Long term review: the Leica M9-P

First things first: this isn’t going to be a technical review, because there are sites that do it much better than I can; it’s going to be subjective because there are things I do in my processing workflow that might not necessarily be reflective of everybody else’s, but I am consistent in how I treat my cameras, which means that results are comparable between different cameras. Specifically – I shoot raw with auto-WB, expose slightly hot, adjust exposure and WB in Adobe Camera Raw, and take care of final sharpening, curves and color adjustments in Photoshop. What this review – and future equipment reviews – will be is a subjective but hopefully useful insight into how a piece of gear performs under professional use conditions, and whether there are any serious limitations to my style of shooting (and my subjects). With that out of the way, let’s move on.

_7052691 copy

I suppose it may be a little late in the product’s life-cycle to be doing a review now – given that the M9 was launched in September 2009 and is now 2.5 years old, which is ancient in the digital era. But let me explain. Firstly, I think it’s still a relevant product today – perhaps even more so, given the increased resurgence of late of compact ILCs and rangefinder-a-likes. The Leica M still remains the benchmark product that all strive to be judged better than, and it’s lens system is still the one everybody makes mount adaptors to fit. (Notice Fuji launching an in house M-mount adaptor with the X-Pro1). There are other reasons, too. The original M8 is still in circulation on the secondary market, where prices have stayed constant around the US$2,200-2,500 mark from the launch of the M9; this is extremely surprising behavior for a digital camera of any sort, let alone one that will be six years old this year, and one that has its fair share of flaws (don’t get me started; I owned two and shot with five examples in total; they all required UVIR filters for accurate color, had buffer overflow/ firmware stability issues, hot spots, banding, etc.). You can bet a D2x isn’t worth what it was three years ago. The sole reason this is the case is because they represent a relatively accessible entry point for rangefinder photography; you can buy second hand Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses and not spend much more on the whole system than if you bought a midrange DSLR. Sure, you might not get the high ISO performance or frame rates, but then again you also don’t have to live with the weight. This price may change with the widespread availability of the Fuji X-Pro, but I don’t expect it to – they’re completely different beasts, and the X-Pro has more in common with the mirrorless ILCs than digital rangefinders.

_M9P1_L1005460bw copy
A Hitchcock scene in Prague. Wide and hyperfocal is where rangefinders excel. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

In the same way, the M9 will remain a relevant product beyond its life cycle. All rumors point to a replacement sooner rather than later, though with Leica’s partner Kodak having sold off its sensor division, it’s anybody’s guess as to where the sensor is going to come from. What would make sense is a Sony sensor – perhaps a full frame version of the 16 or 24 MP APS-C models – but with a custom micro lens array to deal with RF optics. Would I want that many megapixels? No, but we’re digressing. More on the sensor issue later.

The final reason it’s taken me until 2.5 years after the release of the camera to write a review is quite simple: I haven’t had the chance to shoot with one extensively until November last year, after becoming an official partner of Leica. Whilst you can do RF photography on the cheap with a used M8, a new M9 kit and top flight lenses will set you back big, big money – the kind that could easily also buy a luxury automobile. I’ve used the M9-P with the 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, 35/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE, 50/2.5 Summarit-M, 50/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, 28/2.8 Elmarit-M ASPH and Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon and ZM 2/50 Planar.

_D90_DSC7248 copy
My previous rig, used for 90% of my shots. I was so practiced and familiar with this lens and camera that I could zone focus accurately at f1.4, and compose without seeing either finder. That’s what happens when you shoot >1000 frames per day with the same gear. Alas, I don’t shoot anywhere near that much, so I lost the ability. The M9-P is also a lot more sensitive to precise focus because of the pixel density.

A bit of background: I shot almost exclusively Leica in 2009-early 2010 with a pair of M8s, the Leica 35/2 ASPH, 21/1.4 ASPH (primary lens) and 50/1.4 ASPH. I also used the Voigtlander 15/4.5 and 50/1.1 and Zeiss ZM 21/2.8 extensively. Total count: nearly 70,000 frames – so I’m not new in the RF world by any means. I also had an M6TTL.

Did I have issues with the M8s? Yes. Specifically,
1. They’d lock up if you overshot the buffer; and you’d have to pull the battery and card to get the camera to restart, sometimes losing images on the card and definitely losing whatever was in the buffer at the time.
2. Banding, especially at high ISO or if underexposed.
3. A very sensitive meter; if there were any point light sources in the frame, you can be sure the camera would underexpose horribly.
4. No easy way of dialing in exposure compensation – the workaround for that was to meter on something else, AE lock with a half press of the shutter, and then focus on the subject
5. Very poor high ISO performance. I’d keep things below 640, 1250 in emergencies, and seeking out the fastest lenses possible – which with 28mm as my favorite focal length, turned out to be horribly expensive.
6. No idea how much battery life you really had left, and a very, very slow (5-6 hours!) charger.
7. I like to shoot at 28mm; it just feels natural to me. That’s 21mm equivalent due to the M8’s crop factor. But there’s only frame lines for 24mm (31mm equivalent) which isn’t wide enough, so I have to use an external finder. Oh, but you still require focusing precision with fast lenses especially; so you have to use the RF to focus and an external finder to frame. Pain. I eventually landed up shooting with two eyes open, focusing with the RF, guesstimating the frame with my open eye and ignoring the external finder unless I was shooting at hyper focal distances.
8. Very notchy-feeling shutter release – it’s difficult to release smoothly, even with a soft release installed. Why does it need three stages – can’t they just use a smooth two-stage like all of the other professional cameras? Even the film Leicas had much better feeling shutter button actions than this.

