Leica M9 – some early impressions
A couple of months ago I bought a Leica M9 from my local Leica (and Zeiss) dealer, Bass and Bligh in Harrogate. Justin was very helpful and, although it wasn’t an impulse buy, it was certainly the first real opportunity I’d had to buy on after actually trying the camera out. I thought I’d write a few first impressions of the camera here as there has been a lot of interest in the M9, even though it’s now over a year from it’s launch. All the pictures in this post are also clickable to see a bigger version to try and give some idea of how it works.
It’s probably worth picking up on the background to my decision to buy the M9, as it may prove helpful to some people. For the last couple of years I have been shooting mostly with rangefinder cameras, and the Zeiss Ikon in particular. I got hooked into RF’s after spending a lot of time with dslr’s and originally bought an old Zorki 4K to run a few rolls of film through for a bit of fun. Although the viewfinder was dim and the focus patch lacking in contrast, this camera with its 50mm lens reminded me of my earliest days in photography and I found myself enjoying the experience. It was a short step to an Ikon and 50 C-Sonnar from ebay and developing and scanning my own black and white film again. and I found that I was increasingly taking the Ikon along in place of the dslr unless I actually needed to things it did well. Key reasons for this included the viewfinder and the ability to see around the edges of the frame (even wearing glasses, the Ikon allows me to see outside the 35mm and longer frames), the size and weight, manual focus I can use effectively and the look of film. After two years the bulk of my photography has been done with the RF, with the dslr becoming a special purpose tool. Given the range of focal lengths at which RF’s are useful and what interests me, this isn’t really that surprising, but it is a relatively uncommon practice in the time of cheap and small dslr’s. The one bugbear with shooting so much film was the time to get through processing and scanning and so the M9 offered the possibility of keeping the RF viewfinder and size, but having an easier approach to dealing with large numbers of pictures.
My first use of the M9 was at a family gathering in Northumberland, which was the ideal opportunity as the Leica has always been touted as ‘the discreet lowlight social camera’ etc. I took three Zeiss ZM lenses along – the 2/35 Biogon, 1.5/50 C-Sonnar and the 2/85 Sonnar, which leads into the first key observations on the M9. Both the 35 and 50 lenses were calibrated by Zeiss in Oberkochen after I dropped the bag cpntaining them and my Ikon a year or so ago and the 85 is a new lens, which is built in Oberkochen. Encouragingly, all three appear to focus perfectly on the M9, although the 50 shows the focus shift for which it is renowned. I will comment more on this later, but suffice to say that it’s not been as big an issue as I expected on digital and, although I have been tempted by a 50 Planar from time to time, I really like the way the Sonnar draws at wider paertures. However, the downside of the Zeiss lenses is that, until you code them for yourself, you need to manually set the lens code when you change lenses. Inevitably, I have forgotten on occasion, which can lead to some odd effects such as light edges if you put the 85 on and don’t change from the 35 settings. I intend to manually code my lenses early in the new year.
On the coding topic, I’ve pretty well decided how each of my RF lenses should be coded and list these below, although there are plenty of other sites that will provide a far more comprehensive listing than this. These codings work for me for normal use, but if things get iffy then there is always cornerfix. My problem with cornerfix is not the software, which does an excellent job, but the need to sort the raw files by lens before correcting. I’ve not yet managed to make this work simply with Lightroom, but would be delighted if anyone has a workflow that allows the Cornerfix step to be made simple.
4.5/15 Super-Wide Heliar as Leica 21mm
2.8/25 ZM Biogon as Leica 28/28 Elmarit
2/35 ZM Biogon as Leica 2/35 Summicron (non-aspheric)
1.5/50 ZM C-Sonnar as Leica 1.4/50 Summilux (non-aspheric)
2/85 ZM Sonnar as Leica 2/90 Summicron (non-aspheric)
4/90 M-Rokkor as Leica 4/90 Elmar
Some general impressions of the M9 are that it feels very well constructed and everything fits with a very high degree of precision. The shutter speed dial feels much nicer than that on the Ikons, though it is no more functional of course, but the overall impression is very positive. It generally sits on my desk and I am periodically struck by just how small it is compared to any other full frame digital camera. On the desk it looks much closer in size to my wife’s Lumix LX5 than a dslr, never mind the 1Ds3. Compared to the Ikon it is similar, but thicker, and so feels less dainty. However, when I first had the camera, picking it up created a whole other impression.
