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Is this the ultimate street camera?
Does the Leica M9 measure up to its high expectations on the street—or to the standard set by the venerable M line of 35mm rangefinder cameras? I jump into the crowds and start shooting to find out.
The Leica M9 is a very specialized camera. It's not for everyone, and doesn't try to be. It is a professional tool that does a few things very, very well. The M9 doesn't have any of the bells and whistles (usually referred to as "enhanced features that improve your creativity") found on a typical digital camera. It doesn't zoom. It doesn't record videos or sound. It doesn't fit in a shirt pocket (although it is the smallest camera in the world to have a full-frame 35mm sensor). It doesn't have full autoexposure. Focus is manual only. It has no scene modes. It doesn't have an electronic viewfinder or a touch screen. If you can't live without any one of these features, read no further. This camera isn't for you.
Are you still with me? Read on.
For over 60 years, the Leica M series of rangefinder cameras have represented the ultimate in small, precise, fast-handling, solidly-built cameras. The Leica M has been embraced by generations of street shooters, documentary photographers and news photographers. The list of Leica users reads like a who's who of photography greats: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Robert Capa, Sebasiao Salgado, and countless others have used and continue to use the Leica M as their tool of choice for memorable photos. Anyone who needs to shoot high-quality images as unobtrusively as possible has to consider a Leica M.
Above: That's me with the M9 and my 50mm collapsible Summicron f/2 lens. I didn't take the 50 with me to do the Street Photo Stress Test for a very simple reason: The aperture ring is stuck at f/2.8! Yes, this shot's grainy, but not so bad when you consider I was shooting at ISO 2000—and this is heavily cropped!
In the last couple of years, a slew of cameras have come out that aspire to be the digital equivalent of the Leica M. Many of these compact digital cameras and "system" compacts have design elements reminiscent of the Leica M, and as a street photography teacher for Adorama's online learning partner, the Perfect Picture School of Photography, I'm often asked by my students if any of these cameras would do the job of a digital M. I developed the Street Photography Stress Test not just to answer this question for my students, but for anyone interested in the compact precision that Leica does so well…and expensively!
So far, all of these cameras have fallen short of my rather demanding standards. Even the Leica M8, thanks to its APS-sized sensor and resulting image quality issues, didn't quite make the grade (although it came close).
Whenever I put a camera through the Street Photography Stress Test, I keep the following questions in my mind: Does it have hair-trigger responsiveness? Is there any hesitation between the moment you shoot and the moment the camera actually records the image? Can you easily take manual control over exposure and focus? And what about image quality?
After spending a couple of weeks shooting over a thousand images with this camera, I can say with confidence that the Leica M9 is the first, and only, digital camera I've used that meets every standard I've set for a street photography camera.
Let’s take a look at how I came to this conclusion.
How I shot the test
New York City can get cold in the winter, and I wanted to test the M9 somewhere warmer. And so, I found myself in Orlando, Florida, at a well-known chain of amusement parks. While my two teenage daughters enjoyed the puke-your-guts-out rides, I got my own thrills shooting with the M9, switching off between a Leica Summarit 35mm f/2.5 lens and my personal favorite, a funky, off-brand optic, the Kobalux 28mm f/3.5 pancake lens. I love this little guy because it’s so small and unobtrusive, and because it is simply optically outstanding, although as you’ll see, it does have some vignetting at the edges. I've been shooting with the 28m Kobalux on my M3 since the 90s and I love its look.
I shot in RAW + JPEG, and filled up several cards each day.
Here are some key observations:
Lag time: There is none. For a street photographer, this is essential, and the one key item that has been lacking on almost all of the Leica wanna-be’s. Because the image capture was instantaneous, I was able to capture decisive moments that I know I would have missed with any other camera. (You’ll see a few illustrations of this shortly.)
Write time: I found that after two or three rapid-sequence exposures, the camera takes a few moments to transfer to the memory card—a minor complaint, considering the camera is transferring huge 18MP images. In practical use, the camera never locked up on me. Use the fastest memory card you can afford—it will make a difference here.
Focus: Focus is manual, and if you come from the world of autofocus, this could take some getting used to. However, most Leica lenses have a unique feature: focus tabs. With practice, your fingers will remember the relation between tab position and focus so you can pre-focus by the time you've raised the camera to your eye. You’ll be rewarded with tack-sharp focus. To double-check focus, turn the focus ring until the two images in the center of the viewfinder merge. While tab focusing will get you in the ballpark, this will give you precise focus.
Metering and exposure: I found center-weighted metering to be quite accurate. Exposure is determined either via aperture-preferred auto exposure or manual exposure. Right and left arrows indicate under- and overexposure, while a center circle indicates accurate exposure. To adjust the aperture, adjust the aperture ring. To adjust the shutter speed, turn the shutter speed adjustment dial. No scene modes. This process is identical to the metering and exposure procedure when using an M7.
Framing: As an eyeglass wearer, I found that I could not see the full 28mm frame marker lines, and this has always been the case no matter what optical rangefinder I've used. I could see the entire 35mm frame lines at a glance, which aided in composition. I found the viewfinder to be bright and easy on the eyes, comparable to the M7's.
