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Food Photographer living in London producing delicious material, and other related documents.

The Leica M9 : By the table, and on the streets.



Introduction

I don’t review cameras, but being that the Leica M9 is a unique proposition in its class, I couldn’t help but write a few words about it. Firstly, it is a beautiful camera, hand made in Germany (and Portugal) in the tradition of the film Leicas which have come before it. It feels like a fine piece of crafted metal in your hands, and I think its design is a large part of its allure.

There are already tens of expertly flesh out reviews of this camera online, but I thought it would be helpful to add my practical experience with the camera.

I like street photography, but I also take food photos to go with my food blog, so a discreet camera has always been desirable for me. The Nikon D700 does a fine job of course, but sometimes I wish I could have something more pocketable, but still offer full frame.

I bought the M8… and truth be told, I thought it was a horrible camera. In good light and at base ISO, the files were brilliant; However the camera just couldn’t do low light. Anything past ISO640 and the images weren’t very good. I couldn’t shoot point light sources at night, as I would get weird green bands shooting across my photos. The M8 also required lenses to be fitted with UV/IR filters, and if you didn’t put them on, you would get alot of colour pollution, ie, black would turn purple. And it wasn’t full frame. Given that I use my camera out on the streets and inside restaurants, mostly pretty bad natural light, the M8 was too slow a camera, it just couldn’t get the job done.

Skip forward a generation, and Leica retooled the sensor, made it full frame, and I believe have done away with alot of the issues that plagued the 8.

The M9 has a full frame, 18MP CCD sensor, made by Kodak. ISO range from 160 – 2500, rangefinder is optimised for 1m with a magnification of .68x. Alot has been written about the absence of an AA filter, where its purpose is to eliminate moire patterns, but at the expense of sharpness. So therefore, with the M9 (as with the M8) , you’ll instantly realise the sharper images, once you download them to the computer, when comparing the images against DSLRs which normally have AA filters fitted to their sensors.

Aesthetics, ergonomics and the basics.

Leica M9 vs Hasseblad 500C/M

Leica M6 vs Leica M9

So the M9 is pretty small, but not smaller than the film Leicas. It’s body is quite abit thicker and it affects grip. And since it lacks a film rewind knob, its ergonomics are actually worse than a film Leica, in my case, the M6. Yes it is significant smaller than my D700, especially when comparing lenses of equivalent focal length, but a thumbs-up grip would be needed to improve handling. Otherwise, just the heft of the camera itself, will have it slipping from your fingers.

The back.

The LCD isn’t very good. It’s 2.5in at a resolution of 230k, which is about the same as say the Nikon D40 from five years ago. In other words, the M9 LCD is just pants. You can just about review sharpness using the screen, but you can’t really judge the rest of the image from the screen. My D700 has a 3in screen at 920k , and I gather so do most SLRs these days, and there is simply no comparison.

On the topic of functionality, Leicas are minimal, which is in total contrast to SLRs – a good thing – as it is thought one would spend more time shooting rather than chimping. There is a dedicated ISO button, and another for image review.. and well, that’s all I need to know really.

From the top.

The camera is completely manual, and looks almost exactly like the top of the M7. An on/off dial and the shutter release, plus a shutter speed dial. Focus and aperture ring on the lens… and that’s all the control required to take a picture. Isn’t that great? Choose aperture, choose shutter speed, focus, trip the shutter. I do somehow wish there was an option for a film advance lever, to ‘simulate’ the effect of advancing to the next frame, or in this case, to recock the shutter manually too, ala the Epson RD-1. But that’s really just for nostalgia.

Apart from the digital sensor, the M9 operates very much like my M6, and for all intents and purposes, the cameras are interchangeable in use.

On the streets, in good light

Towpath Cafe, ISO160, 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f2, 1/180s.

Queen’s Park Station, ISO250, 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f8, 1/60s.

Oxford Street, ISO320, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f5.6, 1/90s.

