It’s been a long time coming: the Leica M9 is the first full-frame digital rangefinder. Does it live up to the Leica name?
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.