At ISO 800 and below, I was able to get virtually noise-free images. And while there was low to moderate noise above that, it really didn't get in the way until I went beyond ISO 1600. A side-to-side comparison of 8x10 prints from the M9 at ISO 800 and from my M3 shot on Fujfilm Press 800 film showed considerably less graininess on the print from the digital file than from the negative. In fact, it wasn't until around ISO 1250 that grain appeares comparable to grain from a print made from ISO 800 print film, and I was able to apply noise reduction to the RAW file after the fact to attenuate that.
Images shot at ISO 500, my standard daylight shooting speed, were spectacular. When I examined images at 100%, I saw virtually no grain. Choose a lower ISO and you will get an even better dynamic and tonal range.
I shot with contrast set on Medium Low, color saturation on Low, and Sharpening off, and saved those settings to my User Profile (The Leica lets you set up to four profiles, which is useful if you want to quickly toggle among different sets of settings). It’s a personal preference. I primarily shot in RAW+JPEG. On my color-calibrated Mac monitor, the RAW images had a vibrant, Kodachrome-like look compared to the somewhat paler JPEG files.
Problems? Not many.
No camera is perfect—not even a $7,000 one. Here are the faults I found with the M9:
I'd like to see longer battery life. Especially when shooting with the Discrete mode, I found the battery drained somewhat quickly, and I needed to swap out batteries at least once a day. So, buying an extra battery or two is very advisable. In addition, it is important to turn the camera off completely if you're going to stow it in a bag for a while. Otherwise, the battery will drain by the next morning!
I wish the LCD monitor had higher resolution. At only 230,000 pixels, the monitor simply doesn’t do the image previews justice. With $500 cameras sporting monitors with double or more resolution, I wish Leica could have found a way to upgrade the M9’s monitor.
Finally, I wish my thumb had a place to rest. It may sound silly, but I miss being able to rest my thumb on the film wind crank. The “Thumbs Up” thumb rest (very hard to find at the moment) is a possible solution, although it adds another couple of Benjamins to the cost of the camera.
OK, enough talk, let’s look at some photos. Here's a small selection from the hundreds of photos I made with the M9 during an intense week of shooting in Orlando, Florida. My personal preference is black-and-white and while all the originals were shot in RAW color, I've converted many of them into black-and-white with a few exceptions which I left in color for illustrative purposes. My conclusions about this camera are at the end of the portfolio.
Let’s start with color. I shot this one at ISO 800 and the 28mm Kobalux.
Shot at ISO 500 with the 35mm Summarit, this shows a nice, wide dynamic range in RAW and sweet Kodachrome-like color. Read Jason Schneider's review of the Leica Summarit-M line of lenses.
OK, now on to black-and-white…
This was a purely reflexive shot borne of years of experience and familiarity with the focus tab: As she ran by, I raised the camera to my face, quickly turned the focus tab to about four feet away and clicked. Could I have caught this with a camera that had even a fraction of a second shutter lag? No way!
Another quick reflex shot: I am convinced I would not have captured this moment with any "system" compact digital camera.
Low light? No problem! Shot at ISO 1600 and the slightly faster 35mm f/2.5 Summilux in a dimly lit amusement park near my hotel in downtown Orlando. Grain? A little, but not objectionable.
OK, I've included the above shots to prove certain technical/creative shots. The rest are for just fun. Enjoy!
Putting it all together
One of the joys of shooting with my M3 (or any other film M-series Leica that I've used over the years) is that I could photograph someone at point-blank range without their noticing. I could concentrate on the moment and the image without having to worry about settings, because they are simply laid out and available for me to see at a glance. I could develop quick reflexes that allowed me to shoot with split-second timing while keeping focus and exposure under complete control.
The M9 is the first digital camera I've used that allows me to have the same experience as with a film Leica M. The technology—including the full-frame Kodak-made 18MP sensor—is kept tucked away so you can concentrate on basic picture-taking, but can be accessed if you need it. Access to frequently-changed controls, such as ISO, are simple to find and adjust. Less-used controls are available via a simple menu structure with minimal scrolling.
The bottom line for me—and any street shooter—is that with the M9, I could walk up to people and take their pictures at point-blank range (as close as 3 feet) without their realizing I was photographing them. I can't always get away with that with other cameras, mainly because of lag time and a lack of a tab focusing system.
The Leica M9 costs a lot of money. It's a $7,000 camera—not including the lens. But if you are committed to the challenging, rewarding art of candid photography, the M9 is the tool you need, and its sophisticated technology doesn't ever get in the way.
So, how did the M9 do?
If Leica comes out with an M9.1 that addresses the problems mentioned before, I would give that camera an “A+”. I’m giving the Leica M9 an “A” for its street photography capabilities, which should surprise nobody. It is the current standard to which all other street camera wannabes will be measured from now on. And I will keep testing all cameras that challenge the M9, because cameras keep on improving, and let's be honest: Most people can't afford this one.