_M9P1_L1007182bw copy
The librarian, Strahov Cloister. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Have any of these things been fixed?
1. It won’t lock up and require a battery-pull, but you still have the same small buffer. Seven shots or so while the barrel is hot; I liken it to shooting a revolver. Count your frames and you should be fine when it comes to sequences. It won’t do more than 2fps anyway, so you’re best off in single shot mode.
2. Banding is much improved – in fact, I haven’t seen it in any of the 12,000+ frames I’ve shot so far.
3. Nope, same meter.
4. You can dial in exposure compensation on the rear dial or menu, but it doesn’t really show in the finder except for a really small, difficult to see dot between the numbers. I found a better workaround – if I’m at base ISO (you know because your shutter speed is above the AUTO ISO threshold you set) then I’ll just choose a lower shutter speed, guesstimating whatever I think it should be. Lots of photography makes you have a pretty good internal meter. If I’m shooting at night, I’ll fix my ISO and go fully manual.
5. It’s better, but not that much better. Reality is that at the pixel level, I now find 1250 to be the limit, with 2500 for emergencies only. However, because there are many more pixels, you can print at the same size and gain roughly another 1/2-2/3 stop. It’s not in D700, let alone D3s territory by any means, but at least its much more useable than the M8 was. I can use f2.0 lenses without too much issue – which is great, because they’re both cheaper and tend to be better optically.
6. There’s now a very accurate percentage meter and a faster (2-3 hour) charger. Both things help your battery management greatly, though I still carry a spare battery especially for heavy shooting days. One battery will get me around 1,000 frames if I limit review time to the bare minimum.
7. The widest frame line is now 28mm, yay! Unfortunately, the eye relief is insufficient to see it with glasses. 35mm is the widest frame I can comfortably see unless I wear contact lenses – which I do for serious shooting.
8. Nope, not changed. But at least they made the power/self timer switch tighter, so you don’t accidentally select the timer and wonder why the camera isn’t taking the shot.

_M9P1_L1003662 copy
Evening tram. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

So, for the most part, things are better. The menu system is still simple and snappy; although there is a tendency to do odd things with some Sandisk cards – specifically lockups when browsing or protecting files in long series; I haven’t noticed this with other brands, though.

What else has changed? Surprisingly little. Why fix it if it isn’t broken? Frankly, if Leica could get hold of the D3s sensor and innards somehow, then they’d have a killer machine. I wouldn’t even need to shoot anything else. Oh yeah, there are some small cosmetic changes – the corner where the little round LCD was on the M8 is gone, and the finishes are now black paint or gray chrome for the regular M9, and silver chrome or black paint for the M9-P which omits the Leica dot in favor of top plate engraving and a sapphire LCD cover, but is otherwise the same camera. I was given a silver M9-P, which is my preference aesthetically too.

_M9P1_L1005830bw copy
The hidden gorilla. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

The things I like very much about the M system, and specifically the digital Ms, remain. The sensor is a CCD, not CMOS – in real terms, that means much more pleasing tonal and color response at the expense of base noise. There’s a color richness yet tonal transparency that’s difficult to describe; it reminds me of the old Nikon D2H and medium format cameras, which for the most part use CCD sensors. There is of course no anti-aliasing filter, which means that the resolving power is extreme. Is moire an issue? No, but I’m not a fashion photographer.

What is much more important than your filter pack is the alignment of your rangefinder. This affects resolving power hugely, especially if you’re shooting fast lenses wide open. The best practice is to send everything back to Leica for calibration, but since we can’t easily do that in the field, we must learn to calibrate our own rangefinders* (to be the subject of a future article.) – to the shallowest depth of field lens you’ve got, providing it doesn’t suffer from focus shift. If it does, calibrate to your most frequently used lens and remember to adjust for the focus shift when you’re shooting your fastest. A rangefinder with a well-calibrated rangefinder is one of the most accurate focusing mechanisms devised; much better than manual focusing most SLRs because their viewfinders won’t have been perfectly aligned or shimmed, either. Not quite as good as magnified live view on the LCD, but that isn’t practical for photojournalism work or anything without a tripod. Where rangefinders excel is focusing anything wide up to about 75mm; fast is no problem. In fact, with regular practice I find I can focus just as fast or faster on static subjects than with an autofocus camera. (The AF camera will report that it’s found focus, but you can’t always tell if it’s focused precisely on what you want it to.

_M9P1_L1004918bw copy
When you shoot a Leica, you inevitably find a protest in the most unlikely of locations. Demonstrators protesting Kabila’s reign in the Congo, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

So, given a properly calibrated rangefinder, resolution and sharpness aren’t a problem. In fact, there’s more resolution in a good M9 file than anybody really needs, unless you’re making wall-sized prints that are to be inspected at nose distance. It’s more resolution than I can normally use, especially for photojournalism or street photography where everything is moving fast, light conditions are challenging, and your exposure is probably borderline for getting a critically sharp shot. I’m the limitation, not the camera. It’s great for shooting people, though; subjects tend to be more curious about the vintage looking camera than intimidated (as is usually the case if you point an enormous pro DSLR at them). You tend to get much more natural and open portraiture as a result.

_M9P1_L1001901 copy
I don’t quite know what she was demonstrating here either. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 ASPH

I use the camera for architecture and urban landscapes too; it excels at that for the most part, but the nature of the viewfinder and it’s vague-ish frame lines mean that compositions aren’t always precise; I sometimes have to violate my personal rule of no-cropping to trim things I didn’t think were in the frame at the time of shooting. The frame lines are conservative.

The last thing I use the M9-P for is watch photography – this only of late, and it hasn’t fully replaced the D700 because I still haven’t got a complete setup. What it does excel at so far is extremely high magnification macros; we’re talking minimum 3:1 and usually up to 5:1 or even 6:1. This is where the Visoflex III and Bellows II (both vintage, probably 40-50 years old) come into their own in a surprisingly but very ungainly way. (For more info on macro with the M system, see this earlier post.

_M9P1_L1003384 copy
Shadows, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

So am I happy with the M9-P?

For the most part, yes. The image quality, within its optimal range, is stunning – as good as the output of any 35mm/ FX camera I’ve seen to date (the D800E may be a different story when it arrives). It isn’t that great at high ISO, but you can usually get a workable and pleasing image in all but the darkest condition. My earlier On Assignment post about shooting the Thaipusam festival was a surprise to me – it performed far better than I expected, but it wasn’t easy to achieve those results because of the limitations of a rangefinder with moving subjects.

