Leica M9 Review


I have a secret to confess... I've been obsessed with Leica for around 9 years.  Completely unrelated, but I've been a photographer for 9 years.  :)  

I recently had the chance to finally fulfill my dream of owning a Leica... specifically a black Leica M9 that I picked up used along with a Summarit 35 2.5 lens.  

There's just something about Leicas and rangefinders... I can't even explain it, I just love them.  Maybe it's the history? Some of the worlds best photographers have used Leicas... Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt, Capa just to name a few.  Maybe it's just the lack of automation and options when using a Leica.  Either way, it's just fun to shoot with.

You can't talk about Leica's without talking about money. People always talk about how expensive Leica's are and yes, they are eye-watering expensive... unless you're a professional photographer.  (we're not even going to talk about the stupid commemorative limited editions!)  The list cost of my old Nikon D3 was within a couple hundred dollars of a Leica M9 so that's a wash.  For a professional camera body that could last over 5 years that couple hundred dollars is trivial.   Then we get to the lenses... yes, they are shockingly expensive.   The Summarit 35 2.5 I have is one of Leica's cheapest lenses and is still hundreds more than the top of the line Nikon 35.  But they are something to behold.  Others have called them jewel-like in their build and finish and I can't argue with that description.  Plus, these lenses can last for years... decades even.  Because there's no electronics, autofocus or plastic there's very little that can break or wear down.

Right from the get go, this camera just felt right.  Sure, there are technical things things that drive me nuts but I think I think most of the other camera manufactures (except maybe Fuji, see my review of the Fuji XPro 1) vastly underestimate the importance of a feel of a camera.  Yes it's still just a tool, but if a tool can inspire you then all the better.  For me, picking up a Leica was like a first kiss... an electric shock of joy and excitement of new possibilities. Of course, that first kiss was followed by a very steep learning curve. :)

No autofocus, manual rangefinder focussing.  This was a huge departure for me from my autofocus DSLR's with their what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinders.  Hell, you can shoot this camera with the lens cap on if you're not paying attention!

I've had the camera for a couple months now and have been using it exclusively for personal work and bringing it along to all my commercial work... everything from weddings to headshots to theatre photography.

Things I love:

  • That Leica look.  Let's face it, say whatever you want about the file quality, bad LCD or tiny buffer but I don't think there would be any argument that this is the best looking camera out there... and this is a design that is relatively unchanged since the 1950's.   There's a reason all the other camera companies are going retro in their camera designs.  I'm not going to lie, sometimes I just like to look at it.  :) 
  • The size.  This is one of the biggest reasons I've been dipping my toes in the mirrorless waters... I want something smaller, more discrete than the assault weapon-looking DSLR's with their massive lenses that Canon & Nikon produce.  On the other hand, too many of the mirrorless cameras are actually too small, and too light, to work with for a full day of shooting.  A camera needs a bit of heft and size.  For me, the Leica is just about perfect in this regard.   I've already noticed a different reaction from people when I point the Leica at them vs. the big bad DSLR.
  • The lenses.  As good as the cameras are Leica is actually known as the premier optics manufactures.  Even though the lenses are tiny compared to the SLR versions (a big part of that is the lack of autofocus, which I'll get to in a minute) the produce results that are amazing... very little distortion of any kind and sharp wide open.

  • The strap.  Might seem silly, but Leica's is the first manufactures strap that I've actually used.  I'm sure I'll replace it with something eventually but for now it's working great.
  • No mirror.  I never really took other Leica shooters claims about gaining a stop or two over DSLR's simply because the Leica doesn't have that mirror flapping about inside causing vibrations every time you take a picture... but it's absolutely true!  I can get sharp images at 1/10th of second no problem.  This really helps to offset the somewhat limited high ISO...  Instead of going up to ISO 3200 I can just drop my shutter speed a couple of stops and get the same amount of light hitting the sensor.

Things I'm just OK with:

  • The ISO.  For all the moaning and complaining about the crap high ISO on the Leica M9 I was pleasantly surprised. It's fine for what I do... I rarely ever shoot above 1600 anyways and the low ISO is amazing on this camera.
  • The baseplate.   Lots has been written about Leica's decision to keep the bottom baseplate on the digital cameras.   I'm okay with it, I like the fact that my batteries and memory cards aren't held in with flimsy plastic doors.
  • Battery Life.   It's not nearly as bad as the internet would have you believe.  I can shoot all day on one battery, granted I'm not shooting with it as my primary camera (yet!).  Even then, the batteries are so small and light I could just put some in my pocket and I'm good to go.

Things I hate:

  • The LCD.  Sweet baby Jesus does this thing suck.  I know this is a camera with 2009 technology in it, but my old 2005 Nikon D70 has a better LCD screen.  Yes, we're not supposed to be chimping so it shouldn't matter but since I'm learning a whole new style of rangefinder manual focusing it would really help if I could confirm focus on the back of the screen.  Which I cant because the resolution is so low that everything looks soft even when it isn't.  From what I hear the new Leica M 240 has a beautiful screen so there's something I can look forward too!
  • The Buffer.   I am by no means a machine gun shooter... I don't think I've ever really used the Continuous High setting on my Nikon D3 other than to impress kids at a wedding but I constantly run into the buffer on this camera when I'm shooting some rapid action which can be super frustrating.  I'm going to try and pick up some faster SD cards but I don't think that's going to help much.
  • Minimum focus distance.   When I shoot with my 35mm on a DSLR I sometimes like to get right in on the action... really, really close.  Because of the way rangefinder focusing works the closest I can get is between .7 and .9 of a meter.  It's not a deal breaker, but it is forcing me to adapt my shooting style a bit.
  • Frameline Accuracy.   Yes it's amazing to be able to see outside of your frame to help anticipate action and make composition choices but it's a moot point if the framelines aren't accurate which means you really never know what's going to be in the finished image.  Yes, I understand parallax error but I would love it if they were more accurate.  

So, most of my issues with the Leica M9 have been resolved, or at least improved, with the M240.  Now I just need to convince my wife.  :)

Regardless of how that discussion goes, I really do think that my days as a DSLR shooter are very numbered.  If not Leica than maybe Fuji, but either way I'll be making a change for 2015.