Leica M9 at a glance:
- 18.5 million effective pixels
- 230,000-pixel, 2.5in LCD screen
- Brightlines for 28-135mm
- 2fps continuous shooting
- Three-mode shutter release including ‘discreet’ and ‘soft’ mode
- Street price around £4,850
Leica M9 – Introduction
In the beginning, there was the Leica M3. Released in 1954, the M3 was Leica’s first M-mount rangefinder, and offered significant improvements in features and ergonomics over earlier screw-mount models. As well as an all-new bayonet lens mount, the M3 was the first Leica to feature automatic brightline frames in its viewfinder, and the first to integrate the viewfinder and the rangefinder into a single window.
The M3, and the later M-series cameras, revolutionised 35mm photography and greatly contributed to Leica’s reputation among professionals as well as wealthy amateurs.
The M9 isn’t the first digital Leica rangefinder – that honor goes to the M8 of 2006 – but it is the first to offer a full-frame CCD sensor, which means there is no increase in the effective focal length of compatible optics.
The M8 was an intriguing ‘first try’, but one with significant faults, most notably a remarkably noisy shutter and the need to use a special IR blocking filter on every lens it is coupled with. The shutter was hushed a little in the upgraded M8.2, which also featured a tougher LCD screen, but the cropped sensor remained a sticking point for many Leica enthusiasts.
And these Leica enthusiasts have been waiting a long time: it is worth remembering that ‘serious’ DLSRs started to become affordable for enthusiast photographers around ten years ago. A decade on, the Leica M9 is the first full-frame digital camera designed for the M-mount user. As such, it has a lot to live up to.
The Leica M9 is a curious mixture of the extremely modern and the charmingly old-fashioned. It isn’t a DSLR, it isn’t particularly compact, and because it lacks a Live View mode, it can’t really be classed as a ‘hybrid’ model either. The truth is that like all M-series cameras since the 1960s, the M9 effectively stands alone among its contemporaries. It is for this reason that you will see that we’ve decided not to score it in the same way as we would a DSLR or a compact digital camera.
Leica M9 Sensor and vignetting
Beginning with the more modern aspects of its specification, at the heart of the M9 is a newly developed 18.5-million-pixel Kodak CCD sensor, measuring 36x24mm. This makes it effectively the same size as a frame of 35mm film. Until now, one of the major barriers to putting a full-frame sensor into a rangefinder was the increased risk of vignetting. This is a consequence of the very short lens-flange-to-focal-plane distance, which can cause severe corner shading, especially with wideangle lenses. Leica’s approach to this problem is twofold.
First, modern Leica lenses are ‘chipped’, which means that when mounted on the M9 the camera can identify the lenses by model and apply a certain amount of post-capture adjustment to reduce their particular vignetting characteristics. Second – and more fundamentally – the M9’s sensor features offset microlenses towards the periphery of the frame.
By offsetting these microlenses, it is possible to ‘catch’ light hitting the extreme edges of the sensor more efficiently, reducing corner shading in images from chipped and non-chipped optics alike.
Leica M9 ISO
The sensor’s ISO sensitivity span is 160-2500, with ‘pull 80′ available at the low end of the range. As we have come to expect with extension low ISO settings, at ISO 80 images from the M9 show increased noise and reduced dynamic range compared to ISO 160, which represents the sensor’s actual ‘base’.
ISO sensitivity is adjusted on the main 230,000-pixel LCD screen in 1⁄3EV steps. Images are recorded to an SD/SDHC memory card, in either JPEG, DNG (raw) format or both simultaneously, at a maximum frame rate of 2fps.
The Adobe DNG (an abbreviation of Digital NeGative) format is a universal raw format that is backwards compatible with all versions of Adobe Camera Raw and a great many other programs, including the bundled Adobe Lightroom software.
Leica M9 Autofocus and exposure
And that’s about it for the modern. The Leica M system doesn’t support automatic focus, and as a consequence almost all M-mount lenses manufactured since 1954 will fit the M9 with no loss of their original functionality. The M9 features two exposure modes: fully manual, with under/overexposure indicated in the viewfinder; and aperture priority.
