Last week I wrote about my experiences with the Leica X1. While I was down in Vancouver I also had the opportunity to have a more extended test period with the Leica M9.
50mm Summicron on the left with a 35mm Summilux on the M9
First a bit of a history lesson. The M7 and MP were the last of the film rangefinders and the first digital Leica , the M8, was introduced in 2006 with a 10.3MP 1.3 crop sensor. An incremental improvement was made in 2008 with the M8.2 which still employed the same 10MP sensor but with some improvements in the shutter mechanism and glass screen coverings. Alongside the X1 Leica launched the M9 in September 2009 and this time the M9 featured a full frame 18MP sensor. It was and still is by far the smallest camera to feature a full frame sensor.
The unbelievably compact 28mm f2.8 Elmarit was another favorite of mine and you can see the hyperfocal scale on top
As with the whole M series, the M9 is a rangefinder camera and not an SLR. This means that the composition of your photo is not made by looking through a viewfinder that is seeing through the lens itself. Instead you look through a viewfinder adjacent to the lens and determine the lens’ field of view by looking at a set of lines within the viewfinder that depict the view of your particular lens. If you have a 50mm lens on the camera you compose using the 50mm frame lines and if you have a 35mm lens you compose with the 35mm frame lines. The actual view through the finder does not change at all and is not magnified by putting a longer lens on the camera. The name rangefinder actually comes from the type of focusing mechanism that is employed in these cameras. Focus is achieved entirely manually with a good old-fashioned focus ring on the lens but a secondary image is projected optically onto the central part of the viewfinder. As you turn the focus ring on the lens, this secondary image moves horizontally and when they match up, the subject at which the central part of the finder is pointing at will be in focus. All Leica lenses have a manual aperture ring on them too which means that you can forget about using any kind of full program mode or shutter priority. The only type of semi-automatic shooting that can be used is aperture priority. Up until this point I had never shot with a rangefinder camera before, though I have read much about the benefits of such a system. I was intrigued to try one out and as someone who began his career in the digital age I have never shot film so naturally I was drawn to the newer M9.
The following then is a collection of thoughts on what it is like to use a rangefinder for the first time and also I suppose you could say a review of the M9, though as it has been out for more than a year you are probably aware that it has already been reviewed exhaustively and found to be an exemplary camera. Hopefully I can shed some light on why this is though. I have included a selection of photos from my time with the M9. Although these are not really intended for close scrutiny there are a couple of 100% crops to illustrate a point, but don’t expect to find a huge range of ISO samples or such things in this particular article. This is much more about the Leica M9 experience overall.
M9+35mm Summilux and 50mm Summicron Vs 5DMKII and 24mm f1.4 L II
The M9 is physically a very solid feeling camera with it’s titanium shell and brass top and bottom plates. It was much much heavier than I was expecting it to be but it is also very small. Compared to my Canon 5dMKII which I took along for comparative purposes, the full frame Canon dwarfs the full frame Leica. The M9 weighs in at 585g and the 5dMKII at 810g. A smaller weight difference that the size difference would have you believe. The major weight saving of the Leica system really comes from the lenses though. At this point I decided to make a quick video because it’s far easier to gauge the size of these things from someone holding them in their hands so please take a couple of minutes to watch this video here.
Pretty small right ?! Amazing in fact that they can fit a 35mm sensor into this tiny package. A remarkable feat of engineering.
Apart from wanting to gain a better understanding of the benefits of rangefinder shooting, I was also wanting to see whether there would be a significant reason for me to buy an M9 for my business. I shoot all my action images with a Canon 1DMKIV. As well as my MKIV I also keep a Canon 5DMKII which I mainly use for landscape photos, portrait work and travel photos. My work takes me all over the world and whilst I’m wandering around these places I like to have a camera with me. I have found though that I often struggle to capture candid moments with the athletes that I work with because they become far too aware of my camera and the huge prime lenses that I stick on them. They are used to me shooting them from a distance while they ski, but become uncomfortable in other situations. Many people sing the praises of rangefinder cameras based on their discreet nature so this was also something I wanted to evaluate during my time with the M9. Could it replace my full-frame Canon camera for non-sporting photographs?
My time with the M9 began with an enthusiastic presentation by Tom Smith, one of Leica’s traveling teachers, who went through the basics of the M9 and the techniques required to use a rangefinder. This was perfect for someone like me who was new to the genre. Yes the M9 is simple and intuitive enough that I was happily taking photos with it seconds after putting the memory card in it, but to really be successful with I definitely benefited from a few lessons with Tom.