I have reasonably large, albeit not huge, hands and I have used the Zeiss grip with my Ikon from very soon after I got it. I find this enables me to hold the camera much more comfortably and, hence, to be more stable. One result of the grip is to make the Ikon feel a bit more meaty in the hand and to make the strap less necessary. When I got the M9 I was alarmed at how difficult it was to hold in naked form, and the more so when I discovered the cost of Leica’s (unavailable!) ‘Handgrip M’. However, I read various rave reviews of the Thumbs Up grip and so reluctanlty purchased one. I must admit that I was somewhat cynical about this accessory and did not expect much of an improvement. However, I am delighted to say that it completely transforms, for the better, the way the camera handles, allowing a solid grip and giving me confidence that I’m not likely to drop it when hanging it from my right hand. So, in my view don’t buy an M9 without budgetting for the Thumbs Up.
I still haven’t had the chance to try the Leica grip, but do wonder if it would make the already thicker body too thick for comfort or need. Certainly, the camera feels much more meaty than the Ikon already. If Bass and Bligh get one in I’ll give it a try and comment, but whereas I was expecting to need one I’m now very comfortable with the current set up.
It appears to be ‘traditional’ in this digital age to discuss ‘image quality’ at some length when commenting on or reviewing new equipment, so I will share some impressions. However, a warning is in order before I start. I have done no scientific testing and certainly have rarely shot the M9 side by side with another camera, never mind tried to duplicate test frames or assess how things compare. Further, I am still shooting film in both 35mm and medium format and I like the way it looks. I am looking forwards to getting hold of some new Portra 400 to try. So, my comments on how the files look are entirely subjective and may not tally with those of the great and the good of the digital domain!
Another point that is worth repeating is that I make prints on paper. I print in various sizes, ranging from about 7 by 5 inches up to about 30 by 20 inches very occasionally. In print at the smaller sizes (not just the smallest sizes) many of the issues that are glaring on screen are not really important. A littel very high frequency noise is not always a problem. Indeed, film grain often adds to an image rahter than detracts. Digital noise isn’t always so ‘nice, but the principle holds that it is usually less of an issue in print than at 100%. Of course, I’m not a landscape fine artist so there is another reason some of these issues seem less important to me.
First off, at low iso and with good lenses at sensoble apertures – saya 35 Biogon at f4 to f8 – the M9 seems to be pretty good at resolving lots of information. My sense is that it is very similar to the 1Ds3, but with a different emphasis. Sometimes, 1Ds3 files look a bit soft in comparison, but they tend to sharpen up well, whereas the M9 files don’t really want much sharpening beyond the Lightroom default. In fact, additional sharpening can lead to some particularly disturbing artifacts if you’re not careful. At times, when shooting very detailed subjects, I have wondered if there are artifacts showing up as sharpness around the edge of small details like leaves etc. However, overall there seems to be plenty of resolution for a 35mm camera.
I have not picked up many examples of Moire yet, but one of the earliest appears in the sleeve of my daughter’s coat (below). Clearly the interaction between the weave of the fabric and the sensor resolution. Although this example isn’t particularly bothersome, it’s not easy to get rid of either. So at this stage, not been a bother for me, but obviously it’s there sometimes.