Tottenham Court Road, ISO320, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f8, 1/45s.

…and at low ISO values anything from 160 up to 640, the camera is phenomenal. But I think the quality of the Leica lenses contribute to the images too. Especially a fast lens, the bokeh irrespective of it being a modern design with aspherical elements or a Mandler pre-asph design, is pleasing. I noticed that images made with Leica lenses seem to have a wide tonal range, especially with the pre-asph lenses. You can push the contrast levels to much higher levels than Nikon lenses. It seems like much more can be done in post processing with Leica files. Although, DNGs from the M9 seem to look fairly usable SOOC, abit of tweaking in Lightroom, would really bring out the images gracefully.

I don’t have scientific comparisons, but I think that generally, the M9 produces a more pleasing colour palette than compared to the M8. For some reason, the images carry a film-like quality to it, and some images look as though it were shot with my M6 and with Portra. In terms of dynamic range, I don’t think it matches up to print film, probably not even on par with slide film either. With the sky as a backdrop, the M9 will almost consistently blow it out, when exposing for the ground, and when exposing for the sky, all detail in the ground is several stops away from rescue in Lightroom. Again, don’t have the numbers for this, but the dynamic range seems tighter than my D700. It was a good 3 stops to pull detail out from an outdoor shot, and even then, the noise levels were fairly high.

Leica M6. Leica 35mm Summilux Pre-ASPH at f8. Kodak E100G. Somewhere in Norway.

Shooting Kodak E100G for example and exposing for the ground, one can still arrive at a useable image. So I suppose Dynamic Range might be a general area of improving sensor design, and perhaps one of the major reasons why digital images still don’t have the ‘look’ of film.

On the streets, when the sun goes down

Oxford Street, ISO400, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f5.6, 1/60s.

Oxford Street, ISO800, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f4, 1/125s.

Bicester Village, ISO 160, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f5.6, 1/90s.

Personally, I feel that Leica lenses have a tendency to make the best of rather dull weather. Maybe it is to do with their ability to resolve fine detail, maybe they have very low distortion, whatever the case, I fall in the camp where I think that Leicas have some ‘magic’ in making pictures. It’s just an aesthetic quality that no other lenses seem to be able to emulate.

In the dark.

Soho. ISO 1250, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/45s.

Soho. ISO 1250, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/90s.

In my experience, I think the M9 produces images which are useable up to ISO1250. Beyond that, the images lose detail and look horrendously digital. In practical terms, I think it makes it 1 stop ‘faster’ than the M8 in terms of useable images. I had initially set the camera to go to 1600 and 2500… but what you get are these strange bands in the image, not noticeable from a normal viewing distance, but it is apparent when you push the image in Lightroom.

What you do gain with Leica glass is speed however, and more importantly, useable speed, since most if not all Leica lenses can be used wide open without the introduction (with little I should say) of unwanted artifacts, aberrations or loss of sharpness at plane of focus.

People

Oxford Street, ISO320, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/750s.

Oxford Street, ISO400, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/125s.

Bob Bob Ricard. ISO800, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/25s.

Bob Bob Ricard. ISO640, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/60s.

I thought I’d included a few more photos of people. I think this is where Leicas really shine. I think shooting portraits are the hardest things to do in photography, purely because it is the most ‘objective’ of genres… well relatively anyway…objective in the sense that we have preconceptions about what people are meant to look like. As opposed to still life, where colours and shapes can be distorted ever so slightly, and still be presented as a reflection of reality. It may be to do with the extremely well corrected and well designed lens in itself, whatever the case, making portraits of people using a Leica, produces pleasing results.

Black & White

Marble Arch. ISO320, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f8, 1/25s.

British Museum. ISO320, 35mm Summilux ASPH at f1.4, 1/30s.

Charing Cross Road. ISO2500, 15mm Heliar at f4.5, 1/15s.

Shaftesbury Avenue. ISO2500, 15mm Heliar at f4.5, 1/25s.