_M9P1_L1008733 copy
Master Sushi Chef Kenny Yew. Leica M9-P, Zeiss ZM 2/50 Planar

It’s relatively small, portable and easy to use; it doesn’t get in the way or require separate carrying solutions or bags. Most of the time I just go out of the house with the camera slung over one shoulder, suspended by a single lug since it’s easier to access and much more comfortable to shoot without a strap digging into the web between your index and third fingers. It is deceptively heavy, though, especially with the Noctilux 0.95; I think that rig weighs more than my D700 and 85/1.4. It also desperately needs a grip to hold securely, because there’s nowhere on the back of the camera for your thumb to find secure purchase. (The film Ms didn’t have this problem because you usually braced your thumb on the winder crank to be ready for the next shot anyway.) I’ve used ThumbsUp grips on all of my digital Ms and find them to be indispensable – they make a huge difference to the handling properties of the camera. This should be a built in ergonomic feature of future Ms, not an expensive aftermarket accessory. While we’re on ergonomics, did I mention that it’s far too easy for you to put your finger into one of the rangefinder windows? I find it immensely annoying when somebody does that after they request to have a look at your camera; you can’t see a damn thing or focus easily if there’s a fingerprint obscuring every window. I keep mine scrupulously clean and take care not to stick my fingers in. Having said that, I guess it’s a limitation of the RF design; a recessed window would be difficult to clean, and one that sticks out would probably get chipped or scratched more easily.

_M9P1_L1000955 copy
The paradox of clean energy. Leica M9-P, 50/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH

There is one thing that the M9-P especially has that nothing else does (except perhaps an M8) – tactility. I don’t personally like the painted finishes; I do like the slightly rough chrome surface and the solid, cold, metal feeling of the control points; the rubber is nice but leather would be nicer (although impractical in the sweaty tropics – I suppose at least people would think twice about asking to use your camera). It’s just a beautiful design object and something that makes you want to handle, fondle and use it; this isn’t something that I can say of any of my other cameras, except oddly perhaps the Ricoh GR-Digital III. And that makes me shoot it more; which in turn makes me experiment and produce images that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have done without the camera. For all of its quirks and foibles, I just like using it.

_M9P1_L1007838bw copy
Self portrait, lucky timing with two opposing moving trains and a whole load of surprise with the ensuing gust of wind. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

I think the real verdict is that I’m now using the M9-P as my primary camera, even for things that it was not designed for, even when I have the choice to use something else. This is not at all what I expected going in; I suppose in that sense it succeeds beyond expectations.

_M9P1_L1003919bw copy
Fog, Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a long list of things that could be improved for the next digital M; realistically, we’re going to see evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes, because after all, it is still a Leica M – if you want AF, buy the Fuji. With that, I leave you with the list:

1. Bigger buffer. I can count shots, but I’d rather not – 15-20 would be plenty. The new Nikon D4 reportedly has a 95-frame RAW buffer(!)
2. Live view. I think this is probably inevitable, given the capabilities of all of the current crop of sensors; I personally want it so I don’t have to use the clunky Visoflex for macro work.
3. More speed, especially with image processing – specifically review and magnification.
4. A better LCD. More pixels are useless if I can’t tell whether I’m using them all properly or not. I can see why the body will not accommodate a 3″ unit for design and aesthetic reasons, but a higher resolution 2.5″ unit with better color would make a huge difference.
5. A built in thumb grip on the back; a ThumbsUp built into the body would be perfect. They could even bring back the winder ala Epson to save battery power.
6. Softer, better-feeling shutter release button.
7. A little more information in the viewfinder; shutter speed in aperture priority and ISO is all I need.
8. A meter that doesn’t go crazy if there’s a point light source in the frame.
9. Improved high ISO, but it’s not actually that critical.
10. More robust firmware, and less sensitivity to particular brands of SD cards.
11. More eye relief in the finder – especially useful for photographers with glasses

Notice I haven’t asked for video, more pixels, AF, or 12fps, or LCD finder overlays; I think the fundamental concept is great, but it could use a few little tweaks to keep it relevant in today’s world of options – especially when historical trends point towards this camera being even more expensive than its predecessor. MT

*Disclaimer: I am not responsible if you damage your camera or void your warranty.

_M9P1_L1006378 copy
The police are everywhere. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

____________

If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting the site via Paypal (mingthein2@gmail.com) or via Ming Thein’s Email School of Photography – learn exactly what you want to learn, when you want to learn it.

You can also get your gear from Amazon.com clicking through this referral link. It doesn’t cost you any more, but a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!

Comments

  1. Tom Liles says:

    Hello again Ming.

    I’m sure it’s neither here nor there to you, but still, I felt like I should drop by and mention that I have — way earlier than anticipated — made my foray in DRFs.

    A used Epson R-D1s turned up in a camera store near where I work.
    (If you’re interested to know, the price was 800 USD. Normalized for the DRF market, not bad at all.)

    I wasn’t over-hasty, but at that price getting it was a forgone conclusion. Purchased today and, yes, it feels like Christmas (something I don’t feel a lot since being married with kids. That’s all for the good, by the by! But hard working Dads need a little present every now and then too). At any rate, you can imagine the look on my wife’s face. Especially when she found out I picked up a Cosina Voigtlaender 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar to go with it. 1000 USD+ doesn’t exactly sound like deal of the century to her — and she’s probably right, aren’t our wives always! — but I have assured her that I did well. If it turns out “not to be,” I can sell back and consider the depreciation (which will be minor on this camera, I’m sure) a rental fee for the pleasure of having used it in the interim. I think this is your line, isn’t it. (I used it!)

    So, the itch is well and truly scratched!

    And the most important bit? Well, it’s still day one, but I’m a happy camper—I like the RAW data files coming out of this camera. Not super sharp, not super vivid, not even correctly focused half the time (that’s me [hopefully]; but, while we’re here, one of the benefits of living in Japan is that I have access to Epson Japan and they’ll do a full RF service for about 2600 JPY. Takes about a week; camera sent door to door. I think that’s quite reasonable; certainly compared with what the time and monetary cost would’ve been if I’d saved and gotten a Leica to live with). So not super sharp, not super vivid. No-one is going to say “images with pop” or “look at the DR!” around these files. But! I like them. Go figure. They look somewhere between disposable camera and semi-serious photography! It’s weird and I like it. I’m looking forward to see if I can match — or realistically, just get close to — what the guys in the R-D1 group on Flickr are capable of.

