Truly, the Leica M9 is a camera unlike any other. Is this the rangefinder camera Leica aficionados have been waiting for?
Old lens on new M9: Classic collapsible 50mm f/2 Summicron works well on the M9 when you set lens parameters manually and has a pleasing image quality (see text) but it’s not as crisp as current 50mm Leica-M lenses. However, you can't collapse the lens without damaging the M9’s shutter! All photos by Jason Schneider
As the first digital Leica with a full-frame, 24x36mm sensor (active area 23.9x35.8mm), the M9 promises to be an uncompromised digital Leica at last. Can it deliver all the benefits of the classic Leica format via its 18-megapixel CCD sensor and high performance image processing? I spent some quality time (emphasis on "quality) with a fresh Leica M9. Here's what I learned.
Perhaps even more important than its high-resolution capture, the Leica M9 delivers unrestricted coverage with nearly the entire range of Leica lenses past and present, including extreme wide-angles. If you're a Leica M aficionado, this is the event you've been waiting for.
Leica M9 Slideshow: Sample Images
To view large, click on rectangle on bottom right
Scroll to the bottom of this article to read details about individual shots in the slide show.
About that Sensor...
Fortunately, the M9's new 18MP sensor is not merely an enlarged version of the one in the M8/8.2, It's an exclusive, Kodak-made 18-megapixel CCD, developed in cooperation with Leica. Leica says it eliminates the niggling problems that beset the 10-megapixel CCD in the M8/8.2—notably, the necessity of using special UV/IR filters when photographing certain synthetic fabrics.
The new sensor's dynamic range is claimed to be noticeably improved, and it delivers much better performance at high ISOs, which now top off at 2500. The new sensor features a special glass cover that suppresses infrared, and it employs a more highly developed array of low refractive index micro lenses at the sensor edges that are laterally displaced toward the image center to match the imaging characteristics of short-back-focus M lenses.
The system, more advanced than the one employed in the M8, is claimed to capture and concentrate even the most oblique light rays on the sensor, preventing any image brightness falloff of the sensor itself. This ingenious system can’t totally eliminate optical light falloff, a characteristic of all wide-angle lenses, but Leica has eliminated the usual moiré filter to enhance system resolution, and to deal with moiré patterns and optical light falloff in the camera’s digital signal processing software.
Back view of M9 shows simple array of intuitive controls. Image displayed in Play mode includes shutter speed and ISO used, plus frame number across the top.
Look and feel
At first glance, the M9 is a dead ringer for its digital predecessors, the original M8 and the upgraded M8.2. Its body dimensions—5.47 inches wide, 1.47 inches deep, and 3.15 inches high—are virtually the same, which is to say about 1/16 inch thicker than a 35mm MP or M7. The M9 weighs in at a closely comparable 20.6 ounces including battery.
While the basic operation of the M9 is simple, easy to navigate, and devoid of complex menu hierarchies, hewing closely to the pattern established with the M8, the M9 offers some important convenience upgrades. One example: Setting the ISO now only requires holding down the ISO button while turning the setting ring on the back of the camera until the setting you want is highlighted on the LCD display. The remaining controls are Spartan compared to those of a high-end DSLR, but they perform every needed function in a commendably simple and straightforward manner.
M9 with bottom cover removed shows how Li-on battery and SDHC memory card fit in their slots. Keep an extra battery charged if you want to take more than 350 shots at a time, and make sure to use a major brand memory card on Leica’s list, not an off-brand cheapie.
However, there are a number of useful options. Under Advance in the main menu you have a choice of Standard (the shutter is fired and cocked when you press the shutter release all the way in), Soft (the shutter fires when you press the release just past the first “resistance” point, enhancing steadiness when shooting at slow shutter speeds) and Discreet (the camera cocks the shutter for the next shot only when you relax finger pressure on the shutter release, thereby giving you the opportunity to minimize telltale noise when taking surreptitious pictures.
I chose the fourth option, Discreet and Soft, for most of my shooting. However to lock in the reading by holding the shutter release in at the second “detent” you have to use the Standard or Discreet setting. The main menu also offers a snapshot profile option that lets you store groups of frequently used settings, and you can control the exposure compensation by turning the setting ring on the back of the camera instead of having to go to the menu if you enable this feature in Exp. Comp. Setting.
The M9 top shutter speed is now 1/4000 sec top shutter speed, which allows you to shoot at wider apertures in bright light. Flash sync speed is a reasonably short 1/180, offering some flexibility in shooting daylight flash exposures with selective focus.
The native speed of the CCD is ISO 160, the lowest ISO setting is Pull 80, and the settings proceed in 1/3-stop increments up to the top ISO of 2500. Like its predecessors, the M9 uses a silicon photodiode in the base of the camera to take center-weighted exposure readings off the light-colored blades of the first shutter curtain, and it’s also used for the M-TTL flash system that uses a distance-measuring pre-flash and provides control over mixed lighting effects via the dedicated hot shoe.
