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Leica M9 First Impressions
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Leica M9 First Impressions

Is this the digital rangefinder we’ve been waiting for?

This camera requires a financial commitment that is as serious as one’s deep commitment to great photojournalism. Here are some initial thoughts after taking some pictures with the world’s smallest 35mm-sensor digital camera.  


Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend a short time shooting with the Leica M9. While attempting candid photography at a press conference filled with photojournalists, street photographers, and photo bloggers, writers, and editors is not exactly a comprehensive test, it did give me a chance to get a first impression of the feel of the camera. I also managed to slip in a memory card and shot several dozen pictures for a quick, down-and-dirty analysis of image quality.

Here are my first impressions of the Leica M9…

Look, feel…and sound!

The weight and dimensions of the M9 are identical to the M8. Both cameras are a little thicker and heavier than any Leica film rangefinder, but the M9 is lighter and smaller than any 35mm sensor DSLR. The finder, Leica’s trademark, is positioned on the upper left corner of the camera so you can shoot right-eyed while maintaining eye contact with your subject with your left eye. On the M8, the lens markings reflected the 1.3x crop factor and so it felt a bit cramped. Looking through the M9’s .68x magnification viewfinder felt more like peering into an M7’s finder, a welcome change.

Holding the M9 takes a bit of getting used to if you own a film Leica M. There’s no wind lever, which also means there’s nowhere to rest your thumb. If you were displeased by the clunkier, louder sound of the M8’s shutter, I have good news: Leica has redesigned the shutter release and it’s now much quieter. A group of us huddled around our respective Leicas and compared shutter sounds, and the M9 sounded like a classic film Leica shutter. It was much softer than the M8.

If you’ve been weaned on digital cameras and have never shot with a Leica M camera before, you may be wondering what the M9’s shutter lag time is. The answer is simple: None. You press the shutter release, it clicks. Period.

Leica retained one inconvenient legacy from the film era: the bottom plate. To swap out the SD memory card or battery, you must first remove the bottom plate completely and find a place to put it (your shirt pocket? your teeth?) while removing the battery or card. Re-attaching the back plate requires more dexterity than should be necessary. I’d gladly accept a modern amenity, such as a well-made hinged door, instead.

The Images

Shooting handheld in a room filled with a mix of fluorescent and cloudy daylight streaming through a wall of windows is not ideal, but is a good test of the M9’s image capture abilities since the typical Leica shooter generally works with ambient light. The M9 handled the mix of light well, with the Auto White Balance doing a good job of getting natural skintones.


First floor…bagels. Second floor…Danish…: The M9 handled mixture of indoor and outdoor lighting with aplomb.


 

Shooting RAW files at ISO 180 (see 100% sample above), image quality was excellent, with no evidence of digital noise at full resolution. Keep in mind that this is a handheld shot in subdued light! Noise is under control at ISO 400 and noticeable but quite acceptable noise was seen in shadow areas at ISO 800 (right).

 

 

With the M9, Leica addressed a major image quality concern that was raised by the M8: Lacking an IR/UV filter at the sensor, the M8 produced images where black fiber (read: clothes) often was rendered with a purplish cast. In a controversial move, Leica solved this by providing UV/IR filters to be screwed on to the front of whatever lens was being used. Leica learned its lesson, and the M9 has an internal UV/IR filter over the sensor. As a result, black fabric was black, and I found color rendering in general to be accurate.


Street photographer and fellow Leica enthusiast Jeff Mermelstein. His latest book of street photography, Twirl/Run, will be hitting bookstores in December. Yes, his shirt was that color. Notice how black fabric is accurately rendered.

Bottom line

Since my time with the M9 was limited, I did not explore the menu options other than to change the ISO (that’s easier now that there’s a dedicated ISO button on the back of the camera). Leica has promised to provide a camera to test in the near future, and our team will put it through its paces as soon as possible.

But in general, the Leica M9 made a very positive first impression. I was able to walk around the room and get some decent candid shots without being noticed—and this was in a room full of Leica users! The shutter release is quieter than the M8 and although its construction is different from that of film Leica rangefinder cameras, its sound and feel is virtually identical. If you’re a Leica shooter, you know how important that shutter feel and sound is. The camera feels slightly bulkier than a film Leica but I quickly got used to it. The quality of the images, although shot under less-than-ideal lighting, was impressive.

 

 

I was able to shoot unobtrusively—no mean feat when everyone in the room was an expert Leica user—thanks to the M9’s nearly silent shutter.

Several photojournalists who I spoke with at the press conference who use film reported that they are satisfied that the M9 will fulfill their needs, while a handful are still on the fence. But their objections had nothing to do with the merits of the camera. “I don’t know a thing about Photoshop,” one Leica user confessed after expressing his admiration for the M9. “And I like shooting film.” 

The M9’s $7,000 price tag is, of course, a big factor. True commitment to a certain aspect of the art and craft of photography is necessary in order to make such a major financial commitment. But the M9 is a serious camera, and it looks like Leica has produced the full-frame digital rangefinder camera serious photojournalists, documentary photographers, and street shooters have been waiting for.

Leica is shipping the M9 and it should hit the shelves in the coming days and weeks. Adorama is taking pre-orders, and will fill ‘em on a first-come, first-served basis. Start saving now.

Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center, and has been shooting street photos in New York with Leica rangefinder cameras since 1978.

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