The shutter is electronically controlled, and shutter speeds are manually adjustable in 1⁄2EV steps from 1/4000sec to 15sec, becoming stepless down to 30secs in aperture priority mode. As the apertures of compatible lenses are entirely mechanical, aperture adjustment is manual, but effectively stepless as well.
Leica M9 Viewfinder
Habitual DSLR users might be confused, initially at least, by the M9’s viewfinder. Like all rangefinder cameras, the finder of the M9 is effectively just a window that offers, in this case, the approximate field of view of a 28mm lens.
At focal lengths between 28 and 135mm the frame coverage is indicated by ‘brightlines’ that change depending on the lens mounted. Lenses wider than 28mm must be used with accessory finders, but focusing remains possible only via the main coupled viewfinder, using the small focusing rectangle in the centre of the image.
Leica M9 Image quality
Traditionally, Leica cameras have justified their high price tags in two main ways: mechanical reliability and image quality. Apart from the reassuring fact that it hasn’t fallen to bits in my hands, I’m not in a position to judge the M9’s reliability after only a few thousand frames. As for image quality, I can report that the camera excels.
Viewed technically, some of the images I have taken with the M9 are among the best I’ve seen from a digital camera of this format. The dual-pronged approach to reducing vignetting is very effective, and corner shading is minimal, even in pictures taken at very wide apertures at close focusing distances. There is some vignetting, naturally, but nowhere near as much as I’d feared.
The lack of an AA filter has two consequences: one good and one bad. The good is that images are sharp and incredibly detailed. The bad is that from time to time, severe coloured moiré patterning appears in images that show areas of high-frequency detail. In the image on the left, the patterning is so severe that Adobe’s Camera Raw software cannot remove it.
Remembering that Capture One 4 was bundled with the M8 and M8.2, I downloaded the latest version of Capture One 4 Pro to see whether its in-built moiré patterning removal tool could do a better job. The results can be seen on the bottom. Capture One 4 Pro has almost completely removed the objectionable coloured bands, although yellow and blue saturation in the rest of the image has been reduced as a consequence.
Very occasionally, areas of fine detail can be marred by severe moiré patterning. The M9’s processor minimises the effects in JPEG images, but Adobe Lightroom cannot completely remove the patterning in raw files. Capture One 4 Pro features a dedicated moiré reduction tool, which has done a better job, albeit at the expense of yellow and blue saturation.
Build and handling
The M9’s lineage is clear. Apart from a slight increase in height and depth, it is hard to distinguish it from its forebears and from the current M7 and revamped MP designs. The only M-series Leica to deviate significantly from the basic design template was the rather experimental M5, but it proved a complete commercial failure and Leica hasn’t broken the mould since.
Physically, the M9 is very similar to the M8.2, and shares the same ‘legacy’ styling, including a full-length removable bottom panel. In film Leica M cameras, this panel provides access to the film compartment, for loading and unloading. In the M9 it serves a similar purpose, but instead of film, it gives access to the memory card bay and battery compartment. There is no compelling design for the entire bottom panel of the film-less M9 to be removable, but it is a charmingly ‘retro’ touch that may appeal to existing Leica users.
Missing, naturally, is a film-winding crank. This gives the top-plate of the M9 a distinctly minimalist appearance, but it also impacts upon handling. On Leica M-series film cameras, the crank acts as a natural thumb rest, steadying the camera when it is held to the eye. When I hold the M9 in my right hand I find my grip slipping exactly where the winding crank would have been, making it rather difficult to use the M9 one-handed. With this exception, using the M9 is much the same as using the M7.
Leica M9 Rangefinder
The basic mechanics of the rangefinder design date back more than 70 years and, as such, the M9’s focusing mechanism isn’t going to win any innovation awards. Rangefinders operate by a delicate mechanism of coupled prisms, which project a ‘ghost’ image into a small rectangle in the centre of the viewfinder. When the focus setting of the mounted lens is adjusted, a small cam in the roof of the M9’s lens throat is shifted slightly back and forth in sympathy.
