Leica M9: Old School Digital

Camera Mar 05, 2010

Last year, on September 9, 2009 (09/09/09), Leica Camera surprised everyone by unveiling their second generation digital M rangefinder camera, the Leica M9. The photographic world was pleasantly surprised that Leica, who had vehemently denied the development of a new digital rangefinder, managed to pull this rabbit out of the hat.

Background

Leica’s first attempt at a digital M rangefinder, the Leica M8, met with some success but was not without it’s issues. The sensor’s lack of an AA filter, while increasing overall image sharpness, required the use of IR cut filters mounted on the lenses. To not do so often meant that images of black synthetics would take on a magenta cast that could not be corrected in post-production. The Leica faithful raised such a ruckus that Leica obliged them and shipped two IR cut filters for free to anyone who purchased a Leica M8. Still, the filter requirement raised the hackles of many a photographer.

Next was the crop factor of 1.33x that Leica engineers said was necessary in order to maintain compatibility with the majority of M lenses made since 1954. Many wide-angle shooters were displeased by this. Others were put off by the initial 2GB storage limit or the loudness of the shutter re-cocking mechanism or the fact that lenses had to be coded in order for the camera to recognize them.

Leica did manage to address most of these issues with firmware updates to the M8 as well as a model refresh, the Leica M8.2, but the IR cut filters, lens-coding requirement, and crop factor all remained.

Leica’s new M9 finally puts those requirements to rest with an all-new 18 Mpx, full-frame sensor that sports an ultra-thin IR-cut filter mounted on it and an expanded firmware data space which allows for the manual selection of lenses.

The result is literally the smallest full-frame digital camera on the market.

[DISCLOSURE]I solicited Leica USA and Evins Communications (their PR firm) to loan me the camera and lens for this review. I was not compensated in any way other than the privilege of using this equipment for two weeks.[/DISCLOSURE]

Having gotten the legalities out of the way, I will now report my findings after a brief two weeks with this camera. I will be comparing this to my M8 to easier highlight the differences.

Build

Leica builds its digital M’s with the same tank-like qualities of it’s film M’s. A favorite tactic of the Leica presenter is to stand on the top of the camera on one leg. Do not try this with your japanese-made DSLR! I have personally witnessed a 6ft+ 200LB+ gentleman pull this stunt on both the M8 and M9. The M8 & M9 are made with very little plastic and a whole lot of metal, glass, and German Engineering. Most non-leica people (i.e., the vast majority of humanity) are often surprised by the hefty feel of the little M cameras. If I have one complaint about the build of the M9 vs. the M8, it’s the decision to switch both the light colored (steel grey on the M9) and black colored bodies to a painted finish. I preferred the more durable silver/black hard chrome finishes of the M8.

Gone from the M9 is the top mounted LCD display (used for frame count and battery life on the M8) whose functions have been transferred to the rear-mounted color LCD display. This makes for more accurate battery readings, but it’s a extra step for checking a vital system function. A minor quibble, to be sure, but the efficiency experts out there will agree with me that it’s an extra motion and thus, less efficient.

The rear LCD display is the same between both cameras. There is no scratch-proof sapphire glass like the one offered included in the M8.2 and the M8 upgrades. Quite possibly Leica’s stock of sapphire glass has been earmarked for their medium-format S2 camera’s P model. I predict that this will become part of a future digital M a-la-carte offering.

Physically, the dimensions and control layout between the M8 and M9 are virtually identical. Third party cases and accessories designed for the M8 should work on the M9 without issues. My Tom Abrahamson Softrelease worked just fine on the M9. Leicatime leather cases also fit perfectly.

Image Quality

Here is where the changes between the two models really begins to show. First off, the M9 is full frame, meaning the sensor is exactly (or at least really, really close) the same size as a 35 mm frame of film (24×36 mm). This means that there is no crop multiplier applied to lens focal lengths. This is great especially for wide angle shooters as their wide lenses are now back to their proper focal lengths.

Second, the sensor is now 18 megapixels. While there are Canons and Nikons with higher pixel counts in this size sensor, this is the highest pixel count you can get and still maintain the magic 6.8μ (micron) pixel well size. This means that the M9 keeps the M8’s low light sensitivity (which was pretty good, but not D3/D700 class.) Firmware updates have improved ISO 2500 performance which was only usable in the M8 for B&W images. Here is a slideshow showing ISO test shots. Click on any of the images to be taken to the gallery.

One thing to remember here is what I call “The Leica Way.” While most camera makers dump zillions into researching new ways to lower noise in high-ISO (low light) shooting situations (in essence, doing more with less), Leica solves the problem by improving the camera’s light gathering capabilities by designing some of the finest glass in the industry. This is by no means cheap. To use the word “cheap” and Leica in the same sentence is quite possibly the largest oxymoron in the English language.

