In late 2009 I managed to get my hands on a new Leica M9. Over the past several weeks I have been testing it around Paris.
Since late 2005, the only cameras that I have consistently worked with are the Leica M6 and the Canon 5D (and then 5D Mark II). Although I preferred the discreet working style of the M6, it became less and less convenient as a tool for modern photojournalism. Slide film is increasingly expensive, annoying to transport, and nearly impossible to develop in the places where I work such as Nepal, North Korea, Cuba.
Eventually, I began using the Canon much more often than the Leica. I adapted my shooting style around its abilities, though this was not always a good thing. SLR cameras encourage a kind of tunnel vision. You see everything through a rectangular dark cave that blackens every time you press the shutter. This makes it harder to anticipate moments — and that often makes for more static pictures. A key advantage of rangefinder cameras is that you have an uninterrupted view, and your left eye is not blocked behind the camera body. In the finder, everything is sharp, unlike an SLR which lets yours eyes only see sharply what the lens is focused on. (If you are focused on the foreground, then the background is a bit blurry.) For my purposes, the best benefit of rangefinders over SLRs is their unobtrusive size and discreet sound. Subjects notice and react awkwardly much more often to a big SLR than to a small rangefinder.
Why the M9?
Before investing in an M9, I looked back through my portfolio of the last five years. Although I was using Canon much more frequently (for reasons of digital convenience), there were many more shots that I preferred from within the smaller batch shot by the Leica. If I want to have those kind of shots in my portfolio in the years ahead — while at the same time retaining the ability to quickly transmit pictures from abroad — the best solution seems to be a digital Leica. Since I don’t like non-full frame cameras, I never seriously considered investing in a Leica M8.
Resolution, Sharpness and Color
After several weeks of use, I feel that the M9 does offer the same shooting style as my older M6. The M9 files, when shot between 80 to 800 ISO, actually are much sharper and show less noise/grain than shooting on slide film.
The colors however are much trickier. Normally, I can scan a slide and with very minimal adjustment get a normal color cast with pleasing skin tones and accurate landscape hues.
It took me some minor adjustments, but eventually I was also able to approximate the slide film look using Canon RAW files. The same task proved far more annoying when using M9 RAW files and Adobe Camera Raw software. The embedded Leica RAW profile gives blotchy skin tones and tepid colors. Adobe’s own profile is better, but still not as good as the Canon profiles (which do not work on the Leica). A rich spectrum of color information seems to be recorded in the robust M9 RAW files, but converting them to a usable color file requires far too much tinkering. Leica needs to come up with more refined profiles that take full advantage of the sensor’s abilities.
After 800 ISO, the M9 quickly looses the noise battle to the Canon 5D Mark II. You can get very good files out of the Canon all the way up to 2000 ISO, where as the M9 needs treatment with noise reduction software from 1000 – 1250 ISO. It becomes basically unusable at 1600 ISO. By comparison, my old M6 with color slide film was useless when the film was pushed past 800 ISO.
The major area where the M9 feels inferior to the 5D Mark II is with the speed of the internal processor. It takes around one minute to format an 8GB memory card on the Leica, while the Canon only takes about one second.
(*UPDATE, March 15, 2010: the firmware update version 1.116 significantly improves formatting speed and image preview rendering.)
If you are shooting RAW+JPEG, once the buffer is full of pictures on the Leica, it takes 7 seconds before your can fire the next shot. When using an equivalent speed card (Sandisk Extreme III) on the Canon, it only takes 2 seconds.
The best solution to this is to shoot the Leica in RAW only mode, without JPEG. The buffer will be ready to shoot again after 3 seconds. Unfortunately, this means you will have to spend more time on the computer later converting your RAWs to JPEGs.
The M9 is a very costly investment. The price is roughly the same as the combined cost of buying a new 5D Mark II and a new Leica MP or M7. (Although having to buy lenses for two different systems would eventually drive the price of that combination past the M9 alone.)
The M9 is a very precise tool that is very good within a highly limited range. Where as the latest digital SLR cameras can accurately shoot with lenses from 12mm up to 800mm, the Leica’s optimal working range is only from 28mm to 50mm. While the DSLRs can shoot much higher ISOs and now also video, the Leica can not. But within its tight range, the Leica M9 is the smallest, quietist, sharpest full frame camera available. I happen to take about 90% of my pictures within that small range where the M9 excels, so it turns out to be just the right tool for my kind of work.