Around 1913, Oskar Barnack had a great idea. He loved photography but suffered from asthma, which made the large photographic equipment of his day difficult to handle. So he designed the first Leica, a small still camera that used 35mm motion picture film. The film could later be enlarged to make prints. As a result, 35mm still photography was born.
In the digital era, Barnack’s idea of a small, high quality camera — easy to carry and take anywhere — lives on in the form of the Leica M9 camera (B&H Photo link). The M9 mixes new digital technology with a very old camera design; the camera body looks much like that of the M3 of 1954). The small size of the camera is delightful and reminds one of the days when most 35mm cameras and lenses where smaller. The compact dimensions of the camera and lenses are a big selling point. Leica has made the world’s smallest full frame 35mm digital camera — and that by itself is an achievement.
Image quality is generally excellent. Of course, one has to focus manually, and this takes some adjustment for anyone accustomed to autofocus cameras. When a photo succeeds, it can have remarkable clarity and depth, with lovely out-of-focus areas. (The photos in this review were made during the past two months with an M9 and a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux lens).
Happily, the M9’s high ISO performance is noticeably improved over that of its predecessor, the M8. (I wrote about my Leica M8 “test drive” in 2008 at this link.) It is certainly adequate for most photography, though for weddings I seem to always want more regardless of which camera I am using. There is always a darker location, a candle lit event, a bit of action that could be frozen without flash. It seems that since the dawn of photography, photographers have found ways to exploit every last bit of light sensitivity, and that remains true today. While one might not need the ISO 25,600 of the Canon 5D2 or the ISO 102,400 of the Nikon D3S, those camera are still far from their limits at ISO 2,500. As a result, they can be used comfortably and reliably at that ISO, whereas the M9 is stretched to its limit.
Dynamic range could also be better. According to DxOmark.com, the M9 offers a very good 11.63 stops of dynamic range at ISO 160, but that drops off gradually as the ISO goes higher. Thus, at ISO 650, the M9 offers 9.73 stops. By comparison, the Fuji S5 Pro still offers an amazing 12.77 stops of dynamic range at ISO 800 (though it has a steep dropoff in dynamic range at ISO 1600). [Edit: This paragraph has been corrected and revised since it was originally published.]
Color is usually pleasing. Skin tones sometimes appear too magenta and require a bit of adjustment. Moving Lightroom’s red hue slider to about +30 (away from magenta and toward orange) can help. The camera’s automatic white balance is usually not bad, but often benefits from tweaking in Lightroom. When adjusting raw files in Lightroom, the “Auto” white balance setting is sometimes better than the “As Shot” setting (though Auto may add too much magenta).
While the covering on the black M9 is very grippy, the camera body does not provide any contours for a firm grip. Third-party thumbgrips, while functional and perhaps sensible, look rather clunky and highlight an ergonomic deficiency. That said, the camera’s shape does become more comfortable with usage, even without third-party add-ons.
Removing and replacing the baseplate is time-consuming and clumsy. The removable baseplate had a rational basis in the film era, but its time is long past and there is no excuse for it now. Putting the tripod mount on a removable plate is probably a bad idea too. Luigi’s M-Mate baseplate replacement suggests a more practical design: separate doors for the battery and memory card.
Michael Reichmann liked the removable baseplate in his 2006 review of the M8, calling it “part of the signature Leica design approach”. But in 2010, reflecting on the M9 with its identical baseplate, he wrote: “let us have separate battery and memory card hatches on the M10, with proper weather-tight covers, and leave the removable base plate to models for collectors and the nostalgic.” I agree.
Metering information on the M9 is basic, giving almost no sense of how far off one is from the meter’s recommended exposure. This reminds me of the Nikon FM from 1977. And there is no indication of the exposure compensation setting, except while one is actually setting it or when the Set button is pressed. A tiny red dot in the viewfinder alerts you that exposure compensation is set, but not by how much. The LEDs in the viewfinder should show the shutter speed in manual mode, not just in A mode.
I wish there were a constant display of the ISO setting. Surprisingly, the Info screen does not show the ISO setting. This screen shows the memory card capacity twice, once as a colored bar and once as a shots remaining number, thus leaving no room to show the ISO. Remember when film cameras had a window in which to see the film’s ISO, or an exterior dial on which to set it? Now a button press is needed just to see the ISO.
I’ve been using Canon cameras for a long time and have come to appreciate that they give me certain critical information with a quick glance at the top LCD: exposure compensation, ISO setting, quality setting (raw or jpeg), available frames and battery status — all are constantly visible when a camera is turned on. The M9, by contrast, requires some user action to show any of these items. Granted there is not much room on the camera to display all of this info, but the small top LCD on the M8 seemed like a good idea (even if only for the frame count and battery status).
Ideally, the rear LCD would be bigger and more accurate. It seems that the designers were constrained to using a modest-resolution 2.5 inch screen. Even some little point-and-shoots have bigger LCDs with about twice as many pixels. There are hardcore film refugees who frown on any form of chimping and would prefer no LCD at all. I feel that the LCD is one of the best features to come to cameras in about a century. Instant review is great, so I want an excellent LCD. If digital photography had not been invented, I would probably still want a big LCD on my film cameras. 😉
There are several shutter release options: standard, soft, discrete and soft & discrete. For anyone used to DSLRs, the M9’s shutter sound isn’t very loud, but it doesn’t have the legendary Leica quietness that one might desire. It is certainly fine for a party or wedding reception, but even the discrete mode may be too loud for a courtroom or small concert hall.
In standard and discrete modes, the shutter release button has two rest positions before actually releasing the shutter. This gives the shutter release a bit of a rough, imprecise feeling and a somewhat long travel before release occurs. I prefer the soft mode, as the shutter release travels less and thus releases more quickly. It also eliminates one of the rest positions. A disadvantage of the soft mode is that one gives up exposure lock with a half-press of the shutter button in A mode. At first it seemed that soft mode also eliminates exposure compensation with the rear dial. But this is enabled by setting exposure compensation to “Setting ring”. With this setting, one simply turns the rear dial and sees the adjustment numerically in the viewfinder.
The Auto ISO option is nicely implemented, allowing user-defined settings for minimum shutter speed and maximum ISO — actually quite useful. Battery life is adequate, though I find myself still wishing for more. Likewise, the memory buffer should really be greater. Photographers who shoot quickly may find the camera is too busy to make more pictures. There is one suprising bug in the current firmware: if set to “Auto power off”, the camera shuts down after the preset time interval even when one is actively reviewing images or changing menu settings. This is likely to be fixed in a firmware update. [Edited to add: this has been fixed with a firmware update.]
The M concept is still very interesting and somewhat romantic. One can’t help being reminded that this is the digital version of classic cameras used by some renowned photographers. But considering that those photographers all used film, one may ask: what is left when film is no longer the medium? I think the M still represents high quality in a small camera, great optics, rangefinder viewing and unobtrusive photography.
The M9 is a beautiful camera and represents a logical evolution of the M line. It is consistent with Barnack’s concept from the early 1900’s, and pleases many Leica aficionados who love its classic styling. At the same time, it is a product of the digital revolution in photography. That has introduced significant changes to the exterior of the M camera and radical changes inside. In the M9, one senses a balance — and sometimes a tension — between the old and the new.
The New Yorker has an interesting article about Leica’s history: “Candid Camera, The Cult of Leica” by Anthony Lane, Sept. 24, 2007.
P.S. Consider buying the Leica M9 or M9P from B&H Photo whereby I earn a small commission. Thank you!