Leica M9 Review – UPDATED 10.18.11

Pros: simple to use, small and lightweight, fun, ability to use Leica lenses, phenomenal image quality

Cons: poor battery life, poor ISO, no autofocus, no zoom lenses, cost, doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other high end cameras

Where to Purchase? Amazon.com, B&H Photo, Dale Photo

Disclaimer: I don’t consider my self a professional and my reviews are from a real world enthusiast.

There are already plenty of Leica M9 reviews out there, therefore I will not make this long. I made the switch about a year ago from dSLR and without hesitation I can say it was the best move ever. I love the fact that I can carry such a compact camera but have the quality of a dSLR. I don’t feel out of place anymore and don’t get the stares that I got when carrying my dSLR and huge lens. Yes, M9 doesn’t perform well at high ISO’s (if shooting b&w it’s fine) and the battery life sucks. These short comings don’t out weigh the benefit of a compact camera and phenomenal image quality.

I know it doesn’t have the bells and whistles other cameras in its price range have but honestly, who uses all those extra settings? I found with my Canon 5d MrkII I was always having to change settings and felt I was more stressed about getting the settings correct, than actually taking the picture. Now, all I’m concerned about is my composition.

I love the challenge of using a manual focus camera. Initially, it was a little frustrating but once you have it down, it’s a blast! I’m even getting good at shooting moving subjects now.

Did I mention the image quality is phenomenal? I always shoot raw files and I’m amazed how good the unprocessed files are. This means less editing. If you want a camera that is super sharp, this is the camera for you. I haven’t used third party lenses with my M9 therefore I can’t say if the sharpness is more the camera or the lens but it would be hard for me to believe that the M9 would disappoint anyone using a third party lens.

I said I would keep this short and sweet. Below are a variety of pictures I’ve taken. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to comment below or email me.

Again, if you are interested in composition, enjoy challenge of manual focus photography, like to pack light, and want superior picture quality, the Leica M9 is the camera for you.

Updated Review 10.18.11

Since writing my original review in May of this year, I’ve become much more experienced using my M9 and my opinions and thoughts have changed. Most of these changes are due to a combination of increased experience, meeting experienced rangefinder users, and research.

Steve Huff posted on his blog a letter from a frequent visitor “The Breakup Letter – “Dear Leica M9″ – By Paul Lanigan“. I found the post amusing and got me thinking that many have the wrong expectations and probably don’t completely understand the Leica M9.

I still don’t consider my self an expert even though I portray my self as one in this post (LOL).

Below are a list of common complaints:

“I’m tired of missing shots”

“You don’t focus and meter accurately”

“The ISO is horrible”

“You should shoot wide open”

“The LCD screen is horrible”

“The battery life sucks”

“The M9 is way overly priced”

Lets start addressing these complaints. “I’m tired of missing shots”, this common complaint is understandable if you are not familiar with the Leica M9 or if you have unrealistic expectations. For example, if you plan on taking this camera to a sporting event or somewhere where there is a lot of fast moving subjects, good luck, the M9 is probably not going to work for you. If you have real expectations for the camera and know what it’s capable of, you should never miss the shot that you want.

The Leica M9 is a rangefinder camera. Rangefinders are designed to measure your subjects distance using the range-finding focus on the camera lens. If done accurately, this can be faster than any autofocus camera. Eric Kim and Markus Hartel both have great explanations of how this works and how “zone focusing” works.

“You don’t focus and meter accurately”. Unless your M9 is defective, I have no idea how you can blame this on the camera. The M9 is a manual focus camera, if it doesn’t focus accurately, the only one to blame is your self. If you are using the camera with a low aperture lens wide open (i.e. f/1.4, f/2.0) your focus point can only be off by a few centimeters or you will lose focus of your subject. This can easily occur if you move forward, backward, or move your head to the right or left because each of these movements changes the distance of the camera from the subject. Your goal should be to keep your distance as perfect as possible (unless using zone focusing). With a little practice, it can be perfected. If you’re confident you are keeping an adequate distance from your subject when focusing and then composing I would suggest taking your camera and lens to a repair shop or send to Leica for repair. Steve Huff has mentioned that often times they just need to be calibrated.

Metering is definitely one of my weak points. However, I have started to master the M9’s metering. The M9 uses a center weighted exposure metering (probably because it’s a manual focus). I think where people get it wrong in regards to the M9 is that they don’t realize that the shutter button has “2 stops”. The first stop (pressing the shutter button half way) allows you to lock your exposure. Thus, if you want to meter the highlights that are not in the center of the picture, you can aim the camera at the highlights, lock your exposure (by pressing the shutter half way) and then you can focus on your subject, compose your picture, and press the shutter button to it’s 2nd stop (all the way down until it clicks). I’m sure this is a little confusing for some, but if you practice, it eventually becomes second nature.