Like the M8 before it, I think the M9 is a great monochrome camera. At ISO2500, black and white images looks great, the noise looks very much like grain. With abit of pp, I could almost get it looking like Tri-X…but of course, nothing is quite like real film grain.

Bokeh

Atari-ya. ISO320, Leica 50mm Summicron at f2, 1/125s.

Aperture Photographic. ISO640, Leica 50mm Summicron at f2, 1/60s.

Cumberland Hotel. ISO1600. Leica 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f2.8. 1/45s.

This is more a function of the lens rather than camera. Yes..all that money, for Leica lenses make for plentiful and pretty blur. The Leica 50mm ‘cron, being the classic Mandler designed lens, shows – to my eyes – great bokeh. Very smooth, and pleasing. The bokeh from the 75cron is more modern, crisper, but equally creamy, to me anyway. The only lens I owned in the Nikon range that rivals Leica bokeh is the Nikkor 85 f1.4, IMHO. I suppose this is an area the M9 bests the M8. Full frame bokeh is just nicer. Not that I shoot alot of blur, but it is nice to look at from time to time.

Food photography with the M9.

La Goulette. ISO800, Leica 50mm Summicron at f2.0, 1/45s.

ISO800, Leica 50mm Summicron at f2.0, 1/60s.

Bincho. ISO1250, Leica 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f2.8, 1/60s.

Yashin. ISO1250, Leica 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f2.8, 1/90s.

Towpath. ISO160, Leica 75mm APO-Summicron ASPH at f2.8, 1/125s.

I’m fairly unorthodox, in that I use a 35mm with my Nikon to shoot food photos. But SLR lenses have the advantage of focusing much closer than rangefinders, my 35mm for instance, focuses down to 0.3m, which gives me a magnification of 1:5, or 0.2x, which is good enough for close food shots.

The close focus distance is important to me, because being a restaurant blogger, it’s not recommended to stand up on one’s chair to take a snap of the food. So I need to move in close, as opposed to shooting from a meter away with a longer lens.

The M9 is so small, the lenses are tiny in comparison to SLR lenses, so the whole package is much more discreet physically. Almost like a man-sized P&S. The shutter makes much less noise since it is not accompanied by mirror slap – which also means slower usable hand holding speeds – it almost seems the ideal tool to carry into restaurants. However, rangefinders only focus down to a 0.7m, and for me, that’s quite a major hurdle. There is an older generation 50mm that will modify the focus range to 0.5m…but it isn’t compatible with the digital Leicas. The other option, is the modern 90m f/4 focusing to 0.5m, but that’s far too long for by the table food photography, and f/4 is just too slow. Given the limited usable ISO range and relatively low lights in restaurants, a fast lens is necessary.

So narrowing down the 2 lenses which I could possibly use for food photos are the 50mm summicron and the 75mm Summicron. Both focus to 0.7m at magnifications of 0.08x and 0.14x approximately. Not as close as my Nikon 35mm f1.4 AIS…but close enough.

So.. the verdict. You can sort of use the Leica to shoot food, but at times, you will miss your SLR. To get the composition right, you’ll need to crop. The focus distance is a bitch. 70cm away from the table is very far. That means leaning way back, outstretch neck, and pushing the viewfinder up toward the tip of my eyebrows. It works with abit of practice, but I lose the creative options. The number of ways you can frame the picture, while sitting down, reduces immeasurably. I was trying to find ways to wiggle out of my chair, in the end, I gave up looking through the finder and I was estimating focus with the camera free floating above my head. Giving away control over framing was initially, disconcerting. More over, the M9 focus shifts at its focusing limit, in my case, the lenses back focused, so in order to get the shot, focus bracketing was necessary. Not really an issue for digital, but it is rather annoying when you cannot confidently depend on the camera to focus. The precision of rangefinder focusing may be true for a calibrated camera with a complimenting lens, but if you use multiple lenses, I think you will experience focus shift (to a small degree) , especially with the sensor being able to resolve so much from the sharp lenses, that make discerning focal planes easier.