I also made a quick video running through all of the controls and menus of the M9.
After the classroom session we were treated to a talk by senior Reuters photographer Andy Clark who is the 2010 Canadian Press photojournalist of the year and a digital Leica user. His fantastic collection of photos showed us what was possible with a rangefinder and with a bit of help from Tom we were soon off into the streets of Vancouver to put some of the techniques into action.
My M9 was equipped with the brand new version of the 35mm Summilux f1.4, the ASPH Ver II. This lens was only recently released by Leica and currently has about a year long waiting list so it was also a great opportunity to get a look at what many people are calling Leica’s finest ever lens, and perhaps the best lens ever made. Period.
The M9’s viewfinder is big and bright, so big in fact that you can look left and right within the finder and still discover more of the world that you are about to take a photo of. Using the 35mm frame lines still leaves plenty of room around the outside of your image to really appreciate exactly what you are and aren’t including in the photo. This instantly made a huge difference to the way that I was shooting photos because normally looking through an SLR you are blinkered to the outside world. The most interesting subject in the world could be just out of your frame with an SLR but you would miss it because you can only see what is directly in your lenses view. With the M9 you can see what is about to happen or what is about to enter your photo before it does, so you can wait for the perfect moment to take the shot. Not only that but because the shutter does not close in front of your eye, you actually see the exact moment of capture so you really know what shot you got before you even look at the screen. Instead of bringing the camera to my eye and moving it about, scanning a scene for a photo I found myself putting the camera up to my eye and really studying the scene that was unfolding within the viewfinder. Another useful feature is a small lever on the front of the camera that allows you to display the frame lines for other lenses than the one you are using. If you have a 35mm lens and you want to see whether it would look better with a 50mm or 75mm, a simple flick of the switch will show you.
So how about focusing manually ? This really intrigued me because I had heard some people claim they can focus faster then their SLRs can. Some of the techniques to accomplish this were explained and most of it comes down to practicing the use of the hyperfocal scale on the top of the lens. Simply put, the hyperfocal scale shows you a range of distance that your subject will be “acceptably sharp” for a given aperture. By getting proficient at estimating distances to your subject you can, at a flick of your finger, rotate the focus ring to put your zone of focus right where your subject is for a given aperture. For street photography you can reasonably pre-select a small enough aperture as to give a decent depth of field, and then pre set a focus to give you sharp subjects from say 10ft out to 17ft away. That way it requires nothing more than a press of the shutter button to quickly grab a moment of a scene on the street. By always having your camera set up in this way you can always be ready for that “decisive moment” that Henri Cartier-Bresson made so famous.
Leica M9 + 35mm Summilux ASPH version II
Another great tip is to always return the focus ring to the same infinity position when you are not shooting. Unlike my Canon lenses, the Leica lenses have a stop at both ends of the focus scale so they do not rotate any further. By always putting them back to infinity you quickly become accustomed to making an adjustment as you bring the camera to your eye and I found that by really thinking about how far away the subject was, by the time I had the M9 to my eye I was already in the right area for my focus. Sure there was room for improvement and I would not say I was faster than my SLR but I can see how people could become deadly accurate with this method. Both Tom and Andy also spoke of shooting without even looking through the viewfinder when on the street so as to not draw any attention to yourself. Setting a small aperture and adjusting focus using the ranges on top of the lens you can conceivably keep the camera at waist level and still fire off a shot while you are walking or while you are just sitting down. People tend to look where your eyes are looking so if you look in one direction while aiming a camera in another direction, your miss-direction might land you an interesting photo of a moment undisturbed by the obvious intrusion of a camera. The photo below is one such example that I shot within just a few minutes of taking these techniques outside. Do you think this guy would have kept this approving look on his face if he had seen me aim a camera at him ? I doubt it. This was shot without even looking through the viewfinder which is a technique I was surprised to hear is relatively common in street shooting with Leica’s.
I continued to wander around downtown Vancouver with the camera and suddenly realized how excited I was to take photos. The rangefinder process is so much more involved than using an SLR that you really discover more about a scene that you are standing in and you appreciate everything that is going on around you. After a bit of practice people rarely notice that you are taking a photo and the the M9’s shutter is so quiet that I was easily able to wander into a church and take a photo without anyone even raising an eyelid. In discreet mode, depressing the shutter button raises the shutter with the slightest “click” but until the button is released, the second half of the cocking process is not completed. This means that you can depress the button and capture your discreet photo, then leave the scene to release the button.
M9 + 35mm Summilux wide open at f1.4
This is one of the M9’s built in B&W modes.