When I shoot my M9 at ISO 160, the detail, quality, and sharpness is unmatched. When I shoot at ISO 1600 and above, I personally think the amount of noise is too much for my liking. Now, that is only when I shoot in color. If I’m going to shoot with the intention of converting my RAW images to black and white, then I think the amount of noise is perfectly acceptable (actually can make the picture better). I would guess that most professional and semi-professionals shooting with the M9 typically shoot in black and white anyway therefore the amount of noise seen is irrelevant.

I’ve seen Steve Huff mention a few times that in his opinion the Leica lenses are designed to be shot “wide open”. Personally, I don’t agree with this unless you are in the right environment. First, I have not seen many prime lenses from any camera company that don’t have low apertures (i.e. 1.2, 1.4, 2.0, 2.8). Second, I think Leica designs their lenses this way, so that they can be shot in low light and also allow for a higher shutter speed which will allow you to accurately take pictures that are sharp in this kind of environment. I agree with Steve and others that Leica creates a very unique “bokeh” when shot wide open and I believe in certain situations this can be especially useful but it’s not to be used with every shot. For example, if you are a street photographer and you are constantly moving and wanting to use “zone focusing” this will be very challenging because you will have a very narrow window to get a sharp shot. Most street photographers I have met will set this aperture to f/8 or higher and a shutter speed of 1/250 or higher, which allows for a much greater depth of field, thus allowing them to accurately take sharp pictures every time. On a bright day, shooting at a low aperture (i.e. f/1.4) will cause you to over expose your images because the Leica M9 can only shoot at 1/4000 of a second which is to slow. Even, changing your ISO to 80 may not allow for proper exposure (trust me, I’ve tried).

There’s no question the LCD screen (viewfinder) of the Leica M9 lacks adequate resolution and color rendering. For a $7000 camera you would assume they would use a better screen. With that said, I kind of understand why it’s not the quality that most ask for. The Leica M9 follows a long list of Leica M cameras. Until the M8, all Leica M cameras were film cameras therefore the user could not review the pictures they obtained until after they processed their film. Since the Leica M9 is only a 3rd generation (I’ll count the M8.2) digital camera, I assume that Leica’s main priority is maintaining the image quality and less concern on the quality of the LCD. Also, many street photographers turn off the LCD screen and only view their images after they have downloaded them on to their computer.

The first 8 months of using my Leica M9 I used it like all other digital camera users. I would take a picture and immediately look at the lcd screen to see the picture I took. I found I was always trying to critique my pictures and make fine adjustments because of what I was viewing, instead of paying more attention on what I was taking pictures of. After going to the Leica Akademie workshop in Chicago and meeting their instructor Tom Smith I decided to change the way I shoot and now I keep the viewfinder turned off. I’m now paying more attention to my subject and not the camera. Also, this helps preserve battery life.

I can typically take 350-450 pictures on a single charge with my M9 if I keep my viewfinder on. Since I keep it off, I typically take 500-600 shots on a single charge. I think anything over 400 pictures is probably acceptable (I would prefer 700-1000 pics) but I think the cost for an extra battery is way to high. A new Leica M9 battery will cost you $120 and since almost everyone will need at least one or two extra, I think the cost should definitely be less.

A new Leica M9 will cost you around $7K and a new M9-P will cost $8K. Yes it’s expensive. Yes, there are much cheaper dSLR’s and micro 4/3 that have much more function. Yes, you can buy much cheaper cameras that will autofocus and are compatible with zoom lenses. What you will not find is another digital camera that is 100% compatible with Leica’s legendary M-mount lenses, the smallest camera with a full frame sensor, hand crafted and individually tested, and exceptional picture quality. Leica can demand this price just because of these unique qualities. No matter how you look at it, no one else has a camera this small with a full frame sensor and I personally think this is what allows them to demand that kind of money. I personally think the way of the future is micro 4/3. I think Leica may have to reconsider their pricing as the quality of micro 4/3 increases.

Again, there are many cameras that have a significant more features than the Leica M9. I would assume most who purchase M9 are purist and are fully aware that they will not have all the bells and whistles. If you purchased the M9 without doing your research and not being aware of this, the blame is on you. Don’t buy a camera just based on look and cost.  Do your research!!!

Hopefully this updated review will help people further understand the Leica M9.  It’s definitely not a perfect camera and it’s obviously not a camera for everyone.  You don’t need a Leica M9 to be a great photographer and you can find much cheaper cameras with more features and similar picture quality.  Remember, there are cameras (medium format) that cost greater than $20-50K that probably have less features than some sub $1000 cameras.  At the end of the day it comes down to what your interest and likes are.  Owning one of these cameras doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.  Personally, I don’t care what people use to shoot pictures and I absolutely don’t judge them.  Just go out and shoot!!!

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