The movement of this cam is coupled to the ‘ghost’ image in the centre of the viewfinder, and when this image lines up with the rest of the scene the image is in focus.
Leica M9 Viewfinder
When I first picked up the M9 and mounted a 35mm lens, I thought initially that I had spotted a typographical error in the camera’s specification. According to Leica, the M9’s viewfinder sports a brightline frame for the 28mm focal length, but to my eye the 35mm frame lines fit very neatly into the viewfinder with very little space around them. When I removed my glasses, however, I could just see that there is another set of frames at the very extremes of the visible area, for 28mm. With my glasses on, this brightline frame is completely outside my field of vision, which for me, makes 35mm the widest focal length that is adequately indicated in the viewfinder.
A consequence of the fairly wide field of view of the M9’s viewfinder is that a surprising amount of the image can be occluded by the lens. A compact optic such as the 35mm f/2 barely clips the lower right corner, but large aperture lenses, like the Voigtländer 35mm f/1.2 Nokton or Leica’s 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux, can obscure a significant portion of the lower right quadrant of the viewfinder, even without a lens hood fitted.
White balance and colour
The M9’s auto white balance is equally reliable, and although the rendition of the 2.5in LCD screen is rather cool, once the images are transferred to a computer they are generally much more vibrant than they appeared on the back of the camera, and colours are accurate.
As always, when shooting JPEGs it pays to switch to a custom reading, but AWB delivers acceptable accuracy in most situations. Often, in fact, images shot in daylight are warmer and more accurate with AWB than the ‘daylight’ WB setting.
Despite being a fairly basic centreweighted, I’m impressed by the accuracy of the M9’s metering, with a few fairly obvious caveats. All centreweighted systems are prone to exposure errors when presented with subjects that are predominantly light or dark and the M9 is no different. When used with care and common sense, though, the M9’s metering is very reliable.
The M9’s TTL metering system is centreweighted only, although in a change from the M8, which had a single grey band, in the M9 a pattern of white and grey bars is printed on the shutter blades. A light sensor in the camera’s throat measures the light that reflects from these bands to determine exposure.
Leica’s first attempt at a TTL metering system was built into the ill-fated M5 of 1971, and featured a metering cell suspended in front of the shutter on a pivoting arm. The M9’s system is simpler and much more resilient, and very reliable in most situations.
Although the M9 offers a fairly sparse feature set, the features that it does offer are, on the whole, very effective.
Focusing a rangefinder is tricky at first, but soon becomes second nature. Experienced rangefinder users know all the tricks, but one of the most useful to bear in mind is that with wideangle lenses especially, using hyperfocal focusing for landscapes and grab shots saves a lot of time.
When shooting at small apertures, however, things get a lot more critical. Fortunately, the M9’s rangefinder is very accurate, and even shooting at ultra-wide apertures I am satisfied that with the subject centred in the frame, focus is spot on. Lenses longer than 75mm are always trickier to focus using a rangefinder, since the indicated frame coverage is only be a little larger than the rangefinder rectangle itself, but I have no problems to report with the M9’s accuracy when using both 75mm and 90mm lenses, wide open. For those with less than perfect eyesight, Leica does produce screw-in magnification lenses, which really help when focusing telephoto optics.
Unfortunately, of course, nothing is perfect. As with all rangefinders, off-centre compositions, especially at wide apertures, are risky with the M9. For focus to be established, the subject must be centred in the viewfinder. However, should you wish to recompose the scene, the subject-to-sensor distance changes slightly as you shift the lens axis, which, at very wide apertures and close focus distances, is enough to throw the focus slightly out. Obviously this is impossible to see in the viewfinder.
Another issue that can cause focusing errors is the vulnerability of the M9’s rangefinder window to smears from handling, and to flare. This tiny window sits just above and to the right of the lens mount, and provides the focusing image that is projected into the centre of the viewfinder. Fingerprints on the glass can cause the rangefinder image to become rather ‘smeary’ and low in contrast, and flare can also reduce its effectiveness.