Features

Leica’s old school philosophy extends to the feature set of the camera. Aperture priority and Auto ISO are the only auto modes on the camera. Everything else is you. On the M8, a lens had to be coded at Leica for the camera to identify it (and add the info to the shot metadata) and in the case of wider lenses make adjustments for cyan drift and vignetting. Third-party lenses were not supported by Leica directly and a cottage industry sprung up where one would send their lens mount in to a metal shop to have the coding pits milled into them. Please note, that doing so voids the warranty on the lens. CV has added a recessed stripe on their lens mounts and can be coded manually using a tool like Match Technical’s Coder Kit 2.0. The M9 solves this by having a lens selection menu allowing you to override the automatic lens detection and dial in third-party lenses.

Exposure bracketing has also been added for all you HDR fans out there and the shutter release now has standard, discreet, soft and discreet-soft release modes. Standard release mode is just that. Press the shutter release all the way down, the shutter fires and then is re-cocked right away. Discreet mode delays the shutter re-cocking until the button is released, allowing you to tuck the M9 away to muffle the sound. Soft release mode fires the shutter halfway through the button press which helps with slow speed, handheld shots. Discreet-Soft mode combines the two.

Speaking of sound, Leica engineers have redesigned the shutter mechanism to reduce the noise profile of the camera. The M8 was considered unreasonably loud. Discreet mode was retrofitted to the M8 via a free firmware update. There was also a paid shutter module upgrade that added the soft and discreet-soft modes. The M9’s shutter is much quieter than the M8 despite being 33% larger.

Lenses

Most pro camera manufacturers make two general grades of lenses: consumer lenses which are lower quality and thus less expensive (although there are always some gems hidden in there) and professional grade lenses which are built to withstand tougher shooting conditions and still produce sharp images. I like to use a car analogy here. Car makers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan produce consumer grade cars under their name brands and luxury cars under their Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti brands. Lens makers do the same without the secondary brand names. Leica, however, makes Formula 1 race cars. As one of my friends put it: “There’s Leica glass, then there’s everything else.”

The cheapest Leica lens is over $1200 new. Most hover around $2000-$3000 each. Why is it so expensive? Is it that good?

Yes.

Leica glass is quite possibly the finest made on the planet. The lenses are hand made in Germany using exotic glass formulations and a lot of engineering. They are all manual focus primes. M-rangefinders use a mechanical linkage to show focus in the viewfinder and lens framelines are selected by the lens mount. The closest thing to a zoom would be the Tri-Elmar and Wide Angle Tri-Elmar (the Tri-Elmar is out of production, but available on the used market) which have three discreet focal length settings.

The fastest lens in Leica’s stable is the $12K 50mm f/.95 Noctilux. Yes, I said $12K and f/.95. This is the fastest, most expensive prime on the planet. (Astute readers will point out that the recently announced Noktor HyperPrime 50mm f/.95 matches the speed of the Noctilux for 90% lower price, but that lens is: a) not shipping yet, b) only available in m4/3 mount at launch, and c) not been thoroughly tested by me.)

Leica provided me with a Summicron 50mm f/2 lens for the review and I supplemented with a Cosina Voigtlander (CV) Nokton 35mm f/1.4 MC. A few comments here about the M9 and third-party glass. One of Leica’s strengths is its commitment to its existing customer base. When the M8 was launched, they stated that the camera was compatible with any Leica lens made after 1954. The M9 continues this tradition with some exceptions for deep back-focused lenses. Carl Zeiss and Cosina Voigtlander also make M-mount glass that can be used on the digital M’s. I myself am a huge fan of CV glass which is low cost (relatively speaking) and higher quality than anything that Canon or Nikon offer. In conversations with the folks at Leica, they report that some third-party lenses have been having vignetting issues with the M9. This is quite possible especially with CV’s Ultra-Wide Heliars which come in 12 & 15 mm focal lengths

Price

As I previously stated, Leica and cheap do not belong together in the same sentence. The M9 retails for $6,995 USD in black or steel gray paint. Leica lenses start around $1200. The M9 is still brand-new so you won’t find many on the secondary market right now. Also remember that Leica cameras hold their value for a very, very long time. Once a camera hits collectible status its price goes up again. This is an investment camera, even the digital ones.

Who would buy this thing?

  • Anyone who wants the finest quality camera and lenses on the market. This is a boutique camera and not found in any discount houses. Even B&H sells it at MSRP.
  • Someone who knows photography and can manipulate a camera. This is not your daddy’s point-and-shoot.
  • Someone who wants to travel light and still take DSLR (or better) class pictures.
  • Someone who owns a lot of M-glass.
Great! You've successfully subscribed.
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.