Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Field testing the Leica M9

 The first Leica I used professionally was the M2.  I still have it along with its original lenses, all of which I continue to use. Shooting with a Leica camera is an exhilarating, tactile experience akin to driving a fine-tuned, pedigreed sports car with a manual gearbox.  You really have to know how to handle your vehicle in order to coax the maximum performance from it.  
My favorite M Leica was the M4.  I have a black lacquer model with a Leica modification to the viewfinder so that it has six frame lines of 28/35/50/75/90/135 -- the same frame lines that have appeared in every Leica from the M6 to the M9.  It's black lacquer finish is brassing slightly, but otherwise it bears a striking resemblance to the new M9.

For those of us who have used Leica M film cameras for years, the advent of a full frame digital M body has been eagerly awaited.  The M9 will not disappoint.  When combined with the legendary sharpness of Leitz lenses, it may just be the highest quality digital camera ever produced. 

 Leica M9 with the first Leica, a Leica I behind it

Why Leica?

Many of my friends who shoot commercial stock have wondered why anyone would want a manual focus rangefinder camera in the easy-to-use DSLR era. I have to admit I gave this some thought myself.  I have been using the Nikon D3s, D3x cameras with their super-fast and sharp auto-focus zoom lenses ranging from 14mm to 400mm.  This is a convenient system that is hard to beat, particularly when shooting fast moving subjects.  But as stock photographers we do not all shoot the same subject matter.  Stock photo subject categories are myriad: lifestyle, travel, scenic, still life, architecture, animals, sports, etc.  Each of these areas requires its own optimal camera equipment requirements.  I produce stock in all these areas and more, and I try to optimize my output by using the most suitable equipment for each specific task.  

28mm Summicron, right into the sun -- a tough shot for any camera

The question becomes: What are the stock situations where this camera excels?  My first surprise was the manual focus.  I expected this to slow me down quite a bit and result in many soft images.  Instead the split-image rangefinder made it easy to pinpoint an exact focus.  I’ve become used to DSLR cameras with their tiny box-like focus spots.  But these are not always accurately placed, particularly on a model’s backlit face where you want the eye to be in perfect focus.  The split-image focus of the M9 allows you to choose an exact placement of the focus spot.  Couple that to the incredible sharpness of Leitz lenses aspheric lenses and the result is a super-sharp image.

 Panorama created in CS5 with two 35mm images from the M9

When I first took a RAW image for the M9 up to 100% on my 30” monitor I was blown away by its incredible sharpness and detail.  Frankly, I had never seen any camera as sharp as this.  A lot has to do with the Leitz lenses, of course.  Take a look at the hi res image of New York city at sunset.  I have shot this scene many times, but never have I seen anything this sharp.  In the original file I can clearly see the details inside office building windows.

click here to view a full resolution version of this image

The sensor in the M9 is a full frame (24x36) Kodak CCD with 18.5MP.  Kodak has been making digital sensors for quite some time.  They are of very high quality. 

Producing a full-frame sensor for a Leica is particularly problematic because Leica lenses work much closer to the film plane than do SLR lenses which have a mirror to distance them. This sensor solves the lens proximity problem of non-DSLR lenses by incorporating a microlens technology on the sensor itself.  ISO sensitivity range has been improved from the M8 and is rated at 80-2500 with 160 as the base. 


A big question I had  for the M9 was how wide angle lenses would perform in the corners of the frame.  Super wide angle lenses have been the Achilles heel of full-frame digital sensors.  Most of the wide angle lenses I tried did produce some soft corners at wide open apertures.  This disappeared, however, when the lenses were stopped down to f/5.6 or more.  Nonetheless, this is an area Leitz will need to address in future lens designs.  It is especially important for Leica because photographers are attracted to the faster f/1.4 and f/2 speed of the Summilux and Summicrons and like to use these lenses wide open.

One of the thing I like about Leitz lenses is their ability to shoot straight into the sun and produce a dramatic star effect .  - 50mm Summicron

New lenses for the Leica are digitally coded so the camera knows what lens it has and can make some in-camera corrections.  The M9 will retro fit almost all older Leica lenses made since 1954.  You can send them to Leitz to have the coding added.  Coding supplies the image processor with lens information so it can make specific corrections for vignetting and other aberrations.  It also passes the lens information along to the EXIF data in the digital image file. 

 Dublin at dusk - 28mm with the Leica M9

All Leitz lenses I tested on the M9 showed a remarkable lack of vignetting and rectilinear lens distortions. The images were clear and bright with exceptionally high resolution.  Take a look at the samples I am showing here.  Many were shot directly into the sun, and yet there is plenty of detail and contrast in the foreground subjects. 


