Leica's M9 is "the closest thing to perfection".
One year after first testing the Leica M9, Jonathan Eastland finds there's still room for improvement from this "nearly perfect" digital rangefinder. But short of some adjustments to body shape and JPEG reproduction, the greatest development has been the introduction of the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH
In the year following my review of Leica's first full-frame digital rangefinder camera, there has been no let-up in the number of questions I get asked about the performance of the M9. And while I usually answer that it's the closest thing to perfection right now, that doesn't mean it couldn't be better.
In fact, Leica has improved it with the introduction of the Walter de Silva designed special edition M9 Titan, which has much better styling in my opinion.
The catch, of course, is the €20,000 price tag - largely due to its titanium construction and collectibility - but there's no reason its body shape couldn't be incorporated into a regular version, updated to deliver the kind of ergonomics that have been missing from the digital M rangefinder since Leica began messing with micro-motors to arm its shutter. What I don't want is that daft little finger grip plugged into the side. Strap lugs, please!
But while there are dozens of cameras that have a similar spec to the M9 in terms of size, handling and resolution, the Leica is still my first camera of choice, despite the loss of its perfect partner - Kodachrome. Accept and move on. I have.
The newer Ektar and Portra emulsions from Kodak, along with that other enigma, BW400CN, are what now feed my film Leicas. But my quandary about where to go with Leica's digital M system met its brick wall not so much because of what I felt about its ergonomics (though that would have been enough) as with an imaging system that struggled to deliver.
With the M9, Leica places no little emphasis on the use of raw (.DNG) image capture to obtain the very best that the combination of modern Leica glass and the camera's special micro-lensed, Kodak-designed 18-megapixel CCD sensor, can obtain.
The old argument for shooting raw used to be that it equated with shooting film, insofar as raw digital data was as good as having an original negative. In the event of a catastrophe coming to pass in the days when transferring files from a card through a reader to the computer were sometimes fraught with errors and resulting file corruptions, so long as you had shot in raw, data could always be retrieved off the card. The same reliability did not apply to JPEGs. Now that most of the power issues that manifest these problems have long been fixed, the argument seems to be more centred on image quality.
The irony, however, is that, while more and more users seem to want to make giant enlargements, few seem able to do this with any satisfaction for the minute detail expected of Leica glass without the assistance of third-party upsizing tools.
For several years now I have shown it is feasable to obtain high-quality prints of almost any size using standard Photoshop procedures from JPEGs out of almost any digital camera with a decent-sized sensor.
Certainly, for the purposes of newsprint, magazine and book publication up to A3, JPEGs from a six-megapixel APS-C sensor are more than adequate; from a really good sensor of that resolution (such as an 11-year-old Contax N Digital full-frame Philips CCD), A2 or AO is perfectly possible.
In this context, I reported a year ago that JPEGs shot in finest mode on the Leica M9 were not significantly better than anything obtained by the foregoing or newer models costing half as much or less.
What they do obtain, however, is more the look users of Leica film cameras are used to when shooting certain reversal emulsions. This much was clear when I did the first review last year, and similarly supported with images by Edmond Terakopian in his later review.
However, the idea that users can only get the best of the camera by shooting in a mode that may often require extra time-consuming post-processing is anathema to the raison d'être of an M camera.
I have enough to do already and, if I am going to put five grand on the table for any camera, I expect it to be able to perform by flawlessly producing the highest-quality images straight out of the box.
Firmware updates for the M9 so far address issues related to memory card compatibility and tweaks to auto white balance performance for artificial light sources, but not to how its A/D processing in JPEG mode renders kinds of these light-emitting objects with the better accuracy of other systems.
Night shots, which include artificial lights of almost any type, are manifest with the same distinctive artifacts seen a year ago. If a red stop light is in the shot, that's what I want in the picture, not a white blob with a red halo.
The new Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH adds a higher level of definition to those JPEG files than previously possible, giving an exacting performance in the closer distance range.
The Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH is a good match for the M9's sensor.
That it also comes at an exacting price of £3750 may make some photographers wince, but it became clear that it's a necessary adjunct to the M9 sensor. The new objective is larger and heavier than my now-ancient 35mm f/2 Summicron, which is more or less a permanent fixture as the focal length of choice on my M6.
Earlier and wider maximum aperture 35mm Summiluxes go back to the diminutive first M version of 1961 (soft wide open), followed by the Aspherical 1989 version with individually ground and polished aspheres (rare and expensive), and the ASPH of 1994 using elements produced by Leica's then-new "blankpressen" manufacturing process (very usable at maximum aperture).
The new incarnation is comprised of nine elements in five groups with a single asphere located to the rear of the half- and full-click-stopped nine-bladed diaphragm.
The whole of the five-element group behind the diaphragm is now of the floating type; in other words, all the elements move as a group relative to the fixed-front group as object-to-image plane distance is changed.
The purpose of this is to further refine and enhance image sharpness and fine detail resolving ability of the lens in the close-focus range, which it does admirably. From maximum aperture to the smallest stop of f/16, there is hardly a detectable difference in image quality across the range when images are viewed at a normal reproduction scale. Blow them up and one begins to see marginal but still insignificant effects of diffraction as the diaphragm is closed smaller than f/11.
Perfect match? The M9 with Leica’s new Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH, captured at ISO 200 with a third of a stop EV compensation, shot in manual mode, JPEG Fine capture, f/1.4 at 1/2000s. You can’t focus beyond infinity with this lens; it comes to a definite stop for distant objects. Focus calibration on the camera perfectly marries with the rangefinder patch. The new lens hikes JPEG image quality significantly over trials with older glass (see detail), extracting the maximum possible resolution from the camera’s sensor from extreme frame edge-to-edge. © Jonathan Eastland.
Detail enlarged twice from a 100 percent crop for page clarity and without sharpening. The original JPEG Fine image file measures 17.37 inch on the longest side at a sensor default resolution of 300ppi; it will easily hold being pushed to double the size at the flick of a switch. © Jonathan Eastland.
For the likely purpose an M9 will be used, such aberrations as there are - if one could see them - are meaningless.
This new product also comes with a revised lens hood design in the shape of a screw-in metal device with window cut-out contributing to viewfinder integrity and, overall, a compact lens package.
On the face of it, this is hardly a world-beating innovation. However, the way in which it is accomplished has much to do with the Leica way and what its relatively high asking price is all about.
The hood isn't just any old piece of pressed metal or injected plastic. It's a perfectly formed flock-lined tool threaded in such a way to interlock when mated with the lens barrel at exactly the correct position. The hood cannot be over-tightened and, if it appears misaligned, it's not properly screwed on.
You have to look quite carefully to notice the thread stop on the hood and on the lens barrel. With the exception of the similarly configured but non-floating aspherical lens of 1989, which has a characteristic fingerprint all of its own, this new addition to the line-up is at least one stop ahead of its immediate predecessor; that is to say, marks the 1994 ASPH lens achieved for contrast and resolution at f/4, this design achieves and slightly betters at f/2.8.
For reporters who know what they see within the scope of its angle of view and are possibly unlikely ever to carry too much other baggage, I have the impression that what this optic buys at a little over £100 per millimetre may currently be the perfect match for the M9 sensor.
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