For more than a decade, Leica users have been demanding a full frame digital version of their beloved rangefinder camera.
Procrastination and confusion reigned in Solms over the new technology. First we had to endure an imperfect M8, followed by a superficially upgraded M8.2. But patience is a virtue; we all knew it was only a matter of time before the legendary German firm satisfied our dreams. The M9 with full frame coverage is here; the perfect antidote to oddball half-sized formats and hybrid modular concept compacts for those who want to perpetuate the Leica way.
Almost any debate about the new technology flies off on the analogue tangent, with dissidents endeavouring to make justified comparisons between the old and the new. For generations of older users, different levels of experience and knowledge colour the discussion and for some it’s difficult to stay objectively
focused while appreciating that the two mediums obtain results in fundamentally different ways.
The nature of the electronic beast permits a more complex array of operating features than was possible (or necessary) with analogue. And digital designers who insist on ensuring their products offer the greatest range of options also have to change the method by which they are accessed. One outcome is the way in which digital camera users are required to operate the tool. For many, it’s anathema to their nature, focused as they often are on the familiarity of simpler technologies.
The global angst among potential M users seems split in two. Half the camp doesn’t understand why Leica changed the fundamental design of the film camera, especially when Epson was so successful in keeping the R-D1 little larger than a film Voigtlånder Bessa rangefinder. The other half complains of functional defficiencies and poor results in comparison to less costly DSLRs. Those who care about such things might see it as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it seems to me that bickering about the product is a norm in the world of Leica.
The facts, as painful as they may seem for some, are that we live in a changed world. The svelte creations of the 1950s and the raison d’etre that drove people such as Ludwig Leitz have long gone. It was his sculptor’s feel for how an instrument should fit in the hand that gave the world the M3 and later, Wetzlar’s almost unwavering pursuit toward the ultimate sophisticated simplicity gave rise to the elegant M6.
There were deviations, such as the big, heavy and ugainly M5 in the 1970s, but in general it worked. The M8 heralded a new direction and it was at this point in Leica’s struggle to stay in the picture that it finally cast aside Ludwig’s intuitive approach to form and function. The M6TTL and the M7 had added an extra 2.5mm to body height without compromising the feel of the tool; the M8, like a Mercedes, grew fatter, adding 2mm more to chassis depth with a protruding and unprotected LCD monitor screen on its back. The shutter arming and film advance lever also went, so now the user was left holding a relatively large lump of metal with rounded ends covered in a silky smooth leatherette. With so little to grip, the body could easily slip from the hand.
The new M9 uses the same moulded magnesium alloy body shell as its forerunner, topped and bottomed with cover plates CNC machined from solid blocks of hardened brass. The battery and frame number LCD indicator window of the M8/M8.2 has gone, the left end of the top reformed into a step and increasing as a consequence the apparent height of the M9. One significant improvement is that the previously used body cladding has been replaced on the all-black version with a vulcanite covering similar to that found on the M3.
This material has a coarser, embossed feel, and while a firm finger clutch is still required, hand-held security is improved. The M9 steel-grey paint version comes with the leatherette of the M8/8.2 and for those opting for it, Leica’s leather half case protector might also be appropriate, improving, as Leica boasts, ergonomic handling.
Where M9 (and M8) designers failed in my view was in replacing the shutter-arming lever with internal micro motors. True, the advance noise factor has been reduced in the M9 by introducing a new discrete release mode. Releasing the shutter captures an image quietly, while simultaneously keeping it depressed following exposure prevents the whine of re-arming until local situations improve; another habit in need of adopting. Shutter speeds have also changed, adding eight seconds to the longer end of timing and reducing the faster end to 1/4000s in manual mode; half steps are retained with Aperture Priority mode offering continuously adjustable times to 32 seconds.