The menu system on the M9 is simple – thank goodness. There is one menu page with everything listed out. In addition, there is an ISO button for quick changes.  Under this is an Info button that calls up an on screen display of important information.  Battery condition and SD card capacity are shown graphically in large bar graphs, while image count, shutter speed, and lens are listed below – simple, quick, and to the point.  

New Orleans, 90mm lens

With the multi-menu professional DSLR cameras I have to carry around a manual the size of a phone book just to keep track of the menus.  With the Leica it’s all intuitive.


Nominally the M9 has a top ISO of 2500.  I would recommend not going over 1250.  Keep in mind this review is for commercial stock shooters whose images must be of very high quality at a 50MB size.  Editorial shooters do not have the same restrictions. 

Of course using fast aperture Leitz lenses has an advantage over most DSLR zoom lenses that top out at f/2.8.  Using a f/1.4 or f/2 aperture has the same result as doubling or quadrupling the ISO.  Even better, it provides the extra sensitivity without the extra noise.  Using a DSLR at 6400 ISO while at f/2.8 would be the equivalent of using a 1600 ISO on the M9 at f/1.4.

Viewfinder accuracy

135mm f/3.4 APO Telyt, ISO 1000 - download hi res here

Camera lenses actually change their effective focal length as they are focused from infinity to close-up.  As a result, rangefinder viewfinders can only be accurate for a specific distance.  The M9 has its viewfinders frames set for a 1 meter distance.  This means that at 1 meter you will have an accurate representation of what the lens will take.  At infinity, however, the lens will include more than what you see in the viewfinder.  A 90mm lenses focused at infinity is actually taking a photo that is closer to what you would see with an 85mm finder than with the 90mm frame.  I’ve been using an old Leica 85mm viewfinder for the Summarex lens and it is a very accurate representation of what my 90mm Elmarit sees when it is focused at infinity.

Strongly back lit subject in natural daylight, shot with a 90mm Elmarit

It would be nice if Leica would make a variable focal length “Infinity Viewfinder” for those of us who like to compose tightly.  Such a finder would not even need parallax correction since it would only be needed for framing at infinity.  This would be especially helpful to travel photographers who shoot at infinity quite a bit.


My most compact travel outfit, the M9 with a Tri-Elmar 35-50-38mm lens and 90mm.

The Leica M9 is the world’s smallest full-frame camera.  It weighs in at 19.8 ounces (585 grams) with its battery.  By comparison a Nikon D3s weighs 44 oz (1240 grams) and a Canon 1Ds is 42.7 oz (1210 grams).  While a Canon 5D of Nikon D700 are lighter at 28.6 (810g) and 35.09 oz (995g), respectively, they still have to use much heavier lenses. My entire Leica M9 with a full assortment of lenses weighs less than the most popular Nikon or Canon zooms alone.  

 The dynamic range of the M9 is extensive.  Download the hi res sample to see
how it holds detail from the deepest shadows to the bright highlights.

Admittedly, this feature becomes more important to me as I get older.  I do find that I am more inclined to carry the M9 around when I would have left my bulky DSLR at home  The result has been that I have been picking up a lot of extra stock shots I would have otherwise missed.
I have two M9 “kits” that I use.  For ultra-portability I carry the M9 with a Tri-Elmar 35-50-28mm, and an Elmarit 90mm.  I don’t usually need a camera bag for this because I stick a lens or two along with a polarizer in my vest.

When I am seriously covering a travel location I have either a 21mm or 24mm lens along with a 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm.  The discontinued Tri-Elmar is nice for convenience but it does not approach the quality of the Leica primes.  

Another plus to carrying a Leica M9 system is its unobtrusiveness.  It is small and quiet --- very quiet.  You can travel unnoticed.


Leica cameras are designed to be used instinctively.  You do not have to look at the controls. This is especially true if you have grown up in the Leica tradition, as I have.  You can feel the clicks in changing shutter speed and lens stops, all in half-stop increments.


2008-2010 may represent the time when professional digital cameras hit their stride.  It has taken about ten years to get here – many trial-and-errors, many false starts – but I have a feeling that we can safely say we have “lift off” on a new era of professional digital photography. 
The Leica M9 is a pinnacle of achievement making the transition from analog to digital complete.

In the words of the great Winston Churchill,  "Now is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

For me, it’s nice to see Leica leading the way, as it has done since the very beginning of 35mm photography.