    Well, I wrote to you inquiring about your view on how used m9/m9-P prices would go (vs. the trajectory of the m8 and m8.2), fully intending to save and purchase either machine. Still do. As it turns out, I’ve gone a different direction short term; but your advice, all of it here below the line, was much appreciated Ming and I’m sure it will be useful, for future readers who arrive at your page during the course of their research. Just as I arrived.

    I’d like to end up writing to you, someday, with an M9-P sitting in front of me on my desk, rather than this neat little Epson. But a good run with the R-D1s will go a way to earning some stripes and buying some saving time (and really making sure, really really, that the M9-P is the one [copyright]. I’m also factoring in the time delta until it’d be domestically safe: until my wife wouldn’t literally kill me if I turned up after work one day with a Leica and a nervous smile, and a story of how I’d just spent 4000 USD on a camera and lens. And that was the used price. Electrons have a name for this—the forbidden zone! (well, the forbidden band; but that always sounded to me like what my Grandparents thought of Iron Maiden)

    Lastly, I notice a couple of times in a couple of recent posts that you mention “should I buy A or B?” emails / questions / comments, and how they are becoming a problem for you. The stress in your voice seemed quite palpable, actually. It’s egomaniacal of me, but I couldn’t help notice the proximity between my m8/m9 comments and your pleas out on the top page. So, I apologize if I’ve been a nuisance. Though, in my defense, I made sure to say I’m not doing the “tell me which one to buy” thing. I know what I want—the M9-P. Regardless, if I sapped your strength: my bad Ming. It’s goes without saying, you don’t have to type a word in reply to this. I sound so melodramatic there, but that’s not the sense it’s intended in. Imagine a neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar and saying “I’ll bring you one back tomorrow” and you go “don’t be silly! no need.” Like that Ming—no need to reply!

    OK then Ming, that’s your lot. As the old Romans used to say: I hope this finds you as it leaves me, in good spirits and health.

    I’m off to rangefind the refrigerator : )

    Adieu

  2. Tom Liles says:

    Hi Ming. Not sure if you’ll see my comment, but here’s hoping…
    (This comment turned out quite long, and my apologies for that. I’m an advertising copywriter, so just letting it flow unrestricted after a hard day’s work is very soothing. I am sorry Ming. Maybe read it on your tea break rather than spend time “on the clock” with me. OK then, here we go…)

    I’ve read this and your revisiting the M8 piece at least 10 times each. Just continually pored over them. Once and again. Agonizing over it. Because I’m preparing myself, my wallet (and my wife) for a foray into Rangefinders.

    The desire for a foray is off the back of trying an old Nikkor Ai 50mm f/2. Yes, an f/2! Not the 1.4 Ai-S’es which are certainly more popular [read expensive] and yet bountiful in the used camera stores in Tokyo, where I live. If anyone is reading this from a google hit [you never know], the slower non “s” Ai Nikkor lenses are a better used deal I think: 1) they’re cheaper, or tend to be 2) they’re over-engineered [like mercedes-benz cars were up until the 80s] and slightly better or equal optically to the Ai-S [I’d happily put my f/2 @ 2.8 against an f/1.4 Ai-S @ 2.8), and 3) on a modern camera where ISO 800~1600 is widely possible and perfectly useable, why pay for the cosmetic f/1.4 bragging rights [if it's not ostensibly about bragging rights for you. And fine if it is!]. So yes, an old Nikkor 50mm f/2 from 1977 — 6, even number, aperture blades on it, by the way, which make for lovely stars on street lights at night — this lens that I bought on a whim for 8,000 JPY mounted on my wife’s unused and forgotten about Nikon D60, a Christmas present for her from the distant days of 2008! This was a revelation, and has gotten me into taking photos.
    (one of those presents that’s really for yourself? laughs)

    The experience of this lens was, still is!, that lovely. It’s not easy though. I have no metering, no CPU, no autofocus (obviously!), no nothing—you’re on your own, type deal. To think of all the words and concepts I’ve had to get familiar with! I bought and installed a KatzEye focussing screen [off a recommendation on Thom Hogan's page --> in his archived D60 review]—that wasn’t fun! But the katzeye has modestly worked wonders. Autofocus is quite dull for me now. All in all, it has been great training—and especially with a digital recording format, as there is no real financial penalty for trying things out and failing [but learning]. And so I’ve learnt some good basics, the hard way [the best way] about photographic properties, lenses and most importantly about what I like and what I don’t like. And what I really really like most, if I’m honest, is quite simply the buttery smooth focus action of the Nikkor lens. Along with setting everything manually.
    (I say “everything” but it’s not that dramatic, is it—if shooting RAW, I do, it’s just three settings; and realistically, one of them seems to me to be no different than the “gain” in an RC circuit, like an amp, so it’s only two variables that truly count. In-camera ISO (camera does the gain for me) is a useful and convenient shortcut to have though!)

    Anyway, love the analog lens. Love the markings on the barrel (though it took me a bit of head scratching and a lot of lining up and shooting my kids or their teddy bears or both to figure out why those markings weren’t coincident with the depths of field in the D60 files when I looked at them on the computer screen). I got there though… Back to the manual focus! The lens. The heavy chrome construction. The aperture ring that goes “click, click, click” and feels like metal on metal and it is metal on metal. I love it. I thought great, why doesn’t someone just make them like this nowadays. And the body too. I’d buy one in a heartbeat!
    I searched about. Thought I found a solution with a used Panasonic DMC-L1(K): a 4/3, not u4/3, camera from the same vintage as my wife’s D60; “only” 7.4 Mpix, but it is a nice camera to hold and use. It’s like a tank though. I am going to keep it, but it’s not the one—no chance for MF with that viewfinder for starters. Leica lenses are very elegant though… the search continued…

    And I made my way toward Leica (and the Epson r-d1, but I gave up on that as an option: not a Mpix thing, bang for the buck is not there, in my opinion. They still sell used for 100~130,000 JPY in Tokyo. New for 200,000 JPY+ …)

    And I politely made my way away Leica when I saw the price tags. Even for used ones. And before you even get yourself a lens.