The M9 feels utterly solid, superbly balanced, and supremely comfortable in your hands—-you hardly notice that the body is slightly thicker than a 35mm Leica M and its rounded ends contour perfectly in your grip. Built upon a cast magnesium chassis with bottom and top plates machined out of solid billets of brass, this rugged camera is no lightweight, but it is lighter and quite a bit smaller than any full-frame DSLR.
In fact, the M9 is, as Leica claims, the smallest full-frame digital camera in current production, and they are correct. As you’d expect, all the controls are in the right paces. The large, legible shutter-speed dial atop the camera has click-stops at the “A” (aperture-priority auto-exposure) setting, and it’s possible to set intermediate shutter speeds in between all timed shutter speed settings—a nice touch. You can also get a true “T” setting by selecting B and setting the self-timer—the shutter sill stays open until you press the release a second time.
Silicon photodiode (SPD) meter cell in the base of the M9 reads off these light colored blades on the first curtain of multi-blade metal shutter to provide exposure and flash metering.
I used the “A” setting for 98% of the over 2000 images I shot with the M9 and can report that the auto-exposure system was impressively accurate overall, delivering excellent exposure well over 90% of the time. In A mode, the camera displays the camera-selected shutter speed in bright red LED digits below the finder field as soon as you touch the shutter button.
Only in severely backlit situations did I resort to exposure compensation and/or manual metering, using the left-and right-pointing LED arrows and a central red “correct exposure” circle. The arrows indicate which way to turn either the aperture ring or shutter-speed dial to obtain the correct exposure and it’s easy to meter to within +/-½ stop accuracy.
M9 with 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH and Leica 21-24-28mm wide-angle accessory finder: It’s a formidable combo, but the finder is not great for eyeglass wearers and it has no manual parallax compensation so close-ups are hit and miss.
Perhaps the defining feature of the M9 is its splendid range/viewfinder with true projected parallax-compensating field frames that provide vertical and horizontal parallax compensation over the entire focusing range. The finder itself is brilliantly clear and free from distortion. You can view the subject and the frame lines in extremely low light as long as some light reaches the frosted, striated frame line illumination window.
One of the prime advantages of the Leica M viewfinder is the ability to see the area outside the frame. This can be crucial when shooting moving subjects or anticipating action, and the ability to preview the effect of fitting another focal length lens by using the preview lever to the left of the lens.
The M9’s coupled rangefinder is unsurpassed for brightness and contrast. Its central rangefinder patch is so well aligned and precisely defined that it can be used as a superimposed image rangefinder or as a split-image rangefinder. This gives this system an edge in focusing accuracy.
Because of its slightly thicker body, the magnification of the M9’s range/viewfinder is slightly lower than that of a standard Leica MP or M7 (0.68X vs. 0.75X). As a result its effective base length (EBL) is only 47.1mm. Nevertheless, on the basis of over 300 M9 images I shot with the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH lens at distances in the 3 to 5 foot range, I can report that virtually all of my shots taken at f/0.95 were critically sharp at the point of focus, confirming the rangefinder’s exceptional performance.
And based on my experience with the 21mm f/1,4 and 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, and can state unequivocally that the M9’s rangefinder is unsurpassed in its ability to accurately focus ultra-wide-angle lenses. The only caveat mentioned in the manual: When using a 135mm lens, stop down two stops or more to assure consistent focusing accuracy.
Above, left: Press the Info button and LCD displays graphs and numerical readouts for battery status, remaining pictures on card, shutter speed in use (when set), and lens in use. Right: Press the Menu button to the right of the LCD to display the full range of image control and operating settings, then press Set to display the options for each.
Image quality: Second to none?
The acid test is, of course, the quality of the images. Here the M9 performed magnificently, capturing images with outstanding detail, impressive gradation, and subtle color rendition on a par with the output of the latest professional DSLRs. Indeed, thanks to the amazing optical quality and unique imaging characteristics of the (super-expensive) trio of Leica lenses I used—21mm f/1.4, 24mm f/1.4, and 50mm f/0.95—many of these pictures could not have been made by any other camera.
To assess the camera’s full potential I set it to capture a RAW, uncompressed DNG file and large (kudos to Leica for sticking with a universal version of RAW that doesn't require proprietary software or plug-ins), fine JPEG for each shot (there are also a “lightly compressed DNG” and lower-res JPEG options).
As expected, the M9 delivered its most exquisite image quality at ISO 160 and ISO 200, but the performance at ISO 400 is virtually identical and the images I shot at ISO 800 and ISO 1000 are very good indeed—far superior to the M8 at ISO 800. Only at ISO 1600, ISO 2000, and ISO 2500 settings do artifacts, “digital grain,” somewhat reduced crispness, and a flattened color palette become noticeable. You can see this clearly by turning the setting dial to view images at maximum magnification on the M9’s LCD monitor.