When faced with a strong directional light source, the rangefinder rectangle can fall victim to internal reflections even when no flare is visible in the rest of the viewfinder. At its worst, this ‘white out’ makes the rangefinder useless. During my time with the M9 I found that such catastrophic flare is uncommon, but difficult to predict.
The M9 gives best results in raw mode, and with careful post-capture sharpening an incredible amount of detail can be drawn out of low ISO images. JPEG files aren’t quite as crisp, but detail capture is still high at the low end of the ISO sensitivity range.
Resolution, noise and sensitivity
As can be seen from the resolution target images on the opposite page, the Leica M9’s 18-million-pixel sensor is capable of recording a lot of detail in optimal conditions. Accurate focus is critical, but when everything goes to plan images from the M9 are stunning.
At the sensor’s base ISO setting of 160 (equivalent) images are effectively noise free, and the amount of detail captured in both raw files and JPEGs is very high, although as usual, more detail can be recovered by shooting in raw mode, as can be seen from the images opposite. This resolution does come at the expense of some moiré patterning in areas of extremely fine detail, though, as the sensor reaches the limit of its resolving power.
Noise increases to noticeable levels at ISO 640 and above, but it is very easy to remove from raw files in the supplied Adobe Lightroom software. Even at the maximum ISO setting of 2500, the noise is mostly chroma with very little ‘grittiness’. High ISO JPEG files, on the other hand, do get a little ‘mushy’ and are noticeably softer than the equivalent raw images.
The Leica M9 lacks a conventional anti-aliasing filter, but it does feature an IR blocking ‘cover’ over the sensor. Thankfully, Leica’s confidence in the new design is justified and the new camera shows none of the unpleasant false colour characteristics of the M8, which tended to turn textured black objects purple and put magenta rings around highlights unless an IR blocking filter is fitted on to the lens.
These images above show sections of images of a resolution chart, still-life scene and a grey card. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Dynamic range and Gamut
The Kodak-designed CCD sensor of the Leica M9 has a dynamic range of around 11EV, which is very good, although slightly lower than the best current DSLRs, the best of which offer 12EV. In normal use, the M9’s sensor is capable of recording a very wide tonal range, although careful metering is essential since the M9’s metering system, like all centreweighted systems, can be fooled into under or overexposure relatively easily.
Negative exposure compensation does help to retain the atmosphere of exceptionally dark scenes, which, naturally, the M9 attempts to render as a medium grey. When presented with an 18% grey target that fills the frame completely, the M9 delivers a midtone of 125, almost exactly a midpoint between 0 (black) and 255 (white).
This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.
Leica M9 Gamut
The M9’s colour gamut comfortably exceeds the sRGB colour space, and also exceeds the Adobe RGB colour space towards the purple/magenta end of the spectrum. Like most digital cameras, however, the M9 cannot quite replicate the full range of delicate green shades in the Adobe RGB colour space.
LCD and viewfinder
The M9’s viewfinder is essentially a window with a ‘straight-through’
light path and an angle of view equivalent to that of a 28mm lens
A dedicated ISO button makes selecting this frequently accessed setting quick and easy
The M9’s shutter release is threaded to accept a standard cable release. Frame advance modes are set using a surrounding four-way switch at its base
A circular dial surrounds four control points for menu and image navigation. The control dial can also be customised to act as a direct exposure compensation input
The M9’s LCD screen measures 2.5in on its diagonal, and has a resolution of 230,000 pixels. Neither figure is particularly impressive, but despite the fairly low specification the M9’s screen serves its purpose well. The M9’s menu system is effectively split into two parts: the ‘set’ menu, which is shown on the back of the camera (see picture top) and the larger, full menu shown separately (see above right). The ‘set’ menu provides quick access to key shooting parameters. The M9’s viewfinder shows the frame coverage of the mounted lens using brightlines. An artist’s impression is shown above, representing the 50mm and 75mm focal lengths.
