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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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