Leica’s insistence on keeping the lines of the camera clean is all well and good in a world where style matters so much to so many. Yet without something on which the user’s thumb can be hooked or rested, the body design is flawed. The only solution appears to remain with optional accessories. Leica’s Handgrip-M is one solution, but this device is ugly and not especially comfortable. Indeed, I have yet to find a handgrip made by Leica or any third party that works well and doesn’t add bulk and weight to the kit. So for this review I turned to the innovative Tim Isaacs, who in the past kindly supplied me with samples of his Thumbs Up attachment designed to alleviate ergonomic problems with the M8.
The CS3 Thumbs Up (distributed by Robert White of Poole in the UK) slots into the M9 accessory viewfinder/flash hot shoe and locks in position with an Allen key. It’s machined from solid brass. Provision for mounting optical viewfinders is made with another shoe a few millimetres above the original, incorporating a steel sprung foot, effectively securing a finder from accidental removal. An elegantly shaped curved arm in which the thumb comfortably hooks extends to the right, adjacent with and level with the camera top plate, finishing where a lever wind would be half open.
Fitting this device totally transforms the feel of the M9. Doubts previously harboured about hand-held security instantly evaporate once a Thumbs Up is in place (there are several different versions) and I simply don’t understand why Leica ignored the problem. There is one proviso to make, though, and it is that while the Isaacs’ device efficiently overcomes handholding issues, its curved thumb rest can hook in clothing and camera straps.
Finally, on the back of the M9, users will find the usual array of buttons, cursor cluster and dial wheel. The questionably useful Protect button on the M8 has been replaced with a dedicated and practicable ISO button that needs to be pressed and held while the dial is rotated to select sensitivity. Battery condition and remaining frame information is now seen on the 2.5-inch LCD monitor (230,000 dots) through which, by means of the Set or Menu button, all operating mode choices and customisation are selected.
The M9 is the world’s first full frame digital rangefinder camera. Its 23.9x35.8mm CCD sensor was developed by Kodak ISS with an effective 18 million pixel coverage producing a file measuring 5212x3472 pixels at 300ppi with options of six file resolutions (by way of comparison, the M8/8.2 offered sensor size of 18x27mm). At the maximum, files are large enough for a double-page-spread straight out of the box. Two raw .DNG levels (compressed and uncompressed) and JPEG file sizes in the range 2-10MB can be set.
The sensor employs an infra-red blocking cover glass incorporating new red dyes, eliminating the need, as with the M8/8.2, to use IR filters on each lens.
With the exception of a few objectives with extended back cell projection that could damage its multibladed shutter, all Leica-M lenses back to 1954 can be used on the M9 enabling some data of non six-bit lenses to be recorded in EXIF fields. Images made with coded objectives also benefit from limited camera firmware corrections of known aberrations, which in the relatively short time available for review of this camera, seemed to work better for raw captures than JPEGs.
As with the M8/8.2, no anti-aliasing filter is employed, ensuring, as far as Leica is concerned, the exceptional ability of its glass to extract the last ounce of finely resolved detail from a motif. But the emphasis is on obtaining the highest image quality using the raw DNG format. To this end, the maker also provides a free download licence for Adobe’s Lightroom.
In almost every factory document relating to the M9 (or the M8/8.2), hefty emphasis underlines the need to employ raw capture to maximise image quality. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle except that it arrogantly refuses to equally acknowledge many professionals’ need to use JPEG capture as the quickest route to an archive database or the printed page. Leica’s counter argument would undoubtedly revolve around the notion that its users are far more measured in their shooting technique and therefore have time to process the raw image (not forgetting of course, the burgeoning art market where large scale high quality prints are the order of the day).
It would be a poor argument in my view, especially when Japanese manufacturers have done so much work over the years to ensure that images captured as Fine JPEGs are almost as good as raw files. From that perspective, and from what I am using on these pages, M9 JPEG images are not better than anything captured with an old Nikon D1X, a now almost antique Epson R-D1 or even the new half-sensor-sized Panasonic GF1, despite the M9’s large 6.8 micron pixel size and Leica’s claim that images captured in this format are now much enhanced.
