By Chris Gill
Originally published in Guitar Aficionado, Summer 2010 Issue - Buy Issue
In many ways, the Leica M Series rangefinder camera is to photographers what the Fender Stratocaster is to guitarists. Both are timeless designs that were introduced to the public in 1954 and over the past five decades have enjoyed subtle modern updates that bring them up to contemporary standards without sacrificing their classic essence and familiar feel.
While the short-lived M8 camera finally brought the Leica rangefinder design into the digital world in 2006, its 18x27mm 10.3-megapixel sensor, with its unfortunate sensitivity to infrared light, was a rare letdown and misstep from a company otherwise known for perfection. The new M9 model, introduced appropriately on 9/9/09, is the digital camera that M Series devotees have longed for, offering a full-frame 24x36mm 18-megapixel sensor that provides the stunning detail, sharpness, and accurate color reproduction that Leica enthusiasts demand.
Leica bills the M9 as “the world’s smallest full-frame camera.” The body and lenses are much smaller and lighter than those for a standard 35mm-format full-frame digital camera, but thanks to the M9’s outstanding sensor and the incredible optics of Leica’s stellar lenses, the image quality surpasses that of top-of-the-line digital full-frame SLR cameras from Canon and Nikon. For this reason, the M9 has the potential to be the ultimate travel camera. It certainly won’t take up as much valuable suitcase space as a standard digital SLR camera with a big, bulky lens, and the smaller size means it will attract less attention from subjects that you’re trying to shoot discreetly.
Like previous mechanical models, the M9 benefits from almost imperceptible shutter lag and whisper-quiet operation. The absence of a mirror means there is no viewfinder blackout (so you can see your subject as the shutter is engaged) and no mirror vibration. This, in combination with fewer moving parts, allows you to capture sharp images even when holding the camera and shooting at slower shutter speeds in low natural light. While it can take a while to get used to a rangefinder’s manual split-screen focusing, once you get the hang of it you’ll find that it’s often faster than the most advanced auto-focusing feature.
Longtime Leica M Series users will feel instantly comfortable with the M9’s controls. The shutter release and shutter speed dial are where they’ve always been, and a four-way switch/rotary dial, five function buttons, and a menu button provide access to all other camera operation functions. The bottom plate is still removed by lifting and twisting a C-shaped lever, but the camera’s battery and memory card, rather than film, now load here. While SD and SDHC memory cards may not be as fast as Compact Flash cards, their smaller size suits the M9 well, and SD cards are now as easy to find abroad as film was about 10 years ago.
The M9 provides shutter speeds from 32 to 1/4,000 seconds (with maximum flash sync at 1/180 seconds) and a sensitivity range from ISO 80 (pull) to 2500 adjustable in one-third ISO increments. Noise becomes noticeable at ISO 1600 and above, but exceptional detail is retained even at ISO 2500. Images can be saved as raw DNG (compressed or uncompressed) or JPEG (five selectable levels of compression) files, or you can have the camera to store images in both formats simultaneously.
The 2 1/2–inch LCD has 230,000 pixels that allow you to view your shots in fine detail, and the display remains vivid even in bright direct sunlight. The Perspex LCD cover is a slight downgrade from the sapphire glass found on the M8.2, but it’s still very rugged and scratch resistant. Even after a vigorous week’s workout in the field, the screen looked brand new, and it did not accumulate sweat and smudges like most LCD covers do.
Photos shot with a Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens were incredibly sharp, especially at f/5.6, where some images had an almost 3D quality. The bokeh wide open at f/1.4 is gorgeous and almost dreamlike, yet it’s not difficult to capture desired details in razor-sharp definition. I tested some of my older, pre-electronic Leica lenses using Aperture Priority mode, and the sensor captured near-perfect exposures right off the bat. Lenses for Leica M Series cameras are somewhat limited in focal length (16 to 135mm), and zoom lenses are not available, but those are small compromises for the best optics money can buy.
Shooters accustomed to live view, video recording, and other supplementary functions found on modern digital cameras may be disappointed by the M9’s basic feature set, but its incredible image quality and discreet operation virtually ensure that you’ll capture photos you might have otherwise missed. Travel photographers know that you may have only one fleeting moment to catch the photo of a lifetime. With the Leica M9 in tow, you’re well equipped to bring those elusive moments home with you.
Leica M9 digital rangefinder camera, $6,995; Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux lens, $3,695
Leica Camera, us.leica-camera.com