your computer and viewed the full resolution picture at your desk. With the M9, you’ll get used to taking a few “focus bracketed” shots when shooting wide open just for safety.

Another downside is the sound of the shutter. Now, I realize that this is purely subjective, but once you hear it for yourself you fall into one of two camps - you hate it, or you accept it. You’ll never love it. The shutter itself is a subtle click, but the automatic and unstoppable re-cook mechanism is loud and, at times, intrusive. If you set the shutter type to “Discreet” in the menu of the M9, it will hold off on re-cooking the shutter until after you’ve let go of the shutter button, but even then it’s loud and noticeable.

As for the sensor: heaps and heaps of praise have been thrown at the “feel” of the CCD sensor and how it renders unique colors that modern camera sensors don’t seem to match. Earlier in this post I mentioned how easy to use the files were from this camera and I stand by that. However, at the risk of probably getting some slack for saying this, there’s nothing in M9 files that can’t also be achieved in modern Leica cameras and cameras from other manufacturers. In my search for information about “CCD vs CMOS” I even ran into a blog where someone posted numerous examples of files from an M9 vs an M240. With minimal tweaking, all of the shots looked the same and blended in with one another. Again - I’m not saying the M9 doesn’t produce amazing files - I’m simply saying that the sensor is more of a burden on the camera than it is a benefit. Why a burden? 

Well, the CCD sensor simply craps out at ISO speeds above 1000 (some would say above 800). Anything more than that is going to produce some pretty noticeable noise. Although that noise doesn’t look too bad in black and white, it definitely stands out in color, and not in a good way. The same CCD sensor that gets praise for its nice color should also get criticism for its ISO performance. Some say they can make it work by knowing what their M9 is capable of, and I respect that. Still others rely on shooting on a $3,000 Summilux so they can continue to shoot wide open at f/1.4 and keep ISO settings low. Regardless of how you get around the M9 not being able to shoot at high ISOs, the issue remains.

 

Why the Leica M9 is still popular today

So why does a nearly decade old camera still hold such high value and respect to this day? Well, it’s not because it’s a technological marvel, that much is sure. Numerous digital Leica cameras have been released since the M9 (even two direct updates to the M9 platform in the M9-P and M-E) and all of them were physically or technologically superior to the M9 in some way.

I think the M9 is still popular for two reasons: it was the first full frame digital Leica released and as the oldest it’s also the cheapest, and it’s the least expensive way to use the remarkable range of M-mount glass on a native full-frame digital M-mount camera. Lenses from Voigtlander, Zeiss and Leica all work on the M9 and provide that same rangefinder shooting experience that is so easy to fall in love with. Make no mistake: the technology of the M9 holds it back in ways, but the mere fact that so many amazing lenses can be used with it makes it easy to see past its shortcomings for so many people.

 

Leica M9 - Deep Ellum, TX. The Zeiss M mount lenses have a fantastic character to them.

Leica M9 - Deep Ellum, TX. The Zeiss M mount lenses have a fantastic character to them.

 

Et tu, M240?

In the end, the Leica M9 fell short with me perhaps not because of its own faults but because of a freak series of events that led me to investigate it more than most people probably would. You see, when I rented the Leica M9 I was noticing a strange back focusing phenomenon that was very troubling. I thought it was my Zeiss lenses and quickly found out how to achieve sharp focus by notching the rangefinder patch of the rental M9 off the matching image by just a bit. I then set about online reading about issues with Zeiss lenses and thinking there was a problem there. In the end, I discovered that rangefinder patches can get knocked out of alignment quite easily on the M9 (and rangefinders in general), and after returning the rental M9 I tried all of my lenses with a friends Leica M240.

That’s when I discovered a few key things. First, my lenses were fine. No back focusing after all. The rangefinder alignment on his M240 was perfect and files on the rear screen looked great. That was the second thing that I noticed: the screen on the M240 really showed great feedback on what the shot actually looked like. This was confirmed later at my office when going through the files in Lightroom. They were all sharp, all beautiful. The files in Lightroom from the M240 also weren’t that far off from the CCD sensor of the M9. They had equally great latitude in shadow and highlight recovery and the differences between the CMOS sensor in the M240 and the CCD sensor in the M9 seemed to be far less than what I had read about online. Ultimately, I was relieved to know that the lenses were accurate and that my rental M9 had somehow been off.

I also appreciated the accuracy of the frame lines on the M240. I didn’t do any scientific tests with this since I couldn’t replicate my exact shots from the M9 at the time, but the LED-lit lines of the M240 seemed to give me a more accurately defined area of what I was going to get in the frame when viewing the files later. The M9’s bright frame lines seemed to include more of the area outside of the frame lines themselves, but to be fair my M6 exhibits this behavior to a degree as well.

Lastly, the M240 had a nice shutter sound. The M240 has a pleasant “Click!” compared to the M9’s “Click! PIZZSHAWWWW.” Does that sound trite? It really isn’t, considering that you’d likely hear it thousands of times after having spent thousands of dollars to experience it.

 

Conclusions about the Leica M9

For me, it all comes back to the title of this post. The Leica M9 is a good camera, but not a great one. It does just enough to keep itself relevant in today’s market but little to justify its price (even used) from a features standpoint. It’s a full frame digital Leica that uses the amazing M-mount glass to produce beautiful 18MP DNGs. It has an adequate menu system and everything you’d expect to see in a digital camera from 2009 like ISO selection and white balance. But for a $2500+ camera, there has to be more. I’m not saying that it needs to have video capabilities or the ISO performance of a Sony a7S, but if you already have a modern digital mirrorless or DSLR camera, the M9 isn’t going to offer you results that you can’t already get from the equipment you have.

If you have a lot of M-mount glass and you don’t own a digital camera already, then perhaps the M9 might be a good choice for you. For me, using the M240 showed me that the more satisfying digital Leica experience is even further up the ladder. Having already invested in Fuji lenses and a brand new X-T2 as my main camera, I really can’t see the need to invest so much money in another digital camera that can’t do anything new for me, Leica branded or not. And to make the point clear: cost isn’t really an issue here. $2500 - $3000 is usually a fair price to pay for a full frame digital camera, but not when that same camera is actually taking features away from you.  “Good” and “great” are subjective terms, and I realize that, but when most photographers today already have one or two digital cameras the addition of an M9 is nothing more than a luxury.

So although I enjoyed the shooting experience and the instant gratification of seeing my files with the M9, in the end I’m coming away a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps a digital Leica is in the cards for me at some point, but it won’t be the M9. For now, I think I’ll stick to the film M6 to take advantage of my M-mount glass and to give me that rangefinder shooting experience that I enjoy so much. I guess I won’t be leaving 35mm film behind after all…

 

* Blog thumbnail M9 image by Andrew Xu.