Where Far Eastern camera firmware also scores points is in the playback systems of a wide variety of models enabling more or less instant image magnification to check motif sharpness. In the M9, files take several seconds to fully open and art market or no art market, this is simply not good enough for a camera that supposedly sports a new image processor and costs almost as much as a small car.
In the beginning, Leica was emphatic about the impossibility of producing a full-frame digital rangefinder camera, arguing the extreme exit angle of light rays refracted through objectives would impact on the sensor, compromising image quality. But now, with Kodak’s know-how, the company has done it, eliminating most earlier concerns to produce a tool that works well enough. However, it isn’t a perfect panacea and some users are bound to finds it leads to bouts of frustration.
As with all digital rangefinders used to date, one of the main issues is how erratically inaccurate object to camera distance measuring can be. The ocular magnification of the M9 is x0.68 for an actual rangefinder base length of 69.25mm (effective 47.1mm, the same as for the M8/8.2). The coincident bright patch is the same size in both models, but in each case it is probably too small to enable really accurate superimposition of the target plane.
This was evident on several occasions when using the camera hand held, mounted on a monopod or tripod and taking a lot of time to ascertain correct distance measurements. Some wide angle objectives, notably the supplied 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH and 24mm f/ 3.8 ASPH used for this review as well as my own 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, proved difficult to focus accurately when used at their maximum apertures. Longer focal lengths need even more care.
Leica offers its Viewfinder Magnifier-M in two sizes, 1.25x and 1.4x for what it calls super precise focusing. I have not had the opportunity to use either of these devices and have never considered it necessary when using Leica’s film cameras, but they may provide a solution. Both come with security cord attachments and are screwed into the viewfinder eyepiece, but they aren’t the real answer. Electronic rangefinder distance confirmation is what is needed.
Leica glass has never been cheap but it would take too many pages to explain why. In short, the combination of special glass selection, grinding, polishing and element coating techniques married to an exceptional level of hands-on engineering and quality control has delivered outstanding objectives down through the decades.
For a very long time, it was the combination of unique Leica objective characteristics and Kodachrome reversal film that persuaded many to use the M system. M8/8.2 firmware was unable to make the colour palette transition to digital with the same subtle nuances of hue, dynamic tonal range or rounded depth effects obtained with reversal film. Images looked flat despite excellent default contrast levels. The M9 sensor and A/D signal processing hits a higher mark, borrowing special algorithms from the CPU to be used on the Leica S2 for noise control and provide an altogether richer look and feel to images.
At lower ISO settings and in daylight, image colour depth is very good. It still doesn’t, in my view, obtain the unique aesthetic characteristics of the analogue combinations mentioned above, but it is now maturing and delivers images closer to Leica glass expectations.
Photographers also use the M system for its low light capabilities, so I tested the M9 extensively at night. The usable images obtained show an excellent level of noise improvement compared with the M8/8.2 but disappointingly, the M9’s sensor seems unable to capture artificial light sources the same way the eye or film sees them.
Throughout its history, the Leica rangefinder has been the cause of endless debate. There are those for whom it is unquestionably the right piece of kit and those for whom it has always been an over hyped extravagance. The M9 isn’t perfect, but it is the full frame digital rangefinder camera many wanted and in the absence of an alternative, the one many will buy. But it is expensive. If this is your first ever Leica M, the camera body and a single standard lens will set you back a cool £6000.
The same money will buy a couple of Epson R-D1s and a handful of Voigtlander VM lenses, and there are also other options such as the new Micro Four Thirds formats from Panasonic and Olympus, which permit many alternative brands of glass to be mounted, including Leica M, using adapters. But while image quality from Four Thirds sensors can challenge the M9 on a number of levels, inevitably results are different.
That, arguably, is key where loyal Leica users are concerned. The M9 is a different tool. There are no like-for-like comparisons (yet) because it does what everything else does in a different way, from feeling different in the hand to being different in the mind and on the eye. It is the exception to other manufacturers’ tendency to bombard the market with new models. With the M9, the road to perfecting manipulation while extracting the highest image quality is long, but you may never need the next model – this one is built to last.
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