The bottom line: The Leica M9 can do battle with the world’s best and still come out at or near the top a, but at ISO settings above about 1250, the latest high-end DSLRs from Nikon and Canon get the nod.
UPDATE: DxOMark Test Results
In the lab, when compared with other full-frame cameras, the M9’s low-light ISO and Dynamic Range results, measured RAW images, were disappointing. While tested ISO sensitivity ratings are very close to the indicated numbers, the signal-noise ratio falls below acceptable quality after ISO 800, which means images show unacceptable artifacts from digital noise at ISO 1000 and higher. Compare that with the Nikon D3x, which produced acceptable image quality at as high as ISO 2000 and the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, which topped out at over ISO 1200.
Overall, the M9’s DxOMark Sensor ranking is a 68.6—the lowest of any current-production full-frame camera. So if you’re looking for killer low-light performance, the M9 simply won’t take you as far as other full-frame cameras currently available. Memo to Leica: Work on upgrading that sensor for the M9.1!—M.R.
The M9 is built on this robust die-cast magnesium alloy chassis and bottom and top plates are machined from solid billets of brass to withstand the rigors of professional use. Camera is available in traditional black or an attractive new grey finish.
Weaknesses? Not many
The M9’s 2-1/2-inch LCD monitor is more than satisfactory in letting you view and assess captured images, but it’s not up to the standard of the rest of the camera. Adjusting it for higher brightness and contrast can help, and you can also display histograms of image sections or full images, complete with clipping warnings. However, its modest size and 230,000-dot resolution are limiting factors, which Leica attributes to space constraints in what is, after all, an extraordinarily compact full-frame system camera.
Another limitation is the M9’s modest burst rate of 2 frames-per-sec for a maximum of 8-10 images. Considering the large size of the image files and the otherwise commendable performance of the image processing system, this is not bad, but clearly this is not the ideal camera for covering high speeds sports action. It’s also a good idea to spring for a back-up Li-ion battery and keep it charged if you intend to shoot more than a few hundred images at a time—its official spec says its good for is 350 shots with 4-sec viewing per image.
Bottom line: A Leicaphile's love letter
Without a doubt, the designers of the Leica M9 have been amazingly successful in integrating all the best aspects of the venerable Leica M system with today’s cutting-edge digital capture. It is the first digital M that embodies the total Leica M design concept. Whatever its limitations, it’s an exquisitely made, splendidly ergonomic, supremely competent machine that is unsurpassed for street photography, reportage, and discreet “slice of life” photojournalism.
Editor's note: The Leica M9 Street Photography Stress Test is in the works and will be posted soon.
Like the Leica Ms of yore, its controls are logical, Spartan, intuitive, and totally sufficient for the task at hand. Yes, seven grand for the body only is a pile of money, but the M9 is in a totally different league than its immediate predecessors, or anything else, for that matter.
For Leica M fans, the M9 was clearly worth the wait, and initial sales figures suggest that this camera is on track to handily outpace any M-series Leica in recent memory.
Slide Show image details
Coffee house portrait: Shot wide open at f/0.95 with 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH, ISO 200, 1/90sec, image shows superb definition at point of focus (eye). Background details are beautifully softened, exhibiting excellent bokeh.
Woman and train: Very shallow depth of field of 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH at f/0.95 separates sharply rendered subject from distracting background. Camera exhibits impressive imaging performance at ISO 200.
Woman on a caboose: 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH on M9 yields shallow depth of field at f/1.4, producing a compelling pictorial effect that’s not possible to achieve with wide-angle lenses of more moderate aperture. M9’s image quality at ISP 200 is outstanding.
Antique store still life: Lovely pictorial effect was created by shooting wide open at approximately 3 feet with 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-N ASPH. Color balance is as tad green due to fluorescent lighting, but M9’s image quality at ISO 40 is excellent.
Shot the photographer! Grab shot of online educator and photo book author Bryan Peterson and friend outside New York’s Javits Center at PhotoPlus 2009 shows some exciting possibilities of the 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M lens. Image was shot at f/8 at the hyperfocal distance to maximize depth of field. M9’s image quality at ISO 400 is impressive.
Toddler in café: Grab shot taken at f/1.4 with 21mm f/1.4 Summilux-M would be tough to duplicate with most cameras. Focus is a tad off, but image is still quite sharp, and the moment was certainly opportune. M9 at ISO 1250 shows some “digital grain” at high magnification but it is not objectionable in a picture like this.
Jason Schneider has been reviewing and testing Leica rangefinder cameras—and other classic cameras—since the M2 was still in production.