    I’ve had thoughts of a film body (like a Konica Hexar RF, etc), certainly more within my financial means, but I took up photography as a hobby beginning of this year end of last—and began transducing light via PN junctions rather than molecular emulsions (I’m a chemical engineer by training, Ming, so I know nothing, well a bit but not much really, about Chemistry [that's what Chemists are for] but I know a little more, just a little though, about maths and physics!). Anyway I like digital (which is actually analog; and, I can say with certainty, chemical capture is solidly digital—you can’t have any degree of a chemical reaction between 0 and 1, you’re either one side of the arrow or equilibrium sign, or the other in chemistry). And it seems to me, even if you were armed with the most puritanical belief in film, that converting to a digital image somewhere along the line is inevitable. Certain [high level, above my level] aesthetic considerations aside, i.e., certain looks or luminosity responses that are still only possible with film, why not just start digital? Plus you get the histograms (I think with the sensor feedback, well kind of, from a histogram, I’m a pretty quick meter myself now: I guess the exposure, set camera accordingly, point camera in general shot direction as I make my way to my spot, eye not to finder here, take a rough snap, flick eyes to histogram, compensate manual settings, shoot –> 9 times out of 10, get it just the way I want it. And all dialed in by the time I hit my spot. To get the most from the histogram, I do take care to set WB, etc., though even though I’m shooting RAW, so walking about outside I’m continually twiddling with the camera). So, arty caveats aside, you’ve got all that, why not just start digital? I can’t see much rational or practical reason not to. So back to a DRF!

    Right, I’ll make the next para my last as it’s sprawling and I doubt I’ve held your full attention this far. Home straight now, promise.

    I know they’re hard to use, to run (RF calibration, etc). I definitely know they’re expensive. Many people say they love them, get one, sell it some time later or never really use it. I know that. Mainly I know I can’t really afford one. But I’ve started my Leica fund in earnest… I know you wrote about m8s as an intro DRFs. The price delta here [Tokyo] between m8 and m8.2 is not that much (remembering this is Leica we’re talking about) and is being compressed now the M type 240 is out and the used prices of m9s have begun to drop [from circa 500,000 JPY to circa 400,000 JPY, a saving of about 1000 USD, in rough and ready terms]. The M9-Ps will surely follow. So here it is… An M8.2 (used, of course) with one lens — I like 28mm and 75mm, similar to your own tastes, if I’ve got it right? — an m8.2 with one lens would run 300,000JPY +/-… I can’t do that soon, but probably within the year.
    Or! Wait out used prices on M9-P [my aesthetic preference: black, minimal, as unflashy and utilitarian as possible, I think we're close again there!] again with one lens, would maybe run circa 400,000 JPY sometime in 2014/5? Now, I’m not doing the “tell me which one to buy” thing. I know what I want—the M9-P. What I’m wondering about is this: the sensor architecture in the M type 240 being more CMOSy, whether that might actually make the M9s cult cameras—being the largest, highest res examples of CCD sensor Leicas, and without live-view, etc., that’s to say, sans all the bells and whistles which collectors and monkish Leica devotees seem to dislike [and are prepared to pay a premium NOT to have]. I’m not sure if the M9 and M9-P will drop as the M8 and 8.2 have…

    You’re a very smart man Ming. A trained physicist. And also a trained M&A specialist. And also a professional photographer.

    Outlook for the used M9 market?

    {Thank you for bearing with me if you’ve made it this far. I enjoy your site, your photographs and your writing—and I’ve enjoyed taking part in a very small [though verbose, I know] way! All the best Ming}

    Tom

    • Short answer: like any digital device, it’ll probably continue sinking in the near future as M 240s satisfy the upgraders. But then, like the M8s, they will probably hold value around a certain point; I paid $2,200 for my second (used, mint) M8 body in 2009. In the last four years, that price probably hasn’t moved by more than $500 or so – certainly far less than the initial depreciation hit. In fact, I haven’t seen much movement at all in the last year. Perhaps the M9 and M 240 are rekindling interest in rangefinders in general; I don’t know. Do note that I think these things may have a finite serviceable lifespan – M8/9 sensors are known to fail, and once spares are exhausted, there won’t be any left – you’ll have a paperweight. As for the lenses – if you’re on a budget, go with a used Zeiss ZM 21/2.8 on the M8 (I think the best of the 28mm equivalent options in terms of rendition) and a used ZM 2/50 Planar. You could get a complete kit with the two lenses these days – around the $4,000 mark, I think. Perhaps a bit less if you’re not fussy about cosmetic condition.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Hello again Ming. That was very gracious of you to reply so quickly. Many thanks. I hope you weren’t on the clock when you did that : ) Unfortunately — or rather, fortunately — I am on the clock, so I’ll be quick [on my tea break this time!]

        Aha, OK, understood. While the M9-P is what I’d like (that remains unchanged) I think the sensible option may be a trial run [in a year or two interim period] with an m8.2 body and the two lenses you mentioned. Thank you very much for that advice on lenses, by the by. Without a do I’ll start my research on them—perhaps starting with looking at photos you’ve taken using the m8 and ZM 21/2.8! If I may just ask one more thing? It is related…
        In your piece, you mentioned pixel density being a complicating factor on the M9’s use, i.e., a factor that ups the level of difficulty presented to the photographer using an M9 [over an M8?]. I like complication, that’s to say, a challenge, a mountain to climb — why I’m interested in a DRF in the first place — but I am a simple man. I don’t find those two admissions contradictory. I’m sure you might find yourself feeling the same way sometimes. At any rate, I like complexity but I am a simple man; and having more room for error, rather than less, sounds right up my street [honestly considering my skill]. But let me see if I’ve understood correctly: the reason more pixel density [and also wrt depth of field, a full frame sensor, but let's leave that out for now] means a more acute margin of focus error, perhaps “picture sharpness” is a better phrase, and a more severe user experience, is that more pixel density implies more pixels per unit area [these planar densities are denoted with a lower case "sigma" in engineering; rho for a volumetric density, lamba for a linear density] so, a higher sigma [for the same area] can only mean smaller pixels. So with smaller pixels, my physical instability when making an exposure becomes more of a factor in image sharpness [smaller pixels require faster shutter speeds to negate blurring effects: photons spilling over from one well to the adjacent one]. Except for the bit about same area, is this rationale sounding right?
        But, Ming, the M9 sensor diagonal is 1.33 times bigger than the m8’s; so its area is 178% more [if I call the m8 sensor diagonal "1" and the m9 "1.33" and with my 3:2 x:y ratio on both let Pythagoras do the rest, the area value of the second is about 178% larger than the first]. I know that since the number of pixels (x by y) has also gone up by about 1.8 [180%], the sigma, in fact, on an M9 is about the same as an M8? I’m sure I’ve misunderstood or made a schoolboy error somewhere; but where am I going wrong?