I was particularly impressed with the way the M9 handled complex interior lighting. Leagues ahead of my Canon 5dMKII. M9 + 50mm Summicron @f2
M9 + 50mm Summicron
35mm summilux, iso400 f6.7 1/500
The M9 uses a CCD sensor made by Kodak. Most people are used to using CMOS censors which is what you will find in a typical SLR, but CCD sensors are normally found in medium format digital cameras. The M9 doesn’t need an anti aliasing filter either and the result of all this is an incredible resolving power when coupled with the exceptionally sharp Leica glass. The small details that you can find tucked away in one of these photos is remarkable and every last pixel is rendered sharper than anything I have seen before. I did not get a chance to shoot any Landscape photos but I can imagine that it is a fantastic camera for this purpose and that if you like to make large prints of your photos this would be an incredible camera to do it with. The downside to using a CCD sensor is that noise is not nearly so well controlled as CMOS sensor cameras and to be honest this was not something I was aware of until my time with the M9. Having a full frame sensor I expected it to be somewhat comparable with my Canon 5dMKII in terms of noise but in fact it was a long long way behind. Some very informal guestimating puts the 5DMKII iso at about 1.5 to 2 stops better than the M9. But is this the whole story ? Not at all, there are other things to think about here. Initially I was disappointed by this but after shooting with it a little bit more I found it to be acceptable for two main reasons. Firstly the Leica lenses are so sharp wide open that it is no problem to use them in this way all the time and secondly , despite higher noise in the photos the M9 shot were still appreciably sharper than anything I had ever seen and the digital noise that does exist has a relatively pleasing “film grain” look to it. It took me a little while to adjust to this but after a while I realized that I was still making some nice images. It did really make me appreciate having f1.4 on the 35mm Summilux though and if I decide to invest in the M-System I am definitely going to need some very fast glass.
The elephant in the room
I know you were wandering when I was going to get to talking about the price…… yes the M9 is $7000 and the 35mm Summilux is $5000. While there are less expensive lenses, like the $2000 28mm Elmarit, they are still much more expensive than equivalent primes in SLR systems. Whilst the hand built Leica lenses and cameras are undoubtedly higher quality there will always be those that argue that the camera does not matter. Well the camera does not matter if it is so big and heavy that you leave it at home…… Whether it is or is not too expensive will ultimately be a personal choice but I would urge people to try a Leica rangefinder before writing it off entirely. I honestly think that it has the ability to improve someones photography from a technical point of view because it really focuses your attention on the whole process. I’ve no doubt that if I had an M9 I would shoot a lot more photos on my everyday travels than I do currently and I’m not sure how you assign a value to that. Before trying it I was on the fence, but now I can safely say that if it is within your price budget then yes it is worth the money.
Coming from an SLR background my first rangefinder experience was a lot of fun and more than a little eye opening. I tend to have a purpose for most of my photography and I rarely wander about these days just taking photos because my SLR kit is heavy and bulky. The M9 allows you to take a whole different approach to your photography though because you can comfortably carry the camera and 2 lenses with you at almost all times and that means that you take more photos which is never a bad thing. The rangefinder system made me think a lot more about the photos I was taking and I truly enjoyed the whole process with this camera. I came away feeling like I had really explored some parts of Vancouver in a detail that I had not done before. And that wasn’t because I hadn’t been to these areas before, it was becauase I saw them though the viewfinder of the M9 and really discovered details in those places that had passed me by on other occasions. Quite simply the camera is a joy to use, and on top of it produces images in a level of detail I have never seen before. For travel photography I just can’t think of a better solution than this because it’s discreet looks draw very little attention.
Will I be buying one? I think the M9 could easily replace everything that I currently do with my 5dMKII. The only place I was disappointed with the camera was it’s low light high iso performance and it was not so bad as to be a total deal breaker for me because everything else was fantastic. The one thing it made me realize though is that if I bought an M9 I would need to buy some very fast glass to go with it in order to compensate for using lower iso. Currently the waiting list for the f1.4 35mm and 50mm Summilux lenses are anything up to a year and the lenses are $5000 and $4000 respectively. I had imagined buying an M9 and a slower f2.5 or f2.8 lens to partner it but I don’t think I would be entirely happy with this setup now I have tried it out. And if I am spending that much on a camera you can bet that I do want to be very happy with it! So for now I think I need to save up a little longer to be in a position to purchase the lenses that I want to get with the camera. I think an M is inevitable now in my future but it might have to wait a little longer until I can partner it with the Leica glass that I want.
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