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Leica M9 Impressions

I’ve been a Leica M rangefinder camera user almost from the start of my interest in photography a couple of years ago.  My first camera was a Contax G2 film camera which was nice but felt like an advanced point and shoot.  Within half a year, I switched to a Voigtlander Bessa R2 film camera as I wanted more control over the camera in order to learn about the technical aspects of photography.  My interest in Leica cameras and lenses came about 2 months after I started using the Bessa R2.  A grand uncle of mine loaned me a Leica M6 with 2 lenses for the weekend and I was hooked.  I was attracted to the build quality of the camera and lenses, the simple ergonomics, and the quiet shutter.  The M6 like the R2 is fully manual in function . . . manual focus, manual film advance and manual exposure setting (aperture and shutter speed).  I enjoy the process of shooting with a fully manual camera and can attribute a large part of the technical knowledge I have picked up from being forced to visualize the final image in my head and then deciding what settings to use on the camera to achieve the visualized image.  Over time the nice thing is that the technical bits have become second nature. I eventually sold off the Contax and Voigtlander gear and bought a 2nd hand Leica M6TTL and a 50mm Summicron and used it exclusively for months before adding on a 35mm lens.

Leica released the M8, a digital version of their rangefinder M series camera, about 3 years ago and an upgraded version, the M8.2, about a year ago.  These cameras have a sensor which has a 1.33x cropped factor (e.g. a 28mm lens would give you the field of view of a 35mm lens on the M8) and to many people the M8 was a placeholder and a testbed for Leica as they sought to develop a full frame digital rangefinder.  I switched to digital with the release of the M8.  I still shoot with my film camera once in a while but nowadays over 90% of what I shoot is digital.  The flaws of the M8 are well documented over the internet.  The need for a UV/IR filter on the lens, poor high ISO performance (the highest ISO I would use on the M8 was ISO 640), the noisy shutter (fixed on the M8.2), the lenses need to be coded in order to be recognized by the camera, the need to get used to the cropped factor, the inaccurate frame-lines, etc.  That said, I’ve not regretted using the M8s over the past 2 years.  The results when printed out large have been excellent and I have recouped the cost of the cameras through the savings on the amount of film + developing I would otherwise be paying for if I was still using film.  A majority of my B&W images from the Animal exhibition are from the M8.

Leica finally released the M9 on 9 September 2009. Many of the flaws of the M8 have been fixed. You no longer need a UV/IR filter on your lenses, the shutter is quiet, you can manually select the lens you are using from a menu, it is full frame, the frame-lines are more accurate, and it is much faster to set the ISO compared to the M8.  The high ISO has improved slightly and I find it now usable up to ISO1600.  This is still a far cry from the ISO 3200 or higher that is usable on the higher end Canons and Nikons but in most cases ISO1600 is sufficient for me.  I’m not sure if Leica totally revamped the processing engine of the camera, but the white balance and color of the images out of the camera seem much nicer compared to the M8.

I got to quite thoroughly test out the M9 on a recent trip to Japan.  For me, the M9 hardly needed any adapting to on my side as everything is quite simple and straightforward having used the other Leica M cameras for many years.  I used it mainly with a 35mm Summilux lens which is my favorite lens with my film M6.  I just randomly picked a few shots from the trip for this post.  You can’t tell the quality of a camera or lens from looking at these downsized images but I’ve started to print a few of these images at 21×14″ in size and the details captured are just wonderful.  This trip to Japan was quite relaxed for me and I think it shows in the kind of images I ended up taking.

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Shirakawago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Hakone Tozan Railway. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Higashi Chaya Geisha District in Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Higashi Chaya Geisha District in Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Nagamachi Samurai District in Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 640)


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Takayama. (M9, 35mm Summilux,ISO 640)


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Garden View No. 1, Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 200)


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Garden View No. 2, Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 800)


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Tree Roots Details, Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa. (M9, 50mm pre-asph Summilux, ISO 160)


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First Fall, Kanazawa. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Misty Ropeway, Hakone. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Misty Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. (M8, 75mm Summilux, ISO 160)


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Hakone Shrine Torii Gate at a very misty Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. (M8, 75mm Summilux, ISO 320)


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Hakone Shrine, Hakone. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 400)


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Hakone Shrine Torii Gate, Hakone. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160, 32 second exposure)


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Shorenji Shrine Torii Gate, Takayama. (M9, 35mm Summilux, ISO 160)

Final Comments

For Leica Film Camera Users: I think any film Leica M user who skipped the M8 would not have any problems adapting to the M9 in terms of usage and quality of the files generated.  The bigger learning curve will come from the area of digital workflow/digital post processing.  If the investment of the M9 is too much at the moment or you are not sure about this whole digital thing, my advice would be to go buy a second hand M8 or M8.2 which are now flooding the 2nd hand market.  At least you can get a taste of using a digital rangefinder and start learning how to post process images, etc.

For Leica M8/M8.2 Camera Users: M8/M8.2 users will also not have any problems adapting and they should have an advantage having already become accustomed to digital and all it entails.  For owners of the M8/M8.2, if you have the $ and don’t need to sell your camera to fund the purchase of the M9, the M8/M8.2 can still nicely complement the M9 by providing the longer reach when needed (e.g. 75mm will give you a field of view of about 100mm on the M8).  The M8/M8.2 makes a good backup camera.

The M9 is the digital rangefinder camera that the M8 should have been. Like most newly released cameras, I think the M9 is still a bit buggy (I encountered 1 or 2 problems with images stuck in the buffer and not being written onto the memory card and a few camera lockups when reviewing images at 100%). Either that or I just happened to get an M9 with problems. The problems are not really deal breakers for me but I do hope that Leica fixes them ASAP in their next firmware update.  The camera is really expensive but if you enjoy photography with a rangefinder camera, in the long run I doubt you will regret the purchase.  I think the main thing that will cause people to regret the purchase of an M9 would be if they have problems learning the whole digital workflow/post processing bit and get frustrated.  It is worth taking the time and effort to learn this area properly.  Learn how to get good prints and print out your photos. It would be such a shame to just leave them on your computer!