One aspect that has concerned me has been the ease of getting colour right. I have had mixed experience so far. Broadly the M9 is capable of giving very good and pleasing colours. However, sometimes files seem quite difficult to make spot on. Sometimes the reds are oversaturated and too ‘rich’. Certainly, I’ve had to work hareder at colour with the M9 than the 1Ds3, but when it works it works very very well. Some of this may be down to Lightroom’s base profile for the M9. I never liked the pre LR3 profiles for the Canon 5D and 1Ds3 really, although they did improve with time. The LR3 profiles seem much better, and (for the Canons) are getting close to DXo. I wouldn’t want to overstate this as an issue, and I may yet get used to processing the files and it will go away, but I am not yet entirely comfortable.
On the other hand, I am finding that the black and white conversions I’ve made have been more pleasing than I expected. Once again, LR3 may be doing a better job than previously, but I have generally been pleased with this aspect of the camera. This is useful to me as much of what I shoot is in black and white.
The other area that has exercise many internet words is how the M9 performs at high iso. As I stated earlier, I have found that prints are usually much better than you would expect from 100% on screen viewing and so tend to take the pundits comments (delivers exhibition quality prints up to size x at iso y…) with a pinch of salt. Grain is a result of process in film and we use it to reflect the process and so to enhance the work. Film grain reminds the viewer of the physicality of the process and connects us to what photography is about. A constant clamour for ever improved digital recording media leads to photography being transparent and colludes with the intent to redefine photography as allowing for systematic alteration of the projected image in photoshop etc. To my mind, this damages photography as a whole and so I am usually content to see the process refelcted in the final image.
Having said that, the M9 ismuch better at dealing with low light than I expected, but not as good as a 1Ds3. In particular, the 1Ds3 is able to sustain more dynamic range at higher isos that give the ability to obtain useable pictures for longer. At this stage though, I am thinking in terms of pushing iso 2500 files by a couple of stops or more in raw conversion to something like iso 10,000 plus. Interestingly, I spent some time with a friends 50D the other day and I thoght the M9 was better at the iso 1600 we needed. For most of what I do, iso 1,250 is enough and the M9 works perfectly adequately for my needs. This image is at iso 1,250, no luminance noise reduction and just LR3 stadard colour noise reduction.
Another quirk of the M9 appears to result from the way higher isos are implemented. Whereas CMOS sensors use analogue gain to boost the signal off the sensor before the ADC, thereby sustaining higher dynamic range at higher isos, the CCD sensor in the M9 doesn’t appear to adopt this strategy. This is suggested by the DXo dynamic range graph that shows the M9 dynamic range decreasing spectacularly with increasing iso. In practice, it appears to be fairly possible to expose as you wish at iso 160 and then to recover in raw conversion, with little or no noise penalty. whilst this may not be a useful strategy at all times, if lighting is contrastyit may provide a good opportunity to protect highlights, provided you can be confident of boosting the subject luminance without too much noise penalty later. I use a similar stragey working in low light with the 1Ds3, but starying at iso 800 not 160.
So, where does it fit?
As a great everyday camera the M9 fits very well. However, I don’t think that it will repalce film for me., eitehr in 35mm or medium format. Each has there strengths and there are good reasons that I keep shooting them. In fact, the main reason the M9 has a place over 35mm film is for convenience. It is better in some circumstances than colour film, though I still have a very soft spot for Portra. It does not compare to medium format film (Mamiya 7ii), any more than the high Mp dslr’s do at present.
It could easily replace the 1Ds3 for me. I very rarely need autofocus or that level of low light ability, even though sometimes it’s a nice to have.
Perhaps strangely, my biggest concern with the M9 is that it’s diital and I’m still not really that hapy with data security. At least negs are a physical object that doesn’t go down unexpectedly. I know that if the house burns down they are lost, but so is a hard drive. If you don’t want to commit to or engage with the sort of (expensive) offsite data mirroring arrangements that are necessary to secure digital data film still has a lot to offer. My solution is to make prints of pictures I value and to give them to friends and family as well as keeping our own copies. I think they are more secure than a hard drive with 30,000 files on it.
Please ask any questions you have and I’ll try to answer them. Not as expert, but as a user!