I really wish Leica would re-release an updated version of the Dual Range 50mm Summicron for the digital Leicas. Or some kind of ‘goggles’ that can increase the focusing range somewhat. Not that anyone really uses Leicas for close-up work (discounting the bulk of the Visoflex with 65 Elmar), but I feel that the 50cron DR for the digital age would be a flexible lens. At a magnification of approximately 0.3 to 0.4x. it would be more than enough for mild close-ups, and improve the camera’s overall flexibility. Of course, some Leica shooters have managed to mount the 50mm DR to their M8/9s in its close focus mode, so are able to focus from about 1m to 0.5m. Although the lens doesn’t quite work from 1m onwards, as the focusing cam will hit something inside the chamber of the camera. In a sense, this is good news for me, it will get me a magnification of about 0.14x, similar to the 75 cron actually, though it increases the creative options immensely if this is the case

…I am in the process of securing one, 2nd hand, made in ’61…

It does seem like a lens that Leica could easily update, or perhaps even a macro adapter for the current generation 50 summicron, as they had once done several decades ago with the SOOKY-M adapter.

As it stands, this is a £5000 camera that cannot quite do everything, and thus limited in application.

The bad news

You will have to trade in a kidney to buy one. At £4950 (2010 prices) , it’s expensive. Unfortunately, it can’t really do close-ups, nor can it do telephoto. And relative to DSLR sensors, the ISO range is limited. Despite what is perceived as one of its strengths, in actual fact, it is not true. Leicas do not work well in low light. The rangefinder may require it to be calibrated to particular lenses. Focus shift (at least on my lenses) is minor, but it is noticeable . Oh, and for a £5k, it is not weather sealed.

The good news

However, if you want a capable 35mm camera in a tiny package and you regularly shoot at normal focal lengths from 24 to 75, at 1m and beyond, and you shoot in good light, natural or artificial, then the M9 is a beautifully crafted machine. The images have an indescribably attractive quality about it. They certainly carry a certain signature, assuming you attach a Leica lens to the body that is. And speaking of Leica lenses, they are the chief reason why the M9 is relavant, in my opinion. Not to say that Zeiss or Voigtlander lenses do not deliver nice images, they do, but Leica lenses just deliver the perfect balance of tonality, bokeh, distortion contributing to a a pleasing image that – more often than not – exudes character.

After a few weeks…

…I would be lying if I said I don’t enjoy shooting with the M9. It’s a lovely camera. When you nail it, the image is great. Focus shift is noticeable with the 35mm Summilux and the 50mm Summicron (but not the 75mm), but as it consistently back focuses, and quite slight (maybe a 5mm give or take?) , it’s a problem that is easily dealt with.

Is the camera worth £5000? Well… if you were after value for money, then obviously it isn’t. You pay a premium for the luxury of the red dot. Or in my case, the black dot. Form plays a major factor in the price too, I feel. You won’t find a smaller 35mm full frame digital camera. The design is very appealing indeed.

Some might find the archaic controls a little backwards, but it is the reason I find such joy with the camera. It feels like my M6. For all intents and purposes, the M9 is interchangeable with the film Leicas. It is the ultimate enthusiasts’ camera. It is small enough to carry around as if it were a P&S, and I find myself preferring the M9 to the M6, for its sheer convenience. I still believe that film has a certain quality that digital cannot yet emulate, but for the instant feedback, nothing beats digital.

It could be a great tool, but given it isn’t weather sealed, and the risk that the rangefinder might go out of wack if the camera is seriously knocked about (not to mention loss of resale value), it makes the camera seem rather fragile.

But in spite of what the system’s inherent weaknesses, ultimately, it is about image quality, and in that regard, coupled with a great Leica lens, I think it makes the M9 worthwhile.

Posted on Monday, December 20th, 2010. Filed under right.

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