        I suppose it doesn’t really matter as I completely trust your statement Ming—just interested to know why, rather than just to know: Why is more pixel density, more difficult?

        All in all, an even more sensible option is probably to buy neither and just plain wait it out. I was interested in this line, I know you’ve mentioned it before, elsewhere:

        …the M9 and M 240 are rekindling interest in rangefinders in general

        Fully agree. I think this train of consumer sentiment was seeded, it began, with that Panasonic DMC-L1 I own [from 2007/8?]; and is building up speed with the hybrid Fuji designs and mirrorless NEX, u4/3 stuff. But more so the Fujis [u4/3 is what marketers might call a "divergence device," it's much like a divergent path on an evolutionary tree in nature. Mp3 players are an easy example: walkman--discman--iPod. All have the same general function, but are divergent tech, and importantly foster different uses, by chance or design. That's why they catch on; something we haven't had before, etc.]. This train will probably end in ever more diverged u4/3 cameras [which I think will be the true 21st century rangefinders, though the word "rangefinder" is unhelpful in this connection as it's a loaded term and limits what you envisage] and, fingers and toes crossed, a few affordable straight DRFs from Canon, Nikon et al (I do think ultimately DRFs will probably end as an camera-tech evolutionary dead-end, but remain as curiosity, art or collector’s items. Or paperweights!).
        An anecdote: I was wondering downtown with my camera last week and noticed a gentlemen looking lost so I approached him to see if I could help. We talked a little and I noticed he also had a camera: a little antique looking thing swinging round his neck. It was a Fuji x100. I complimented him on his camera and asked him some questions about it. He didn’t really know anything about cameras, photos, etc., and had probably just bought it because it looked good [this is the key point]. His rational was faux-technical: “it has the same sensor as a DSLR.” Can I quickly announce, here, that I think this chap’s camera and purchase logic [the real logic] are fine by me! We, who take photography more seriously [to varying degrees], are the weirdos. Normal people don’t have the time to bother or care that much about equipment. It’s just for recording a moment. No more, no less. Furthermore, when you’re into photography I think you are not less immune but more susceptible to fads, irrational purchases and raw looks. Just better at the faux-technical justifications! So this rekindling has a LOT to do with contemporary tastes. I think most people, in this zeitgeist, would consider a vintage BMW better than a new one; Grandad’s simple old handmade leather shoes from the 50s better than a $2000 pair from Cole Haan, etc. Likewise camera styling.

        Anyway, here’s the point: you note a rekindling interest in rangefinders; but you’ve also mentioned economies of scale, costs of R&D versus market potential wrt to DRFs… The interesting fact that you gave us was the number of m9s Leica sold in the years since release until now—it’s the same as the number of D800s Nikon makes in ONE MONTH! Amazing. But these two statements don’t square up so well. I think, I hope, we’re nearing the point where from the viewpoint of the large Japanese makers, making an affordable DRF is seen as an opportunity for making money rather than losing it.

        For purely greedy reasons, of course!

        So, the really sensible option might be to buy neither m8.2 or m9/m9-p
        (and wait to see what 2014/15 brings…)

        Not the answer the gear head in me wants to hear. Which probably means it’s closest to the most adult!

        And that’s my 15min!

        Cheers Ming : )

        • On pixel density/ handholding: difficulty in handholding (or increase in shutter speed required to get a sharp image) is proportional to the number of pixels per degree field of view for a given overall angle of view. So if you have 5000px linearly over a 50 deg FOV, that’s 100px/degree; it will be more sensitive to resolving motion/ camera shake than a 60px/degree camera with 3000px linearly. Camera shake is an absolute, not relative to the overall angle of view – a shutter jerk might cause an 0.5deg motion; for a 100deg angle of view lens, it’s not as big a deal (0.5% of the width) compared to a 2deg angle of view (25% of the width) – this is also why wide angles are more forgiving than teles.

          • The penny drops!

            Got it. Thanks, really, Ming. Especially for writing back to me each time (never assumed, on my part). I’m sure your readers value your patience and charity as much as I do.

            And with that—have a nice weekend. Cheers!

  3. ming where did you get your red strap :)

  4. “The things I like very much about the M system, and specifically the digital Ms, remain. The sensor is a CCD, not CMOS – in real terms, that means much more pleasing tonal and color response at the expense of base noise.”

    Don’t you mean at the expense of high ISO noise? My understanding is that CCDs are inherently a less noisier technology, thus the need for processing CMOS images at all ISOs, which make them clean but make the images look processed and unnatural.

    Best Regards,

    ACG

    • Actually, the M8 has much higher shadow noise even at low ISOs than the D800E. And I’m not sure about natural looking – filmic perhaps yes, natural, depends on your definition…

  5. Boby Tjahjana says:

    I’m new to Leica, I recently got the M9P and could not be bothered waiting for the M. The specs I considered sufficient for my kind of shooting. Don’t get me wrong I used to be I of those who after high specs and perfection (still keeping my D800E and few Zeiss lenses). Completely agree with you Ming Thein, the “want to use” factor is huge. The images produced feel right and feel human, compared to other high spec dslr the images are too perfect.

    BTW, like your kind of review, i think this is great. Great photos, too.

  6. Just a small nitpick – Strakhov is spelled Strahov.

  7. Love the review, the photos are amazing this has been really helpful while researching the Leica M9-p. Thanks

  8. Kamarul Redzuan Muhamed says:

    Hi Ming, I have lurking around for awhile. Thanks for great photography and articles. Very inspiring. I am especially impressed with your Watch Photography. I have been using Leica for awhile (M6TTL, M7, M8, M8.2 Safari, M9 and M9P – btw I sold all except for M9P and M7) and a few glasses too. Recently I bought 35 Lux ver2 and this render almost all my other lens soft in comparison. I was especially satisfied with my 50 Nocti and 90 Cron APO sharpness before but as I said now it feels soft. I wonder if my M9P required calibration or the lens that need calibration. May I pick your brain and get your opinion on this. I hate to be away from my camera and have to send it to Solm. Last time I did, it took them 3 months plus before I get it back. Thank you

    • Thanks Kamarul! I had the same problem with you with first my M8s and now my M9P; so I learned how to do the calibration myself.