Speaking of the LCD screen, one area where the M9 falls down is the speed of image review. Although images appear on the rear screen promptly after they’ve been taken, it takes almost nine seconds for a high-magnification preview to load. Formatting memory cards takes an age as well, typically at least one minute for a high-speed 8GB SDHC card, but sometimes almost four minutes for slower SDHC types. Formatting saps the M9’s battery as well, to the tune of almost 10% when the ‘overwright’ option is selected.
Speaking of battery life, with a fully charged factory-new battery, charge decreases by roughly 25% per 50 or so images. After being charged and discharged a few times, I have found that battery life increases to a more reasonable 400-500 images per charge. It isn’t unusual for Lithium-Ion cells to be at their best after a few charge/discharge cycles, but prospective M9 users should be aware of the issue.
Photographers should also be aware that the M9’s sensor is rather vulnerable to dust. After only a couple of hundred images, during which time I had carefully changed lenses several times, the M9’s sensor had already picked up four or five spots of dust large enough to be seen in images.
The Leica M9 is a curious thing. In some ways the entire camera represents a collection of photographic anachronisms. The rangefinder method of focusing was developed to solve a problem that instant-return mirrors in SLRs arguably solved more neatly back in the 1960s.
The traditional advantages of Leica’s L and M-mount cameras, of low weight and low bulk compared to other models, count for little in these days of tiny 500g multi-mode DSLRs and featherweight kit lenses.
Centreweighted TTL metering, which was cutting-edge technology 40 years ago, is a good deal less flashy than modern multi-zone evaluative metering systems, and for that matter why on earth should you need to remove the entire bottom of the camera to replace the memory card?
It is only natural to ask why, given the M9’s limitations (and, viewed objectively alongside today’s crop of DSLRs, hybrid and compact cameras, it has a great many) is Leica struggling to keep up with demand for its new camera? To someone who has only ever used an SLR, the answer is far from obvious.
To them, a rangefinder might well seem unnecessarily fiddly, complicated and bizarrely labour intensive. But some of the finest photographs of our time were taken using these strange little machines, and many photographers wouldn’t choose to use anything else.
The M9 has faults, not least a sluggish processor and a dust-prone sensor, but most of the other things that annoy me about the M9 are inherent in the M-system as a whole and have been much the same for 50 years. After this long, it doesn’t make sense to continue being annoyed. Despite its 1950s lineage, however, it is important to note that the Leica M9 has more than just a retro appeal.
The M9 feels like both a ‘proper’ Leica and a ‘proper’ digital camera at the same time, and that could not always be said of the M8 and M8.2. The M9’s full-frame sensor is capable of recording images with a very high level of detail with very little vignetting. Its metering system is basic but effective, and AWB is very capable in most environments.
Whether or not the M9’s price tag is too high, as many commentators have complained, is almost academic to potential purchasers. Leica’s M-series rangefinders have always been expensive. Those photographers who swear by them accept that they will be asked to pay a premium, but for their part, the majority of their peers will never understand what all the fuss is about. Plus ça change…
Leica M9 Focal Points
Unlike the M8 and M8.2, the M9’s sensor features a built-in infrared blocking cover, which removes the previous necessity for external screw-in IR filters on the lenses.
Fans of older Leica M-series rangefinders will be pleased to see that the M9’s electronically contrlled shutter can support a maximum flash synchronisation of 1/180sec. This is much higher than was possible with mechanical cloth shutters. However…
Shutter speed dial
…these same long-time Leica users will be disappointed to see that, like the M7, the M9’s shutter speed dial rotates in the ‘wrong’ direction compared to earlier M-series models.
The M9 comes with Adobe’s Lightroom 2.4 raw conversion and file organisation software. Previously, Leica’s M8.2 was bundled with Capture One 4, but Leica and Phase One, which manufactures Capture One software, ended their ten-month long professional partnership this summer.
The M9’s shutter is louder than that of the mechanical M-series cameras, but it features two custom release modes. ‘Discreet’ offers a quieter release, and ‘soft’ decreases the travel in the shutter release button.