I made the move. I got a Leica.* The M9 to be exact. And frankly, this is not something I expected to ever do. I resisted the Leica digital cameras for many reasons. I thought the early incarnations were too expensive and that they underperformed compared to the Japanese digital cameras.
But the M9 changed all that for me. Let me explain.
Starting with the sensor, this is a spectacular camera. It’s a proprietary 18.5 megapixel CCD full frame device. It doesn’t use an anti-aliasing filter. That translates to higher resolving power. In short, in regards to resolution, images from the M9 will meet or beat the 21-25MP images from the most expensive Canon and Nikon cameras.
It uses a new cover glass to eliminate infrared light contamination, and the sensor provides stellar performance with Leica M lenses. The use of external UV/IR filters is not required.
This technology is not something you can just gloss over. It’s a marvel. In fact, I can’t believe Leica came up with an 18.5 MP full frame sensor in a camera that is about as small as some point and shoots. Leica engineers themselves thought this impossible just a few years ago. Everything changes.
The camera is solid as a rock, but much lighter than any of my DSLR bodies. It’s small enough to be stealthy but big enough to do the job. It handles like a dream and I am loving the fact that I can throw this camera around my neck and work all day without getting tired.
The viewfinder is bright and that’s a good thing because the focus is manual – rangefinder type. I admit that this was where I thought I’d have the most trouble. My old eyes don’t see as well as they used to. But the combination of being able to use lenses with aperture marks on them for hyper-focal distance focusing and the bright viewfinder have left me getting 97% of my shots in focus.
The shooting experience with this camera is joyful. The ability to use an aperture ring warms my heart. The buttons are all easy to use. Set it and forget it. This is the way cameras used to work. I hate nested menus and in the case of the M9 don’t need to deal with many to get my shots.
The shutter is quiet but the shutter button takes some getting used to. No half-press to autofocus. And two frames per second is about as fast as this camera advances. I won’t be shooting birds in flight with the M9.
The M9 brilliantly uses Adobe’s DNG as its RAW format. This will save a ton of time, pain and agony for anyone who’s used to waiting for the various RAW converters to upgrade to meet their camera. In theory, just about any program can open a DNG. There is no proprietary software required.
While it’s no Canon 5D MK II, low-light performance on this camera is excellent at ISO 800 and acceptable at ISO 1250. CCD cameras trade more detail for more noise. In most cases, the super fast glass from Leica helps you overcome the lack of high ISOs. What it lacks in low-light performance, it makes up for in sharpness and detail.
The battery and memory card fit underneath a plate you have to open on the bottom of the camera. There is a good old-fashioned cable release slot on the camera which means just about any old cloth/or metal generic cable release will work in the M9. You don’t need anything electronic, proprietary or fancy.
I absolutely love the auto-bracketing feature on the M9. This is an HDR shooter’s dream. You can control the brackets in three, five or seven stop intervals. You can select 1/3, 1/2 or 1-stop brackets. You can also change the order of the shots. Once that’s all set – press the button once and you get all the exposures in the bracket. It’s flawless and foolproof.
Working with the Leica lenses is amazing. Back in the day, lenses had aperture rings. Now most cameras force you to set the aperture electronically. Thank goodness that’s not the case here. The Leica lenses have real aperture rings. This makes setting the aperture for hyper-focal distance focusing a snap. This is how street photographers tend to work. They preset a hyper-focal range and then as long as their subject is between point A and B they shoot. Everything is in focus. I love it.
One more thing about the lenses – they are drop dead gorgeous – even wide open. There is no sweet spot on a Leica lens. The entire lens is the sweet spot. They are sharp, contrasty and lovely. Oh and they are expensive and hard to find.
I’ve rented or borrowed several Leica lenses; some from my pals at Borrowlenses.com (yes they have this camera and some lenses in stock) and some from Leica fans who were gracious enough to let me try them out. I ended up buying a Leica 35mm F/2 Summicron ASPH. It’s beautiful and that’s all I can say about it. That’s all I need to say about it. It’s as nice as any lens I’ve ever owned. Period. Now I am looking for the very hard to find – no make that nearly impossible to find – Leica 90mm F/2. Since Leica isn’t currently selling any of these lenses, I have to look for old stock or used. Nobody who has this lens seems to want to sell it. Accordingly, I will probably settle for the F/2.5 version since those are more available. I expect to be able to shoot about everything I need to using just those two lenses. What a relief it is not to have to carry 10 lenses everywhere I go!
The initial images I made with this camera were mind-blowing. You can’t see it as well on the web or on a computer but when you print the pictures from an M9/Leica lens combo, your subjects appear to literally jump off the page. It’s almost a 3D effect. When I first saw it I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. That was what really pulled me into the Leica fold. The image quality is out of this world. Nothing in the 35mm realm touches it. Nothing. It’s more like working with medium formats.
Now let’s talk about the downsides. The camera is expensive. The body alone is just under $7000. The lenses start at $1700 and go up. This is not a camera for those on a budget. Is it worth the money? To me yes. Not everyone will agree. But these cameras are hand-made and very precise. If any camera body is worth $7000 the M9 is it.
The other downside is that the Leica cameras are popular and since their factory is small, they can’t keep up with demand. It’s almost impossible to find lenses for the M9 unless they are used. Even then it’s not easy to get the highly-desirable fast glass. Most Leica owners love their cameras and lenses and few offer them for resale. It’s a real problem and Leica needs to address it.
One last issue to cover is the battery life. It pretty much sucks. I mean really, you HAVE to have at least two batteries. This camera drinks battery juice like I used to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken – by the bucket. If you’re used to the modern Canon and Nikon battery life you’ll be disappointed at the Leica battery performance. Two or even three batteries may be needed to do an entire day of shooting. And like everything else Leica, the batteries are not cheap – but they aren’t outrageous either.
The Leica M9 is the world’s smallest, lightest, full frame digital camera. It’s also for me personally, the perfect digital camera for everything but sports and wildlife. It’s light, ergonomically efficient, well-built, powerful, beautiful, elegant and most of all simple. The move to simplicity in photography reminds me of my early days shooting. With a Leica I can just concentrate on seeing. I don’t need to worry about the camera. It’s just an extension of my eye. But that’s me. For you, it might be a different story.
Back to me :) If it sounds like I am in love with the M9 well – I am. It’s almost a religious experience. It’s not for everyone. Really – it isn’t. It takes time to understand. It is something you work with and eventually, it becomes a part of you.
*To those who remember my Tweet a few weeks back – Leica M9 black or chrome? – well I got about a 50/50 response. Some said the chrome looked more classy and others recommend the black because it’s stealthy. In the end, I didn’t care about either of those positions. I got a black one because it was a little less expensive for me, and because the chrome lenses are heavier than the black lenses and harder to come by.
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