      I offer a RF calibration service in KL – please send me an email if you’d like more info. Manufacturing tolerances are such that you’ll have to be very lucky to have all three of your lenses to match the same focus calibration; you can either choose to have the RF calibrated for the shallowest DOF lens (if the others are similar) or your most frequently used lens. I can do either adjustment in about an hour.

      However, note that if the lenses are too far out of sync, then the whole set will have to go back to Germany because it requires disassembly of the lenses to properly adjust.

  9. Christopher Lee says:

    Hello Ming,
    Is there generally a metering issue with the M9P, i find that it is at least 1 stop under when I compare with other of my cameras even when I put a side by side comparison with the M6 using the same lens with same ISO setting at same shutter speed only playing with the aperture the M6 shows f4 while the M9P show f2.8

    • I think it’s because the meter is easily tricked by strong point light sources in the frame, especially if they’re in the center. For this reason, at night, I go manual with the metering because I know that lights are going to completely throw the meter.

  10. Michael Sin says:

    Hello Ming,

    Thank you so much for your reply. I appreciate it a lot.
    Yes, I am from HK & it’s nice meeting you & I have just read your profile and it is great to have a passion in what you are doing!
    1. I have not bought the M9 yet and I am researching it & the main obstacles are: how to treat my whole set of D700, Nikkor lenses & Zeiss lenses; and whether I will be able to focus the M9, making sharp images. Having read your latest D700 verdict and as a serious amateur, I may just keep my D700 as it is rather new; and may be trimming down my lenses to fund the M9. On focusing, I will trust you on that.
    2. Thanks.
    3. Thanks. You are right. And if there might be a M10, it would be even more high investment for me to get started with Leica.

    I would like to ask one more question on Zeiss ZM lenses as an alternative to Leica M Lenses; because I noticed that you are also using a few ZM.
    I once read somewhere saying that ZM lenses are calibrated for Leica film camera, with precision following the specification of Leica range finder camera for film. Leica M9 has a digital sensor. Therefore, focus error will be a common place for ZM on the M9; & Leica will not calibrate for Zeiss lenses. Did you find the same problem when focusing ZM? Or it is just a non-issue.

    Thank you again, Ming.

    Michael.

    • 1. They’re different tools for different purposes. Right now I have Nikon FX, Leica M and Micro 4/3 systems and find uses for all of them. Focusing the M9 is much easier than focusing the Nikon manually, because it’s very easy to see with the RF patch if something is in focus or not – the real limiting factor is whether your rangefinder is properly calibrated for the lenses you use.
      2.
      3. Absolutely – we know that if there’s one constant, Leica prices keep going up!
      4. ZM: No problems whatsoever. It’s a non-issue for me. I use some ZM lenses because there are specific properties I want (no focus shift at close distance using bellows and Visoflex for the 2/50 Planar for instance) or I can’t afford the Leica equivalents (28 Summicron ASPH, anybody?). The more unique Leica lenses like the 35/1.4 ASPH FLE, 50/1.4 ASPH and 50/0.95 Noct ASPH are unbeatable though.

  11. Michael Sin says:

    Hello Ming,

    I enjoy your writing on Leica M9P & your photography; especially, the images are so sharp & color is simply great.
    You have great skills, too!

    I am a Nikon D700 user and I am using mainly Zeiss ZF glasses. I find that the sharpness & color are very nice too!
    I am short-sighted with astigmatism as well as presbyopia, unfortunately. But I like to try Leica M9 system with one or two lenses.
    Due to the huge upfront investment, I need to be extremely careful if I have bought something which I may regret if I cannot use it properly due to difficulty in focusing. I am ok with D700 & Zeiss combination because I can at least rely on the focus confirmation dot. I like Leica M9 because of its usability & great photography in color, in details & contrast. Though, I would hope that it can do better in high ISO. Though there are many short comings (like poor LCD, poor battery life, poor high ISO performance etc); it seems that many can get around them & still can produce very nice photos at higher ISO.

    My questions are:
    1. I know that when focus is obtained, the picture & sharpness will be fantastic. Is focusing really difficult if my eyes are not that good? But then again, a lot of people using Leica M9 will not get 20:20 vision with glasses on; and may be they are a little mature enough to have presbyopia, too. How can they cope?
    2. I heard a lot about lens & camera calibration, is it really a usual issue on Leica M9 system? Because it really takes a long time to send it back & get it returned from Leica. And I heard that it also takes lot of money for the transportation & repair. It is a real hassle!
    3. Do you think for a starter, should I wait for M10 or I should just jump into the M9 if answers to Q1 & 2 can be resolved?

    Thanks in advance for your comments.
    Michael.

    • Thanks Michael. The M9 is easier to focus than the D700 – the rang finder helps a lot. Providing the calibration is accurate, I have no problem achieving critical focus with the 0.95 noctilux wide open – I have trouble hitting it with f1.4s on the D700, even with the split focusing screen.

      1. Silly question, but have you tried adjusting the diopter? Or using one of the add on diopters? There are also magnifiers you can use to make the RF patch bigger, but you lose the ability to see the outermost frame lines.

      2. It’s important if you’re using fast lenses wide open all the time like I am – but it’s not too difficult to do yourself (though it of course voids your warranty). Perhaps I’ll post a tutorial one of these days. Or you could find out if there’s somebody where you are (HK?) who can do it. To be honest though, Schmidt (the HK distributor for Leica) was one of the worst companies I’ve ever dealt with, and provided absolutely terrible customer service. In fact, it was the main reason I abandoned Leica after my first foray with the M8s – you simply can’t use something like that for professional work if you don’t have any support.

      3. There will always be better cameras coming out in the future. So how long are you going to wait? Think about the images you could be missing in the meantime…it’s not worth the little bump in resolution or high ISO. The reality is that with the current crop of gear, if you can’t make stunning images, you are the limitation, not the camera. I’ve been the main limitation of my equipment for some time now.

