Leica M9 — A Review

by Callan

I’ve delayed this long enough, probably because there was a lack of motivation to write about this camera. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it either, a mere two days, but it was enough for me to reach the conclusion that I’d always thought I would reach.

Before I get into the meat of it, some disclaimers: I did not get a test/loan unit from Leica, the camera I tested was rented at personal cost from Camera Rental Centre. None of us at CaKe have any ties with CRC other than being very satisfied customers. Also, this is a “real-world user” review, without too much talk about technical specifications, and do not expect 100% crops. I’m also writing this as a photographer who uses Canon SLRs, digital and film, and film Leica M bodies, so those are my reference points. Most importantly, this is my opinion based on what works for me, so don’t bother writing me hate mail telling me I’ve missed the point. I didn’t. But perhaps, you did.

Now, on to the review.

First, ergonomics and handling. My impression when I first laid hands on the M9 was that it didn’t quite feel like an M — it felt thicker, and didn’t feel quite as comfortable as my M2 or M6. Additional dials, buttons and an LCD screen aside, something felt amiss. I suspect the missing film advance lever, along with the Mr Zhou half-case, contributed to this feeling, but even after removing the half-case, it still didn’t feel like an M in my hands. This also explains why long-time M users buy stuff like the Tim Isaac Thumbs Up; that little detail mattered, a lot, to me.

Leica M9 and Canon 50/1.4 LTM. © Callan Tham

Making a few test shots at CRC, the next thing that bothered me was the shutter, or more to the point, the sound of the shutter. It sounded loud, much louder than my film Ms. It turned out that the shutter isn’t the loud bit, but the automatic, electronic re-cocking. The M9 allows you to choose between different re-cocking modes to minimise that sound, but after playing around with it, I decided to leave it as it is.

Leica M9 and Canon 50/1.4 LTM © Callan Tham

The LCD screen boasts 230,000 pixels over 2.5 inches. It is, in a word, shit. I thought we had left that era behind, but apparently not. Thankfully, I’m not a chimper, so to reduce my annoyance I turned off the review, which also helped extend the rather pathetic battery life. My wife though, recoiled in horror when she reviewed the photos on the LCD screen. “How do people put up with this crap in a $10,000 camera?” sounds harsh, but it is a valid question. It shouldn’t be hard to procure higher quality screens to put into the M9. It’s not really useful to judge anything but basic composition on the screen.

Karen as test subject. M9 and Summilux-M 35/1.4 © Callan Tham

Build quality is outstanding. It has an assuring heft and feels tough. It is lighter, smaller and better built than most (some would say all) SLRs out there, and while it is bigger than mirrorless offerings, the size doesn’t bother me. I do have large-ish hands though. It retained the bottom baseplate design of the old Ms, and instead of putting in your favourite film, you put in an SD card and the battery. It feels quaint, but as I’ve said, it is little details like these that make up an M.

The viewfinder is bright and clear, much brighter than my M2, and probably even slightly brighter than my M6, but that’s quibbling. It is every bit as bright as my Bessa R3M. The rangefinder patch is contrasty and easy to judge focus with, and very resistant to flare. It’s a joy to look through.

Gratuitous self-portrait. M9 and Summilux-M 35/1.4 © Callan Tham

Now for the next complaint: the battery. Admittedly, the first battery I loaded was not exactly fresh, but to get a battery warning when it showed a charge of 70% is more than annoying. To have the camera stop the shutter from working because of the battery warning is even worse. The first time I encountered the battery warning, I didn’t quite understand it. My other RF cameras did not require batteries, and the shutter would work even without them, so it was a bit of a shock. Until I remembered this is a digital camera with an electronic shutter. I missed several shots because of that. Not cool.

Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Callan Tham

The menu and operations are pretty simple to understand, and the auto-ISO function works well. You set the minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO you want, and the M9 will ratchet up the ISO accordingly to prevent the shutter speed from slipping to handshake territory. Much better than the half-baked methods Canon has been using on the 5D2.

But what about image quality? As the samples I’ve posted show you, it’s good, in fact, excellent. The M9 spits out huge, fat DNG files (why can’t every manufacturer just use the damned DNG format?) in full 35mm format filled with detail, provided the lens can give you that detail. I’ll break my “no 100% crop” rule just this once to show you this:

100% crop of photo #3 above. © Callan Tham

Because the sensor on the M9 lacks an anti-aliasing filter, it does have issues with moire, but in return, you get a whole lot more resolution than the 18 megapixels suggest. In fact, most of the time you don’t need to sharpen any photo unless you want to. All the photos posted in this review were unsharpened, just converted into 8-bit sRGB JPEG files. You want sharpness? Put a good lens in front of the M9, and you’re set.

Leica M9 and Canon 50/1.4 LTM © Callan Tham

Part of the reason for the fantastic image quality is an accurate meter and very decent auto white balance, even for tricky indoor lighting. The photo of Karen above was taken in John 3:16, my favourite local photographic equipment store. I did not have to correct the white balance or exposure, since the meter behaved as I expected it to and the AWB is good. Much better than I can wrestle the 5D2 to do. Dynamic range is also good. All in all, a camera that is easy to set up and shoot.

I just have to post this. Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Callan Tham

High-ISO performance is disappointing, but given that it’s a CCD sensor, probably expected. Bear in mind that I’m used to the 5D2′s high-ISO performance and that I can live with noisy images provided I get acceptable detail, the M9 ranks as “very disappointing” to me.

Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Wilfred Phua

The above photo was shot by Wilfred. This was near the end of my second day with the M9, and by then I had lost complete interest in trying to love the M9. The files it produced are fantastic, no doubt, but the quibbles were too much for me to overcome. I shot the same scene with my M2 on Tri-X, and I’ll post that once I develop the film. (Yes, I’m woefully behind)

It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but I really am not. It is an easier camera to shoot compared to my film Ms, and it produces rather spectacular files for a 35mm camera. It is the smallest and lightest full-frame digital camera available, well-built, and retains the M design aesthetics, which I love. And despite all of that, I just can’t love the camera. And I love my M2 and M6.

Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Wilfred Phua

Rather than think of the M9 as the digital descendant of the M6, perhaps I should say it is representative of the Leica of our times, where digital photography is the standard and DSLRs and iPhones dominate the medium. It is what Leica needed to produce in order to remain relevant, and they tried to retain as much as possible of the legacy M system, and in that aspect they have succeeded beyond expectations.

Wei Li testing out some lomo camera. Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Callan Tham

But to me, it is only an M in name. Is it a camera I would use if given to me? Yes. I’d use it regularly. Is it a camera I yearn for and love? No. Not any more at least. Would I buy it if I had a fortune that meant its price tag means peanuts? No. Not even then. Perhaps it’s just me and my curmudgeonly ways, but I’ll keep using my film Ms till they die or I do (and the latter is probably gonna happen sooner), and if I want a small digital camera for street photography and travel, I’d probably go for a Sony NEX or an Olympus Pen instead. I’ll stick to my Tri-X for personal work and my 5D2 for professional work.

Where do I go from here? Leica M9 and CV Nokton Classic 35/1.4 SC © Callan Tham

However, if you are looking for great image quality from a small, easy-to-use package with a full-frame sensor, have tons of cash to spare, lust after the red dot (never made much sense to me), and are prepared to live with the deficiencies of a crappy LCD screen, short battery life, and other creature comforts from the old days (or buy stuff to simulate that), then the Leica M9 may well be up your alley.

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