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?
Build and handling
The M9’s lineage is clear. Apart from a slight increase in height and depth, it is hard to distinguish it from its forebears and from the current M7 and revamped MP designs. The only M-series Leica to deviate significantly from the basic design template was the rather experimental M5, but it proved a complete commercial failure and Leica hasn’t broken the mould since.
Physically, the M9 is very similar to the M8.2, and shares the same ‘legacy’ styling, including a full-length removable bottom panel. In film Leica M cameras, this panel provides access to the film compartment, for loading and unloading. In the M9 it serves a similar purpose, but instead of film, it gives access to the memory card bay and battery compartment. There is no compelling design for the entire bottom panel of the film-less M9 to be removable, but it is a charmingly ‘retro’ touch that may appeal to existing Leica users.
Missing, naturally, is a film-winding crank. This gives the top-plate of the M9 a distinctly minimalist appearance, but it also impacts upon handling. On Leica M-series film cameras, the crank acts as a natural thumb rest, steadying the camera when it is held to the eye. When I hold the M9 in my right hand I find my grip slipping exactly where the winding crank would have been, making it rather difficult to use the M9 one-handed. With this exception, using the M9 is much the same as using the M7.
Leica M9 Rangefinder
The basic mechanics of the rangefinder design date back more than 70 years and, as such, the M9’s focusing mechanism isn’t going to win any innovation awards. Rangefinders operate by a delicate mechanism of coupled prisms, which project a ‘ghost’ image into a small rectangle in the centre of the viewfinder. When the focus setting of the mounted lens is adjusted, a small cam in the roof of the M9’s lens throat is shifted slightly back and forth in sympathy.
The movement of this cam is coupled to the ‘ghost’ image in the centre of the viewfinder, and when this image lines up with the rest of the scene the image is in focus.
Leica M9 Viewfinder
When I first picked up the M9 and mounted a 35mm lens, I thought initially that I had spotted a typographical error in the camera’s specification. According to Leica, the M9’s viewfinder sports a brightline frame for the 28mm focal length, but to my eye the 35mm frame lines fit very neatly into the viewfinder with very little space around them. When I removed my glasses, however, I could just see that there is another set of frames at the very extremes of the visible area, for 28mm. With my glasses on, this brightline frame is completely outside my field of vision, which for me, makes 35mm the widest focal length that is adequately indicated in the viewfinder.
A consequence of the fairly wide field of view of the M9’s viewfinder is that a surprising amount of the image can be occluded by the lens. A compact optic such as the 35mm f/2 barely clips the lower right corner, but large aperture lenses, like the Voigtländer 35mm f/1.2 Nokton or Leica’s 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux, can obscure a significant portion of the lower right quadrant of the viewfinder, even without a lens hood fitted.