      Hope this helps! MT

  12. Thank you for this in depth explanation. I agree with you. Since I use Leica lenses I won’t have to worry.

    • :) The Summilux-ASPHs are excellent; I never liked the earlier 35s because of the focus shift issue, but the FLE is absolutely fantastic. The 90s I hear are all good – but focusing accuracy is difficult to achieve consistently because the RF patch is so big compared to the frame. I suppose a magnifier would help a lot there.

  13. Ming, you stated that you could use f2.0 lenses which tend to be better optically. Do you mean they are optically better than 1.4 lenses? Why?

    • I think I need to be a bit careful when answering this. Specifically, the 1.4 lenses for the M system are excellent: but your RF calibration must be absolutely perfect, and they’re very demanding when it comes to focusing accuracy. Other brands – less so. The Voigtlander and Zeiss f1.4s aren’t as strong at 1.4 as their slower aperture lenses; there are fewer design compromises that need to be made. When cost is not an object, correcting fully for secondary and territory optical aberrations is easier; you can use exotic glass and aspherical surfaces. However, when you’re designing to a budget – be it cost or size – there are always compromises that mean performance is clearly better stopped down; f1.4 is only for emergencies. I’d personally rather have better optics that I can use at maximum aperture (i.e. f2) than faster ones I have to stop down. The cost-performance ratio is much better. Specifically: is the Leica 35/1.4 FLE better than the 35/2 ASPH? Undoubtedly. Is the Voigt 35/1.4 Nokton better than their 35/2.5 Skopar? I don’t think so. Same for the Zeis 50/1.5 C-Sonnar vs. the 50/2 Planar. The Planar is better at f2 than the Sonnar at f1.5, and they’re pretty close at f2 – I’d still give the edge to the Planar. The Noctilux 0.95 is awesome, but it only focuses to 1m, and it costs 3.5x as much as the Summilux, which itself is 2.5x the f2 Summicron.

Trackbacks

  1. […] So am I happy with the M9-P?For the most part, yes. The image quality, within its optimal range, is stunning – as good as the output of any 35mm/ FX camera I’ve seen to date (the D800E may be a different story when it arrives). It isn’t that great at high ISO, but you can usually get a workable and pleasing image in all but the darkest condition. My earlier On Assignment post about shooting the Thaipusam festival was a surprise to me – it performed far better than I expected, but it wasn’t easy to achieve those results because of the limitations of a rangefinder with moving subjects. It’s relatively small, portable and easy to use; it doesn’t get in the way or require separate carrying solutions or bags. Most of the time I just go out of the house with the camera slung over one shoulder, suspended by a single lug since it’s easier to access and much more comfortable to shoot without a strap digging into the web between your index and third fingers. It is deceptively heavy, though, especially with the Noctilux 0.95; I think that rig weighs more than my D700 and 85/1.4. It also desperately needs a grip to hold securely, because there’s nowhere on the back of the camera for your thumb to find secure purchase. (The film Ms didn’t have this problem because you usually braced your thumb on the winder crank to be ready for the next shot anyway.) I’ve used ThumbsUp grips on all of my digital Ms and find them to be indispensable – they make a huge difference to the handling properties of the camera. This should be a built in ergonomic feature of future Ms, not an expensive aftermarket accessory. While we’re on ergonomics, did I mention that it’s far too easy for you to put your finger into one of the rangefinder windows? I find it immensely annoying when somebody does that after they request to have a look at your camera; you can’t see a damn thing or focus easily if there’s a fingerprint obscuring every window. I keep mine scrupulously clean and take care not to stick my fingers in. Having said that, I guess it’s a limitation of the RF design; a recessed window would be difficult to clean, and one that sticks out would probably get chipped or scratched more easily……..  […]

  2. […] Vienna fog: it’s all about the man. Leica M9-P […]

  3. […] Vienna fog: it’s all about the man. Leica M9-P […]

  4. […] Vienna fog: it’s all about the man. Leica M9-P […]

  5. […] AFS 85/1.4 G. the problem was, I got artistically stronger images the following year shot with a Leica M9-P and 35/1.4 ASPH FLE – that set can be seen here on Flickr – despite having to not only […]

  6. […] and silent the shutter mechanism is; for those who’ve only experienced the digital M8 or M9 / M Monochrom, you’re in for a surprise. This type of shutter feel is precisely why Leicas […]

  7. […] chance to shoot with the new S, but the S2’s pixel-level architecture was shared with the M8 and M9 – and we know the performance of both of those dropped off sharply at anything above about ISO […]

  8. [...] 410 geared head, or 468MGRC0 Hydrostatic ball head Gitzo GT1542 Traveller with Gitzo 1780QR head Leica M9-P Nikon D600 (backup), D700 (reportage/ low light), D800E (primary for commercial work), F2 Titan [...]

  9. [...] First things first: this isn’t going to be a technical review, because there are sites that do it much better than I can; it’s going to be subjective because there are things I do in my…  [...]

  10. [...] from the M9 and its derivatives (full review of the Leica M9-P here, and the M-Monochrom here), the only other digital true range finders that have made their way to [...]

  11. [...] Leica M9/ M9-P** (May 2012) – The M9-P is one of those cameras that just feels right. Tactility and the ‘want to use it’ factor are high. Image quality is superb, so long as ISO is kept below 800; 1250 is still okay (about a one stop improvement on the M8) but still nowhere near the other FF DSLRs. The lack of an AA filter gives images tremendous bite – just watch your rangefinder calibration. It’s very easy to shoot fast lenses and then wonder why they’re soft, when in fact it’s probably due to a misaligned rangefinder. Most of the woes with the M8 are gone (lockups etc) but you have to be very careful with what cards you use; faster ones can cause corruption and crashes. [...]

  12. [...] Leica M9-P ranks pretty high up that list too – however, using anything over 50mm isn’t so easy [...]

  13. [...] is really not a lot to say about the MM that I haven’t already said about the M9-P in my long term review of that camera. It shoots the same as any other Leica M, and existing M9 or M9-P users will feel right at home. I [...]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,214 other followers

%d bloggers like this: