[The following is a review I was commissioned to write for HotShoe magazine back in late 2009 when the Leica M9 had just been released. I’ve republished it here in its entirety, with thanks to Leica UK for the loan of the M9.]
Hot Gear Review
Photography is a nostalgic and evocative experience, and there are few cameras that encapsulate that as well as a Leica. And, none more so than a Leica M. The switch to digital from the all-electronic M7 wasn’t seamless, or without detractors. As well as a few minor shortcomings, the APS-H format, 10-megapixel M8 rangefinder was widely criticised for its sensitivity to UV light, producing ruddy skin tones and purple tints to black synthetics.
A year or two later the M8.2 was a minor upgrade yet a more-accomplished offering in many respects. The same detractors cited the unchanged sensor sensitivity issues, a result of using a thin hot filter in front of the sensor but borne, ironically, of the maker’s determination to deliver the familiar drawing style of Leica lenses to the corners of the image.
Mounting pressure, imagined or otherwise, to produce a digital M rangefinder delivering the same or similar user experience as the film-based cameras resulted in the announcement at 9 am (EST) on 9/9/09 of the full-frame 35mm format M9. Outwardly the Leica M9 closely resembles the M8.2 and earlier M8 and yet inside, despite earlier doubts by Leica that it could be achieved, sits the Nirvana of makers and users alike, a full-frame 35mm digital sensor.
A sensor with the same dimensions as the film it replaced. A nostalgic exercise? Perhaps. But, you no longer have to have to think the 28mm has the same field of view as a 35mm on the M8 before you raise the camera to your eye. There’s no more mental arithmetic, one less hurdle between you and your goal. What you see in your mind’s eye is what you’ll see in the M9’s viewfinder. Not that this is new to DSLR users of course, but that’s not the point. Leica wasn’t going to compete with their (now discontinued) R-system but at least they can build on the rich heritage of the inherently portable M-series. One body and three lenses take up no more room than one DSLR brick and f/2.8 mid-range zoom.
Purists may still baulk at its digital characteristics though. The body is a millimetre or two thicker than the earlier analogue models and it lacks a wind-on lever. Many M-users miss this, not so much for the feeling of winding the film across the sprockets or the cocking of the shutter but as a natural thumb-rest. An aftermarket product, such as the Thumbs Up, may be what’s needed, but many argue Leica should have added that themselves and the body design should be brought up to date.
The Leica M9, like the M8, still requires the base to be removed to change the battery and SD card. Moreover, with the introduction of the (mirrorless) Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, some detractors argue the coupled rangefinder method of focusing is dated and outmoded. But they overlook the fact it’s still superior in clarity and contrast to any current electronic viewfinder. There’s no live view or HD video either, but why would you want it in a camera like the M9? It’s the antithesis of the DSLR. There’s no more than you need, it has aperture priority semi-auto and manual exposure, like those cameras from the late 70s. Continuous shooting tops 2 fps maximum.
The M9’s 18-megapixel CCD is the same pixel density as that of the physically smaller sensor in the M8, but there have been slight improvements in noise levels. That being said, you’ll likely not want to use the maximum, ISO 2500 equivalent, gain, except in emergencies. More obvious improvements over the M8 include a new info panel showing battery life in percentage terms, as well as the capacity remaining (in MB and frames) of the SD card and a far easier selection of EV compensation. Indeed, there are three different methods to adjust exposure compensation, two of which are visible in the viewfinder! An exposure bracketing option has been added too, and while less attractive to the street photographer, those who may be inclined to use it for landscapes (and why not) will find the M9 the most versatile M-series to date. Heck, the Leica M9 is the most convincing of its kind yet.
The Leica M9 has a full-frame (24x36mm) 35mm format 18-megapixel Kodak-made CCD. Sensor gain runs from ISO80-2500. Measuring 139x37x80mm the M9 maintains the size of the previous iteration and weighs 585 grams with the battery. The top and bottom plates are made from brass, while the body is magnesium alloy. The price for the body is £4950 (inc VAT), £4213 ex VAT
Affiliate sales; from time to time second-hand retailer MPB have the Leica M9 in stock. Check here for details.